late summer garden

My Dad always said ‘Self-brag stinks’. It’s ingrained in my brain. But when it comes to kids, grandkids and gardens, sorry Dad.

My tomatoes make me happy. Well actually they make me happy this year, and not a whole lot of others. Weather is half of the equation or more. But I like to think that dweeby attention to caring for them is part of it. Smile for the camera…

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They went in late this year, and maybe that’s part of it too. Who knows? I’ll take it.

If you’ve ever doubted that compost works, don’t. My single zucchini was planted where last year’s compost piles sat.

That’s this year’s 3′ by 3′ compost bins sitting next to it.

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And finally, before I threw in the towel on my downy mildew-ravaged pickling cucumber vines, they surprised me with enough cukes to make one more batch of pickles.

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the rewards

I’m pretty happy. Somehow the sad, downy mildew-ed pickling cucumber vines stayed alive long enough to produce another batch of cucumbers.

So yesterday morning I grabbed the cukes, dill, garlic, grapevine leaves and jalapeños form the garden and knocked out a few jars of hot dill spears. I cherish these pickles in the dead of winter. Hot and crunchy and full of vavoom on a cold, snowy night.

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Next, on to a good way to make use of the glut of fresh eggs coming our way from the happy hens. I’ve never eaten, let alone made, pickled eggs. But they sound interesting. The recipe calls for adding canned beets to the boiled eggs, vinegar and spices. I don’t think I like beets, so this is a leap of faith. Who knows? Maybe there’ll be beets in the garden next year.

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I think the very best way to put off processing tomatoes is to core them and put them in a ziplock bag in the freezer. That way there’s no pressure to act before they rot. After they thaw they’re easy to peel, and still plenty fresh. And you don’t have to cook every time a new flush of ripe tomatoes comes in.

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The first buckwheat cover crop that I planted is blossoming, so that means it’s time to turn it into green manure. Thought I’d try it the easy way this time. Out came the chicken tiller.

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They did a fair job, but they need to work on technique. You don’t just eat the good parts, girls. It probably defeats the purpose of green manure to swap it for real manure. Maybe not. I’ll need to think about that one.

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downy mildew: trouble in paradise

Right or wrong, it’s not always easy for gardeners to talk about the things that aren’t growing well. But sometimes those very things teach the most indelible lessons.

From the beginning my cucumber plants have had a rough go this year. The rains came and stayed for a month. Now the plants are positively sickly.

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Since there are so many similar diseases that can kill cucumber plants, I decided to submit a question and some images to Ask an Expert, a service run by the Extension Agency.

A prompt and thorough answer came the next day; Downy Mildew. Arg.

“There are few management practices that can be used to control downy mildew in the home garden.”

“The early appearance of downy mildew in Michigan, along with the wet and humid weather, may make cucumber growing especially challenging this year.”

Uh, yeah.

Well, suck it up and learn, mister.

The first change I’ll make in next year’s cucumber plantings are the varieties. I planted open pollinated heirloom varieties this year in hopes of saving seed. I’d rather have a harvest than no seeds and dead plants. So it’s Downy Mildew resistant hybrids all the way next time.

I may have aggravated the problem by spacing the plants too closely along the trellis. I planted 9 plants on a trellis that might have done better with 3 or 4.

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2015 wall of fungus

Gardens aren’t always easy to figure though. Last year my cukes were amazing, planted using the same spacing. They eventually succumbed to disease, but not until I had cucumbers coming out my ears.

wall of pickling cakes

2014 wall of cucumbers

That leads me to believe that timing may have more to do with the problem than spacing. Last year’s cukes went in early; for various reasons this year’s crop was planted almost a full month later than last year’s. An early start means a greater likelihood of getting the cukes harvested before disease hits.

So much to learn, so little time.

spotty

Last year my cucumbers, cantaloupe and watermelons were humming along, with big lush vines and lots of fruits. Then suddenly the leaves turned spotty and within a week they were all brown and shriveled and useless.

The cukes managed a bumper crop before that happened, but after tending the melons for a couple of months I had nothing to show for it. I’ve generally had putrid success with my vining crops for the past few years. Most likely some soil-borne fungus that hangs on from year to year.

This year the cucumbers were iffy from the get-go, but they’re still hanging on with spotty lower leaves.

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I read about an organic product called Serenade, ‘a broad spectrum, preventative biofungicide recommended for the suppression of many plant diseases.’ It’s OMRI listed so I feel comfortable using it. It’s supposed to control some of the potential culprits of my cucurbits, anthracnose, downy mildew and leaf spot.

I treated the vines about a week ago, and so far so good. The leaves are still spotty, but they haven’t yet started to turn brown. I sprayed some on my pepper plants too, because they’ve had some nasty problem since the big rains in June.

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Cantaloupe vines…still there

I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

The watermelons got a late start like the cukes and cantaloupe, but so far they don’t show any signs of disease.

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It was also time to pull the first planting of corn stalks and turn the chicken tiller lose. What fun for all of us.

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And one funny, but no so funny side story; for the second day in a row, user error led to another chicken break. As I was lifting the chicken tractor to move it, I inadvertently lifted too high, and two quick-thinking prisoners made their getaway.

I caught one easily, but the last holdout ended up in a chicken rodeo that lasted a good twenty minutes. They really want to be in that woods. But we finally got her close enough to her caged sisters to leave freedom voluntarily. No harm, no foul.

pickles and kraut

I lost a couple of cabbage plants early on to the wetness. Probably a blessing in disguise. While I love sauerkraut, we only eat so much of it during the course of a year, and this head should be just about right for a few pints.

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I bought a large airlock jar a few years back, and it works great for sauerkraut. It’s really simple; just shred the cabbage, mix in salt, cover it with brine after mashing it down, and wait for about three weeks. When it’s done, you can put it into canning jars and process it in a hot water bath for the recommended time.

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I think I’m zeroing in on my understanding of what I like in a pickle. I like canned dills. They’re preserved with vinegar, and that’s great. But what I love is the unprocessed, fresher-tasting kosher dills. No vinegar, just brine.

I tried a batch that went right into the fridge without sitting on the counter, and couldn’t stop eating them. With the newest batch, I’m going to let them sit on the counter for just two days, to see what that does to the flavor.

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the pickles get weighted down with that little plate at the bottom of the picture to keep them under the brine

I really can’t wait. Eight cloves of my Chesnok red garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, hot pepper flakes, coriander seed, mustard seed and fresh dill. I have to stop typing because I’m drooling on my iPad.

And finally, the chickens got to finish off the harvested cabbage plant and take a bath in the garden.

elusive dill pickle

I glance at the cucumber vines out of the corner of my eye every time I’m in the garden. I’m afraid that they’ll suddenly be consumed by whatever fungus has attacked their lower leaves since early June. But they’re still there.

Since I don’t know how long I’ve got with my cuke vines, I decided to try yet another batch of ‘fresh’ dills. Actually half-sour deli dills. They’re meant for refrigerating rather than preserving in canning jars.

So after coming across another half sour dill recipe, one that called for putting them straight into the fridge rather than sitting them on the counter for a few days, I decided to give that a try.

I grabbed supplies…

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cut up the cucumbers and garlic…

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… and I always put a grape leaf in the jar, whether the pickles are fresh or canned. They contain tannins that keep pickles crisp. It absolutely works.

I packed the cukes into a container with the dill, garlic, spices and salt water. You have to weigh down the cukes so they’re under the brine. I cover mine with cheesecloth to keep flying creatures out. With previous recipes, I let the jars sit on the counter for three or four or 10 or 20 days, depending on how radical I felt. After that they went into the fridge till they were gone or got pitched.

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I tried so many pickle recipes last year that my head was spinning. I determined that I only sort-of like fully fermented pickles, the kind with long fermentation times. They have a very unique taste, really complex, that no one else in my family cares for.

But I’m looking for a different, very specific taste; fresher, like the dill slices that come in wax paper when you order a Reuben at the deli.

We’ll see.

I’d post the recipe, but I forgot to note where I grabbed it, and don’t want to poach anything. If you’re interested, just Google ‘half sour dill pickle recipe’.

the wet soil aftermath

The soggy June that just went past is rearing its ugly head.  I’ve pretty much written off one of my grapevines that sits in the very epicenter of a low corner in the garden.  Bad planning, I suppose, to include an area that I knew would suffer in very wet years…

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Luckily, this type of wet happens very rarely.  The grapevine next door to it is doing well.  And in reality, I probably only want one vine growing in the amount of space available on the trellis.

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I had high hopes for the pepper plants too.  They were planted in the area where last year’s compost bins sat.  Unfortunately, this was that same wet corner of the garden.  The peppers are dropping leaves and have me a little worried.

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There will be disappointments every year; I accepted that long ago.  It’s still hard to take.  Happily for me, the rest of the garden is something I’m proud of, plenty of produce to freeze and can for the winter.