In the Garden:
The abundance of the garden gives us much for which to be grateful.
Finding Abundant Gratitude
In my never-ending quest to put my life in order, it often seems that I focus more on what needs to be done rather than on what has been accomplished. This season of thankfulness, however, reminds me to look at the glass as half full. Not only do flower beds that hadn't been weeded for five years now sport unsullied fresh mulch, but an antique barn has been restored, and the house and a smaller barn have a fresh coat of paint. Sure, there are still more overgrown areas to tackle and others that cry out to be finished, but progress has been made.
Nowhere is my gratitude more pronounced than when the pantry is assessed. In fact, the amount of food that can be produced in a home garden is staggering. The new freezer is filled to the brim, and the cellar has more winter squash and potatoes than I ever thought possible, given the voraciousness of beetles and bugs. Row upon row of canned food portends innumerable feasts.
The personal and environmental benefits of locally produced and home-grown food is becoming ever more apparent. If you have not grown fruits and vegetables previously or only minimally, now is the perfect time to begin planning for next year. Preparing an area now by removing sod and tilling in compost means you'll have a head start next spring. Plus, 2008 seed and plant catalogs are already arriving and available online, so this is a great time to start choosing varieties.
In determining what you might grow, consider your favorite foods, the ease or difficulty of growing them, how pesticide ridden the store-bought ones are, and what they cost to buy versus the effort required to grow them. Following are a few of my favorites, including specific varieties.
Tomatoes are just about everyone's first choice to grow. After comparing some 100 varieties of all shapes, sizes, and forms over the last couple of years, 'Arkansas Traveler' has won my heart for its flavor, appearance, tolerance of heat and humidity, and production. 'Lemon Boy' and 'Moonglow' are my two favorite yellow tomatoes. And I'll always find space for a few green tomato plants, such as 'Evergreen' or 'Greenwich'.
At one time I dismissed cherry tomatoes as tasteless little blobs, but I've discovered that it's great fun to grow a number of different kinds because of the range of flavors and colors. If I could grow only one, it would be 'Cherry Roma', as it has the best flavor, hands down, and tender skin.
The easiest way to grow tomatoes is to use porous black plastic as mulch and to hold them upright with sturdy wire cages made from farm fencing.
Beets may not be everyone's favorite, but they're very expensive to buy and easy to grow. The biggest challenge is being patient while they germinate. My preferences are for the small sweet beets like 'Kestrel', 'Pacemaker III', and 'Ruby Queen'. If thinning is a chore you avoid, consider the single-seed types like 'Monokel' or 'Soloist'. And one can never make enough pickled beets!
Okra is a "love it or hate it" vegetable, but for those of us who do love it, okra is one of the most productive of vegetables, continuing to yield until frost. And it's rarely bothered by pests. I'll continue to plant several varieties because each has positive attributes. 'Annie Oakley II' and 'Cajun Delight' are newer varieties that are shorter and start bearing early. 'Clemson Spineless' is an older variety that still is without peer.
If started early enough in the spring, green peas are very productive but labor intensive to shell. Still, it's not an onerous chore if shared with a friend or a favorite television show, and they're easy to freeze. Both snow peas and snap peas give the best pea flavor, but they're best eaten fresh as freezing ruins the crisp texture.
All the cole crops, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale, are high-priority health foods. They're key spring and fall crops and easy to preserve, either by freezing or canning, depending on the crop. The biggest challenge is keeping cabbageworms at bay, but spraying with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a safe, effective method of control.
Turnips and kohlrabi are also cole family members. Although they are fine cooked, they're especially good raw in salads and are high in vitamin C. I tend to favor the small, sweet-flavored varieties of turnips like 'Hakurei', 'Oasis', 'Tokyo Cross', and 'Snowball'. 'Pheres' kohlrabi grew quickly and so abundantly for me this year that I ended up making kohlrabi pickles.
Although newer isn't necessarily better, 'Carmen' hybrid sweet pepper -- a long, narrow, Italian bull's horn type -- lives up to its billing. It readily ripened to a bright red and was sweet, flavorful, and very productive. To preserve, sweet peppers can be roasted and canned or frozen, or they be simply stemmed, seeded, and frozen.
Melons and winter squash were my biggest experiments and challenges this summer as they are both highly susceptible to insects and diseases. I grew them with porous black plastic mulch to limit weeding chores. The squash received a wide variety of special organic sprays to control pests, while the melons were only given one treatment of Messenger, a substance that increases pest resistance. With both of these crops, there's a wide range of pest tolerance, productivity, and flavor between varieties. My recommendation would be to always grow at least several varieties.
So far, my favorite cantaloupes are 'Ambrosia', 'Sugar Rock', and 'Minnesota Midget', all with that classic, sweet American melon flavor. 'Savor' and 'Summer Dream' are European, Charentais-type melons that did well. In fact, the melons were so productive that I froze almost 30 pounds. Smoothies will be a diet staple this winter for me.
Winter squash have never been a particular favorite of mine, as I much prefer sweet potatoes when I want some beta-carotene. Still, it seemed a shame to pass up such a large and diverse group. My main criteria for the nine varieties I grew this year was small fruit and good flavor. 'Bonbon' and 'Potimarron' succumbed to disease immediately. 'Autumn Glow', 'Fairy', 'Hi-Beta Gold', and 'Thelma' were the most productive, yielding an average of 18 fruit per hill. My only disappointment with the French heirloom 'Sucrine du Berry' was that the abundant fruit came closer to 8 pounds each rather than 3 pounds as described in the catalog, which is inconvenient for a single-person household. Perhaps I'll have to use them as the French do, in preserves. Next year, I plan on trialing other varieties. The other great aspect of winter squash is they are easily stored.
Berries are Best
Why everyone doesn't grow raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, considering their cost and health benefits, is beyond me. Everbearing raspberries are especially easy to grow. Just mow them off in the spring and get one large harvest in the fall. 'Caroline' is hands-down the best variety available now, producing large, abundant berries that are the highest in nutrition of any variety. Blackberries are just slightly more difficult to manage due to pruning needs. Try thornless 'Triple Crown'.
Most of the name tags on my blueberries have been lost, so I can't give a variety recommendation from personal experience. A lot depends upon whether you like large or small berries and sweet versus tart. Major mail-order suppliers of berries provide flavor comparisons; use those as your guidelines.
Strawberries and I have been struggling for the last several years. I tend to prefer the day-neutral everbearing types, but again, it's a matter of taste and size preference. Plus, strawberries require a bit more work than the previous three berries. Still, there's nothing better than strawberry shortcake, and strawberries are one of the most pesticide-ridden crops, so they are worth the effort.
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