Friday, September 30, 2011

Late September

Late September at .09 Acres is a transitional period in the garden. The fig trees are lush and still loaded with a secondary crop of figs, reminiscent of mid-summer flavors. The slightly cooler weather, ripening pomegranates, and newly planted lettuce and spinach seedlings welcome the arrival of fall.

I put together this photo-mosaic on September 29 to give you an idea of what's taking shape in the yard. Please disregard the sunbathing hairless terrier lounging between the raised beds.

September at .09 Acres in Newport News, Virginia.
If you compare this picture with the main photo in the banner of my blog, you'll notice some pretty significant changes. The fig trees are quickly filling out against the south-facing fence (left). The espalier fig is reaching for the sky agains the shed (back left, near center). The raspberries and blackberries are looking a bit rough after the hot summer (back right). The peach tree has been replaced by 3 small rabbiteye blueberry bushes (right). I've found that peaches are nearly impossible to grow organically in this climate. And the pomegranate tree is flourishing (near right). I've also kept the grass and weeds in check with diligent digging, weeding, and mulching.

The raised vegetable beds look nearly naked, with the exception of a few emerging seedlings. You can see beet and carrot seedlings mid left and lettuce planted at staggered intervals near right. Within 30-45 days I'll be harvesting lettuce, spinach, radishes, and chard. I also plan on covering most beds with hoop houses to extend the growing season. They will also act like outdoor refrigerators keeping plants growing slowly but well preserved even during periods of frost and snow.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Espalier Fig III

It's time for another update on my espalier fig. I planted a young Celeste fig in the ground at the corner of my garden shed about 18 months ago. Since that time, I've continuously trained it and pruned it. My previous two posts (Feb. 8, 2011 and June 10, 2011) show the process from its early stages, both in active growth and dormancy.

The tree has flourished this year and is now almost at or above the roofline of the shed.

Fig espalier.
I am continuing to train vertical shoots at 9" spacing. This is fairly easy to do when the growth is new, but you don't want to try it with very new green growth. I found out the hard way when I accidentally snapped off the horizontal leader on the right arm of the tree. You can see that the right arm terminates well before the end of the support stakes, visible in both pictures. Now I wait for the new growth to transition between green and woody surface before I train it in any given direction.

Close-up of main trunk and arms of my espalier fig.
I cut off the lowest leaves on each vertical shoot to clearly show the main limbs and vertical shoots. I am using green plastic tape (not sticky) to secure the limbs to the wood and metal guides. The tape is strong but somewhat stretchy and doesn't cut into the tree's bark. Periodically I cut off the tape and re-tie new tape slightly looser to accommodate continued growth. The main limbs have thickened quite a bit since I first started training the tree, and the vertical shoots just keep growing and growing. The tree put on loads of figs this summer, but I cut them off to put most of the plant's energy into new growth. Next year I'll leave the figs in place in expectation of a decent harvest.

I'll post more pictures of the espalier fig this winter after it goes dormant and drops all its leaves to show the structural "bones" of the tree.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rain, Rain, Go Away...

We've had rain here in Newport News for the past week. I'm talking lots of rain. Morning, noon, night.

The rain has been a bad thing and a good thing. I'll start with the bad. My last few precious tomatoes from a generally measly summer crop were ripening on the vine last week. I was hoping for one last harvest. Then the rain moved in. It split the skins of my Black from Tulas and they quickly went downhill from there. See for yourself.

Black from Tula tomatoes after a week of relentless rain.
The rain brought somewhat cooler temps for a day or two, but then the temps climbed back into the 80s as the rain continued to fall. The warm, wet conditions weren't great for the tomatoes, but it was ideal for MUSHROOMS. I woke up last Friday morning and there were mushrooms as far as the eye could see!  I'm talking hundreds, if not thousands, of mushrooms in my backyard.

Cluster of small tan mushrooms in the garden.
There seemed to be two different varieties of mushrooms, and it was interesting to note that they grew wherever I had spread wood mulch earlier in the spring. I guess the wood chips contained the spores even before I spread them in the yard, or the spores found the moist wood mulch an ideal environment for growing. Either way, .09 Acres turned into a mushroom farm overnight. I don't know much about mushrooms, but I wasn't taking any culinary chances. I took my cues from my dogs and the neighborhood wildlife. Since they wouldn't eat them, I wouldn't either. There were so many mushrooms that even the resident Smurf population had a hard time navigating their way around .09 Acres.

Papa Smurf navigating his way around a morass of rogue mushrooms.
Rotten tomatoes and a plethora of mushrooms were two ill-effects of constant rain. But the upside of all that moisture was ideal seed-starting conditions. Before the rain, I planted a variety of seeds including broccoli, kale, beets, carrots, onions, Swiss chard, spinach, and lettuce.  Almost all of the seeds germinated, and I'll provide a detailed update about my fall garden in an upcoming blog post.  

Stay dry and keep your fingers crossed for cooler weather.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Heritage Harvest Festival

Last Saturday, the family and I attended the 5th Annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Image courtesy of the Heritage Harvest Festival. Jefferson's Monticello is on the top left of the image, and his terraced vegetable garden and orchard is located along the right side of the image.
Jefferson was a pioneer of and ultimate advocate for sustainable agriculture, and this made Monticello the perfect location for this great event. In short, the festival included everything from seed sales and heirloom tomato and watermelon tastings to hands-on workshops, presentations, and tours of Jefferson's amazing home, garden, and orchard. I highly recommend this event for anybody interested in all aspects of agriculture and simpler ways of living.

I could write pages and pages about the importance of everything presented at the event, but I figure most people who read this blog likely agree that a handful of seeds, the sweat of your brow, and dirt on your hands can lead to some pretty amazing things. Instead, here is a photo-journey of Thomas Jefferson's garden.

Southwest view of Jefferson's expansive vegetable garden. He located it on a south slope to maximize the sunlight, growing seasons, and air movement down the slope.
Peach and other fruit trees in Jefferson's orchard (center of image). Corn is visible in the left foreground, blooming rosemary on the right, and I'm not sure what's blooming in the center.
A staggered row of sea kale.
A lush bed of sweet potatoes.
Tree onions, also called top-set or walking onions, are very hardy perennial and multiplying top-setting onions. This means that they form new onion bulblets where most onions form flowers. They don't produce very large bulbs, but they are fun to grow and nearly impossible to kill. If you've never tried growing onions, start with these to boost your confidence.
Two rows of onions in between peppers and squash.
French artichokes and a nifty wooden plant label.  Each row of veggies, herbs, and flowers was clearly identified by these labels, which made it much easier to identify specific varieties of plants.
I had never seen sesame before, other than on my bagels, but Jefferson's garden was loaded with it.  Each one of these pods is filled with sesame seeds. I broke open one of the drier, yellow pods with my fingers and seeds spilled onto the ground. I can't think of any other museum or heritage site where you can touch AND break part of the display or exhibit without being arrested!
This West Indian Gherkin (cucumis anguria) caught my eye. This beast doesn't look safe or edible...probably why it remained untouched.
Faded sign on a weathered fence that surrounds Jefferson's old nursery. 
Mulched pathway that cuts through the nursery. In the background you can see the edge of the vineyard.
In the orchard. Jefferson loved peaches and fought the noble fight that we still know today as "growing peaches organically". He had about as much success as we do today... 
Aerial view of Monticello not taken by me. I don't have a helicopter or a proper photo credit.
If you are interested in specific information about Jefferson's agricultural successes and failures at Monticello, you should read Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book. It's a compilation of his horticultural diaries, letters, and sketches. Probably more info than you ever wanted to know about the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States. For example, you'll read in his own words about his love of sweat peas, his favorite veggie. Random, but true.

Did anybody else attend the Heritage Harvest Festival this past weekend? Have you ever been to Monticello? I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


They are slowly starting to ripen on the tree!

This Russian Red pomegranate is currently the size of a baseball.
I can't overstate how easy it is to grow and maintain a pomegranate tree. My tree is a multi-stemmed shrub and is appx. 8 feet tall. It isn't bothered by pests, drought, or frost. It self-pollinates and has beautiful blooms. It grows well in an organic garden/orchard. And best of all it produces loads of fruit. The only problem I've had with this tree was easily fixed. Hurricane Irene dumped loads of rain in Newport News and saturated the ground. The tree started to lean badly to one side under the weight of the growing fruit. After the storm passed and the ground dried, I tied the tree upright two metal stakes. The tree is now happy, vertical, and, believe it or not, blooming again. I'm not sure if that's normal for this time of year.

Recently pollinated (left) and unopened (right) pomegranate flowers and buds.
I saw these growing and thriving in Colonial Williamsburg when I was younger. Since Williamsburg is typically cooler in the winter AND hotter in the summer than Newport News, I figured I'd try my luck at growing a pomegranate tree. I'm very happy that I did.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Go FIGure

Identifying a specific variety of fig tree by its leaves can be a tricky task. I have quite a few Violette de Bordeaux fig trees, but only two are planted in the ground. The figs from both plants taste amazing and appear identical. The leaves, however, are another story.

Violette de Bordeaux fig tree from Edible Landscaping.
The top picture is a VdB that I picked up from Edible Landscaping a few years ago. The leaf has five skinny prominent "fingers". The next picture is a VdB that I bought at McDonald Garden Center in Hampton, VA. Note that the leaf has three wider "fingers" and two nubs at the leaf base compared to the first picture.  The "fingers" on the Edible Landscaping VdB appear serrated and the McDonald Garden Center VdB appear smooth.

Violette de Bordeaux fig tree from McDonald Garden Center.
There are a few possible explanations. First, fig leaves can vary in appearance from tree to tree of the same variety, and leaves can vary even on the same tree. But the leaves on the above plants have almost no similarity to each other. Second, plants are easily mis-labeled in nurseries and this could explain the difference. But the fact that figs harvested from both trees look and taste identical makes this explanation doubtful. Third, because there are thousands of varieties of figs and very close similarities between some varieties, some growers may generically name figs by general appearance and taste of the fruit.

I may never know why my two plants are different, yet in the long run I won't care too much as long as the figs are tasty!  Here are a few additional fig photos from .09 Acres.

Violette de Bordeaux fig tree from McDonald Garden Center. The tree is about 4 feet tall. I harvested figs from this tree in July, and there are additional figs growing on the newer branches.

Strawberry Verte fig tree.  This tree grew about 5 feet this season is now over 7 feet tall.  I will prune it back in late winter to keep it a manageable size for harvesting figs without a ladder.
Unripe Strawberry Verte figs. We typically don't see frost in my area until late October or even early November, so these will definitely ripen before the season is over.
Celeste fig tree from Paradise Nursery in Virginia Beach. Unfortunately they closed a few years ago. I've had this tree for four years and I prune it each spring to keep it a manageable size. Now it has many branches which means many figs. These are usually the first to ripen, sometimes in late June but usually early July.
Peter's Honey figs. This tree is prolific and grows like a weed. The flavor of these figs hasn't overly impressed me this year, but they have typically ripened right after periods of heavy rain. I think it has diluted the flavor a bit.
Hardcore fig growers like me will tell you to give each tree a few years to mature before you make a decision to get rid of or replace a fig tree if the flavor isn't great. Flavor can be inconsistent when the trees are young, and it usually improves with age.  How have your figs tasted this summer?