Monday, December 12, 2011

A Jekyll and Hyde December

.09 Acres is having an identity crisis this December, and I fear that Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde are living in my garden shed.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the well-appointed garden shed at .09 Acres. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Let's start with Dr. Jekyll, shall we?! The vegetables at .09 Acres are much like Jekyll. They are mature and respectable. The lettuces and chard are good looking, tasty, and protected by the mini hoop house. The carrots, beets, and broccoli are doing just fine while prominently exposed to the elements. At this point in the year, they are all content in their beds until harvest. I'm not one to boast, but my greens look like they belong in a gardening catalog. If you were to walk by the lettuce bed, you might even respectfully tip your cap as if you were passing Dr. Jekyll on the street.

On the flip-side, my fruit trees, shrubs, and brambles are behaving in an irrational and unpredictable Hyde-like fashion. The inconsistent weather, much like Mr. Hyde's strange potions, is triggering all kinds of strange reactions from the plants. Raspberries continue to mature on a  semi-regular basis almost like it's early fall. The Celeste fig tree and espalier dropped all their leaves weeks ago. In contrast, my Violette de Bordeaux and Negronne fig trees are still covered in leaves and figs. It is quite grotesque to see them growing side-by-side. My Red Russian pomegranate is the only "normal" tree in the yard, having gone dormant in November. But who may be inwardly lusting for some sinister transformation.

A little bit of Jekyll, but certainly a lot more of Hyde at .09 Acres.

If .09 Acres is Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde), I guess that makes me Jekyll's loyal servant Poole. This December I've been out in the yard early in the morning and late in the evening to cover the greens in plastic. I've also changed quite a few things in the yard to keep Jekyll happy and productive. I dug up and potted my in-ground blueberry bushes and replaced them with a young Angel Red pomegranate tree (visible on right side of above picture in middle of straw mulch). I also transplanted a Peter's Honey fig and an unknown fig from my yard to my aunt and uncle's property and replaced them with Strawberry Verte and Hardy Chicago figs (visible on left side of above picture in middle of straw mulch).

Hopefully this will decrease the likelihood that Mr. Hyde shows up again at .09 Acres, but I may be losing my mind in the process...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Raspberries in December

It's December 10th and my Kiwi Gold raspberry canes are still producing berries. I don't know what to say. I guess the warmer weather and protected location of my berry trellis has something to do with it.

Kiwi Gold raspberries in December. Definitely a rare occurrence in southeast Virginia.

I regularly get a large early summer and fall harvest, but never a third harvest. Don't get me wrong...I'm not complaining. It's just strange for me to see these things in my yard in December!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Same Day, Different Leaves

Check this out. Here is a picture taken last weekend of my Celeste fig. All leaves dropped, looking dormant and ready for winter.

Celeste fig. I'm trying to keep it pruned as a multi-stem shrub.
And here's a pic of my Violette de Bordeaux (VdB) fig taken on the same day. Keep in mind that this fig is planted only about 15 feet away from my Celeste fig with the same general southerly exposure.

Violette de Bordeaux fig fully leafed out in December.
This VdB fig has all of its leaves with only minor brown/dry damage from a recent frost, and it is also still loaded with figs. The difference between this tree and the Celeste is really quite amazing.

I guess variety is the spice of life, even in the world of figs!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Frost Protection

We had our first frosts of the year in late November. Two or three of them. Fortunately all the fall/winter veggies survived, but I'm making preparations to protect the crops once the temps remain consistently cold.

Last year I constructed two experimental mini hoop houses in mid January after the frost had already taken a nasty toll on the greens. This year I expanded the idea by building one long, continuous hoop house.

PVC hoop house frame built over raised beds of lettuce, spinach, chard, and other tender greens. Plastic will be attached soon.
Currently only the PVC has been added to the raised beds. I used 10-foot sections of 1/2" PVC pipe and pushed it directly into the soil within the raised beds. I bent each pipe by hand over the bed, forming the "ribs". I then attached the "ribs" to a long "spine" with plastic zip-ties. The structure is fairly strong and will withstand wind and snow. We are expecting warmer weather for the next 5 days so I likely won't secure the plastic covering until sometime next week.

Note how the PVC is pushed into the soil against the interior sides of the raised beds. No screws, brackets, or fasteners are required. It's an easy, effective, and inexpensive setup.
I only opted to cover my more tender vegetables like lettuce, arugula, spinach, and chard.  I did not cover the kale and root crops like carrots and beets. They are, however, heavily mulched with a thick layer of wheat straw for protection. They withstood just about everything last year and I'm hoping they do the same this year.

From left to right: Buttercrunch, Winter Density, Parris Island Cos, and Rouge d'Hiver lettuce. Spinach is barely visible farther down the bed. This hoop house will function like a mini refrigerator once it is covered with plastic, protecting the vegetables and keeping them cold but not frozen.
Colorful head of Rouge d'Hiver lettuce.
Ruby Red Swiss chard. I planted these seeds on September 15, but they took a long time to germinate because of very hot temperatures in late September and early October.
Not everything in the garden looks great right now. I had a heck of a time battling  caterpillars on my broccoli and kale. Fortunately they only seemed interested in those two plantings and not the other veggies, but it didn't take long for them to completely defoliate this poor plant.

Kale that was completely devoured by caterpillars. Lots of carnage and not a lot of leftovers.
There are a handful of chemicals and products (organic ones too) to battle these beasts. I did buy a bag of powdered Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), an organic bacteria that is effective on caterpillars, but I got lazy and never applied the stuff.

Now I just need somebody to play Taps on the trumpet while I add these remains to the compost pile and pay my respects.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pomegranates: What a Difference a Year Makes

Last year around this time, I was really excited when I harvested 3 pomegranates from my Russian Red pomegranate tree. That tiny first harvest may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was a big deal to me. I felt like my little tree that I carefully grew and nurtured for a few years just graduated from grade school. It experienced some growing pains, but learned the basic skills it needed to survive.

What a difference a year makes! Last Sunday, I was beaming with pride as I harvested 24 pomegranates from the same tree. This was no small-time graduation...this was the equivalent of graduating from Harvard with honors.

Basket loaded with freshly harvested Russian Red pomegranates.
The pomegranates are not as large as varieties you typically find in a grocery store, but they do the trick.

Fist full o' pomegranates.
The pomegranate arils (seed casings) have a dark, rich color and the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness.

Pomegranate arils.
And with a little sweat and patience balanced with a dash of swearing, these pomegranates made great juice. Much better than commercial juice, no fooling. Check it out.

Freshly made pomegranate juice. No sugar required, 100% natural.
Beware, many pomegranates were harmed in the making of this juice. My entire harvest of pomegranates only made about 2 quarts of juice.

But that only made me wonder what next year's harvest will produce...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Enjoying the Fall Garden

Like many people, I started out as a spring and summer vegetable and fruit gardener. Warm weather meant planting and harvesting. Cold weather meant waiting for next year's harvest.

It took me a few years and lots of trial and error to realize that cool season gardening can sometimes be the most rewarding gardening of all. The most notable differences between fall and summer gardening in Zone 7b are comfortable temps, very few bugs and pests, care-free veggies, and generally easy tasks. 

In its simplest form, fall gardening consists of sowing seed (in late summer), watering, mulching, more watering, and harvesting. That's just about all there is to it. Some hardier crops even survive repeated frosts and in a location like Newport News, VA, a productive four season garden is a realistic goal. 

I took the following photos of my fall garden at .09 Acres on Halloween, 2011.  

Long rows of Buttercrunch and Winter Density lettuce.
Young Rouge d'Hiver lettuce sown in succession with other lettuce varieties to extend the harvest. Succession planting spreads out the harvest over a few weeks or months.
Long Standing Bloomsdale spinach. This is my first attempt at growing spinach. I found that warmer soil temps in late September definitely hindered germination, but the spinach seems much happier in early November.
I had spotty germination of my carrots. Notice that the center two rows filled out nicely while the outer rows (far left and far right) are fairly sparse. I'll have to wait and see how they do this year. Last year was an amazing year for carrots.
It's tough to beat good beets. Here are four short rows of Detroit Dark Red and Chioggia beets. These are still quite young and probably need another month to grow. I thinned them in mid-October to allow the beet roots to grow larger, and I added the thinned greens to a salad. Definitely a great addition.
I am growing kale from seeds I saved (this spring) from last years kale plants. I battled tiny caterpillars for a few weeks when the plants were young, and you can see some of the leaf damage they caused in this picture. 
I am growing broccoli in two large pots and in a raised bed. I'm curious to see whether it grows better in-ground or in the pots. I can't remember if I planted Calabrese or Waltham broccoli. I have to check my seek packet. I may have started these seeds too late for the plants to mature in time to produce harvestable broccoli, but only time will tell. The tiny caterpillars that hit my kale also like the broccoli. Damage is visible on the right-most leaf.
Apple mint growing in half a wine barrel near the gate to my yard. It has made an amazing comeback from the crippling heat of mid-summer. This plant thrives in mid-late spring, suffers through summer, then regrows with a vengeance in fall. This entire barrel grew from a small rooted cutting I dug up from a yard where I previously lived. Mint will take over the world if it's not contained, but it's also a must-have in any yard.
Russian Red pomegranate ready for harvest. There are appx. twenty of these hanging from my 4-year old pomegranate tree. I can't say enough good things about this tree.
Negronne figs that definitely will not have enough time to ripen before the first frost. This tree keeps growing larger and producing more figs. Next year should be an amazing harvest. 
Two unripe Eureka lemons hanging from a small branch on my potted tree.
New foliage on my Eureka lemon. It usually starts out with a reddish tinge, then turns bright green as the leaves grow and mature.
More blossoms keep appearing on my potted Bearss lime tree. Citrus flowers are arguably some of the best smelling flowers in nature. My lime tree is currently holding about 10 limes. After last year's harvest, I thought it could've grown 50 limes this year. But a strong gust of wind knocked it off a table in early spring and snapped off the main trunk. I'm pretty sure I cried when I finally found out what happened.
Baby Bearss limes growing from recently pollinated flowers. I won't be dining on these limes for a LONG time!
What are your favorite fruits and veggies to grow in the fall? Are you thinking about adding additional cold-weather protection like floating row covers or plastic-covered hoop houses to extend your harvest into the winter? Fall is finally here so welcome it into your garden.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Peter's Honey Fig: Great Hope or Great Hype?

I'm very specific about my figs. I tend to like dark figs better than green figs. I like sweet figs, but not sickeningly sweet figs. They also must have a "figgy" flavor. I want my figs to taste like figs, not like other things such as honey or jam.

After downing hundreds of black, purple, and brown figs over the years, I decided it was time to explore green and yellow figs. Peter's Honey was one of the first varieties that caught my attention online. Website descriptions included the words "productive", "long growing season", "amber", and "sweet". People growing the fig in different regions raved about its growth habit and flavor. I had to try it for myself to see if it matched the hype.

I purchased a 1-gallon potted plant three years ago and planted in the ground. It grew and grew and grew, and this year it was LOADED with well over 100 figs. I can state with 100% confidence that this variety lives up to its billing as a "productive" fig. Prolific is probably a more accurate term.

Peter's Honey fig tree branch loaded with fruit. Every new branch on the tree was covered with 15+ figs. 
I can also attest that this variety is not well suited for growers in cooler regions of the country. It took loads of heat and sun to ripen these figs. Again, Peter's Honey matched its online persona of a plant that needs a "long growing season". Southeastern Virginia is warm enough for a sufficient period of time to ripen almost any fig. So far Peter's Honey was 2-for-2 in my un-scientific trial.

What about the "amber" color? Look at the beautiful interior of this fig. It's definitely a rich amber color. Check!

Sweet amber interior of a Peter's Honey fig.
Now for the most important attribute in my book...flavor. How did it taste? Sweet as honey! Peter's Honey fig definitely lived up to its reputation and all the hype.

So we can all agree that this variety of fig is a smashing success for everybody's garden, right?! Not so fast. Yes, it's productive and colorful and sweet. But that's part of the problem. I now have a tree loaded with dozens of figs that taste like, well, sweet. That's it. No classic rich fig flavor at all. Just a ball of sugar. Definitely not my hope.

Some of you may be licking your chops at the thought of an abundance of sweet figs and are ready to order a Peter's Honey tree for your yard. If so, go for it! I'm the last guy to discourage somebody from growing a fig tree. On the other hand, I do have a few words of caution about Peter's Honey compared to the other fig varieties (Violette de Bordeaux, Negronne, Celeste, etc.) I grow in my yard:

1.  It has a sugary sweet taste but no fig flavor.
2.  It is the last fig to ripen.
3.  For the past 2 summers, each fruit has had unpleasingly thick skins.
4.  When near-ripe, the figs suffer badly in high humidity and rain, and they get moldy fairly easily.
5.  It was the variety most prone to attack by ants (but not by birds) this summer.

Remember that these gripes are based solely upon my experiences in my yard in southeastern Virginia. The flavor and growth habits of figs can change drastically from region to region.  Fig preferences also vary greatly from grower to grower. Many fig junkies seem quite pleased with their Peter's Honey figs, but not me. As with most things in the garden and life, I guess it all comes down to personal preference.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Everbearing Raspberries

Summer has come and gone, but the flavors of summer can still be enjoyed in early fall if you plant everbearing raspberries in your yard.

Kiwi Gold, Fall Gold, and Heritage Red raspberries harvested October 15.
I planted a short 20-foot row of Kiwi Gold, Fall Gold, and Heritage Red berries when I first started developing my backyard garden. It didn't take long for the first few berries to show up, but now that the canes have matured and grown for a few cycles I am harvesting more and more berries each day.

The name "everbearing" is a bit misleading because they typically provide two large crops of berries rather than a continuous harvest. Kiwi Gold and Fall Gold are exceptionally sweet, and the Heritage Red berries have a classic raspberry flavor. I personally prefer the gold varieties, my wife likes the red berries, and the dogs will eat all three varieties without hesitation.

Gold and red raspberries. The berry in the top right looks a bit over-ripe and mushy. That's what I get for harvesting when it was nearly dark outside.  
I definitely recommend all three varieties for the home garden in the mid-Atlantic. I'm sure other varieties are well-suited to this climate, but these three have delivered well in Newport News, Virginia. I have ten suggestions for growing raspberries based upon a my brief personal experience tending to my berry canes:

1.  Make sure your planting site has good sun exposure and drainage.
2.  Keep your planting site weed-free.
3.  Berry canes need support -- plant against a trellis, tie loosely to wires.
4.  Water well during dry spells.
5.  Feed your plants with rich, organic compost.
6.  Keep your canes mulched with a layer of wheat straw or other suitable mulch.
7.  Determine if you want a single large crop or two crops per year. This will dictate how and when the canes should be pruned.
8.  Dispose of pruned canes to prevent the spread of disease.
9.  Enjoy every single bite. Homegrown berries are superior to anything you can buy in the store.
10.  And don't forget to share the harvest! What goes around comes around...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ripe Fig

I received a few e-mails recently about ripe figs. Both e-mails concluded by saying basically the same thing: you always post about your fig trees, but you never show photos of ripe, sliced figs.

At first I was skeptical. I do always post about figs, and surely there had to be at least ONE picture of a ripe fig bursting with sugary goodness. So I went through each post. What were my findings? To date, I've posted about figs on 15 separate occasions (this one makes 16). Guess how many shots of harvested and sliced figs...ZERO! Fair enough, criticism and message received!

It took me no time at all to realize why this has happened. Much like fresh yellow/gold raspberries, perfectly ripe figs almost never reach the inside of my house let alone remain there long enough for a picture or two. They are too tasty and get devoured in an instant.

To remedy this problem, I marched out into my backyard about an hour ago with my trusty camera at my side. I looked for ripe figs amongst the thick foliage and quickly zeroed in on this cluster of dark figs.

Ripe and near ripe figs.
I took a second photo, but from a slightly different angle.

I decided to harvest the middle fig, and left the bottom and top figs in place. They still need a few more days to ripen. I then marched inside, fig and camera in hand. I rinsed off the fig at the sink, then placed it on a plate and took another photo.

Ripe and ready for a snack.
Next came the knife, and I made two quick cuts. Now without further ado, I present to you a ripe fig that I just harvested from one of my trees.

Ripe dark fig a few seconds before its demise.
Click on the photo for a close-up of the sugary sweet pulp that fills the interior of the fig. Amazing. Yes, it's only one fig. Yes, it's only two bites. But they are two bites that are worth a year's wait.

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.