Monthly Archives: February 2013

Grow So Easy Organic – The Wonderful World of Growing Fruit

Fruit is a joy to have in your backyard and a wondrous ingredient to pull out of the freezer or pantry in the dead of winter.  Well, some fruit that is.  Other fruit can be tricky, spiteful, bug-ridden, disease-laden and just a downright pain in the…ankles to try to raise.

For me, growing fruit was a bit of trip down memory lane trying to remember what my Mom raised when we were kids and how much cursing was involved. 

Growing fruit was also a bit of trial and error – trying to discover what would like my soil and live in my “zone” and erring on the side of killing a few trees before their time.

But after about 2 years of planting, pruning and, okay I admit it, cursing, I mastered three types of fruit – blueberries, blackberries and Montmorency cherries and I’ve been on easy street for about 15 years, enjoying the “fruit of my labors,” immensely!

So, on to the short, sweet (oh so sweet) method of raising those three organic fruits.

Blueberries In The Backyard
Why not start with the easiest and one of the tastiest fruits first? 

Blueberries win that contest hands down.  Long before edible landscaping was popular, I began exploring ways to raise fruit like blueberries, one of the more expensive products you’ll find in any store.  I wanted to start small so I ordered 6 bushes thinking that would be plenty for our 2-adult house.

June 2011 in my blueberry patchIn the end, I popped 12 blueberry bushes into a corner planting in the back yard.    Why so many?

I ordered them online and waited, and waited and waited for them to be delivered.  When I got my credit card bill and saw the charge from the nursery for the bushes I hadn’t received (I thought), I did a little charging of my own.  I demanded they send the bushes they had charged me for.

Despite the fact that I was wrong the company immediately said okay.  They shipped me 6 more bushes.  About a week later, I got a call.  Someone named “Pat” had actually signed for my bushes.

My husband, whose name is also Pat, had signed for the bushes, forgot to tell me and left them in the garage.

After immediate permission to charge me for the second set they shipped and multiple apologies, I slithered into the garage and located the tall, brown package from the nursery.

When I tore open the package I found white sticks with white leaves on them.  My bare root stock blueberry bushes had lost all their chlorophyll!

Since the bushes had traveled so far and suffered so much, I decided to give them a chance, anyway.  So, 15 years later, I am still harvesting 50 to 60 quarts 20110628_0412of blueberries every summer.

Now think about that.  You plant them once, care for them just a bit and they yield 240 pints of fresh, organic blueberries every year for 15 years.

If you had to buy the same number in your local grocery store, you would have paid more than $10,000 for the privilege.  And you would have no idea if what you were eating was pesticide free.

I’ve been growing my own for 15 years and saving all that money every year.  At a  conservative estimate, that means I’ve put $10,000 in my pocket for an initial investment of less than $100!

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, I don’t have enough space.” or “I can’t grow anything.”  Or my favorite, “I don’t know how.” I am here to tell you blueberries are one of the easiest fruits to grow…period.  And I’m going to tell you how to do it, next week.

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Grow So Easy Organic: How to Grow Asparagus

I LOVE this plant because you plant the crowns one year, wait two years and then reap the asparagus harvest for the next 20 years.  Every spring, tips push through the earth, ready for harvesting.  

English: Asparagus tip growing in a tub

Asparagus emerging from the ground every spring is a delight to any grower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Asparagus is not quite a perennial unless you are my age…then it will outlive you!

Planting asparagus is a bit more complicated than dropping seeds into soil, watering and waiting to harvest.  But I once read an article that said planting asparagus is a bit like getting married.  If you do it right, you only have to do it once.

The first thing you have to do is choose your asparagus plants.  One of the new male varieties will usually be more productive than the old stand bys.  All-male asparagus varieties — including Jersey Giant, Jersey Supreme and Jersey Knight— produce up to three times more than older, open-pollinated male/female varieties, such as ‘Mary Washington.

Once you’ve ordered your crowns, it’s time to get the asparagus bed ready for the new babies.

Planting Asparagus
Asparagus isn’t hard to plant but it does make a few demands on the back yard gardener.  For one thing, early spring is the best time to plant asparagus crowns in my neck of the woods.  Once the soil can be worked but frost is still hitting the back yard.  So, if you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, planting should be done between April 15 to May 15. 

Asparagus has some very specific requirements but you only have to plant it once to enjoy more than 20 years of production.  And there are really only a few steps to follow that will make your asparagus grow healthy and give you fresh, succulent green shoots every spring.

Step I – Choose the site wisely.  Asparagus likes sunshine – a lot of it.  Make sure the spot you choose will not be disturbed for 20 to 25 years.

Step 2 – Dig a trench that is 18 inches deep and 24 inches wide.  If your soil is heavy, make sure you loosen it to a depth of 24 inches because asparagus likes good drainage.

Step 3 – Add a layer of organic matter to your trench – 4 inches of chopped leaves or pine needles or compost or rotted cow manure and dig it in a bit with a fork.  Asparagus likes rich, fertile soil.  Sprinkle on a light dusting of bone meal and your ready to plant!

Step 4 – Once the bed is ready, carefully take out each crown, spread its roots and place it in the trench with its buds facing up.  Give each crown some room to grow, spacing them about 15 inches apart to allow for root growth.

If your trench is 30 feet long, you should be able to put 24 crowns in the ground.  When I planted my asparagus, I made 2 trenches about 15 feet long each with a 2 foot wide path between each trench.

Step 5 – cover the crowns with soil but only 1 to 2 inches of soil, initially.  Over the next few months, you will gradually fill in the trench as the crowns put out their first spears.  NOTE:  DON’T HARVEST ANY SPEARS the first year.

If you harvest in the first year, you will stress the new crowns and may reduce your asparagus crop every year thereafter.  And, by the way, ONLY HARVEST the first 2 or 3 weeks of the next year (the second year your crowns are in the ground).  Again, over-harvesting can damage and, in some cases, even kill the crown.  So patience…or you might regret it for the next 20 years.

Making Asparagus Happy
Once the spears are starting to grow up through the soil and you are keeping them lightly covered with soil, your primary job in year one is to keep weeds from growing up around the asparagus.

But don’t till around the asparagus.  The crowns don’t like being disturbed.  So you can hand weed one or two times a week.  Or you can use table salt to kill off some weeds (asparagus is more tolerant of salt than other plants).  But I take care of weeds in the asparagus bed the same way I do my whole garden – with mulch.

Once the trenches are leveled off, I put 4 inches of straw on either side of the bed and straight down my walking path.  Weeds are suppressed; water is held in and the asparagus spears are pretty well protected from my dancing West Highland terriers.  And the mulching approach works all year long.

Keeping Asparagus Happy
Setting up the asparagus bed just so means you will have happy asparagus crowns for decades to come.  Once the plants are established, keeping them happy is really very easy.

Don’t harvest every spear of asparagus.  Taking all the asparagus means the crown has nothing to help it replenish itself.  Year 3, you can harvest for the first 4 weeks.  Year 4 and beyond, you should be able to harvest everything for 6 to 8 weeks but note…

There are some sure signs that you should start getting a bit particular about what you harvest.  To ensure that your asparagus plants stay healthy from year to year, ALWAYS STOP HARVESTING when 3/4ths of the spears are down to pencil – size, about 3/8ths of an inch in diameter.

Also, oddly-shaped spears and woody spears are indications that your harvest season is over.

Asparagus plumosus with berries (unripe); {tāu...

Asparagus spears left in the ground plume, adding beauty to the garden and protecting the crowns.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once you stop harvesting, let the remaining spears in the patch grow up and fern.  These ferns aren’t just nice to look at.  They offer protection to the asparagus crowns so Do NOT cut the ferns down, even in the fall. 

Let them overwinter because they protect the crowns from freezing.  I usually cut and remove the dead ferns in late February.  And I mean remove them.  They are taken out onto the back acre and piled up with the brush that will be burned in March or April.

Make sure you side dress asparagus with some nice, rich compost every spring.  And make sure you mulch heavily (3 to 4 inches of straw) around the rows to stop weeds from growing in the patch.  Then sit back and wait for that glorious, first harvest of fresh asparagus.

This is my final post on growing organic vegetables.  I will post three more growing stories — on blueberries, blackberries and sour pie cherries.  And then, I’ll be on to prepping this manuscript for publication on Kindle!

So, next week, how I harvest 60 quarts of blueberries every year from just one corner of my yard!

Grow So Easy Organic: How To Grow Onions

Red onions

Red onions are my favorite and it’s easier and cheaper to raise them organically, so why not? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my early gardening years, way back in the dark ages when I had a stick and some dirt, I never, ever considered raising onions in my garden.

I didn’t use a lot of onions in my cooking, well to be honest, I didn’t cook much, either.  I was a road warrior and spent most of my life in a plane, on a train or riding in a limo.  There was no dirt under my nails, no canning jars in my pantry and no garden in my back yard.

Besides, my Mom never raised onions or garlic.  But then, my Mom wasn’t married to an Italian.  So when I traded in all my gold credit cards and came home to life on the homestead, I decided to give onions a try.

Getting Onions In The Ground
My first experience with raising them was hilarious. I decided to start them from seed.  One cold and windy day in early March, I went out, worked the soil loose with my hand rake and spread seeds.  I was a little liberal with the amount of seed I put down but I’d never done it before. 

And onion seed is small and dark.  It disappeared right into the soil.  I covered the seeds with a tiny bit of soil, covered the bed with a fence section and a sheet and went back inside to thaw out and promptly forgot I’d planted onion seed.

Four weeks later, in the middle of April. I was preparing a bed for beets.  There is no finesse involved in prepping and planting these babies and the seeds are so big, I didn’t need my glasses, I thought.

I knelt down by the bed and was stunned to see a ton of baby grass growing in the bed.  I grabbed handfuls and began madly tearing out what I thought were weeds.  About 3 minutes later I froze; I was tearing up baby onions!

I tend to use sets, now.

Seed or Sets
Raising onions from seed is easy as long as you remember that you planted it and don’t rip it out, willy nilly.  Once the seeds sprout and the onion babies get to be 3 inches high, all you have to do is thin and transplant them using the same technique I use for baby beets.

Raising onions from sets is easy too but your choices are limited to what your favorite, organic seed company is growing.  I prefer red onions so I usually end up with Stuttgart or Candy Red.  Both are good tasting, sweet onions but only the Stuttgart is a long keeper.

Depending on whether you are planting long or short day, you can put onion seed in the ground as soon as you can work the soil in the spring.  If you’re going for sets, the best time to order your sets is early.  If you don’t order early, you may not get the varieties you want.  Raising onions in the backyard is getting more popular and nurseries run out of sets pretty early.

White, Red or Yellow
Onions come in quite a few colors – that would be your first choice.  They also come in long day, short day and intermediate.  Clearly, the names refer to how long the onions take to mature.  And picking the right onion for your zone and growing season is important to how well the onions grow and how big and healthy they are. 

Like many plants, onions grow roots and leaves first then begin to form bulbs but only when daylight hours reach a particular length.  Onions are what’s known as “photoperiodic.”  That means they regulate their growth by the duration of light and dark at the time of year they are growing.

If you try a long day onion in the deep South, you’ll get great tops but very small bulbs which will be killed when exposed to too much heat.  A short day onion that’s planted in the north will try to produce bulbs before the leaves have formed.  Without leaves to supply food, the bulb won’t be able to develop and size of the bulb will be limited. 

So, rule of thumb, plant long day varieties if you live north of latitude 36º — roughly the Kansas/Oklahoma border.  Plant short day types south of this line.  Put long day varieties in the ground as early as possible in the spring.  Put short day onions in the ground in the fall to give them a head start in the spring.

Planting Onions
If you are putting onion sets in the ground, most organic companies will ship them to you in the fall and within 2 weeks of the optimum time for you to plant.  When the sets arrive, they may appear wilted but they are pretty hardy and should do well if you plant them quickly.

NOTE:  if you cannot plant as soon as they arrive, soak the roots in water and either keep them in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or mound soil around the roots and keep them moist. 

When you are ready to transplant, simply trim the tops to about 3 inches high and the roots to ¼ of an inch.  I use a sharpened pencil to create a hole for each set that’s about 1 to 2 inches deep – deep enough to cover the white part of the baby onion.   I plant the sets about 4 to 6 inches apart, in rows about 18 inches apart.  

Make sure you plant the baby onions as directed above because they don’t like to compete for foods and fertilizer with each other or other plants, including weeds.  In fact, there’s a saying in the onion business – you can grow onions or weeds but not both.

When planting in the fall, mulch heavily – I use 14 to 18 inches of straw to cover the whole bed. 

Mulching keeps the plants from sprouting during the January thaw and prevents the freezing and heaving cycle when warmer days play tag with the cold temperatures of deep winter.

In the spring, when forsythia start to bloom, pull the stacked straw off the plants but leave a light layer of mulch.  The mulch suppresses weeds.  Put a light cover over your baby onions if frost is predicted.  I use old sheer curtains.  Water onions regularly; they need about an inch of water a week.  And that’s about it.

Harvesting & Storing Onions
Onions are ready for harvest when the tops turn yellow and begin falling over.  For those that are not quite ready, you can finish bending the tops so they are horizontal to the ground using your hand.  Bending the leaves stops sap from rising into the leaves and forces the bulb to mature.

When the outer skin on the onion dries, remove from the soil, brush the earth off each onion, clip the roots and cut the tops back to 1 inch from the bulb.  Store onions in a cool, dry place and try not to let them touch each other.  If handled properly, onions can last up to 1 year in storage.

Onion Pests & Diseases
Onions are pungent so they tend to repel most pests.  Onions can also be inter-planted to repel pests from other plants, too.  The bigger risk for onions are fungal diseases.  It is also a risk that is very easily mitigated.

Smut, downy mildew and pink root are common problems encountered while raising onions.  The easiest way to avoid all three of them is rotation.  Do NOT plant onions or garlic in a bed where other allium crops have been planted the year before and, preferably, two years before.

In fact, the longer you can avoid planting onions in a bed that was used for raising alliums, the better.

By the way, if you want to find out everything about onions…just visit the National Onion Association read the FAQs and browse the types, colors and recipes.

Recipes
I love raw onions in salads, on the top of black bean soup and on dishes of beans and feta cheese.  But my favorite way to eat onions is caramelized.  A stick of butter in a cast iron pan, toss in about 8 onions and just cook until they are the color of caramel and salty/sweet.  They are good plain, they are great on hamburgers. 

And they are great in Onion Frittata — a recipe that owes a whole lot of its flavor and richness to caramelized onions.

RECIPE:  Onion Frittata

INGREDIENTS:
8 large eggs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 basil leaves torn in pieces
3 minced sage leaves
1tsp minced rosemary
3 T olive oil
1 or 2 c sliced onions
1 ½ to 2 cups ricotta cheese
Kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 400°
Put olive oil in large, cast iron frying pan and heat.
Put onions in frying pan and cook until just turning brown and starting to caramelize.
Reduce heat to low.
While onions cook, whisk eggs, parmesan cheese, basil, sage, rosemary salt a pepper together.
Pour egg mixture into frying pan over onions.
Spoon dollops of ricotta over the top and cook on the stove top until frittata begins to set.
Place frying pan in oven and bake for 7 to 9 minutes until it is set.
Slide frittata onto plate or serve from frying pan by cutting into slices.  Serve hot or cold.

Growing garlic is just about as easy as growing onions as I shared in an earlier post.

Grow So Easy Organic: Battling Bugs That Bug Potatoes

My first crop of potatoes was growing beautifully in my trenches.  The dark green tops of the plants were clearly visible from my kitchen window.
Then, one morning, while sipping my tea, I realized that those tall, beautiful plants weren’t there!

I raced out the door and up the hill to my garden and could not believe my eyes.  My two trenches of potato plants looked like they had been crocheted instead of grown – leaves lacy and brown, stems slowly bending toward the ground.

My plants were being eaten, and fast.

The Colorado Potato Beetle had found my plants.  I mashed, crushed, trapped, drowned and killed as many as I could but about 1/3rd of the plants were beyond help.  I pulled them up and disposed of them and kept battling the beetles and started covering my potato plants with a light cover.

When the survivors  flowered, I thought, yes….now I’ll get some potatoes.  And I did…get some potatoes but not a whole lot.  Why?

The main reason was the potatoes didn’t get enough food.  Apparently they don’t respond well to being put on a diet.  They are heavy feeders and require regular infusions of a rich organic fertilizer like fish meal.

I was disappointed by my yield; I was also disappointed by how many of my potatoes were just not edible.  Most of the potatoes I harvested had holes drilled into them with most of the flesh ruined.

This was my introduction to one more potato enemy.   It’s called the wire worm – the larva of the common click beetle.  Click beetles do little harm but the wire worm is a nemesis of potatoes and about as bad and as prevalent a pest as the potato beetle.

And organic control of wireworms is not easy.  Here are a few techniques you can try to limit their destructiveness.

  1. If you till, do it in May and June when wireworms hatch.  This exposes them to hungry birds.
  2. You can set up decoy traps using chunks of potatoes from the store.  Stab a piece of raw potato and bury it near the problem area making sure the skewer is above ground so you can find it again.  Wait about a week and pull up the potato.
    Check for wireworms and then make sure you dispose of the potato piece with all of the wireworms.  By the way, Do NOT put it in your compost bin.
  3. Always remove and dispose of infected plants after harvesting, to limit overwintering of the blasted wireworms.
  4. Buy and apply the nematode Heterorhabditis megadis.  It attacks wireworms but you need to apply it every year in May when the wireworms are hatching

So, growing potatoes is not nearly as easy as it looks but it is worth it.  Just be prepared to take some special measures to ensure your potato seeds like the home you build for them to grow and live in.

And protect the plants from the two most prominent predators – Colorado Potato Beetles and the larval click beetles – the Wireworm.

Then sit back and enjoy.

Recipes
I married an Italian but my maiden name was Duffy.  If I know anything, I know potatoes!  And I love them.  The recipes below are ones I make often and love serving.

The Fish Chowder is rich, tasty and based on a Bon Appetit recipe.  The Cauliflash is all mine and is a healthy and tasty alternative to a big bowl of mashed potatoes.

Fish Chowder

INGREDIENTS:
2 boneless fish fillets
2 thick cut bacon slices
2 T butter
1 leek, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
½ tsp dry mustard
1 lb potatoes, peeled & cubed
4 sprigs thyme
¼ c heavy cream
1 T minced chives

DIRECTIONS:
Place fish fillets and bacon slices in large pot and cover with 4 cups cold water.

Bring to simmer over medium high heat then reduce heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes or until fish is cooked.

Transfer fish to plate and let it cool then remove skin and flake into large pieces.

Continue to simmer bacon in broth until stock is reduced by half (2 cups).

Strain, discard bacon, add 2 to 3 cups of water and reserve poaching liquid.

Melt butter in large pot, add leeks and celery and cook 15 minutes until translucent.

Stir in dry mustard and reserved liquid, potatoes and thyme and increase heat to high.  Simmer until potatoes are cooked – 12 minutes or so.

Remove pot from heat and use a slotted spoon to remove half of the potatoes and mash with a fork.

Return to pot, stir in fish, cream and chives and serve

Cauliflash

INGREDIENTS:

1 large head of fresh cauliflower
1 to 2 medium-sized potatoes
Butter to taste
Milk to taste
Salt to taste

DIRECTIONS:
Wash the potatoes.

Use a fork to poke a few holes in the potatoes then put in microwave and cook until soft.

While the potatoes cook, start working on the cauliflower.

Remove stalk and outer leaves from cauliflower.

Wash then cut into florets.

Microwave the florets until they are soft/crisp.  It usually takes between 7 and 9 minutes on high.

Put half the florets into a food processor and pulse.  Add and pulse the remaining florets until all are chopped small.  NOTE:  Depending on how big/powerful your processor is, you may have to stream a bit of milk in to keep the florets turning.

Once all the cauliflower is processed, put the butter in the processor on top of the cauliflower and pulse once or twice.

Cube the potatoes and add to food processor, put the lid on and turn the processor on.

Stream milk into the food processor until you reach the consistency you like.

Add a little salt and process for about 30 seconds more.

Serve!