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January 2013

December 2012

Garden 2012 Recap

Along with the photo album recounting the various stages of this year's garden, I thought I'd provide a review of what did and didn't work this year.


We tried okra this year, which was fun. It's true that if you pick the pods when they're small and use them right away (that day) then the sliminess associated with okra is minimized. Conversely, if you (as I did) let some of the pods get quite large (more than about 3-4 inches long), they have the consistency of tree bark.

I was able to get some good plantings of radicchio, the "Treviso" type that looks more like Romaine lettuce than a red cabbage. The flavor is bitter, like the more common forms of radicchio, but this variety can be used easily in salads as well as sautee's.

Garlic was a big hit. We planted it in the fall of 2011, and it was ready in the May/June time frame. We had some locally grown garlic as seed stock, which produced a hardneck variety with red paper skins. Drying the garlic was quite important, and those bulbs that we didn't dry thoroughly tended to rot. But the flavor and freshness of home grown garlic is a real treat!

Sweet peppers were largely a hit. We grew a number of varieties, focusing on yellow and red bell peppers, as well as Italian "horn" style red peppers. The peppers we grew under solar mulch did much better than the ones grown without it; the solar mulch peppers had much more well-developed root systems. We ate the peppers fresh and also roasted a lot of them, then froze or canned them. The sweet Italian ones were some of my favorites.

Through random chance, the one hot pepper variety that made it into the bed with the solar mulch was Joe's Long Cayenne. These were a pleasant surprise. First, they plants are prolific: I probably harvested 20 or more peppers off of each plant. The peppers were long, thin and crinkly, with a beautiful red color. Initially I had thought only about drying some of the peppers (for a favorite Cajun "uncle") but I had so many peppers that I was able to make a sauce with them. The taste of fresh cayenne pepper sauce is so much better than anything store-bought! I made some Tabasco-type sauce and then made a thicker version that would be great as a hot wing sauce. How good was it? The sauce was gone long before I had a chance to think about canning it.

One problem we did have with peppers (and some of the tomatoes) was Verticilium Wilt. At first I thought the peppers had been sunburned, so I put a row cover on the bed. But the peppers kept developing soft spots, which is a symptom of wilt.

We were much more judicious in planting summer and winter squash, especially after last year's summer squash overload. We put just three squash plants in a bed (along with hot pepper plants—see below), which gave them enough room to spread out and produce lots of fruit. With the plants not all crowded together it made it easier to find the fruit before they turned into squash baseball bats. The winter squash (butternut) turned out shorter than what you find in the store, but the flavor is still great.

I planted eggplants (having learned how to start them, along with peppers, from seed) in a barrel planter that I relocated to a sunnier spot in the yard. They did well and produced lots of 4-5 inch fruit (a purple variety and a purple/white striped variety). It turns out that the smaller size of the fruits meant that they were more tender and easier to cook up than larger eggplants. It was great to go out and grab a few for a quick stir-fry.

Fava beans did well this year. Planting early helped, as did using the smaller cages (sold for tomatoes) for support. I'd advise you to plant in quantity, because it takes a lot of fava beans to make a meal or side dish. You also have to pick them every day; we didn't, and the crop went bad after spending too long on the vine.

Kale was another hit. We planted both Russian and Toscano varieties; both were great. Kale is getting up there with Chard as one of my favorite vegetables for growing and eating.

We grew basil, since it goes so well with tomatoes. Cheryl made pesto and froze it; I haven't tried that. There's nothing like fresh basil in the summer, and they attract bees and other beneficial insects.

Foul Tips

Broccoli and cauliflower both did reasonably well this year. We got some nice heads of each, more so with the cauliflower. But the heads were on the small side, and letting them grow past baseball size usually didn't result in better size or quality. Using transplants made a big difference; it also helped to plant when the weather was still cool, in the early spring.

Corn turned out to be largely a bust this year, due primarily to not planting it early enough in the season. I selected a "late season" variety (Montauk) that did manage to produce some ears by September-October. But there just wasn't enough sun to get the ears really plump. Still, they tasted great!

We planted onions (Copra, for storage, and Alisa Craig Exhibition, for sweet onions) at the same time as the garlic. Since we planted the onions as seeds, thinning was required. And while I thinned once or twice, I decided late to thin the onions again. The Copra onions that were thinned and replanted early on did great. The Alisa Craig onions did well, but never developed the large bulbs I expected. This variety probably needs less daylight than we get at our latitude. The onions that were thinned late took a while to regain their vigor and grow, leading to under-sized bulbs at the time of harvest. The lesson here: thin early, and be aggressive!

Chard (aka Swiss Chard) is normally a staple in our garden. But for some reason we forgot to plant it early, as we usually do (it's one of the first vegetables ready for harvest). We did plant Chard in the summer, and got some good harvests, but we could have done better if we had planted earlier.

Cheryl and Patrick attended a tomato seed-starting class, and passed with flying colors. And rather than thin three seedlings and keep the best one in a pot, Cheryl kept each. That, together with the unexpected germination of "volunteer" plants from last year in the pepper and asparagus beds, meant that we had over 100 tomato plants in the garden. And yet, the production was not what you might expect with that many plants. The main culprit seems to be lack of soil fertility. Few of the tomato plants were as healthy and vigorous as I would normally expect—the plants looked spindly. They did produce a lot of tomatoes, but probably not as many as they would have if they had been healthier. A lot of the Marzano varieties produced well, but the fruit was small (under 3 inches).

We had wilt problems with some of the plants, and lots of "cat's eye" cracking due to inconsistent watering. The cherry varieties did reasonably well, as did the larger, "golf ball" sized tomatoes. But the oxheart and beefsteak varieties were not so productive and what tomatoes they did produce were kind of sick looking.

That said, the flavor of the tomatoes was fantastic! (One note—you really could only compare varieties in the field, since once they were harvested they all ended up in one basket and you couldn't tell one variety from another). We found a great recipe for tomato sauce that involved just roasting the tomatoes (along with other aromatics such as onions and garlic) and then blending the mixture together and straining. The sauce developed great flavor and couldn't be easier to make. We also dried some of the Marzano's; we would have dried more of them if they had been larger.

After last year's cantaloupe adventure (they really do need a lot of room!) we scaled back our cantaloupe planting to just a few plants. They produced softball-sized cantaloupe… small but still full of flavor. And the second round of plants were put in too late, not producing much before the cold and lack of sun shut them down.

I planted some "Alibi" cucumbers in a barrel planter at my house, wanting to make home-made dill pickles. Late planting and a lack of sun (the barrel is on the North side of the house) meant that the plants went a long time without producing anything. And then one day I was surprised to find a cucumber hiding under one of the plant leaves. I did manage to get enough cucumbers to make a batch of dill pickles (from an Andrew Zimmern recipe), that are delicious.

Cheryl planted strawberries, which took a while to establish. We kept them netted to keep the birds out, but they ended up growing through the netting (as did the weeds) which was a mess. As we move into winter, they've established themselves nicely and I'm expecting a better crop next year. We put down solar mulch to warm them up, but now that they're sending out "volunteers" I want to pull up the mulch so the plants can spread throughout the box.

Lettuce and garden greens did OK. The pelleted lettuce seeds a neighbor gave us didn't produce at all; either they were old or not adequately watered. We did manage to grow arugula (one of my favorites), as well as a couple kinds of lettuce and some Asian greens (mizuno, among other types). Again, the secret is daily harvesting, so that the plants don't go to seed while we're not looking.


I had high hopes for beans this season… which is all I got. We planted two types of shell beans and a dry bean, and had almost nothing to harvest. I got a handful of "Tongue of Fire" beans and no Flageolet. I think inoculating the beans, together with more consistent watering, will help for next year.

Hot peppers (Scotch Bonnet, Bhutan, Hawaiian, Thai) got off to a bad start and never recovered. The transplants were a bit scrawny, likely due to insufficient heat during the seed starting phase. I happened to plant them without solar mulch, which further slowed down their growth. I actually got a couple of Scotch Bonnets in November as I was pulling summer plants, but that was it. Next year, I may try starting these types of peppers in the greenhouse, as it will be nice and warm in there by late spring.

Like beans, the peas we planted grew but never produced much. I think inoculants will help here as well.

I tried planting a little dill to use in pickling, and got one or two snips but that was all. I need to choose a sunnier location next time!

Likewise, I tossed a few beet seeds in one of the tomato containers, but they were always too shaded to really get started.

Some Lessons

Feed Your Soil

While the weather this year was more in line with normal patterns of cold and warmth, many of our plants didn't grow as well as we had expected. Some of this might have been due to irregular watering, but I'm betting that our soil was just tired. At my garden on Canada Road, it was easy to keep the soil fertilized: I had an active horse manure composting operation going and needed to do something with the compost about every three months. This year, the garden at Hubner Hallow didn't get the benefit of horse manure compost, and the impact was evident. Many of the tomatoes, despite being in half-barrels with ample water, were just not as lush and full as I have seen in other years. To further back this up, the tomatoes that I did plant in one of the original beds—which came with composted soil from Canada Road—grew like mad, and had well-developed root systems.

Help the Bugs

The good bugs, that is. This was the first year where we had a deer fence around the entire garden area, vs. fencing off each bed. One of the unexpected side effects of that seems to have been an increase in the number of lizards in the garden area. We also made an effort to grow plants that would attract beneficial insects (such as basil) and/or discourage the bad bugs. I noticed a marked decrease in bug infestations, especially aphids and flea beetles. All of the produce looked a lot better!

2013 Focus

Thanks to my friend Cory at Neuscapes, we now have a reliable basis for irrigation in the garden. It's time to set up separate irrigation zones, and also to figure out watering frequency and duration given the kind of drainage the soil has.

We've also started addressing the soil fertility issue, planting green manures in the beds. The green manures will grow into the spring, at which time we'll cut them and plow them back into the soil. We're also working on horse manure compost.

We're already looking at what we want to feature in next year's garden, what's new that we want to try, and what we can't live without. Time to review seed catalogs and get ready for seed-starting early in 2013!

Hello, You Must Be Going

Time for our annual snarkiness over words, phrases, people, ideas… whose time has come and--hopefully--gone.

You will be missed
Really? Really
The new normal
Double down
All in
I have no words
Wow just wow
Word especially when used by white people
True that
Anything nation
Hipster hats
Boom! That just happened!
Call Me Maybe (except in spin class)
Gotye; Now You're Just Somebody that I Used to Know
Honey Boo Boo
Can I get (fill in the number) likes
Aqui-hire or aquhire
Gangnam style
Anything Kardashian
Big Data
Fiscal cliff
the Tea Party
Idealogues of all stripes
Any you'd like to add?

Discussing Newtown

My first indication was from my friend Rob LaRiviere, via Facebook. He mentioned Newton, not Newtown, which caught my eye since I had lived next to Newton, Massachusetts when I was going to MIT. Rob's post mentioned shootings and children. That was as much as I needed to know. I chose to avoid finding out the details; the outline of the story was enough. More than wanting to forget the details, it would be easier if I simply never knew them in the first place.

But, try as I might, I've had to let at least some of the story seep in. Even just the outlines are bad enough: kid shoots his mother, goes to school, wipes out her class, kills several teachers/school staff along the way, kills himself. My one public reaction was a tweet: "Who kills children? Who does that?"

I don't have any connection to the victims and families in Newtown, don't know anyone who lives there, don't have kids in Kindergarten or first grade. So I'm not confronted with this tragedy except through my own actions to follow the story.

And while I'm not materially connected to the story, I can certainly relate. My kids are grown now, but I still remember the realization that I loved them like crazy and I couldn't imagine how I would go on if anything ever happened to them. And my kids have each had their share of scary moments in school, nothing so serious as a gunman in the classroom, but enough to make you realize that safety is an ephemeral thing. What's more, there are many teachers in my extended family; what if something like this happened to them?

But after a period of trying to look the other way, I've decided that I have to open the conversation. Because that's what 's called for. Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon… a tragic event occurs, we as a society step back, assess what happened, and figure out how to improve things so that the event is less likely to happen or at least less likely to have as grave a consequence.

Except when it comes to guns, kids and schools. You can tick off the tragedies as well as I: Virginia Tech, Columbine, Aurora, and now Sandy Hook. And those are just the most recent events; you may recall that the song "I Don't Like Mondays" was written about the person that shot up a school near San Diego (read more here).

In the time since we learned of this mass murder, there have been reactions aplenty.

  • Sympathy for those who died.
  • Cries of "how could this happen?"
  • Calls for increased gun control
  • Calls for greater mental illness funding
  • Suggestions that the media are to blame
  • Suggestions that violent video games are part of the problem

Probably my favorite response, from @TimthePM, was to promise to unfriend/unfollow/unlink with anyone who started calling for more gun control, or less gun control, or any other "solution" in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

Why? First, we need to grieve. Those (like me) who are bystanders with no emotional investment in these events, other than as members of some larger community, would love to move to the "solve it!" part of the discussion. I want to put this thing behind me—I've got Christmas to think about.  But for those that are in the middle of this emotional superstorm, we have to give them their time.

Second, we need to get the facts. I have tried to avoid knowing anything about this massacre except the broad outlines: young man gets one or more guns, goes to school, starts shooting. Why? What led up to this? Was there some event that set him off? What kind of gun or guns did he use? Did he have mental health issues? I don't know the answers to these questions; maybe they've all been reported already.

But I remember in the days after Columbine, how there was an accepted notion that the killers were responding to being bullied. And then, not too long ago, I read an article in Time or Newsweek by the mother of one of the shooters. She described the mental issues her son had faced. It made me go back and ask, how much of the conversation after Columbine was about mental health? And yet, this story says that much of what we thought we knew about the killers' motivations has turned out to be wrong.

I guess that's my main point. When something is painful, you do everything you can to make the pain go away. And when it comes to the awful reality of the killings at Sandy Hook, we want to proclaim a solution to a problem we've implied and then move on.

But these aren't simple problems, and they aren't fixed by one-dimensional solutions. I don't know what the answer is, but I know that it's a combination of things. So let's talk about it. Let's start with common ground—we don't want our kids at risk of being killed while in school—and go from there. Let's acknowledge the hurt, support one another, have our say. And then let's get something done.