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Monday, January 26, 2015

Some you Win…

four days of frostNineteen degrees the morning before last. Eighteen degrees at 7: 00 a.m. yesterday. The garden is finished. What two weeks ago was a luxuriant jungle of green is now a tangled  mass of rotting vegetation; the garden has imploded, moldering in its own compost. We both need a rest, the garden and I, and as its caregiver, I’m more than happy to concede the season, let Jack Frost and winter put the garden to bed.

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Francis G. Crane played an important part in my family’s life. Francis G. owned the apple ranch where my dad was foreman, the ranch that was the center of  my life for many years. My dad’s boss and mine, Francis G. was so much more than employer. Not only was he a business man, he was also a mentor and friend.

One of my last memories of Francis came about on a warm spring day. I had been roaming the hills where I played as a boy when I saw a frail, old man standing in a tilled garden plot. A broad-brimmed straw hat to ward off the sun shadowed his face. He could have been a scarecrow as still as he stood, lost in thought, pondering some sort of notebook he held in his hands. “Hello, Francis,” I said, as I approached. Not the least bit startled or surprised, as if we had been standing there together all along, he looked up and smiled. “I should know you, shouldn’t I?” he said.  And though he had been a large part of my life for years, he addressed me as if I were a stranger. When I introduced myself, he nodded in recognition and then looked down at the notebook. “I see I planted two rows of beans last year,” he remarked. The notebook was a garden journal. I’m sure Francis kept of his garden and plantings from one season to the next….

A garden journal? Good idea, I thought, so I resolved to keep one myself this year. Why trust to memory—especially at an age when I scarcely remember who’s peering back at me from the mirror when I shave. And so this year I kept a journal to record the subtleties of this year’s garden, assess the wins and learn from the losses.

While the garden hung in suspended animation, I sat by the purring woodstove the other day and thumbed through my journal, the garden season’s retrospective. The following are a few excerpts:

Tomatoes: I’m convinced the trellising method is a great way to grow tomatoes. Not only does trellising do away with central stake  support, all that  tying up of vines to one pole,Trellised b-wines creating a pruning challenge and a knotting nightmare, but  also because the support comes from above, there’s little danger of a main vine snapping. I used two 6’ metal fence posts and lashed an 8’ 2 x 2 between them. Each trellis supported four tomato vines. I also trellised two vines in whisky barrel planters from the soffit on the south side of the house.southside tomatoes The trellis method allows total lateral support of the vines. I begin twining the stalks six to eight inches from the ground. As the plants grow, I gently twist the main stalk around the twine. I choose two or three sturdy side stalks and add them to my trellis; all others I prune off. Again, instead of the total weight of the stalk born at the point of the tie, the entire vine is supported wrap by wrap. 

My winning varieties this year were: Stupice, a prolific, golf-ball sized variety, wonderfully flavored, perfect for dehydrating,Drying stupices


and a favorite I’ve grown for years: Amana Gold, a meaty, yellow heirloom beefsteak tomato, many fruits of which yielded golden globes that weighed nearly two pounds.

With its short growing season, the Pacific Northwest spawns a bounty of green tomatoes and consequently cookbooks such as Paula Simmons’ Green Tomato Cookbook provide recipes for tomatoes  that are caught off guard by our short growing season. But there are tomato varieties that have gone green. I’ve grown some in the past but misplaced the labels, so I couldn’t distinguish immature fruits from the mature green variety. stoplight tomatoesIn this season’s garden I planted Aunt Ruby’s German Green and trellised four plants in order to recognize immature fruits from a ripe, verdant tomato. The result? Large, beefy tomatoes,  green heirloom versions of the Brandywine and Amana Gold. The vines bore heavily, and I had little difficulty determining when the fruit was ripe. The fruits turned a yellowish-green and were soft to the touch, and while a thick slice of an Aunt Ruby’s tomato looked a bit odd on the plate, its flavor was every bit comparable to a Brandywine.

But of all the tomato varieties I’ve grown in the backyard garden, the one that continues to deliver season after season is Early Girl.  Early Girl is a tomato farmer’s go-to variety. The vines are heavy producers of perfectly shaped, medium-sized globes, that true to their name, are some of the first tomatoes to ripen in our short season climate.

Beans: Enough of this nonsense, I decided after two seasons of a failed beanFortex bean crop. Oh, I had plenty of beans all right but the pods were flat, not swollen with plump mounds of legume as they should. And stringy… shovel in a mouthful and you were left will a sizable wad of hay to spoon out and discard. The two previous seasons I planted Blue Lake pole beans. Somehow the genetics must have wandered because my crops went flat. This year I went looking for a new variety.

I found what I was looking for in Territorial Seed’s spring catalogue, a variety called “Monte Christo” and ordered a packet of seed. Monte Christo yielded a nice, long pod, plump and round, and much to my relief, snapped without a single dangling string. I was introduced to a second variety, Fortex, by a Valley friend who shared some seed with me. I planted six poles of MC and one of Fortex. Both varieties produced a bumper crop of long pods. Fortex produced one fourteen inch pod, long enough to dangle both ends off the rim of a ten inch skillet. These beans made snapping well worth the time with each pod yielding five to six sections. After two years of bean dearth, it was a pleasure to be back in bean business again. Before I filled the first canner, however, I went to the pantry, hauled out twelve pints of last year’s canned strings and dumped the entire lot on the compost heap.

Cabbage: Yes, the very same compost heap where last January I dumped  an entire three gallon crock, twenty pounds of  chopped cabbage. Three and a half hours of chopping and slicing all for naught…just deserts, I guess, for straying from my traditional variety. “Why not try the Savoy?” I thought. Savoy: you know, the cabbage with the wrinkly heads?  I attribute my failure to  Savoy’s  low moisture content, not enough water to produce an adequate brine. And after a season where my Reuben sandwiches came from fast food establishments, I returned to my old standby Charmant.Charmant '14

And a welcome homecoming it was, too. The eighteen seeds I planted produced the best cabbage crop in memory, eighteen heads of nearly pest free cabbage ( to which I attribute the season’s late flight of cabbage butterflies). Each of the eighteen heads averaged  four pounds plus. Only five and a half heads were required for twenty pounds of chopped cabbage, the quota needed to fill the crock. Four and a half weeks later (record time) the ‘kraut was ready to bottle: yield, twenty-three pints of the best batch of sauerkraut I’ve ever made.

Peppers: I’m convinced I can raise any variety I choose by using green plastic mulch which raises the soilpepper berm temperature during the day and helps retain heat at night. My triumph this season was the Trinidad Scorpion, last year’s “world’s hottest pepper”: 1.5 million Scoville Heat Units, half again as hot as the ghost peppers I grew last season. Our growing season is too short to produce a bumper crop of these exotic “hotties,” but I was able to harvest a small basket of Scorpions that reddened to maturity, enough to consider my efforts a success.Scorpion crop

Newcomers to the pepper patch this season were: Chiltepins or birds eye peppers, little bullet-sized fruits, each a fireball, and Chinese 5-color, a toasty mouth-scorcher so named for its color metamorphoses from bud to maturity (purple, to white, next yellow,  then orange, and finally red). Chinese 5 color

My three pimento plants were the first to fruit and produced bumper crops as did the California Wonder bells and jalapenos.

And then there was the pepper patch anomaly: last year I paid nearly a dollar a seed for ghost peppers.Chinese 5 color peppers Ever the frugal gardener, I decided to save seed from last year’s crop. Of the nine seeds that germinated I planted five plants. Apparently a little pepper hanky-panky took place in the pepper patch because there was not a single ghost pepper among the crop. GMO’s, yes, but a bumper crop of “what ‘tis its?”whatisit

three ghosties

Pepper preview: I can’t keep up with the current “world’s hottest pepper,” always seem to be a year behind. The latest? The Carolina Reaper. (Stay tuned.)



Eggplant: this year’s garden produced the first eggplant crop in its history. Again, our short growing season makes growing eggplant a challenge. My best crops have come from wine barrel planters on the south side of the house. “Dusky,” from Territorial Seed has been my best variety (now unavailable for some strange reason). Because of my pepper successes, this year I decided to try eggplant in green plastic mulch. I planted two varieties: Rosita and Ophelia, both from Territorial Seed. Of the two, Ophelia was the only one that produced a crop; Rosita never set fruit. Ophelia, however, yielded several small eggplant (babies), enough fruit for us to feast on three or four “eggplant casseroles,” a favorite recipe of this household because its ingredients call for all the seasonal produce of the backyard garden: onions, bell peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, and, of course, the eggplant. While this year’s eggplant experiment was a success, next season I’m reverting to the southside, wine barrel method: more sun, more heat, more purple lobes destined for eggplant casserole.

Asparagus: Just a 5’ X 8’ raised bed I planted five years ago, the asparagus patch continues to perform, to impress. Our first picking , according to my journal, was March 8; the last, July 5.asparagus patch 4-28 Nearly four months of tender spears; 16 meals of stalks drizzled with olive oil, broiled or grilled, and served with copious amounts of shredded parmesan. And excess enough for two pints of asparagus pickles.

For the gardener, however, the true test of a winning season is the amount of excess his garden produces, for one is a poor gardener indeed if his backyard plot can’t yield extra for friends, neighbors, and those he never will meet, the folks who count on their local food bank for fresh, local produce to feed their families. As I noted in this year’s garden journal, our one slim acre yielded nearly 700 pounds of excess produce for the local food bank. And in my book, (the journal, of course), that’s a winning season.