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Monday, February 2, 2015

And Some You Lose…

garden journalThis year’s seed catalogs are cropping up in the daily mail. Not as many as last year—a subtle reminder from the seed companies that I need to order more seeds this season. As I thumb through their glossy pages, looking forward to this year’s garden, I’m reminded again of my garden journal, the notes I made about last year’s disappointments and order accordingly. Fool me once, fool me twice…no repeat bad experiences.

Tomatoes: Of the four new varieties I tried, three did not perform well. The first, a determinate variety called Silvery Fir Tree, aside from its frilly, fernlike leaves, won’t be welcome anywhere on the place this year. This was a “patio” tomato touted by Barbara Kingsolver in her book  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ll grant Barbara the delicate, lacy foliage but the fruit was tough and flavorless. I don’t know…maybe they just needed that Virginia heat and humidity. My brother recommended a variety called“Delicious,” a name appealing enough for a tomato, but  it was late to mature and the first to present late blight. questionable advertisingCome to think of it, I had to remove some withered vegetation in mid-July. Perhaps this was a “hothouse” variety and thrived in brother’s greenhouse, but I won’t waste my time with Delicious this season.

You can almost taste the tomatoes in the glossy pages of seed catalogs. Perhaps that’s why I took a chance on a colorful variety called Georgia Streak, an orange tomato with red streaks, or a red tomato with orange streaks; when sliced, the flesh looked like sunburst disks. I was so taken in by its professional appearance, its sheen and colorful markings that I overlooked an important clue in the name—“Georgia”—and purchased the seed, disregarding the fact its summer home was destined to be Washington…and short season Washington at that. Streak’s fruit never fully matured; the top half was tomato leather; only the bottom half was juicy enough to slice. So much for Streaking in this climate.

Peas: I’ve had amazing crops of peas here in the Valley in past years. A crop one year just keep producing until I finally cried “Uncle” and left the pea patch to play itself out. This year I had a crop failure, two varieties: garden peas and sugar snap. The vines of the former were spindly and produced poorly…enough for perhaps a half dozen meals.  The remainder barely filled a third of a gallon freezer bag.  But the garden peas bore a bumper crop compared to the sugar snaps. Just what happened with them I’m not sure. In the third of a row I planted, less than half sprouted; those that did were stunted and ratty-looking, and even though I replanted the row twice, the results were the same. Total sugar snap yield? One meager quart freezer bag, hardly enough for one meal of stir fry.

You know, I think my days as a pea farmer are over. Now that my grandson knows that peas don’t come from a tin cylinder or the supermarket freezer case and has experienced plucking peas fresh from the vine, shelling out a handful and popping them one after another into his mouth, I’m done with peas. Gimme a pea!It’s really just a matter of simple economics and time, which brings to mind that classic American garden journal, diary, chronicle, Walden, New Englander Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on simplicity and frugality. Thoreau, in an effort to streamline his life, built a rude hut on Walden Pond and became a bean farmer. Yes, beans. As Henry kept a detailed ledger of expenses, he no doubt ruled out peas in favor of beans as the most economical crop to raise. His outlay for bean seed? Three dollars, twelve and a half cents (in colonial currency). He spent six cents for pea seed.  At season’s end the gross income from Thoreau’s  nine bushel and twelve quart yield (shell beans, I assume) tallied sixteen dollars and ninety-four cents, a return of  eighty-one per cent. Of his pea crop or its profits Thoreau makes no mention.

The economics of my pea farming: five balls of pea twine @ $2.00 a ball. $10.00. Seed: garden and snap: $8.00. Labor: twining the vines, weeding, picking, shelling, preserving…. @$9.47 an hour minimum wage. Hmmmm…. A four pound bag of shelled, frozen peas at Costco: capital outlay approximately $6.00. Even a pea-brained gardener can see the bottom line in this scenario.

Lima Beans: or, if you’re a southerner, “butterbeans.” I’ve fancied lima beans since childhood even though as a young boy I once overindulged on a meal of them causing me to bloat up like some ruminant on fresh, sweet hay.lima bean crop I can vaguely remember my parents holding me down to prevent my drifting to the ceiling like a methane inflated balloon. Lima beans with ham; lima beans with ham hocks; lima beans in soup; lima beans simmered in butter…I was determined to raise a crop in the backyard garden. Dr. Samuel Johnson once said of a man who married a second time, “It’s the triumph of hope over experience.” And so it was with me and lima beans. I tried Fordhook limas, bush variety, for two or three seasons and despite my efforts the vines sprouted only a few empty pods. Next I tried the pole variety although it’s not that easy to find seed. More success with these, but limas don’t perform well in our short season garden. What crop I did raise wasn’t ready until early October and when the beans should have been coming on, the cool nights of fall caused the new blossoms to abort. I also discovered lima beans need a warmer soil temperature to germinate, perhaps four to five degrees higher than regular garden beans. I had my best results starting the seed indoors and then transplanting the starts in mid-June. From this year’s single bean teepee I shelled out perhaps enough for two meals. The rest I dried…maybe enough to complement a ham hock…and make that a small one. So until we experience more global warming here in the Pacific Northwest, I’m finished with lima beans here. Until, that is, my next trip to Costco.

Zucchini: Yes, zucchini…No, you didn’t misread. Raising zucchini a disappointment? Concerning zucchini, disappointment usually occurs when the gardener runs out of recipients to take the excess tonnage off his hands. This season my foolproof  plan to bolster my donations to the local food bank was to plant more of this green squash machine. And I did: a dozen plants, enough potential to feed an entire city block plus a couple of high rise condominiums. I planted the dozen in a sandy section of the garden, just beyond the reach of the garden hose. The zucchini did not like it there, went on strike, refused to ramp up production, yielded only enough for a couple batches of zucchini bread and a few stir frys. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to have zucchini failure. So I’ll back off to three plants this year, plant them in in heavy soil back in the realms of irrigation.

One more tally in this year’s loss column--more a concern than a disappointment. In late August the garden was plagued by a severe infestation of  cucumber beetles. The horde made doilies of the bean leaves, gnawed craters in the remaining pods, appropriated the dahlias and zinnias,  and riddled their blossoms with holes. Some blooms were host to a half dozen or more beetles.  Not one colorful bouquet from the patch, the beetles saw to that. And I’m nervous about a repeat performance this season.

A few days back I took a walk in the Valley. On the shoulder of the road I spied one brave dandelion stretching its sunny face toward the sun. Two sunspots appeared on its friendly surface. A closer look revealed a pollen-laden native bee in the company of, you guessed it, a cucumber beetle. That’s one sign of spring I can do without.

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  1. What tomato varieties are you doing this year? What varieties are you most successful with? Any that you plant every year? This is my first year planting from seeds and I got 13 different varieties to try!

  2. Hi, Paula, this year I'm trimming down the garden, planting less of everything but will certainly plant my old standby tomatoes. Next month I'll start seed indoors in my little bottom heat seed starter: Early Girl, the gardener's tomato in my opinion, for sure: Stupice, an early (supposed to produce well in partial shade) variety of golf-ball sized extremely flavorful fruits, good for drying; Brandywines, which I'll trellis (several varieties of this heirloom, pinks to reds); Aunt Ruby's German Greens, a "green" variety, comparable to Brandywines; Amana Golds, a meaty, yellow beefsteak tomato I've had good luck with; and Gold Nugget, a prolific yellow cherry tomato good for salads and munching, early variety I grow in black plastic nursery pots on the south side of the house. I'm sticking with the tried and true varieties this year, not experimenting with any exotics. Good luck with your thirteen varieties. Share your successes and let me know if you find any "keepers." Thanks for reading The Ripple. TMJ

    1. Will do. I decided to get just about every color cherry tomato this year. I had good luck at my old house with Latah tomatoes, a very early producing tomato and I saved some seeds from it and will try planting them at the new house this year. I'll probably start my tomatoes in the next couple of weeks and plan on keeping some good notes on everything and will blog about my successes and failures.

  3. Hey, I just posted this morning my 14 varieties of tomatoes (Added one more, I got some green zebra from a seed exchange) I'm putting in my garden this year: Did you start yours yet? I will have extra starts of mine if you want to try any of them.

  4. Paula, yes, I've started five varieties: Early girls, Stupice, Brandywine, Aunt Ruby's German Green (from saved seed), and Gold Nugget. Also, some peppers and eggplant. I'll plant one more tomato variety: Amana Gold, and that should do it for my tomatoes this year. I'm trying to cut back on this year's garden so I think I have enough starts. Thanks for the offer, however. I would appreciate a "review" of your winners, though. Sweet peas go in at the end of the month. Happy Vernal Equinox...and thanks for the comment. TMJ