Fall Garden Report

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Well, we finally got three days of rain, which is good because the ground was bone dry, even if the air continued to be a sauna.

Most Valuable Non-Native Player is usually Walker’s Low catmint, an unspeakably durable non-reseeding perennial, but this year it’s getting a run for its money from a tropical annual cuphea, which is still flowering even now, and the Japanese salvia, Koyame, which is a late flowering part-shade salvia. Both very attractive to bumblebees, although the cuphea is also bringing in small pollinator wasps.

Not doing as well are the lion’s ear and the black-and-blue salvia. The lion’s ear is an annual here, and reasonably attractive to hummingbirds, but so are a lot of other things that aren’t as floppy and picky. The black-and-blue is very vigorous (wildly vigorous) on a dry slope but I think would do better if I cut it back about once a month. Hummingbirds like it, too, but nothing else seems to care that much.

The fig has lost its mind and I’m gonna have to take after it with a saw once I’ve harvested all the figs. It went from a stub to a roaring green giant that’s approaching the second story.

Can’t say that the swamp milkweed is thrilling me. I grow milkweed because I hope for monarchs, but I’ve never had a caterpillar and the plants…ah…do not hold up well to the weather. Limp, brown, dead and aphid riddled, with moldy seed pods. I’ll keep growing it, of course, because someday a monarch will wander in, but I may move it to a low traffic zone, because at the moment it looks like something you’d find in the bottom of the veggie crisper four months after the CSA ended.

This leads us to the problem of soup beans, yet again. “Leave the beans to dry on the vine,” suggest the various books, written mostly by people who do not live in the South. This is how you’re supposed to harvest the seeds for next year, too.

Har har. One year in three, maybe, I get that option.

The rest of the time, in late summer/early fall, the bean pod turns into a thin, moldy tissue over the beans, and the ones I don’t get to fast enough actually sprout inside the pod from the moisture, so you get little white snouts poking out of the bean pods. They are not going to dry on the vine. They are not going to dry anywhere, except inside the house. Autumn is the season of mold here.

(This, incidentally, is the reason that the much-maligned Ojo de Cabra has failed me, I come to find out. It finally threw dozens of heavy pods, a month after all the other beans had mostly finished. The problem is that a month late gets us firmly into slime-and-mold season. The plant is extraordinarily vigorous, so the leaves are brilliant green and the older pods are hanging sorrowful and slimy underneath it.)

So now my ideal bean is short season, heat and humidity tolerant, vigorous and mildew-resistant. The astonishing thing is that I’ve got at least three that fit that bill. Beans are a remarkably gracious plant. I’ve harvested enough beans to make soup and chili a couple times this fall, and next year the hard part will be finding room for all the new varieties I’m experimenting with.

Frogs and Reapers

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Kevin eating the Reaper was…painfully epic. He said it was the hottest thing he’s ever eaten, substantially hotter than the Reaper we bought from Fiddlehead Farm last year. He said this between spoonfuls of yogurt, gasping, and then dumping sugar directly on his tongue in a desperate attempt to break up the oils. He had eaten a very small slice off the end, with no seeds.

Then he got some of the juice on his face and was scrubbing it with Tecnu, the poison-ivy remover, trying to get it off. It’s…um. Quite a thing.

I feel this weird mix of satisfaction and horror. On the one hand, I didn’t get into gardening to make things that destroy the taste buds. On the other, I have succeeded in what we’ll call a mid-level gardening challenge–peppers aren’t hard at all, but the super-hots can be dicey, and part of the challenge is making them come out super-hot, since we get so much water here in NC. (In another year, I might not have succeeded as well–the drought helped. I hand-watered them all, no irrigation, so I could balance the watering against the weather.)

On the gripping hand, they’re dangerous and also useless. You can’t cook with them. If I dried one and ground it into powder, other than the screaming as grains got in my eye, I could put maybe two grains in a gallon of chili. The guy who makes Cackalacky sauce wants a couple for a special Halloween blend, so a few will go to good homes, but there’s honestly no point in growing them again in the garden. You can’t use them for anything. I might save seeds from a couple Reapers just to have them, but I don’t know that I’ll bother, since their germination rates are really poor.

Next year, I’ve got a single Thai pepper from the owner of Thai Lanna restaurant, who brought her seeds over from Thailand, and twenty seeds of a Bolivian pepper, the name of which means something like “Lunatic Caterpillar.” I’m growing just those two, widely separated, so that I can get enough seed to save. In practice, it seems like we use Habeneros, Jalapenos, and Thai peppers, and I bet we’d use Shishito, too, so I may give them a try in 2017.

Beans

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I usually get a couple pounds of Mother Stallard and Rattlesnake Pole and it looks like Trail of Tears will be joining that. Now that Ojo de Cabra is out (waste of space) and I’ve given up on Scarlet Runners for the time being (takes too long to make refried beans.) I’ve got space for one, maybe two more pole varieties, so I went to nativeseeds.org and splurged (and the nice thing about a seed splurge is that extraordinary decadence still usually costs under twenty bucks.)

It has not escaped my notice that what’s flourishing are things that take a lot of heat. Rattlesnake Pole is a Southern standard (and it’s covered in pods, they just haven’t come ripe in great numbers yet.) but some of the others are more traditionally Southwestern and Mexican varieties. So now I just need to narrow it down between what can take the heat AND the humidity.

The weird thing is that there’s a couple traditional Southern varieties that drop dead when I plant them. I have the best luck with Wando peas, for example, but that’s the only ostensibly southern pea that does anything for me, and even that has been failing the last few years because spring has been so short and got hot so fast. I’ve had crap luck with tomatoes the last two years and I think I’m going back to German Johnson and Romas–the Brandywines are now reliably catching fire, falling over, and sinking into the dark tarn. (I was hopeful for a type called “Arkansas Traveler” that was supposed to take heat, but it croaked, although it held out longer than the Brandywines, and may get a repeat trial.)

And I wonder, too, why beans like Trail of Tears (which is an endangered heirloom, for crying out loud, and actually on the Ark of Taste list of “plant this, please, before they vanish”) aren’t being grown everywhere around here, when they do so spectacularly. I mean, this thing puts out black beans like it was going out of style. Meanwhile, I try to grow other beans that are traditional in the Carolinas, like the Mayflower, and find it mediocre at best, and eventually gave up on it after a year or two.

I guess what I am fumbling toward is that I thought that everybody would have had it all figured out by now, what grows well where, and traditional Southern heirloom varieties would of course be better here than ones from, say, Mexico. But I’m having a lot more luck with the Southwestern stuff than I am with some of those Southern staples. And…errr…I mean, I know all gardens are individual and all, but if all these Southwestern crops are doing so much better in my garden, why aren’t we all growing tomatillos and Hidatsa Reds already?

Seeds get everywhere! It’s been hundreds of years! So…how come they didn’t get here?

The most likely explanation, of course, is that I am a bad gardener, because this is totally true. But I also wonder, particularly where I have totally grown a thing before and it worked fine–like the peas–and now it works one year in three, whether or not some of the old Southern heirlooms aren’t working as well. Climate change? It’s possible–I’m a zone and a half or more warmer than this plot of land was fifty years ago. But it could also been that open-pollinated varieties change over time and maybe I’m getting seed that isn’t what it used to be, and when I’m saving seed, I may be doing it poorly and weirdly. Or maybe those Southwestern crops are just damn fine and underappreciated and need more publicity–or maybe “Ursula wanders around aimlessly and remembers to turn the hose on occasionally” mimics the desert conditions a little better than a gardener who, y’know, knew what they were doing, and maybe the weather is just impossibly weird lately (this is certainly true–last year everything flooded, as I recall, and people’s gardens were literally washed away) and these crops are more flexible in adversity. I don’t know.

Anyway. We will see what performs next year. I am turning all squash production over to South African Gem Squash so that I can get saveable seed, because that is just an astonishingly fine little squash and I am so hopeful for it. And we will see what the future holds for beans.

Pickleworm

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gardenjournal8-11-15

The cure for Pickleworm is apparently a whole lot of poison. You can use organic poison, but that’s still what you’re doing. Otherwise, cry a lot, use row covers, and cry some more.

I am hoping to grow Gem Squash next year, and have planned to grow nothing BUT so that I get seeds for saving, and I’m REALLY hoping they fruit before the pickleworms arrive.