The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Cultivation techniques’ category

Everything you ever wanted to know about pole beans

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012


Here’s an article I wrote that appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Permaculture Activist, under the title “The Vagaries of Phaseolus.” (Umm, not my title, but whatever..)

Passumpsic Jerusalem artichokes

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Passumpsic blooming

I brake for Jerusalem artichokes (and you should, too).

I don’t recommend car window botanizing for drivers, but it’s a fine sport for passengers, and can yield treasure. That’s what I was up to in the early 1980s when one day, on RT 5 as we passed a local burger and fries place, I spotted a small patch of Jerusalem artichokes just off the edge of the big gravel parking lot. I later returned under cover of darkness with folding shovel and bucket to pilfer a few for planting.
I now have a big fine patch of them, which is a good thing because the burger joint parking lot became a used car dealership, totally paved over, and there’s nary a sunchoke to be seen on the banks of the Passumpsic River. RT 5 between St. Johnsbury and St. Johnsbury Center has been heavily strip developed.

Jerusalem artichokes

So, how did they get to the banks of the Passumpsic River? Jerusalem artichokes, helianthus tuberosus, are closely related to the common sunflower, and were originally domesticated by Native Americans in the Midwest of the USA, where they grow “wild”. The thing is, here in our short growing season, they barely have a chance to flower before hard frosts, so they never set seed. Thus, my conclusion is, any plants found in our area were originally planted from tubers by humans, especially as far up in the watershed as we are.

The odd name “Jerusalem artichoke” is a corruption of the Italian “girasol” which means “turns toward the sun.” Jerusalem artichokes were brought to Europe and appreciated there both as livestock fodder (pigs adore them) and as famine food. They saved many people in France from starvation during World War II.

However, the Europeans who came to this country had little respect for this plant. They much preferred potatoes. There was also a cultural issue, especially in our area, because this plant was associated with Native Americans. In living memory, even Abenaki descendents here would shun anything that might betray “indian-ness”, and for good reason. They were targets of a state eugenics program in the 1930s, which itself was a crescendo of strong racial prejudice that came with the English-dominated European settlement of northern Vermont.

I seriously doubt that the patch I found above St. J. was planted by anyone in the last hundred and fifty years or so. I believe it was a remnant of a Cowas (the local Abenaki band) river bank garden. I have named this variety Passumpsic after the river, whose name means “clear flowing water.”

The tubers of Passumpsic

The tubers of Passumpsic Jerusalem artichoke.

Passumpsic is a very good quality Jerusalem artichoke. It is long and smooth, and easy to clean, unlike the knobby types that are more common. My favorite culinary use for them is in kimchee – they are really delicious lacto-fermented: nice and crisp. They are perennial and can be left in place and dug up as needed whenever the ground is not frozen, and they’re at their best in the late fall and early spring. If given a good sunny position and decent soil, they will thrive. However, I do not allow them in the garden proper. They have their own area off to the side, with recyled metal roofing mulch between them and the garden beds. They are definitely invasive in a garden situation. They need to be managed ruthlessly once established if you want to continue to grow other plants as well, although I’ve heard that if you put pigs on them, the pigs will devour every last one.

Jerusalem artichokes in their own patch

Note the metal mulch. It’s too narrow and is being replaced with wider sheets to be more effective at keeping them in their place.

So, if you happen to be in any of Vermont or New Hampshire’s river valleys, keep an eye out for the tell-tale tall yellow fall flowers, or the clusters of tall dry grey stalks from the previous year’s growth. You just might be able to rescue a Native American heirloom plant.

Pruning grapes

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

grapes on the rocks

If you are looking for good advice from me about pruning grapes, forget about it. I don’t know what I’m doing. When we originally planted our Swenson’s Red grapes, we provided a fairly normal kind of wood and wire trellis, which served its purpose for a while. However, there were a few chaotic years which included graduate school and heavy equipment to install a modern septic system. A large pile of very large stones, salvaged from the foundation of what was once a barn, ended up next to Swenson’s Red.

With the combination of my neglect and its exuberance for the extra heat held by the rocks, it covered the rock pile; and it started bearing quantities of grapes that would actually get ripe, and are nice to eat.

Grape blossoms

So, I hack away at it a few times a year as time allows to try to keep it in bounds, and to get more sun on the fruits as they ripen. Recently I was clipping away at the new growth, lost in my recurring grape pruning fantasy.

Kemosabe in ginseng

Kemosabe in the Siberian ginseng

My recurring fantasy is this: I am wantonly snipping away at the vines, when suddenly a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Gerard Depardieu yells “MERDE!!! Stoopeed woman! Zat ees no way to treat a grape!!” and he whisks me off to the south of France to show me how it should be done…

Lost in this revery, I was working my way around the grape behemoth. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I noticed Kemosabe, one of our loyal and trusty cats, who likes to spy on me from the shrubbery. Black and white fur, right?

Kemosabe in grapes?

Kemosabe in the grapes???
NOT Kemosabe in grapes

NOT Kemosabe in grapes. Time to go, folks!!!

Bergeron Fava Bean

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Here’s quite an unusual heirloom for northern New England – vica fava, also known as broad bean and horse bean. This is a different species than our more familiar snap and dry beans, phaseolus vulgaris, which have their origins here in the western hemisphere.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Favas are one of the oldest domesticated food plants, with origins in the Mediterranean region. They are quite widely grown and eaten elsewhere in the world, but are not very well known here.

I received this in the 1980s from Annette Bergeron, who, with her sister, left their family farm in Quebec to marry two brothers in West Burke, Vermont probably in the 1940s. Hence, I gave it her maiden name. She said in Quebec they called them “Monkey Beans” and in some years, when they could not afford to buy coffee, they would roast the favas and grind them up for a coffee substitute.

As an aside, I used to have a bean (phaseolus vulgaris – it was a bush dry bean) called Quebec Coffee (aka Canada Dot Eye), which makes me wonder if it was a common practice in Quebec to roast and grind various beans to make their hot beverages. If anyone knows anything about this, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, most likely these favas were brought over from France to Quebec.

It took me quite a while to get what they were all about. For years, I gave them prime real estate for phaseolus vulgaris – sunny, sandy well drained soil – and I was barely able to keep them alive. They would get totally covered with aphids, and have very few flowers, and hence very few beans. They were miserable, but I stubbornly kept them going, motivated by sentiment alone.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Finally, I got decent information about their cultivation (Thankyou Alan LePage – see “Radio Talk Show for Gardeners” at right). Favas, unlike phaseolus vulgaris beans, like cool and moist conditions (they are grown in the winter in the Mediterranean). This makes them quite valuable to me, because a large portion of my gardens are on the wet and clay-ey end of the spectrum. Heavy wet soil is no good for ants, so the aphid problem is nearly eliminated by growing favas in the wetter spots.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Here on the edge of zone 3 and 4, favas need to be sown absolutely as early as the ground can be worked so that they can set pods before summer’s heat (we sometimes do actually have hot weather in the summer, though sometimes not). I haven’t tried fall planting them yet, but that’s a possibility when I get to a point where I have plenty of seed to fool around with. Overwintering’s risky with our voracious mice and voles.

Bergeron is not a particulary early-maturing fava, and I can’t really say how it compares in other ways to other fava varieties. It’s the only fava I have any significant experience with. Favas self pollinate but are also insect pollinated, and very attractive to pollinators; so isolation is required to maintain the variety.

green shell stage

And so, what can you do with them, you may well be wondering. Check out Wikipedia and you’ll find all kinds of culinary suggestions. Favas are very delicious at the green shell stage braised, steamed or sauteed. I haven’t yet tried them as a substitute for chick peas in hummus, but that’s another way folks use them. As a dried bean, they have a tough skin, some varieties more so than others, so sometimes it is necessary to remove the skins before cooking or serving. I’ve used Bergeron either way – at the green shell stage the skin is usually tender enough to leave on.

Favas sprouts

I learned about sprouting the dried beans before cooking from an Egyptian garden blogger, and I really like them that way, braised with onion or garlic and simmered until tender. The skins come off the sprouted beans easily. In Egypt they are evidently widely eaten for breakfast.

Also, the young leaves are very good as braised greens, so I plant the favas thickly and harvest the thinnings, which are very welcome in early spring. Note the sticks in the photo below laid out to keep the vole patrol (2 cats) from digging up the newly planted bed…

Favas for greens

TPS Potatoes: Who’s Yer Daddy?

Monday, December 20th, 2010

I previously posted about two potato varieties grown in 1994 from TPS (true potato seed) I collected from a potato called Blue Shetland (SSE 1184). I am fascinated by Shetland potatoes, which come from the Islands of Shetland, off the Scottish coast. They are colorful inside and out, and their rich flavor is superior as far as I’m concerned, though folks who are used to the usual insipid tasting commercial potato varieties might find the flavor “strong”. My Shetland spuds tend to be small, but the flavor makes up for the size. They also keep very well.

Hurley's Purple Gold potatoes

Hurley’s Purple Gold, the mother plant. It very closely resembles its mother, Blue Shetland.

One of my two Blue Shetland offsprings, Hurley’s Purple Gold, very closely resembles its parent, and I was fortunate enough to collect a viable seed ball from it in 1996. But, after my initial experience growing potatoes from TPS, I was a bit leary of the time and space required, at least the way I went about it the first time. However, last winter I was inspired to try it again by the videos of Tom Wagner’s TPS workshop at Bifurcated Carrots.

Tom has a genius growing method for TPS that speeds up the process, and requires very little space. I don’t have a greenhouse, so all my seedlings are started on windowsills, which makes me very picky about starting seedlings early. Initially, I was going to get some TPS from Tom but I came across the old seed from Hurley’s Purple Gold and decided to go with that.

seedlings from true potato seed

All the seeds went into a little 2″ pot; about 30 germinated; emergent seedlings were exposed to direct outdoor sunlight; and later the eight strongest seedlings were transplanted to a 4″ pot, buried up to their top leaves. The close planting keeps the seedlings leggy, which is desirable in this case. The idea is to have long stems, since the tubers form on buried stems.

This method is so cool – I could easily see and compare color variations in the seedlings very early on (I’m looking and selecting for strong color), and the individual seedlings’ vigor is also quite apparent when they are grown in such competitive conditions. You can rogue out weaklings early on, and not waste energy and space with them.

TPS seedlings in the garden bed

As you can see, I spaced them rather closely in the garden bed. In hindsight, I wish I had given them more room – after my first TPS growout many years ago, I was not expecting full sized plants in the first year. I heaped compost on the plants several times during the growing season, burying as much stem as possible. This is how the plants looked just before I cut them down.

Purple Gold potatoes

Late blight struck the gardens about the second week of September 2010, so I cut all the foliage off at ground level much sooner than I normally would have. It was somewhat tempting to leave them to see how much late blight resistance they had, but I have no more TPS from the Shetland potatoes (they rarely set seed) so I really didn’t want to risk losing them. When I cut them, there was no sign of late blight on them. All our other potatoes had had their normal end of season foliage die-back, but these were still going strong. I assume that’s because they were first year seedlings, and not because they’re all very late maturing.

Digging up the spuds

Here’s an overview of the harvest. For me, digging up seedling potatoes feels like being a young child on Christmas morning. The TPS I used was not hand pollinated, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I grew about 8 other non-Shetland potato varieties the year I got the seed ball. I was hoping for more Shetland-y spuds, with darker yellow flesh, bigger tubers and red and purple skins. Initially when I dug them up, I was a little disappointed not to get more strong yellow flesh. I couldn’t really see the flesh colors very well, because I didn’t have time to cut into them, do photos and maybe cook some up. I just knicked the skin of one each to get a rough idea, and tucked them away until I could evaluate them better.

So, finally, here’s what I got when I properly opened my presents, and I’m not disappointed any more.

Tuber portraits

#4 and Fenton

#4 left, Fenton (probable parent), right

One seedling (#4) was a monster, producing 5# of spuds, some of which weighed 10oz. We haven’t yet taste tested #4, but so far I am very impressed, and I like the really dark skin and flesh color. My guess is that the father was Fenton, an heirloom potato from Mercer ME I got from Will Bonsall via Seed Saver’s Exchange. Fenton’s one of those Congo, All-Blue, etc. blue/blue potatoes, and it’s a variety that we’ve kept over the years because it’s very rugged, productive, blooms profusely, and tastes really good – a nice baking potato. The other parental possibility would be Peruvian Purple, but I think it’s more likely Fenton.

#4 and Fenton

#5 right and parent Blossom, left

The other real stand-out was #5, which obviously was a cross with Blossom. Blossom was bred in Minnesota by Ewald Eliason with an eye for flowering, among other things, and is mentioned in Carol Deppe’s book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Blossom is a beautiful plant and has very good tasting all purpose pink fleshed potatoes. It’s also very rugged, another of our “old reliable” varieties. Blossom does bloom fairly strongly here, but I have never gotten a viable seed ball from it, whereas Fenton is a more reliable seed producer.

Anyway, #5 is REALLY tasty, and I like the strong red flesh color. The seedling made over 3# of tubers, a very respectable showing, I think. All in all, I’m pretty excited about this venture, though I think I will wait another year before I grow out more TPS, so that I can be sure to give the 2011 growout of 2010’s seedlings its due.

If you’re interested in Shetland potatoes and other TPS projects, Rebsie at Daughter of the Soil has a great post about the Shetland potatoes she’s working with.

My sugarloaf chicory greges*

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

*(from Wikipedia) The term grex (pl. greges), derived from the Latin noun grex, gregis meaning flock…
When a hybrid cross is made, all of the seedlings grown from the resulting seed pod are considered to be in the same grex. Any additional plants produced from the hybridization of the same two parental greges also belong to the grex. All of the members of a specific grex may be loosely thought of as “sister plants”, and just like the brothers and sisters of any family, may share many traits in common or look quite different from one another. This is due to the randomization of genes passed on to progeny during sexual reproduction.

chicory in the lawn

The sugarloaf chicories are absolutely my favorite green. I tried saving seed for them quite some time ago, in the 80s, and didn’t have great success at first – chicory seed is not easy to harvest and process. They are mostly biennial, so I thought at first that I needed to choose my seed parents in the first year and over winter them in the root cellar. However, one May as I was walking across the lawn, my eyes beheld a sight very like the photo above. Somehow a sugarloaf seed had managed to escape into the lawn, germinate, grow and survive the winter. I can take a hint, so I dug it up, gave it a proper place in a garden bed, and decided to pretty much just let it do its chicory thing with a few other stray sugarloafs I found in the garden proper. We have no wild chicories in the neighborhood, so I didn’t have to worry about isolation (they’re insect pollinated). And, I gave up trying to figure out the optimum sowing time (too early, it bolts; too late, not big enough). Now they just sow themselves. I weed them, toss them some compost, yank out whatever doesn’t please me… and eat them all.

The original one plant was probably from Greenlof (Sugarhat) which I got from William Dam Seeds, so it’s likely of Dutch origin. I soon added more varieties of this type of chicory including Cornet d’Anjou, Snowflake, Sugarloaf/Pain de Sucre and most recently Blanc de Milan, in three different parts of the gardens.

A chicory patch just after the snow has gone

Just after the winter snow had gone (early April 2010), a patch of naturalized sugarloaf chicories, 15 years on. The plants in this area are descended from the original plant I found in the lawn. You can see the remains of the seed stalks fom last year.

Only plants that survive the winter in the garden become seed parents. I sometimes give them a leaf mulch for winter, but this is tricky. It does allow harvesting the greens right out of the garden well into December, but it also attracts voles who will pull whole plants down into their underground lairs and eat them roots, leaves and all. I hate voles.

Second year plant surrounded by seedlings

Second year plant surrounded by seedlings.

I make selections for seed parents mainly in the late fall and early spring, just by roguing out (removing) any plants that don’t have the characteristics I’m looking for. At these times of the year the plants express their more subtle differences the best – in the summer when they are seedlings and when the second year plants begin to bolt, they more closely resemble each other. At first, making the choices was pretty easy, because there were a lot of hairy, limp leafed plants and I knew I wanted hairless, crisp leaves. Now there are very few hairy chicories showing up, but, what is fascinating to me is that even after all these years of selecting, if anything, there seems to be MORE diversity in the population. Check out the photo below – I have never had any radicchios or red chicories bolt here, yet in the last couple of years, I have color showing up more and more.

Diversity in the chicory population

Spring 2010 – the diversity in this group blows me away!

Bolting chicory

I have been favoring curling leaves and wavy edges. The result has been more plants like the seed parent in the photo at left which bolted last summer. It reminds me of a many-armed flamenco dancer.

I have also been watching out for anything that shows perennial tendencies, and letting it propagate. Color pleases me, too. As I walk into the chicory areas, I often feel like a guest at a huge banquet table, presented with more enticing possibilities than I can possibly pursue…

And speaking of banquets, you will never find salad greens better than these:

early April salad greens

Early April salad greens, straight from the garden. From top left, clockwise: hesperis, lovage, peppermint buds, sugarloaf chicory, and parsley.

Growing melons in Vermont

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

I have no business trying to grow melons “au natural” here on a high hill side in northeastern Vermont. This is what I keep telling myself, and yet every year I’m at it again. I can’t rationally justify the amount of effort it takes in proportion to the actual harvest. It’s a compulsion, like gambling I guess. It would definitely be cheaper to buy a melon at the supermarket, and I’d have a good chance of getting a nice sweet one there since I know what to look for.

Besides, I crave sweet ripe melons in hot weather, the week or so of it we sometimes get in July here. There will never be ripe melons found in our garden in July. The thing is, by the time a melon is mature enough to ripen, we are into September and nights with threats of frost. Sugars just don’t form well (or at all) in melons at such cool temperatures, and somehow the crisp cold mornings of September and October just don’t have that “Wow, a slice of melon would taste just perfect right now…” quality.

A hoop house, plastic mulch, anything to provide a temperature increase would help a lot, but I don’t like to use stuff that I have to buy and then send to the landfill after a few seasons. Hence my stubborn insistance on trying to grow melons “au natural”. The concessions I do make are starting the seedlings early (about May 1, no greenhouse or grow lights) and then protecting them when they are transplanted in June with some plastic cloches recycled from translucent 5 gallon vegetable oil containers.

I have had just enough success to keep me tantalized, but not enough to keep me from grumbling. We do sometimes have adequate sunny warm weather in the summer to get nice results from some very early varieties. Two that have done well here in the past are muskmelons Melba (a Polish variety), and Sweet Granite, bred for northen New England by Elwyn Meader (UNH).

Autumn equinox. Piel de Sapo ready to be picked for storage.

However, there is a whole class of melons that seem to be able to ripen off the vine, and I’m finding that this is a quality I like very much in our short growing season. These are “keeping” or winter melons and are better known in Europe than this side of the Atlantic. Anyway, a few years ago I thought I’d try my luck with a winter melon called Piel de Sapo, aka Toadskin, from the Valencia region of Spain. I thought it was a long shot since Spain has a considerably warmer climate than northern Vermont, but I was pleasantly surprised, and am now a devotee.

November 30. Nicely ripe and fragrant.

Piel de Sapo grows vigorously and quickly sets a good amount of fruit, each the size of a football, even here. I have grown it the past three seasons, the last two of which were totally the worst conditions for melons – cold, wet and no sun. In such lousy conditions, the typical early melons that slip from the vine when ripe have no flavor to speak of, and are extremely prone to rot. Whatever you’ve got for flavor when they slip is all you’re going to get. Although winter melons also need sun and heat on the vines to develop sugars and bouquet, if picked slightly immature they can continue to form sugars in storage. I still have one last Piel de Sapo left from this year’s harvest, and it is mid-January. It’s sitting in the kitchen on a sunny (theoretically sunny) window sill and I’m waiting for the tell-tale melon fragrance the fruits exude when ripe.

Right, slightly underripe; left, slightly overripe. Both tasty.

I hope my wait is not in vain. Even if it ends up being not quite ambrosial on its own, some raspberries from the freezer and homemade yogurt will make it a nice winter treat. Here’s one that ripened in late September, and was very delicious paired with some of our Swenson’s Red grapes:

Next, the results of my 2009 melon trials…

Plant fetish of the moment – hand pollinating cucurbits, part 1

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Actually I don’t crave this seed saving task, but it is an obsession right now. We finally got some warm and dryer weather and the melons, squashes and cukes are suddenly taking off after hanging around not blooming and vining in the cold wet weather. The window of opportunity for the fruits to mature is really narrow up here, and there’s no telling if the decent weather will hold, so I’m spending a lot of time crawling around out amongst the cucurbits.

They're off!

…and they’re off!

Hand pollinating is a bit tedious and requires perfect timing. I did it for several years, but then life became too busy outside the garden for such activities, so I simply confined myself each growing season to one variety each of cucurbita pepo, maxima, and moschata, one cuke, one watermelon and one melo melon. I got away with this because for years we had no near neighbors who gardened. This is no longer the case, and rather than knocking on doors and asking “Um, could you please not grow those Red Kuris or those big orange pumpkins? They’re messing up my Honeyboats and my rare Hungarian Winter Squash,” I decided to go back to hand pollinating.

Below is a photo of two supposedly Honeyboat squashes harvested in the fall of 2008, revealing that a neighbor had a big pumpkin patch in 2007, and there was some c. pepo hanky-panky.

mutt squash

Honeyboat Delicata, right,
Honeyboat X mutt, left

Fortunately I hoard seed, so I was able to go back to pre-2007 pure seed for 2009 planting. We really like Honeyboat. It’s the best delicata I’ve ever tasted. The mutts were actually quite good, too, culinary-wise, but not as good as Honeyboat. They were cute, and kept very well. I did save seed from them, but I’m not psyched enough to spend a few years and garden space to sort them out…

This year most of the melons started blooming well before the squashes and pumpkins. I’ve been able to do some melon hand pollination, but so far no pumpkins or squashes. They’re now just barely putting out female blossoms. To hand pollinate, late in the day, I have to find both male and female flowers that are just about to open. I tape them shut to prevent insects from getting in and contaminating the flowers with pollen from a different variety. Then, the following morning, with some luck it will not be raining and the male flower gets picked and rubbed into the female flower. The female is then bagged to keep the bugs out. After a few days the bag is removed and the forming fruit is tagged with a bit of red yarn.

garden wristwear

The latest trend
in garden wristwear.

So, I’m doing daily rounds with my trusty masking tape on my wrist, little pieces of red yarn dangling out of my dirty jeans pockets and a lot of butt-in-the-air groping around in the pumpkins and squash and melons. Melons to be continued….

Perennial vegetables: Scott Nearing’s onions

Friday, July 17th, 2009

I never met Scott Nearing, though Helen used to stop by my first place of employment, Hatch’s, with boxes of books for sale. Hatch’s was one of the very first natural foods stores in the US, founded in the 1950s in St. Johnsbury VT, of all places. Hatch’s is a novel-length story in itself, and yes, we’re talking about the “Living the Good Life” Nearings.

bed of egyptian onions

Nearing’s Egyptian Onions, first of June

These perennial Egyptian onions came to me in the 80s, second-hand from Scott via Claire Van Vliet of Newark VT. They’re great plants with a great provenance. They are totally winter hardy without cover here and are right out there with green garlic, pushing out green shoots through the retreating snow in the spring.

egyptian onion bulbils

I snap individual green onions off the cluster at the base for very nice scallions through mid June. At that point the stalks get tough as they form top-sets, and start "walking," hence the other name this type of onion is known by – walking onions. Bulbils form at the top of the stalk and their weight pulls them down to the ground a couple of feet away from the parent plant. The bulbils even form bulbils, which in turn take another step away. The sprouting bulbils are fine mini scallions, so we can actually get green onions from these nearly any time of the year. The greens stand up well to freezing and thawing outside.

bulbilsbulbils

Are you ready bulbs? Start walking!

Egyptian Onions are the same species (allium cepa) as the common onion, and further classified in the group proliferum (multiplier or topset). The flowers are few and inconspicuous, and I’ve never seen them form seed, just bulbils. The bulbs at the base divide rather than bulking up to form a bulb of any culinary interest. They are all about green onions, and they do that very well. They survive harsh winters here with no protection, and even years of gardener neglect.

I have read about drying the bulbils to take indoors and force for scallions during the winter. The little in-ground bulbs don’t keep well if dug up, but supposedly the bulbils do. I’ve not done this yet, but it sounds like a good idea and I’ll try a few this year. I’ve found it difficult to catch the bulbil clusters before they start sprouting/walking. These guys are fast out of the gate! Sprinting onions?

downy mildew strikes

A couple of years ago, the patch was being strangled by witch grass. I very thoroughly cleaned out and fortified the bed with some sand for better drainage, and the usual laying on of well finished compost. They responded very well, and were looking and tasting gorgeous in June 2008. Then, seemingly, disaster struck. At the beginning of July 2008 the stalks started to mold, downy mildew to be exact. I decided not to panic and did nothing. The mildew seems to mainly attack the scapes, and it does really wipe them out – not a pretty sight; but, the scapes are at the end of their life cycle anyway, which is probably why they are so susceptible. The new bulbils aren’t as much affected. Even though the tops of the older plants died to the ground last year, they divided and sent up healthy new scallions for the fall and winter.

Downly mildew thrives in cold and wet conditions. Summer 2008 was ridiculously cold and wet here, and so far summer 2009 has been about the same, with a reprise of the fungus attack.

downy mildew strikes

I could dust with sulfur, or try to trim off affected foliage, but this would be a large task. I have an ongoing onion trial/breeding project and there are about 12 different varieties out in the gardens right now. None are as severely affected as the Egyptians, but the fungus is present everywhere. I guess this is a good opportunity to observe and cull the experimental onions for fungus resistance. Anyway, I won’t give up Scott Nearing’s onions, even if they may be fungus vectors for the others. They really are an excellent source of green onions for home gardeners. We’ll just call my project “the Extreme Gardener Onion Torture Test.”

Wild salsify knocking on the garden door

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Last July, in a cluster of kale, parsnip, chamomile and beetberry volunteers I had left growing in the compost area, I was suddenly confronted with a familiar and unmistakeable seed head – salsify! Now I have not grown (nor seen) salsify in the gardens in more than 20 years, and never noticed it “in the wild” here in northern Vermont. I thought that this must have been the result of getting rid of some of the really old stuff in our seed collection, hence the plant’s proximity to the compost pile. However, that didn’t really make sense because salsify seed is supposed to be very short-lived, and I tend to hang on to seed way too long. I dutifully collected the seed last summer, and never got around to planting it.

summer 2008

Mysterious salsify volunteers rescued from the compost staging area.

I wasn’t very knocked out by salsify root when we grew it in the past, and after a few seasons didn’t bother with it. I never thought to try eating the greens, though I should have guessed that they might be worth while. The deer seemed to prefer salsify to all of the other bounties of our garden, and would consistently eat the plants to the ground.

Several weeks ago, in the spot in the compost area where I had collected seed last year, I was scorching the earth with the flame weeder and just in time recognized the foliage of a handful of salsify plants. I certainly would not have recognized them if I hadn’t known they might be there, because the leaves look like some kind of thick grass. Anyway, I can take a hint, so I dug them up and gave them their own spot in a proper garden bed.

summer 2008

Shortly after that, Mr. H at Subsistence Pattern did a great post about salsify and scorzonera, which got me more enthusiastic about giving salsify another try, and raised the question of what sort of salsify this might indeed be.

Then, last week, I was scything one of our little meadows, getting to the end of a big patch of buttercups in bloom, and buttercup, buttercup, bu..?!? Once again, I was brought up short on one of my (almost) ruthless missions of herbicide by… salsify. It just happened to be flowering and open, which was very fortuitous for it, because the flowers are only open a couple of hours each day and most likely I would have mowed it down if I hadn’t been piqued by the weird buttercups.

So, part of the mystery is solved. It’s a case of tragopogon pratensis, meadow salsify, and not t. porrifolius, the more common garden salsify (what I had grown before), which has purple flowers. All the "wild" salsifies in North America are originally from Europe and Asia, and are escapees from cultivation. Now, I have been a student of the local flora for more than 40 years, and have never come across salsify in the wild. I am wondering whether it’s a new-comer to the neighborhood, or whether I just didn’t notice it before. It would be easy to miss.

summer 2008

At any rate, we’ll have another go. Any early spring greens are valuable to us, and I may not have given the roots a fair culinary trial in the first go-round. I’m reading now that the roots should be cooked with their skins on for flavor, then the skins removed before eating. Any body know about this?