The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for July, 2009

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?