Maryland Grows

Seasons end, but not quite

At mid November, after several frosts, the life of our garden is fading out. Deep green plants that were prolific a few weeks ago are now wilted brown. But careful inspection reveals treasures yet to be harvested. Some tomatoes and peppers hide under the insulation of dead leaves. There is still a mother lode of potatoes and carrots waiting to be mined. A few greens offer late season salads. And in vivid contrast to the surrounding death, Fall planted broccoli and cabbage are flourishing.

Once glorious tomatoes cling lifelessly to the trellis.

Chard (in the background) flaunts its greenery

at the forest of spent collard stocks.
Broccoli and cabbage thrive in the cool of autumn.

Sparkling diamonds of rain drops
decorate a budding head of broccoli.

Even in November, the garden yields its bounties.

What’s a vegetable garden worth?

This year we set aside a 10×10 foot plot at the Derwood Demo Garden as the Grow It Eat It Garden. We planted “typical” backyard vegetable crops, harvested and weighed the results, and made an attempt to calculate the value of the produce based on grocery store prices, as another data point in the continuing debate over whether it’s reasonable to declare that having your own vegetable garden is a great way to save money. Have we come to any definite conclusions? Not sure. But here’s the data. First, have some beans.

(Kentucky Wonder pole beans on the left, Masai bush beans on the right. I am a big fan of Masai now – nice little compact plants with a huge yield. The pole beans pulled the teepee over; what else can I say?)

My previous post on the totals through July showed we’d harvested $153 worth of produce. Here’s the update, August through October:

Tomatoes: 19 lbs
Zucchini: 3 lbs (our one plant succumbed to mildew and squash bugs)
Peppers: 6.5 lbs
Basil: 5.5 lbs
Beans: 27.5 lbs (yes, seriously)
Mesclun: 1/2 lb

My estimated total value for these crops: $234. So that’s $387 for the year.

Notes and caveats:

As I’ve said before, the demo garden is not your home garden. We work once a week, occasionally more often, sometimes less often due to weather. We can’t always keep up with harvesting and so some produce is wasted, and we can’t always keep up with pest and disease management. I wish we could be there every day inspecting plants for damage as you should in home gardens, but since we are all volunteers it’s just not possible. And by the same token we are not as efficient as we should be in planting succession crops; we should have had some fall crops in that garden and just didn’t get to it (aside from the pitiful harvest of mesclun). So a home garden ought to be more productive.

The price selection process is fuzzy and unscientific. I didn’t go for the cheapest possible prices or the most expensive or necessarily a consistent level of price (though most of them are from Giant). Prices change through the season and I did not keep that in mind, just tried to choose an average. Some of the prices reflect the low end of organic produce costs, since our garden is an organic one, or farmer’s market/locally grown costs. I went for a higher price on tomatoes, for example, which brought the total up considerably, because I personally feel there’s a big difference between locally grown tomatoes that may cost more and cheap ones that are shipped unripe. Whereas with zucchini and cucumbers the origin makes less difference and so I used a “bargain” price.

Another reason the total jumped is the high price of basil and the amount we harvested from our plants. This might not be as worthwhile to someone who doesn’t like pesto.

Now, subtractions. Many people who argue that vegetable gardening is not monetarily worthwhile are including the start-up costs of a new garden: tools, fencing, soil enhancements, etc. I agree that these costs will eat up $387 pretty quickly. However, once you have the tools and the fence they will last you a long time (and you might still manage to break even that first year!). So let’s choose to make our subtractions based on the idea of an established garden. You may need some new soil enhancements, if you haven’t been composting: perhaps about $30. Another $30 or so for fertilizer. About $20 for seeds (remember that some of them can be used next year), and then another miscellaneous $20 for garden things you didn’t get last year. That brings your “profit” down well under $300, but it’s still not bad. Again, totally unscientific, and it is always possible to waste money on a garden, as I well know. But with careful planning and maintenance you should be able to save instead of spend.

You can also choose your crops based on what costs the most at the store, although I think the first priority should always be what you will most enjoy eating, and then what you will most enjoy growing. Carrots may be cheap to buy, and not always the easiest to grow in our soil, but if you really want to try purple carrots then try them! Just learn as much as you can about growing them successfully before you start; knowledge is one of the biggest cost-savers out there.

And no matter what you save or don’t save, you have also gained a lot just by being in the garden: getting exercise, learning about nature, knowing that you produced your own food. That’s worth a lot, whether it can be measured at a cash register or not.

(Photos by Katherine Lambert)

Sweet potatoes

One of the best parts of this year’s Harvest Festival for us at the Derwood demo garden (besides having enough mouse melons to hand out to everyone who wanted one – hurray!) was what a great sweet potato harvest we had. Actually, that’s nearly always the best part, though since this year was not a great potato year (no blight, but corn borers) we particularly appreciated seeing all those lovely red tubers (Georgia Jet variety) coming out of the ground. Especially when MG Barbara Knapp, who has the technique and patience to manage it, got a whole clump out at once still attached to the vine:

(Barbara’s photo) It weighed eight pounds! Our largest sweet potato this year weighed two and a half pounds, which is only half Barbara’s record of five, but really quite large enough.

We love digging for an audience, especially those kids who are curious about where their favorite foods come from. And actually we don’t mind at all explaining all day long that potatoes and sweet potatoes are from entirely different plant families, and that they grow differently, and are planted at different times of the year, potatoes in March from pieces of guaranteed disease-free seed potato (please do not use store-bought) in a trench gradually filled in with soil over growing plants which will die back in the summer, and sweet potatoes in late May or whenever it’s warm from plant slips on top of a loose bed of soil from which those lovely vines will spread out until frost. And yes, you can eat sweet potato stems and leaves (we just learned about the stems this time around from our visitors).

Here’s Barbara showing off her viney garden:

(photo: Katherine Lambert) No, those are zinnias over to the left, but sweet potatoes have nice flowers too. You can’t really see it in the middle of the vines, but the original slips were planted inside a cage of hardware cloth buried several inches in the ground to keep out mice and voles. And lo, when we dug up the tubers that had grown just outside the cage, they had been chewed partially away. I think our resident chipmunks were having a feast as well, even inside the cage. But it does a good job keeping out most furry pests. Insects are not much of a problem.

The cage was an oval about five feet long, and the whole garden area is about eight by ten feet for six plants, but if you’ve got less space you can still grow a plant or two and get a nice harvest in the fall. You can grow sweet potatoes in a pot! And they’re pretty. Nice groundcover, if temporary.

Barbara says have a sweet potato. You know you want to.

Fish pepper harvest

Fish peppers are a gorgeous addition to either a vegetable garden or an ornamental bed, with their variegated foliage and multi-colored fruit, and as an African-American heirloom of the Chesapeake region, they’re a real local specialty as well.

We grew them not too successfully in the Derwood demo garden this year (I foolishly tucked both seedling plants into places where they’d get as little sun as possible. Hey, the next-door plants were shorter then…) but those I had in my home garden did wonderfully. Anticipating cold weather, I got in the harvest, some of which looked like this:

Then I put most of the peppers (which are in the middle range of hotness, by the way) in the food dehydrator and let it run. Good for clearing the sinuses! Here’s the end product:

And much more where that came from! Enough to keep us warm all winter, whether it’s fish or something else that needs heating up.

The Fall 2009 issue of Washington Gardener has an interview with heirloom gardener Michael Twitty in which he extols the virtues of fish peppers, and much more. Really beautiful in your garden, and delicious too.

Grow It, Decorate It, Eat It


Nature gives us wonderful decorations in each season! Autumn is ushered in with chrysanthemums and cornstalks but the ornaments are pumpkins and gourds. I love them in all their varieties. I especially like moonshine pumpkins. These white pumpkins are a perfect representation of the harvest moon. I look at them and my mind conjures up a witch with her black cat riding her broomstick across the moonlit Halloween sky while my children below scurry door-to-door in their scary trick-or-treat costumes. And after it is all over, the pumpkins are baked into delicious pies and breads for the Thanksgiving holiday. Pumpkins and gourds are a great addition to every garden.

No, I did not grow all of these. They are courtesy of the University of Maryland variety trials at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center.

Winter Squash

Below are photographs of our butternut and spaghetti squash harvest. They are a couple of my favorite types of more than two dozen common varieties of winter squash. They are prolific, easy to grow, and very nutritious. They are called winter squash because when stored properly, they will last a long time and are a staple of our winter diet. Before storing them we rinse them in water to which we add a few drops of chlorine. We then store them in bins in a cool dry location. The garage usually works fine. They are so easy to eat by just splitting them, removing the seeds and roasting them in the oven or microwave. Spooning the cooked flesh out of the rind and serving with butter, salt, and pepper turn them into taste sensations. But they are also great in casseroles and pies. Flesh colors of winter squash range the spectrum from pale yellow to deep orange for a visual sensation. We believe that squashes are the staff of life and every garden needs a variety of them.



Late blight- will it return next year?

Over the Labor Day weekend I had to pull out the 22 tomato plants in my home garden that were infected with late blight. I harvested the green tomatoes, stuffed the plants in large plastic bags and put them out with the trash.

A number of my neighbors and co-workers in Howard Co. had tomato plants that succumbed to this wicked disease. This summer, Home and Garden Information Center staff communicated with dozens of home gardeners across the state who reported late blight symptoms on their tomato plants.

I recently spoke with Karen Rane, Director of the Plant Diagnostic Lab at the U of MD. She said that the fungus-like pathogen that causes late blight- Phytopthora infestans– could only survive the winter on living host tissue. Tomato and potato plants die with the first hard frost, but pieces of un-harvested potato could remain in the soil. It’s very important that all tomato and potato plants, especially potato tubers, be removed and discarded.

So will we see a repeat of this problem next year? Very unlikely, because three factors must be present at the same time and place- the host plant (potato or tomato); cool to mild, wet weather; and lots of disease spores. In 2009,large numbers of infected Southern-grown transplants were shipped into MD and other states for sale to home gardeners. Spores were blown around to new host plants and the disease spread from garden to garden.

There is no need to sterilize stakes and cages. It’s always a good idea to rotate crops if you have the room in your garden. But it’s ok to plant tomatoes in the same spot next year if that’s the only good spot you have.

Read this excellent list of FAQs from Meg McGrath, Plant Pathologist at Cornell University.