Harvest Festival 2016

This has been an interesting year in the garden. In looking at the Harvest Festival 2015 post, I see a year that offered me what I would call the standard garden items. Not so this year. The problems began with a late frost that wiped out my grapes and pears. In fact, it nearly wiped out my apples as well, but I learned a curious lesson with the fruit this year because of the apples. All the outer apple trees had no fruit, but those in the center of the orchard did have some fruit. In other words, the trees on the outside protected those on the inside. I didn’t get a lot of fruit this year, but it isn’t a big deal because my larder is setup to provide multiple years’ worth of any particular item. The lesson I learned was not to prune too heavily when the weather is uncertain (as it was this year). In fact, the reason the apples survived as they did was because I didn’t have time to prune them much at all.

The garden also behaved quite oddly this year due to the weather. The Wisconsin winter was semi-mild this year without nearly as much snow as normal, so different bugs survived than normal. In addition, the weather was either hot or cold, without a lot of in between this summer. It has also been the fourth wettest summer on record. All these changes produced prodigious amounts of some insects that I don’t normally see and the vegetables didn’t produce as expected.

As an example of odd behavior, I normally have a hard time growing cauliflower. This year I grew huge cauliflower and one plant is attempting to grow a second head, which is something that never happens here. On the other hand, broccoli, a plant that always does well, didn’t even produce a head this year. All I got were some spikes that didn’t taste good (they were quite bitter). The rabbits didn’t even like them all that well. The cauliflower is usually plagued by all sorts of insects, but this year there was nary a bug to be seen. The point is that you need to grow a variety of vegetables because you can’t assume that old standbys will always produce as expected.

Two other examples of odd behavior are okra (which normally grows acceptably, but not great) and peppers (which often produce too well for their own good). This year I’m literally drowning in beautiful okra that gets pretty large without ever getting tough, but the peppers are literally rotting on the plant before they get large enough to pick. I’m not talking about a few peppers in just one location in the garden either—every pepper plant completely failed this year.

Location can be important and planting in multiple locations can help you get a crop even if other people are having problems (and I didn’t talk to a single gardener this year who didn’t have problems of one sort or another). One example in my case were potatoes. I planted six different varieties in six completely different locations in the garden. Five of those locations ended up not producing much of value. A combination of insects destroyed the plants and tubers. All I got for my efforts were rotting corpses where the potatoes should have been. The last area, with Pontiac Red potatoes, out produced any potato I’ve ever grown. The smallest potato I took out of this patch was a half pound and the largest was 1 ¼ pounds. I didn’t even find any of the usual smallish potatoes that I love to add to soup. The potatoes were incredibly crisp and flavorful. The odd thing is that this patch was in an area of the garden that doesn’t usually grow potatoes very well.

A few of my garden plantings didn’t seem to mind the weather or the bugs in the least. My peas did well, as did my carrots. I grew the carnival carrots again because the colors are so delightful and even canned, they come out multiple colors of orange, which dresses up the shelves. I also grew of mix of yellow wax and green beans this year. The two beans work well together canned. They have a nicer appearance than just yellow or just green beans in a can. However, because the two beans have slightly different tastes, you also get more flavorful meals out of the combination.

I still stand by the statement I made long ago when starting this blog, every year is both a good and a bad year. Because I planted a wide range of vegetables and ensured I didn’t plant all the vegetables in a single location in the garden, I ended up with more than enough vegetables to can or freeze. No, I didn’t get all of the vegetables that I had hoped to get, but I definitely won’t starve either. My larder is quite full at this point. Let me know your thoughts on ensuring a garden has a significant variety of items in it to ensure success at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

After the First Frost

First frost is always a hectic time around here. The day before sees Rebecca and me running around trying to harvest everything that won’t survive the frost intact (such as tomatoes, okra, and eggplants). We had our first frost on Saturday, so we spent the day trying to get everything picked (after waiting until the last second for the plants to grow as much as possible.

On Sunday Rebecca and I went out to the garden to start picking the items that actually require a frost to taste good. This year we started with the squash and sweet potatoes. Despite the bad summer, we ended up with a nice assortment of both butternut and acorn squash.

SquashandSweetPotatoes01

It wasn’t our largest harvest, but it was a lot more than we expected considering we didn’t plant that many plants. We actually had squash growing up inside the tomato cages. The squash performed amazingly well this year. I wish we had planted more of them.

However, the big news for us was the sweet potatoes. We planted just one plant and expected to receive four or five standard sized sweet potatoes and a few smaller ones for our efforts. What we received instead was eight relatively large sweet potatoes and a wealth of smaller ones. The largest sweet potato is a monster that weighs nearly 7 pounds.

SquashandSweetPotatoes02

Yes, that really is just one sweet potato. It’s misshapen, but there is only one little crack in the surface and the potato is quite firm. I was expecting something around four pounds, so we were both surprised when we weighed it and the scale showed 6¾ pounds.

SquashandSweetPotatoes03

We’re planning to use this one sweet potato to feed our entire family during Thanksgiving this year. I’m not sure how we’d be able to use it otherwise. That’s one big potato.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Every Year is a Good and a Bad Year. This year we had great results with okra and squash. We’ll never forget this monster sweet potato though. What did well for you in your garden this year?  Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Dealing with Timing Issues in the Garden

Timing can be everything when it comes to food. This summer we’re experiencing a number of timing issues, just as we do every other summer. The first timing issue is getting too much food to process at one time. We finally had success growing cantaloupe this summer and had planned for the fruit to grow at a rate that would allow us to harvest a little cantaloupe at a time. The squash vine borers that killed all three of our cantaloupe vines had a different idea. At first I thought that the cantaloupe was a complete loss because the cantaloupes weren’t full sized. However, after waiting for a while, we found that the cantaloupes ripened just fine on the vines—they’re just a little small. Unfortunately, they all ripened at the same time. We saved some for eating now, but Rebecca is busy pickling the rest so we can eat them during the winter. The point is that when you get an overflow of items, try to find a way to quickly preserve them of later use.

Before I get a number of e-mails about potentially swapping the cantaloupes with other people, the cantaloupes were indeed small and not quite as flavorful as we would have liked. Pickling them made up for these deficiencies. I only trade high quality items with other people because I expect them to do the same for me.

There are pesticides I could have used to prevent this problem, but Rebecca and I don’t believe in using pesticides except as an absolute last choice. In this case, we would have had to preemptively applied the pesticide in order to prevent the damage (one day the plants were fine, the next they were dead). We won’t do that because of the potential damage to the pollinators and the contamination of the food.

Meanwhile, some people have given up on their tomatoes this year because they simply didn’t want to grow in the combination of high heat and lack of water. With the short rainstorms we’ve had, the addition of lightning, and some good irrigation, our tomatoes are finally taking off. Yes, we’ll get the tomatoes late in the season, but the weather service is predicting a warm fall, so the choice to keep our tomatoes turned out to be a good one. Sometimes you have to be patient and wait for the right conditions to happen for your plants. Unfortunately, it appears that a number of other items are also going to ripen late, so I foresee having to juggle more than the usual number of late season processing needs this year. In fact, we may have to ask for a little neighborly help to make everything work out right.

Our okra is producing slowly, but consistently this year. In fact, I think this will turn out to be one of the best years we’ve ever had. However, the slow intake of okra is causing us some problems because we had decided to pickle some of our okra this year and there isn’t enough okra at any given time to pickle. The solution for this problem is to gather the okra each day and freeze it. When we have enough okra to pickle, we’ll defrost the entire lot, and get the pickling done the same day. I’m thinking that we’ll notice a small loss in quality, but probably not enough for anyone else to notice.

Timing is an essential part of planning the garden, the harvest, and the food processing. Your garden is unlikely to know or care about your plans, however, so you have to remain flexible. When you encounter a problem of too much, too little, or not enough at the right time, think about solutions that will help you overcome these problems, rather than fret over a situation you can’t change anyway. Let me know about your garden timing issues at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Okra Pollination Problems (Part 2)

Last year I noted in my Okra Pollination Problems post that our okra had serious pollination problems—that the flowers were simply drying and falling off. What a difference a year makes! This year we moved the okra completely away from the tomatoes. Suddenly, there are all kinds of ants on the plants and the flowers are opening up as they should. In fact, we’ve already picked quite a bit of okra, which is one of the few bright spots in our drought impacted garden this year.

After talking with quite a few people about the issue, I’m becoming convinced that the okra flowers must have some sort of wax on them, much as other flowers such as peonies do. The ants are necessary to eat the wax off and help open the flowers. In addition, the ants must act as the pollinators. I haven’t seen much in the way of bee or other flying insect activity around these flowers to date and I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching. If someone else has an opinion about pollinators for okra, please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

The okra plants also seem to be responding well to heat. We’ve had to water them, but the plants are growing normally despite the heat (as contrasted to our tomatoes that don’t appear to want to grow much at all). I’d be interested in hearing other experiences with okra when it comes to summer heat. Given that this has been a hotter than normal summer (breaking all sorts of records), it’s a good test of what will happen when climate change starts to take a fuller effect. Okra seems to be on our list of items to maintain despite the heat.

The one thing we have noticed is that we’re having to be a little more diligent than normal in monitoring the okra. The individual spears are growing faster than normal and it’s possible to see a smallish okra one day that turns into something a bit too large the next. When okra get too large, they also get woody. You don’t want to pick them too small, but too large definitely presents problems. We normally pick the okra when it reaches 2 inches in length. That size seems to provide a good tradeoff between getting enough value for the time invested and not having a woody result.

How is your okra growing this year? For that matter, how is your garden doing as a whole? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Okra Pollination Problems

Every gardener faces the eventual problem that can’t be easily solved by talking with friends or looking online. This year presented one of those problems for us. We have big okra plants that aren’t producing any pods. Yes, there are a lot of flowers, but they aren’t producing anything. Instead, the flowers are opening, shriveling back up, and then dying as shown here.

Okra

You can see two flowers in this picture—both of which have dried up without producing fruit. All five of our okra plants are precisely in the same condition. They’re all nice big plants, but nothing to show for an entire summer’s worth of growth except some exceptionally beautiful leaves and dried flowers.

According to any number of sites, okra is self-pollinating in many cases. However, many of these sites also indicate that there hasn’t been any study done of the pollinators for okra and their effect on the plant. When I first noticed this problem, I spent time on a sunny day observing the plants carefully. A number of pollinators visited the plants, so it seemed at first that the issue isn’t one of pollinators.

However, I also noticed something else. On every other year, the okras in our garden are infested with ants. This year, there is not an ant to be found anywhere near our okra. A number of sites seem to indicate that the ants have no purpose for okra, but everyone complains about them. Now I’m starting to wonder whether the ants are pollinators or somehow help the plant in other ways. The okra certainly seems to put out a nectar that attracts ants like crazy.

The only other change in that particular part of the garden this year is that the patch has tomatoes in it. The okra is growing in row 4 of that patch and the tomatoes are growing in rows 1, 2, and part of 3. Last year, the okra was in row 1 of the same patch. Checking for relations between okra, tomatoes, and ants online proved fruitless. In short, there is no quick or easy answer for this particular problem except to say that it exists.

Our summer has been hot enough for the okra to grow quite large, so I’m sure it’s not a problem with heat. The okra has also been mulched and watered, so moisture isn’t a problem. Because the okra has been moved to a new row and that patch also received a nice layer of new mulch this past spring, it can’t be nutrients. I’ve checked the flowers and each one is producing the same amount of nectar as normal. I keep coming back to the lack of ants or some deleterious effect of putting tomatoes and okra in close proximity. If anyone else has a thought on this issue, please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.