23 August, 2011
The Garden In August
A pair of hands sifts through the harvest of Cannellini beans; 12 feet of row netted just shy of 10 pounds. I am thinking a family of four would use about 50 pounds in a year. But this is just one of the many things we are harvesting from the garden this month
I used to think of August as nap time and in the heat of Southern California's summer, it sure is inviting! Grab a cool drink, a hammock and the Dodgers on the radio and listen for the muffled sounds of snoring...
But not anymore! Not since I realized that growing the food was less than half the battle. Of course there's a lot to do on that account, more will be revealed very soon, but getting the harvest in and making good use of it is another important part of gardening.
It's hot work, but this week alone, I've harvested 10 pounds of those famous Italian Cannellini beans (a dried bean sometimes referred to as 'white kidney beans' but that doesn't do them justice!), about as many pounds of peppers – mostly the sweet banana types that I hope to pickle soon. As well as the tons of cucumbers I am hauling in. If you followed my advice and planted Armenian cucumbers, you are swimming in cucumbers by now and have come to realize the reason that pickles have such prominence in our culture – pickles makes good use of all these tons of cukes in a pinch! Which is probably why we have so many pickling methods (from all over the world) as well so many different recipes!
How much you preserve of your harvest makes a huge difference in how well you can eat from your garden over the long haul. When the season is in full swing, like it is right now, dealing with the abundance is the major focus of the home gardener.
There are several ways to deal with fresh produce that will allow you to eat from your garden long after the heat of August is gone. You can dry the produce. This is the easiest way. Beans, like my Cannellinis (above), are simply left on the plant until the pods are crispy and ready to drop the white bean seeds on the ground. I come along, gather them up and lay them in a dry, partly sunny location to dry for a couple of days. In Southern California that should do them nicely. Putting them away with too much moisture could result in moldy beans when you want to use them in cooking. I give them a quick two day stint in the freezer to kill any larvae that might be lingering and then seal them up tightly in a glass jar until time to use.
Juicier veggies can be dried too, but they take longer and are a little more involved. If you want to dry tomatoes, or peppers, pick up a good book on drying. Look for a list of suggested books, there will be one on it! Drying has the wonderful advantage of not being dependent on the power grid to continue to be edible, unlike freezing which is totally dependent on electricity. With disaster waiting at the turn of a power outage.
Likewise canning definitely cannot be done without careful consideration. Pickling and making jam are a subset of canning and are not as involved as other types of canning though they too need some awareness and strict attention to sanitation. Pickling and jams are easier because the high acidity or sweetness (pickling uses vinegar, while jams and jellies avoid botulism with lots of sugar) keeps the bad organisms from growing in your food without using a pressure cooker. Get a good book on canning and pickling and discover this whole different world you've missed!
I grew up with canning and pickling as a part of the rhythm of life. This was in Kansas and it would be 102º with the typical mid-Western high humidity. We'd be at Grandpa's picking green beans, tomatoes, strawberries, beets, grapes and sweet corn. Grandpa lived by himself and for his day-to-day cooking he used a little electric hot plate which couldn't boil the vats of water required for our massive canning adventures so we'd have to fire up the big stove – a behemoth wood burning stove! So there we would all be in Grandpa's kitchen, every window open and every fan on high, working, and sweating, our butts off to put all these vegetables and fruits into quart jar while Mom kept a verbal tally for us, “That's 16 quarts of beans!” We did strawberry jam, canned green beans (though by the time we got to eat them they were 'gray' beans), sweet corn, strawberry jam, grape jelly and pickled beets. It was hot work and I'm not suggesting that you go through this kind of torture. Canning and pickling need not happen all at once and involve a wood burning stove!
We didn't ferment, being that certain kind of mid-Western Christian, but some kinds of fermentation have begun to make a comeback in modern times. Making alcohol has been one way of preserving grape juice and apple jack for apples. It requires no refrigeration which is how these methods predate electricity by more than a few years. Now you can purchase your own still for a couple of hundred bucks and be on your way to compete with Old Bushmills or was that Old Kerosene? Kim Chi is a fermentation of cabbage that preserves cabbage with salt.
At this time, a gardener needs to keep the green (and yellow wax) beans picked (they can be pickled as well) or they’ll stop producing. Keep using the basil, continually pinching the flower tips – flowers and the first pair of leaves and throw into whatever you're cooking or a salad - the flowers are as edible as the leaves. Next month, you can harvest whole plants and make pesto and this constant pinching will cause the plant to grow into a vigorous small shrub! Share the abundance of all your produce with friends, relatives or a food bank. Nature isn’t stingy so carry on that tradition and share too. Everyone needs a fresh homegrown tomato now and then to remind us how blessed we really are.
Anything planted into the garden in August can be seen as an act of desperation. Mind you, you CAN plant, but, baring a spell of unseasonably cool weather, it isn't going to be a cakewalk for you or the plants. You'll both need extra water and both of you will have a shot at sunstroke that could kill them much more readily than you. At least, you should have the sense to move into the shade if you notice symptoms of hyperthermia. Plants, on the other hand, have to stay put. If you do plant on a hot day, it is good idea is to find a way to shade your little darlings. A stick, about 18 inches long, propping up a black nursery flat, with the flat to the south of the plants is a tried and true way for many gardeners to provide shade for their newly planted starts.
Remember to consider how long your new plant is going to take to fruit. Will it still be warm enough to set a crop? Right now in August, I would plant only a very few varieties of tomatoes because most will begin to flower in late November. Yes, I know there are warm days in November, but how many? Can you count on enough warm days to get tomatos from pollination to ripe before the cool nights cause it to rot on the plant? I think that's a poor bet. Instead, I think we should try to get cool season crops in before they really like to be set out or on the other hand, perhaps grow a few quick summer crops like beans.
What to plant in the coming months is a great game gardeners love to play, wiling away long, insufferably hot hours in the shade. It is best to write down some of the ideas you're having for next summer's garden now. while this year's experience is fresh, otherwise the harvest of knowledge could be wasted. Of all the ways to learn gardening, the most sure and least expensive is to keep a garden journal. It is so easy now days and can be very inexpensive. If you have a computer, a digital camera and a word processing program you are set up. It can be a cheap camera (find a used one on eBay) and a free word processing program, and your thoughts will be preserved for the next year's garden. If that's not your bag, get a paper notebook, draw your plans, paste in pictures from catalogs and write your observations in a multitude of colors. Or use a combination! The point is to write down things so you'll remember them and to find a way to write them down that will give you enough pleasure to insure you'll do it. A chair or bench in your garden is the most perfect place to do this. Haul out a few catalogs, something cool to drink, sit down in the shade with your notebook (computer or paper) and think about the year gone by. It can be a meditation that is almost as good as eating from your garden.
But don't throw all your attention in to next summer's garden. Spend some time now to consider what you will grow in our mild winters. I'm looking through some catalogs looking for cabbage, broccoli, onion, lettuce and other seeds. If I order them soon, I'll have them by the end of August and I'll be starting little pots of seedlings that will be going out into my garden by the beginning of October. Below, I've listed a few of the vegetables I want to grow along with some varieties that I like. I'll order seeds to start now, and, to save on postage, I'll order seeds that I'll be using a little later on.
No matter what's going to happen, August is the time to contemplate the fall and winter garden; in addition to the stuff above, I'll plant seeds of artichokes (a perennial) and I’ll plant several different heirloom varieties of sweet peas – maybe some blends of antique varieties, two seeds per pot. I love the scent of sweet peas and I've had a contest with myself to try to get red sweet peas for Valentine's Day. So far, no luck. They just sit there and sulk until March and then they flower – too late for romance! But then, that's the story of my life. Um, so far.
Consider not only planting seeds from the seed companies, but commit to learn how to save your own seed from year to year. It's not only fun thing, but it makes you a much better gardener in the long run. It helps our generation to connect with our past – my Grandpa, and probably yours too, or at least his father, planted seeds they saved from year to year. This saving of seed comprises a huge heritage in our collective history that we today do not enjoy. Saving seeds from the plants you grew, connects you with your plants and our collective past in a whole new and delightful way that has a magic and satisfaction that is close to sacred.
Saving seed can be as simple as saving the seeds from your beans – bean seed is the bean in the pod. Leave the pods on the plant until the pod is crispy and viola! You have the seeds for next year. No fuss. Dry them thoroughly, give them the freezer treatment, as above, for two days and store in a cool dark place until next year! Other plants can be more complicated but all are easily learned. By leaving a few plants in the garden, you will provide forage for bees and other insects that makes your garden a more integral part of nature. And free seed becomes a bonus!
Allow me to make a shameless plug for the Seed Library of Los Angeles (slola.org) an organization that has it's headquarters at The Learning Garden. SLOLA provides free seeds to its members for a $10 lifetime membership – every meeting features a presentation on how saving seeds of different types of plants and time to check out seeds from the collection of several hundred seeds, almost as much as some commercial seed houses! Over time, these varieties of seeds will become more adapted to the climate and soils of Southern California and will become our own vegetables. This is important because the coming years (if Global Climate Change is real) we will experience some difficult years for all agriculture. If we can grow our own and there is a crop failure in the traditional crop growing regions, not only can we be self sufficient, but we might be able to provide famine relief for them as well. I know most of us don't think of our gardens as a hedge against starvation, and maybe that's too fine a point on it, but to me this is a reasonable scenario and one we ought not ignore! Growing your own food and doing it well is a fabulous hobby and a worthy enterprise without considering climate change, but there is that reality right behind the curtain that haunts our day to day lives, much like the threat of nuclear war animated society's thinking in the late 1950's and early 60's.