Archive for September, 2009

Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

Crop experts are predicting an early fall this year, claiming they see signs of it in plant maturity, insect behavior, and tealeaves.  I’m not sure what they’re noticing – it could be the squirrels busily storing acorns, ground beetles on the move, or annual plants setting seed – but in the garden, things are just getting started.

This is the time we’ve been waiting for – the point of all this gardening.  As summer wanes and crops are ripening we find ourselves in the middle of harvest, wondering what possessed us to plant all of this stuff.  Keeping up with it seems like a task for a modern superhero.

You go out to gather basil for pesto and end up bringing in enough tomatoes for sauce, a quick trip to check out the melons results in a panicked harvesting of cucumbers.  The counters are covered in produce that needs attention – now.

The kitchen becomes a flurry of activity fast enough to frighten your family; they give you a wide berth so your chopping, sautéing, simmering and roasting doesn’t accidentally involve them.  The freezer fills while shelves groan under the weight of canned beans, peaches, and fruit jams.

If you’re like me and work for a living, harvest isn’t so much relaxing as it is a frenzy, each spare moment spent preparing foods to last into winter.   Winter squash

The good news is that not everything needs cooking to preserve it. Winter squash sweet enough for savory fall soups improves from storing it a little while.  When first picked, winter squash – butternuts, acorns, hubbards and spaghetti – is creamy and starchy, but if allowed to stand for a month or two, the starches convert into sugars, making the squash more delectable at thanksgiving than at harvest.

 Store your squash in dry, cool conditions, and depending on the variety, it will keep one to six months. 

 The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts September and October will be a bit warmer than normal.  If true, this means the pride of summer – our tomatoes – will give us lingering delight into fall.  But if not true, they won’t have enough time to ripen on the vine.  Keep your eye on the forecast and when frost threatens to kill the crop, pluck your love apples from the plant and ripen them indoors, or store for later use.

Green and breaker tomatoes Pink-blushed tomatoes ripen on the counter, but for long-term storage, green tomatoes can hold for months until you need them.  Only mature green fruit stores well – those that are full-sized, glossy, light green to white with a whitish-looking ‘star’ on the blossom end. 

 Should your tomato begin to color at the blossom end, which is known as a ‘breaker’, it will continue to ripen quickly on your counter and taste close to vine ripened.  Deep, dark green tomatoes are immature and should be used right away as fried green tomatoes, in relish, or stewed.

Prevent storage rot by harvesting tomatoes when plants are dry, avoiding fruit that is diseased or has insect damage.  Sort them into groups that will ripen at the same speed – mature green, breakers, pinks and red.  Clip stems short, wash gently and pat dry. Wrap the green tomatoes in newspaper and place one to two layers deep in a box.  Keep in a cool, 55 to 60 degree room out of sunlight; and remember, refrigerators are too cold.

 Keep blankets and other frost protection close to the garden as September passes – you’ll need to move them on and off the plants to protect them almost daily.  When you cover your plants, make sure the blanket stretches all the way down to the ground; you don’t want a cold draft getting in to freeze your plants.

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A tip I received from Sally Ferguson alerted me to a pretty cool website, seasonalwalk.com.  It chronicles the planting of bulbs and perennials by two top designers known internationally – Piet Oudolf of Hummelo and Jacqueline van der Kloet of Weesp, both in the Netherlands, to create a four-season garden for the New York Botanical Garden.

 Started in 2008, the project has been extended to 2010.  The website is a wonder for someone like me, out in Colorado with no plans to visit New York city in the near future.  Filled with photos plus the story of the garden from November 2008 to the present, the site also provides plant lists and suggested combinations for we design-challenged folks.

 Landscape designers might appreciate the step-by-step installation guide should they choose to mimic this planting.  Of course, designers worth their fees will discard any plant suggestion that won’t do well in our semi-arid climate, but others, like the coneflowers, will do very well here.

The biggest help this site offers at this time of year is the wealth of information and photos of bulbs, because as we head into the month, people are shopping for spring glory.  As you scroll through the luscious photos by Rob Cardillo (an incredible photographer) you might want to keep a pen and paper handy to jot down the bulbs you see that you’d like to add into your landscape.  Read the caption of the photo for plant identification – this site is wonderful at telling you what you’re seeing.  September is bulb shopping time

 Keep in mind that it’s not yet time to pop bulbs in the ground, but if you have your heart set on some unusual varieties, shop early and cool-store them until late in September (refrigerators are a no-no; they’re too cold).

 Other suggestions to keep in mind:

 –  With bulbs, size matters.  Choose large, well formed bulbs that are blemish free.

–  Plant bulbs when soil temperatures are cool – 55 to 58 degrees.

–  Dig holes four times the height of the bulb, and place bulbs tips up.

–  There’s no need to fertilize at planting, instead, fertilize in spring when shoots first show.

–  Add four inches of mulch to buffer soil temperatures.

 Have fun planting, and ignore the neighbors.  As you’ll see from the Seasonal Walk planting photos, even the best designers in the world are bottoms-up when it comes to putting bulbs in the ground.

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It lays outside, quietly hoping you’ll notice its hunger.  Rich, brilliant tones have settled to dull green, with a golden glaze coating the swath.  Sure, you still have to mow it every week, but the season of growth has left your lawn in need of a boost from fertilizer.    Thin yellow lawn

 September is the month for fall lawn care, and the most important aspect to lawn rejuvenation is a strong fall feeding.  Use a turf-builder fertilizer that has both quick and slow release nutrients.  All-purpose mixes have 16 nutrients needed by turf to be healthy – a balanced fertilizer goes beyond offering nitrogen, phosphate and potassium oxide (the N-P-K numbers). 

Lawns aren’t supposed to turn color in the fall, so if yours is taking on a yellow pall, you need to add some iron.  But our soils are so alkaline that you need chelated iron to apply to lawns that suffer from iron chlorosis.  Be aware that not all chelation formulas work in our soils, so look for ethylene diamine dihdroxyphenyl acetate (EDDHA).  The more commonly, and cheaply, available EDTA (ethylene diamine tetraacetate) is only active in pH-neutral soils – something we rarely see here in Colorado.  

 Nitrogen depends on temperature and moisture for release into the soil.  When we have warm days plus a few rain showers, lawns get a quick boost of food, and under ideal conditions, turf – an active scavenger of nitrogen – will take up the nitrogen within hours of it being put down.

This is perfect for lawns towards the end of September, because the quickly available fertilizer will increase turf vigor, and the slow release will continue encouraging turf rebuilding well into fall.  Thin spots

 Thin areas where the grass has died off completely can be over-seeded now.  To get the best results from over-seeding, water the lawn 24 hours before aerating.  Pass the aerator over the turf in two to three directions to open up many holes.  Immediately over-seed with the grass of your choice, but in general, tall fescues do not blend well with bluegrass, perennial rye or fine fescue because of its wide grass blades.

Grass seed takes a while to germinate, so keep humidity on the lawn for 14 to 21 days. 

Use starter fertilizer at the time of overseeding to feed the turf without burning the new shoots.

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