Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Spring Heirlooms Review

This would be the farm in June....

Now as you well know, I have been trying to focus on heirloom and OP varieties of plants this year, partially because I have to freedom to (hey, it's the first year, I can do anything I want!) and partially because I really wanted to see what all the craze was about. I have relied on certain heirlooms in the past because they had a reputation for blowing the hybrids out of the water (think "heirloom tomatoes"). But there is a certain appeal to using hybrids - they often are more robust at the onset and they often are bred to mature at the same time, usually a good thing. And hey, if I'm going to buy most of my seeds every year anyways, the heirlooms won't be acclimated to my specific location, which is part of the magic. So in the past, my brassica, cucurbit and several legume choices have often been hybrids. But not this year! So here are my reviews of some of the heirlooms I have been using in the garden. No candy coating here, it's the whole truth, at least from my perspective...
First up: Di Ferenze Fennel, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. This is the fennel you grow for the bulbs, not the seeds. Apparently the neighborhood woodchuck loves it and I can see why, the flavor in this variety is really quite good- more pronounced and fresh than I expected. However, I have had to harvest all the bulbs before they reached a nice big size because they all started to bolt! Is that just their final size or did some stress set them off? Because of their smaller size, their stringy to crunch ratio is rather high, so they would have to be cooked for quite a while or cut up really thin. Overall, not totally disappointing but not the greatest either. I'm growing another set in the fall, perhaps they will fair better and if not, I'm going to Perfection- another OP, with bolt resistance built in!

Sugar Snap Pea, I think mine are from High Mowing Seeds, but they might be Hudson Valley Seed Library: technically not an heirloom, but headed in that direction. Introduced in 1979, Sugar Snap is actually still my favorite variety of snap pea. Their height is so impressive, and they often keep going into July if you let them, but you'll need a ladder to harvest. Mine are a good 7 feet now. And their taste is perfect, not saccharine sweet, with a crisp that is great fresh or cooked. I love it!

Desiree Dwarf Blauwschoker Pea, Baker Creek. It's funny, purple veggies really do taste different. I tried these as tiny snow peas in some fresh salads and I'm letting the rest mature to see how they are cooked. Lots of pods on small plants. They say they don't need trellising, but I beg to differ. Ok on taste, not very sweet, but unless the peas out of the pod are wowers, I probably won't get this one again.

The above two are Scarlet Ohno Revival, from High Mowing. A reworking of a Japanese heirloom called, you guessed it, Scarlet Ohno. What a beautiful plant! If you've seen other Japanese salad turnips, you'll know what this tastes like. It is much milder than fall turnips with an irresistible texture that's not quite crunchy...more tender and succulent. A definite winner.

Costata Romanesco, from Hudson Valley Seed Library. I have yet to taste an actual zucchini from these plants, but I have to say, those male squash blossoms are impressive! Like, bigger than my hand! And since I get to sell those guys, that's fine with me. I think I see a fruit developing, but in the meantime, the plants have been vigorous and this is probably a variety best suited for a home garden that wants lots of tasty blossoms and the occasional tasty (I imagine) squash. Very good if you feel overwhelmed by TMZ (too much zucchini). Update!: I have had my first zucchini and it is good, really quite good. Fantastic texture, not at all bitter. And I see a couple more on the plants. This shows promise.

De Ciccio Broccoli from Hudson Valley Seed Library. They weren't kidding with the staggered harvest! I had gotten some heads two weeks ago and some are still waiting to even show a little bump in the crown. Amazing taste, with very tender stalks, but I might just need a little more uniformity in my harvest. I'll see how Calabrese does in the fall. That being said, I planted some extra early broccoli and the plants have been making side shoots for about a month now!

So why grow heirlooms in the first place? Part of it is a connection to the history of gardening and agriculture. Part of it is the independence of knowing that you can save your own seed and still get the same variety. And if you do save your own seed or you have a local seed saving community (like Hudson Valley Seed Library) then you can adapt the variety to your own region. I think I will stick to my mix of some hybrids and mostly heirlooms and OPs, especially the ones I can save seed for. Stay tuned for the next review later in the season, there's still plenty of growing left to do!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ask and you shall receive and then some

Welcome June! After that hot spell we have gotten a beautiful mix of rainy, sunny and mild days. Everything (except my sad onions) is responding accordingly by growing at least two inches a day. Normally I would be cursing the weeds, but that Croswell soil has kept weeding down to an appreciable, but not overwhelming level.

It's going to be mostly pictures today. The images speak for themselves. But I do have to say that I have the most supportive community rallying for me this season. Earlier in the year, a wheelbarrow was stolen (I'd like to think borrowed) from the farm. These things happen in the city, and if that's the worst of it, I'm lucky. I put out a sign that said "Please bring back our wheelbarrow" thinking it would guilt the borrower into returning it. No such luck. However, one afternoon a car of folks drove by and one of them asked if my wheelbarrow had been returned. I answered no and an amazing phrase came from his mouth: "Oh, OK we'll get one for you then." And then they drove away. Believe it or not, a week or so later I get a phone call from them. They were hoping to put together the wheelbarrow before dropping it off, but were finding they couldn't get to it. Would I mind putting it together myself? Of course not! That afternoon a wheelbarrow-in-a-box was delivered to the farm and I had it together within the hour. So far it has hauled compost, carried veggies and contained dirt. It has so much more ahead of it. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Moriarty!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hot Hot Hot

Well, I guess we went straight from March into August. I'm actually sitting inside now because it is just too hot out there. And too humid. I guess this a good thing because up until now I was too busy to post anything.
The farm is looking quite nice these days and I am thankful for the visitors that come by just to take a peek and maybe chat a little. Please keep 'em coming, but do know that if I start moving, it doesn't mean I don't want to keep talking, it's just that I've got things to do. But I can walk and talk at the same time, so if you've got legs, use them and we'll be fine. Other than that, it is also just worthwhile to sit for a bit and take it all in.

Yes, how these things have grown! The summer squash in the foreground is so big it's prematurely shading out the spinach and radishes underneath. There's three varieties in there: Magda, a cousa-type squash (of Lebanese origin) that produces chubby grey green squash that are slightly nutty and rich in flavor. They are in fact my favorite. Next to them is Zephyr, one of the few hybrids I am growing this year, but it is so worth it. Their fruit is bi-color, yellow on top and spring green at the base. Such a pretty little squash. Last is an old standby, Costata Romanesco, an Italian heirloom. This squash is know for its superior flavor and classic zucchini looks. You don't often find this variety for sale in the US because it has been surpassed by more productive varieties. Even I admit to not having grown it myself until this year. But I figured, why not grow it and see for myself how it does and how it tastes. I see little flower buds on the plants...
In back of the squash are the peas. In the past week or so they gone from being about 3 1/2 feet high to being taller than me (I'm 5 feet tall). These are Sugar Snap peas, the variety that made them famous. They are just flowering now, but I do have Sugar Ann peas that are ready.

These are them. Also a snap pea, meaning you can eat the pod and all, they are a full week earlier than the Sugar Snaps and I think some years they even taste better. The hard part about peas is waiting until they have reached the perfect level of fatness. Too skinny and they are not as sweet. Too fat and they are tough and stringy. Usually my first pea of the season is just under perfection because I just can't wait. It isn't until about the third or fourth (handful of) peas that I am able to summon the strength to restrain myself. Along with driving a tractor and staking a thousand tomatoes, these are the things you learn when apprenticing at a farm - how to pick the perfect pea.

And speaking of peas, remember the dwarf blue variety that was just coming up in April? Well now they've started flowering! They are beautiful, I have to say, but I wonder if the peas taste good? I'll know in a couple of days! At the very least I could use the flowers in a spring mesclun mix, but I'll give them a chance to impress me first. There's a small pod there on the bottom left. I was curious so yesterday I pulled off a shriveled flower after it bloomed and there was a tiny pea pod that was actually mostly green. Today it is a deep deep purple. In two more days, who knows?

In another area of the garden, the first tomato flowers are coming on. This is an early variety called Moskovitch (there's another Russian-themed variety out there called Cosmonaut Volkov, what is that all about?) These first flowers may or may not produce fruits, but it's still a sure sign that real summer is on the way. That and the basil is almost big enough to harvest.

And finally, a few words about compost and soil. Visitors to the farm have asked me where I got the soil for the raised beds. The short answer is from Croswell Enterprises in Kingston/Marbletown. They were kind enough to give me the contractor's price on my 32 yards of soil, which is good because we needed the discount. They handily delivered it to the farm in a dump truck and it was all shoveling from there. So far it has worked out well, but I am finding I need to do a little more fertilizing than I am used to (of course with an all natural organic fertilizer mix, and by the way, I normally do very minimal fertilizing to none at all, even a "normal amount" is more than I am used to). Perhaps this is dues to the coarse texture and the raised beds it is in (read: well drained, a good thing in this season, but still might let some nutrients out with all the water). The amazing thing to most visitors is how weedless the farm is. Believe you me this has nothing to my growing skills, it is all about the soil. Apparently the Croswell soil is weed free. I don't know how they do it, but I thank them for it.

As for the rest of the beds I, with some help from Rebecca Martin and my dear husband Daniel, shuttled about 10 yards of composted horse manure from Frog Hollow Farm in Esopus. They kindly loaded it into a borrowed pickup truck (thanks Chiz from Heart Street!) with a front loader, but on the delivery end, once again it was all shovels and a lot of grunting after about the fifth truckload. You can't beat free, fully composted horse manure to begin with, but this was primo stuff - full of worms and with no smell whatsoever. In addition the owner of the farm, Nancy Rosen believes in natural horse care and happened to be a former member of the farm I managed in Gardiner. She doesn't have to share her giant pile of poop with me, but she does. Thanks Nancy!