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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Grow Your Own Garlic!

So many people I know who love garlic never think of growing it themselves. What's up with that, when growing your own garlic is so easy?

Fortunately, now is the perfect time to plant garlic. Early-fall planting gives the cloves the four to six weeks of warm soil they need to get a head start on next year's harvest. And early October is Garlic Festival time at Tagawa's, so you'll have plenty of varieties to choose from, while supplies last. Not to mention lots of expert advice to get you goin'.

There are two main types of garlic you can choose from. "Softneck" garlic includes the strain available in most grocery stores, and plenty more! The cloves can be white or purplish white, and range in flavor from mild to very bold. Softnecks are used to make garlic braids, and have a storage life of up to six months.

"Hardneck" garlic doesn't store as long as softneck, but comes in a beautiful variety of whites, reds and purples, with wonderful names like Chesnok Red and Metechi. The hardnecks seem to do especially well in Colorado.

Your garlic bed should be located in full sun, in a well-drained location. Garlic plants need to stay moist, but never soggy. Garlic loves soil that's rich in organic matter, so dig in plenty of compost or well-aged manure before you plant.

Separate the garlic bulb into individual cloves just before you plant. Press each clove down into the loose soil about two to three inches, pointy side up. (Okay, so I planted all of my cloves upside-down one year. Silly me. All of the shoots found "up" just fine. Still, I wouldn't recommend it.)

The cloves should be spaced about four inches apart. Firm the soil gently over the clove and then water them in well.

Plan on mulching your garlic bed heavily. I've used straw, pine needles, shredded leaves.... and a combination of those things, because that's what I had on hand. As long as the mulch stays on the airy side, and doesn't pack down or smother the bed, you should be fine. That four- to six-inch layer of organic material will help keep the soil's temperature and moisture content more even, and hold weeds to a minimum. Garlic doesn't like to compete with other plants, especially weeds.

Don't be surprised if your garlic cloves send up perky little green shoots during the first month or two. Those tender-looking leaves have a remarkable ability to ignore the snow and cold, and will be just fine.

If we have a dry winter, as the weather folks are predicting, you may need to give your garlic bed some water once or twice a month when the soil isn't frozen. Come next March or thereabouts, the shoots will kick into high gear. Keep up the watering, so the plants never dry out. Again, the soil should be moist, but never soggy. As your plants begin actively growing, feed them with some high nitrogern fertilizer to give them a welcome boost. The staff at Tagawa's can recommend fetilizers that will help produce big, plump garlic bulbs.

If you're growing the hardneck varieties, the plants will send up a flower stalk. called a "scape." Removing the scape when it's about a foot tall will send more energy into the bulb. But I must admit, sometimes I let the scapes go. They twist and curl and make me smile. It's not the purist's way, but a smile is worth something. It's your choice to keep the scapes or take them off. No decision needed with softneck varieties, since they don't produce scapes.

Back off the watering and feeding around the end of May. The garlic is usually ready to harvest in late June into July. When you see the lower one-third of the leaves dry up, it's time! If you're slow to harvest, the bulbs will often shatter into individual cloves when you dig them up.

Lift the bulbs gently so you don't damage them. It doesn't work to pull on the leaves. The stalk will just break, and then you'll have to go searching for the bulb. Remove the clumps of soil around the garlic, and let the bulbs air dry in a breezy place away from direct sunlight. After a few weeks of "curing," you can cut away the roots and most of the stalk.

The garlic will store best in a mesh bag in a cool, well-ventilated area. Never keep the garlic in the refrigerator. You'll trick it into thinking it's been through a winter, and it will sprout.

Come see us at Tagawa's and let us inspire you to plant a garlic bed of your own. If you look at garlic as one of the basic food groups (dark chocolate being another....), you'll be very glad you did.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Winding Down the Harvest

Whether we like it or not, it's time for a vegetable gardening reality check. In spite of our summer-like daytime temperatures here in late September (easily 10 degrees above normal), the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting cooler, and our plants know it. So let's take some steps to start winding down the harvest, and help our plants do their best in the home stretch.

Take a realistic look at your veggie plants. Focus on which individual vegetables stand a chance of growing big enough, quickly enough, to amount to something usable before our first frost. Lop off the small fry, unless they can be used as "baby" veggies. (More on that in a moment.) This way, the vegetables that have time to mature will get all of the plant's energy, rather than wasting water, nutrients and sunshine on individual veggies that will almost certainly be too little, too late.

Take squash, for example. The "summer" squashes.... zucchini, crookneck, patty pan.... the types of squash with a tender skin... can often be used as "babies." High-end restaurants charge extra for these, so there's no need to waste them, as long as the variety you're growing tastes good while it's small.

But with winter squash like acorn and hubbard, the tough-skinned types, the juvenile fruit aren't very flavorful or sweet. I cut them off and toss them into the compost pile....or in my case, let Vinny, the yellow Lab, proudly carry them around all afternoon like some kind of prize, then toss them into the compost pile. With winter squash, the mature, full-sized fruit can take a light frost. Some folks say a few colds nights actually improve their flavor. But you don't want to leave them out if a hard freeze is expected.

Same with potatoes. Leave them in the ground 'til a frost has killed back their leaves, then harvest. Or if baby potatoes fill the bill, go ahead and gently dig them out now. Rub off the soil and let them air dry a bit, so they last longer in storage.

What about other veggies that are fully or mostly underground, like beets, turnips and carrots? As long as they're not crowding eachother, and they're being watered properly, no need to worry. They'll be fine well into our colder temperatures.

Picking tomatoes is a judgment call. As we covered in my last blog, full-sized tomatoes will generally continue to ripen at room temperature. If it's green tomatoes you want for pickling, it's easy enough to leave the larger ones and can the smaller fruit. Either way, I wouldn't leave all of them on the plant. Remember that you may see their rate of ripening slow down significantly as our overnight temps drop below ~ 50 degrees. Maybe pick some, leave others, and see what works best for you.

Other sun-loving plants like eggplant and peppers can be harvested once they reach an acceptable size, although they may be far less "meaty" than the mature fruit. Once again, favoring the larger fruit and sacrificing the smaller ones may be your best bet. Ditto for cucumbers. Pick the small ones, and use them if they taste good. Melons don't seem to sweeten up
at all 'til they're close to their mature size, so the smaller ones may not be usable.

A lot of the leafy vegetables.... spinach, kale, Swiss chard... can easily handle some light frost. And most lettuce varieties can take a bit of cold. You might even get away with planting some of these from seed now. They all grow better in cooler, rather than hotter, daytime temperatures.

The cold-loving veggies like cabbages, brussel sprouts and broccoli.... as their name implies, they're fine with cold nights... even a not-so-hard freeze.

So in general, make your harvest the best it can be by doing some selective picking. Continue to water thoroughly, but don't over-water. Deep and infrequent watering is best for all but the most shallow-rooted crops.

As much as I hate letting go of the last of the tomato crop, I actually welcome the change of seasons. Everything... and most everyone... can do with a little break.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

When should we pick tomatoes?

September is one of the best times to be in Colorado. And one of the most confusing, if you're growing your own vegetables. Since tomatoes are far and away the single most popular veggie that we grow, let's take a look at when we should be picking them, and when should we leave them alone, to continue ripening on the vine.

It all comes down to our often fickle Colorado weather. According to the National Weather Service, the Denver area's average first frost-freeze is October 8th..... but an overnight freeze has been known to come as early as September 8th or as late as November 15th. All this means that as gardeners, we need to be light on our feet, keep our eyes on the forecast, and think strategically. We need to have a plan on how to get as many tomatoes as possible to ripen before Mother Nature shuts down our tomato season.

So for starters, when should we be picking our tomatoes? Some folks are convinced that only a 100% vine-ripened tomato, ready to eat the moment you pick it, qualifies for an A+ rating. I'm not one of those folks.
Birds and rabbits, (who knew rabbits ate tomatoes?), seem especially drawn to a shiney red tomato. So in a effort to out-smart the wildlife, I'm likely to pick a tomato when it is on its way to fully coloring up, but not necessarily there yet. I'll let it finish ripening at room temperature on the kitchen counter. I honestly don't notice any loss of flavor.

By the way, never refrigerate a lovely home-grown tomato unless you want to make it taste like a store-bought tomato. Refrigeration is just one reason grocery store tomatoes taste so flat.

If you don't have wildlife pilfering your tomato patch, ripening on the vine is fine. A fresh-picked tomato warm from the sun is truly one of life's little pleasures. But you should also keep in mind that the clock is ticking on what's left of our growing season.

By picking your tomatoes when they are well into "blushing," but not fully ripened, you're letting the plant concentrate more energy on the remaining tomatoes. With a little luck, you'll get more home-grown goodness in the long run.

Also keep in mind that as our overnight low temperatures begin to drop, 55 degrees and less, the ripening process is going to slow down. Removing tiny tomatoes that don't have a chance of reaching their mature size will help focus the plant's energy on the fruit that has more promise.

In my next blog, I'll offer some tips and tricks on harvesting some of the other veggies that may be growing in your garden. Hopefully, we're at least a few weeks away from making the "big sweep" of our vegetable gardens, picking everything that would be damaged by freezing temperatures. But this is Colorado, after all. I always picture Mother Nature grinning at gardeners here, just to see if we're paying attention.