Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Survey of Summer Bounty This Year and Last Year

Over time, these blog posts are becoming data points in an ongoing record of one backyard in early 21st century Northern California. I've heard that climate change scientists are using ordinary garden journals, from as far back as they can find, to search for anecdotal evidence of major changes in weather and growing conditions from one century to the next.

So, in the spirit of our collective human enterprise of staying alive on Planet Earth, here's a small contribution of photographic evidence from our garden in 2010 and 2011.

The photo above shows the garden gatherings from July 30 of this year, 2011. Below is a photo from the same day last year. Can I learn anything from the similarities and the differences? First, let's explore the data.

Above, clockwise from the top of the photo, are:

Three kinds of zucchini: Zephyr, Cocozelle, Black Beauty. We've been harvesting a fair amount over the last several weeks and there's almost enough accumulated to make the first batch of summer green soup. Hooray! It's barely in the nick of time because I just used up the last of the winter green soup from the freezer. Unfortunately, all three zucchini plants suffer from yellowing leaves of unknown cause, as well as myriad tiny speckles which are the tell-tale sign of spider mites. It could all be the result of a lingering cool spring/early summer -- While the rest of the country bakes, we shiver -- or it could be that the beds are simply overworked and don't have enough fertility. Or a combination. Or something else entirely.

Kentucky Blue green beans. They have come on strong in the last week. This is the third dinner-worthy picking. But the bean plants, like the zucchini, are struggling with an onslaught of spider mites. Leaves are speckled, with the bottom leaves turning yellow, then brown, and then dropping off. The beans seem smaller than last year (though it's a different variety). Again, it could be the weather or it could be a soil problem.

Italian Broadleaf parsley. It's doing fine as a companion plant in the tomato beds. This is the first picking from seedlings set out in May and all of it will go into the green soup.

Summer lettuce: A mix called Summer Salad Blend and a micro-green variety called Barbados (the small curly leaves at the bottom of the photo). These plants are doing fine, supplying our nightly salads. The bed received a lasagna gardening upgrade before the seedlings were set out on June 27, so the soil should be in good shape. The plants are starting to lengthen out and are are clearly getting ready to send up their seed stalks, which seems too soon. We've had a few runs of hot days but it's barely a month since they were planted. Why are they rushing on to the next stage of their development? Perhaps these varieties are less bolt-resistant than the summer lettuce I've planted in the past. Anyway, it's time to start preparing the next bed to insure a continuous supply of salad.

Genovese basil. The token amount pictured above is not really a harvest, just a handful of clippings of the flowering stalks. The plants want to make seeds as Mother Nature intends, but we want them to focus on producing flavorful leaves. So I have to keep cutting them back. Despite B.'s worries, we have an ample supply for as much pesto as the two of us can possibly consume -- solely from the companion plants in the tomato beds. They are mostly doing fine but I did have to uproot about six of them which had begun to curl over and wilt, even when well-watered. I believe this is the basil version of the verticillium wilt which afflicts tomatoes, but don't have a definite diagnosis.

Poblano peppers. Two smallish ones are the first harvest. The plant is still small but seems healthy.

Sungold tomatoes. Two token offerings to the sun god from a plant that is growing quite well with plenty of still-green fruit but shows some dying off of the bottom leaves.

Satsuki Midori cucumber. One very tiny first fruit from a struggling plant which has sent up one thin vine that's less than three feet tall, marked by some dying leaves at the base. Too bad, this is supposed to be an especially delicious variety.

Pimientos de Padron peppers. A fine couple of handfuls of these yummy Russian Roulette peppers (it's said that every tenth one is so hot your head will explode, though we've never had that experience and we've eaten plenty of them.) They come from a healthy plant that appears to be gearing up for a long season.

Hansel eggplant. The two first fruits from a plant that shows yellowing leaves and spider-mite speckles. It's loaded with beautiful lavender-colored flowers, though. I hope the flowers win.

My general sense of this season's July 30 harvest is that it's running behind and is less lavish than last year.

Left to right, the harvest pickings from a year ago on July 30:

Three kinds of summer lettuce: Salad Bowl, Red Sails, Endive. As I recall, these plants were very productive, with large ruffled, furled, and feathered leaves, more abundant than this year's smaller plants. I don't remember how long they lasted before bolting but am inclined to think it was more than a month.

Two kinds of cucumbers: Armenian, Lemon. The Armenian cuke produced two delicious fruits (my favorite cuke for flavor) and then pretty much died off. I uprooted it. The Lemon, as in previous years, was lavish with fruit. We ate them in salads through the summer, gave plenty away, and made lemon cucumber pickles in early October. This year's poor little Lemon cuke is a thin single vine with a few flowers and no fruit as yet. Both cucumber plants this year are in the strip along the southeast facing fence. Perhaps it's too hot there. Or perhaps it's the soil, or the cool spring, etc., etc.

Green Bush zucchini. Although the harvest for this particular day last year is about the same as this year's, I remember the three zucchini plants to be larger, healthier, and more productive than this year's. And I think the first batch of green soup was earlier than this year because there was an overlap of winter soup and summer soup in the freezer.

Hansel eggplant: The two plants last year were in self-watering containers along the back fence. I put a lot of liquid kelp fertilizer in the water compartment of the container and the plants seemed to like it. They had the usual yellowing leaves on lower sections but grew large and bushy with lots of fruit.

Early Girl tomato (?). I'm not sure what kind the lone tomato pictured might be. Last year I grew, or tried to grow, Early Girl, Constoluto Genevese, Black Trifele, Sungold, Yellow Pear. None of them did noticeably well except the Sungold. We had to buy tomatoes at the farmer's market to make sauce for the freezer. What is this tragic love affair we have with homegrown tomatoes? No matter how they treat us we keep coming back. I think it has to do with the simple gorgeousness and yummyness of the harvest when you bring it into the house and put it on your plate. All trouble and worry is instantly forgotten.

Cal Wonder peppers. These were good little salad additions, but the plants never amounted to much. There were two plants in self-watering containers, like the eggplant, but they didn't thrive.

Nickel French Beans. One of the winners from last year's garden: two beds worth of lush, heavy bearing bush plants. I put some of my scarce homemade compost in those beds, so maybe that helped. We never got tired of eating the flavorful, long thin beans lightly steamed with almonds and a little butter. This year's first planting of seeds didn't come up -- the soil was still too cold, I think. The second planting didn't do much better. I ended up adding some pole beans to the bed. All the plants are showing the same signs of heavy spider mite action, but haven't started losing leaves yet. They have flowers but no beans so far.

Plums. Ahhh, the plums. Now there's an interesting contrast, one year to the next. Last year we had as much as we wanted to eat and I was starting to research how to make plum leather or something that would preserve them without added sugar. This year most of the crop seems to have been eaten by the tree rats. I saw one, one evening, silhouetted against the darkening sky as it ran along one of the branches. I can hear them sometimes rustling and squeaking in the undergrowth and the overgrowth. All I can say for sure is that in June the trees were heavy with visible fruit and now there is nothing. Maybe the long wet spring with ample green growth led to a bumper crop of tree rats. I sure hope the pesky little critters (they look like large mice) don't like pears!

Yard Chard. Some stray leaves from volunteers that pop up all over the yard wherever there is a water supply. There are a couple of plants like that this year, but they are out of the way and don't get watered enough to be useful.

The Bench. Ahhh, the bench. It looks so nice in the photo, and always made a perfect setting for harvest photos. Now it is no more. One of the locust trees fell over in June during an unseasonable burst of rain and wind and broke the bench in half.

A broken bench, disappearing plums, struggling plants: my subjective impression is that this year's garden is more troubled and less productive than last year's. However, after looking at the photos it seems like the similarities outweigh the differences. There are the same kinds of plants in pretty much the same amounts, with some slight differences in varieties, timing, and quality. From one year to the next there is plenty of fresh produce coming into the house to be marveled at, shared, and consumed with delight.

Nonetheless, as I learn to keep better records maybe I can start to figure out why some crops thrive and others struggle.

And, like the garden diarists of previous centuries, one never knows how or when humble efforts might be useful in the grander scheme of things.

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