And just like that

it’s Autumn.

I went out of town for a week. When I departed, it was still unseasonably hot and dry here. By the way, I think unseasonable is an adjective that I probably need to stop using, because unseasonable is the new climate change norm, right? Anyway, I returned to full-on gloom. We’re in the middle of an entire week of cold drizzle. I’m trying to embrace the change – we certainly need the rain, and the fall roots and greens are drinking it up and growing like mad.

 

However, no matter how many cold-hardy greens I plant, I get anxious when I contemplate the long cold season ahead. I figure we’re about two or so weeks from the first frost, and then it will be mid-May until I can set out the 2018 batch of summer annuals. Seven months. Eeek. I also become nervous when I think about the effect of the long winter on the honeybees. There’s not much in bloom right now, and they’ll need to rely on their stored honey for food, and for hive thermal mass, until March. I’m thinking each colony needs to occupy 18-20 bars going into Winter. My youngest colony was only half that size a month ago, so I gave them two bars of honey from another hive, and I started feeding them sugar water. Additionally, I participated in the Mite-a-thon a few weeks ago and conducted the sugar shake test on my two oldest hives. My mite count came in at 6 and 9 mites/100 bees. Very concerning, but I have not yet decided if I will treat. Most of the treatments seem to succeed primarily in creating treatment-resistant mites. Ideally, I’d really like to work on creating a mite-resistant apiary, which may mean rebuilding with hygienic honeybee genetics through re-queening or capturing new feral survivor swarms. My current colonies seem to contain some Russian honeybee genetics due to their dark coloring, tendency to build up quickly and love of swarming. I’m hoping at least a couple of colonies will successfully overwinter, despite the mites, due to the winter-efficiency of Russian honeybees, and that the long break in the brood cycle (all the colonies but the youngest have already dramatically decreased the amount of brood they are raising) will help lower the mite load. I guess that’s one benefit of the long winter nectar dearth. I’m also considering adding some screened bottoms to the hives to give the bees a hand at eliminating the mites if they already have some grooming instincts. If I do treat, it will be within the next two weeks while it’s still warm enough to open the hives. With very little capped brood in the comb, most of the mites will at least be vulnerable to treatment if I decide to go that route. Decisions, decisions.

Meanwhile, I’m scrambling to catch up on post-vacation garden chores, and to keep up with preserving giant harvest coming in from the garden right now. I came home to plants laden with ripe tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles and squash.

 

Also, another reminder that soon I will be clearing out my summer vegetable beds: my planting garlic order arrived yesterday. Since I left all my garlic in the ground in Albuquerque, I’m starting from scratch with new varieties this year. I selected a mix of hardneck and softneck varieties that seemed likely to put up with both wet/cold and hot/dry. It will be fun to see which do well here.

 

Bounty

So, here it is, the end of August already, and this is my typical morning harvest from about 150 sf of garden bed space:

PKS_0079

Interestingly, this year’s garden is smaller than previous years’ (I turned over the 50 sf of side yard beds to fruit trees this year because I got tired of listening to my neighbor curse at me whenever I worked in those beds) but the garden, overall, is the most productive I’ve had, perhaps due to the concentration of resources. The Rattlesnakes beans and tomatoes are not having the the best year, but the Purple Podded Pole Beans and Scallopini squash are going crazy. I also have as much chard, kale and collard greens as I care to eat along with plenty of annual and perennial herbs tucked in and around. The yard long beans are almost ready, the Lemon cucumbers are just starting to put out female flowers, and I’m eagerly anticipating the Cherokee Purple Tomatoes that are finally filling out and should start ripening soon. The pickling cucumbers, tomatillos and Guajillo chiles are just starting, so the trickle of fruit I’m picking now will be a flood by next week (all destined for preservation in the pickling jar or freezer). When things peak at the end of next month, I will also be harvesting a bit of late season corn, Cayenne Chiles, dry Tepary beans, the first of the fall lettuce, and by the end of October I may even have a few potatoes. Its a good year for eating!

 

Eat Your Heart Out

Or how to elevate the humble black bean quesadilla:

Photo Feb 20, 12 03 23 PM

Start by swapping goat cheese for the Jack and add a generous handful of fresh garden arugula. Serve it with a puddle of homegrown salsa verde, socked away in the freezer since August, and compile a salad of odd bits: a blood orange from the back of the produce drawer, a bit of cold frame lettuce, thin slices of a turnip that never amounted to much in the garden (now masquerading as a mild radish), and some “gourmet” microgreens – or rather, the thinnings from an overcrowded patch of mustard greens.

Photo Feb 20, 11 17 40 AM

Lunch just doesn’t get much better than this.

 

 

Summer Update

My apologies for the silence over here. I spent part of last week on the East coast visiting family which means there was a hectic week preparing for vacating the homestead, then my absence, then several days of languid recovery. However, despite the harried pace of things, the change of scenery was nice, even though I was able to witness the Derecho storm that hit the mid-atlantic and then got to remember how damp Rhode Island can be, even during a drought-ridden summer. However, the whole time I was being rained on while travelling, I had an eye on the NM weather forcasts, wondering if the hints of the monsoon pattern that were evident before I left would kick in. Thankfully for the garden I abandoned for a week, the weather did indeed turn damp-ish. We haven’t received too much rain from the pattern yet – probably about a 1/4″ total, but after weeks of humidity in the teens and single digits, the relief of cloud cover and humidity above 50% is fantastic.

I haven’t really been talking about the vegetable garden much this year. Like every year, some things are doing better than others. I lost a bunch of transplants this year to various critters and the searing sun, but the beans, tomatoes, and winter squash plants are starting to fill in the gaps.

Despite the full-on summer weather, I’m still mostly harvesting “spring” vegetables like chard, kale, parsley and an occasional beet.

Yesterday this small bunch of nibbled on kale became a perfectly welcome spicy soup of  kale, potato and peanut, but I think I’ll be able to change the menu soon to something more typically summery: the first cherry tomatoes and okra will be ready in a day or two, and I’m hoping with the recent increase in humidity, I’ll start to see some green beans. Due to various controllable (the usual user-error and lack of attention) and uncontrollable conditions, the chiles, eggplant, cucumbers and summer squash will be very late this year, however, I’m consoling myself with the knowledge that my tomatillos and tomatoes are doing really well. The Marvel Stripe and Cherokee Purple plants are putting out tons of green tomatoes and the Arkansas Traveler and Punta Banda are not far behind. My Principe Borghese plant is laden with small tomatoes, which means I’ll be breaking out the drying racks pretty soon. I’d love to start filling the newly constructed pantry space with some homegrown nourishment.

 

I’m Ready for September

    

Ahh, right on time, with tomorrow being September, the “summer” garden is getting ready to bust out with veg. Even though monsoon season has been less-than-monsoon-y,  the humidity is finally hitting the 35% mark regularly, so pollination is happening and everything is a little less sulky with a little less wilt. Trying to maintain a water thrifty kitchen garden here in the desert southwest can be frustrating, I admit. While everyone else is exclaiming over their beautiful string beans and cucumbers and peppers and all the rest of it, the water miser has to keep reminding herself to have patience, September is right around the corner. Some years, when rain comes regularly in the spring and summer, the difference between a heavily irrigated garden and one that receives a more meager (sustainable) amount of water are less dramatic, however, in a year like this one (drier than dry), 1 1/4″ of irrigation per week (which is what I typically ration out to the veg garden) is enough to keep the plants alive and just barely growing, but not enough to provide the ambient humidity necessary for pollen to remain sticky (although afternoon shade and spraying the plants with water in the early morning can help) and the plants vital enough to produce copious quantities of fruit. But, if I’ve managed to keep all the plants fairly healthy and flowering, they should be poised to take advantage of those 6 beautiful, beautiful weeks of September and early October. Daytime temperatures usually remain below 90 and nighttime temperatures dip into the 50s, and maybe even the 40s, but there shouldn’t be a real frost until the end of October, or maybe even November. The perfect weather for non-bitter cucumbers, mild chiles, and yes, finally, big handfuls of snap beans. Yup, I’m so ready for September.

Sunbathing

Every day that is not too windy, the boxes of seedlings are dragged outside to soak up the sunshine. The tomatoes will be ready for transplanting in the garden April 15, the average last frost date, so starting next week, I’ll leave the tomatoes outside, in a protected location, during the warmer nights to get them ready for garden life. The peppers and eggplants are a few weeks behind, as you can see from the tiny seedlings, so they won’t be ready for the garden until May, when it will already be fairly hot. None of the seedlings have really grown in the past week (particularly the tiny peppers), so today they’ll get a dose of compost tea. Of course, the tomatillos, rampant as usual, are already trying to flower, despite their 4″ of height. I pick off the flower buds, to keep them growing, and hope they are as eager to bloom once they’ve settled into the garden.

The Updo

Last year was my first experience with tomatillo plants, and the ultimate size and sprawl (and productivity) of the plants exceeded my expectations – 5′ diameter by the end of September. With their gangly branches strewn all over the ground, well outside the bounds of the planting bed, the plants kept getting trampled and it was difficult to control the potato beetle larvae that were consuming the plants. So, this year, instead of alloting more real estate to each plant I decided I would try to force the tomatillos to go vertical. So, far, I’m having moderate success, but I figure it’s only a matter of time before my system is overwhelmed and the tomatillos do what they want. Since, clearly, once again, I’ve underestimated the ability of the tomatillo to go and go and go.

Tomatillo plants and supports

The plants just seem really happy this year. I have not a clue why, but I’m happy to reap the benefit. I already have tomatillos starting to fill out their husks. Last year it seemed like the plants bloomed forever until they figured out how to make fruit. This year, it looks like I’ll have tomatillos to pick in just a couple more weeks:

tomatillos

Camouflaged

Praying Mantid

This guy has been hanging out on the corn stalks and bean plants for the last few weeks (he/she? blends in perfectly with the dried bean pods and likes to jump out and startle me, for fun, I think). I assume this critter has selected this particular territory for the formerly generous supply of grasshoppers that had also made a home here. We’re fortunate to get a lot of praying mantids in the yard. They like to attach their egg cases to the underside of the window heads on the exterior walls of the house. That must be a nice protected location as I spotted a lot of nymphs lounging about the house earlier this summer.

I had a second critter spotting in the garden this morning, but this one was much less welcome. After mostly ignoring the tomatillo plants for the past few weeks, I noticed they were suffering from a new wave of potato beetle larvae damage and set to picking off as many larvae as I could find. During my hunt I also discovered the first two hornworms I’ve seen this year. I should count myself lucky that it took so long for them to find me, although, I assume, where there are two, there are many. I inspected thoroughly, but wherever they are hiding, I was unable to spot them. I’ll need to continue to pay closer attention, however, as I would like to keep the tomatillos producing through October, if I can. I have made 4 pints of salsa verde so far, but I’m hoping for a few more pints to add to my stash.

Hornworm

There are two plants that I might not despair over, however, should they come to an early demise. Those, of course, are the Cocozelle zucchini plants. Despite the squash bugs that moved in last month, so far, I’ve harvest 50 zucchini from my two plants – that is over 22 pounds of squash, at least half of which is in my freezer. For the past several weeks summer squash has been banned from the dinner table by the other member of the household, so I’ve been prepping it in various ways and socking it away for winter, but I’ve now run out of freezer space. I think I’ll have to start dehydrating it. However, it does seem that the cocozelle plants may be struggling. They were so tropically lush looking for most of the summer, but now the leaves are yellowing and dying. Maybe this is the beginning of the end?

Cocozelle summer squash and tomatillo plants

And, finally, a note to self: Next year I really must stake or cage the tomatillos to encourage some vertical growth. I have realized, with hindsight, that the size listed on the seed packet (18″) was meant to indicate height, not diameter. The sprawl is currently about 5’/plant.

Tomatillos

The tomatillos started to ripen this weekend and they’re now starting to come along fast: 5, 7 . . . 9 per day. It’s nice having one crop that I get a bunch of all at once! To celebrate the bounty, I made a batch of roasted salsa verde last night that I will serve with chile rellenos at a dinner party tomorrow night. The sauce is simply tomatillos, garlic and a little onion roasted under the broiler and then pureed in the blender. I will season the salsa with some salt, lime and cilantro before I serve it, but even as it is, it is divine. Typically, I would have added some green chiles to the mixture, but given that the poblano peppers that it will garnish are already fairly hot (abused pepper plants make for hot chiles!), I decided to restrain myself. The stuffed peppers were assembled and frozen last week – we figured it would be a nice stash to have for the fall and winter, but we can’t resist eating them now. They’re stuffed with a non-traditional mix of farmers cheese and garlic mashed potatoes that have been generously seasoned with cumin and red chile. They cook quickly on the grill or under the broiler once they have been thawed, making it really easy to dip into the frozen stash for a quick meal. Hopefully the pepper plants will continue to make peppers for a while since we’ll definitely need to replenish. I doubt that there will be any stuffed peppers left by the end of the week, although maybe that’s o.k. since I may need the freezer space for the many batches of salsa verde that I suspect are in my immediate future.

Before: ripe tomatillosAfter: salsa verde