Sometimes what you do in your kitchen can totally change how you view and manage your garden. I have a very good collection of books on food preservation, pickling, fermentation, and a lot of cookbooks. But one book has really opened up my perspective: Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes, by Nicolaus Balla and Courtney Burns, chefs behind the famous San Francisco restaurant Bar Tartine. They are fiercely devoted to quality ingredients, to the technique of good cuisine, and to eating with the seasons.
The challenge for me has always been: Now that I have grown all this produce, what do I do with it all? What makes this book so compelling are the options and techniques they present as solutions for those excess crops—the perfect way to manage the bounty of the garden.
I had long ago solved this problem with tomatoes. You can make sauce, sun dry them, preserve them in oils, make lacto-fermented tomatoes, or can them in various ways. But what about all the peppers, eggplant, squash; what about those bolting herbs? Balla and Burns provide creative and numerous solutions. How about charred eggplant that is dehydrated, powdered, and mixed with chili, onion, and huitlacoche powder to make an earthy, smoky spice mix? How about infused fennel flower oil? How about pickled green elderberries or green walnuts? Wow.
Slowly the commercial products in my pantry and refrigerator are being replaced by label-less and gorgeous jars of pickles, vinegars, oils, preserves, dehydrated herbs, vegetables and fruits, chutneys, and home ground spices. These products are far superior to what I find in the grocery store because they are fresher. And they look so darn pretty, without loud labels full of branding and marketing mumbo-jumbo.
Most of these techniques are light on preparation time (though sometimes they take some waiting time to ferment, dry, or infuse). And honestly, I think it’s a lifestyle improvement to spend some time in the kitchen slicing oranges to candy them, or stuffing peppers into a jar for pickling—at least, it’s much preferable to standing in line at the grocery store. All meals in my house now have something fresh and something pickled, embellished with these colorful spice and oil blends that make boring dishes extraordinary.
That leads me back to the garden. Suddenly I am not afraid of too much squash. And what if I pickle yarrow flowers? Or those green nasturtium seeds? As my garden yields more, I am wasting less and my quality of life is improving.
The longer you live here, the more obsessed you become about the summer rains. The summer really contains two seasons: the dry part of summer and the monsoon. If you are new here, monsoon is characterized by an increase in humidity and precipitation. But don’t forget the wind. The word monsoon is derived from an Arabic word “mausim” which refers to a change in the wind direction. During the winter in Baja Arizona, the primary wind flow is from the west, and any moisture we get comes in with those winds: slow, calm drizzles that influence our spring wildflower season. As we head into summer, the winds start coming from a southerly or southeasterly direction. This pulls moisture from the tropical part of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, dumping torrential rainstorms with lightning and thunder.
As I write this in June, however, the weather has been unusual. We had a cooler than normal May, and June has already brought us remnants of tropical storms from the south. Is this the Super El Niño we keep hearing about? Supposedly, this El Niño is a monster. So prepare for rain. And if you’re from here, you’ll also be prepared to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. Because we live in a place where rain is elusive and unpredictable.
Once you get used to summer gardening, you will notice that your work yields more results when the humidity picks up. We may not love humidity, but plants love it, so long as their other needs are being met. This is a great time to plant tepary beans, amaranth, corn, cowpea, watermelon, and cucumber. And that humidity makes it possible for you to plant new seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. If you do plant any new seedlings this time of year, be aware they will need close observation. It’s much hotter than it was in the spring, and before they get established, those little rootballs can dry out fast. During this time of the year, always choose shorter growing season varieties of these sorts of crops.
People always look at me strangely when I start talking about the cool season in the middle of summer, but during late July and August, you can get a head start on many winter crops, especially the longer season varieties (varieties that need more time to develop). You can start seedlings of any leafy green vegetable, root crop, peas and cool season legumes like garbanzos and favas, cool season herbs like cilantro, parsley, and dill, onion and garlic starts, any perennial herb like thyme or oregano, artichokes and, of course, fruit trees. With the winter herbs, greens, and root crops, look out for slow bolt or heat resistant varieties. You most likely will get some bolting (premature flowering of annual crops), but the crops that get established are likely to have a great anchor into the season. Not to mention, getting ahead also means something besides beans, squash, and melon to eat. I always long for fresh cilantro.
If you have figured out how to successfully grow plants in the summer, some maintenance should be addressed. Your first crops, planted in the spring, by now are unruly, rangy, perhaps not producing like they did earlier. You may be keeping them alive hoping they will flush again with fruits when the weather cools. The summer garden is not like the winter garden. The rambling nature of these crops call for discernment. Why keep that overgrown, nonproducing tomato when you can yank it up, compost it, and start a fresh plant? Even if that overgrown plant could come back and yield fruit, it will take about the same amount of time it would take a young plant to grow and fruit. Make room.
This is the perfect crop to start during monsoon. Seeds respond to the weather with quick germination; by the fall, you will have a lot of rich tasting, red-fruited watermelons. Plant in moderate- to well-amended soil with regular, steady water. Mayo watermelons are well-suited to our climate and require less time and energy than many other varieties. You can tell the fruit is ripe when the tendril (a spirally vining stem that helps vining plants climb) starts to turn brown and the underside of the fruit is yellowing; when you tap the fruit, it will begin to have a lower-pitched thumping sound (compare with clearly unripe fruits to gauge the difference). Fruits are small and round to oblong and large. Seeds are available from Native Seeds/SEARCH (NativeSeeds.org).
Futo-Spindle Bitter Melon
Bitter melon (also known as goya) is an unusual fruit originating in India but planted throughout Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. This heat-tolerant plant will produce copious amounts of bitter, 6-8 inch warty fruits. The fruits are picked before they turn yellow, and are most often brined, and cooked in stir-fries, soups, and dim sum. There are also various pickle recipes for bitter melon. In China, the melon’s bitter flavor is sometimes used in place of hops as a bittering agent in beer. Young shoots and leaves are also eaten, usually stir-fried. Plants are vines and are easy to grow in regular garden soil. Seeds must be obtained fresh and are available at Kitazawa Seed Company (KitazawaSeed.com).
Remember: with tomatoes, beans, corn, eggplant, squash, melon, and peppers, your aim is to get the fruit. So you encourage flowering. But with basil and thyme, it is the opposite. You want to limit blooming because your aim is more leaves. Keep snipping off those flower buds to just above a leaf node (where new stems emerge on a branch). This also encourages lush, branching plants.
With success in the garden comes responsibility. A balance of life processes maintains healthy soil. Those processes are many, and besides plant growth, they include activity from bacteria, fungi, protozoans and other microorganisms, insects and annelida (earthworms and the like), manure from larger organisms, and of course, decomposing organisms of all sorts, big and small. As you encourage the plant growth, don’t forget about all these other processes that make your soil productive: fresh compost, worm castings (you can purchase from local plant nurseries or raise your own worms), bat guano, and organic fertilizers like kelp meal and fish emulsion. Also add a layer of straw or other top dressing as previously applied mulch layers decompose.
The problem with commercial fish emulsion is that it has to be rendered inert to store in a container. That entails adding sulfur to kill microorganisms. Some people don’t mind the addition of sulfur to their garden, but I don’t particularly want it in mine because it can damage microorganisms. Luckily you can make your own.
After a nice fish dinner, gather the skins, heads, fins, and any parts of the fish you did not eat (raw or cooked), and put them into a blender. Blend up the fish, adding water until it is almost a pure liquid. Strain out the solids (put them in the compost or feed to your chickens), and add liquid to water at 1 part fish juice to about 20 parts water. Boom—fish emulsion. Add to the garden as necessary. ✜
Jared R. McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @HungriestFoodie. Visit EdibleBajaArizona.com for a schedule of his gardening classes.