The Not-So-Tame Summer Garden

Not all gardens are well kempt and closely managed – even if they started off that way.

July 1, 2014

HomesteadIssue 7: July/August 2014

Not all gardens are well kempt and closely managed – even if they started off that way. This is especially true of the summer garden. Warm season crops are not tidy and neat. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant sprawl and meander. Squashes and sweet potatoes vine and twine around their neighbors. Sunflowers, corn, and okra tower and lean, sometimes collapsing on their sides (especially in the wind). Crops that stay compact and predictable are the exception right now. And even if these crops behaved, it’s hot outside – it’s easy to let the garden develop into its own anarchic structure rather than fight it under the hot sun. In the summer, gardening often becomes something closer to gathering. You are still watering, and hopefully feeding with an organic fertilizer. But the garden is ruling itself; at least, until the weather starts to encourage a gardener that wishes to curate and direct.

While you are waiting, enjoy the wild garden. One of its benefits is surprises. The roster of members in the summer garden is sometimes populated by seeds we forgot we planted – sometimes the jungle matrix conceals them until an identifying fruit suddenly appears out of nowhere. Other members might be the volunteering kind – seeds from the compost, from a previous year’s garden, or a straight-up volunteer that wandered in with the wind. Other surprises come from how fast a large fruit like a watermelon or Armenian cucumber can one day just appear from underneath the garden canopy. Especially for those of us surrounded by concrete and asphalt, these surprises are part of what makes gardening so worthwhile, a tiny wild world where events constantly unfold on their own.

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Transitions

The coming of the monsoon is one of the things that define our region. May and June are periods of relative dormancy, but when the rains arrive – or even just the threat of rain – plants, animals, insects, and microorganisms animate. May and June can be more like a winter of sorts. July and August, the desert is very alive.

During this time you have many planting options; often space is your only limitation. You can plant another flush of warm season crops that will provide until the frost arrives. Perhaps you didn’t get enough of one variety or you just want to try another. Clear out any spent plants that aren’t giving back as much and replace them with fresh starts. Down in the low desert many of those plants probably gave up fruiting in late May when the temperatures went into triple digits.

You can also get an early start on the cool season crops (especially some of those that need a long period to mature). Keeping track of how long any particular crop takes from seed to harvest is one of the secrets that make a gardener successful. Use timelines to plan out when you should get these crops in the ground.

Tahitian squash, for example, takes about 110 days to mature. If you are looking to get a last-minute winter squash in, try out some of the bushy, 55-day acorn squashes instead (and remember to plant that delicious Tahitian squash early next year). Itís odd to be thinking of frost when one is roasting in the summer heat, but good gardeners always do. If you live in Tucson, that first frost date can be as late as November or December; in much of the rest of the Baja Arizona region, you can expect frost much sooner. Also, if you live down close to a low-lying wash, you can expect much cooler temperatures than can your neighbors up on a ridge or foothill.

Replant Warm Season Crops

Consider shorter-season varieties of the following crops: tomato, tomatillo, pepper, eggplant, squash, cucumber, bean, okra, basil, burdock, corn, cowpea, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, Malabar spinach, potato, sunflower.

Start Cool Season Crops

Look for varieties that are heat-resistant or slow-bolting: lettuce, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, chicory (includes endive, frisée, radicchio, escarole), spinach, chervil, parsley, cilantro, fennel, dill, sweet peas, bok choy and other Asian greens, collards, sorrel, mustard greens, carrot, beet, radish, salsify, scorzonera, turnip, Swiss chard.

August is a good time to plant onion sets, garlic cloves, and starts of artichoke and cardoon. It is also not a bad time to start perennial herbs like thyme, oregano, marjoram, mint, French tarragon, and others.

Feeding the Soil

After all of that watering all summer long, the soil can be worn out. What does that mean? Basically there is an imbalance between plant life and the proper microorganisms. In nature, there often isn’t such a dense grouping of plants, and there hasn’t been enough decomposition of plant debris to replace those nutrients.

Your soil needs organisms and food for those organisms. Find yourself some nice compost. Making your own is preferred, but you can purchase compost at any nursery (we prefer the local ones) or at places that specialize in making compost (Tank’s Green Stuff delivers it by the truckload. Visit TanksGreenStuff.com). Good compost should be relatively moist and the color of bittersweet chocolate. Compost reinvigorates the soil by inoculating it with organisms and providing some immediately available nutrients.

Next you need to feed those organisms. There are many organic foods on the market like kelp, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, bone, and blood meal. Stay away from synthetic foods that are sometimes mixed in with organic foods. Synthetic fertilizers kill microorganisms ans, working against the very thing you are trying to do: Promote healthy soil biology.


Heirloom Highlight: Tohono O’odham 60-Day Corn

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This variety is perfect for planting with the summer monsoon. Quick to develop, it also can produce with very little water (historically it was sometimes only grown on rainwater). Although this Baja Arizona native variety has stood the test of time and climate, corn is generally a fairly needy crop. Amending the soil well with aged manure and compost will help you have a more successful corn crop. Corn is a shallow-rooted plant relative to other crops. Dramatic soil moisture fluctuations stress plants out. Use a layer of straw to mulch the base of the corn stalks to slow down water evaporation (all garden plants appreciate this, but corn does especially). Corn is a heavier feeder, especially of nitrogen. Feed with organic plant foods higher in nutrients like fish emulsion, alfalfa meal, blood meal, or bat guano.

Traditionally this flour corn has been used for roasting in the milk stage – about 18 to 22 days after silking, the kernels contain a “milky” white fluid. Pick the ears then and grill. Once fully matured and dried, Tohono Oíodham 60-Day Corn is also used for making fresh-ground masa (dough) for tortillas, but the corn must first be nixtamalized. Nixtamalization is a process that renders corn more digestible, flavorful, and able to be formed into masa.


At-Home Nixtamalization

  • 1 quart of clean, dried flour-corn kernels
  • 1/4 cup pickling lime
  • 3 quarts water

In a stainless steel pot, dissolve the lime into the water. Making sure the corn kernels are clean of debris, add them to the solution, and discard any floating kernels. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off the burner and let stand until cool and put into the refrigerator. Corn kernels should soak for about five hours. After soaking, rinse the kernels and rub away the softened, now gelatinous hulls. This rinsing process should be extremely thorough. Once thoroughly rinsed, you can grind the grain in a food mill to make the masa for tortillas, or you can use whole for recipes like posole.


Managing Your Bounty

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During harvest time, plants will inevitably produce more than you can eat at one time. Indeed, many of our culinary traditions emerged as we tried to preserve food, suspending its descent into decay until we are ready to eat it. (It is easy to forget the time the grocery store wasn’t there to give us our steady supply of edibles.) If you have too much of one item, trade with your fellow gardeners. There are many books that can help you manage your bounty. One of my favorites is Keeping the Harvest by Nancy Chioffi.

Sun-dried Tomatoes

There are many things you can do to preserve tomatoes – one of my favorites is to sun dry them, which takes advantage of a resource we have a lot of (sun) and gives us the opportunity to store them for a long time. They also make many dishes more delicious.

There are methods for drying tomatoes in the oven, but when you live in a place like Baja Arizona, why waste the energy? You can use a window screen (the frame helps), or you can use wire drying racks. You can also purchase a dehydrator online. Roma tomatoes are traditionally used for sundried tomatoes, but any tomato will work. Cut small tomato varieties in half, larger tomatoes in thirds or quarters. The more flesh a tomato has, the better they sun dry. Varieties that have lots of water and seeds lend themselves less to this process. Some people sprinkle a little salt and sometimes herbs like thyme or oregano over the top.

Put the rack out into the sun and let nature do the rest. I used to worry about bugs and flies getting onto the tomatoes, but honestly they donít want to be out in the sun any more than you do. If you are still concerned, cover the tomatoes with a cloth suspended over (not touching) the tomatoes. It takes only a few days to dry in most parts of our region but could take longer in higher elevations.

Store sun-dried tomatoes in a cool dry place; theyíll last for up to a year. You can also put them in olive oil. When you do this, you get another product: tomato-flavored olive oil.

Jared McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona.


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