Vegetables Get Harvested At Their Prime

90327’Zucchini’ is Italian for ‘little squash.’ They certainly can grow to become big squash, but by then, they do not taste so good. They are best before they get to about six inches long. As they mature, they get bitter and tough, and the seedy pulp within develop an unappealing texture. Maturing zucchini also waste resources that would otherwise go to the development of more younger zucchini.

Other summer squash, as well as cucumbers, should likewise be harvested while young and tender, not only because the juvenile fruits are best, but also because the plants are more productive if regularly deprived of developing fruit. Patty pan squash should be only about three inches wide. Except for lemon cucumbers, most cucumbers should be uniformly deep green, before yellowing.

Green beans, even if they are purple or yellow or some other unnaturally weird color, should be harvested while still lean and smooth, before they get lumpy from the developing seeds within. Lumpy beans, although preferred for some types of cuisine, are a bit starchier, and a bit firmer. Just like squash and cucumber, bean vines are more productive if the fruits are harvested regularly.

Shelling beans that remain on the vines until they mature completely are of course completely different. They should probably be harvested faster than birds and rodents take them, but need not be rushed otherwise. The same applies to black-eyed peas, sunflower seeds and popcorn, or any other dried corn. However, these sorts of vegetables are uncommon in local vegetable gardens.

Fresh corn is ready when the formerly light green silk protruding from the end of each ear is brownish tan. By the time the silk dries out, or the husks start to yellow, the corn within will be starchy. Blunt ears are better developed than more tapered ears. Because it wants so much water, fertilizer and space, corn should not be as popular as it is; but some of us like it fresh from the garden.

Although, it last a good while, corn really should be eaten as soon as possible after harvest. Flavor and texture start to deteriorate as soon as the ears are separated from the stalks. Likewise, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are best straight from the garden as soon as they ripen and get to their best color. Refrigeration slows decay, but accelerates deterioration of flavor and texture.60824+

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Fruit From Non Fruit Trees

90828thumbThose of us who grew up with the old fashioned stone fruit orchards or vineyards might remember some of the traditional methods for protecting the ripening fruit from birds. Mulberry trees were grown on the corners of some orchards to keep birds well fed and less hungry for the ripe orchard fruit. Mulberry cultivars were selected to ripen just prior to the fruit within the particular orchards.

The trees were not there to produce fruit to be harvested like the fruit within the orchards was. Most, but not all of what the birds did not consume fell to the ground and rotted. Only small quantities of the overly abundant fruit was taken by a few neighbors who made jam or syrup with with it. Mulberries were a byproduct of the orchards that some put to good use just because it was available.

Decades ago, it was much easier to get a bit of fruit from neglected or naturalized fruit trees in rural regions and on roadsides without offending anyone. Isolated remnants of the old fruit orchards were common. American plum, which had been used as understock for orchard trees, had naturalized in some regions. For those daring enough to harvest them, so had Himalayan blackberry.

Even now, we can find a bit of fruit where do not expect it to be. A few plants that are grown more for their visual appeal can be surprisingly generous with their fruit production. Pineapple guava, which is now popularly grown as a simple evergreen hedge, used to be grown instead for its small tart guavas. Purple leaf plum, as it matures, may not be quite as fruitless as it is purported to be.

The difficulty with the more unfamiliar types of fruit is finding practical uses for it. The native blue elderberry makes excellent jelly or syrup, like black elderberry, but not many of us even know it is edible once cooked. Australian brush cherry, strawberry tree, English hawthorn and ‘Majestic Beauty’ Indian hawthorn, are never overly productive, but might sometimes make enough fruit for jelly.

Of course, no unfamiliar fruit or nut should be eaten prior to confirmation that it is safe for consumption.

Colorful Foliage Fades Through Summer

P90713Autumn foliar color is not the concern yet. It develops later as deciduous plants defoliate for winter. Purplish, reddish, yellowish, bluish or gray foliar color that can be seen now is provided by plants that are colorful while actively growing. Almost all of this sort of foliage is most colorful when it is young and fresh, early in spring. Then, through summer, some of the best foliar color fades.

This process is perfectly natural. It does not imply that anything was done improperly, or that plants were not given what they need. In fact, most plants with colorful foliage would rather be green. They are mutants that were reproduced specifically for their distinctive color. Some try to revert back to green by producing greener shoots that grow faster because they have more chlorophyll.

Photinia is an odd one. By now, The rich green foliage shows no clue that it was rich reddish bronze when it developed early in spring. The foliage did not really fade. It merely matured. Then there are the newer cultivars of purple leaf plum, which maintain their color from spring to autumn. It is amazing that such darkly colored foliage that seems be devoid of chlorophyll can photosynthesise!

Some plants maintain their color better than others. Gray or bluish foliage is always gray or bluish; but admittedly, blue spruce and blue junipers are not quite as striking now as they were earlier. If red fountain grass and bronze aonium fade, it will be too slight to notice. Stems of bronze, gold or striped cannas that fade after bloom get pruned out in favor of more colorful unbloomed stems.

‘Forest Pansy’ redbud, ‘Summer Chocolate’ silk tree and ‘Sunburst’ honeylocust are notorious for fading. By now, the formerly richly bronzed redbud and silk tree merely seem to be stained with coffee. Golden honeylocust might have been bright yellow in spring, but now just looks sickly. Gold tipped and silver tipped deodar cedars can likewise be a bit pale. Bronze elderberries hold color well, but golden elderberry might now be chartreuse.P90713+

Summer Dormancy Is No Mystery

90821thumbCalifornia buckeye, Aesculus californica, is an enigma. How does it survive while defoliated for so much of the year? Not all are so mysterious. Those that live in sheltered or forested situations behave like normal deciduous trees, by defoliating in autumn, and refoliating in spring, after a brief winter dormancy. Those that are more exposed in warm and windy situations make us wonder.

After their brief winter dormancy, exposed California buckeye trees refoliate early in spring, as they should. Then, only a few month later, they defoliate through the warmest and most arid part of summer, which might be a few months long! As the weather cools and the rain starts, they refoliate briefly for autumn, only to defoliate in time for their winter dormancy. They are ‘twice deciduous’.

How do they photosynthesize enough to survive? It seems like they would consume more resources in this process that they could generate. They obviously know what they are doing, since they survive quite nicely in the wild. Furthermore, they are not the only species that can do this. Sycamores sometimes do it if the weather is just so, or if they get infested with anthracnose too severely.

Most deciduous plants defoliate only in winter because that is the worst time to try to photosynthesize. There is less sunlight available while the days are shorter, and the weather is cloudier. Frost, wind and snow would cause much more damage if deciduous plants retained their foliage. Defoliation is how they accommodate the weather. It is no different for plants that defoliate in summer.

Much of California is within chaparral or even desert climates. Native plants, as well as plants that are from similar climates, know how to live here. If they happen to be in a hot and dry situation, some may go dormant until the weather improves, even if they do not go dormant through the mild winters. This is why wild arums and some unwatered acanthus have died back to the ground, and why naked lady amaryllis will remain naked until the first rains in autumn.

Forage To Find Unexpected Fruit

Felton League, the Facebook group of the homeless and their friends in Felton, California, briefly mentions the source of some interesting, but typically overlooked fruits that can be found in the wild or unrefined landscapes. Blackberries, American plums and elderberries collected from rural roadsides have produced award winning jellies for the Santa Cruz Mountains Harvest Festival.
Unlike the fruit that so many of us put so much effort into growing in our home gardens, these fruits and others are productive without any help. They are commonly overlooked only because they are so easy to ignore. In some ways, they are inferior to ‘garden variety’ fruit; but they also have certain advantages. Free fruit that takes no more effort than harvesting is obviously a good thing.
The most common wild blackberries are actually Himalayan blackberries that have naturalized. Unfortunately, they do not compare well to garden variety blackberries. They are not as abundant, and are difficult to pick from the wickedly thorny and rampant canes. Blue elderberries really are native, and are just as good or maybe better than black elderberries from eastern North America.
Figs, olives, grapes, rhubarb, prickly pears, apples and various citrus can sometimes be found in abandoned or neglected landscapes. Walnut, almond and wild plum trees sometimes grow from self-sown seed. Purple leaf plum is not always as fruitless as it is purported to be. Then there are all the other ornamental plants that happen to produce fruit that is useful to those willing to try it.
For example, Australian brush cherry, English hawthorn, Indian hawthorn (‘Majestic Beauty’), strawberry tree and even common freeway iceplant all produce fruit that can be cooked into luscious jelly. Of course, no fruit, particularly unfamiliar fruit, should be eaten or experimented with until it is confirmed to be safe for consumption. Many fruits really are toxic! Also, fruit should not be harvested from where it might be illegal to do so, such as private property or parks.

NOTE: This is an old article. Felton League is no longer a group on Facebook, but is now a blog here on WordPress.B90803K

Vegetables Change With The Seasons

90814thumbRight smack in the middle of the warm part of summer, it is already time to be getting ready for autumn gardening. This involves more than just ordering our autumn planted spring bulbs while the selection is still optimal. Most of us purchase bulbs from what is available in nurseries when they are in season anyway. Seed that gets sown in the next few weeks is a more immediate concern.

The majority of cool season vegetables will get planted later, when the seasons actually start to change to become . . . well, cool. Seed for beets and carrots gets sown directly in about a month, followed by pea seed even a bit later. At about that same time, many of us will plant small seedlings of other cool season vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, spinach and kale.

For many of us though, it is not that simple. If we want varieties of these cool season vegetables that are not likely to be available as seedlings in nurseries later, we must grow our own from seed. Whether they get sown directly into the garden, or into flats to be grown as seedlings to be planted later, broccoli seed should be sown about now. By the time it gets to growing, it will be autumn.

Seed purchased online or from mail order catalog should be ordered by now. It is not too late for broccoli if the seed arrives and gets sown soon. Cauliflower and cabbage seed gets sown within a month or so, as late August becomes early September. Lettuce and spinach seed should wait half way through September, like beet and carrot seed. Kale seed can wait until after September.

Seed for secondary phases of most of these cool season vegetables can be sown early next year.

In the meantime, warm season vegetables must continue to be harvested very regularly. If they stay in the garden long enough to get tough and bland, they also interfere with continued production. Foliar herbs can be harvested for drying just about any time they are fresh and not blooming. Regular harvesting inhibits bloom, and therefore promotes more of the desirable foliar herbal growth.

Vines Do Not Replace Hedges

90619thumbUrban homes are innately close to other urban homes. Newer homes are even closer to each other than older homes are, and are more imposing. Establishing or maintaining privacy can be a challenge, especially for high windows in narrow spaces. Even though home builders prefer to place windows strategically, some windows invariably face into neighboring windows or gardens.

Trellised vines are a popular but rarely effective remedy to this dilemma. The narrow spaces between houses and below the eaves can be dark enough to inhibit growth. Consequently, vines are typically sparse or bunched on top of their trellises. Their most vigorous growth is often awkwardly long shoots trying to find a way out of the shade. Vines are not exactly easy to work with anyway.

There are of course exceptions. With regular maintenance, some finely textured vines that are reasonably tolerant of shade can be effective for downstairs windows. (Upstairs windows are out of reach.) If shorn very regularly, English ivy on lattice works almost like a hedge. (Ivy does not fill in on more open trellises.) Trellised star jasmine is even better, but needs more depth (front to back).

Yet, with few exceptions, big evergreen shrubs or small evergreen trees that tolerate shade are more practical. They support their own weight, so only need to be pruned for confinement and clearance from the houses that they provide privacy for. Some shrubs and trees should be pruned to stay at the desired height, so that superfluous upper growth does not shade out lower growth.

The various podocarpus are some of the better small trees for narrow spaces between houses because they are are somewhat tolerant to shade, and are so easily pruned into shape. Some of the taller and more upright pittosporums work nicely in sunnier spots. Arborvitae tolerates more shade, and naturally stays narrower. Since some of these better options might grow slowly, they can be planted with faster growing shrubbery that can be pruned back, and eventually removed as the preferred plants mature.90619

Docile Annual And Perennial Vines

90710Most of the familiar vines really are exploitative bullies. They shade the same trees and shrubs that they climb for support. Some will even strangle and kill those who make it possible to get where they want to be. If they do not find trees or shrubs to victimize, they are likely to climb walls and ruin the paint, stucco or siding. Their aggressive nature can be a problem in landscape situations.

Fortunately, there are several vines that are not so aggressive or destructive, such as mandevilla, lilac vine, star jasmine and Carolina jessamine. Other vines that are even more complaisant are light duty perennials and annuals that might grow like weeds while the weather is warm, but then do not have enough time to grow too big or do much damage before they die back through winter.

If flashy color is not important, vining vegetable plants such as pole beans, cucumbers and peas, can cover fences very nicely. On flat fence surfaces, such vines will climb string strung in a vertical zigzag pattern between a horizontal row of protruding nails at the top, and another similar row at the bottom. Unsightly cyclone fences are even better, but will need be harvested from both sides.

Although it is too late to sow beans and cucumbers, a new phase of peas can be sown in mid summer for production in autumn. Fragrant and subtly colorful sweet peas, which are grown for their flowers rather than as vegetable plants, take considerably more effort here. They get started in autumn for the following spring. Trailing nasturtium can get sown at any time, for summer or winter.

As the name implies, perennial pea is a perennial that can get almost rampant, but dies back by autumn.

Passion fruit vine can either be a perennial that dies back to the ground in winter, only to regenerate the following spring, or a somewhat woody vine with wiry stems that survive for several years. Those that retain their vines through winter can get cumbersomely big, or can alternatively be cut back severely late in winter, to behave almost like more docile types that die back for the winter.

To Mulch Is Not Enough

60727thumbMost plants would prefer the real thing; how they do it in the wild. They drop their leaves, flowers and twigs. Deciduous plants do it mostly in autumn. Evergreens might spread it out through the year. The debris accumulates on the ground below, and decomposes at about the same rate as it accumulates. There is no one there to clean it up. Yet, the natural ecosystems know what to do.

The plants that produce the debris use the nutrients produced by its decomposition. So, with the help of the many microorganisms in the soil, they recycle their own trash. To exploit this resource most efficiently, feeder roots tend to congregate near the surface of the soil where the nutrients are. Because the debris also insulates and shades the soil surface, roots are comfortable there.

Densely forested ecosystems produce the most debris. Many smaller plants in such ecosystems may disperse their roots exclusively into decomposing debris without reaching into soil below. In desert ecosystems, where such debris is minimal, roots are mostly dispersed much deeper to avoid the hot and dry soil surface. They wait for recycled nutrients to leach to them through the soil.

Redwoods, cypresses, many pines and most eucalyptus produce unusually thick layers of debris that decompose slowly. This technique inhibits or prevents the germination of seeds of potentially competitive plants. So, in other words, these trees and other plants had this, as well as moisture retention, soil insulation and nutrient recycling, all figured out long before we knew about mulching.

After we put so much work into raking and disposing of foliar debris that would otherwise accumulate in our gardens, it is ironic that we sometimes need to apply seasoned mulch to compensate for the lack of organic material on the surface of the soil. (Unseasoned mulch draws nitrogen from the soil to sustain its own decomposition.) It does more than merely improve the appearance of otherwise exposed soil. Mulch helps unnatural landscape environments function a bit more naturally.

Summer Perennials Are Now Blooming

90731thumbAre warm season annuals really the most colorful flowers for summer? Perhaps. They have their limits though. They are also very demanding. They need to be watered very regularly, and should probably be fertilized too. Many need to be deadheaded frequently. After all that, they are only temporary, and will get replaced with cool season annuals in autumn. Perennials are more practical.

Lily-of-the-Nile is likely the most common and most familiar of blooming summer perennials. It is a shame that it blooms only once. Bloom is usually in time for the Fourth of July, and lasts a good long time, but is already fading. Deadheading as the blue or white color is eventually exhausted will not promote subsequent bloom, but will keep the evergreen foliage looking tidy until next year.

Daylily might be the second most popular of summer perennials. Some of the older types bloom only once like lily-of-the-Nile, but various cultivars bloom at various times to prolong the season if a few are grown together in the same garden. The most popular modern cultivars probably bloomed earlier, and will bloom again, perhaps with little time in between. The color range is extensive.

Penstemon are not committed to their natural schedule of blooming in late spring and again in autumn. A good pruning at the end of winter eliminates tired old foliage, and enhances and delays bloom until summer, without compromising the later autumn bloom. Like daylily, a few different varieties of penstemon in the same garden prolong bloom, which can be white, pink, red or purple.

Salvias are a big group of summer perennials that really should be more popular than they are. Some are native. Others are from other chaparral climates. Naturally, they are right at home here. Many bloom about now, and some will bloom again in autumn if deadheaded or pruned back. What they lack in flashy color, they compensate for in resiliency and reliability. They really are tough.

This is by no means a complete list of summer perennials. It does not even include the perennial daisies such as coneflower, black-eyed Susan and gaillardia.