Thursday, March 28, 2013

When Life gives you Garbanzos, make Lemonade?

Though I try not to overuse proverbial phrases too much I couldn’t help it this time. But really – lemonade from garbanzo beans? My first inclination to try tasting a garbanzo bean leaf was brought on from a passage in my trusty Seed to Seed book. Under Cicer arietinum – Garbanzo (Chick Pea) it states “The leaves and stems of the plants are covered with ‘glabular’ (sticky) hairs. The hairs exude malic acid that is widely collected in India and used like vinegar or for medicine. In remote rural villages, Indian women wrap the plants in fabric each evening. The fabric is removed the following morning and the liquid exuded by the plants is wrung out and collected in containers”.

Chickpea leaves exude malic and some oxalic acid -yum!

After my garbanzo beans started flowering I noticed some fine hairs with liquid on them. I decided to be risky and try a taste. I brushed my fingers over them and took a taste off my finger. “That was good!” I thought to myself. It tastes just like lemonade. So now that I have revealed this to my children you can probably guess what they are doing these days. That’s right – brushing their fingers and licking what tastes like lemonade.

Growing Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) is a new experience for me

As is often the case, what is food to one is repulsive to another. The malic and some oxalic acid is actually a deterrent for insects. It acts as a natural insecticide that keeps most caterpillars and aphids from eating the plants. While both these acids occur naturally in vegetables that we eat, malic acid is generally considered good while oxalic acid is generally looked down upon because it can work to deprive the body of calcium and magnesium – though a few people believe that it may help fight cancer. That being said, spinach and rhubarb have plenty of oxalic acid and I haven’t met people condemning these vegetables as “unhealthy”. Crazy as it may seem, what is considered an insecticide in nature can turn out to be pretty tasty. Now the trick is to make sure my children wash their hands before touching the chickpeas.

Try it - Garbanzo bean leaf hairs taste like lemonade!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Roots of My Obsession by Thomas C. Cooper

Due to the demands of my busy schedule and the occasional setbacks that gardening presents I have frequently been forced to stop and ask myself, “Why am I doing all this work to keep these plants alive?” Even after improving my gardening techniques to decrease the maintenance my garden requires I still wonder why I do it.  I recently discovered that I am not alone in my thoughts when I found a book devoted to why other people garden, entitled The Roots of My Obsession.

A fun read that is suitable for those with a short attention span. =)
My general experience with the book was good. As you would expect, the narrative from each of the 30 authors is so diverse that it keeps the book fairly engaging throughout. The main theme that many of the gardeners repeated was that, at some time (after having some major setback with their gardening) they decided to persevere and overcome their deficiencies. Even with all of my setbacks, these fellow gardeners have provided me with hope that, even as a slow learner, if I keep planting and trying I will eventually learn enough to grow plants well.

Having worked in the soil for a few years, I could really relate some of the quotes from The Roots of My Obsession. One author, Claire Sawyers wrote said that, she often picked places that were most suitable for growing vegetables. A plot of land suitable for growing vegetables was definitely one of the criteria for me when looking at buying the house that my family currently lives in. Another gardener, Margaret Roach noted that “the root of ‘humility’ comes from the Latin humus for ‘earth’ or ‘ground’”. I could relate with this because working in and learning from my garden always adds an element of humility to my life. The last quote I really liked was by Anna Pavord, who stated that “a good garden delights more senses than any other art. You can smell it, touch it, listen to it, look at it, eat it.” I could follow along with Ms. Pavord all the way until she said you could “hear it”. Perhaps I can hear the wind whistling through my plants, but most of the time I consider it a problem if I can hear birds, caterpillars, or mice munching down on my produce. I do however agree that the gardening experience is definitely one that engages many senses at a time.

Overall, The Roots of My Obsession turned out to be a pretty fun read. By compiling this book the author, Thomas Cooper, provides a multifaceted perspective on each individual’s gardening experience. It is definitely a good book for those who, like me, ponder upon why they garden.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wanted: A Few Good Seeds

One of the main problems I have recently experienced with gardening is success. Though the thought of success being a problem may sound ridicules to some of you, those of you in more hospitable climates might understand. When I experience success with one kind of vegetable I look out at the vegetable landscape and start wanting to try something new. I believe that this is directly related to the quote by Thomas Cooper, who stated that, “A garden is never so good as it will be next year”.

When there are vegetables that grow well enough, some are left to ask, why change things? For me, the ideal vegetable is something that fits the needs of the gardener and his family. The three things I look for in my vegetables are: adaptability, palatability and sustainability. Any other plant that grows in the garden can, in part, be considered a weed.

Brocolli requires an early start if direct-seeding is desired
Adaptability is high on my list of important components to growing vegetables. If a plant can neither survive the occasional freezing temperatures during the winter or thrive in the sweltering heat of the summer, then I do not even think of growing it. Though leafy greens can produce enough food to warrant their space in the garden during the winter, the short days can make it difficult to grow long-season crops by direct seeding, such as heads of cabbage or broccoli. On the other extreme, the terrible heat of the summer makes it very difficult for me to grow anything that requires babying. Excessively caring for plants creates a relationship with the plant and gardener where both parties suffer for minimal returns. This is because the plant struggles to thrive in a climate it wasn’t made for while the gardener struggles to keep the plant alive. My lack of desire to grow plants that require intensive care eliminates rhubarb, asparagus and many tomato varieties from my summer growing list. Another aspect of adaptation has to do with pests and disease. If a cucumber or tomato vine does not outgrow pests and disease that keep it from producing fruit then there is really no point in growing that cultivar.

Chinese long beans grow well, but can require blanching
Once I am able to grow a plant, the next important question I must answer is: will anyone in my family eat it? Cactus grows just dandy in Tucson, but unless I have javelina (or peccary) for children I’m not planning on serving cactus every night. Chinese long beans, okra, Malabar spinach and eggplant also grow well in Tucson’s heat, but the texture of most of these vegetables requires excessive time to prepare in order for any of these vegetable to wet my children’s appetite. Cooking time, along with taste and texture are some the factors that make it difficult for me to experiment too much with vegetables that would be more appreciated in the compost pile then on the dinner menu. The desire to select more palatable is the main reason why I have recently taken to growing a lot of sweet potatoes and cucumber-melons.

Once I can grow and eat a vegetable variety, the next thing I consider is my ability to sustain this vegetable – in the long run. By sustain I mean my ability to grow plants and seed that I can use for human consumption, year after year. Food production is one aspect of sustainability for me. I give a lot in garden compost and inputs and I expect a lot back. I do not consider plants in my garden that dither or tend to produce little as sustainable food crops. A second aspect of sustainable vegetable varieties include those that store well, or have seeds that store well. Lastly, open-pollinated seeds that grow true-to-type enable me to become more self-sufficient. Hybrid tomato plants may feed my family for a year, but if I plant the next generation of tomatoes - which exhibit none of the good traits of the parent plants – then I must buy more seed from seed companies to sustain my family.

I'm looking for a short-season long storage onion
With the goals of adaptability, palatability and sustainability in mind I am looking for some specific vegetable varieties. For a while I have been looking for a short season long-storage onion. I am currently trialing Red Creole, though I am sure that there are other onion varieties available just waiting to be discovered. I am also looking for a green manure grain for a summer crop over my winter garden. I have been contemplating growing milo sorghum for both gluten-free food and as a cover crop in my winter garden. However, I have heard it can be a real pain to thresh. Another vegetable I am looking for is a sweet mild radish. With how well I can grow radishes, it is too bad that my family doesn’t like the hot ones. It seems that every time I grow radishes there is no way to predict which will be mild and which will be hot. This fact leads me to wonder if spiciness is even a trait that can actually be bred out of radishes.

As you can see - we don't care much for spicy radishes!
The last thing that I am seeking for is a bush and vine variety of green bean (or Phaseolus vulgaris) that is resistant to lace bugs. Lace bugs have devastated my previous green bean plants, but have never touched my Chinese Long beans or Purple Hyacinth beans. The problem with the latter cultivars is that I get tired of blanching the beans in salt-water to make them palatable for my family. After a while of blanching I get tired of picking the beans and then I have another problem on my hands – having to process dry bean seeds!

I believe my desire to introduce vegetable varieties that are more suited to my needs is a good thing, as long as I choose to be satisfied with what I can grow now. Should you know of any good onion, radish, or bean that fits the description above, please let me know. In the interim, I’ll keep scouring my gardening catalogs and asking growers if they have seen any of the vegetable cultivars I’m looking for.

A few of my seed cataloges

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wild Temperature fluctuations mean it’s Spring in Tucson

Monthly Average Temperature for Tucson
The desert areas in Pima County, Arizona experience extreme weather most of the year. In relation to Tucson, it is safe to say that Spring consists of 2 weeks in March in which the temperatures are consistently between 75 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. To hope for more than a short spring is just wishful thinking. Though graphs may say that the average temperature is more slow in changing, the actual change between the high 60-70 degrees of winter and the high 90-100 degrees of summer is very short - especially in the spring.

So what happens in Tucson’s spring? The mesquite trees begin to grow out their first leaves, insects start hatching, and gardeners keep growing their winter crop while hoping that they can begin their summer crop without having it freeze on one of the last cold nights of the season.

Average Hours of Sunshine per day
When is “all danger of frost” gone in Tucson? To answer this question I prefer to use the measure of what we call a “false start”. These usually occur in March. A false start begins when the temperature warms up for the first time in a while. There are no more freezing nights and everyone thinks summer is right around the corner. This weather pattern continues for about 2 or 3 weeks, and then the temperature drops and it freezes one last time. The deceptive first warming spell was called a “false start”. Beginning gardeners then realize that it wasn’t quite time to put those plants or seeds in the ground and that the cruelty of the desert climate requires gardeners to learn quickly.

After the last freeze – usually an outlier over the last 3-4 weeks – it is generally safe to plant the first of the frost sensitive plants. However, even after that point I still continue to use milk jugs filled with water to keep plants safe when temperatures drop to close to freezing. The water in the milk jugs protects the nearby plants via radiant heat. Radiant heat is helpful when outside temperatures are fluctuating wildly in the spring but can completely destroy my plants as summer-like temperatures approach. As soon as the outside temperatures rise above 90 degrees I remove all my milk jugs to keep plants safe and provide them with more room to grow. Concerns with radiant heat was one of the reasons why I was forced to plant my garden away from block or brick walls, which would otherwise cook my plants during Tucson’s summer days (and nights).
Radiant Heat is helps during temperature fluctuations

So, should you want to visit Tucson I would highly recommend coming in March. It is beautiful here now – though you will still need a jacket when it gets dark out. As much as I enjoy gardening here, extreme heat can really gnaw at you in the middle of the summer. As the Arizona summer bears down on us I’ll be wishing I was someplace north.

It's Spring here in Tucson