Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Medium Dark Armenian

The medium dark green Armenian cucumber is the melon’s version of a regular American-type cucumber. This cucumber is a C. melo and can be easily crossed with muskmelons. It is completely average in size and shape. However, it has a very nice texture, closer to the texture of a Painted Serpent cucumber than to the texture of a regular white Armenian cucumber.

The Medium Dark Green in its natural habitat

The downy fuzz factor is minimal. The short hair that covers this melon is almost undetectable when sliced, but can be seen upon close inspection of the whole fruit. The disease resistance of this variety is good, but not as fantastic as the Painted Serpent. This means you would not want to plant this variety in an area that recently had Powdery Mildew. Fruit set begins at 65 days, a little after the regular Armenian but much sooner than the female fruits will set on the Painted Serpent. Additionally, the color and growth pattern of the fruit of the Medium Dark Armenian enable the gardener to easily spot it before it begins to set seed.

A closeup reveals the fuzz factor

If you are a gardener who is familiar with the regular Armenian Cucumber and do not want to grow them due to the taste, or if you are a gardener and you are concerned that your growing season may not be long enough for the Painted Serpent may I suggest you try the delicious Medium Dark Green Armenian cucumber.

Update: I currently sell seeds of this cucumber variety in sample seed packets at Cucumbershop.com.

This medium dark cucumber is well worth growing and eating

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Yamato Cucumber

Yamato Cucumber vine with fruit below
The challenges associated with hot humid climates often result in having to grow plants that require cooking to prepare such as eggplant, Chinese Long Beans, and Okra to name a few. Often heat and humidity does a number on tomatoes and cucumbers. The standard dark green thick-skinned American cucumber did not fare well in my garden – in the least. When asked about cucumbers, a fellow member of TOG (Tucson Organic Gardeners) told me that she just cheats and buys hybrid seed because she loves the flavor so much. For me the answer is not in buying hybrid seed, but in finding the right variety for my area. I had previously cultivated Suyo Long, which I enjoyed very much because of its heat resistance, big leaves, and delicious fruit. However, Suyo occasionally gave way to forms of root rot half way through the season and if grown near cucumbers or melons that became diseased it would, over a course of two weeks, succumb to disease as well. In the future I would like to grow a crop of Suyo Long plants in isolation to see if it can resist diseases better as a monoculture - though I rarely grow monocultures for fear that if disease spreads to similar plants I’ll lose the whole crop.

A vigorous Yamato vine.
The answer I found to growing a disease-resistant cucumber was Yamato, a variety touted to be just as delicious as Suyo but with better disease resistance. Perhaps I thought that since Suyo was a Japanese cucumber that other cucumbers of Japanese origin would work well in Tucson. My seed stock was acquired from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE)*. In growing Yamato I found that it was very disease resistant and that it was able to sprawl out like a nice big cucumber vine should. My Yamato vines withstood a nearby cantaloupe giving way to mosaic and fought off an attack of powdery mildew from an Armenian cucumber rather well. Saving seeds from this variety was relatively easy as well, though I saved seeds from “selfing” the plant. That is – I used male flowers to pollinate the female flowers on the same plant. The next year’s seed did not germinate as well or produce plants as vigorous as the previous year’s. This leads me to believe that Yamato is pretty sensitive to inbreeding. Though the fruit of the second year’s plant did not have a negative side affect that the more vigorous vines did have.

Sliced Yamato Cucumber
The main drawback to the Yamato cucumber is something I feel probably deters the cucumber beetles from eating it all- the sap. The Yamato cucumber produces a bitter fruit in roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of the part of the cucumber connected to the vine. Some say you can use a trick to “bleed out” the bitter sap, but this has just not worked reliably for me. So I do one of two things. Either I pickle the fruit thinly slice the bitter portion and soak the slices in salt water. Given that the fruit get quite large, giving away a portion of the fruit for the rest is not too bad. The immediately edible portion of the fruit tastes like a thin skinned American cucumber - which is better than most grocery bought cucumbers but not quite as good as the Suyo Long. Another option in eating Yamato cucumbers would be to grow a lot of plants – saving the top for pickling and the bottoms two-thirds for immediate consumption. My second year’s cucumbers had no bitterness at all, but the incredibly poor vigor was a high price to pay for a couple tasty cucumbers. Besides, pickling cucumbers is fun to do. My Yamato pickles turned out pretty well for my first try. One of my children shares my enthusiasm for pickles as evidenced by the fact that he wanted a Jar of Yamato pickles for his birthday. This same child pleads for dill pickles every time we pass them in the grocery store.

My son, the pickle lover, with a Yamato Cucumber.

In summary, the Yamato is a disease resistant and heat resistant cucumber that requires a number of plants for seed saving and requires some additional effort if you wish to utilize the whole fruit. If you live in an area where these factors are of particular concern, you may just want to try growing a Yamato.

*Note: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange does not offer Yamato in 2012, but does hope to be able to offer it next year.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Steep Price for Success

In the fall of 2009 I planted a few tomato plants that I felt would do relatively well over the winter. I kept them covered and they grew very well behind the plastic greenhouse I made. Unfortunately, the temperatures in the greenhouse during the daytime can get hot, and with all that vegetation and heat and humidity came disease.  

Tomatoes started in February and went through April

I am still dealing with the affects of the bountiful crop I had that next February and March even though the fruit is long gone. I have utilized proper crop rotation, soil inoculants, growing legumes, soil solarization and many other techniques to eradicate this blight (Septoria) from my garden. Alas disease - in one form or another - persists. Initially I felt this to be a tragedy. However, as time has passed my diseased bed is turning out to be a real asset. Having an enclosed diseased space helps me determine which of my Siletz tomato plants are disease resistant enough to start out in a greenhouse. Even though disease has persuaded me to refrain from growing the full lifecycle of any tomato plant in my greenhouse, I have not given up using my greenhouse for growing transplants.

Another crop of tomatoes from the greenhouse

Heat, cold, dense foliage and moisture all contributed to disease.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don’t Forget to Feed the Garden

My Summer garden, which seconds as a winter compost pit
So two days ago, as I was digging around in the garden I found my soil cultivator. It is supposed to be a 3-pronged metal hand tool with a green plastic handle. However, my garden has been digesting it for a while. About a year and a half ago I was out turning the compost in the pit I call my summer garden. For some reason I felt the need to have my cultivator to help me turn the leaves in the compost. I remember I had completed my project for the night in the unfinished compost and so I began looking around at my tools. I had my shovel, my rake, and… where was the cultivator? After searching a while for it I realized I had left it in the ground. I dug around for it and have made attempts to find it previously. Over time I had given up all hope of finding it– until yesterday. This is tangible proof that my garden gets hungry! Call the cultivator an iron supplement.

As an organic gardener I have come to the realization that my compost needs to be fed often. In order to make the most of my limited backyard space, each of my two gardens seconds as a compost pile in the off-season. For house compost, I dig a ditch and throw all the biodegradable goods in. Once each ditch is almost filled I cover it with soil. Then I dig another ditch for additional kitchen scraps. My wife calls them “offerings” to my garden – perhaps suggesting that I worship my garden- which I do not! I sometimes get bags of leaves or a pickup bed of manure to add to the mix and add bioactivity to the whole system. From time to time I productively expend energy and focus my frustrations by turning the compost. When a change in the season necessitates the use of the garden I am composting in, I finish covering all the compost in my garden bed then add a layer of some very finished compost or a mix of sifted dirt, vermiculite, and peat moss.

The cultivator  looked like the other  tools until the compost "digested" it

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tomatoes in the Winter

A local middle school gardening club lead by one of its teachers has experienced a lot of success in producing food for students and teachers alike. This gardening club not only grows winter veggies but lives on the edge by growing summer veggies too. Below are some recent pictures from this lovely garden.
A well-kept Tucson Winter Vegetable garden.

Growing summer varieties in the winter is not for the faint of heart. Some individuals who live near trees or have some other safe place to grow more temperate vegetables can take more risks than the rest of us can. Often such individuals use trees, walls, houses, and others nearby structures as heat reservoirs. Growing tomatoes out in the open in February is not worth the work for me. Saying that, there are some gardeners here in Tucson who can – and do. They gamble their crop for bragging rights of having tomatoes in March or April.

February Tomato Blossoms.

A tomato plant producing tomatoes into February.

Large Indeterminate Cherry Tomato Plant in February

Broccoli is grown by many gardeners here in Tucson, though – despite having a picture of me with broccoli for my avatar – I do not grow it much because I am not willing to nurse it through the late summer or pay for starts in the fall. My attempts at broccoli starts have failed so many times that I have removed broccoli from my crop rotation all together.

Beautiful Blossoming Broccoli

I grow some artichokes, but mine have never grown this big. It helps if you grow it over multiple seasons.

If you leave them for a while, Artichokes can grow quite large

Many Tucsonans gobble down chilies, though I know very little about them. I have a pretty Caucasian background so I am only guessing when I say this is a picture of a Chiltepin pepper.

A Chiltepin pepper - I think

Here come the Rains

Finally - Winter Rains Arrive in Tucson
Why we actually recognize a day named after a rodent remains a mystery. Despite this, it seems that the groundhog may have been right in seeing his shadow this year. The winter rains have come, leaving snow on the mountaintops and perking my plants back up. My winter plants were looking quite sad in the recent heat. The wet cool weather enables their shallow root structure to access more nutrients than hot dry weather allows. Although I try to harden my winter veggies off when they are young, most winter crops do not develop a deep enough root system to allow me to water once a wee. In order to adapt to rain patterns I usually water once a week. In order to adapt to rain patterns I usually water by hand in the winter. However, this winter’s warm dry weather is testing my aspirations of being a lazy gardener.

Mt. Lemmon is dusted with Snow!

The Winter garden - rejuvenated by the winter rains.

The rest of my winter garden.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wintersown Seeds

During my search for just the right tomato variety I stumbled upon a gardening forum that mentioned Wintersown tomato seeds. Wintersown is a non-profit organization that provides almost free samples of tomato seeds. They have well over 100 different varieties of tomatoes alone. All that is required to take advantage of this wonderful offer is to send Wintersown a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) with their order form (that you print out) and they will send you your seeds. As a matter of caution, you will have to be a proficient enough gardener that you can achieve a high success rate from seed to tomato, as they only provide between 8-10 seeds per small bag that they send. In any case, I made sure to donate to their cause by sending them some extra seeds with my order. I really appreciate the service that Wintersown provides to us gardeners who need a few more tomato varieties. Last summer I even grew a Rio Grande tomato plant from my Wintersown seeds. Considering all that I received by trying Wintersown out I decided it was well worth my time to send them an envelope. Besides, there was no beating the price considering I now have the opportunity to try out several tomato varieties for the price of a few stamps.

Note: I did receive permission to link to their nonprofit site before posting this.

Some of the tomato seed varieties I received from Wintersown.org

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Radiant Heating in the Winter

Though I have been gardening but a few years, as I have been doing so I have noticed that the climate here in Tucson is warmer than the catalogues that said “Zone 8” on them stated. Other than last winter when we had an unseasonably cold 15 degree Fahrenheit Temperatures (and all of Tucson was having their non-insulated pipes break) the temperature usually only dips near freezing at night for a couple of weeks. Given what I have experienced the last couple of years it is about time the USDA changed their map to better reflect more recent climate trends.

Given the unseasonably warm weather this year and finding that the weather forecast had no chance of freezing any time soon, I decided to transplant three of my tomato sets into the summer garden to see if I could get a jump on the season. I set out two of the plants with plastic around them to heat up the ground and the third I did not cover, but just set a milk gallon jug full of water next to it. The sun is now coming up before 7:30 so it should be warming up, right?

Left plant-was covered, Middle Plant-covered, Right plant-no covering.

Wrong. Just the other morning I found that the cold had really nipped at a couple of my tomato plants. So I cut them back. Then I noticed something else. The plant with the water next to it had no effects from the freezing while the other two did. I have noticed in the past that little tents or conches do little to stave off the effects of freezing and I have noticed that clear or opaque water containers help tomato plants from freezing but I have never seen this so clearly demonstrated. The practical science behind this is that the water bottle absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. The more water in containers, the more balanced temperature should remain.

For future reference - I will definitely make use of soda pop bottles and milk bottles (filled with water) to get an early start on the season. I’m glad that I could make this mistake so that others (and hopefully I) can learn from it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Painted Serpent Cucumber

Painted Serpent plant growing in a pot lowered in the ground
Imagine a succulent hothouse cucumber just brought from the grocery store. Envision that cucumber with a tender, slightly fuzzy yet edible rind. Enter the Painted Serpent Cucumber. This beautiful dark and light striped cucumber is not that good for shipping purposes but is definitely worth buying if you stumble upon it at a farmer’s market. In almost every way – except botanically speaking – this cucumber is the polar opposite of the regular Armenian cucumber. Many people call it an Armenian cucumber because it is a C. melo and can easily cross with a regular Armenian cucumber. Though cross-pollination with its better known cousin is possible, it differs from the regular Armenian cucumber in growth pattern, disease resistance, soil fertility, taste, and in how the cucumber looks.

Armenian, Painted Serpent (Longest) and Yamato Cucumber

The first thing you notice when growing this variety is that it grows slowly. 80-90 days can be a very long time to wait to see your first cucumber. It requires a long season and can take a while before you see your first female cucumber flower. So be patient – it will be worth it. On the other hand, disease resistance for this variety is phenomenal. It can often resist the powdery mildew and mosaic virus that plague other melon varieties. No melon variety is bullet proof, but this one can be exposed to a lot of diseases without succumbing to them. This cucumber variety requires much more fertile soil than its light-colored counterpart and will reward you well if you will consider saving a patch of well-composted dark soil for it.

Painted Serpent Cucumbers behind the regular Armenian
The taste of this variety is incredible. The closest thing I could relate to it is something between cucumber and pure water. The texture is crisp, yet tender and smooth. Dark and light green stripes decorate the rind and it tends to grow very long before plumping out. The beauty of this variety definitely place it in the specialty category. If you do not see it in gourmet restaurants take comfort in the fact that you can grow something more delicious and fancy straight from your garden.

Painted Serpent cucumber growing in a pot set into the ground

The fuzz factor on this variety is slight to mild. Not as much as some other cucumber-melon varieties but definitely more than the regular Armenian cucumber.

When mature, Painted Serpent Cucumbers exhibit minimal fuzz.

Do not let the season length keep you from growing this variety. Plant some regular Armenian cucumbers next to this variety and don’t let the regular Armenian vines shade out the Painted Serpent. When the regular Armenians start dying out this variety will begin pumping out the fruit. (When doing this for seed saving, cut back the regular Armenian cucumbers as soon as you see the first Painted Serpent female flower). 

Sliced Painted Serpent Cucumber

If you take good care of your Painted Serpent cucumber vines the total amount of fruit throughout the season should be comparable to that of the regular Armenian cucumber and, in my opinion, even more delicious!

More Painted Serpent Cucumber Slices

This mature cucumber will produce lots of seeds.

Update: I now sell this, and many other varieties like the Painted Serpent Cucumber at Cucumbershop.com.

My son in front of my garden with a Painted Serpent Cucumber.

Thinning my Carrots

Though it may be sad - I do thin carrots
Carrots do not always come up evenly and can often be frustrating to grow because of the gaps in seedlings if spaced correctly without thinning. Additionally, some seedlings come up weak and need to be pulled out to keep from causing problems for future populations of carrots. Thinning enables strong, vigorous plants to continue growing into future generations while eliminating the less desirous ones. At times I do transplant thinned out seedlings, if I have room for them. Though root crops – such as carrots – do not adjust to transplanting as well as other crops, such as lettuce. If you want to thin and transplant and would like to keep plants from going into shock I would advise doing so on a cool, humid, or wind-free day. Though we can sometimes get attached to our seedlings, they often grow better as a group when we give them the space they need to thrive.