Every growing season brings its successes and failures. What was easy to grow last year for us was much more difficult this year but on the upside what we've struggled with last year grew beautifully this year. When the New York Times wrote about the "bumper crop" of tomatoes this season a few days ago, I became angsty since that hasn't been our experience. Our tomato "trees" filled with large gorgeous fruit early in the season became a big hit with seemingly all the squirrels and chipmunks in Rockland county. Some furry creature must have spread the word. We were all but stripped of our fruit until we took action with 1) Predator netting 2) Fox urine (Shake Away: A product Eliot Coleman uses) and 3) a solar powered owl perched on one of the raised beds. Our eggplant were also under attack by flea beetles but on a very positive note, we somehow dropped off the radar for the squash vine borers and all of our brassica veggies grew strong, healthy and abundant. We are always keeping an ear open to hear about how our neighbors and other farmers compete with the pests and bugs and this past weekend we had a special visit with local and global food legend Joan Gussow to hear about her experiences.
Sitting on the second floor balcony of her home overlooking her garden and the Hudson River, we began comparing notes for this growing season. Even with decades of growing experience, gardeners like Joan are always surprised at new discoveries. And the best gardeners are the ones that assume very little. What Joan found was that when she planted her tomatoes in a bed that still had last season's brussels sprouts stalks intact, they grew vigorously and prolifically! I wonder if the deep undisturbed root structures allowed beneficial microbes and mycorrhizal fungi to stay intact in the soil ready for spring's tomato seedlings...
We were thrilled to learn some tricks that have worked for Joan. Our Japanese eggplant suffered much this summer from the flea beetles. I'm usually on top of this with a little organic neem spray but alas Farmer Gabriel kept me inside most of the summer. Joan plants radishes at the end of the eggplant row as a trap crop and it will be a definite trial here next year.
Other discoveries included Joan's white clover groundcover. I knew about this from our permaculture studies as a nitrogen fixer but never knew it could be so beautiful and so steppable. She said the trick is to make sure you pull all other weeds out early on as it starts to grow in.
Two new varieties really caught our attention. One is a pepper called "Puerto Rican No Burn Pepper." It looks like a habeñero, has the smoky unique taste of one but there is NO burn. I was hesitant when Joan asked me to bite into one but it was truly a surprising taste.
The other variety that excited us was a basil that does not flower. As I was behind with the flea beetles this year, I was also behind trimming off the flowers on my Genovese basil. This variety not only does not flower, you can save it as a cutting over winter and then just replant the flower in the spring. It has a more sweet cinnamon taste and grows in a columnar fashion.
And if you've read Joan's two books: This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader and Growing Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables, you will know this famous fig tree that is thriving very well.
And here is a shot of seasoned farmer Joan and our new farmer Gabriel who attentively basked in all of Joan's stories as we sat there...
Recipe: Burnt Okra with Potatoes, Garlic and Basil
Our intern Pippa requested Okra to be grown this year. We had little experience cooking/eating okra and heard it was slimy. The trick is to harvest when young (less than 4" long). From a greenhouse bed measuring 4 x 6, we've been getting 1/2 lb every 2 days. Here is a delicious way to serve them...
2 cups Okra tops discarded sliced 3/8"
2 cups small dice potato
1 Tbs minced garlic
2 Tbs minced basil
salt and pepper
Using a cast iron skillet, coat the bottom with peanut oil and heat to medium. Add okra in one layer and cook until browned. Stir and then add potatoes, salt and pepper.
Stir and cook until potatoes have browned adjusting heat or adding more oil if necessary. Once they have browned, add garlic and stir. Then add basil and stir once more.
Adapted from a recipe from Food52