Thursday, January 17, 2013

Season of Seeds

Today I feel well enough to sit at the computer. Three cheers for that. My first task was to go through my seed basket (right beside the computer) to see what was there, what was still viable, and what is missing. I've gotten a lot of print catalogues, and I've perused them. My sole complaint -no one has everything I am looking for. I even went to the strange Baker Creek, some reason thinking they are comprehensive, but nope, they had what I would consider only a minimum of what I expected in tomatoes. I've been looking, over the years, for a source of a German Striped tomato, one hopefully just like the one I bought from the Borough Hall farmers market when I first started planting tomatoes in the side yard. It was by and large my favorite tomato for looks combined with taste, next to the Black Russian, which satisfied my tastes more than even the Brandywine had been able. I have found a couple of sources online, and will order from one of them. I do wish, however, that I could get all my seeds from the same source.

Last year I tried a number of new vegetables at the beach farm. It was a season of experiments, which did not much for the looks of the garden, but I learned a lot. Of tomatoes, Hillbilly and Pineapple performed poorly, although Pineapple may have suffered from my neighbors inconsiderate placement of Italian squash vines. Beam's Yellow pear suffered immediately and irrecoverably from Verticillium once established. I will not plant any of these again. Black Krim was fine, but in my mind, no better than the rather similar, but larger Black Russian. The velvet tomato was interesting to look at with its blue-grey leaves, but everyone agreed -they don't like eating flocked tomatoes. Indigo Rose, the new hybrid, high anthocyanin tomato piqued every passerby's curiosity. Once you learn when it is ready (the bottom must turn red), it becomes an interesting addition to your tomato repertoire. Indigo Rose is an acidic, juicy round tomato, that in my estimation requires the over the top sweetness of a Sungold Cherry to balance it. Cut both up for a mixed tomato salad and the brilliant orange and deep purple commingle well, visually and to your palette. Additionally, the plant was vigorous, completely unaffected by the Verticillium going around the tomato patch, and produced until the first frost. Finally, I was highly impressed with the Speckled Roman tomato I received from Seed Savers. I admit I haven't been expecting much in terms of production from many of the heirloom tomatoes, and even less from heirloom paste tomatoes as they compare to hybrids, but the Speckled Roman plant, just one, outperformed my expectations. The clusters were large, tomatoes at least three inches long, definitely speckled, productive over at least two months, did not succumb to disease, and most important -they were meaty and juicy, which in my experience is lacking in so many paste-type tomatoes.

This year's tomato list looks like this: German Stripe, Black Russian, Indigo Rose, Speckled Roman, Sungold, Bella Rosa, and a couple of others yet to be determined.

Another experiment was growing, on scheduled successive seedings, French fillet beans. Why fillet beans? They are regarded as finer than the "American type," which also means fussy. I found it partly true in both regards. I planted five kinds -three green, one yellow and one purple. All tasted good, with more distinctive vegetal flavors, but one must be attuned to such distinctions. If you are a green bean is a green bean type, then don't bother, because picking the French fillet is part of the art of growing them. These need to be harvested on the early side, never late as they get stringy and seedy once larger than 1/4 inch thick. You may also run the risk of yanking the poorly rooted varieties out of the ground or breaking stems when harvesting because these beans cling heartily to their vines. Be careful, be early, and you will be satisfied as I was with Nickel for the green and Velour for the purple. Soleil was a good tasting yellow, but I felt the plant had low vigor -however, I will try these again. All came from Territorial Seed.

Bulbing Fennel did well in our spring planting, although our farm had been invaded by earwigs which seemed to enjoy hanging out in the branch junctions. Fennel is particularly popular with the swallowtail caterpillars, but neither creature appeared to affect its productivity. The variety I grew last season was Finocchio Romanesco from Franchi Sementi (source: GrowItalian). Our fall planting was swamped by Sandy, so hard to say how that would have turned out. All in all, I think I have some learning to do with bulbing fennel, sometimes known as Florence Fennel, whereas there is little to learn about seed fennel, or wild fennel, vulgare, as it is so easy to grow you suspect you'll never be able to stop it! The young leaves of wild fennel are some of the sweetest leaves you'll ever taste.

Finally, we had great success with lettuce last season. A dry April and wet May led to excellent growing conditions for our spring patch, creating large heads of both Victoria butterhead and Jericho romaine. Jericho did well into June, despite some early season high temperatures. Our lettuce was planted in our tomato beds, well timed to harvest just as the tomatoes were exceeding two feet. The butterhead type did have useless outer leaves and by June, a preponderance of earwigs within those outer leaves. This did not affect the romaine, which we thought was rather tasteless until we realized that it needed some heat to build its flavor profile. The June romaine was fantastic. I seeded again for fall planting, but that was a failure due in part to our yearly departure to Minnesota (hard to care for seedlings) and then again due to Sandy swamping the plants that remained.

Of course, we grew many other plants at the beach farm this last season, including Romanesco Broccoli and Purple Cauliflower -both which were swamped by the storm surge. Last years incredibly warm weather favored the Harlequin Bug, which was also ravaging any  cruciferous vegetable at Fort Tilden. If we are lucky, the storm surge killed some of those very hard to eradicate (hard freezes do the trick, but where have they gone?) bugs. We grew heirloom eggplant, Rosa Bianca, which were slow to take off, but once they did they produced some of the most gorgeous eggplants I've ever seen. Unfortunately, they were highly prone to splitting open, from beauty to beast in one thunderstorm rain -and we had several last summer. I did better with carrots this year, making sure to dig deeply before planting. Now, how to keep them from softening to limp on the way home? Water buckets, pails of wet sand?

Of course, we are not sure what will come of the beach farm this coming season. We are unsure of the state of Ft. Tilden or the greater Gateway National Recreation Area. I am thinking of planting our vegetables in the empty rows of the farm out east, but that will require greater planning and execution than I may be capable of from our Brooklyn roost. It's time to order seeds and worthwhile to remind myself not to get ahead of today. I have an exhibit to mount this weekend in Providence and a bad cold to recover from; so thankful then that there is still enough winter before us to keep this year's farm and garden challenges at bay.


  1. Here I am in FL chasing the ants out of my hibiscus when I should obviously be planning my NY summer garden before all the seeds are gone! Thanks for the inspiration.

    Had lunch with Luule & Charlie (Ft. Tilden plots C-10 & D-11), fresh from the Rockaways, who reported that someone had tilled our gardens over in Row C. Jimmy? You? If not, hopefully your and Wolfie's garlic plants lie undisturbed - L & C didn't remember.

    1. Glad to hear you are enjoying Florida! I was sick all week and haven't been able to get down to Tilden since before Christmas. I hope it hasnt been tilled. That said, we haven't received any info from the park service. :-/

  2. Hey there - Seth was in NYC this week and snuck into the garden (apparently there was a car chase with security). But per his report and photos, there is very little difference between now and 11/1 and 11/29, when I recently visited. Per the photos, Wolfie's garlic is doing fine - and my lavender is staging a comeback! No one has tilled anything. So I don't know what Luule & Charlie were talking about. Much ado about nothing.

    I do know that Chuck Schumer brokered a deal between the Rockaway Little League and the NPS, and that the gas line will go under the golf course, so I see any reason why we won't be planting this spring.

    I hope you're feeling better. I expect you have cold-weather DNA to get you through the latest freeze.

    1. Joanna,

      Cold passed, thank you! The freeze was not so bad, and an excellent way to feel that 30 degrees is actually warm. I went to the garden today, yep -as you said, nothing changed. It's like a time capsule from the day after Sandy. Please tell me more about the deal brokering -very interested to know what that's all about!


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