They cannot be contained (except when they can…)

Hello to our fellow denizens of the soil, tenders of the garden! Our plants are loving this weather and are growing with purpose, enjoying these temperatures and humidity far more than I am, where the sun and the temperatures provide a persuasive reason for staying in the shade and air conditioning. Not even the hot weather has been able to keep us away from our burgeoning harvest, as we have been able to pick peas and radishes, cut garlic scapes, and tend to the beds to ensure the plants, especially the finicky peppers, can grow as much as they can during these stretches of ideal weather.

In addition to our beds, we are growing plants in containers. We have several, which adds an extra dimension to what is already a challenging enough pursuit. Unlike a garden bed, you do not have as much control over the environmental variables you can expose your plants to nor do you have as many options for maintaining growth. Once it’s in a pot, it’s in a pot. About all you can do is water and fertilize it. You do not have the relative freedom provided by a bed: fewer ways to control moisture levels, limited space for roots to grow, better exposure to the environment. Containers do have one obvious advantage though. You can physically move them. Not getting enough sun or water? Maybe the other side of the deck is better. Not getting enough nutrients? All of that fertilizer is going to one plant.

container.garden.deck.jpg

The pros and cons of beds versus containers is one where the pros are firmly in favor of the bed, but you can still have success with a container. Living in rental apartments over the last few years has forced us to learn the best practices of container gardening, lest I end up empty handed. Other than large heirlooms, which I have given up all hope on successfully cultivating in a container, I’ve had varying levels of success. From an over wintered habanero to an especially precocious bell pepper plant, it is possible to have a good harvest even if it has to be done on your back porch or in your front window. Here are a few of the most important things I’ve noted from my attempts the last few years, bountiful and futile alike:

  1. Water. Unlike in a bed, where it’s hard to over water to the point of killing them because it’ll run off, if the pot is not well drained or in the sun, it’ll stay moist a lot longer than a bed will, meaning root rot is a distinct possibility. Only water when you are sure the dirt is completely dry or the plant has begun to wilt.
  2. Sunlight. This is one area where containers can be better than gardens. You have to work within the limitations of your space, but you can sometimes better accommodate the light needs of your plants because of the portability of pots.
  3. Fertilizer. This is a the toughest part and the lesson it took me the longest to learn. Even an unfertilized garden will have nutrients passing into the soil consistently from organic matter, worms, animals, and more entering the ecosystem. A pot is a relatively self-contained environment. Once the nutrients from the soil are gone, they’re gone and if your plants runs out of nutrients while it’s trying to fruit, you’ll be out of luck.
  4. Pot size. This is one case where bigger is better. Never underestimate the ability of a plant to grow roots. In a garden bed they’ll be able to go down as deep as they need, but in a container they’ll be constrained. Use as a big of a pot as you can manage to give your plant the most room to expand. Not to mention a bigger pot will hold more nutrients, decreasing the amount you need to fertilize.
  5. Optimism. Sometimes you just need to keep at it and hope for the best. Last year we had a black bell pepper that put out three delicious peppers by August and then nothing. We kept at it, watering and fertilizing regularly, and got another dozen peppers before the first frost.

Does anyone out there have any tips for container gardening? I’d love to be able to grow full-size heirloom tomatoes some year! Until next time!

I scape by with a little help from my friends — Garlic Scape Time

This weekend in Chicago is hot. Hot. Hot. Hot. After a lot of traveling around the country, we are finally back in Chicago and doing some much needed maintenance on the garden. It seems like everything is finally starting to take off and we are grateful for this truly hot week for the sake of the peppers.

In the meantime though, let’s talk about garlic. I’m in love with garlic. It is another plant that tastes remarkably different from what you would buy in the store. As hardneck types, these are the varieties waxed poetically about subtle differences that reflect regional soil and climate differences. Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon) are closer to wild garlic and only keep for a few (8 – 10) months compared to the year plus softneck garlic you might see in a store. We planted several rows of cloves in two varieties (Sinnamahone and  Estonian Red) in late October 2016, and this week the scapes finally popped out.

Garlic Scapes Freshly Cut
Garlic Scapes Freshly Cut

Sinnamahone garlic is a variety we ordered off Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.  According to their description they got this garlic from an area near the Sinnamahone River in rural Pennsylvania, where a farmer said he got the seed from a Sannamahone Indian who lived in the backwoods near there. Supposedly,  because it is a beautiful Rocambole type, the flavor is supposed to be incredible. Rocambole garlic is renowned for its complex and full flavor. These hardneck types are often referred to as “true garlic flavor.”

Estonian Red garlic is a more mild variety from — you guessed it. Estonia. Although it is popular enough to often be grown in other Scandinavian countries as well. It is occasionally mistaken for elephant garlic (which is actually a type of leek), this has five or six huge cloves and is a hardneck purple stripe variety.

Because these are both hardneck varieties, they grow scapes. These spirals are the garlic flowers, and in order to encourage greater bulb size, we cut them off using a sterile knife every time we see them.  Cutting off the flower cues the plant to divert its energy from growing flowers  and producing seed, into creating a bigger bulb.  The sooner you cut them, the more tender they are.  And that’s great because the nice part about scapes is that you can also eat them.  Scapes taste mild and sweet, like chives or scallions, but with a hit of unmistakable garlicky flavor. I like to use a food processor and make a pesto out of them. Although I am not a pickler, friends who are have given me jars of scapes which I would add to bloody marys on game days in the fall.

Do you grow hardneck garlic? What varieties? What do you do with your scapes?