2009: A Review

Apologies for an incredible dull post. When making plans for next year, however, it’s important to remember what worked and what didn’t. So, here it is, all in one tidy package.

Herbs: This year’s parsley, mint, tarragon, bay, and thyme were winners. Next year, grow basil from seed. The lavender never blossomed and thus, failed miserably. Next year, plant oregano and cilantro! The mint was a fine companion to the Gold Nugget tomato, but given diseases that befell the tomato, it should be planted with the rest of the herbs next year.

Lettuce: The four-year-old hand-me-down seeds produced well. They did not do well as companion plants to cucumbers and tomatoes. Could have used more — use the carrot container for additional lettuce. Still, it may be time to spring for new seeds

Carrots: After two years of parmex, it’s time to try something new. Plant as companions to tomatoes.

Radishes: Worked very well. Need to buy new seeds.

Peppers: Poblano Segundo produced well but needs careful fertilization and calcium to prevent yellowing leaves and blossom end rot. Save seeds and plant again next year. The Thai chili and random ornamental hot pepper both  produced incredibly well.

Cucumbers: Lemon cucumbers produced very well. Try the iznik again — only produced one cucumber, but dozens were on the vine before mildew throttled them. This was POD’s second attempt at growing Spacemasters — whose small, compact vines seem perfect for a roofdeck garden, but what’s the point if they only produce two little cukes?

Muskmelons: Refer to More Than a Handful

Rainbow Swiss Chard: Grew very, very well as a companion to the cucumbers and melon. Buy seeds and plant again! Perhaps try as a companion plant to tomatoes as well.

Snap Beans: Need more! Refer to Food for Thought.

Eggplant: Consider omitting. Three plants produced only enough for two meals. Preferred the Udmalbet over the Bambino.

Tomatoes: Oh, tomato. While the cherry tomato experiment worked fairly well, it’s worth experimenting with a couple new varieties. Four plants. New: black cherry tomato and Kellogg’s breakfast (full size). Old: Tumbling Tom, Gold Nugget, or Isis Candy. Prefer the Isis Candy, but the Gold Nugget produced more heavily and the Tumbling Tom fits in a 1.5 gal container and seems poised for a second crop.

Parsnips and Brussels sprouts: Verdict to be rendered at a later date.

A Handful of Melons

Conventional wisdom (and most gardeners) will tell you that melons aren’t great candidates for containers. And it’s true, most melons aren’t. If you do your homework carefully,  however, you may surprise yourself with a nice crop of sweet, tasty muskmelons. Look for dwarf or bush varieties and vines that aren’t likely to exceed 3-4 feet.

Minnesota Midget
Minnesota Midget

What you see here is a fast-ripening Minnesota Midget. These little guys grow to about 4-6 inches in diameter (about 1/2 lb) and pretty much fall right off the vine when they’re ripe. Two plants are happily (mostly) thriving in this five-gallon bucket and earlier in the season, to maximize growing space, a nice batch of chard was keeping them company.

These cantaloupes are just about perfect for roof deck gardeners: they ripen much more quickly than traditional melons, the plants are relatively compact, and best of all, are resistant to diseases and wilt. With Philly’s hot summers, heat-loving melons really do make a lot of sense.

POD has tried both direct seeding and transplanting and has found that direct seeding works best in zone 7. Patiently wait until early summer and temperatures have warmed (65 degrees or so) and then stick ’em in the ground. Make sure you build a trellis so you can train the plant to grow upward, conserving precious growing space. Alas, with the approach of fall, the little blue deck’s hours of direct sunlight are rapidly dwindling so melons that mature in 70-90 days are also critical requirements.

We’ve enjoyed two years of sweet little Midgets and it’s time to consider alternatives for next year:

Emerald Green, 2-3 lbs, 70-90 days
Green Nutmeg, 2-3 lbs, 70-80 days
Golden Jenny, 3/4-1 lb, 85 days (insect resistant)
Petit Gris de Rennes, 2-3 lbs, 80-85 days
Sakata’s Sweet, 1-2 lbs, 85-95 days
Sleeping Beauty 1/2-1lb, 85 days
Savor, 1-2 lbs, 70-80 days (disease resistant)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds seem to have an excellent selection of seeds.

Sprouts Sprouting!

These six Brussels Sprout seeds were planted a little over a week ago. Already they’re reaching out to grab every ray of sunlight they can. POD knows the feeling.

brussels sprouts seedlings in teeny peat pots
brussels sprout seedlings in teeny peat pots

The little peat seeding containers are really quite wonderful. They can be purchased pretty inexpensively and they make transplanting incredibly simple. Many are even made of recycled material or contain organic fertilizers. Come planting time, all you need to do is rip the bottom out (so the roots can grow more freely) and drop the entire container into the soil, making sure to cover the lip of the pot with a layer of soil. Best of all, they’re biodegradable.

Obviously, they’re probably a little more difficult for folks who plant crops in quantities larger than oh, say three plants, but for container gardeners, they’re a great way to go. They’re gaping holes of thirst, though. You’ll need to check on your wee seedlings daily to make sure they’re getting adequate water.

Gas Out

“Thus, in one sense, the taste of chlorine is a welcome taste. The presence of chlorine means that the water has been kept fresh.” So sayeth The Philadelphia Water Department.

Maybe so, but a nice fresh Brita filter can’t hurt.

But POD is not about to filter every gallon of water that makes its way up the medieval pulley to the little blue deck. Instead, try filling your plant-watering buckets with dish-washing rinse water (not the super dirty, super soapy stuff, mind you, just the final rinse) and let the buckets set for a day or two. The chlorine evaporates, leaving slightly used virtuously recycled water in its wake.

Sowing New Seeds

Usually, POD feels a twinge of sadness this time of year. Okay, more than a twinge. Yes, the deck is prospering and yes, the farmers’ markets are flowing, and yes, the kitchen is humming with fresh produce, but the end is near. And it hurts.

What makes POD happy? Seeds. So this year, instead of resigning myself to the end of an era, POD’s expanding. Who knows how it’ll turn out, but it seems worth a shot. Unlike the rest of the produce on the 2009 little blue deck, this is new uncharted territory.

Thanks to the now-dead Django restaurant, a Philly favorite until the chef/owners relocated to the ‘burbs and left a pale imitation in their wake, POD and her lovely husband discovered that Brussels sprouts don’t totally suck. Add some butter and bacon and you’re good to go.

These seeds (selected because they’re Franklin Hybrids — and POD is a Philly garden, after all) from Territorial Seed Company, are enjoying some rich, firmly packed organic soil and plenty of indoor sunlight and stable temps. They should germinate in a couple of weeks or so. Check back for progress reports. These sprouts are also apparently quick to mature — a big considerations this time of year.

There’s even enough to share with a certain Philadelphia City Paper Editor.

Here’s hoping for a mild winter and a bonus crop.

brussels sprout seeds
brussels sprout seeds

Yup, it’s Early Blight

The wonderful Colorado State University Extension provides a terrific online tool for diagnosing a myriad of tomato diseases. Take, for example, the following:

Early Blight, Colorado Sate University Extension image
Early Blight, Colorado Sate University Extension image
POD gold nugget, early blight
Early Blight, POD Gold Nugget

So, okay, POD has Early Blight. No surprise there — it’s a recurring theme on deck.

Yeah, you may have thought you were off the hook. Your tomatoes were thriving and then, suddenly, they weren’t.
Symptoms become more obvious during the hotter months, so June and July spell tomato doom in Philly.

Now, what to do?

  • Prune diseased leaves (as POD does oh-so-conscientiously) but keep an eye out for sunburned fruit. If you have to harvest it early, wrap it in newspaper and it’ll ripen in a few days.
  • Since this is a fungus (soil, wind, or seedborne), sanitation is your best best: Remove all diseased plant leaves from the soil, clean your trimming tools, space your containers judiciously, avoid touching healthy leaves with the sick ones, wash hands before touching healthy plants.
  • At the end of the season, clean and dry containers and drainage materials thoroughly.
  • Use fresh potting soil each year. (POD dumps her used dirt on the local community pocket park…is this bad? No vegetables are grown there, the park desperately needs something besides city-provided wood chip mulch, and it truly hurts to throw the soil away.)
  • Good air circulation is key, but the gusty winds on deck do a good job of ensuring this.
  • Water the soil in the morning — avoid watering the leaves. Philly’s cold, rainy May and June didn’t help with these efforts…at all.
  • If the infestation is heavy, use sulfur dust, Neem, or copper spray — it may help protect new leaves from infection.
  • Fertilize! POD could be much more diligent on this count. Next year, POD’s gonna’ stick a calendar on the fridge and use an organic 5-6-5(ish) fertilizer every couple of week.
  • Demonstrate patience: properly harden-off seedlings, transplant when evenings are consistently over 55 degrees, and trim leaves before sinking them into the soil. Refer to Return of the Fungi.

Haricots Verts, Sil Vous Plait?

Green beans are a wonderful, wonderful thing. If you’re an urban gardener, odds are you don’t have room forfilet nickel the gorgeous towering beans castles that make one of gardens POD knows so striking. (Well, the beanscrapers and the adjoining poulet maison, really tag-team the eye-catching.)

The perfect solution for roof deck gardens? Filet nickel — a high-yield, short-lived French bush bean. These little suckers do well in two-gallon buckets — two plants in each bucket. They grow quickly and produce in one or two concentrated spurts. It means you’ll have to replant often, but POD tends to have several buckets at different stages of maturity to keep a steady stream of beans flowing into the kitchen.

Since beans are highly susceptible to disease this quick rotation keeps nasties in check, too.

Happy Meals

panzanella ingredients

It’s high summer. The tomatoes, cucumber, and basil have hit that wonderful stage: panzanella.

For some of us summer begins in March, when the seed catalogs arrive and the shopping sprees begin. For those same folks, summer begins winding down with the fourth of July’s flowery fireworks. For others, panzanella marks the true beginning of summer. Who’s the optimist/pessimist here? POD or her wonderful garden widower? Discuss.

Either way, panzanella is a happy, happy meal.

Ingredients:
serves 2-3
basil, a nice handful or two, cut into a chiffonade
tomatoes, we’re using a healthy 1/2 lb of tumbling toms and gold nuggets, chopped
2-4 cucumbers, sliced (POD’s first lemon cucumber is pictured above)
1 ball (1/2 lb or so) fresh mozzarella, cubed
leftover crusty bread, a dozen 1/2- 3/4″ slices
3 tbs. high-quality balsamic vinegar
3 tbs. olive oil
salt & pepper

1) Toss the basil, tomatoes,  cucmbers, and mozzarella in a large bowl.
2) Combine your vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a jar. Shake like crazy — until your vinaigrette appears almost creamy.
3) Rub the bread slices with garlic and olive oil. Grill until toasty and golden.
4) Break the bread into bite-sized pieces and add to the vegetables and mozzarella.
5) Pour on the dressing, toss thoroughly, let it rest for 5 minutes, eat.

Body by POD

bicep builder
bicep builder

See that? That’s the medieval-looking pulley system that services the little blue deck.

Obviously the builders of our 100ish-year old South Philly row home didn’t think to install a spigot on the second floor exterior. (Heck, we think the current kitchen was built over the space previously held by the privy.)

For the first few years, we hauled buckets of water up the sladder to service PODS blooms or poured water — by the measuring cupful — from the bathroom tap into a watering can just outside the bathroom window. A slow process at best, dangerous at worst. (Just ask the friends who’ve missed a step.)

A couple of years ago POD’s mom imported a carload of plants from her favorite Michigan greenhouses and POD’s dad carted along this massive bicep builder. Thanks, guys.