Fall Fell

lettuce seedsWell, dear friends, Fall has touched down in South Philly. Which is not to say we won’t be slammed with a few more 90 degree days; but generally, temps are hovering in the 70s during the day and low 60s at night. The biggest challenge, though, is the rapidly dwindling sun exposure. POD enjoys at least six to eight hours of sun throughout most of the summer but by September, it receives only a few hours of morning sun.

What does this mean for POD’s zone 7 garden? Major work on deck.

As you can see from yesterday’s post, there’s been some reorganization.  First, all containers have been crammed together to maximize sun exposure. Both the Gold Nugget and Isis Candy cherry tomatoes bit the dust, as did the spacemaster and lemon cucumbers (tune in for more info on Friday).  Filling their shoes are several more parsnip seeds, French radishes, lettuce, Swiss chard, and carrots.

Parsnips and Radishes of the Future
Parsnips and Radishes of the Future

The Brussels sprout seedlings have also made their way, full-time, onto the deck. Honestly, they’ve been looking a little peaked lately. Here’s hoping they pull through.

Parsnips Peeping

parnsipsA few weeks ago, in a fit of Chicken Little-like panic, fall garden planning began. This is a first for POD — usually the containers get retired when the last of the straggling cucumbers make their way onto a salad and the herbs have been hacked down and transformed into indoor pets.

Not this year, though! POD has visions of making the Thanksgiving trek to Michigan with armfuls of parsnips, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and maybe even some last-gasp chard. (There’s no hope that the wee parmex carrots will amount to much, but hey, it’s worth a shot.)

Food for Thought

Each year POD ties to walk the delicate line between trying new things, planting a nice variety of edibles, and planting enough of any given vegetable to make a meal. When your garden is a 10×10 roof deck and a bunch of pots, it makes things tricky.

And, every year, some things work and some things don’t. This year’s experiments included four cherry tomato plants versus the standard planting of two traditional plants. Good thing, too. The chocolate cherry got tossed before it could offer much to the table but the remaining three were pretty vigorous producers (despite an impressive case of early blight). Producing enough, in fact, for an almost-weekly dinner starring or, at the very least, co-starring sweet homegrown tomatoes.

The year’s biggest regret, howbeansever, is the inconsistent stream of green (or purple) beans. Next to tomatoes, beans are simply one of the summer’s greatest gifts and next year POD really needs to do something about this. Filet nickel bush beans are pretty marvelous: they’re tasty and prolific, but because of their short life span they take a lot of dedication to keep an even yield on the table. Two rotating pots (with a total of three plants) simply couldn’t come close to keeping up with the demand.

Next year a bucket of pole beans may appear on deck. Perhaps McCaslan, Dade, Kentucky Wonder, or Blue Lake. Your suggestions are welcome…

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.

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

Sap Suckers

Because Early Blight just isn’t enough pestilence for one little blue deck to endure, it’s also got a fascinating case of banded winged whiteflies. What the heck?

Looks like it’s become a race: how many tomatoes can one eat before the tomatoes eat themselves? So far over three pounds have made their way into the kitchen and that feels like an enormous success.

What you see here are the eggs and larvae of the whitefly sucking their way through the underside of a chocolate cherry’s leaf. If you look veerrry closely, you’ll see one of the more mature almost-flies taking a stroll along the lower left edge of the leaf.

bandedwinged whitefly, chocolate cherry
banded winged whitefly, chocolate cherry tomato

These pernicious pests are easy to miss. It took a good deal of staring, research, more staring, picking, squinting, still more research, and then magnifying photos to figure it out. These microscopic suckers live on the undersides of the leaves but the top of the leaf appears to have whitish spots, then suddenly wilts and falls off. All that and they transmit a viral diseases, too.

By all accounts, whiteflies are tough to control. The poor chocolate cherry tomato has been moved as far away as possible from the struggling, but producing, Tumbling Tom, Gold Nugget, and Isis.  POD hates the thought of chemicals (because we actually do want to eat what tomatoes can be salvaged) and kinda’ figures these guys are a lost cause. But, the undersides of the leaves are being hit with all we’ve got: soapy water with baking soda, EcoSmart Organic Garden Insect Killer, and Garden Safe Multi-Purpose Garden Insect Killer. Take that.

Pesto+String Beans+Potatoes+Pasta = Yum

We do love our beans and our basil. Add them together? Heaven.  Here’s a super quick and super simple weekday dinner — a traditional Ligurian dish, actually. Mmmmm. Starchtastic.purple beans

First, butcher your basil. Be ruthless, it’ll grow back bushier and happier than ever. Then, make your favorite pesto.

pesto ingredients chopped

serves 2
Parmesan, grated
1 c. beans, snapped into 1-2″ pieces (we used purple, French, and yellow string beans)
2 medium-sized red-skinned potatoes, cut into 1/2″ cubes
8 oz tortellini
Pesto

1) Bring a large pot of water to boil. Toss in a bunch of salt.
2) Add potatoes, boil 5 minutes.
3) Add tortellini, boil 2-5 minutes.
4) Add beans, boil 5 minutes (adjust bean cooking time to your personal preference)
5) Drain, toss with pesto, top with cheese. Eat.

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.