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.

Toys!

Nothing says summer quite like nice sugar cone packed with mint chocolate chip ice cream. Or coffee ice cream. Or caramel ice cream. Or strawberry ice cream. Or…well, you get the idea.

About once every other summer or so, POD’s family would dust off the hand-churning antique ice cream maker, stuff the bucket full of ice and rock salt and crank until their arms screamed for mercy. That same maker moved from Michigan to Philly with POD and somehow, sadly, hasn’t been touched since. Okay, maybe once. But that’s it.

Finally, we dropped the $30 for a small electric ice cream maker.  Since then, cholesterol levels have skyrocketed and the freezer has been stuffed with salted caramel, mint chocolate chip (minus the food coloring), and strawberry ice cream.

What does this have to do with plants on deck? Mint.

mint ice cream base
mint ice cream base

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.

What’s a Determinate?

determinate vs. indeterminate tomatoesIf you ignore the yellowing, early blighted leaves (which were snipped moments after this photo was snapped), you’ll see a still-producing Isis Candy cherry tomato towering above its neighboring Gold Nugget.

It towers because it’s an indeterminate — that is, it keeps going and growing and going. Until diseases finally fell is, that is. The Gold Nugget, one the other hand, has about had its day. It has reached its determined height, produced a couple pounds of tomatoes, and is about to expire.

The determinate vs. indeterminate is an important consideration for gardeners, especially those with limited space. Like, for instance, this particular roof deck gardener.

This year, POD selected two indeterminate varieties (the late Chocolate Cherry and the ailing Isis Candy) and two determinate varieties (Gold Nugget and Tumbling Tom). Because POD’s seduced by the idea of an ever-growing, ever-producing tomato, the larger and ungangly and space-hogging indeterminate is quite fetching. However, because disease is a constant lurking threat, the short(er)-lived and compact determinate has its merits.

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.

Planting Fever

Each week (or so) we have a few friends over for dinner, and while I was busy stirring POD’s thai chilies into the evening’s much-delayed lemongrass curry, our dear friend began asking all sorts of interesting gardening questions.

Clearly he’s caught the gardening bug. Poor thing.

He came to his addiction late, though, and is wondering what the heck he can still plant now that daylight is on the wane and Philadelphia has turned into the soupy humid swamp that is late July.

So, dear friend, here are a few suggestions for July, who knows, you just may see them sprouting up on deck soon. Let’s give it a whirl together:

Brussels Sprouts (October-December harvest)
Cauliflower
(December-March harvest) — Look for the following varieties: Needles and Purple Cape
Parsnips (November-December harvest)

Check back in a couple of weeks and see what works for August sowing.

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.

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.

Pesto alla POD

Here’s a super easy (truly, it is) weekday meal that puts your over-producing herbs and under-producing (but adequate) Tumbling Tom and Gold Nugget cherry tomatoes to good use.

Serves 2 — preparation time appx. 20 minutes

Tumbling Tom and Gold Nugget Cherry Tomatoes
Tumbling Tom and Gold Nugget Cherry Tomatoes

Ingredients:
Handful of almonds, lightly toasted (maybe a 1/4 or so) and chopped

1/2 c. fresh herbs (tarragon, rosemary, and thyme), chopped
OR 3/4 c. fresh basil, if you want to be a little more traditional

1 clove garlic, chopped

pinch of red pepper flakes

10-15 cherry tomatoes
salt and pepper

8 oz. spaghettini or capellini

parmigiano-reggiano, grated

Directions
1) Bring a large pot of water to boil. When it boils, add a generous dash or four of salt to the water.
2) While you’re waiting for the water to boil, stick the almonds, herbs (or basil), garlic, and red-pepper flakes in a blender (or a food processor, if you own one) and blend until chunky. Drizzle in about 1/4 c. olive oil until pureed, but still chunky. Add the cherry tomatoes and process until incorporated. The sauce should look a little like a bolognese — thick, rich-looking, and yellowish/reddish/orange. Season with salt and pepper.
3) Boil the pasta. Just before it’s done, scoop about about 3 tbs of the cooking water and dump it into a large bowl. Drain the pasta.
4) Scoop the sauce into the large bowl that contains your cooking water. Stir until smooth and the water is incorporated.
5) Add the hot pasta and toss until it’s coated. Serve. Top with cheese.