Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Monday, September 22, 2008

Eggplant Eggplant!

Eggplant (and a little organic philosophy thrown in)
The time of year I write this (September) is not the time to plant eggplant, but it is the time to enjoy those wonderful vegetables (a botanical fruit) before we lose the plants to frost. I go through phases with my devotion to particular vegetables, but my current love is eggplant. Some of the advice I am going to give here can apply to other plants in this genus (solanum), such as tomatoes and peppers, and eggplants should also be grown in rotation with them (and potatoes) in an organic garden. (I will write an entry on rotation soon). Eggplants come in a variety of colors and shapes, from little round white ones to narrow green ones, to narrow lavender to the large, deep purple globe eggplants we see in the stores (though it is more of a tear drop shape than a globe). I have posted a photo of some of my end-of-season (read “a little battle scarred from bugs, but still delicious”) eggplants. I tried two new varieties this year, the green and the white, as my local garden center first ran out of the traditional purple ones (and the seeds I had started failed this year). As I wrote, eggplants can be lavender, purple or striped and are lovely in and out of the garden.

Eggplants love hot weather and a typical mistake is to set them out too early in the spring. If I do have an urge to set them out earlier than mid-May, I make sure I use a dark mulch (landscape fabric) and cover them with floating row covers, which increase heat. The row covers are also important to help combat flea beetles. Flew beetles (tiny black beetles) are the worst pest on eggplant I have here in central Virginia (and I had them as a problem when I lived in the mid-west too). One day your eggplant looks fine, the next day the leaves are riddled with tiny holes. Flea beetles seem to multiply fast and can destroy small, young seedlings quickly. The row covers keep the beetles off the plant until it is big enough to survive and produce fruit in spite of the bugs. Remember, part of the philosophy of organic gardening is to figure out the least problematic way to defeat or control a pest. Control is a key word here- I don’t kill all the flea beetles (though you can learn how to mash them between thumb and plant leaf before they jump-like their namesake, fleas, they are good jumpers-but mashing them to get good control them is a twice per day activity) (rotation, mentioned earlier is another way to control pests). I use lengths of an old garden hose, stick unto the ground with sticks inside to hold them up to support the row cover, and I weigh it down with rocks or bricks. It is very effective at control. I also use cutworm collars around the base of newly planted eggplants (cardboard toilet paper tubes, pressed into the soil) to stop cutworms from wrapping around the base of the plant and snipping it off near the ground (I use this for other transplants too).

In my experience, eggplants like rich soil, full sun and lots of water, but with good drainage. At the time they begin to flower, remove the row covers (and save it for next year- it isn’t cheap and can be patched to last a few more seasons) and let the pollination begin. I fertilize a few times each season with liquid fish emulsion and vermicompost or compost tea.

Eggplants are best young, before they have gotten bitter, seedy or woody. Some old time recipes recommend you soak your peeled and sliced eggplant in salt water to draw out the bitterness, but this is unnecessary with young eggplant. I love eggplant oven roasted with garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt, sautéed with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and fresh herbs over pasta and in baba ganooj.

Any questions? J

Friday, September 12, 2008


Two Raspberries I Know and Love
I did not have my first fresh raspberry until I was an adult. Not that I was fruit deprived as a child, but raspberries were then (and are now) too fragile to be readily shipped and stored for any time in transit or at the market. I bought my first, expensive, fresh raspberries at the grocery store, in their plastic, clamshell container. They were very large, plump, red… and absolutely tasteless. Not being terribly sophisticated with real foods at the time, I though this was how all raspberries must taste. It was not until year later that I picked my first wild blackberry and was amazed at the explosion of taste in my mouth. Not long after, I picked and ate my first fresh raspberry and it was love! I figured it out then (dope slap), to get good raspberries, you had to grow them.

I did some research, mostly thanks to Organic Gardening magazine and learned about raspberries. The fall before I planted them, I covered over the grass in an area of the garden near the edge. When the grass was dead in later fall (our family is very good at killing grass), I dug the area up and amended it with some wonderful compost I had been saving for this special job.

In late winter I ordered 20 canes of Nova raspberry from Indiana Berry farm (see resources on the blog). Nova was listed as being a disease-resistant cultivar and bore fruit for two seasons, a large June crop and a later fall one. In spring, I covered the area with a weed barrier cloth. The canes looked like sticks with a few roots when they arrived. I spaced them evenly, according to the directions, planted them into holes cut in the weed barrier fabric, staked each one with a thin bamboo cane and mulched. I pounded in some green metal fence posts around the bed and strung wire along them to contain the 4 foot wide bed and keep the canes mostly upright. Canes will send underground runners outside the area you define, so you will need to keep them well pruned to prevent them invading other areas. Boy did they take off and produced a small fall crop that year, and lots of raspberries every year since. Their maintenance needs are slight- cut off all canes that bore fruit and top dress with compost or aged manure. I think they may need a boost this year (their 5th or 6th year of bearing fruit) with granular rock phosphate to improve spring flowering, and fruit set, as the spring crop was lighter this year than usual, though we are getting more fall berries than usual (this is September 10 in central VA). Nova is hardy and productive and the berries are delicious and great for eating fresh or made into jam, pie, cobbler or crisps.

The other raspberry I know and love is the Fall Gold raspberry. I wanted to extend the raspberry season and fall gold produces its large flush of fruit in August and September. It was not as quickly productive for me as the Nova- I threatened it last fall with annihilation if I didn’t get a whole lot more fruit and that did the trick!- but it was very productive this fall. The last several autumns have been very dry around here and I think I’ve figured out that, if I water consistently in August in September, the Fall Gold will produce well. There is still some amount of fruit that does not set, more than the Nova, but we got a good yield so far. The berries are more fragrant and “perfumey” than the Nova, but I prefer them (though my husband prefers the flavor of Nova). They make the best fruit cobbler. I planted them and maintain them the same as the Nova, though all the Fall Gold canes get cut down in fall.

Raspberries should not be grown near blackberries. Blackberry brambles carry a disease that will kill raspberry canes. You need a 150 to 200 foot buffer between them. Before you plant raspberry canes, check for wild blackberry plants in your yard and remove them. Raspberries need some sun, though can tolerate a daily dose of shade (some say shade improves the flavor). Japanese beetles and stink bugs can be a problem for bramble fruits, but I either ignore them or hand pick them and dump them into a jar of warm, soapy water.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


I currently use three methods of composting, five in my lifetime: sheet composting, pile composting, pit composting, compost tumbling and vermicomposting. Compost is the lifeblood of the organic garden (or maybe that is water and the compost is the muscle? Confusing my metaphors here). Anyway an important goal of the organic gardener is to have soil that is rich in organic matter. Have you ever dug down into the soil of a northern hardwood forest? You will see layers of absolutely beautiful soil, leaves and other matter in different stages of decomposition. What you want in your organic garden is loose, rich soil full of organic matter.

What is organic matter? Most anything from plant sources can break down in garden soil and enrich it. You can buy various products, from composted manure to peat moss, but each of these has drawbacks (the bagged cow manure may not be organic and peat moss is a non-renewable material-if I use peat, I use is sparingly). Compost can consist of non-meat kitchen scraps (including eggshells, used tea and coffee grounds, vegetable and plant trimmings) layered with things like grass clippings, farm animal manure or leaves. I used to worry about getting the brown (carbon) to green (nitrogen) balance right, but I find if I use kitchen scraps and grass clippings, plus perhaps a load of free, used coffee grounds from a coffee shop and maybe some leaves, I get a good compost that breaks down fairly quickly. If your compost pit is warm to the touch after a few days, it is breaking down well. If not, add more green matter or coffee grounds (which are high in nitrogen). Never add meat, bones, diary products or oils (fish heads, shrimp shells, etc can be added in small amounts, though neighborhood cats might be attracted to them).

Types of Composting
Sheet composting: consists of either spreading out grass, leaves and kitchen scraps right on the bed you are going to plant, or digging it in, and giving some time for it to decompose. In this case, you let it break down on its own, no turning. Some people like to cover the area with wet newspaper or other cover to help breakdown and avoid an unsightly area. I prefer to cover with a few shovelfuls of soil.

Pile and pit composting: are basically the same thing, either you place compostables in a pile above ground, surrounded by some sort of fencing, or in a pit. The pits tends to stay warmer in the winter, but can flood in a heavy rain. I have three pits, on the outer edge of my vegetable garden. Many people recommend that you have three pits- one to put new materials in, one that is in the process of aging and one of finished compost…or the third to easily turn the compost, by dumping the contents of one pile or pit into the other, which mixes it up and aerates it.

Compost barrel: Years ago I bought a type of composter that is basically a round drum on a stand that rotates. I had terrible luck with it, could not get it to heat up adequately and it eventually rusted out. It was very expensive (it was a gift) and I would not do that again.

Vermicomposting: this is my current favorite type of composting. It is basically using worms to digest vegetable and fruit scraps. It can be done in a simple plastic bin, drilled to let moisture escape (into buckets-it is a terrific liquid fertilizer!). One side of the bin holds shredded newspaper and vegetable/fruit scraps and the worms. It is kept moist (not wet). When the worms digest all the vegetative matter, you simply put more damp shredded newspaper and new vegetative matter into the other side of the bin, right against the finished worm compost. The worms migrate to the fresh stuff, leaving wonderful worm castings- a great fertilizer. I have a composter built specifically for worms and it is pictured in this entry. It is my current favorite. It makes a great liquid fertilizer- I swear it has brought plants back from the brink! Worm bins or composters need to be kept in a shed, garage or other protected area. I believe that you cannot use regular garden worms for this type of composter; you will need to buy composting worms.

Turning the compost: Some people feel that compost piles can be static, that is, never turned and they will break down eventually. This is true, but it could become anaerobic if not enough oxygen is present (and that smells bad!). Also, turned compost breaks down much more quickly and I highly recommend it.

Whatever you do, remember the soil!