Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Growing Figs in Central VA! FUN FUN!

I am on vacation and revisiting my very first post, over 5 years ago (YAY!) on my very favorite fruit!
Figs (Ficus carica)
When I moved to central Virginia 8 years ago, I was amazed by what can be grown in this zone. I found eucalyptus by the James River and both Northern and Southern Magnolias side by side in neighbors’ yards. One of my amazing finds was fig trees. I stumbled upon them one autumn at Monticello and, later, at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where, alas, they were removed when the Children’s’ Garden was renovated.

I first heard about the extreme measures northern gardeners take to keep figs trees alive in an issue of Organic Gardening magazine. From pruning and burying the trees to building little structures (fig houses) around the trees in the fall, Northern gardeners must have to love figs to try to grow them. After I got used to looking for the trees, I found one venerable fig tree in northern New Jersey. The elderly Italian gardeners in the house covered the tree each fall with thick layers of old carpeting and rope and each spring it budded anew.

Growing figs is much easier here in central Virginia than points north and the fruit is an excellent reward. I planted 3 Brown Turkey figs 5 years ago and am experimenting with two others, Petite Negri (planted in a large pot), a black fig, and a green honey fig variety. Three of the Brown Turkeys are planted near the house on a southern exposure. This is the best location to provide winter warmth and protection from desiccating breezes. For the first three years, I wrapped the figs in the fall with burlap and filled the burlap with that ubiquitous VA mulching material, pine straw. Other than watering the plants deeply through that first summer, this is all the care they needed. Last year, the figs again produced abundant fruit, but needed some heavy pruning to reduce the height to manageable levels. Figs can be heavily pruned and will come back the following spring, fruiting on new wood.

My figs have not been affected by any pests, other than the occasional bird or squirrel, unlike the organic peaches or apples I struggle to produce each year. Once their roots go deep, figs are sturdy, hardy plants with no particular diseases in this area of VA.

What to do with the all those figs? Well, the ones that are not eaten right off the plant (and one tree grows onto my porch, so I have fulfilled my dream of picking figs from a lawn chair on the front porch) I make into fig preserves and I dry many more in a dehydrator. These dried figs can be used, reconstituted with a bit of warm water, in biscotti, pumpkin bread, zucchini bread…or they can be eaten out of hand. If you pick slightly under ripe figs, let them ripen and darken on the counter overnight. If some white, milky sap gets on the fig when you pick it, make sure to wash this off as it can create a bitter taste in your mouth and a slight allergic reaction (so, never eat figs unripe). Each variety ripens to a different color, green, brown or deep brown/purple.

Figs contain a great deal of calcium, and have phosphorous, potassium, beta-carotene, vitamin C, fiber, flavanoids and polyphenols. They are a nutritional powerhouse!

An excellent source for figs is Edible Landscaping, 361 Spirit Ridge Road, Afton VA, http://www.eat-it.com/ , info@ediblelandscaping.com. They have a great collection of figs, including Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago, Marseilles, Conadria, LSU Purple and others.  

Eggplant Pyramid

'Nuff said?  (Lavender Touch eggplant still pumping out fruit!)

Recipe: Muscadine Grape Juice

Muscadine Grape Juice

I have written about muscadine grapes before (you can use the search function on the opening page of this blog to find a previous post).  Muscadines are a grape native to the United States.  They are not table grapes and, most notoriously, have been used to make a sweet, grapey wine.  Muscadines can be used in preserves, and I have made muscadine syrup for waffles and pancakes and muscadine sorbet.  Muscadines come into season in mid September and you can even forage for them.

The "problem" with muscadines is they produce abundant amounts of fruit.  I thought I would give making and canning my own grape juice a shot.  Here is how to do it:

Fill a large stainless steel stockpot 3/4ths full of washed muscadines, making sure all stems have been picked off.  Pour boiling water over the top . Cover, and boil gently, for 30 minutes.  Let cool.

Here is the fun part.  If you want pulp juice, like you get with pulpy OJ, this is all you need to do regarding straining: pour the muscadines and liquid through a fine, mesh strainer or sieve that is set in a large bowl. Take a wooden spoon or potato masher and stir and gently press the grapes, until all you have left in the sieve are skins and seeds. Pour the pulpy juice back into the stockpot, sugar to taste (muscadines can be sour) and heat it up to 190 degrees and hold at the temp for 5 minutes.

Assuming you have already prepared your canning jars [go to http://www.freshpreserving.com/getting-started.aspx for COMPLETE directions,] ladle the juice into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace.  Wipe rim, center lid on jar, screw on ring.  Process in a water bath canner for 15 minutes.  Turn off the canner, remove lid. Wait 5 minutes to remove jars onto a folded towel.  Let cool overnight. The next morning, check the lids for a seal and store. Alternately, cool the juice and store in the fridge.

If you do not want pulp, there is a additional step after running the juice through the sieve: you need to strain the juice through a the sieve, now lined with several layers of dampened cheesecloth for several hours.  Then proceed with the recipe.

Happy eating...er drinking!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Recipe: Eggplant Sauce

SCORE!  I finally fond something great to do with the bouty of eggplant I am experiencing: eggplant sauce!  Like tomato-based pasta sauces, but easier to make!  It is incredibly yummy and can be used on said pasta, is a great sauce for pizza or for aything that needs a kick-in-the-pants regarding flavor.  And here is the recipe"

4-5T olive oil
4 to 6 slender (or a dozen of the super skinny) eggplant, or maybe 2 large eggplant, peeled and cut into chunks or thick slices.
2 onions, cut into wedges
6- 8 medium tomatoes, also cut into wedges
1 head of garlic (a full head, not just a clove)
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt to sprinkle (I like large grain salt) and to taste
1T lemon juice
Grated black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top off the garlic, place in tin foil, drizzle 1 t olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.  Fully wrap the garlic head in the foil, and place it in the oven in a small baking pan or atop the cookie sheets (see next). Toss the veggies in a few T. of olive oil and 1/2 t salt. Spread these veggies one layer thick on cookie sheets that have been covered in baking parchment. Bake the veggies until soft; about 30 minutes.

Next. put the veggies (and all the juice they exude) into a food processor or blender.  Include the garlic, after you squeeze each clove out of its "paper" wrapper.  Add the  basil, ground pepper, lemon juice and parmesan cheese.  Pulse until pureed. Taste and add salt if desired.  Enjoy!
Variations:  you can roast a red pepper or two along with the veggies. The sauce can be frozen. You can add chopped raw tomatoes, dried tomatoes, avocado, green onions, chopped olives just before serving.  Serve the sauce atop the fish or carbo (including pizza crust) of your choice!
Happy eating!

Monday, September 9, 2013


Above: Apples in syrup.

If you grow lots of produce, eventually you probably need to learn to can.  Yes, you can stuff yourself silly with fresh produce, freeze and dehydrate, build a root cellar to keep produce around a longer time, but canning may be the best way to preserve some things, like jams and jellies, pickles, all kinds of tomato products and my "hippy apples" (see post on that).  There are essentially two types of canning: water-bath and pressure canning.  So far, water bath canning is all I do.  This method is a fine way to preserve high-acid foods, like most fruits, tomatoes and pickles.  In water bath canning (though please look up full directions before you do this) you sterilize the glass jars (I guess it is obvious why we don't call this "jarring") and lids, pack them with hot or cold prepared produce, put a lid and ring on it and process the jars for the amount of time recommended in the recipe.  For this you need a canning kettle, jars, lids and rigs, a jar lifter, lid lifter, canning funnel, instant read thermometer and a few other odds and ends.  You can usually purchase the canning accessories as a "canning kit," though the kettle is sold separately.

The other type of canning is pressure canning and is the only safe way to can low-acid foods, including green beans, carrots, meat, fish, and most prepared meals.  Pressure canning involves the use of a pressure canner (like a pressure cooker).  Canning under pressure is necessary because these foods contain too little acid to prevent to growth of the botulism bacteria.

Above: Pear preserves

If you do either type of canning, get a recently published book on canning to learn how to proceed. In recent years, canning guidelines have changed, including increasing amounts of added acids and salt and processing time (for example, many modern tomato cultivars produce "low-acid" fruit. This might be good for a sensitive tummy, but bad for canning, so you must up the acid by adding lemon juice).  Granny's canning recipes might not cut it anymore, and those vintage cookbooks are fun to look at, but do not rely on their canning recipes.  

One last caution: You may see an older recipe in which the jam is "sealed" by pouring a thick layer of parrafin over the top.  This is generally recognized as unsafe.

Happy gardening!  And preserving!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

CSI: Garden

Small, furry, cute and a major player in garden crime around the US.  Watch for this evil actor.   These criminals decimated my friend's squash, will eat any and all garden vegetables and fruit. How to stop them cold?  Either get a good dog or spray your cherished veggies with a chili pepper spray! http://www.wikihow.com/Get-Rid-of-Animal-Pests-With-Hot-Pepper-Spray

Happy gardening!

Photo credit The Mechanicsville Local, Mechanicsville, VA, 9/4/13

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Renovation: To Straw or Not to Straw or A Tale of Herbicide Contamination

(below: No till, heavy mulch garden bed)

True Confession:  Since I began working (RE: paid employment) more (I always work, am very busy), I have had less time for the garden (insert frowny face here) and it is in need of some renovation and re-working.  I hope to be posting on my progress with this.  One thing I have written about already is moving towards a no-till  garden, using the Ruth Stout method of piling high the natural mulches and planting into them. In areas when I have done this, I have far fewer weeds and it is a lot less work (there are disadvantages, like cover for voles, but more on that another time).  I wanted to expand this method throughout the food gardens, by collecting leaves and pine straw.  I also want to investigate the availability of municipal compost and less costly sources for straw.  But are these two latter ideas good ones?

Both straw and municipal compost can be contaminated by herbicides (I have written on this before too).  It used to be that the composting process broke down herbicides into less harmful compounds, but a new class of herbicides (including picloram, clopyralid, aminopyralid-based compounds: Confront, Forefront...), found in both straw and compost, can persist for a way longer time than prior herbicides, and are called "garden killers" for their long-lasting and devastating effects on gardens.  If you unknowingly use products contaminated with these herbicides, your garden will no longer be organic and you might not be able to get much to grow, for many seasons.

These herbicides might be on the grass that is composted in municipal sites, sprayed on the hay/straw as it grows to prevent weeds and in the manure of animals that eat contaminated hay.  If you cannot get tested products (and you probably cannot) you can do your own home test.    For commercial or municipal compost, fill a dozen three or four inch pots, half of them with potting soil  only and the other half with an equal mix of municipal compost and potting soil and mark the pots. Put three bean or peas seeds in each pot (these plants are more susceptible to this herbicide damage) and water them.  Keep the pots separated, so drain water from the potentially contaminated compost does not contaminate the potting-soil only pots.  When each plant has emerged and has three sets of leaves, compare them.  If the plants in the compost mix have cupped leaves, or odd thickening or distorting of the leaves, contamination might be present.

But what do you do if you are testing compost you brought home and it is contaminated?  First, buy only enough to test, so, if it is bad, you did not purchase much.  But make sure that, in the case that the compost tests OK, you can buy more from the same pile you got your sample from (insure that new material is not mixed in). However, many municipal compost operations make their compost in long rows, mixing materials and piles together with a backhoe.  This might mean that compost purchased on week and tested is not really the same compost that is available the next week.  But, if you buy a lot, you may be stuck with a lot. If you buy a little, that might be all you can get.  Overall, this might mean that fewer people (like me) will bother with municipal compost, unless is it tested at the source.

Straw is another matter altogether and harder to test. What I would try is to repeat the experiment above, using larger pots, with an inch of straw in the bottom, potting soil and an inch of straw on top.  Compare this to plants in pots with no straw.  Plant the seeds in the soil layer, water well and see what happens.

Other options?  Make your own compost, and use gathered leaves and pine straw for mulch.


Green Figs

Figs come in more colors than brown, and vary in size, as shown above.  There are brown, reddish, purple, striped and green or white figs.  The smaller figs pictured above are from my brown Turkey fig trees.  These trees produce abundantly and the figs are bite-sized and sweet. The green figs next to it are a variety of green or honey figs and boy, honey is right.  I wish I had more like these!  I am still searching for the paperwork that tells me their variety name as someone (not moi) mowed down the plant label!  I preserve figs by dehydrating them and making and canning fig jam.  
Edible Landscaping in  Afton, VA, an organic nursery, has a large selection of fig varieties for Virginia at http://ediblelandscaping.com/buyPlants.
Happy gardening!