Sunday, October 17, 2010

Question of the day.

Every year, this branch on one of my Japanese maples turns red before the rest of the tree. Can anyone tell me why?

An insider's tip.

If you are lucky enough to still have a few tomatoes left, don't wait too long to pick them. I've been assuming heat and drought (no rain in two months!) are causing these splits in my tomatoes, but my go-to guy Keith Forrester from Whitton Farms says no: The splits are caused by leaving tomatoes on the vine too long.

"We pick our tomatoes when they start to turn," Keith says.

Too much watering (guilty as charged) also contributes to the splits, because tomatoes turn water to juice. Gives "bursting with flavor" more meaning, don't you think?

Friday, October 8, 2010

I am so pumped.

The Midsouth Native Plant Conference kicked off tonight at the Dixon, and like all great events, it started with food. A barbecue buffet, wine station, and beer from Memphis' own Ghost River Brewery were set up in the garden pavilion - a lovely building and outdoor terrace built on the site of the garden's original greenhouse.

Meandering back through the garden's pathways (there were lanterns in the trees!), I stopped to admire an unfamiliar plant. "What is this," I asked the lady behind me. "That's artillery fern, only it's not a fern," a man chimed in. "It's a member of the Pilea family, and it's called an artillery fern because if you shake the stems the seed pods go flying like, three feet. Beautiful isn't it?" And there he was, Felder Rushing, rock star of the native plant world, on his way back from grabbing a little barbecue too. And, yes, he was wearing his hat.

Felder's lecture, which started a few minutes later, was a gentle and humorous prod to live harmoniously with our planet: collect rain water, use pesticides judiciously, follow your gardening bliss. He also peppered his talk with homespun advice. I particularly loved his instructions for composting, which he credited to his mom: Quit throwing the stuff away, and pile it up somewhere. Felder doesn't even turn his compost piles. Don't you just love that?

When I got home, I sat outside in my courtyard and gave the garden a good once over. The flowers are spent, the tomato plants never grew tomatoes, the leaves are starting to fall, and the crickets are singing despite the cool nights. There is work to be done, and it is perfect.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A shout out to Memphis gardeners.

If you love your planet and your plants, don't miss this weekend's native plant conference at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens. Not only does the event include garden tours, wine and refreshments on Friday, and box lunches on Saturday (love it when there's food), the speakers are both fun and knowledgeable.

Nature plant guru Felder Rushing kicks off the conference Friday evening and Tennessee nurseryman and storyteller Don Shadow winds things up Saturday afternoon. In between, other experts will discuss the big picture (conservation, sustainability) and the nitty-gritty (what plants to put where).

If you can't make the conference, check back next week. I'm hoping to post the best of what I learn.

Monday, October 4, 2010

An ode to okra.

After growing vegetables this summer (modest effort thought it was), I have a big statement to make: Okra is the best vegetable to grow in the Mid-South. Okra

thrives, despite heat and no rain. It's also healthy (can you say vitamin C, A, B complex, and fiber?) and the blossoms that foretell the pods are luscious and beautiful.

Despite my love for okra, I didn't know much about it, so I did a little research, and this is what I found: Okra dates back to Ethiopia in the 12 century BC. It arrived in the U.S. with the slaves in the late 1700's, who eventually taught the Creoles in Louisiana how to use the pods to thicken gumbo. The plant is a member of the mallow family, which I didn't realize even though I've admired the hibiscus-like blossoms all summer. Guess what else is a member of the mallow family? Cotton!

Fast forward to the summer of 2010, when for me, okra has been an inspiring experiment in how to grow vegetables from seed. I have six plants. Each is at least six feet high and still producing vegetables in early October.

Unfortunately, cooking with okra can be a bit of a challenge, because it takes time to accumulate enough pods for a pot of gumbo. So I've started slicing up the pods seven or eight at a time for a saute with a little garlic, onion, and a 14-ounce can of roasted, diced tomatoes. The other day, I used my sauteed okra as a topping for greens, finished with a few shakes of cider vinegar. Delicious!


Saturday, October 2, 2010

And finally, the best news.

The day before I got back to Memphis from Maryland, Tony picked what we thought was our last canteloup. We sliced it and ate it immediately. Perfection! And what a beautiful color!

A few days later, I spotted two more melons on the vine, hugging the curb in front of the bed. There's also another little beauty hiding under a leaf. It's the size of a walnut.

Now the good news.

After my initial dismay, I went foraging through the tangle of vines in the vegetable garden and found a few hearty survivors. I felt a little like Scarlet looking for that damn carrot.

The beans were making a last stand, both in the pot and on the vines. I also found a cucumber, a Japanese eggplant, two tomatillos, a handful of okra, and a very lonely Roma tomato.

I'm not sure about the tomatillos. Earlier in the summer the fruit dropped off before it was ready. These last two have those darling little wrappers on them, so how do I know when it's time to pick?