Category Archives: vegetables

Drought-Tolerant Okra Offers Colorful Pods in the Garden

Yellow okra flower, similar to hibiscus

When I was at Rooting DC last February, I received six seeds of “African red okra” from a person who was talking about preserving seed diversity. Intrigued, I planted them later in the season just to see how they would grow. Four of the six seeds germinated resulting in two plants in the front garden in full sun and dry conditions and two in the back garden. The two in the back lived with the tomatoes in morning shade and afternoon sun and did not lack for water since the diva tomatoes get all the water they need.

All summer long I have been watching the okra grow in my Virginia garden. When people think of okra plants, they think “vegetable.” True, the immature pods are harvested for many types of dishes and are highly nutritious. Other parts are edible: the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (like spinach) or used as a thickener in a stew. The seeds, if roasted and ground, can be used as a coffee substitute and if they are pressed, they can yield oil for cooking.

mature pod splits open to reveal seeds

I never intended to eat the pods, I just wanted to see how the plant would fare as a garden plant, a summer annual. Now in September, I think they have reached their full glory. These plants are about 4 feet tall with sparse foliage but plenty of pods and flowers. Because okra is a member of the hibiscus family, the small, yellow flowers look like hibiscus flowers but are not as flat. The thick pods are red and green, with five broad sides that taper into a point. The pod points upwards, much like a hat. Some pods have already matured enough to split open, revealing many dark black seeds (which mature to a soft gray later on). These I cut and put in a paper bag to prevent okra babies in my garden next year. The mature pods can be dried and used in floral arrangements such as wreaths. The young pods, if sliced in half, can be used to make flower designs by pressing the cut half into an ink pad and pressing down on paper.

Although not deer resistant, these plants have proven to be pest-resistant. I have read that okra plants are the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and they certainly were drought-tolerant in my garden. They are known to grow in poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Technically okra is a perennial but in our zone 7 area, the plants will die from the cold this winter.

I like their strong vertical shape but because the foliage is sparse, they would work best if many were grown together yet with enough space to see the pods. There is actually quite a lot of diversity with okra with regards to the pods: they can be spiny, smooth, thin, thick, short, or long and have many more ridges than five. Pods can be green or green and red or burgundy red. However there is little diversity with the flowers, basically yellow or white. There are some varieties with gorgeous burgundy red pods that would be very interesting to try in the garden, especially in a mass up against a house, as a backdrop to other plants. Instead of growing okra for cooking, try growing okra as an ornamental garden plant and let the pods mature into unusual colors and shapes. The yellow flowers are a bonus!

young, immature pods are best for cooking

Harvesting Heirloom Yellow Potato Onions

harvest with one lone flower

I dug up my yellow potato onions and was surprised to find almost 40 bulbs. I first wrote about them in September 2016, when I received the shipment from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I planted the original 15 bulbs in the fall in very loose soil, high in organic matter. This spring, green stalks grew so that by summer there was green tubular foliage, similar to scallions. By the end of June, I could see bulbs clustered at soil level, as if emerging from the deep. The green stalks were bent and falling over so that when it was clear that the stalks were dying, I dug up the bulbs in the beginning of July.

Potato onions are a type of multiplier onion called Allium cepa var. aggregatum. They multiply at the base by making more bulbs. They are not as large or as pungent as onions we get at the grocery store. Within the same species are shallots, which also multiply at the base but are milder, can be eaten raw, and are round or bullet shape. The Egyptian walking onion is another type of multiplier onion, a different species called  Allium cepa var. proliferum. The difference between potato onions and Egyptian walking onions is that potato onions do not create bulbils at the top. The Egyptian walking onions create bulbs in the ground and bulbils at the top; therefore, are “proliferate.”

green stalks are down, signaling harvest time

In my Virginia garden,  potato onions are planted in the fall, dug up in the summer, cured until fall, and then some are re-planted and some are eaten. Thus they are “perennial” because they will exist in the garden every year. In the 1800’s, they were very popular because they were a constant source of onions, they stored for a long time, and they propagated easily. People just passed them along to neighbors and family. Now they are considered an heirloom. Very few seed catalogs sell them and you probably will not see them in your garden center.

Like other onions, potato onions have to be cured in order to extend their storage time. Bulbs should be in a shaded, warm, dry, well-ventilated area for a few months. I could slice up the large ones now and cook them or just let them cure if I want to use them in the winter.  In the fall, I will plant the smaller bulbs and harvest again next year in July. It’s a perennial cycle but I am looking forward to sliced yellow potato onions in butter and parsley over broiled trout, with green beans on the side.

Starting Cool Season Veggies in Northern Virginia

Here is a handy chart courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange. Seeds or transplants of cool season veggies can be planted when the temperatures are at least 40 degrees, which is March and April in Virginia.  There are two types of cool season veggies. Hardy types can withstand a heavy frost and  temperatures as  low as 40 degrees so they can be planted two to three weeks before the average last frost. In Northern Virginia, the average last frost date is between April 10 and 21 so I arbitrarily pick April 15 to be able to remember. That means that I can either directly sow seed into the ground the weekend of March 25 (because I work during the week) or (having started the seeds indoors) I can plant the small plants into the ground. Semi-hardy plants can withstand a light frost and prefer slightly warmer temperatures toward 50 degrees so they have to be planted later, two weeks before average last frost date which would be the weekend of April 1. If a severe temperature drop would to occur, I would protect the plants by covering them with empty 2-liter plastic soda bottles that had bottoms cut off.

cool-season-crops-infographic

Fall is a Great Time for Planting Shrubs, Trees, Bulbs, and Perennials!

Fall is Fantastic! from Prides Corner Farms

Fall is Fantastic!
from Prides Corner Farms

It’s October — time to plant shrubs, trees, bulbs, and hardy perennials. Fall is a great time to plant in our area. The cooler temperatures, increased moisture, and decreased sun/heat allow the plants to settle in the ground, send out roots, and get established. While the soil is still warm, roots continue to develop until the ground actually freezes so the plant’s energy goes into getting firmly settled in the soil, not on top growth. The plants you buy now can be planted with minimal stress to them as well as to your wallet. Many garden centers are concerned with moving their inventory, especially the container grown plants that are outside. As winter approaches, discounts increase thus increasing the possibility of finding bargains.

Visit your garden center this month to enhance your landscape, support a healthy environment, and boost your well-being! For a list of garden centers in the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC area, view the “nurseries” tab at the top of my website, http://www.pegplant.com.

Fall is the Time to Plant Yellow Potato Onions

yellowpotatoonionFall is the time to plant yellow potato onions. Also known as perennial onions, yellow potato onions are edible, like onions, but perennial as in once you have them, you will always have them. I first heard of potato onions (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) from Pam Dawling, manager of the Twin Oaks Community farm in Louisa, VA. She, along with folks who live there, grow a variety of vegetables on 3 ½ acres to feed the 100 people who live in the community. Just reading her blog gives me a lot of great ideas and information on growing vegetables here in Virginia, although on a much smaller scale. I looked to her neighbor Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) in Mineral for a source of potato onions. SESE sells vegetables, flowers, and herbs that do well in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast (i.e., our hot and humid summers) which makes them a good source of seeds and plants for my area. They too have a blog, a website, and a print catalog full of information for growing veggies in Virginia.

Although I ordered the potato onions in the spring when I ordered seeds, I knew they would not be shipped until the fall. My shipment arrived right before Labor Day and the bulbs were wrapped in a white plastic netting, along with a 4-page pamphlet on cultural requirements.

According to SESE’s pamphlet, potato onions should be planted in early to mid-November for my Northern Virginia area.  Because they are bulbs, it is best to plant them in a well-drained, sandy loam soil with a neutral pH. They are heavy feeders; nitrogen should be applied when leaves are 4-6 inches tall but not during bulb formation.  The bulbs should be planted with ½ to 1 inch of soil above the bulbs and a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to control weeds and protect against temperature extremes. Rows should be 6 inches apart. I have not decided where to plant them yet but I know I will have to find a full sun, weed free area that I can water often.

By summer 2017, the bulbs should have grown and divided to produce many more bulbs. Each individual bulb should form a cluster of bulbs at the base, which visible in the shipment I received. After I dig up the bulbs, I have to cure them, and then select the large ones to use in the kitchen, like an onion, and re-plant the smaller ones in the fall (hence perennial). I am looking forward to trying these in the garden and cooking with them next year.

Local Demonstration Gardens: Learn Which Plants Grow Well In Your Area

African Blue Basil

African Blue Basil

As the summer ends, I like to visit the local demonstration gardens to see how the flowering plants and vegetables fared (especially during this hot, dry summer). Demonstration gardens are a great way to learn what works in the Washington DC metro area and how to manage our local issues, such as deer. The gardens are open to the public, every day, from dawn to dusk, free. Each county that has a Master Gardener program usually has at least one demonstration garden, managed by the volunteer Master Gardeners. To find such a garden, call your local county Master Gardener program representative (your local extension agent) and ask if they manage a demonstration garden. Some have several to showcase various environmental conditions and some use the garden as a place to teach or host workshops.

The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (Arlington and Alexandria) have five demonstration gardens:

  • Glencarlyn Library Community Gardens, corner of S. Third and S. Kensington Streets, off Carlin Springs Road, Arlington
  • Simpson Park Gardens (E. Monroe Avenue at the end of Leslie Avenue, next to the YMCA in Alexandria
  • Organic Vegetable Garden, Potomac Overlook Regional Park, Marcy Road, Arlington
  • Rock Quarry Shade Garden, Bon Air Park on Wilson Boulevard and N. Lexington Street, Arlington
  • Sunny Garden, Bon Air Park, Arlington

The Prince William County Master Gardeners manage a very large “Teaching Garden” at St. Benedict Monastery, 9535 Linton Hall Road, Bristow, VA. Within this large garden are mini gardens to illustrate certain conditions or issues, such as a deer resistant garden, shade garden, vegetable garden, and pollinator garden.

The Loudoun County Master Gardeners have Ida Lee Park on Ida Lee Park Drive, Leesburg, VA; which they also use as a teaching garden.

The Montgomery County Master Gardeners have a demonstration garden at the Agriculture History Farm Park, 18410 Muncaster Road, Derwood, MD.

The Prince Georges County Master Gardeners are fortunate to use the Kitchen Garden at the Riversdale Gardens and House Museum, 4811 Riverdale Road, Riverdale Park, MD.

To learn of more public gardens in the area, read the tab “Public Gardens” on my site, http://www.pegplant.com.

'Lady in Black' Aster

‘Lady in Black’ Aster

Success with Eggplant This Year!

eggplant (2)On June 13, I posted an article about my frustrations with growing eggplant here in Northern Virginia. I had tried several times only to be defeated by flea beetles or improper pollination. This year I tried growing them in EarthBoxes and I am pleased to say it worked. Not only do I have plenty of eggplant but my family loved my  eggplant parmesan! I really like eggplant as a summer annual in the garden: structurally, the plant provides large striking leaves and dark purple fruit. Now I am inspired to grow different varieties and to try different eggplant recipes. Maybe even get a few more EarthBoxes!