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Archive for July, 2010

Corn, beans, and squash effectively comprise the collective staff of life of the New World. These crops were so important and complemented each other so well, that they were known as “The Three Sisters,” with many legends celebrating their sustaining virtues.

A Hokkaido Stella Blue squash grown on a fence.

We try to do these New World native plants justice here at Lunaria, but none more than the winter squash, with whom we have a tasty love affair. I personally got so excited about them that I planted a few seeds on March 1, far before any sane gardener would think about squash. These tender crops are typically direct sown outdoors once the soil has thoroughly warmed up; they don’t like being transplanted. Well, ours were potted up and most were kept alive in sunny windows until last frost, and now they’re threatening to take down the fence of “Gary’s Garden” (named after the groundhog that kept infiltrating its perimeter). We have some ripening sugar pumpkins and stella blue hokkaidos that we expect to be ready in a few weeks. This should perfectly fulfill my intense craving for curried tomato-squash dishes.

Another one of our many experiments this year is corn. I’d always thought it somewhat inefficient, as it takes up a good amount of space relative to its cropping. Then, during my residence at Women’s Studio Workshop, I learned that the husks and stalks can be used to make a gorgeous, pale golden-green paper. Well that was enough to convince me to go ahead and try it. We planted 3 successions to stagger the ripening times, including a succession of transplanted corn. This is another crop that dislikes root disturbance, but we take the word of Elliot Coleman quite seriously, and decided to try it. We were elated with the results, as not a single transplant was lost, and they’re all still going strong.

Our Hooker's sweet corn planting in early July. The upper row was seeded a week earlier, transplanted, then mulched with grass clippings.

With most of our meals being vegetarian, we tend to eat a lot of beans – dry beans, that is. We can’t imagine a world without black bean quesadillas, chickpea hummus, or pinto bean chili. But when it comes to green beans… meh. Most gardeners think we’re crazy – “You don’t like green beans??!” – but we think we’re being quite rational. Besides not appealing to our particular palates, beans will always be produced at a loss for the small farmer. They are tedious to harvest, and they must be picked every day, yet they must be sold at rock-bottom prices to compete with industrial farms. Even our so-loved dry beans are uneconomical to dry, harvest, and shell, when organic dry beans are so readily available now. The main advantage of growing beans is their special characteristic of being nitrogen fixers. The legume family, including beans as well as peas, clover, peanuts, indigo, and lentils, capture the nitrogen from the air and “fix” it in the soil, making this essential nutrient available to other plants.

The Three Sisters planting in early July.

So this year’s garden includes a small amount of beans, a good stand of corn, and hopefully a year’s supply of squash. We’re really excited about a certain portion planted in the traditional, Native American, Three Sisters formation. We chose to plant heirloom varieties that would all be ready to harvest in autumn: blue dent maize for cornmeal, drought-tolerant tepary beans, and several varieties of cucurbits, including pumpkins, winter squash, and moon & stars watermelons.

Lee arranging cardboard around The Three Sisters to thwart weeds until the squash vines fill out. (Photo by Theresa Boles)

Corn is wind-pollinated, its tassels releasing their magic dust to the air to settle on the ear silks below. This fact of life prompts a break from the modern American row system – to ensure that each kernel develops (they are seeds, remember), the corn must be planted in blocks, or in this case, mounds. The first mounds, which are 18 inches across, staggered about 5 feet apart, and amended with aged horse manure, are each planted with 4 corn seeds. Then, when the corn germinates and reaches a height of 4-6 inches, a pole bean seed is planted in the same mound, 3 inches away from each corn seedling. In between the corn and beans, we create squash mounds of the same size, with 3 seeds planted in each.

The effect, once everything grows in, is a mutually-beneficial companion planting. The corn provides something on which the beans can climb. The beans fix nitrogen to provide nutrients to the other crops. The squash sprawls along the ground, suppressing weeds and providing a living mulch to retain soil moisture, while its prickly vines help deter hungry critters. And, come harvest, the delicious crops complement each other nutritionally. It’s hardly surprising that these crops were considered to be special gifts from the Creator. All of this botanical, gastronomic, and divine harmony kind of makes you want to enjoy some succotash while you plan your own Three Sisters garden for next year, doesn’t it?

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Here’s just a glimpse of what’s pickin’ at Lunaria right now, where change is the only constant. The delicious snap peas that started so early are finally winding down in this hot, dry start to summer. The broccoli are plumping out the last of the main florets or sending out their rays of side shoots. We’re starting to get a handful of tomatoes every day, mostly Romas and cherries with the heirlooms not far behind. With the June strawberry season long gone, we’ve stopped pinching the flowers on our first year everbearing varieties so they can focus on fruiting. We planted a few zucchinis only to be met with just as many volunteers, and so starts the season of squash at every meal. The herbs are coming full force; loads of basil, cilantro, chives, parsley, dill infusing the kitchen. Although one of our hens recently molted for 2 weeks (thereby creating feathers instead of eggs), they’re all laying spectacularly once again. and And our standby greens – the kale, chard, lettuce, cabbages – are chugging away through the heat of summer, obliging us with leaves for the taking.

That’s what’s picking, but there’s so much more just focusing on vegetative growth, sending out new stems and leaves and vines every day. Check out what some of the gardens are looking like lately:

The eastern half of the Helen Nast Memorial garden: zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, winter squash, and more.

The sorry-looking slips that arrived in the mail are beginning to look like lush, promising, sweet potato vines.

The mystery brassicas that we thought were broccoli, then maybe cabbage, have revealed themselves as brussels sprouts, to which we say "Yum!"

Our attempt at a sun-trap garden on the shady property: melons & cucumbers on the fence, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, peppers, & ground cherries, undersown with radishes & lettuce.

We've had the delight of bringing in a few of these yellow straightneck "siamese squash."

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