Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Potatoes and Tomatoes: Continuing Early Summer Care

This summer with temperatures in the mid and upper eighties and lots of rain has been kind to gardeners in our area.   Lilies are so fragrant that it takes just one bloom to perfume my potting room and keep me happy as I prepare flats of broccoli and Brussels sprouts for an autumnal harvest.

The English lavender is in full bloom while the taller and lighted-coloured French lavender is just starting.  Most of our lavender is in our front garden.  I love when I see passersby catching a whiff and walking away smiling.  Lavender has a very fresh and uplifting fragrance.

I use lavender as a culinary herb and for making lavender water.  I pick the freshest flowers for kitchen use, just a few buds, before they open.  Supposedly English lavender is better for culinary and cosmetic use, but I can't tell the difference.  Lavender goes well with roast chicken and in creamy salad dressings as long as you go very easy on the quantity or else your dish will taste like perfume.  Some prefer to grind the buds for a powdery texture.  Picking off the buds in ample amounts for lavender water is tedious though, but then again, the fragrance surrounding you helps you keep at it.

When making lavender water, I add boiling water just enough to cover fresh buds and let steep until cool, making sure I squeeze the flowers as dry as I can to extract their fragrance.  Just as with rosewater, I freeze the strained lavender water in ice cube trays, taking what I need for the bath as required.  When dried--I spread the buds on trays--lavender is perfect for linen closet sachets and in potpourris.

The tomatoes are doing well despite a delayed planting because of cold temperatures in late spring.

Early season Marmande tomatoes

I grow both interminate and determinate tomatoes.  The former bear fruit throughout the season and seem to do best when they are pruned and staked.  The later kind fruits all at once and are fine without pruning or staking and are a boon when you just have run out of time for yet some more pruning and staking.  I scratch in a high potassium fertilizer--NPK formula with a high last number-- for both kinds when flowers appear.  Mulching deeply cuts down on both watering and weeding.  We are allowed by city edict only to water our gardens early in the morning or late at night as those times are best to lessen wasteful evaporation.

Staked indeterminate varieties:  Beefmaster and Marmande

In the foreground are bushy plum-shaped Romas, a great sauce tomato

Pruning the indeterminate type means pinching off the little branch that grows in the crotch of two larger branches.  Ideally, you want just one leading/head branch twirling around the tuteur.

As for the potatoes, when plants are about eight inches high, it is necessary to side dress with a high phosphorus fertilizer--NPK formula with a high middle number--and hill them.  This mounding prevents any potato close to the surface turning green from sunlight exposure.

The seed packet shows the slant of the hill

When plants are about a foot high, I hill them again for a final height of about six inches.  In block beds, there is not enough soil to do what is required, so I either use compost or grass clippings.  The only pests this season were a few snails who munched a bit on the leaves, not causing much damage because I heeded the early signs and lifted up the terracotta roof tiles framing the beds and picked all the snails off which put an end to that problem.  The tiles are not only decorative, they function as snail and slug traps.

Potato flowers are quite pretty and were much loved by Queen Marie Antoinette who wore them in her hair.

A bed of Desiree, a yellow-fleshed, red skinned late season variety

Early season potatoes are the best for harvesting about now, that is, new potatoes, but a few plants of mid-season and late-season varieties can be dug up also.  Since the potatoes are small, usually just a pull on the plant near the base is sufficient to remove them from the soil.  If not, than spade or fork carefully around the mound and collect the potatoes.  Detach the potatoes and let them dry out of the sun for a few hours if they are coated with moist earth.

After scrubbing, tiny new potatoes just need some steaming and usually no peeling to get them mouth-watering tender.  Immature later season varieties, like the mid-season Mona Lisa pictured above, require boiling and for my taste, peeling.  Add some fresh minced green herbs--I tossed in lovage, flat-leaf parsley, chives, and basil--and butter with a sprinkling of fleur de sel before serving for a tasty, visually pleasing side dish.