A Toast to Minnesota’s Heritage Melon, Recipe Included

It’s been a great summer for Minnesota Midget melons, a small cantaloupe-type melon that grows very well in the North. I’ve got three Minnesota Midget melon plants, all growing in containers and all doing great.  So great, in fact, that I’ve been looking for ways to use them, including the cooler recipe you’ll find at the end of the post.

 

cantaloupe cut in half
Minnesota Midget melons are small but tasty and grow really well in northern climates.

Minnesota Midget was developed at the University of Minnesota and introduced right after World War II.  I can’t help but wonder if the melon was developed in part to encourage owners of smaller properties to plant Victory Gardens. While researching the vegetable chapter of The Northern Gardener: From Apples to Zinnias, I read several pamphlets from the U on growing vegetables in very small spaces: they called them “rug gardens,” because you could grow a lot of food in a 9-by-12 space. But that’s another story.

Minnesota Midget melons grow on relatively short vines—mine are about 3 to 4 feet long, though the longest vine may be 5 feet. They flower profusely, and then set fruit. Each of the vines I have has 4 to 8 melons on it, varying from the size of a softball to just-a-bit smaller than a grocery store cantaloupe. When they are ripe, they separate easily from the vine. You should try to harvest before they fall off the vine, so right now I’m doing daily inspections to remove any melons that are getting ripe.

This year, they have not been hard to grow at all! I started the seeds indoors and set them in their containers in early June. The vines took off. Like all melons, they like sun and a relatively rich, well-drained soil.  Because they are in containers, I’ve been checking to make sure the melons are all supported well. I had to sacrifice a pair of pantyhose to rig up supports for a couple of them.

A Melon Cooler

icy drink in garden
Enjoy a refreshing melon cooler in the garden.

This recipe is a modification of one I found in Amy Thielen’s The New Midwestern Table, which is a fantastic cookbook full of good stories and delicious recipes.

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

3 limes, zested and the juice

Ginger root, a piece the size of your thumb

1 or more Minnesota Midget melons (or other cantaloupe)

Ice, fizzy water for serving

Put the sugar and water in a pot and bring it to a boil to dissolve the sugar into the water. While it’s heating up, remove the zest from the three limes (I peeled it off with a vegetable peeler) and peel and slice the ginger. When the water is heated, take it off the heat and put the ginger pieces and lime zest in to soak. Let the water cool.

When the water is room temp, juice the lime, and seed and remove the flesh from your melon. Put the sugar syrup (with the ginger and lime pieces), the lime juice and the melon flesh in a blender. Give it a whirl until it’s smooth. You may want to strain the resulting mixture through a sieve.

To serve it, put about 1/3 cup of the melon mixture in a tall glass with ice and top it off with fizzy water. I’m not a hard-liquor person, but if I were . . .

This recipe is not set in stone: Make it more or less sweet depending on your taste, add more lime, more melon, more ginger, depending on what you like and what you have on hand. Add some mint leaves to the infusion or anything else that strikes your fancy.

My melon was small so I added a bit more flesh from another melon to give the drink enough melon taste. Feel free to adjust and enjoy!

 

 

Update on the Container Tomatoes

Leaf curl and blossom end rot have been problems for my container tomatoes, but not serious ones — at least so far.  Despite the heat, humidity and rain of the early summer, it looks like this will be a good year for tomatoes.

First, the facts: As of mid-July, Minnesota has seen the highest combined levels of heat and humidity ever recorded. Ever. Recorded. That means, in terms of heat AND humidity, it is worse than 1936 or 1988, two years that were noted for their terrible heat and large number of 90+ degree days.  This time, it’s not just the heat, it really is the humidity. Fortunately, the last couple of weeks have been down-right pleasant for people and plants.

Green pear tomatoes on vine
Chocolate Pear tomatoes ripen on the vine.

So, how are the tomatoes doing?

With one exception, the container tomatoes (five plants total) look good. (I have another tomato in the ground that’s growing well.) They have adequate, healthy looking foliage with no signs of blight or spots on the leaves. I am seeing leaf curl, which can be caused by many things, but in my case may be simply because of inconsistent watering. We have had a lot of rain — often in short periods — and this can cause leaves to curl as a defense mechanism. I have watered the tomatoes daily during the dry periods at the soil level to keep watering consistent and prevent splashing soil up on leaves. I’m also giving them regular doses of fish emulsion because nutrients are probably running out of the soil with all the rain.

One of my tomatoes—a yellow pear—really, really did not like growing in a container. Its leaves always curled more than the other plants and its fruit had more blossom end rot than any of the others. One day last week, I threw in the trowel.

“You want out of the container—fine!”

I had a spot near our fence that gets decent light and didn’t have anything growing in it. I dug a big hole — the plant was large! I pruned the plant back to reduce the amount of foliage it had to support; added some organic tomato fertilizer to the hole, pulled it out of its pot and dropped it in. I gave it a good watering and added back the soil to make the fit snug. Frankly, I’m not sure how it will do . I’ve never heard of transplanting tomatoes at this size, but it actually looks happy. It has produced some new flowers since the transplant, though and that’s a good sign.

Yellow pears are one of my favorite tomatoes, because I like to make Thomas Jefferson’s jam with them. In the past, they have produced well into the fall.

Blossom end rot

Bleech! Blossom end rot.

Sorry for the gross photo, but that’s what I’m seeing on some of my tomatoes. Blossom end rot  is also related to inconsistent watering. Because most of the over-watering has been done by Mother Nature, there isn’t a lot you can do. I have been picking any tomatoes that show signs of blossom end rot off the plant as soon as I see it. Why have a plant put the energy into producing rotten fruit? It’s early enough in the season that the plants will continue to set flowers and produce healthy fruit.

Harvest Time?

We are getting into peak harvest season for tomatoes. So far, I’ve picked a half a dozen or so, mostly plum and cherry tomatoes. A couple of my big slicers have fruit that is ripening fast, so I’m hopeful I’ll be enjoying a big BLT within  a week or so.

How are your tomatoes doing?

 

 

Delayed Spring? Pros and Cons for Northern Gardeners

With about 4 inches of snow on the ground already from our current storm and another 2 to 4 predicted during the day, it seems a good time to consider the pros and cons of a delayed spring.

For those not from Minnesota, since the beginning of 2018, we have had two days (yes, just two) with a high temperature of 50 degrees or higher in the Twin Cities. Both of those days were in March—and neither of them topped 55. Currently, we are in a broken record of 30-degree days with nights in the 20s interrupted only by intermittent snowstorms. Some weather forecasters have said this will last into mid-April. Others say we get a break next week.  (I hope these guys are right.)  So what happens in the garden when spring takes forever to arrive?

A couple of pros of a delayed spring come immediately to mind:

Less chance of freeze damaging fruit crops. Back in 2012, we had an extremely early spring, with my cherry tree (and lots of apple trees) blooming in early April—about four weeks ahead of usual. When the inevitable frost came, many fruit crops were severely damaged. That won’t happen this year.

Adequate soil moisture. This year, Minnesota has had an average amount of snow or a bit higher. Since there has been some thawing of the ground, these late season snows should give us decent soil moisture going into the planting season.

I’m sure there are some other benefits to a slow spring, but there are plenty of cons, too.

In 2015, crocus were blooming in my yard on March 31. In 2016, they were blooming on March 15. This year, nothing but snow so far.

When things bloom, it will be a bloom explosion! When spring comes on gently and slowly as it did last year, blooms emerge gradually in a steady parade of color from the yellows of forsythia to creamy magnolias, pink rhododendrons, redbuds, fruit trees and lilacs. Bulbs do the same.  In the best of years, this unfolding of color can start in late March. A delayed spring means everything rushes to bloom at once—boom. It’s marvelous when it happens, but wow, it doesn’t last long. And, for people with allergies, all that blooming means lots of types of pollen all at once. On the upside, the pollen count in my neighborhood today is zero!

A pansy pile up at the local garden centers! I visited a couple of garden centers during a slightly warm day 10 days ago, and the pansy bowls were piled up in the greenhouses. While pansies can tolerate temps down to 26, it’s best not to put them outdoors fulltime until nighttime temperatures are reliably in the 40s. So, hold off for at least a week. After that, rush to your local garden center, because you will be starved for color!

I wrote a profile of this DIY greenhouse for the November/December 2017 issue of Northern Gardener. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse!

A slow start in the vegetable garden. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse, because it’s going to be awhile before the soil temperature is warm enough to plant even cool-season crops such as lettuce and peas.  Seeds for vegetables such as radishes and lettuce will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees, but it takes a lot longer to germinate at 40 than it does at 50 or 60 degrees. So, fire up those indoor light systems and give your vegetables a head start inside. Just for perspective, the soil temperature in my raised beds right now is 35 degrees. We’ve got a way to go.

Hungry birds. I haven’t seen any robins yet though they could be around, but I have definitely noticed more birdsong in the morning. If you garden for birds, keep the feeders full and put out some water for them. It will be awhile before they can nibble on insects in the garden.

Speaking of insects, a long winter is unlikely to affect populations of Japanese beetles, emerald ash borers and other insects gardeners consider pests. Bummer.

Enjoy the snow day!

 

 

 

 

Bees, Apples and My Bumper Crop

apple basket
Ready for saucing and pie!

For the first time in 13 years, I have a bumper crop of useable Haralson apples off the tree in my yard. I credit it to good luck, the University of Minnesota and lots of bees. Here’s the story.

I’ve had two apple trees in my yard for 13 years (the Haralson and a Connell Red) and I’ve barely harvested a fruit from them in all that time. I’ve never wanted to go through the bother and risk associated with spraying apples and haven’t had the get-up-and-go to put little bags around each apple I wanted to harvest.  I like the look of apple trees and I’d resigned myself to finding a few decent apples and giving the rest up to the maggots and the worms.

An Unintended Consequence

haralson tree
The tree is loaded with fruit this year.

I’ve read a bit more about apples in the last year or so, and last fall I decided to at least get serious about sanitation around my trees. I picked up as many of the crappy apples that fell in autumn as I could in an effort to reduce pests, which tend to overwinter in the soil.

Last year and again this spring, I also participated in a University of Minnesota research project to track the arrival of the spotted wing drosophila in Minnesota. The project involves setting out traps — a plastic jar baited with apple cider vinegar and a sticky paper — to catch the bugs. This year, I set the trap in the Haralson tree.

About midway through the summer, I noticed a lot more apples — and I mean, a LOT more apples on the Haralson tree. (The other tree looked like it always did.) Later in the summer, I noticed that not only were there a lot more apples, but many of them (not all, of course, but enough) looked good. No signs of maggot damage or worm holes.

Oddly, the good-looking apples concerned me more than the lousy looking ones. (It’s all a game of expectations.) Were they safe to eat??? I hadn’t sprayed and I hadn’t bagged and I hadn’t even put out the traps that are recommended for apple growing in Minnesota.

After consulting a variety of web sources that basically said, if there are no visible signs of damage, they are OK to eat, I decided I needed a human to confirm that. I had some pots to return to Knecht’s Nursery in town from three shrubs I’d planted recently, so while there I asked Heidi about the apple situation. She confirmed that yes, bad apples would be showing their badness by this time of year, so anything that looked OK was OK.

My Traps are SO Attractive

apples looking good
They are not perfect, but lots of decent apples here.

She also offered an interesting hypothesis about why I have so many apples. Heidi’s theory is that the apple cider vinegar traps I had in the tree this spring not only attracted the spotted wing drosophila bugs, they also attracted bees. “You probably finally got good pollination on the tree,” she said. With good pollination came the bigger crop — plenty for the worms and plenty left over for me.

This past weekend was the first of what I expect will be a few weekends of canning applesauce, making apple butter and baking apple pies. Next year, I plan to try the same system. I’ll be cleaning up the area around my tree extra thoroughly this fall, then setting out an apple cider trap next year. We’ll see then if this was a fluke or simple way to get more, better apples.

How was your apple crop this year?

Why I Love Farmers’ Markets

Logan Square market
The vegetables were piled high at the Logan Square Farmers’ Market.

My daughters grew up going to the Northfield Farmers’ Market. It was a highlight of many Friday mornings and often involved a bike ride, our baskets filled with vegetables on the way home and a treat from Martha’s Eats and Treats. So, it was no surprise when my eldest, now a Chicago-based editor, said, “I want you and Dad to come to my farmers’ market when you visit.”

Kale
Kale burgers, anyone?

So on the Sunday before Labor Day, we ventured out on the Blue Line to Logan Square and her farmers’ market.

Here’s the great thing about farmers’ markets: Each one is unique to its neighborhood and customers, and at the same time, they all have the same comfortable, welcoming feeling.  The Northfield farmers’ markets (we really have two) don’t feature kale burgers or a wide array of flavored tofus and sauces to sample, and I don’t think any of the jam purveyors here would charge $9 a jar, but both the very hip, very urban Logan Square market and our decidedly small-town markets are relaxed and cheerful. They both have farmers eager to show you what they’ve grown and artisans proud of the food they’ve made whether it’s a ruggedly shaped loaf of bread, an apple butter made of apples and apples only (we bought three jars) or those aforementioned tofu squares. The vendors come farther to go to the Logan market — many from Michigan and Indiana — but they bring with them the same enthusiasm for beautifully displayed beets, bunches of kale, buckets of tomatoes and sharing what they’ve grown.

Farmers’ markets are also wonderful places for socializing and connecting with your community. In Northfield, I know several of the vendors and almost always meet a friend or acquaintance at the market. At Logan, my husband and I sat on a park bench while our daughter finished her weekly produce shopping and struck up a conversation with a young mother, who grew up nearby. It turns out she attended the University of Minnesota and had even visited one of the colleges in Northfield — “That was too rural for me,” she said.

minmusician
Tiny guitarist performs.

The people watching can’t be beat either. In Northfield, we have regular musicians at both the Friday and Saturday markets, and while they might be a tad more musically proficient than this little solo performer at Logan, they take the same joy sharing their talents. Farmers’ markets are places filled with dogs (labs in Northfield, pugs in Logan) and kids (more kids in Northfield, more dogs in Logan). They’re places to wander on a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon, to visit with folks you’ve just met and those you’re known for decades.

They’re nourishing places, and not just because of the kale.

 

A New Take on Strawberry Jam

strawberry mango jam
Definitely spoon-worthy.

It’s strawberry season here, and that means hauling out the canning kettle and making some jam. My usual strawberry jam is the recipe in the pectin package, which is marvelous if your berries are absolutely fresh.

I made that recipe on Sunday when I picked up a flat of berries at Lorence’s outside of Northfield. With lots of berries still on hand, I decided to try something different — sweet, but with a hint of something else. After searching around, I found this recipe from a blog called Jammed In. I liked the idea of a jam with a little heat, but thought that adding real peppers might round out the flavor more and I wanted more of a strawberry flavor. I happened to have two ripe mangoes in the fridge, plus about 3 quarts of strawberries left in my flat. Here’s the recipe:

Strawberry-Mango Jam with a Kick

Ingredients:

2 ripe mangoes, diced in about a 1/4 to 1/2 inch dice

6 cups strawberries (sliced and chopped to equal about 4 cups)

1 (or more!) jalepeno pepper, chopped finely

1 organic lemon, zest and juice

1 box powdered pectin (such as Sure-Jel)

6 cups sugar

This recipe makes six half-pint jars, plus not quite a cup extra. Make sure you have all the equipment you need at hand before you begin.

Chop the fruit and pepper, mix together with the zest and juice of the lemon and 2 cups of sugar. Set aside for about an hour.  Meanwhile, wash and prep the jars and lids for your jam and get the boiling-water canner started on the heat. (It takes about 30 minutes for my canner to come up to a boil, so give yourself time.)

After fruit has marinated, mix in the pectin and set the mixture in a large pot on the stove over medium heat. Bring it to a full, rolling boil that you cannot stir down. Add, all at once, the remaining 4 cups of sugar. Stir and bring it back to a full, rolling boil. Cook about 2 minutes. Turn off heat and add the jam to prepared jars. Put on lids and screwtops, then boil in the canner for 12 minutes.  Remove the jars and listen for the pops.

For basic jam-making instructions, check out this tutorial or this video. If I were to make the recipe again, I would add another 1 or 2 peppers. The extra heat tastes really interesting under the sweet, fruity jam flavor.

 

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

It’s rhubarb season here, which means thinking of lots of ways to use those tart stalks. Growing up, both of my daughters loved rhubarb sauce with yogurt, and rhubarb muffins are also delicious.

rhubarb crisp
A little almond extract in the filling brightened the rhubarb crisp.

Strawberries and rhubarb go really well together, and even though the local strawberries are not ripe yet — and may not be for awhile — I decided to make a strawberry-rhubarb crisp last night.

It took less than 15 minutes to throw this recipe together, including walking out to my rhubarb patch to grab the stalks. After 45 minutes in the oven, the rhubarb crisp emerged fragrant and bubbling. Because rhubarb is very tart, this recipe has more sugar than I usually use in crisps, although not as much as it would need if it were entirely rhubarb. The strawberries add a nice sweet flavor that complements the rhubarb and the addition of almond extract gives it a nuanced flavor.

 

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Filling:

4 stalks rhubarb, cleaned and cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1 quart strawberries, rinsed, cut into quarters

2/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup flour

1/2 tsp almond extract

Mix strawberries and rhubarb with sugar, flour and extract. Put in a pie dish.

Topping:

In the same bowl you mixed the filling ingredients, mix 1 cup rolled oats, 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon and 4 tablespoons melted (or very soft) butter. Pour the topping over the filling, and bake. You may want to put a pan under the crisp in the oven in case it drips.

We didn’t have any ice cream or whipped cream in the house, either of which would have been delicious with this, but both my husband and I had a big bowl and thought it was great — the perfect end to a busy weekend spent in the garden.

Rhubarb is a very easy perennial vegetable to grow. It likes a lot of fertility in the soil so I have my rhubarb growing in a spot that formerly had my compost bin over it.  You can often get a division of rhubarb from a fellow gardener, and like many perennials, rhubarb does not mind being divided every few years. University of Minnesota Extension has an informative fact sheet on growing rhubarb, if you’d like more information.

What’s your favorite rhubarb recipe?

 

Filling My Salad Bowl

leaf lettuce
Leaf lettuce ready for harvest.

Earlier this week, I had my first vegetable harvest—some lovely leaves from my three lettuce-bowl gardens, dressed with a ranch-style dressing spiced up with snips of chives and parsley from the yard.

I love the taste of home-grown leaf lettuce, which seems softer and more earthy than the big, crunchy heads you get at the grocery store. These salad bowls were really easy to put together. I started several types of lettuce under lights indoors in early April. Later in the month, I planted them in large containers filled with a homemade potting mix.

Due to our erratic spring, I had to move them in and out of the house during really cold weather, but for a couple of weeks now, the bowls have been on the front patio, soaking up the sun and the rain and getting big and delicious.  One of the bowls contains ‘Pablo’ lettuce, and heirloom head lettuce from Seed Savers Exchange. The other bowls have a leaf lettuce mix from Renee’s Garden. I’ll harvest these using the “cut-and-come-again” method, taking leaves from the outside and letting them continue to grow.

Do you grow lettuce in your garden?

pablo lettuce
Pablo lettuce in pot.

 

How to Build a Garden Low Tunnel (for Free)

low tunnel complete
Low tunnel ready to protect plants from endless winter.

Like many Minnesota gardeners, I’m getting itchy to put some plants in the soil. I have lettuces and greens under lights in the basement and some tomato seeds planted, but not yet germinated, in a warmer spot upstairs, but that’s not the same. It’s still pretty cold here and as I write this post on Friday afternoon it is snowing. Ugh.

Given the rather gloomy forecast, I decided to take things into my own hands and build a low tunnel where I could plant out greens and keep some of the seedlings as they get growing. I’ve been reading a lot about season extenders in the past year or so. We had a great article by Colleen Vanderlinden on them in the September/October issue of Northern Gardener and I recently read with enthusiasm Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman’s new book The Four Season Garden Cookbook, which includes lots of practical tips on using cold frames, movable greenhouses and low and high tunnels to grow food in colder climates.

One of the designs involved using welded wire fencing and plastic. I had both on hand and knew I could fashion something serviceable pretty easily.

plastic ties
To make a longer tunnel frame, I joined two sections of fencing with plastic zip ties.

Here’s what I did: I took a length of 4-foot tall welded wire fencing and cut it in two equal pieces using a bolt cutter, making the cut in the middle of a square so that each end had a little tail on it. (Careful, these are sharp.) The raised bed I have the tunnel over is about 3 feet wide by 8 feet long, and the two welded wire pieces were about 4 1/2 feet across — just enough to create a bend for the greenhouse effect. I joined the two pieces to form one long one using plastic zip ties.

Next, I laid a painting drop cloth on the floor of the garage and put the wire tunnel on top of it. (If you have a heavier grade of plastic sheeting, use that.) I pulled the sides up and attached the cloth by poking the wire tails through the plastic. I left as much plastic as I could on each end of the tunnel and on the sides. I plopped it on the bed.

tunnel in plastic
Sheathed in plastic, the tunnel is ready to go to the garden.

Now came the tricky part. We live in an area that is really, really windy, and I knew I would have a flying low tunnel if it was not secured. I ended up doing two things. On each end of the tunnel I placed a piece of 2-by-10 lumber about 3 feet long. (I happened to have these on hand from another project.) Then, I took some rope and lashed the plastic down in three places, tying the ends of the rope to some winter-sowing jugs. Any fairly heavy plastic jug with a handle to tie the rope to would work. Voila!

The tunnel stood up to a fairly stiff breeze last night with no problems. I’ll start planting seeds and putting out seedlings on Sunday, when the weather is predicted to be a bit warmer.

It’s rare that I have all the equipment on hand for a project like this but this time I did.  There are many videos on youtube about hoophouses and tunnels. While the production quality isn’t great, this one has good step-by-step information on how to put together a low tunnel using PVC pipe and plastic.

 

Will Green Tomatoes Ripen on the Counter?

green tomatoes ripen
The progression of a green tomato

I got a chuckle out of yesterday’s gardening column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, in which garden writer Bonnie Blodgett bemoaned her difficulties getting green tomatoes to ripen indoors. I’ve also struggled with that issue, but am having better than usual luck this year,  just lining them up on the counter. Most of the tomatoes shown were picked about 10 days ago as green ones. I’ve been told that if there is a touch of white on the bottom of the fruit, it will ripen, and all of these had that little bit of white.

The photo shows the stages the tomatoes will go through as they go from green to white to pinkish to deeper pink then red. I plan to eat the reddest one today. Like Bonnie, I’ve discovered the ripened indoors tomatoes go soft pretty quickly. When they hit pale red, it’s salad time!

Have you had luck ripening tomatoes indoors?