Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Not-So-Fun Aspect of Gardening

Some aspects of gardening are not for the squeamish. Such as pests. I still get the willies when I come across some big yucky bad bug. Some gardeners whom I know can just pick them up and squish them with their fingers, bare fingers even. Yuck…. Not me, I prefer to use some sort of object for their demise, such as the bottom of a shoe. Maybe I’ll pick them up, with gloves on, and toss them over the fence into the wilderness. No, I’m not throwing them into the neighbor’s garden – just the other side of the deer fence. Small insects get insecticidal soap or some other organic treatent.

Other pests are not so easily dispatched though. The furry underground type that love to drag your plants into their runs and have a lovely meal. Once you lose enough plants down a gopher hole you will learn to deal with them. I’ll never forget going out to the garden to check on a plant that had been in the ground for just a few days. There was nothing there. Bare dirt. Not a hole or a mound or even a stem or a leaf. It looked like a spot just prepared for planting.

There are a number of options when those varmints move into the garden. One, you can surrender and let them feast. Not likely! Two, put a pest control company on your speed dial. Expensive! Three, buy some traps and get over your squeamishness and learn how to use them. Four, lots of wire baskets and/or raised beds lined with hardware cloth. Great until they rust out or a gopher gets over the top of the bed and trapped in there – it does happen. Actually, wire baskets are good for protecting those one-of-a-kind precious plants that you just don’t want to take a chance on losing to gophers. Five, poison bait. Ugh, not good if your pet or another animal eats the poisoned gopher. Let’s just say NO to poison.

I learned how to trap gophers about 5 years ago when I moved from a nice safe 1/4 acre suburban gopher-free property to a 1/2 acre spot in a rural(ish) neighborhood that was overrun with gophers. It seemed like if I dug a hole in the ground and set a trap that I could catch a gopher. Just exaggerating, but I did catch 2 dozen, that’s 24 gophers, the first year. And that doesn’t include what the cat got. After the first 24, the work continued at a slower pace as the gophers that were breeding in the neighbor’s neglected orchard continued to migrate into my garden. Now I’m living in a much more rural area where the bulk of the property is mostly undisturbed natural hillside which is home to quite a variety of wildlife, including gophers.

The Garden in September

Last week I suspected gophers in my garden when I saw a subtle sign of activity. Rather than the usual mound of dirt or the incredible disappearing plant, what caught my eye was a 2-inch diameter spot where the soil was more loose and crumbly than the surrounding hard-packed ground – a “feed hole” perhaps. It was perfectly level with the surrounding soil, the only difference was texture. I dug up that area and found a run. I set a Cinch trap, tucked it into the run and covered the opening with an overturned nursery tray weighted down with a handy stone (lots of those close at hand). The next day, darn, the opening was stuffed full of dirt and the trap unsprung. So, dig some more and find the main run. More often than not I can catch a gopher in a feed hole or an exit tunnel using the Cinch trap, but not this time. So, two traps this time, one down each direction of the main run.

Cinch traps, the bottom one is tripped

Next morning – gotcha!

Pocket Gopher

There’s a lot of good information on the web about controlling gophers. One helpful source is on the University of California IPM website. They have information about setting Macabee and box traps as well as other methods of control. I started with Macabee traps but did not always find them to be effective. Occasionally I would find a gopher that was trapped but not yet dead – a horrible experience. I learned to keep a bucket of water handy to drown the poor things. I learned of the Cinch trap at a training session for Santa Clara County Master Gardeners. It has two big advantages, in my opinion, over Macabee and box traps. One, it’s easier to set because it generally requires less digging. Two, it’s more humane because it kills the animals instantly. More good information about gopher control can be found at Gophers Limited including information about setting a Cinch trap and a link to an excellent article in the SF Chronicle.

This is only the second time in the ten months that I’ve lived here that I’ve had to set a gopher trap. The first time was in a run that didn’t seem to be active. I’m hoping that the gopher population is naturally limited because the area that they are invading from has more natural predators and fewer unnatural food sources than a cultivated area.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Winter Tomatoes

For the typical home vegetable gardener fresh winter tomatoes are just a dream. You can enjoy preserved tomatoes if you've grown an abundance of them and have the time and energy to peel and can and chop and cook and process and... well, you get the drift - it's a huge chore. I got over the urge to can tomatoes years ago. I will make my Lazy Cooks Tomato Sauce or simple tomato purees and store them in the freezer. Or I dehydrate tomato slices. Or, for the ultimate in preserving laziness, I just pop whole ripe tomatoes into the freezer. But I'm resigned to enjoying a juicy ripe tomato only a few months out of the year. I will not touch a mealy tasteless pseudo-tomato offering from the store, regardless of how pretty it might look and especially if it has been shipped from the other side of the world.

Now I've come across another method for enjoying homegrown tomatoes in the winter - not quite fresh but not really preserved either. Lynn Rossetto Kasper has a piece in her book The Italian Country Table about Pomodori d'Inverno of Puglia. Certain varieties of tomatoes are grown to be harvested in late summer - the entire plant is cut and hung in pantries or shady porches - the ripe tomatoes shrivel slightly but don't dry. The flavor supposedly becomes more intense as they hang. Imagine, what could be easier than cutting a plant full of ripe tomatoes and hanging them up! The basic requirements for this method are a dry airy place that stays somewhere between 45 and 60 degrees F. Lynn recommends small fruited varieties of tomatoes such as Red Currants, Sweet 100's Sun Golds, Early Cascades or Principessa Borgheses. I found some seed sources for Italian varieties that I think are the real deal - Inverno a Grappoli and Pomodori a Grappiolo d'Inverno. Here's another source for Grappoli d'Inverno. And a source for Italian Winter Grape. I also think that a determinate type of tomato would work best (as the Italian varieties that I found are) since they ripen all of their fruits at once.

So, it's November and I'm already dreaming about next year's tomato crop. But, I have to confess - the weather has been so mild that I'm still picking a few tomatoes from my plants - the Aunt Ruby's German Greens have been particularly tasty even if they are on the small side. Omar's Lebanese haven't fared as well since they have a strong tendency to crack at the least hint of rain so that they spoil before they get ripe enough. Although they do have some nice green fruits that I'm going to fry up using a recipe that I like from Food & Wine that has Parmesan in the breading.

And as for the Lazy Cooks Tomato Sauce. Take a large roasting pan and drizzle some olive oil in there - more or less to your taste. Slice a bunch of tomatoes in half horizontally and lay them cut side up in the roasting pan. Cut some onions into halves (or quarters if very large), peel and remove the root ends, and put them cut side up in amongst the tomatoes. I use about 4 parts tomatoes to 1 part onions. Peel some garlic cloves and tuck them amongst the tomatoes and onions. Tuck some basil leaves into the pan (or not), you can also tuck a couple of bay leaves or a few sprigs of thyme, or some parsley into the mix. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Roast in a 350 degree F. oven until the tomatoes and onions are tender - about an hour or more depending on the size of the tomatoes and onions and how big your pan is. Cool, remove bay leaves or thyme stems if used. Pass through a food mill (much nicer texture than a food processor plus it removes the seeds and skins). Portion out into containers of whatever size you want. Cover and freeze. If you omit the herbs it allows you to season the sauce however you like when you use it. You can also just roast the tomatoes alone and pass them through a food mill for a simple tomato puree.