How to Harvest Black Walnuts (and why my tomatoes wilted)

Behold, the black walnut tree:

Our backyard is bordered with these trees. They are magical! Here’s why:

1. Magical Plant-Ruining Toxins! This explains why my tomatoes wilted. It turns out that the tree (especially its roots, nut hulls and flower buds) contain a chemical called juglone which can cause many plants (such as asparagus, cabbage, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, rhubarb and tomatoes) to stunt, turn yellow and wilt. Plants affected by its toxicity (usually within 50-80 feet of the tree, and especially under its drip line) will struggle to live and may even die. The symptoms are very often confused with fungal or bacterial wilt. Well, that explains A LOT. Apparently, even if you chop the trees down, the toxins remain in the soil for several years. If this problem affects you, there is a list of juglone-resistant vegetables at Wisconsin Horticulture.

2. Magical, Skin-Dyeing Properties! The flesh of the hull is a powerful dye, used historically to colour products like cotton and basket materials. It’s also caustic. If you’re going to handle these nuts, wear clothes you don’t care about and a pair of protective gloves. And make sure said pair of protective gloves does not have a tiny hole in the thumb, or else your hands will look like mine, to the left, for A LONG TIME. Nothing gets it out. My friends call it my “Haunted Thumb”.

3. Magical, Edible Nuts Inside! Walnut trees produce nuts inside green, spherical hulls that you’ll likely recognize if you’re North American. With some work, they’re edible but be warned: the taste may surprise you. Amy Crowell of Edible Austin writes: “It tastes nothing like the common English walnut; it’s much more aromatic and tastes like an expensive perfume… author Samuel Thayer once likened it to really good paint”. Black walnuts are not snacking food; rather, a delicacy that you can add to treats such as home-made ice cream and cookies.

Most folks leave these things to the squirrels. But, as you can see by my thumb, I decided to harvest some of my own to make my ruined tomatoes worthwhile. Here’s how it went:

  • Collect the nuts that have fallen from the tree when they are soft enough that you can press in the skin with your thumb and leave a dent. They should be greenish-yellowy and will likely have black spots. (I am wearing the helmet because I am scared a walnut will fall on my head. I am a Registered Nurse and live in constant, unreasonable fear of life-altering brain injury).
  • Getting the nuts out of the hull was an ordeal… until I found a true Gardening for Chumps solution:  run over them with your car. (But beware of rogue nuts that fly out from under the tire!). Simply pluck the nut out once the hull is crushed. You may notice some tiny Hull Fly larvae in the flesh. They are a bit gross but don’t affect the actual nutmeat so don’t worry about them.
  • Pour the walnuts into a big bucket or a laundry sink, cover with water and stir them around with a stick so that the walnuts rub against each- this will remove more of the hull remnants. You won’t get it all off, but it will make your job less messy later.
  • Lay the nuts out to dry in a warm place for a day (in the sun, if possible), somewhere where you don’t mind a possible stain.
  • Hang the dried walnuts in an onion sack for 2 weeks to cure.
  • (And this is the hard part): crack open the nuts to get the nutmeat out. This video provides an informative review of black walnut harvesting, with a great explanation of this step starting at 5:10. I like this video, plus there is something warm and jolly about the host- he’s kind of like a Young Santa:
  • Once you’ve removed the nutmeat, do a quick visual inspection to make sure there are no remaining shell pieces hiding in there, just waiting to ruin your cavities if accidentally added to your banana loaf.

DO’s and DON’Ts:

DO: Wear protective gloves and old clothes when handling hulls.

DON’T: Work with hulls/wet walnuts over surfaces you’re precious about.

DO: Compost leftover hulls. Surprisingly, a three-year study quashed the popular belief that, because of the juglone, hulls shouldn’t be composted. It turns out that well-decomposed hulls are the “black gold” of compost, with alkaline pH. After 6 months, the harmful chemical breaks down- but I wouldn’t try this if your compost isn’t well maintained.

DON’T: Pour the leftover water from nut-washing onto your lawn. It kills the worms below.

DO: Wear protective gloves. It bears repeating. 

DON’T: Leave your walnuts out where squirrels can get at them. Little devils.

DO: Store in the freezer: walnuts, both in and out of shells, can be kept this way for up to 2 years. (This is particularly handy, as most walnut trees only produce nuts in abundance every other year).

DON’T: Expect your black walnuts to taste like your usual snacking-walnut. Remember: expensive paint.

Happy harvesting!

Gardening for Chumps: The Theme Song

Sometimes it pays to have friends in high places- the kind of friends who invite you to a pool party at Shaquille O’Neils house, or who use their magical lawyer powers to get that pesky DUI charge dropped. I, on the other hand, don’t have friends who invite me to party with Puff Daddy in a hot tub, or who get my speeding ticket dropped from that time I may or may not have been doing 77 in a 50.

My friends hook me up with even better things. In fact, I think that I have the most talented friends around, and generous, too. Take, for example, my friend Benjamin Elliott*.

He wrote this song for us at Gardening for Chumps, and I hope it makes you as happy as it makes me.

If you happen to have the kind of friends who invite you to party with the stars, please play this song for Puff Daddy next time you’re in a hot tub with him. I bet “P.Diddy” is always looking for the next hot talent.

Thank you, Ben! You, Sir, are a man worth knowing.

*(You can check out some of Ben’s newest stuff at his SoundCloud page, and other neat stuff at his YouTube page or his MySpace page)

Hey I Found Out What This Is: Tomato Catfacing

Remember this picture?

When I first saw these, I thought that my tomatoes had some kind of rabies. The good news is: they don’t. The lumpy, malformed black scars on the underside of the tomato are called Catfacing. There is a great article about catfacing at Veggie Gardener.

NOT A BIG DEAL: Catfacing is harmless. Affected tomatoes are gnarly, but totally edible unless it’s severe enough that it’s gone all the way through the tomato. And, at least you can safely compost what’s not salvageable.

WHY IT HAPPENS: Catfacing is the result of environmental stress during blooming, which causes developing fruit to produce too many cells. Other fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, can be affected, too. Stresses that cause catfacing are common in lower Hardiness Zones (4-6 in North America; I’m in Zone 6): drought, high winds, and especially temperatures below 13 degrees C (55F) or above 29C (85F). This makes sense, seeing as we’ve had a Stage 2 Drought here. Heavy use of fertilizers can cause catfacing, too.

MANAGEMENT: According to Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver (1988), the best way to avoid catfacing is to plant resistant varieties. You can also take climate/ exposure control measures for your tomato plants (floating row covers, cold frames, planting indoors, etc) but my thought is: I don’t mind so much if my tomatoes look like they lost a bar fight, as long as they are still delicious!

LESSON LEARNED: I shouldn’t have prematurely picked and wasted those poor, unsightly tomatoes. I’m going to let my straggle tomatoes keep growing, and only pick them if they’re looking severely catfaced. Those ones will just get frozen for future tomato sauces. (Still) Delicious!

Making What’s Hopefully Not Bottled Botulism (aka Pickling)

This long weekend, I learned a lot about myself; for there is nothing to bring out the best and the worst and the Crazy in you like a full day of pickling for the first time ever. I laughed, I cried, I called my mum. A lot.

I used to think that the biggest deal about pickling was how time-consuming and laborious it is. And sure, it’s both of those things- in a big way. But the biggest deal of all is safety. If you don’t can properly, you could get sick. Really sick. As in, dead. So clean working conditions are a must. Get your surfaces and equipment as close to sterile as you can and follow the “official” procedure for canning your items meticulously. And this post is just about what I did, which is definitely not to standard. For legitimate information on canning safety and recipes, check with your local… er… food safety agency. Here: these guys look pretty legit.

I, on the other hand, used my mum’s recipe. Here’s what it calls for:

LIQUID MIXTURE (I had to make this about 4 times for 1/2 bushel of cucumbers):

  • 8 cups water (I used distilled because Peterborough tap water tastes like licking the bottom of a cow’s hoof)
  • 4 cups vinegar (I used white vinegar- because it had a picture of pickles on the front!?- but now wish I’d used Pickling Vinegar. At 7% acetic acid, it’s 2% higher than white vinegar and therefore more likely to kill micro-jerks that could make you sick)
  • 1 cup pickling salt

FOR PACKING THE JARS:

  • Pickling cucumbers, which need the following prep the night before you can them: wash in cold water and scrub with a soft brush, paying special attention to the knob on the end where the flower used to be. Then soak them overnight in a cold 8:1 water:pickling salt solution. Drain in the morning.
  • Fresh Dill (it’s best to use the flower head while it’s still green)
  • Garlic cloves, peeled (1-2/jar; cut in half if large)
  • Other things I added to some jars for kicks (in shot-in-the-dark quantities): pickling spice (1tbsp/jar), pepper flakes (I used 1/8 tsp/jar); 1-2 bay leaves/jar, pepper corns. Keep in mind that if you put any kind of powdered herb or spice in there, it will make the brine cloudy which may be off-putting.

TOOLS: Pickling jars (I used 21x 1-Litre jars for 1/2 bushel of cucumbers), ongoing pot of boiling water for sterilizing, pot of simmering water for heating jar lids, large pot for boiling pickling solution, metal ladle and tongs, metal lid picker-upper tool (optional)

And here’s what I did:

  1. Wash hands and kitchen surfaces very thoroughly. Keep hand-washing throughout the pickling process.
  2. Mix the water, vinegar and pickling salt in the big pot. Bring it to a rolling boil and keep it there. The metal ladle needs to be sterilized, so keep it in this pot.
  3. Take the circular lid tops off of the Mason jars and place them in a saucepan full of simmering water (they should have a thin ring of rubber on the underside- the heating is what activates that ring so it will seal to the jar later). Also keep a pot of boiling water around in case the tools need to be re-sterilized at any point.
  4. Place the jars in the oven and turn it on to 220 degrees F. And don’t add the jars to an already-heated oven. They crack. I may or may not have learned this the hard way.
  5. After at least 5 minutes at 220 degrees F, take a Mason jar out of the oven. Do not touch the inside of the jar or the rim- that would introduce bacteria to the newly-sterilized jar.

    I read today that it’s actually better to boil the jars for pre-packing sterilization; apparently the oven doesn’t distribute the heat well enough.

  6. Carefully pack the jar with pickles, a head or 2 of dill, 1-2 garlic cloves, and whatever else you might want in there- again, no touching the rim or inside!
  7. Using the sterile ladle, pour the boiling pickling liquid in the jar to within 1/4 inch of the very top.
  8. Dip a clean cloth in the boiling water and wipe the top of the jar so there is no food residue left behind.
  9. Using a sterile tool or a special magnetic picker-upper, lift a lid out of the simmering water and put it in place, without touching the rim with your hands, and then screw the ring on overtop.
  10. Place the jar aside to cool. It should make a POP sound later due to the vacuum that’s been created. After cooling, check to make sure this has occurred by pressing down on the lid; if it “gives” under the pressure, then the sealing didn’t work. Store such duds in the fridge and eat them within 3 weeks or so.
  11. Label (with date) and store properly-sealed jars in a cool, dark, dry place for 4-6 weeks before eating.

    Dear New Treats: Please don’t kill me

** A NOTE ON SAFETY: To make sure you don’t get botulism, food safety agencies very clearly state that after you screw on the lid, the jar should be completely submerged in a pot of boiling water for something like 20 minutes. My mum does not do this because she says it makes the pickles less crunchy. In her words, “I’ve been making pickles without boiling them after for 30 years and no one’s died yet”. It’s a small but serious risk. I only boiled a couple of jars to see for myself how mushy they will get. I don’t plan on giving any of these first unboiled batches away. But before committing to the risk of the non-boil, I did a little research and here’s what I found:

From Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante (1999):

ON THE BOIL-BATH PROCESSING DEBATE: “The USDA and the FDA recommend that all fermented foods should also be canned in a hot water bath to protect against botulism. However, traditional lacto-fermentation methods such as those described here seem to effectively prevent botulism by creating a sufficiently acidic environment…”

ON CHECKING FOR SPOILAGE: “In most (though not all) cases, food that has spoiled in storage should be readily apparent. Signs to look for include mold growing inside the lid of the container, on the food itself, or on the outside of the jar. Food that is badly discoloured or darkened, or that is smelly or slimy, is likely suspect and should be thrown away. When food is going bad, small bubbles form inside a storage jar, and gas or liquid may escape in a rush when you unseal the container”.

So, there you have it. I didn’t post-boil and I stand by that choice. But if my posts suddenly stop in the next 4-6 weeks, you should definitely, definitely not let them serve these pickles at my funeral reception.

*** UPDATE***: I tried the first (unboiled) batch of pickles, 5 weeks later, and it killed me. I died.

… Just kidding! STILL ALIVE! They are delicious! Very salty- more than Gabe likes, but just right for me. I will update again later on the degree of mushiness of the batches that were boiled.

The Time I Defeated All The Cucumber Beetles

BEFORE

AFTER

The first morning that I went out on a mission to rid my garden of these stripy pests, I spotted and killed 50 of them. At first I assumed that this was a hopeless endeavor, but three days of hunting-n-squishing later, I could only find ONE lone cucumber beetle. Success! Success! Finally 🙂

THEY LOOK LIKE: Thinner, yellow ladybugs with black spots or stripes.

WHERE TO FIND THEM: Hanging out on your melons, cucumber, zucchini and squash- especially around the flowers, but also check the leaves and the foliage/soil around the plant.

THEY SUCK BECAUSE: Adults attack the plants’ leaves and their larvae destroy the stems and roots. Even if the chewing damage is not significant, they are spreaders mosaic virus, which causes mottled leaves and often curled/stunted foliage- infected plants have to be immediately uprooted and destroyed.

HOW I DEFEATED THEM: Scoping for them in my plants and then squishing them by hand or knocking them into a bowl filled with soapy water.

TIPS:

  •  They are next to impossible to catch if they escape your Fingers of Death and fly away. The beetles are slower (and therefore easier to catch and kill) during the early morning and evening when it’s cooler. I do most of my beetle-hunting then, but if you’ve got a big problem I might suggest several trips throughout the entire day/evening for the first couple of days to bring the numbers down initially.
  • They are poor clingers and are easily knocked off plants, so I simply hold a bowl filled with water and dish soap and under a leaf/flower and I shake it so the critters fall to their doom. If I have to, I’ll pluck them by hand but I try to avoid this because they easily fall and get lost in the soil if you’re not careful.
  • Your soil may contain eggs from the adults- cultivate in the fall to expose and kill any eggs before winter sets in.
  • If you’re intensely serious about your melons/squash/cucumbers/zucchini, you might want to consider keeping them under floating row covers (a propped-up special blanket around the plants that still allows for sunlight and ventilation), especially early in the season. Once the plants start flowering, though, the covers need to be removed so that pollinating bugs can get to the plants.
  • While the thought of Jimmying up some kind of trap might be tempting (especially if you’ve got a serious cucumber beetle problem), it’s not recommended. This is because the features you’d use to lure your cucumber beetles would catch your Good Guy insects, too. Not worth it, and kind of a jerk move, besides.
  • There is lots more information at Garden Harvest Organics if you’re looking for ideas to get rid of these suckers without using harsh chemicals. Check it out!

I AM THE CHAMPION MY FRIENDSSSSSS / AND I’LL KEEP ON FIGHTING ‘TILL THE END

I AM THE CHAMPION! I AM THE CHAMPION! NO TIME FOR LOSERS (cucumber beetles) ‘CAUSE I AM THE CHAMPION

(DUNT DUNT DUNNNN)…

OF THE WORLD

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

My kind friend Maxie watered my garden for a week while I was away. Thanks to her help, my garden survived that Stage 2 drought. But even Maxie’s sweet sweet Garden Whispering couldn’t save it from a barrage of pest ridiculousness. As I surveyed the damage, I wanted to hammer out a little Ball of Rage post about how stupid Nature is being. But then I realized that no one’s going to read this thing if I always sound like some kind of sullen pre-teen. After all, if I had a penny for every time I de-friended someone on Facebook for posting status updates that make me want to call the Waa Waa Waambulance, I’d have enough money to buy a box of Pop Tarts.

So here it is: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly…

THE GOOD:

PEPPERS ARE HAPPENING

My Sweet Peas look like a bunch of hippies

After weeks of exposure and extreme gross negligence, my 10 asparagus roots got planted. I had assumed they were way past dead. SURPRISE SURVIVAL! These beauties keep popping up like little presents. I’m trying not to step on them, but I am bad at sports (i.e. most forms of coordination), so no promises.

No new cases of wilting tomatoes! Plus, the wilted one that I left is miraculously still making a delicious tomato. Thanks, Wilty.

SPINACH FOREST!

We had abandoned all hope of enjoying our summer squash after the invasion of the vine borers, but we came home to 3 chewable-sized treats.

Would you believe it?! The zucchini survived the squash vine borer and subsequent borer-removal surgery (on the left). What resilient and forgiving plants.

THE BAD:

RETURN OF THE VINE BORERS. While one of my zucchini plants is thriving post-surgery, its buddies were looking a little bit sucky (see the previous picture, right). Closer inspection showed that the little buggers were back… or were missed the first time. Since they were already damaged, this second shot at cutting open the stem to pluck out the grubs severed the plants from their main root systems. I buried the stumps in compost and crossed my fingers. LESSON LEARNED: If you’re cutting open to get at squash vine borer, you might as well be thorough the first time even if it means risking unnecessary damage to the plant. Likely, more borers than you think are hiding in the stem and you will only have to cut it open again later.

The dreaded cucumber beetle is all up in my grill. Don’t be fooled by the fancy stripes, this guy is NOT cool or fun. More on this later.

(THIS JUST IN: I now reign victorious over the cucumber beetles! Click here for the update)

Now, I’m no food critic, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to eat these tomatoes. They look like they got into a laser fight while I was gone. Since I left, they’ve developed open, black-rimmed scars on their undersides. More on this later, too.

(THIS JUST IN: the laser-tomato problem is called Catfacing! Click here for the update)

THE UGLY:

hahahahahhhahahahahahah

It’s Getting Rather Lush Around Here!

Hello, friends. I hope your projects are all coming along well. Here are some shots from around the garden today:

Chewable-pea trellis made from bamboo and willow sticks. Sweet pea trellis made from everyday average run-of-the-mill sticks.

One of the few (so-far) survivors of the Tomato Wilt Apocalypse. More on that later.

Morning glories making their way to the roof

These cucumbers have done more physical activity climbing this makeshift trellis than I have since 2006.

Check out this future pickle

SURPRISE ZUCCHINI (the surprise being that they were supposed to be cucumbers)

The side border of our yard with the salad box

The window sill over our kitchen sink

the courgette plant is not moving into the house unless it starts paying rent

This is why I am late for work every day