High-Desert Gardening by Lesley Aine McKeown
The “dog days of summer” — we’ve all heard the phrase, but what does it mean?
The Farmers Almanac tells us the dog days are July 3 to August 11, referring to the presence of Sirius in Canis Major as the brightest star in the sky at this time. But for many of us it evokes the sultry days just before the monsoon rains begin. These extremely hot, dry days can be very hard on your garden plants. You may notice they wilt easily and require watering twice a day. One thing’s for sure, every gardener in Arizona eagerly awaits the summer rains.
If you have been following this series and have begun your own container garden, your plants should be producing some fruit now. Cherry-variety tomatoes produce much sooner than other large fruit varieties. At this point, if you’re not using plant cages, you’ll have to start staking your plants. Tomatoes typically begin to get leggy right now, and can be cautiously topped to promote more bushy growth. Other veggies that can be staked or trellised are cucumbers and vine-variety squashes.
It’s more important than ever to fertilize using a good organic, 4-6-3 vegetable fertilizer. I like Dr. Earth Home Grown Natural Vegetable Food, which is organic, non-GMO and contains beneficial soil microbes that promote healthy soil and help plants resist pests. A fish-emulsion fertilizer is also recommended. I cannot stress enough how important fertilizing is to maintaining healthy container plants. Now’s the time to keep your eye out for garden pests. Check last month’s article for more on pests and how to control them organically. The huge green caterpillars called tomato hornworms begin showing up now, and can completely strip a tomato plant in a single night. Watch for stripped stems and closely examine each; hornworms typically cling to the underside of the stem. They must be removed by hand and destroyed.
Another threat to your garden during monsoon season is hail. Residents of the high desert are all too familiar with sudden summer rains turning into hailstorms that can be very destructive. It’s good to be prepared and provide cover for your plants. I have several patio umbrellas that can be moved to protect mine, you can also use light plastic sheeting. An ounce of prevention can prevent pounds of disappointment.
Knowing what your plants are doing and what those things are called is very important. This month's word is ‘bolting.’ Bolting is the plant's premature production of flowering stems. This happens when a plant is stressed. It can be caused by drought or excessive heat, as we’ve been experiencing. Plants that tend to bolt are cilantro, parsley, basil, lettuces, cabbages, arugula and spinach, onions and carrots. Bolting can also affect the flavor of the plant; for example, it makes basil taste bitter. To prevent bolting, water regularly, prune flower heads to promote growth, and in some cases move out of direct sun during the dry, hot season. Gardening can be very therapeutic, and harvesting the fruits of your labor even more so. I have several favorite summer recipes that put to use many of the common veggies you’re harvesting now. Check these recipes below, try them with your own harvest, and share your favorite recipes with us here. Happy gardening!
Savory Zuchinni Fritter with Ricotta Cheese, Roasted Tomatoes and Olive Tapenade
A lovely summer dish. Change it up by adding cumin and coriander and serve with cilantro chutney and yogurt raita.
Ingredients - Fritters
2 medium zucchini -organic
2 green onions thinly sliced
¼ cup chickpea flour
¼ cup (about 1 ounce) parmigiana reggiano
2 eggs - organic
salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Optional: 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Coconut oil for frying (Sunflower or Walnut will work nicely too!)
Grate zucchini with a medium sized grater so you get decent shreds of zucchini.
Add salt and place shredded zucchini in a clean dish towel and squeeze to get as much liquid out of it as possible. (the more water you get out the crispier your fritters will be.)
Once squeezed place back in the bowl and add beaten eggs, thinly sliced green onions, chickpea flour, parmigiana reggiano, lemon juice, spices and salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
Heat 2 tablespoons cooking oil over medium heat and wait for that pan to get super hot.
Once oil is shimmering add spoonfuls of mixture in hot oil and fry until golden brown on each side.
About 2-3 minutes per side.
Place on a platter lined with paper towels to soak up any grease that sticks to the fritter
Serve warm with a dollop whipped ricotta cheese topped with roasted tomatoes and olive tapenade.
Roasted tomatoes and Ricotta Cheese Topping Slice fresh ripe tomatoes and palace in a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Place under a broiler until just brown around the edges and they are fragrant. Let cool. Whip Ricotta Cheese with fresh oregano in mixer until fluffy. Garnish with fresh basil. Serves 6
Lesley Aine McKeown has been gardening organically in the Arizona high country for 42 years.