Archive for March 8th, 2011

March 8, 2011

The Kale Question

by Barbara

frosty kale

I just planted them in unmarked flats under the far, low grow-light, way out of the way. In another few weeks I’ll transplant the hardy, cool-loving seedlings into unobtrusive garden corners, keeping them undercover for as long as possible.  It’s for their own good.

But it’s inevitable.  Sooner or later the kale will be discovered.

busy corner of the garden

kale tucked in between the carrots and collards

This goes on every year. As soon as my husband spots the long, crinkled deep-green leaves, he protests–loudly–claiming he can smell them from the house.  Super-healthy, and to my palate, delicious kale. I particularly love the lacinato variety in Italian dishes, many of which Eating Well shares through its treasure trove of recipes.   He claims that its cabbage-y sharpness offends his very sensibilities; there’s no way he’s going to eat it even if it is among the healthiest foods on earth. Indeed, I could swear that the night before I’m going to pick some, he sneaks into the garden and directs deer and rabbit traffic directly to the innocent plants.

But I’m not giving up.   Kale is incredibly easy to grow, provides visual interest and produces more super-healthy food per plant than almost anything else coming out of a northern garden.  Eating Well gives us all kinds of good reasons to eat kale.

kale patch, early morning

kale patch, early morning

So this year, I’ve got plans for him, to shift his experience of kale: first, I’m sending him the Eating Well article “Retrain Your Taste Buds.” And second, I’m making him some roasted kale chips, which my daughter swears he will love. And then I’m going to tell him that all winter I’ve been lacing his beloved green super juice with kale, and he has not complained once.

With a food this healthy for the spring and fall when few other vegetables are available, I’ll get creative.  And this year, I think I’ve finally found the formula for success, so don’t tell him, but I’ve doubled the number of seedlings growing away in the basement!

Tags: , ,
March 8, 2011

Ground Hog’s Day and Seed Catalogues

by Kate

February 2      (Molly’s Birthday)

Help us to be the always hopeful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without the darkness nothing comes to birth, as without light light, nothing flowers – May Sarton

Backyard in February

The days are getting longer, but for the moment all  is snow. Eight inches have come down with perhaps another foot coming by nightfall. I hope so. I went outside early this morning to shovel the walks to the woodpile, the studio and the front door (in case the mail man comes), and discovered coming back in, that I had locked myself out.  Walking to Molly’s to use her phone I note the town is snugged in: no cars on the street, very few driveways and walkways shoveled. The world is muffled. The downtown is a ghost town. One storeowner friend shoveled, salted and swept her sidewalk, but then decided to go home anyway. No one is coming in to shop.

When the boys were little, a snow day was a welcome surprise: an unexpected morning in PJ’s, cocoa, pancakes, books. Invariably the phone would ring and other children would appear since their parents had to go to work. The mudroom floor became a sea of mittens, wet wool hats, snow pants, and dripping boots. After lunch I would kick everyone out to go across the road to the sledding hill or out to build a fort.

Today, boys away in college, a husband traveling, I bank up the woodstove, drink cup after cup of tea, shovel a little, and feast my eyes on Barbara’s seed catalogues before I go work in the studio.

Seed Packets

The choices are dizzying….  Heirloom varieties? New cultivars? Organic? Yes, organic. Shall I build a small hoop bed over one of the raised beds and start things early?  How soon should I start my seeds? As always, it is terribly hard to restrain myself from buying too many seeds. The garden is not large: six raised beds, measuring 7 X 8 feet each. There is a long perennial bed, which stretches 38 feet long, six feet deep, on the north side of the lot.  There are shade beds, and one large patch of earth that gets enough sun where I have finally and systematically begun to plant perennial herbs. Which ones have survived the winter? What will need moving, dividing, replacing?

Shall I start more from seed this year, and buy fewer starts from Judy’s greenhouse? I read in one catalogue that rosemary started from seed has a stronger flavor and aroma. I browse the Basil offerings: Summerlong, Sweet, San Remo, Genovese, Boxwood, Greek, Thai, Lemon.  Each one has a different intensity and aroma. I always grow Genovese Basil for pesto, but last summer, I tried lemon basil which turned out to be a pleasant surprise in salads, but didn’t translate when turned into pesto. My family didn’t like it either,  so I am not ordering it. Thanks to Barbara, I want to learn more about Thai cuisine, so I order Thai Basil as an experiment.

I decide that boxwood basil might do well to edge the herb garden from the lawn. More decisions to come.

March 8, 2011

It’s Too Early to Hanker After Tomatoes

by Barbara
tomato

Perfection

Blame it on Eating Well Magazine that I just ordered seeds for five more varieties of heirloom tomatoes. That’s on top of the four I already have–and considering that only two of us live here anymore, we’re in danger of serious tomato overload.

at long last summer

Summer Beauties

At this point in the early-yet-but-heading-into planting season I can’t be trusted with  seed catalogs or gardening magazines–my itchy planting fingers, my eyes-bigger-than-my garden appetite are easily seduced into buying more seeds than I need.  Even Kate rolled her eyes yesterday when she saw my seed box.  Mindful of my tendencies, I did my ordering a good month ago and then hid the catalogs. Who knew that an innocent evening curled up with a great cooking magazine would land me in this kind of trouble?  Blame it on the new staff gardens and the “First Harvest” article in the April issue. In the SEED SOURCES box, Tomato Fest lists over 600 varieties of organic and heirloom tomatoes.  Six hundred?!  Just a peek won’t hurt.

I love growing tomatoes — few gardening pleasures compete with harvesting (and then eating) fresh tomatoes from my own plants.  The plants are lovely deep green entanglements dotted by red as the tomatoes ripen.  The plants even smell good, sending out an earthy green scent. They grow well almost anywhere in my garden, though I am careful not to plant them in the same spot in successive years, to give the soil a rest. They grow well (and prettily) in patio pots or in small raised beds. Last summer’s Eating Well article on Amy Goldman and her 500 varieties of heirloom tomatoes sings the considerable gifts of this fruit.  But 500 varieties?!

Every year I grow San Marzano for sundried tomatoes (for pesto and sprinkling in many, many dishes) and tomato sauces, both raw and cooked;  Brandywine for luscious fresh-off-the-vine eating and incredible chutney from fruit that doesn’t ripen; Cherokee Purple for its color and citrusy flavor, plus this year, a few of the Sicilian heart-shaped varietal my daughter’s Sicilian boyfriend brought me from his mother.

into the story

oven-dried tomatoes in olive oil

And of course a single cherry tomato plant. Now that my daughters have left home we can barely keep up with the bounty of one productive plant.  By midsummer those little cherry tomato orbs appear in almost everything we eat, plus small bowls overflowing with them dot empty tables, beckoning snackers at every turn. Sliced tomatoes or caprese salad accompany most dinners.  I have a dehydrator to dry them, and I put up jars of tomato-basil jam as well as chutney. Luckily I have bookmarked recipes to help me get the most out of this year’s harvest, such as  Roasted Tomato-Bread Soup and  Tomato Phyllo Tart–I can use several varieties in both of these preparations–hurrah!

Okay, so I probably shouldn’t have ordered those Black Cherry and Camp Joy cherry tomato seeds this morning.  But at this point in the late winter, when the sun shines bright and warm, but the snow holds on tight to its blanket, I don’t care.  Come summer I will need Italian Heirloom and Italian Tree tomatoes to infuse my Mediterranean-dominated cooking (am I a sucker for anything with Italian in the name?), and Dagma’s Perfection,  a yellow tomato I usually spend far too much on at the farmer’s market when I crave golden gazpacho. And in a couple of weeks, I will get the pleasure of planting those seeds and seeing them pop up and grow tall and full beneath the warm grow-lights.

garden refugees

At the end of the season

But I’ll be good and plant only a couple of each of the new varieties as test runs this summer; share seeds with friends and family, grow extra plants to give away.  If these varieties take to the soil, the sun, the ecosystem here, and we like their flavor,  texture, cooking and storing qualities, I’ll plant them again next year and vow to stay off the Tomato Fest website, and perhaps even out of the April issue of Eating Well if they keep on tempting me like that!

March 8, 2011

Planting Peas

by Kate

End of March

Forgotten Pea Trellis, February

It has taken all my will power not to plant the peas in the last few days. After a week when temperatures rose into the sixties and a succession of blue sky days and bright sun, it is almost impossible to hold back.  The sap has stopped dripping into the buckets. The Farmer’s Almanac reads “Chipmunks are waking up and coming out of their burrows.” For a moment, listening to the cry of returning geese overhead, the cacophony of robins, the love calls of cardinals, and even the discovery of the remains of an egg ( surely from one of last year’s broods), I am tempted to think “Tomorrow I plant!”

It is a precious moment when winter starts to dwindle in fits and starts, and spring begins to gain confidence as the days get longer, first slowly, then faster, and it is finally time to get my hands back in the soil, smooth out the lumps, cast off the winter coverings, and put peas in the ground.  It is like the first stirrings of excitement when I begin a new painting:  the markings of the design, the early splashes of paint, the careful building of layers, all herald something new.  With plants, so much is beyond our control, and yet, at this time of year, it is all about planning and potential.

 

Pea pods and blooms

The raised beds between the house and studio where I paint every day are moist, the heavy cold water of melted snow drained away. Covered with the leaves and flecks of detritus from winter blows and bits of straw mulch from last year, the tips of garlic plants are peeping out of the soil. Sorrel, with its red-tipped green tinge is emerging, iris leaves tentatively poke through the leaf mulch, and some of the thymes that line the path have new tiny green leaves. The frothy leaves of giant poppies are unfolding.

Peas in mid May

To look at these naked beds, brown, grey—clean slates—is to imagine them planted with tidy rows of green and color. Every year, I plant differently, rotating crops, changing the angles of  rows, creating miniature knot gardens from time to time, trying new spots for a plant given the shade that develops when the changing angle of the sun casts tree shadows across the beds. Each spring means a new design, a fresh beginning on a structure sunk into the ground fifteen years ago, on top of what was driveway. Each spring brings the promise of fresh food grown on my own little plot of land, and in a world that seems pretty crazy and chaotic, that feels reassuring.

Mine is an in-town garden.  The house, which dates back to the 1870’s, covers most of the .3 acres we own.  The rest is planted, with six raised beds, and a couple of borders that contain perennials, and an herb garden.  Arborvitae hedges line the periphery, and a crab tree that in 1996 was not much taller than my husband, now towers above the back of the house. Rabbits have found us, even a wood chuck who has seventeen holes in  the meadow across the street (my neighbor Jane counted them) ventures over when we grow broccoli and brussel sprouts, but most people don’t know the garden is here, tucked in behind a sheltering wall,  a little oasis in the middle of town. In fact, it is so sheltered  I can grow things some years that can’t be grown elsewhere in Addison County, which ought to mean the peas can go in the ground soon.

Peas, early June

At this time every year, I have big plans. Even though the air is still fresh and warmer, we  light a fire in the wood stove. There’s the wall of sweet peas I am planning, whose flowers will perfume the air when I step outside come summer for breaks from the paint fumes.  There will be six varieties of eggplant, which I plan not only to eat, but to paint, using the most beautiful ones in a still life. Artichokes, will be planted in the herb garden, not for the fruit, but for the flowers so purple they beg to be painted, along with their silvery, spiky leaves.  Tomatoes, herbs, lettuces, leeks, garlics and greens – all will be planted for both their beauty and because we like to eat them.

I pick up the telephone and call my friend Abi who has a soil thermometer.  It is more fun to call her repeatedly over a season to ask for the temperature of her soil than it is to buy my own thermometer. This way we chat about what we are planting, how it is going, what is different this year from last, and share part of the excitement of another growing season. I add a couple of degrees onto her numbers since my patch is south facing and there are no breezes.

“Soil Thermometer? I haven’t even thought about it yet — though Bill did go outside and plant some stuff in the cold frames yesterday.”

Cold Frames. That could be the key for this need I have right now to dig. The one time I built a cold frame, I moved too fast and situated it below a south-facing roof. When the inevitable early April snow came, it slid off the roof and smashed the glass.  We have found another south facing spot under a gable, and I could build a new cold frame in the next few days.

I pull out my grow lights and analyze my seed packets. It is not too soon to plant the six varieties of eggplant, leeks, perhaps a couple of tomato varieties. I am not starting any brassica this year to insure that the wood chuck will stay away. The labels are neat, with date planted, seed producer noted.  I leave the trays in the vicinity of the woodstove, see that the rain outside is starting to look like snow, and realize it would be okay if the sap run went longer for my friends who make maple syrup.  The peas can wait another week or two.

March 8, 2011

Growing Lemongrass in Vermont

by Barbara

Lemongrass tucked behind hot peppers

 

I’m heading down into the basement today to plant lemongrass. Yes, here in Vermont. A dozen plants or so.  And then I’ll come back up to the kitchen and make some delicious lemongrass-coconut chicken soup using broth I made and froze last fall.

I’m never without lemongrass in my kitchen. Although I’m primarily inspired by Mediterranean cuisine, I do need a Southeast Asian fix at least once a week.  As an essential flavor of that region, lemongrass makes its way through many of our meals. I use the light lemony herb  in soups, chicken, fish dishes; in marinades and pastes like Eating Well’s Thai lime and Lemongrass Marinade;  as grilling skewers; in desserts such as lemongrass pots de crème; in tisanes and syrups.  People think I am adventurous in the kitchen; I think I’m sensible by planting my favorite flavors.

When I spot pale stalks in the market going for nearly $20 a pound, I feel rather pleased with myself.  I don’t need to buy lemongrass.  Nope, not even here, halfway across the world from where it originates.  Perhaps it seems all upside down to grow it in Vermont, but then again I also happily grow lavender, eggplants, tomatillos, artichokes, figs  and all manner of vegetables, fruits and herbs not associated with these cold climes. I’m determined to use them,  I want them fresh, and there’s such satisfaction in pulling a stalk of lemongrass out of its grassy clump right before I need it in the kitchen. I’m sure it tastes different from the same plant grown in a Thai garden–our soil and climate conditions make that inevitable–even so, I’ve never tasted store-bought lemongrass that can rival what comes straight from the garden.

Young lemongrass

Lemongrass grows easily as an annual herb, started from seed right about now, or as transplants found at garden centers.  There are two varieties, East Indian and  West Indian; the first is what you get in seed packets, and the second what you buy at the nursery.  Supremely grassy, the Eastern cultivar sends out lots of thin leaf blades.  The stalks do not, in my experience, swell into fat bulbs.  The Western variety seems to grow faster, taller, with much thicker bulbs, the kind you see on green grocers’ shelves.  I grow both kinds–Eastern for infusions and broths, Western for recipes calling for the chopped tender core of the stalk. I love the herb so much that I grow it in patio pots, tuck it into empty corners of the garden beds and all through the grass garden.  It provides visual as well as culinary interest–a double winner!

So here I go to dream of light summer curries and iced lemongrass teas as I plant the seeds and wait a couple of weeks for them to surface.  They take their time, all through the season, but I’ll wait for them, gladly.

March 8, 2011

Planting Juice & Smoothie Beds

by Barbara

Snow piles up and drifts, drifts and piles up–welcome to March in Vermont.  But the thick white blanket doesn’t reveal what’s happening beneath the skin of earth and tree, bush and branch. Sap runs in fits and bursts, buds stir in their pre-swelling-almost-out-of-dormancy state. Kate’s maple syrup pan steams happily away on her woodstove. My grow-lights shelter and warm new seedlings.  My cold storage room and freezer stock dwindles– I’m completely out of some jams and frozen pestos; the chutneys and pickles, the mostardo and mulled fruits are thinning out.  That means I can soon stop eating out of jars and find dinner in the garden.

-garden-after-snow

The Kitchen Garden Before Spring

While I wait for things to come to life, I’ll check the fruit trees for branches to prune, canes in the raspberry beds that need removing. I’ll  set out for the orchard on snowshoes, shovel in tow. In the center of a ring of young fruit trees we have four 16′ X 10′ raised beds–now under a good three feet of snow. I’ll remove the snow over one bed  and put up a grow-tunnel to warm up the soil.

gardendinner

Garden Dinner

I’m planning a “green super-healthy juice” bed, where cucumbers, kale, spinach, broccoli, greens, cilantro and parsley will grow. I’ll be able to go out with my basket and gather the makings for our morning  green juice without moving from one spot!  And nearby is Smoothie Row — red and black currants, gooseberries, raspberries and blackberries; and  apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots and cherries–the making of many an Eating Well healthy smoothie!

It’s amazing what we can grow ourselves–most of us– if we have access to even the smallest bit of land or some patio pots.  I love how Kate has transformed almost her entire small yard into a stunning garden packed with vegetables and herbs, and how urbanites are transforming yards into gardens and saving money. I have friends in the city who grow pots of herbs and salads, peppers and tomatoes on their windowsills much as Eating Well suggests.

When we grow our own food, we invest in our own health, our family’s health and the health of this planet–at least this has been my experience. We connect to the earth’s rhythms and our role caring for its well-being; we participate actively in promoting our family’s health; and we find new pleasure in kitchen creativity.  We can save money.  And hey, we can make up any kind of healthy smoothie flavor combination that stirs our fancy! I can’t wait to try new juice pairings this year–spinach and pear? Kale and apple?  Carrot and black currant? Cilantro and cucumber?

Tags: , ,
March 8, 2011

Celebrating Radicchio

by Barbara

radicchio red

In the depths of winter, I’ll succumb to temptation and buy a small burgundy head of chioggia radicchio at our local natural foods cooperative.  I’m shocked at the price of a green that in my experience couldn’t be easier to grow.  Perhaps people think that because of its high price it must be challenging to grow.  Or perhaps they don’t think they like its slightly bitter note when served raw.  Perhaps they’ve never tasted how delicious it is when picked young and grilled or roasted or sautéed.  It asks to be paired with the dark sweetness of balsamic vinegar, and is a revelation grilled and wrapped around fresh mozzarella. What’s more, radicchio adds a lovely bit of color to whatever dish you make.

When I visit Italy, I am wowed by the varieties of radicchio in the green markets: the tall treviso, the nearly scarlet varieties, the chubby balls of maroon chioggia.  The Italians are passionate about this variety of chicory; according to Wikipedia, even back in 77AD Pliny the Elder extolled its virtues.

radicchio

Radicchio newly transplanted

Well, I can’t get enough of the stuff in my kitchen, and so I grow a lot of it.  Radicchio’s a cool weather plant, which ordinarily would mean planting it in late summer here in Vermont and harvesting it in deep fall, but I grow and harvest it from April until November.  Indeed, it’s already growing away down in my basement under grow-lights next to its cousin endive.  By late March it will be about four inches high and ready to go outside under a tunnel if it’s a bitterly cold spring, or out in the open garden if no deep freeze is predicted.  Radicchio doesn’t mind a light frost, and it likes to mature in cool conditions, so I don’t worry about it shivering..  If the temperatures threaten to dip into the low 20s, I’ll slip an old plastic milk jug over each plant to give it just a bit of protection.

On the other hand, during a hot summer it can grow bitter and tough, and so I throw shade netting over it in high heat. Its shallow root system makes it thirsty, so when it’s dry, I’ll give it a drink to prevent it from getting bitter.

To get the most out of a head, I don’t dig up the whole thing at once until it is quite mature–about three months after I plant the seeds. But early on, I start taking a few leaves from several plants at a time, without harming the plant which will continue to tighten its head as it matures.

And so, yes, I treat myself to outrageously expensive radicchio in the winter once or twice in that short period when it is not growing in my house or in the garden.  But now that it’s March I cheer it on when I head down to my basement growing station.  Soon, soon, it will play a starring role on our table.

March 8, 2011

Raised Beds

by Kate

A version of this article originally appeared in The Addison Independent on May 20, 2010.

Raised Beds in front of the studio

Every May we stand, looking at six raised beds in a part of the yard that was a driveway when we bought the house. The first thing we did that April, 1996, was move a ten foot high arborvitae hedge that ran between a little garage and the house to the far side of the driveway, to create a sheltered, south-facing spot for a vegetable garden.

To the excitement of two boys, then five and eight, the man who moved the hedge came to Middlebury all the way from Newport, Vermont, hauling a goose-necked trailer on which perched a bobcat with a cone-shaped tree digger on the front. As the driver settled into the cab to drive the rig off the trailer, loud music suddenly erupted from two speakers on the side of the bobcat. “What’s that?” yelled the boys. “I like to work to music,” the driver shouted, as Puccini’s “Tosca” poured forth, each aria soaring above the houses in the neighborhood. The machine twirled back and forth across the driveway, first toward the hedge, digging down four feet, then scooping the tall green columns up, one at a time, each with a cone shaped root ball below, then dancing across the gravel to settle the cones gently into their new site.

Three hours later, suddenly quiet, the hedge was moved and we had a place in which to build our raised beds.

“We’ll have many patches to share — for all of us. Which part do you want to plant?” This was what we had all been waiting for.  Young children love the magic of putting seeds into the ground and waiting to see what comes up; they know it is a miracle without our telling them.  Beans bust out of the soil quickly and twirl up posts. Baby carrots and radishes can be plucked out of the ground, wiped off with fingers and eaten on the spot. Peas pop out of pods.  Zucchini turn into baseball bats. In late August, there’s corn to be husked, picked only just as water comes to a boil.

As a child, I spent hours in a vegetable garden in Connecticut, planting the seeds in late May, weeding beside my mother (or lying on my back, looking up at the clouds), or running down to pick the corn when she put the water on to boil.  We had been loaned a patch of dirt in what had been an estate garden for the grand mansion next door, now occupied by a very old widow.  Ringed with fruit trees, the ghost of a semicircular kitchen garden was fenced with grape vines and long rows of dipping yellow lilies.  The remnants of four huge beds sprawled, separated by wide grass paths with an old well in the middle, now filled with stones. One of the beds was filled with a forest of asparagus fronds, but at age five, when we first went to plant, I didn’t know what asparagus was.

In a yard as small as ours, just three tenths of an acrea, and most of that is covered by the house, raised beds are the way to go. Drainage, vital for healthy plants, is good.  You can plant many more plants in a raised bed than in a flat garden. It is easier to tend because of the height.  And you can organize the soils and the plants by variously amending the soils in the different beds depending on what you plant.

We planned the dimensions and lay out of the beds on graph paper.  I needed to be able to reach the plants easily without walking on the soil so it would not be compacted.  Then, after plotting out the beds with measuring tape and string, we dug down 12 – 15 inches in each rectangle, removing either gravel from the old driveway, or sod from the former lawn. We nailed together rough-cut fir boards for the sides, 2 X 12’s, 7 and 8 feet long, and placed the rectangles on the ground. We shoveled topsoil into the four (now seemingly enormous) holes. Then we top-dressed the beds with composted sheep manure from a friend’s farm in Addison.

We top-dress the beds every year with ground up leaves from our yard, compost from the kitchen along with garden clippings. We also add ashes from the woodstove from time to time, or lime to sweeten the soil. We added sand to a bed designated for herbs, many of which prefer somewhat less rich soil.

That first year garden, fifteen years ago, was miraculous. There were no pests, no rodents, no bugs, no woodchuck  (they all arrived the second year). The garden was new, and the word had not gotten out.  The amount of produce, using a square foot gardening system, was astonishing.

The boys are no longer home, come planting time. But Charles, who is studying ethno-botany, planted seeds this winter inside his college’s greenhouse. He rang up the other day to say he’d just plucked a couple fresh radishes out of the soil on his way to class.O

Raised Beds Basics:

Site:  Try for a spot that gets lots of sun, and where water does NOT collect. My beds face south. They are sheltered (which makes it warmer), and the ground gently slopes to the south, which is ideal. Ask yourself the following questions: how near is a water source? Are there big trees nearby, whose roots will compete for moisture and nutrients? How much sunlight do you have?

Size:  Walking on soil compacts it. So design a bed that you can easily access. Four feet is ideal. Mine are  7feet by 8 feet, and I sometimes lay a board across to walk on.

Paths:  Some people have lawns between their beds – so design a path that is wide enough for your mower. My friend Margy removed the topsoil from the paths, and filled them with wood chips. Barbara’s paths are filled with gravel, and her beds come in a variety of shapes. Last year, my husband and I laid blue stone between our raised beds.

Facts:

The soil in raised beds warms up faster, so your vegetables get a head start.

Raised beds are easier to tend.

Raised beds dry out faster, so monitor them carefully for watering. Ideally, you should mulch, but that is a topic for another day.

Different beds can contain different soils, depending on what you want to plant.

Raised beds can be planted intensively, but watch out: don’t over – plant!

Not all vegetables work well in a raised bed, like corn, squash and pumpkins: they need more space. They go in flat beds, which are in the ground.

If you haven’t gardened before, start small. We started with four smaller beds and now have six large ones.  Some people have both raised beds and flat beds).

March 8, 2011

Building Tunnels for Your Garden Beds

by Barbara
tunnels in the orchard

Garden Tunnels in the Orchard

This article first appeared in The Addison Independent, in the fall of 2010. Here’s my husband’s recipe for inexpensive garden tunnels, inspired by Eliot Coleman’s book, Four Season Harvest.

Ingredients

*10-foot-long, half-inch gray electrical conduit
*10-foot-long, 1-inch gray or white electrical conduit
*Rolls of Garden Fabric 12 feet wide minimum (choose the desired weight/transparency)
*Wide-mouth clamps, sledge hammer, saw

Directions (assuming your garden bed is 8 feet wide)

For hoops that are 3 feet tall at the center (typically all you need for the spring):

Cut the 1-inch conduit into one-foot lengths with one end cut at a diagonal to make it easier to pound into the ground. These will be the sleeves into which you slip the half-inch conduit (my secret).

Pound one-foot long sleeves into the ground every 2 feet along both sides of your garden bed.

Cut off the female end of the half-inch conduit and then slip into sleeves so the hoops run perpendicular to your garden bed.

Pull the fabric paper over the hoops and clamp it to the conduit being careful not to tear.

Pepper transplants in spring tunnels

It’s that easy.

For the fall, when you need more height to cover your mature plants, you’ll have to buy some additional 10-foot, half-inch conduit and cut into 5-foot lengths, leaving the female end on this time. Join the 5-foot length to your existing 10-foot length and when you insert this longer piece into the sleeves, you’ll achieve 5 feet of height (you may need to adjust full length of conduit to make sure the fabric paper can cover the new span). Consider changing to a heavier weight garden cover. The remaining 5-foot lengths of conduit will come in handy as posts for lightweight rabbit fencing next year.

March 8, 2011

It Might Be Snowing, But the Garden Stirs

by Barbara
greens

Baby Mesclun in Last Spring's Garden

It has something to do with the light, the quality of it, the height of the sun at midday, the edging toward the  equinox, the headiness of spring-just-around-the-corner. Painters like Kate can finally work deep into the afternoon.  Cyclists start tuning up their bicycles.  Gardeners get itchy. They order their seeds; they prowl the local garden centers, perusing the new varieties and bringing home those lovely seed packets that will stare at them for a couple of months.

But me?  I did that ages ago.  When the seed catalogs fill my snow-covered mailbox in early January, I am so hungry for green that I spend a week planning the gardens.  I order seeds, berry bushes, fruit and nut trees–whatever I need for the coming year.  And so now?  In March?  Do I stare at all those seeds?  Not a chance.

I can’t help myself.  I turn from all that beautiful daylight and head down into the basement to the glow and hum of artificial light- to plant the first seeds of the year: all manner of greens for windowsills and eventually for under the two tunnels out over raised beds that I’ve readied for early inhabitants. Planting while the snow still flies means I can get my hands dirty, smell the sweet soil, and dream of those early salads and spring combinations filled with the bright flavors and rich nutrients of mesclun and lettuces and other early greens right from my own garden.  There’s really no better way to greet spring than with the first baby greens–the variety is amazing these days, as Eating Well points out in the Salad Greens Buyer’s Guide.

Radicchio (Treviso) seedling

The first plants are up and growing steadily; they have their first real leaves–a sign that soon it will be time to transplant them to larger vessels.  Some will live in fat pots in our big bank of south-facing windows, and some will go in small pots under the grow lights for a couple of weeks or so before moving to the garden tunnels as soon as I can be pretty certain the temperatures will not plunge below about 20º.

Early lettuces keep giving for weeks.  By harvesting just the outer leaves, or by snipping all but the bottom inch of the plants, you encourage them to send up new leaves–more salads to come.

Tomorrow, I’ll plant fennel, onions and lavender, lemongrass, parsley, and artichoke seeds sent to me all the way from Sicily.  Who cares if it snows all the way through March–I’ve got plenty of green to keep me heading into deep spring.