Archive for ‘Vegetables’

March 9, 2011

The Onions Are Growing Fast

by Barbara
early morning onion

Early Season Onion

You can never grow too many onions. No matter how many I grow–and I grow a lot–I always start running out of them by now.  Indeed, I can mark the growing calendar by the number of onions hanging from my rafters, and now it’s telling me to plant some, a lot, many more than last year’s couple hundred!

After all, I use onions in just about every meal I make, from soup to stew to roasted vegetables and meats to the condiments (chutneys, relishes, pickles and jams)–I probably use two-three onions a day on average just for family meals, so 200 hundred onions do not last from final fall harvest to first spring picking.   Eating Well’s Onions -Healthy Food Guide explains why we should be eating onions, and lots of them! I like how they play both the background, foundational note in a sauce or braise, but also how they can play a starring role.  I want to try Eating Well‘s   spicy onion jam recipe and the caramelized onion lasagna and the sweet onion-rhubarb sauce this year–oops, I better plant a few more seeds!

Already they are everywhere in the garden, and through the season in all stages of growth; I stagger the plantings to make sure I have fresh green onions all summer as well as storage varieties to hold us through to spring. They grow in long rows along the edges of raised beds, and tucked by the threes and fours into empty slots of the garden beds.  I grow the little Italian cipollini– both yellow and red varieties–sweet Walla Wallas, white onions, red slicers, Egyptian onions and Welsh.

So far I’ve planted about 100 onions. The four flats of sweet onions seeded on February 22 for early transplanting–onions do fine in cold soil–are growing so fast down under the grow lights that in another couple of weeks they’ll outgrow their space.

That means out through the deep snow I go to shovel off another garden bed and put up another tunnel.  I don’t mind–it’s great exercise and besides, I’ll be chopping tender spring onions into my salads and soups when most people are just planting their gardens!

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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!

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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

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?

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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

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.