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.

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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.

March 8, 2011

The Beginning of Walter Mitty Season

by Kate

Raised beds, January

Even though it is 18 degrees this morning, there is a different quality to the sun-light.  Perhaps it is the angle, though I have no way of measuring. It just feels as if it is a little higher in the sky by 10 am. And it is slightly more yellow.  The picnic table is draped under a foot of snow, blue in the shadows of the yard. The raised beds are indecipherable under their white blanket, interrupted only by the browned tops of un-harvested leeks.

I was smug last fall when I left the leeks in the ground. I had thought to harvest them the morning of Thanksgiving so I could boast to my New York City relatives that they were freshly picked  “this very morning!” before the ritual braising with lemon, home made chicken broth and butter.   But the ground was frozen that morning, cement hard, and so they remained. Then snow fell. And there they have remained.

I am desperate to put my hands in soil. This morning saw the final planting of paper white bulbs. I brought the scented geraniums down to the south facing windows in the breakfast nook, away from the grow lights they’ve been hunkering under all winter  (along with bulb starts, and rosemary in pots from last summer’s garden).  One Amaryllis is finally opening; I have a tiny window garden, green and bright, to sit in at breakfast, while through the window, the snow is drifted high against the house.

Amaryllis

Imagine my surprise when, after noting the change in the light, I find packets of seeds just arrived at the co-op. It is only January! Seed catalogues have already arrived at the homes of my more organized friends.  But I don’t subscribe to a single catalogue; never have. Instead, I wander all the farm centers, gathering seed packets one by one, while reading the instructions and savoring the descriptions of succulent fruits, vegetables, and blossoms to come; or I buy seeds by the teaspoonful at Paris Farmer’s Union.  On three tenths of an acre I do not grow vast quantities of any vegetable, but I grow masses of tomatoes and more salad greens than we can eat, not to mention peas, cukes and beans, garlic, and butternut squash. And part of having a garden is, for me, visual:  I choose some plants and vegetables for how they look… My garden is literally a palette of colors and tastes.

I would like to grow more, but the limitations of a village yard, the shifts of light and shade from neighboring buildings and trees proscribe what I can plant, and how much.

Now is the Walter Mitty time of my garden. I sit back and day-dream about what the garden CAN contain, what it might look like. These plans are elaborate because the conditions are perfect.  From my armchair by the wood stove, there are no pests. And it doesn’t take much work: no sweat, no aching back, no mosquito bites.  My tomatoes are large and sweet. I invent a new kind of potato.  My squash plants become self-pollinating….. I find a way to solve the food issues in this country.

Raised Beds, August

Seeds purchased – all from High Mowing Organic Seeds: Provider Bush Bean,Bouquet Dill,German Chamomile, Sweet Basil, Italian Flat Leaf Parsley, Summer Thyme, Astro Arugula, Sylvetta Wild Arugula, Samish Spinach, Giant Winter Spinach, Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach, Bull’s Blood Beet (for red salad greens), Early Wonder Tall Top Beet, Laxton’s Progress # 9 Shell Pea, Glacier Salad Tomato,San Marzano Paste Tomato

March 8, 2011

Seventy Acres of Scrub Farmland

by Barbara

Coyote on the lawn

Some people think my experiment in ecosystem gardening is on the verge of getting out of hand. First it was coyotes on the lawn, bears at the feeder. Then it was turkeys through the garden. Pretty soon the house will become the fields and woods. Heck, I’ve already brought in grapevines, grasses, and wildflowers to decorate the spaces. Next I’ll be inviting the animals in.

Oops—apparently that’s what the wildlife think, too.

Bobcat in the near field

These almost seventy acres are known around here as pretty worthless farmland–for many decades, young heifers were put out here to pasture occasionally, but that’s about it.  We’ve got ledge outcrops and an old quarry, swampy sections and copses threatening to turn entire fields into entanglements of buckthorn.  The neighboring farmer scratches his head in wonderment over our delight in this scruffy overgrown spot. But it’s perfect for practicing ecological gardening and wildlife habitat restoration. Bobcats, fox, coyotes and raptors keep the rabbits and rodent populations in check.  The ponds teem with muskrat, turtles, snakes and the odd beaver plus migrating ducks.  Plenty of deer, field birds, songbirds and wild turkeys.  Ermine and even an opossum that fell asleep on a bale of hay in our barn. Butterflies and bees and insects massing at the wildflowers.

caught

Deep in the garden

Short of throwing out the wildlife, how is it possible to weave an orchard, a nut grove, berry rows and extensive vegetable gardens through this parade of wildlife? By balancing, trying to participate as one inhabitant of a complex, rich ecosystem. I choose varieties of plants that support the wildlife as well as the humans. I make sure almost all the vegetables and herbs–at least some of each crop–go to flower for the bees–our ace pollinators, and to seed for the birds and critters as well.

I do not forage for wild foods–I leave the wild apples, pears, berries, herbs and greens to them–way out in the fields. I can grow my own, close to the house. I plant knowing who is likely to make inroads on what. Sure, the rabbits take off the carrot tops near the end of summer–but that’s okay, I could throw the greens into the juicer, but usually they go into the compost. All I really want are the lovely roots; all the rabbits want are the tops. Brilliant partnership–everything is eaten.

The first season trying out a crop new to me, especially something green and tender, I know I’m taking my chances with the bunnies and deer and insects. I always lose something. Last year it was fenugreek–in a single night, of course the night before I was going to pick it. Who knew that rabbits would develop a passion for something they had never before encountered? It must be their ice cream, their chocolate, their food fantasy. So, I’ll plant it with the lettuces and the chard this coming spring, inside rings of mint which rabbits loathe (read my article on growing mint). Or maybe I’ll make a little netting fence to keep them out. And as for the deer nibbling the kale and Brussel sprouts, the young raspberry canes, the bud ends of young fruits trees, I’ll also be fencing these areas in with a bit of netting during the vulnerable periods.

a-little-big-for-this...

Tukeys at the songbird feeder

The coyote, the bobcat, the owl, the hawks, the snakes all keep tabs on the voles and mice and rabbits that frequent the garden beds. They watch me carefully, stay out of my way, but let me know they’re about. The deer–much shyer than in many places, probably due to our hunting season–haven’t been a big problem close to the house though the wild turkeys find their way to the bird feeders on a daily basis during hard winters. And all that’s okay by me–it’s as it should be: they adapt to my encroachment and I adapt to theirs. They stay as wild as they can considering the proximity of humans, and I give them a wide berth. I do not try to interact with them except through the plantings. This isn’t becoming a petting farm.

I want an effective garden that belongs in this landscape, this ecosystem. That works for it. I don’t need or want a tidy garden with the wildlife kept out. All the inhabitants play a crucial role in the health of this place, of this planet.

But I also don’t want wildlife in the house.

surprise visitor

Ermine in the house

This winter, things got a little out of hand, I’ve got to say. Not only do the animals make their way through the fields and gardens, now some of them are making their way through the house! I expect bees and bats to find their way in by mistake, and mice and mosquitoes, not by mistake–but an ermine?! Yup, that’s right. An ermine got into the house, presumably chasing a mouse, and I found him calmly looking out the window. He left calmly, too, when I opened the door, without waking the two cats asleep on nearby chairs.

Restoring the health of this bit of land is a partnered dance, really, and sometimes we don’t quite know the steps, or get out of sync with one another. I step on the land’s toes (leaving the barn door open and then trapping a phoebe by mistake in the upstairs) and it steps on mine (letting the late blight blow in two years ago). But I’m figuring it out, how to be a good, though not perfect, partner. I’m looking forward to this season’s adventures, the new dance moves–I’ll be practicing my stay-out-of-the-house shuffle for sure.

February 28, 2011

The World in a Garden–Barbara Explains

by Barbara

Originally Published May 13, 2010  in The Addison Independent where Kate and I write a weekly column during gardening season.  Here I explain why I am growing what I grow and how.

gardening in the basement I’m probably breaking all the rules of “local” down in my basement, where under banks of grow lights ten varieties of hot peppers, artichokes, epazote, cumin and lemongrass, nigella and fenugreek, radicchio and rapini, Corsican gourds and tomatillos are humming along. I’ve got the usual suspects, too–tomatoes and eggplants, squash and greens.  But I have to admit, I spend far more time looking at the ninety hot pepper seedlings than at the pumpkins.  I’m much more excited when the cumin breaks ground than the lettuce.  It’s a little experiment I’ve got going.  To see what I can reasonably grow in Addison County with energy-efficient grow lights in the basement and then out in the wilds of the garden.  Eventually I hope to bring what I’ve learned to other cooks and gardeners–how garden and kitchen open the doors of the world.  So far so good.  The seedlings are all doing well in the easy world of artificial warmth and light where they do not have to contend with the wiles of wind or cold or critters. We’ll see how they do outside.

For years I’m been experimenting with the world’s cuisines in my kitchen—what I can reasonably cook in a Vermont kitchen. I’ve been lucky enough to eat my way around a bit of the world, visiting food markets as often as cultural sites on six continents.  I’ve found that you can learn more about a place and its people in a farmer’s market and grocery store than in any museum, eat far better food in people’s homes than in restaurants, so many of which in places like Morocco seem to cater exclusively to tourists. And so instead of souvenirs I lug back recipes and cookbooks. And then I spend hours exploring at the stove. The best part is sharing the discoveries with family and friends at the table — there’s no better way than through food to get people talking about the world.

coriander

Coriander seeds drying

In the past cooking internationally has meant scouring the shops of Montreal and New York for ingredients not easily found in Vermont—Jordanian za’atar and Mexican oregano, Aleppo pepper and Spanish piquillo peppers. I can now find some, but certainly not all of these things here in Vermont as the state grows more diverse–less northern European, not just in its population but in its eating habits.  It’s a marvel how we’ve opened up our palates.  The shifting population, the interest in cooking shows, the explosion of food blogs, the access to the world’s traditions and ingredients –these changes help fill the groceries’ international foods shelves. In the old days, you might find some canned refried beans, some hot and sour sauce; it would have been unheard of to find tomatillos in a northern Vermont grocery store. Now you can get them in the middle of winter.

But they aren’t always affordable.  Or necessarily of the highest quality.  Or particularly fresh.  Recently it dawned on me that I might be able to bring the world—of a certain growing latitude—to the garden as well as to the table.  And so I am experimenting with a melting pot garden. Those ninety hot pepper seedlings. Those fronds of cumin. The stalks of lemongrass. I’ve got Mexico, Morocco, Italy, France, and Thailand.  I’ve got India.  All in a Vermont garden. I want local to mean the world.