Category Archives: seeds

On seed production

Copra onion blossom:  this F1 original seed, purchased/planted in 2007, is five generations removed from its hybrid origin.  Does this make it a non-hybrid yet?  It is a great yellow storage onion nonetheless for me.

With all the green pressure of seeding, growing and harvesting one’s own edibles, I will tell you it makes sense to go a step further.  You should harvest your own seed.

Forellenschluss lettuce

My first true (read: overwhelming) harvests of 2012 happen concurrently with the first harvests of next year’s seeds.  I allow, intentionally most of the time, lots of my spring veg to go to seed.  Many are biennials and thus won’t seed until this, their second, spring, but most are simply live-and-die annuals hellbent on reproduction in this, their only, year of life.  So I keep a store of paper lunch sacks handy and I snip off dried seedheads, marking the bags with a permanent marker as to what the heck they are, then I fold these bags to store in the basement for next (or maybe later this) year.  Roots, lettuce, brassicas, spinach, alliums, herbs.  Who needs a seed store when you have your own store?

The above is an example of inadvertent seed saving and seed starting.  About a month ago I deadheaded some Russian kale (the red, toothy kind) and left the seedpod branches on the ground to pick up later.  Well, it looks like I have my fall kale started already!  whoops.

Also, the ridiculously hot temperatures have lifted (joy) but one of the casualties was the artichokes.  The very thought of steaming them steamed me, so I let them flower.  Beautiful relative of the thistle, huh?

My go-to guide for all seed saving adventures is Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth,  There are other guides out there I am sure but this one is handily grouped by plant families and has relevant information about a plant’s suitability for growth in your particular area of the US.  If you know of others, please leave them in the comments.  Happy harvests!

On something from (almost) nothing

It must be Monday because my muscles are sore

Ah, Spring!  Newness everywhere:  new buds, new shoots, new babies, new sprouts.  It must be time to crack the spine of…an old book?  Indeed.  Late winter and early spring find the bedside table crowded with well-thumbed gardening books.  This year is no exception, and I have dug up (pun intended) one of my favorites.  It’s called Life in the Soil by James B. Nardi.

Seeds plus light, water, soil equals a July tomato

Every page is a revelation.  I highly recommend it.

Seeds plus compost and a trellis equals a June pea or three

IN the food web of life, I of course find most fascinating the producers:  those organisms that produce their own nutrients from only air, water, minerals and energy…the everyday wonder that is a lettuce seed, say, spouting and heading up for my eventual enjoyment on just the soil, rain and sun that falls upon it?  Awe, inspiring.

Does this weather mean we’ll have a six-month-long summer?

Other indications of spring are spring onions in every possible form.  Here’re regular scallions, chives, and walking onions in a greenhouse bed.  Since they coexist with Egg Season, we’ve been pairing a lot of them lately, because, really, who can resist cong you bing for breakfast?  Not me!

I watched a fingernail moon hurdle the treeline as I was milking this morning.  So strange, this weather…have we skipped a month?  Did I miss it somehow?  How else to explain the scent of hibiscus and daffodils and the sound of the nightjars’ calls. Surely it’s late April, not mid-March.

The kid about to unplant her first spuds last July

Traditionally, however, St. Patrick’s Day is pea- and potato-planting day ’round here.  Many years I haven’t even been able to trench the frozen earth to accept peas (much less potatoes) but this year I wonder if the soil is already too warm for them.  If “regular” weather returns the potatoes, though, can take more than a few frosts, if my consistent missed-spud harvesting every fall is an indication.  Those volunteers are always my first spud harvests.

Fava beans, parsnips, carrots and beets have also been planted outside, some already sprouting.  Baby lettuces transferred around.  Late root crops pulled and eaten.

I am thankful to the slow slide into winter that we had last year:  I was fully able to put the garden beds “to bed” for the winter (out with the old harvests and in with the thick mulch) so this spring’s planting is amazingly easy.

And I also realize that I am somehow always optimistic about the time I will have in the future to take on some project (either maintenance or new hairshirt I mean farm task).  Does this time ever materialize?  Nope, never.  It’s best to do whatever it is (fully dig out a weedy bed, fully repair that fence section) when it needs to be done…trust me here.  Its effects can be cumulative if you put it off.

Another year, another round of seed-starting

Little Edie has adaptation skillz at the ready.  Any time there’s a pile of something warm-ish in a greenhouse, she’s sure to land and nest.

We are all born tinkerers.  Tinkering’s a prime adaptive skill, of course, honed over millenia to help us fulfill our needs.  In this age of relatively easy money, though, I think that within the ease at which we exchange money for goods, we’re also exchanging something else.  With every dollar goes a bit of inborn knowledge, some nascent adaptation, a skill…simply because it’s easier to pay for it than to do it yourself.  We’re not so quick to tinker!

I am surely not saying you all should get out a circuit board and some solder and make your own computers.  Hah.  No; rather, this is more a signal to myself that not all my troubles have an easy monetary fix.  Indeed.  Sometimes, life requires a little bit of pain.

Case in point:  I abhor indoor seed starting.  Really.  And every year, I seem to be on a quest, a grand period of Deep Think, to solve this problem.   It’s not an insurmountable problem.  In fact, it’s really not even a problem.  It is just, of all that goes into gardening, seed-starting in trays interests me the least.  Maybe because it’s phony?  Maybe me warming 48-plug trays to start the tomatoes and okra in my basement is somehow cheating the process?  Ah.

Who knew I was such a purist, right?  Well, I have no problem at all planting seeds outside in the ground.  And I do start a fair number of spring/summer veg in rows in the greenhouse beds themselves.  But not all plants find these beds–and their wild temperature swings–to their liking.  Knowing how some seeds require a constant warm-ish soil temperature to germinate, is there a way I can get around this?

Nope.  Not if I expect a harvest.

Shrewd:  When moving them to get at what was under them, I threw the agricultural cloth in a pile over the top of the kale.  Edie took that as an invitation to lie UPON said kale.

Not all early veg are so picky, though.  For the last two years I have experimented with growing the seed-start trays in the greenhouses themselves.  Problem was, the voles (field mice, the scourge of the winter greenhouse) found a few of the seed trays and mowed them down of their particularly delectable victuals, so I needed them off the ground or somehow out of harm’s way.  A makeshift table seemed to work, but it cast shadows…and the warming late-winter greenhouse needs no shadows.

Now this year, on Leap Day, I actually splurged bought my way out of my problem by getting a new wire shelf for the old greenhouse’s back wall.  Wire shelves let the light through, I figure, so I can leave it on the wall all year…and darn it, the vermin can’t jump that high.

Probably the lamest tinker ever, new shelf on back wall.  Mylar blanket wraps about trays of herb, flower and cabbage-family seeds on wire shelf.  Those sticks coming out of the ground?  Attempts at fig propagation.

But damn.  The tomato, celery, okra, tomatillo, and pepper family plants are all testing my patience in the basement.

Here’s a bit more context.  Dang, I try not to show you what a slob I am…sorry.  But do you see Edie?

On what a gardener does in the off season

What do I do to occupy my time when I don’t have weeding to do?

I hate this stuff.  And yes, that’s snow less than a foot away.

Well, who says I don’t have weeding to do?  Have you ever heard of henbit?  This mint family weed does not let Old Man Winter stop it from growing AND flowering; it loves the greenhouse beds and paths, and it’s a bear to evict from those little spaces between lettuces.  Ahem.  Sadly, no hens like it…nor do turkeys, bunnies or goats.  That puts it in the truly worthless weed camp.

So perhaps I don’t get a vacation from weeding, ever.  But the down season does allow me to attack the list of things I had set out to accomplish, um, the year before

Too good to be sauced, yet.

…like making applesauce.  Right about now is when the putative bad apple spoils the lot (bad potatoes, too, come to think of it).  I sort through the stores and pull out the spotty and the wrinkly, or the varieties which look fine but whose texture is off, and sauce them.  The apples are kept in half-bushel baskets on our back porch/mud room.  It’s an unheated porch and it does freeze, though not that often–cool enough, then, to keep apples–and it smells great.  The half-bushels work because they’re shallow enough to find the bad ones and the bottom apples do not get as smooshed as they do in bushel baskets.  We like our sauce saucy, not lumpy; I simply cook the thinly sliced/peeled apples and run them through a chinois.  Sugar, salt and spice is added to taste, then process the jars in the pressure canner.

Molasses-smoked ham

Smoking is another.  Despite the cold I am often quite itchy to be outside, and tending the smoker is a guarantee that I am in and out all afternoon as every 20 minutes or so I’m flying out the door to verify that the smoker is indeed still smoking.  Trimmings from our apple trees and grapevines as well as the yard’s ever-shedding maples are used as smoking fodder.  I do both hot and cold smoking.  It’s an opportunity to get creative:  hams, side pork, pork belly, fresh sausages, salmon from a friend’s fish CSA, boiled eggs, home-made gouda and mozzarella…even dried whole paprika peppers are game.  Some things don’t require much smoke at all whereas others can take all day. “Whatever’s available in the time I have” remains the rule of what gets smoked when.

And it’s not quite my least favorite time of year (indoor seed starting) but we’re getting close.  I do drive my husband crazy in that I am sloppy-organized whereas he is tidy-organized (both systems work, right?) but it’s usually late January when I mess up tackle the pile of grown/saved, newly purchased and old seeds.  (Of course, I do need to upend things in order to make things tidy, don’t you?)  This year it’s been a bit easier:  I got a fabulous sieve from Fedco…what a great way to do the final shake/sort of saved seeds.  And I love that the box it came in called it the Almighty sieve.  Indeed.

The bomb

One should appreciate the off-season, and I do!

On home-grown flour

Painted Mountain flour corn, seed gifted generously from Mike.  Riffing off my last post:  One cup medium-fine corn meal in four cups boiling water equals polenta; one cup medium corn meal plus three cups boiling water equals grits.  See how easy this all is?

One of the things most surprising to those considering a “local” diet is how truly dependent their normal diet is upon flour.  Though flour can be made of any grain, it’s wheat we Westerners are terribly dependent upon…surely there’s a way to grow one’s own?

I suppose there is; in point of fact, on commercial farms, spring wheat and regular rye are commonly grown between vegetable rows where I live (the wheat grows quickly, and its roots hold down the soil between the plastic-mulched crops of tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.).  But wheat is not the normal commodity crop ’round here (ugh, we plow down our vineyards and orchards to grow corn and soy with shocking regularly here because–get this–we can’t find enough people to pick the grapes and fruit! sigh; this is a staggeringly sad factoid in a state with chronically high unemployment).  I’ve tried my hand growing hull-less oats and rye and buckwheat; all grew.  Dang, though, you need LOTS of grain to feed your own humble self.  My grains simply aren’t grown at that scale.

Child amongst the dent corn, August 2010.

However.  I do grow corn.  Armed with a handful of seeds in spring and with a $20 corn grinder in winter, whammo:  I am self-sufficient in dried corn and corn flour.

Can I just say there is NO good way to photograph this thing in action, at least not by me, not in this kitchen.  It is a corn grinder, and I do not lie that it cost $20 plus shipping: do the googles or the amazon to find it your own self:  I got the one with the deeper hopper.  BE WARNED it is not good if you’re looking to grind your own wheat flour:  it’s great, though, if you just want cornmeal on occasion, or wish to crack some corn for your chickens.

I grow dent corn, flint corn, and popcorn.  (I don’t grow sweet corn; it’s too easily had locally to make it worth my while.)  All can be ground; all make a decent flour.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange both offers all kinds of corn AND gives a whiz-bang what-for lesson of which type is used for what:  go see for yourself.  And because I am a fool for polenta, I bought a packet of SESE’s Floriani polenta-specific corn to try this year.

This cheap thing is great for home use.  After about five passes, the meal is perfect for a good polenta; after four, it makes great grits…and I’ve used it for bean flours (garbanzo, black turtle) too to good effect.  Oh, and I’ve ground up rice in it too:  rice mush makes a great breakfast!

Give corn-growing a try this year, or, barring that, use your muscles and grind your own.  Trust me, the taste of freshly-ground corn is worth the turn!

On heirlooms

Jimmy Nardello’s sweet Italian frying peppers:  find them in my garden and on the Ark of Taste

The true spirit of this holiday season, Greed, showed up right on time for me with Tuesday’s arrival of the 2012 Fedco seed catalog.  Whee!   Time to get out the highlighter and tally my wish list for next year’s seeds.

I have had to become a lot more serious about my gardens now that I’ve started a pseudo-CSA.  My usual mania for no unplanted ground has been a good policy, but keeping up with my customers’ vegetative demand has required that I likewise be ruthless about harvesting and doing away with any spent plants.  Precious, every square inch, that garden space!  So you would think that I would be stocking my garden with hybrids, right?  Grow big, grow fast, grow uniformly, grow hardy F1 seeds:  the great guarantee for yield!

Yeah, right.  Perhaps you should step over to a very non-judgmental description of hybrids and heirlooms right here; read it, get educated, then come on back.

Okay.  Here’s the deal:  I love heirlooms.  Heirloom, or open-pollinated, or standard plants (the names are interchangeable) appeal to me on many levels.  I am naturally thrifty, so having a plant whose seed I can save and perpetuate puts these puppies in the LIKE category for me:  I will go through the trouble of growing seed if it spares me from buying them year in and out.  I enjoy the natural variation found in a planting of seed:  they’re not all exactly alike, either as seedlings, as growing plants or as the yield of seeds (fruits) they produce…close, but no cigar.   This slight variation enables me to save seed from the plant whose qualities most appeal, whilst eating its slower-growing or smaller or leafier siblings…very nice, especially in a row of, say, cabbage, when having 18 heads of F1 plants ready and huge right now is more burden than blessing.  I’d prefer the variation of the small, the big, the wooly and the sprouting.

(Not all heirloom seed produces such crazed variation.  I’m generalizing here as there are loads of other factors all along the plants’ growth that could cause those differences.  Also, I like to pick on cabbages.)

My other insistence on heirlooms has to do with the vast gene pool from which they spring.  When I picked up a copy of The Vegetable Garden (web version here) about ten years ago I began to understand just how few varieties of open-pollinated seed are available to home gardeners today.  The more I looked into it the more ill I became by how little of that seed heritage remains.  Here’s a graphic that should shock you:

which can be found in a probably more legible view at National Geographic, make sure you read its attendant article too.  We’ve squandered our inheritance, it seems to me, with our happy pursuit of Early Girls and Big Boys.

I won’t step into the waters of patenting seeds (you don’t have all day, do you?), trademarking life forms and bioengineering.  Producing F1 seeds typically enriches just one seed producer.  Problem is, a successful hybrid will most likely get bought up by a seed conglomerate who also is in the gene-splicing business.  And frankly I am not keen to support the likes of Monsanto and Cargill, even by buying a lowly packet of hybrid onion seeds.  Why feed the beast?  Here is a list of seed sellers that have signed the Safe Seed pledge, wherein they don’t knowingly* produce or sell GMO-tainted seeds.  (*”Knowingly” is telling.  It’s up to you to research that the hybrid you wish to buy is not owned by or modified by a company that genetically modifies its seeds.)

Probably the biggest reason I love heirlooms is that they’re an unbroken link to our past.  Perhaps I am simply a romantic at heart, but it’s truly humbling when I hold a handful of that savoy cabbage seed over a freshly-scratched trough of earth, as it’s a link to the past.  Think about it:  SOMEBODY, actually a whole chain of somebodies, has tirelessly grown and saved the very seeds in my palm.  It is living history.  In growing and saving seed myself, I become the latest link in that unbroken chain.  The only other thing that I have actively done that has even come close is to become a mother:  that, likewise, is a mighty long chain.

Sigh.  So Tuesday night I curled up onto the couch with my highlighter and my catalog.  Sure; 1/3 of all the seeds therein are hybrids:  hybrids equal cashmoney, after all, and even Fedco isn’t above that.  (I read and circle Fedco for its politics and its writing, of course, and not necessarily for its offerings.)  And it is equally true that my garden, likewise, is home to a few safe hybrids.  I might be strident, but I am not an absolutist, except maybe on GMOs….

Here’s a great source for home-saved heirlooms:  Become a member of Seed Savers and get their annual catalog. I love Fedco but I also support TerritorialVictory Seeds and Southern Exposure, but please, I hate Baker Creek so don’t try to persuade me otherwise.  You Canadians have lots of options:   Salt Spring Seeds and a whole bunch of others in the comments.  Lucky ducks.

Oh:  You may also be wondering why I would need more seeds if I save so many.  ahem.  Avarice!  Rapacious greed!  and an overwhelming sense that I “need” more types of veg! that’s why.   I am an American after all:  consumption is my birthright, isn’t it?

On the upside of the end

Rewards:  long-term garden residents Buttercup squash and Romanesco broccoli

Another gift to the hard-working gardener is the harvest of the vegetables that take forever to mature, like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and winter squash.  Perhaps our tastebuds are simply trained to the harvest calendar, but it’s just about now that these things seem so darned desirable…and tasty.

And some harvests allow you to contemplate infinity.  Witness a close-up of the broccoli:

isn’t that crazy?  And I will have you know that I hosed off the cabbage moth caterpillar poop and powdery Bt before getting out the camera.  I grow both ugly and pretty, equal opportunity.  Romanescos almost never get this large for me; this is one of three impressive ones as the others are much more gnarly and small.  And: they taste more like cauliflower than broccoli, if you’re curious.

There are still more late harvests to come.  Threats of frost hustled me to get out the cabbage knife and hack off a head of tender Romanesco.  Other head- and flower-growing brassicas can take quite a bit of frost:  some of the tight cabbage heads, especially the wavy savoyed ones, will last for a while, and much of the cauliflower and most especially the Brussels sprouts will last through Thanksgiving.  But…can I wait that long?

It’s 11 July! Have you started your winter garden?

It’s always Dog Days around here

We’re getting our first sweet corn here (boiled exactly 2 minutes, enfolded in butter and eaten) and tomatoes, and we’re deep into blueberries and cherries, yet my thoughts are turning to the winter harvest crops.

It’s quite a disconnect if you haven’t done one before:  just when you see the vegetables visibly growing, practically leaping toward the sun, it’s now that you need to be planting your winter garden.  In my part of the world, I can harvest plenty of stuff out of the outdoor gardens all winter long.  My leg up of course are the greenhouses but really, I am talking about outdoor winter harvesting:  root crops, leeks and collards are easily grown with nothing on them but all that snow.  With the minimal protection provided by row covers of agricultural cloth, I can add winterbor kale, escarole and radicchio.

Even if you’re looking forward to a garden-free winter, an autumn harvest is well within your grasp.  Around the first week of July is when I am seeding fennel, kohlrabi, rapini and broccoli for the first crops of each for the year (Sept-Oct harvest).  I find the warm summer days and cooling evenings of summer to be more favorable for these vegetables:  they respond better, are more tender, and aren’t pithy or bitter…all their fates if they’re spring-sown.  Favas, peas, second plantings of cucumbers are all going in now, as well as a second batch of summer squash.  I am also seeding for a baby leek harvest in February.  Succession-planting of beets, carrots and lettuce continues.  In other words, it doesn’t end.

Territorial Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds produce catalogs just for the winter-harvest market.  Check them out.

On the seed-sprouting window

About two months ago I was surprised to find some seedlings sprouting in my greenhouse bed.  Surprise?  Sure.  It can be surprise if you planted the danged seeds LAST spring.  Well!  The germination brush-off in the instance of these onion sprouts holds a lesson for all of us seed-freaks at this time of year.  Here is what my seeds were telling me:

It’s not you, it’s me.

On second look, they appear to be leek seedlings.

Now, life would be wonderful if my seed packet had said “days to emergence:  7 to 365” as I’d have had something to expect.  But it did not.  In other words, the seeds sprouted when their situation was ideal for them, not for me.  And that’s the lesson we all can take with us.

You see I think we’ve all internalized the notion that what is ideal for tomatoes (the fruity veg most likely to be started from seed) is what everything else expects too.  And that is true in a way (warm soil, enough water, enough light) but it’s not absolute, it’s relative.  Indeed, onion seeds sprout at much lower temperatures.  Lettuces, carrots, and a whole passel of other things do too.

I keep referring back to the sprouting table in Nancy Bubel’s Seed-Starters Handbook for a reason, I guess.  There’s a whole lot of truth in it that we need to understand.  Otherwise, the knowledge gets handed to you in the form of seedlings you expected to arrive a year ago, or, well, not at all!

On pea-planting season

I often feel like a poultry Pied Piper

There is a small window of time between melting snow and garden season when the chickens are allowed to run around unpenned.  They wander fairly widely, mostly in pursuit of the newly-sprouting grass, but mainly they all make a beeline for the gardens.  Deeply mulched beds need to be deeply scratched to find those worms within, you see, and then there’s the magic of The Compost Pile.  Oh the delectable wonders to be found in that monstrous pile of stank (if you’re a chicken, that is).I have set the compost bucket down to open the gate.  They have found it.

And then that window closes.  Slams shut, if you ask them: whaddya mean, we need to stay in here all day?  Their protestations are mighty.   Squabbles break out.  Feathers fly.  They are now confined until Happy Hour, usually around 6pm-dusk.  And they can tell time, so…at 6 you better be prepared to spring them loose.

The reason for their confinement?  The garden has been planted!  Yes, St. Patrick’s day, traditional pea- and potat0-planting day, was wonderfully warm and even sunny, so I locked up the birds and began the season.  These wily critters easily can fly over the 5′ fence encircling the gardens, and once they do, inevitably they will scratch up things that they should not.

Queen Ruby asks “but can’t I stay?  I won’t scratch things as much as the chickens,” to which I reply, no, m’dear.  She loves sprouts even more than worms.  (and notice the greenhouse roll-up side is up!  this is the earliest ever that I have had to do that.)

On hot beds

I have two 6’x3′ beds in the new greenhouse that are destined to get the hot-bed treatment.  Shovel Season is quickly approaching, so I might as well take this opportunity to get in shape for it, too.  Heave ho!

First step is to evict the resident lettuce, arugula, endive and escarole.  Potato onions at bottom of frame get to stay.

By halves, I remove the top shovel depth level of soil in the bed.  Notice I have left a ledge on the perimeter:  I am kind of making a tub

Third step is to lay down 3-4″ of mixed poo, including a bit of bedding from the rabbits

Fourth step is to replace the soil

Fifth step is to give it a good soaking: I didn’t need to do this, everything was wet already, so let’s skip to the Sixth step is to lay in some rows of seeds

Seventh step is to cover the bed to keep in the heat

And now I wait.  The microbial action of the mixed turkey, chicken, bunny and goat poo eating up the brown bedding material should happen quickly.  The point of this is to raise the temperature of the soil to a level that the seeds spring with life.  Ambient greenhouse temperatures range from 50-90*F in the daytime, with nighttime lows in the 40s.  The “normal” soil temperature, untreated, is around 55, which is quite fine for seed sprouting.  I expect this hot bed to jump to about 70, which means quicker germination.

This bed has been seeded with quick crops (turnips, radishes, spinach, arugula, lettuces) and transfer crops (broccoli, cabbages).  Nobody gets a long stay, in other words.  They’ll all be in and out by the first week of June.  Then, the bed gets the hot stuff (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and okra).

You don’t need a greenhouse to do this, of course.  As long as you don’t have heavy, wet soil, you can do this in an outdoor bed.  I would tent it with plastic, as long as you vent it in the hot part of the day.


More seed starting information

IN the “you can’t be the only one who needs to know this” department, I give you the following links for successful home seed-starting.  (And an apology to my international readers as most of these sites are for the U.S.  It’s not my personal bias I swear!)

It all begins with the last frost, or first frost-free date.  Killing frost, slight freeze, or just plain cold, if you’re planning on planting out those tender, lovingly-raised seedlings, it’s best to know when it’s safest to do so.  Dave’s Garden has a link by zip code with wonderful backup information behind it.

So now you know the date.  (Remember, it’s an average!!)  Next up is a Seed Starting Chart put out by Organic Gardening by plant type.  This should help you figure out what seeds should be started first, and there are handy little asterisks showing you what seeds are typically direct-seeded outdoors.  They also have a quick list to help you succeed.

While we’re at it, Organic Gardening also has a great how-to article on starting seeds indoors.  They also have good growing guides if you search by plant.

Cornell University has probably the best on-line vegetable growing guide, set up by individual varieties.

There is also your handy county extension agent.  These stalwart souls are sources of great information way beyond the mere starting of vegetable seeds.  They can help you get soil tests and help you with pest management, or even just hook you up with an experienced gardening neighbor.  Hey:  we pay these people’s salaries, and cutbacks usually come because they’re not busy enough, so use them, they’re there for you!

Likewise, your public library is also stocked with grow guides and gardening books.

Seed-starting shouldn’t be expensive; I mostly start mine in recyclable items like take-out clamshells and old yogurt containers.  (Some of these containers I have had for years…yes, I save garbage, what of it?  It’s not like the plants really care.)  And yeah, lighting is necessary, but fancy grow lights are not.  One cool- and one warm-colored fluorescent light in a shop strip fixture should cost you, in total, under $20.  You might want to splurge on seed-starting mix if only because it’s been sterilized and should be free of weed seeds…the irony is that dirt isn’t cheap.  With time however you’ll learn lots of tricks, trust me, that will save you money later on.  What other hobby feeds you, though?  Hmm?

On the seed starting thing

Because this is a (putative) gardening blog, most of my posts follow the seasons.  And it’s this time of year that I do my annual Seed-Starting Post, and if you’ve read me for a while, you’d know how much I dislike the process.

So.  This year I am giving you and myself a break by stopping the whining.  I will do a positive, hopeful post instead.

But the very idea of spring does make me happy, and germinating seeds hearken the season after all.  On Friday after work, I saw a flock of robins (about 200 or so) in the trees in our front yard.  We’re closer, the earth is tilting, even if the forecast is for (even) more snow.

Heck, *I* would sprout in soil this warm.  Remember the chart I showed you years back, and then mentally calculate how wonderful this is.

Yet it’s with mixed emotions that I consider the onions, artichokes, cardoon, and parsleys sitting on their steamy grow mat**.  My mother gave me a seed-starting heat mat last year when I put in her greenhouse for her.  This is something I normally wouldn’t buy for myself, as my default is to be as low-tech as possible.  And this is the first time I am using it;  it should shave a week off the process or more, so…no complaints thusfar.

No grow lights either this year for me.  Instead, the process is beginning on the front porch, with the heat mat. This porch has the advantage of being rodent-free (unlike the garage, or even the greenhouses) and it’s really handy.  It’s unheated, yet it’s insulated, draft-free and faces south and west, so it’s fairly bright and not frozen.  I have seed-started in here many times before, successfully, with neither heat mat nor greenhouses backing me up.

And it’s to the sunny greenhouse the seedlings will eventually go:  I use one bed as a nursery, a hotbed, as it were…I remove the top 4″ of soil, put a load of goat and chicken poo down, wet it, replace the soil and voila, a hot bed, the process of decomposition doing what my electric heat mat is currently doing on the front porch.  But I am getting ahead of myself:  the greenhouse bed won’t be used for weeks yet.  I will document it too.

Think spring…

(**But unless you’re starting onions, most of you have some time yet!  Look at the calendar and count backward from the last week of frost.  If you count back 8 weeks, you’re safe for your tomatoes and peppers.)

NOTE:  DISCUSSION OF USING UNCOMPOSTED, HOT MANURE IN THE COMMENTS!  I will go over it more in about a month when I set up the hotbeds in the greenhouse.

On tips for beginning gardeners

Potato flower, which looks a lot like a tomato flower:  it’s all in the family after all

Over the years I have served as garden coach to many a newbie gardener.  Strikingly, most pitfalls to a new gardener’s success have much less to do with what you would suspect (bad weather/bugs/blight) than what you might not: namely, a beginning gardener’s blinding ambition.

It’s true.  Somehow, so many gardeners (new and old) hear the officials’ calls of Onyourmarks, getset, GO! and they’re off, planting way too many seeds and plants in one way too big garden on one way too dirty, sweaty, tiresome weekend in May…and have shot their wad, garden-wise, finding themselves overwhelmed by June’s bugs, July’s weeds and August’s tomatoes.  With the exception of places with constricted growing seasons (less than 50 frost-free days), caring for a garden shouldn’t be a race at all.  And everyone:  there is no point in the spring rush.

Sacrilege alert:  What I am trying to say here is that spring is not what it is cracked up to be, garden-wise.  Beautiful spring days are often accompanied by chilly, damp soil and cold, windy nights.  If you want true success, you might want to look at the back end of the season:  the days of autumn are often crisp but the soil is warm and the nights aren’t nearly as bracing.  And the light levels in April and September are the same.  So take some pressure off yourself this spring while you extend your mind and your growing season.  You have a lot of learning ahead of you so it’s best you study up now, in January!

Here are my Top Ten Tips for Beginning Gardeners:

  1. Read up! Try to get your mind around plant families:  in more cases than not, the growing conditions and requirements across a family of plants is the same.  (Cheat sheet:  Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed.  Even if you’re not growing for seed, it’s good to know this information.  Regional guides appended at each section.)
  2. Curb your enthusiasm! Start with a garden half the size you were thinking, or even smaller.  This means starting with fewer seeds and plants, too.
  3. Read the *$^@ growing instructions! Do not, under any circumstance, empty an entire seed packet into a row.  Most reputable seed suppliers (Baker Creek is the lone awful exception) handily stick this growing information right on the envelope:  sowing distance, depth, germination percentage, days to emergence, days to harvest.  This is fabulous knowledge, people, right at your fingertips.  Bring your glasses and read it.
  4. Bring a yardstick with you into the garden! If a plant requires an 18″ square space to do its thing then give it an 18″ square slice of soil to do it.  Look to its vertical needs too.
  5. Don’t plant all the seedlings in the grower’s pack! This is a subcategory of #2.  Do you really need all 9 Scotch bonnet pepper plants?  Trade the rest with a friend but do not plant them all, no matter how tempting.
  6. SUCCESSION PLANT! Radishes (21 days) can be followed by lettuce (25 days: do a mesclun mix and use them small) and then by longer-lived bush beans (wax, 53 days) and then by rapini (42 days) and then some cold-loving lettuce again.  (LOOKEE:  you succession plant, you don’t need a big garden!)
  7. Grow what you will eat! This should be obvious, but if you don’t care for zucchini, don’t grow them.
  8. Be a tireless observer! Visit your garden, often, in as many different times of the day as you can.  This is not a chore:  gardening should be enjoyable to you.  And if you visit it often, you’ll be on top of its needs (water, weeding, bugs, etc.).  Say hello to the garden before you dash off for work in the morning.  Bring a glass of wine and a friend in the evening after dinner with no plans to do any gardening work at all, and just enjoy sharing what you see.
  9. Mulch! You don’t want to weed?  Then lay down mulch, thickly, around all but your seed rows.  I use grass clippings and I keep them 2-3″ everywhere.
  10. Let’s say it’s mid-July, you’ve followed steps 1-9, and you’re not getting “enough” out of your garden.  Make new garden beds, expanding to your original idea! Grow bush beans (dried or fresh) in your new beds or start some fennel, kohlrabi, kale and broccoli seeds for fall eating.  And give some consideration on this hot July day to thinking about covering one or two beds to grow through the late fall and winter.

The vegetable garden season, like its yields, should be savored slowly over the whole of the season.  Consider it a long multi-course dinner with some fascinating people you’re just getting to know.   And starting small, with appetizer-sized garden beds, is a great way to avoid being discouraged.  You won’t be overwhelmed, and your desire to garden will only grow.  And by understanding how seeds and plants grow, you’ll be an expert by the time fall garden planting comes around…!  Fresh peas and favas in September, radishes and spinach in October!

On spring plans


It’s a rushed late Tuesday afternoon of work deadlines, I am tired and not looking forward to making dinner, there’s a foot of lake-effect snow predicted to fall on the two feet already out there but I am (thankfully) not out of ideas or –more importantly–ingredients for quick dinners.  Tonight?  Tomato soup and (homemade cheddar) cheese toasts, plus a greenhouse salad.

You see, all I need to do is run to the basement to pick up a jar of my tomato sauce, an onion and a head of garlic from their various spots in storage.  Salad requires a greenhouse trip.  For me, the nightly ritual of harvesting greens, chopping onions and garlic and washing and spinning salad is as soothing and as spiritually uplifting as religious services are to others.  Thockthock says the knife, SssSss say the onions in their fat bath, Wabbadywabbady goes the spinner.  Not quite frankincense and myrrh, sermons and communal incantations yet I become stilled, even if I am rushed.

And it’s last year’s spring planning that got me here on this January night.  It’s that time again:  have you paid close attention to all those seed catalogs clogging your mailbox?  (Please note:  there are worthy non-catalog alternatives, too.) It is TIME, people, to consider what you’re planting this year.  And as you will see, the seed prices have risen in the exact uptick that the popularity of gardening has, or so it would seem to me.  Granted, $3. for a packet of seeds is still a comparative bargain.  Consider it an investment:  think about it as an advance on your future.

Better yet:  plan for more garden space destined not just for food harvest.  Grow your own seeds and you might spend the grand total of $40 that I sent to the seed companies last year.

Yes.  Forty dollars.  Forty dollars, twenty-five of which were spent, crazily, on the sweet potato slips; fifteen seed-lousy dollars, plus seed-saving from years’ past, and I fed not just my family but–on average–four others this fall and winter.  Greenhouses, seed-saving, succession planting all equal food security.  They equal food security, even food abundance, and easy January dinners.

Get your highlighters out!

On time off

garden plan 09

click on that link above.  I’ve never published it, but…it’s the gardens.

“You should take some days off,” my boss said.  So here I am on the last week of the year, in that in-between, get-no-work-done week, wondering what I should do with my time.

Should I create?  OR should I destroy?  This is always my dilemma, on those odd days when I have time off (and it is seldom that I do).  Today I am vacillating between going to the studio and making pots, or stay in my kitchen and unmaking the cabinets (i.e., demolition).

I seem to remember most of my construction projects in my old Minneapolis house started this way.  Specifically, I can see my pajama-clad self sitting and sipping coffee at my kitchen table, saying out loud “I hate this floor.”  Boom!  That’s all it took, and for the next three weeks I was on my knees pulling wire staples where the subfloor was held down to the “real” floor of raggedy bird’s-eye maple.

Will this kitchen demo take as long?  Uh, probably.  Perhaps even longer.

Or I can organize my seeds and plan my 2011 garden.  That won’t take as long, and it might actually be a good use of my time.

p.s.:  It’s 4:30 and I have opted for kitchen demolition.  Yay!  Chaos, inside!!

The laughing Buddha smiles at the mess so far (8:00, the night of the morning when I wrote up this post…dusty, dirty, and yeah, I’m happy too).  “You should get rid of this fluorescent light here over the sink, too,” he says.  “But first, find a safe place to put me!”

On sorrel

Oseille, you bitter thing:  pucker up!  Here it grows with perennial leeks and some salad things.

I recently received a request to use a photo of buckwheat that I had posted here, and, re-reading the buckwheat post, I thought how strange the world does turn.  You see, I had been thinking about sorrel, and sorrel, rhubarb, and buckwheat are all of the same family (Polygonaceae).  This concurrence seems to happen with surprising frequency for me around the December solstice.  I wonder if I am simply paying more attention to things now that the garden is winding down?  And:  anyone out there know the name of the term for this happy coincidence?  [Bingbing!  Astute commenters Sharon and Diana listed synchronicity and the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, respectively.  It was the latter that I was grasping for.  Thanks, I seem to have dropped my Jung somewhere along the way to the garden….]

While I am at it, does anyone know the term for the way leaves can be easily stripped one way but not another off of a plant’s stem, like most herbs (thyme, rosemary)?  Anyone?  It would be surprisingly useful cocktail hour conversation with a particular set of people.

Okay, back to sorrel.  If you have not heard of (much less eaten) this perennial before, don’t be too alarmed.  It is grown for its arrow-shaped, spinach-like leaves, and, much like most spinach, does not travel well.  (And before you disabuse me of the idea that spinach travels well because you have two week old bags of the stuff in your fridge, I will remind you that you should not own such a bag of fakery.  Home-grown spinach does not travel.)  In point of fact, sorrel practically screams when you pick it, and will soon be a floppy mess unless used quickly.  This point alone recommends it:  it means it’s darned close to what it originally was, unlike, say, your plastic bag of plastic spinach.

So:  this is a spinach substitute?  Um, not exactly.  I would say it is its own thing, and, if it is used as anything in my house, it’s used as a lemon substitute.  A good handful of the leaves, de-stemmed, melt down in a buttered pan in less than a minute and form an unctuous sauce appropriate for fish or eggs.   We eat a lot of fish and eggs here so this sauce gets a bit of a workout.  Its lemony-ness is due to the oxalic acid in its leaves:  the bigger the leaves, the sharper the taste.  One hears the small leaves are reminiscent of kiwi fruit.  I don’t disagree, but that’s a stretch.  The leaves are astringent, surely.

Frequently, though, I harvest the leaves (big and small) for our nightly salad.  I have had patches of sorrel growing around my gardens for years:  it actually liked my Minnesota winters, and I even uprooted it and dragged it here when we moved to Michigan.  It loves the greenhouse too, and does not winter-kill.  Reliably, it goes to seed each spring, sending up a bunch of stalks that stand six, seven feet in height.  The stalks get cut when the seeds turn brown, then it resumes its tireless production of leaves.  And:  despite the innumerable quantity of seeds, I have not had a problem with wild self-sowing of the stuff.

My chickens love sorrel.  Considering that two nonadjacent generations of the birds have figured this out, I think this is a universal and not a learned chicken trait.

Do you see the sorrel in this bed?  Me either.  Damned birds.  The snow I suppose can be partially to blame, but still…!

Ahem.  If you are not one who appreciates the bitter or the sour, you can give sorrel a pass.  Although it’s grown throughout the Mediterranean, it’s particularly popular in soups in Eastern Europe and western Russia.  This is fitting, considering these people’s preference for sour pickles, krauts, yogurts and the like.  I have made sorrel soup:  it’s especially yummy if it’s a cream soup (onion/leek, melted sorrel, then heavy cream dumped in just before serving).  The cream tames some if its zest.  I love it with mashed potatoes and chopped scallions, though, too.

Oh look:  it grows by runners too:  or at least this little bit has rooted from a stem.

Frankly, the only way I have grown it is to receive plants from others.  A quick check to the nearest seed catalog at hand (Pinetree, quickest to the mailbox this year) shows that, indeed, purveyors do sell bunches of seeds (though you might have to look hard:  in this catalog, it’s listed as a French vegetable), so this plant is eminently grow-able.  Personally, I will never garden without it.  Its attributes are many (you can ignore it, it grows heartily, it accepts a wide range of conditions, and, most importantly, is singular in its taste) and its problems are few.  Once you have it, you can impress others with your knowledge of it.  And, unlike many plants that I have grown for their “why isn’t it grown more” cachet (I’m looking at YOU, Good King Henry), this plant actually is worthwhile.

On the ficklest of garden vegetables

I think all gardeners have masochistic tendencies.  These tendencies may not be recognized by the gardeners in question:  in point of fact, they may assume they have more of a will to dominate than a will to be subjected by said gardens.  Illusions, I tell you.  If you’re a gardener, you’re wearing a hairshirt.  It just might not be terribly obvious to you.

Case in point:  Cauliflower.  Have you ever grown this one rather ubiquitous member of the brassica family?  Have you ever grown it successfully, I mean?  You know:  having a more than a 75% harvest of your lovingly planted seedlings?  I didn’t think so.

Snowball cauliflower, 31 Oct 2010.

Cauliflower, you see, is the vegetable garden’s diva.  Like all brassica seedlings, they are quite willing (eager, even) to pop out of their seed.  But if something happens along the way (the 70-180 days of its growing season) then, pfft, you surely won’t be harvesting your whole crop, or any of your crop at all, come to think of it.  Too hot?  Sayonara.  Too dry?  Likewise.  Is there a cabbage butterfly within a mile radius of your garden?  That’s a guarantee she’ll find and lay eggs on your plants which will soon enough hatch into little green caterpillars doing their happy poopy dance, even if you’ve grown them under cover.  And considering what space hogs these particular plants are, you might just want to give them a pass.

Crybabies they are.  I think I harvested 5 out of something like 30 plants this year:  these are not great odds.  I tend to plant reliable (to me) open-pollinated varieties (Snowball above, Purple of Sicily, and romanesco).  And I do pay attention to their particular needs (lots of water if it’s dry, lots of space, lots of compost) and I am still only rewarded with a few plants.  Timing is pretty crucial too, did I mention that?  Plant them too early and they come to flower in summer?  THAT is one stink flower you shouldn’t even attempt to eat.  They need the cool weather of fall to tame their wild tendencies (broccoli too) and in point of fact are a great fall crop…should you feel you wish to attempt it.  Just realize fully and well that you’re in for a little…pain.

Here’s a fine treatment:  caramelized in the burning-down preheat of Loven.  These smoky florets became the basis for a creamy potato/cauliflower soup.

On growing where you’re planted

Ah, weeds.  They can ruin a fine day in the garden.

Fortuitous weed product.  One misplaced ear sprouted and one quart of popcorn was the result.  You should plant popcorn annually because it pops more readily when fresh.  Somehow, though, I forgot to plant it this year…and the weed gods smiled on my oversight.

For as little time as I have, weeding still remains a task of high importance.  It’s funny to me, though, this one idea:  my concept of “weed” is ever-changing.  Sure, I always remove a dandelion when I see one, and dock , thistle and crabgrass never get a pass.  But everything else?  I have a sliding scale!

The one thing that holds true with me is the my very definition of weed:  it’s something growing where you do not want it to grow.  But this mashup of little time and littler patience with the task of weeding has been a bit of a boon for a certain kind of weed in my garden.

Volunteers, you see, have been granted stays of execution.  The seedlings of plants from the year (or more) before that sprout, crazily, sometimes happily, near where their parent plant had grown.

Chervil is a tiny herb, loving cool temperatures and disappearing in the hot months.  Though many, these seedlings won’t outcompete their mixed pac choy/lettuce neighbors in the winter greenhouse bed.

Likewise, mache is another tiny plant that can cohabit with the greenhouse lettuces.  It’s firmly in the never-need-to-plant-it-again category.

Things are getting out of hand when I let the greenhouse paths get taken over, though.  These are a cross-bred chioggia/three root Grex beet, quite sweet, so quite welcome.  The jar on the right are pickled.  I treat this as a perennial greenhouse crop, and pick them all summer and winter.

I have noticed, though, that certain families of plants are more prone to this willy-nilly self-seeding.  Umbelliferae includes the chervil above as well as…

regular old celery, and…Par-Cel cutting celery.

And also of the umbrella-flowered family, notice the cilantro in the front of this path.  In the back?  Carrots, another crazed umbrelled self-seeder.  I had wondered years back if the presence of the path’s cilantro illustrated a case of the broken-windows theory.  I think the answer is a definitive “yes.”

I guess the answer to all this is, you want more time?  Well, hold off on weeding and eat the products of your weeds.  Some of them, at least.

On garlic

German Hardy garlic from bulbs purchased (ostensibly as food) from NYC’s Union Square Farmer’s Market about 3 years ago.  Yes, my suitcase was fairly stinky.  This is what I look for when it’s nearing harvest:  bottom 3-5 leaves browned and an overall “weary” look to the plant.  I should note, though, that not all my plants have reached this stage, even if I planted them at the same time last November.  The New Year’s Day cloves for example won’t be ready for another month or more.  I dry them for a week or two on screens spanning the beds in the greenhouses.

What is it about this home-grown crop that makes a gardener foolishly go on a quest of The Perfect Bulb?  It turns us otherwise carefree folk into obsessive Mother Hens, clucking and agonizing amongst the fronds as to is it big yet?  is it as big as it will get?  what if I pick it too early?

That portion of the garden is somehow sacrosanct, stored-food-wise.  Such flavor packed into these husk-wrapped clumps, such promise of future meals changed from “meh” to “heeeyyy!”  And most gardeners, once they try growing garlic, do realize that The Perfect(ly Large) Bulb is really just a goal, not a year-to-year reality.  Or if they do grow plenty of large ones, they realize there’s no way they’ll use them up before they go sprouty and sulfurous and gross.  In other words, most gardeners who grow garlic are pursuing an idea.

They also probably have long memories.  Many are the February days when I am stuck peeling the tiniest of cloves for our meals from the tiniest of heads, those heads that I *saved* for this purpose.  Yes, it’s then I get wistful for the “idea” of Perfect Bulb garlic.

But back to this quest.  There is nothing at all wrong with wanting large, beautiful heads of garlic grown on your own patch of earth.  And those in the know do know it often takes years to procure, cultivate, and harvest those varieties that will perform the best for their portion of the planet.  It’s a fun quest, actually; where would we be without garlic?

She’s going on a snipe scape hunt.  She’s 4′-2″ so this gives you an indication about how tall the plants can get in the greenhouses.  They’re planted in rows of 6, 6″ apart, in rows 6″ apart so…72 bulbs per bed

My problem with this pursuit is that like all noble journeys (think Odysseus, think Jason, think Captain Ahab) sometimes the pilgrim brooks no detours, and more’s the pity.   There is something rather…unattractive about single-mindedness in pursuit of a goal, after all.  Life is a journey; so, too, should your garlic-growing be.  Don’t reserve them ALL for a final harvest.  Green garlic is a gorgeous, fleeting thing:  before forming a bulb, the stem and end can be eaten like a gigantic scallion, only better.  It’s not bitter, it slices easily, and you can use most of the neck right up to the leaves.  Scapes of course are the fun pre-harvest benefit of growing hard-neck garlic:  these topset stalks are a great addition to any item in a wok or a saute pan, and I often use the smaller ones coined into the bottom of a bowl of salad, topping a soup, or boiled in with some of the last potatoes for a final mash.  Terribly versatile, said scapes.  It’s a gardener’s reparation for the fact that hardneck garlic does not store well.

Scapes are pretty, too.

But don’t get all snooty and think you can’t plant the smaller cloves of garlic.  I often plant the end of a bed with them in very early spring.  Using them green or even all bulbed up:  this is the bed I raid when making my own version of green goddess or ranch/buttermilk dressing.  Who cares how big they are when it’s their flavor you are after.

Outside, I have a bed of those small annoyingly sprouted cloves.  I planted these in late February.  The center clump, however, has been in this bed for years.

All I am saying is that garlic should be a fun crop, not an anxiety-prone one.  Granted, I sometimes grow close to The Perfect Bulb but I also grow a whole bunch of little ones.  I also have these greenhouses, which certainly help on my quest.  But honestly, I like to see myself more as a wandering pilgrim than one suffering from monomania:  all garlic is good.

On spring’s progress

Yes I realize that ancillary farm concerns like goats, bunnies, and winemaking have hijacked this erstwhile gardening blog of late.  And I do apologize to all who check in to, you know, talk plants!  It’s been fairly boring blogging lately on that score.

Not much to see out here

And, walking around the gardens today over lunch, I realize the outdoor gardens are going to be pretty boring this year too.  Unlike in past years, I am all caught up with my plantings for the end of April, and so everything planted is “up”.  It’s fun saying “it’s all up,” at least to myself…it’s gratifying to see the favas and peas break the soil, and the hopeful, strong spurts of greenery from the potatoes.  But boring!  Easily a third of the beds are dedicated JUST to peas, favas, onions, and potatoes…I would say 20% of all the beds out there are potatoes alone.  Potatoes, at least after their early shoots, are decidedly unsexy garden plants.

Am I expressing a bias?  “SUBSISTENCE FARMING IS NOT SEX-AY.”  The high calorie foods like potatoes, corn and carrots really aren’t traffic-stopping beauties when found in your garden beds.  Sorry.  It’s true.

Lots to see in here

Maybe you just need flowers to be sexy.  There aren’t many flowers from edible plants at this time of year, but at our place plenty of horticultural eyecandy can be found going to seed in the greenhouses.  The low-calorie foods (lettuces, kales, onions) are putting on quite a show!  And, considering that so few of them will be allowed to complete the seed cycle yet still have high value as goat and rabbit food, they’re allowed to go ahead and look their blushing best.

Mike’s Wild Red lettuce (what a hit:  a romaine/looseleaf cross, quite striking really (thanks, Mike!))

Perennial bunching onions doing their seed thing

Nothing like the enthusiasm of 5′ tall sorrel and kale plants

Ruby Red Chard says “don’t hate me because I am beautiful”

But the red sails lettuce says “harvest me already”

Not to be forgotten is the “old” greenhouse, which, while not exactly riotous with flowers, is plenty green

On too few onions

Wednesday, March 10th:  The last of the storage onions gets eaten!

I knew last year that our onions would run out.  It was a bummer year for them for a variety of reasons.  I have been terribly stingy with them as a result…and no, our food hasn’t been overly bland, it’s simply been very varied.

And no, I didn’t run to the store to buy any replacements.  A girl needs her principles.

At the ready on the butcher block:  the weeny bulbil garlic (never expected it to grow big, and I was right) and the small yellow shallots.  They’re pictured with butter and drying thyme, which likewise are need-at-hand staples.

Instead, indeed, I’ve changed up.  It was after the very first year of trying to produce everything we eat that I realized the gaps in my planning of the allium family.   And storage onions can be tough to grow from seed, harder than any of their cousins in my experience; it was a lesson learned.  I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, try to grow and store 100 pounds of storage onions, it’s both a waste of garden space and we’ll never eat them all before they sprout.  I’ve learned, then, not to rely on them:  shallots, scallions, garlic and leeks have instead been featured.  Egyptian walking onions with their weird topsets and potato onions with their tiny why-bother bottomsets (I just made that up:  basically, they grow off the mother onion) and leek pearls and chives and on and on…not, maybe, as handy as walking to the basement and grabbing a storage onion, but not so difficult to eat, either.

I take solace, too, in the fact that not every food culture relies on storage onions.  Can you imagine big chunks of raw onion in your miso soup, for example?  Yes, luckily, the greens of onions are readily edible.

Where would we be without the whole family?  But, well, they do have a downside.  I quote Swift:

This is every cook’s opinion
No savory dish without an onion,
But lest your kissing should be spoiled
Your onions must be fully boiled.

On messing with seed-starting

So.  Every year, in the broad quest to simplify (HAH!) my life, I try to jigger the seed-starting routine.  I abhor planting things under lights indoors; it makes me tense!  It needs to be done, though…but if I could shorten the season, it would stand to reason it would shorten my stress level.  To wit, Exhibit One:

Onion seedlings sprouting in the greenhouse!   These were planted on Feb. 22nd, so…the germination rate I have found is both better and about the same, speed-wise.  These guys are interplanting a garlic bed.  The whole 3’x6′ bed is full of little sprouts from the onion family.

So now I am asking myself:  how important is it I have my first tomato in mid-July?  Because if I can direct-seed them…

Oh: and here’s a friend I found today amongst a weedy carrot bed:All Hail Bufo Americanus

On gardening from the outdoor pantry

I have blogged a bit of a theme this week:  how to plan my spring garden according to what I will eat next February.

By looking into shortcuts (and take them where I can), and by doing a tally of this February’s stored goods, I can see what needs to go into the ground this spring.  But I have not mentioned one very important piece of this puzzle:  eating out of the greenhouses, and eating out of the outdoor gardens.

Yes, it’s February on 42N, 86W point of this globe, so indeed the gardens are covered with about a foot of that white frozen stuff.  And the earth remains unfrozen but by no means warm inside the greenhouses.  Still:  I am pulling fresh produce from these two plastic-covered tunnels daily.  Other than my lettuces which I continually blah-blah about, it’s the root and cole crops that shine in there now.  And outdoors I can likewise dig up a rutabaga, carrot, or a leek at my leisure, it just takes me a bit more work.

So here’s a partial list:  at least 30 types of lettuces; sorrel, chard, beet greens; endive/escarole; lacinato and red kale and savoyed cabbage; leeks, onions, scallions, shallots; beets, carrots, parsnips, celeriac, turnips, rutabagas; celery, par-cel cutting celery, parsley; and some herbs like thyme, sage, savory, and rosemary.  AND:  they’ll all be eaten (excepting the perennials like the herbs, the sorrel and scallions) by the time the peas are ripe.

Can you see how I avoid the grocery store?  Even in winter’s cold depths?

On gardening for the pantry

Spooky dark basement storage

A big part of garden planning involves, for me, checking the State of the Stored.  Here it is, the first week of February:  how are my supplies doing downstairs?  Do I have enough tomato sauce to last me until this year’s harvest?  Salsa, chutneys?  How are the dried and canned beans doing?  How about popcorn, frozen green beans, jams, canned peaches?  How about pickles?  Applesauce, veggie broth, canned chicken broth?  Frozen fruits?  Ketchup, barbecue sauce, garlic jelly?  And the all-important apples, onions, garlic, shallots, potatoes, winter squash?  A quick check of my stash tells me what I need to plant this year, and what holes need to be patched.

All seems swell downstairs:  my general approach of “put away more than you can eat in two years” has worked well.  Not that I am a pessimist, but better gardeners than me tend to make a big harvest as insurance against a bad year.   Had the late blight hit my tomatoes last year (it did not, but took out half the school garden’s crop), I would still be in pretty good shape, except for ketchup and barbecue sauce.  As it is, canning twice the normal year’s amount frees me, somewhat, from the drudgery of canning every crop every year.  (This doesn’t work for frozen things, but canned goods:  check!)  And pressure-canned stuff is “good” for a long time.

Calico popcorn

Always, though, there are certain experimental things that I wish I had made more of (apple/pear moutarde, green apple/tomato chutney) but this can backfire too if I make a lot of something and it’s not quite so tasty (gooseberry jam).  But even failures can have second lives.  My calico popcorn, which I adore, is not the best at popping (hardly any homegrown one is: it has to do with moisture in the kernels and timing harvests perfectly…which requires a hydrometer, not something I am willing to spring for) but ground-up as a meal for cornbread or polenta?  Hooeey!  Hand me the honey!

On gardening shortcuts

A pretty summer cabbage, from seed started in February

February!  Hark, I hear the swoosh of the swing of the season!

Admittedly, this is wishful thinking on my part.  We’re a long way off from spring, but we’re not far at all from spring planning.  And most gardening folk are thinking about the upcoming growing season, myself included.  I am about two weeks from stringing up the basement lights for early onions, for example; exciting, but also…the worst part of my own garden calendar.  I abhor indoor gardening.

No, I am thinking about how much less work I can do this year.  Every year, it’s my goal to bite off less, to realize the value of my most precious resource:  my time.  I will say that the longer one gardens, the more shortcuts one finds.  One needs to pay attention, though.  If I don’t want to weed, I must mulch; if I want to maximize the harvest out of one bed, I must be merciless about pulling plants and reseeding/replanting.  It becomes a bit of a game.  And games can be mastered.

So I am trying to master the game that is the onion family.  I seeded three greenhouse beds with those little hard black seeds yesterday:  leeks, red and white and yellow onions.  I placed them between the green sprouts of the rows of garlic.  If all goes well, this one step will save me days of anxiety pampering those damned indoor seed trays.   They’ll take longer to grow, but the conditions in the greenhouses are both out of my control and perfect for seed-sprouting, if you happen to be an onion seed.

I will of course plant them indoors, too, but, if it’s a successful experiment, then next year the basement lights will only come out for the tomatoes and peppers, and maybe celery/parsley.  And THAT will save me lots of time.  And swearing.

On January gardening

It was another sunny day yesterday, which prompted me to spend my lunch hour in the greenhouses.

Normally, the greenhouses require zero active gardening attention between December and February.  This is a time of harvests only; it’s rather freeing, I must say.  But December through February, in this hemisphere, are when a gardener misses gardening most!  Luckily, I am a succession-planting fool.  I’m not “required” to garden, but garden I do.

Cute little babies!  YES, things grow through the winter, albeit very very slowly.

I threw down a whole bunch of Red Sails seeds on a 1’x3′ patch in one bed in November.  I was putting seeds away, and noticed that a mouse had decided to make her nest in the paper bag where I was drying this particular lettuce’s seeds…it was quite pee-filled and disgusting.  No way I could’ve saved those seeds.  So I tipped out the bag to let the baby mice “escape” to the waiting jaws of Penny, Little Edie and a few chickens (hey: it’s recycling) and then I stomped on and shook out the remaining seeds and fluff into this bed.  They’d be fine to transplant in January, I thought, and I was right.

Each lettuce bed has a few holes where the resident plants died due to the cold or an overzealous harvest.  I plant two baby lettuce plants per hole.  They’ll be in shock for a bit but they’ll start puffing up when their neighbors wind down.  I expect to eat lettuce out of the greenhouses until late April, just about the time when I transplant little lettuce seedlings and plant lettuce seeds out of doors.  Mangia!

And then, it’s harvest time:  July-seeded Scarlet Keeper:  insane size, but…look at the one to the right center!  “What did you have for dinner last night?”  “A carrot.”

On winter squash…in winter

Congratulations!  8lb, 1oz and 18 1/2″ long…pink banana squash!

One astute commenter noted that my family’s probably not hurting for Vitamin A in our diets, what with the monster winter squash harvest this year.  And it’s true, we’re awash in the things.  It’s okay, really it is, especially since the school garden’s squash patch was a bust (deer predation) so I have a…somewhat willing population to whom I can feed the things.  AND:  happily:  all our animals (except T-bell the goat) eat squash.

Surprisingly easy to slice, especially when you have a great hand-made chopper like this one

I do love squash, always have.  But I find that, as a gardener, my esteem of any one vegetable goes up or down in direct proportion to how well it grows for me.  Squash is quite the flatterer, so…I love it.  I’ve got a very fox-and-the-grapes attitude about things that don’t grow so well for me (i.e.,”bah, Brussels sprouts, who needs ’em) and it proves to me that if nothing else I am terribly…human.

The now-indispensable food mill.  Usually reserved for separating tomatoes from their seeds and peels, and stewed whole apples during the saucing sessions, I realized how handy this thing was once I killed my immersion blender.  It’s now out all the time, especially to cream hot soups and hot squash.  And, unlike the damned hand-held stick blender, I could never break this thing.

But my family is on the “likes” squash part of the spectrum:  it ain’t “love.”  I therefore only feed them one squash per week, if that.  Mostly, we love creamy squash soup (with a splash of curry), but it also finds its way into baked goods.  Only butternut is tolerated in other forms (pan-roasted, say; or candied) and luckily I planted plenty of those, too.

5 cups of puree for us people!  The basement worms get the skins, the poultry and bunnies vie for the seeds and pulp…a true no-waste food.

Sunday, though, I brought out one of the pink bananas.  They were one of the first escape artists of the squash patch (up and over the fence, 16′ away) and one plant put out, what, three squash total of similar size to this one.  They’re really easy to cut up (bonus!) and I found the chickens and turkeys appreciated the seeds and pulp if I chopped it for them.  I baked these, cut-side down, arranged diagonally across my two largest rimmed cookie sheets.  Scooped, run through the food mill, and sweet!  Its great advantage appears to be its readiness to be cut into rings, and baked a la most acorn squash.  It did take a bit longer to fruit out than many of the other winter squash I had, and Fedco says it is not terribly reliable in really short summer areas but, well…if you like winter squash, you might want to try to grow this one this year.

On sprouts

Alfalfa sprouts

I’m making edible sprouts again:  it must be snowy outside.

Everything we eat here has a season.  With the exception of frozen meat* and the seemingly unending jars of tomatoes, every other food item has an on and an off period…everything has its season.  Lettuce cannot be found from mid-July to the beginning of September.  Potatoes are only found from July to March.  Stored garlic (sniff!!) winds down just when green garlic winds up.  And so on.  All of these things are seasonal by the fact that the calendar makes them so.  There are some harvests, though, that have me to blame for their seasonality.  Sprouts are one of those things.

I posted a while back about sprouting things. I find I have a higher tolerance for the sprouting process when two things happen:  1.  when it’s abominably cold out and 2.  when I don’t have vegetables growing under the lights downstairs, and thus am sick of seeing seeds.  So, in other words, the season of edible sprouts is a short one:  from December to February, usually.  I do tend to sprout wheat year-round, though, because I like sprouted wheat in my breads and pancakes etc….but that’s an exception.

And I could get all wackadoo and tell you the reason why I think sprouts are so very important…but I won’t.  Suffice it to say I think raw, living food is a very important part of our diets (and by “living” I mean sprouts, but I also mean yogurt, kefir, krauts, and of course my insistent salads); I feel their lack when I leave home and have to…you know, fend for myself!  To my gut flora’s** sincere dismay, I might add!

*Frozen meat has a season, too:  I “harvest” our birds, and we order meat shares (1/2 hog, 1/4 cow) and when the harvest happens, the freezer fills.

**Gut flora:  The human body, consisting of about 10 trillion cells, carries about ten times as many microorganisms in the intestines.