Category Archives: seeds

On the new year

New Year, blue moon, new decade (well, okay, technically a new decade begins a year from today)…I am trying to square the idea that “it’s all new.”  Have you ever awakened from a nap and have had no clue what year it is, much less the time of day?  I swear I have these Rip Van Winkle moments a lot; it’s the main reason I don’t take naps.  And somehow this New Year’s has snuck up on me too.

BUT:  the turn of the calendar does indeed goad me into recognizing that It’s New.  And, being an American girl, I have been taught to believe that all that is new = good.  Haven’t you?  This has been an amazingly hard thing to unlearn.  But unlearn I have, and you’ll find that I am happier if gifted something old rather than new; “new to me” being good enough, and more than likely hugely appreciated.

New Year’s is typically the era of resolution:  one resolves to, more often than not, change something, be it a behavior or an outlook.  I admit I am not one for resolutions either, not that I think I don’t need to change things (I do).  This is also the time we do look back, at the year we just left:  but I would rather not.  (“Not a good year,” end of story.) It’s all forward-moving we’re doing, not backward; each DAY is a point of resolution, and yes I know that in my saying this I sound like a 12-step graduate.  Alas, no; I just think every day is precious.

And each day is.  Today, New Year’s Day, I planted garlic (in the greenhouse) with my daughter, the third year in a row we have done such a thing.  And that, alone, is reason enough to celebrate the day:  planting the first seeds of the calendar year.

Happy 2010, everyone.

On a cold end

Stepping into the new greenhouse, it smells…kinda like damp licorice.

This isn’t a bad smell at all, incidentally.  Outside now it’s all crisp, white…winter blandness; that particular fresh smell that accompanies the howl of blowing snow. It’s a scent you’d love to bottle, this clean frostiness, but it is particularly devoid of botanical stink. The greenhouses are a bit of a relief to that whiteness.  Step inside, and even if it’s early morning, you still smell…earth.

But back to the licorice.  The anise-y smell is coming from The Fennel Forest.  I said they’d be good until Christmas, and they are, barely.  A bit of frostbite, but that’s fine; chopped, tossed up with some crisp apples and a yogurt dressing…mmm.

On the last hot-weather crops

Bell, Hungarian and jalapeno peppers

I pulled the pepper plants on Tuesday.  It was time.

Are you this way?  I always get a little wistful when *the last* of a year’s crop goes into the compost.  And peppers make me positively misty, their green fleshy leaves, their blossom-tipped branches.  The solanaceae family (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes) is the one crop we most identify with summer, and for good reason:  these plants all have tropical origins, and thus are tricked into thinking ours is the Forever Summer that is life in the tropics.  Tomatoes have figured it out, growing and definitely dying within a season, but the others haven’t really given up their desire to be perennials, bushy perennials.  Such is the case, certainly, with my peppers.

Granted, greenhouse-grown peppers have the benefit of season extension a month, two, beyond what is considered Death To Pepper Weather.  And in all honesty, these beauties could’ve held on a while longer.  But, I needed the beds!  Garlic-planting season is nigh.  It is time to say hello to 2010 crops, farewell 2009.

But:  I am still a bit misty.  Sniff!

On late fall garden crops

While I am tidying up, I am also running around harvesting the last crops out of the garden.  There are quite a few that needed the whole season to reach maturity, and there are others that I planted in August that are ready to eat now.

P1010781Twinned roots!  Complete with lots of worm-filled dirt:  Brilliant celeriac

Celeriac, or celery root, is one of the former.  I started these puppies indoors with the celery, Italian parsley, cutting celery (wonderful crop:  tastes like a mix of celery and curly parsley), and Chinese parsley all going in under the lights way back in February.  While I have been harvesting all these other crops all spring, summer and fall, the celeriac gets a pass until now.  I appreciate its knobby ugliness mashed with potatoes, or sliced raw in a salad, or used as a subtle “what is that taste” in a creamed soup.  The tops and stalks likewise can be used like celery, though they’re admittedly stringier.

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Garden-planted fennel

August-planted crops include bulb fennel and kohlrabi, baby turnips and rapini.  I actually never plant these crops in the spring, and always wait for August:  they tend to get big, spicy, woody, and bolt into seed if they’re spring planted.  Fennel is another one of those miraculous vegetables that can be cooked or eaten raw:  indeed, when salad lettuces are scarce, a fennel/apple salad is quite welcome, and wonderfully crunchy too.  And the fronds are tasty little garnishes to add to any dish. When my fish-averse husband is out of town, the girl and I usually chow down on a bouillabaisse in which fennel plays a major part.

P1010794Purple kohlrabi: a bit on the small side but tasty

I have converted more people to kohlrabi than I have to any other vegetable.  I am not quite sure why this is:  were they afraid to try it otherwise?  It does look otherworldly.  This is another better-as-salad vegetable, but that could just be me.  Its subtle broccoli-stem flavor tends to go away when cooked.  We eat it julienned or chopped or even just shredded in a salad.

Turnips and Swedes (rutabagas) are actually something I do plant in spring, but most turnips get infernally hot unless I pick them as babies.  Fall turnips, though, are just sweet things, accepting life as part of a roasted root veg dish, as part of a stew, or–of course–eaten raw in a salad.  I have found a variety, the Gilfeather turnip, that doesn’t get terribly hot as a spring-planted veg, but that’s mainly because it’s part rutabaga.  My mother, an Atkins zombie, eats rutabagas like candy, so I always grow a few rows for her.

Late August-seeded rapini joins late July-seeded broccoli in avoiding the summer cabbage-worm infestation that all my coles undergo.  Rapini (broccoli raab) likewise can get blasted-hot if planted in the spring or summer, but it comes into its own quite well in the fall garden.  This is one of our favorite sauteed greens.  And broccoli.  No need for explanation there.

P1010801And finally, a peek in the fennel forest in the new greenhouse.  I harvest the big ones first, thus letting the others grow bigger; this crop should last until Christmas

On winter squash

P1010729-1The girl with a pink banana squash while Mary Ellen the rooster looks on

There is a good reason I don’t normally flaunt the harvests around here, and yesterday’s squash post demonstrates why:  I tend to harvest things by the wheelbarrowload.  I kind of don’t like showing off how crazy I am so I try to keep things under wraps.  (It’s probably not working, though.)

I did, however, get a few serious questions about winter squash yesterday.  It has taken me a few years to figure out what makes them grow well, so I thought I would share with you the secrets of a successful harvest.  Barring my local conditions (fertile clay soil, lots of sun, lots of rain) here are my tips:

  • My first tip?  Compost!  Ever since my best harvests of cantaloupe and birdhouse gourds came from volunteers in the compost heap, I realized that compost is a squash plant’s best friend.  Last year I moved the compost pile to a different location and I allowed a few volunteers to pop up in the former location, as well as nutrient-hungry corn and popcorn.  I had never been terribly serious about winter squash before last year, because the squash bugs made sure that there was never a serious SUMMER squash harvest.  Squash bugs are vile creatures, bent on the destruction of any squash plant, but crookneck yellow squash (my personal favorite) is its primary target.  I have always succession-planted summer squash (once when the ground warms, the second once the squash bugs hit) and have usually beaten them that way.  But I never figured winter squash was a viable crop until I literally planted them in compost.
  • My second tip is vigilance against vine borers and the aforementioned squash bugs.  Vine borer damage is obvious, and quick; squash bug infestations are slow but sure.  Daily examination helps both.  I got over my “ick” reaction and began squashing squash bug eggs as soon as I could find them, whether I had gloves on or not.  (I seem to be able to handle any vile thing if there’s a protective layer between me and it.)  As long as any one plant has only ONE colony of eggs on it, the plant will live, albeit in a reduced capacity.
  • My third tip is compost tea and a steady application of new compost, especially where the vining plants dig into the ground again (this happens with pumpkins, not with butternuts).  Compost tea for me is just compost sitting in a bucket of water for 2 days; I pour it and the wet compost onto the plant’s roots and  new runners.  No aeration, no straining, nothing fancy.

Geez this sounds like a lot of work.  And I suppose it could be but the winter squash season is a long one, the bug-infestation season a short one.  For the most part I just stand back and watch them grow.

And as to what I am to do with all this?  Well, we’ll eat maybe one or two squash a week, in various guises.  I tend to tuck puree’d squash into anything (breads, mashed potatoes, soups, pies) but honestly only one dinner a week will feature “obvious” squash (as soup, roasted as a side dish, tucked in with some pasta or in risotto).

On Moving Day

P1010692Yesterday was Move the Squash Day.  I left them to ripen/cure in the greenhouse for a couple of weeks, but the mice have developed a serious affinity to those of the pie pumpkin family so it’s in to the house they all go.

P1010695Here’s a closer pic of the wheelbarrowload of blues.  In here you’ll find the Oregon heirloom Sweet Meat (bottom left), the familiar Blue Hubbard (dead center, top right and middle right), and the unfamiliar folded-over three-lobed Triamble, from seed from this crazy woman in Oakland.  The little green squash is actually an unripe Triamble.  Not seen, but buried, is a Jarrahdale Blue, an Australian heirloom.  Having eaten none of them, I was most impressed with the Triamble; the Jarrahdale and Sweet Meat were all hat and no cattle, if you know what I mean.  The Hubbards were volunteers.

P1010698Next up is the load of orange squash.  The big ones are Galeux d’Eysenes, surprisingly wart-free; the greens are unripe pie pumpkins and there are also a couple of kuri/kabocha squash in here too.  The yellow one in the center?  That’s (seriously) an eight-ball zucchini.  Whoops!

P1010706Last up is the butternut squash.  It was a good year for butternuts.

We had an early-ish frost here, followed by lots of rain:  both conditions seriously disrupt a winter squash’s ability to live a long sweet life in storage, so I harvested everyone about three weeks ago.  Many, many people will tell you that “a little frost” will not unduly injure your squash, to which I say either they are compulsive liars or that the sole exception to this rule is (and only is) my one small squash-growing patch on this planet.  Therefore, I harvest once the temperature drops, the stormclouds threaten.

I like squash, as you can see.  It’s not all for me, though.  The deer got our garden at school, so many of these beauties are destined for schoolchildren’s tummies.

On tomatoes (a mini-confession)

P1000738The near-nightly occurrence.  The handmade knife was a surprise (read:  off-registry) wedding gift, and I SO love it.  It’s by a metalsmith somewhere in the Cascades, in Washington or Oregon.  If anyone knows the maker, lemme know:  I adore the thing.  It is stamped “MH”,  and it’s a foot long, with a 4 1/2″ high blade.

Coming to the end of the season, I do feel like I have spent the last four months chopping up tomatoes, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating.  Between our own garden’s output (extreme), the school garden’s output (dimmed by late blight but still prolific) and the gleanings from some local farms, the tomatoes were absolutely crazy this year.  I believe we made close to 100 quarts of salsa and chopped tomatoes and pasta sauce *just* for the school, and then there’s our own larder that I am too scared to list.

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Brandywine tomatoes ripening on the kitchen window

For a woman whose family members won’t even EAT a raw tomato (salsa’s the one exception) it is a bit crazy that I grow as many as I do.  Considering the 2008 tally was likewise as big and there were still quarts of juice, sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce and plain tomatoes downstairs when I began to harvest in 2009, I am beginning to believe I am slightly crazy.  Tomatoes *love* the greenhouse conditions, and I *love* growing tomatoes is my only excuse.

I think the blight elsewhere also got me going.  Well, I thought, at least they’re working for ME. Some kind of survivalist tendency or something, some ghost of Depressions past.

I am kind of happy to see the tomatoes go, though.

Except there IS this last bit of green harvest that has yet to ripen:P1010352

Chop chop!

The annual “I won’t grow that again” plant

P1010312Groundnuts:  ngubu, from the Bantu Kikongo language:  goobers, or peanuts

Every year I attempt to grow a few new-to-me plants.  One never knows what’ll do well here until one tries it, right?  And this year’s experimental plant was peanuts, in the greenhouse.

Ostensibly, this plant was a perfect candidate:  requiring 120-150 days to mature, it is self-fertile, prefers warm temperatures, and prefers sandy-loam soil.  Excepting the latter, I could meet all the requirements it needs; my soil isn’t sandy-loam in the greenhouse but it’s as close as I am ever going to get to it, barring a midnight raid with a flatbed truck to the beach a mile away.  So.  I ordered a variety from Southern Exposure that likes our clay and northern climate, uprooted three beds of lettuces back in April, and planted them.

They were slow to grow, but eventually became monster plants.  The yellow/orange flowers wrinkle up after pollination and bury themselves in the ground, ripening to a single seedpod.  I watched and I watched the flowers wrinkle and aim downward…and never bury themselves.  Even when I staked them to the ground, they didn’t do much in the way of peanut-making.  The plants were spectacular, fleshy-leaved specimens that showed no signs of knowing The End was coming.  And The End was, once I noticed that someone had been harvesting them for me.

Voles!  Hungry little diggers they are.  I wouldn’t say that half my harvest went to them, but probably a third did.

So, I pulled them all up.  I got probably two gallons’ worth of nuts (in their shells mind) for a single packet of seeds.  That’s a decent harvest, but…I don’t like to share.  No more peanuts here, absolutely none for the voles.

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On long-stored squash

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Penny and the girl with the final harvest of last year

This gorgeous and gigantic thing is the last of my butternut squash…from 2008!

Obviously, something that grew this large, tasted this good and (most importantly) stored for as long as this one did needs to be saved in perpetuity.  Butternuts (cucurbita moschata) don’t easily cross with the four other types of typical garden squash, as most of its relatives are rare.  Personally, butternuts are the one squash I reliably seed-save because I don’t grow varieties that could cross it, nor do any of my neighbors.  So, these seeds are washed and are drying for next year’s garden.

Butternuts have the distinction of being the one unadulterated squash (read: not covered in brown sugar) that my picky husband will eat.  Me, I love them all, and now that fall is upon us, my desire to eat squash has returned with the turning leaves and the cooler temperatures.  By far my favorite butternut squash dish is hand-made squash-filled ravioli with a shallot/sage/browned butter sauce (eat, die happy!) but my weeknights are usually harried, with no time to craft a stuffed pasta.  ‘Sokay.  Shortcuts can be taken.  Oven-roasted squash chunks can be made while the store-bought pasta boils and the shallots caramelize in their own pan of butter.  Sizzle the sage in the shallot butter, drain the pasta, toss all in a big pasta bowl, testing for salt…and voila, a quicker, near-enough dish for a Wednesday night.

P1010334Whoops:  Steam on the lens.  Take my word, it was tasty.  I used broken-up lasagna noodles.

On long beans

Longtime readers know I adore beans.  In point of fact, I have never met a bean I didn’t like, though I suppose there are a few varieties I like only a little bit.  But as they’re ripening fast and furious on their vines, I thought I would mention one beloved bean in particular.

_DSC6332Pretty long, eh?

Vigna unguiculata (sesquipedalis) is a bean in the cowpea (black-eyed pea) family.  Also known as yard-long beans, asparagus beans, or snake beans, “yard” is a bit of an exaggeration:  the fully-grown pods reach only about 18-20″ (thus, sesquipedalis, foot-and-a-half).  They’re not particularly edible at that length though.  Instead, you should harvest them when they’re shy of a foot long.  I cook and eat them like regular green beans.  This particular variety, the red-seeded asparagus bean, is this lovely maroon color, which darkens when cooked.  They don’t taste like green beans, either, but have their own taste, somewhat nutty, and a bit more crunchy.

P1000693

I grow cowpeas too and their pods are nothing at all like these.  Their flowers, quite beautiful twinned orchid-like blossoms, are similar to the lowly cowpea.

They’re heat-loving, clambering vines, befitting their Southeast Asian origins.  It takes them a while to get going here in my non-tropical garden, but once they do, it’s time to get picking.  And eating!

On pearls of the garden

IMG_2623Leek blossom

It doesn’t often happen, but on occasion, those plants that you sacrifice for their seeds give you gifts other than seeds.  It’s certainly true with leeks.

P1000712Bag of seedheads along with browned-out, unpromising stalks

Sure:  let that beautiful green lance of leaves go to seed for you.  It shoots up a thick center leaf in March or April of its second year.  There goes that edible stalk, as the plant now has other plans, and the stalk becomes woodier by the day.  A seed head will appear in mid June, a gigantic lollipop of a blossom, changing colors from purple to white to green to brown.  It’s a veritable firework of bloom, alternating on and off, pollinating itself as it goes.  Eventually, in August or so, the seeds are all uniformly brown, and the five foot tall stem will begin likewise to brown and thin out.  Time to get out the clippers, the bag, and…the second meal plan for that leek!

P1000713Peel away some of the outer leaves at the base, and voila, pearls

These little bulbs found at the stalk of the plant are called leek pearls.  Genetically identical to the parent plant, they can be planted and grown for seeds too if the parent plant should fail on you.  But honestly, you should be more greedy.  These pearls are just like they sound:  crisp-crunchy, mellow leeky bulblets.  Elephant garlic is actually a leek grown for its bulb-forming, not leaf-forming, potential; leek pearls are similar to that, yet mellower somehow.  Happier.

P1000717They need to be scrubbed, but what a feast.  The one at the far left will be replanted, as it’s sprouting.

Sometimes the grass is not greener

P1000702Galeux d’Eysenes and Triamble winter squashes

I have now seen how the other half lives and I have decided I like where I live just fine, thank you.

What could I possibly be talking about? It seems I complain, in about every third post, about my clay soil.  Never again!  I have had direct experience, in the form of the school’s garden, with soil that is not majority clay and…no thank you.  Nope.

I wouldn’t say the school’s garden has been an abject failure, because it has not!  NO, we’re harvesting all kinds of things from it.  It is rather loose soil, pretty sandy, so seedlings barely have a chance and you can almost forget about planting seeds unless you cover them with wet burlap OR can count on a wet spring.  But between that sandy soil and the *($%# deer, it’s been a…learning year in the school’s garden.

Fortunately, I realized quite early that the garden could be troublesome, so…I planted extra stuff here at home.

On shell beans

P1000689Overgrown Rattlesnake pole beans (love these beans!)

This post is a nod to my good friend Ed.

One of the reasons I grow my own is because it opens up a world of vegetative goodness that I could not otherwise attain.  (Lest you think this is merely a condition of living in the boonies, I can assure you my city garden likewise yielded riches not so easily gotten at the myriad co-ops or snooty stores near my home.)  And shelly beans definitely qualify as vegetative goodness.

P1000683Glass of wine and turkey companionship optional, but helpful

Shell beans, shelling beans, shelly beans:  there is a point somewhere between the spectrum of green (mange-tout)  and dried beans that is a chef’s dream.  They’re certainly THIS home cook’s dream.  And as a point of absolution for you less-than-attentive gardeners, shelly beans are akin to making more than lemonade of lemons:  think a fine dessert wine from lemons instead.  Say you just happen to have ignored your pole green beans for a few days, and now…they’re quite swollen, showing their growing seeds, pregnant little bumps all in a row.   Harvest them.  Sit down with a glass of wine and shell them.  Eaten raw, they’re an unpromising crunch of starch.  But you need to get out a shallot or two, a glug of olive oil or big pat of butter or flavorful animal fat, a small saucepan, and get cooking.  Sweat the shallot, then add the beans, covering them with some broth or some water to almost cover.  Cook them until you consider them “done,” and then plate them up with some chopped fresh parsley, some toasted breadcrumbs, maybe a squeeze of lemon…a bit of heaven on your plate.

Many beans are eaten as shell beans:  Limas, butterbeans, and favas are in this category.  Before you sneer and say that you think limas are abhorrent, I think they are too unless they’re garden-fresh.  Lots of vegetables are this way and it’s yet another reason to garden, quite frankly:  garden and get rid of your food prejudices! But most other beans can qualify as shell beans too.

Oh, and ALL beans can be eaten as dry beans.  Just like most garden vegetables, there are some that are “best” as fresh, shell, or dried; I have eaten the tiny dried brown beans of “Maxibel” haricot vert beans, for example, though it was a huge effort.  But frankly I can’t think of any other vegetable that has such nascent variety, can you?

On squash

P1000534Butternut squash does very well trained to a trellis

I am quite happily overwhelmed with winter squash this year.  Considering how late I planted everything, and how many times I had to replant things due to nongermination (it was a cold and wet spring), I suppose I didn’t hold out much hope.  The compost comes through in a pinch though:  I planted out quite a few seedlings found in its general vicinity and quite a few of them came through as pure.  Not all did; that’s what makes it fun:  am I creating a new squash or two?  Probably.  Are they keepers?  Doubtful, but…they’re colorful.

Summer squash, well, meh.  Admittedly it’s never been my favorite.  Beer-batter fried, sure; that was my dad’s specialty, but he’s been dead for 30 years now so that’s a long time to be missing that particular yellow crookneck preparation.  I will say that I am growing an eightball variety of zucchini this year and its small size has much to recommend it.  I don’t think it tastes anything like my standby (Costata Romanesco), but the fact that it doesn’t balloon to a baseball bat overnight is celebration alone.

But the winter squash.  The sheer enthusiasm of the vines, the size of the leaves:  you want to feel like a denizen of Lilliput, then plant some of the cucurbita maxima clan and stand back!

P1000542Not enough room in THIS garden for me:  how about out there? Jarrahdale (blue Australian) pumpkin climbs garden fence seeking alternate accommodation, a good 20′ from where I planted its seed

On changing up the routine

I find it hard to do anything consistently year to year.  I guess I like to monkey with routines, just to keep things interesting –slash–entertaining.  There is a lot of repeated work done in the garden and the food preservation kitchen, and, true to form, I tend to monkey with that too.  For the most part my manipulations have the stated aim of efficiency.  I do tend to keep what works, admittedly.  Other times, well, I am simply prone to tinker.

And this year, I am not waiting until fall to harvest my tomato seeds.  NOPE!  I am doing it now, as the tomatoes ripen.  I pick the biggest and most ripe fruit, slice open the bottom, squish the pulp and seeds into a glass canning jar, add a tiny bit of water, put a label and a lid on it, and…wait for science to happen.  [note: I tend to get two fruits, from two different plants, just to keep my genetics open.]

P1000509-1Granted, seeing moldering produce on one’s kitchen counter is not everyone’s cup of tea.  In the general chaos that is my canning kitchen, however, this is not much of a hardship.  I also have the advantage of being fully aware of how the seeds are doing: they are under my nose, after all, vying for space on the butcher block.  Toward the end of the season, when I normally tackle this task, I am so fed up with tomatoes that saving their seeds is generally accompanied by my resentment of the things, with a lot of “never again” oaths thrown in.  This does not work in the tomatoes’ favor, not at all.  Now, well, now I have the fresh eyes and enthusiasms of a newbie!

So, after about a week, a nice blue-green mold will grace the surface layer of the watery seed pulp.  Fungi Are Our Friends here, as they break down the slimy seed sack in which the seeds are floating.  I take the moldy jars outside, dump the seeds into a very fine meshed colander and spray off all the goo with the hose.  Then I take the seeds back indoors and let them dry a little bit.  I spread them out individually onto a labeled white paper towel:  they’ll stick to this, but I just cut a bit of the towel around the seed when it’s time to plant them.  I let them dry fully, then I roll up the paper towel and store it in a jar in the basement with all the other seeds.

Have you planted your fall garden yet?

P1000331Say hello to some January carrots

I don’t mean to be too much of a nag, but…have you considered your fall garden yet?

With the two greenhouses, I need to have seedlings planted in them by first frost.  Trouble is, they need to be of Goldilocks size:  not too big, not too small, just right.  Especially the lettuces.  Too big and the cold, once it comes to stay, really hits the leaves hard, turning them to mush; too small, I won’t see a harvest until March, just right, I can harvest them from November through February.

But not everyone has greenhouses to consider.  It is the perfect time to sow a row or three of cool-loving crops.  Have a trellis that’s empty?  Try fall peas.  Too scared to try the martian-spaceship of the vegetable world, kohlrabi?  It, likewise, loves the cool of the fall, and can take frosts too.  In fact, many of the brassica family (turnips, rutabaga, collards, broccoli) do quite well if you plant them now, and you can even harvest some of them from under the snow, like we do.

I haven’t planted the lettuces yet.  Because they sprout so readily, they’ll be too big for my overwintering needs; they’ll do fine as fall salad items now though.  But I have planted first crops of kohlrabi, lacinato (dinosaur) kale, and fennel, as they really appreciate coming into ripeness in October: they’re not pithy, or too big, and, in fennel’s case, it’s usually too cool for it to go to seed (which often happens, disappointingly, to spring-planted fennel).  And carrots, like those above, have been succession-planted every two weeks all summer long.  There is nothing as sweet as a winter-harvested carrot!

On perennial vegetables

There is a theory out there whose premise is, once global warming and Peak Oil collapse the world as we know it, we’ll all need to get back to the gardens, but we’ll need a boatload of perennial vegetables in there because we’re going to be so time-crunched taking care of the rest of our needs that we’ll have little time for annual vegetables.  I have two quibbles with this argument.  One, end of the world or no, we should ALL get back to the gardens, and two, if the world collapses, so too do our day jobs, so we’ll therefore have LOTS of time for any type of gardening, perennial or annual. How long does it take, really, to plant a few rows of beans?

But any time-crunched vegetable gardener likes the idea of perennial crops.  Trouble is, there are very few vegetable crops that are true perennials:  asparagus, artichokes, cardoon, rhubarb, Good King Henry, some onions; that’s about it.  However, many crops can become perennial if you let them reseed themselves! This actually rewards you two ways:  one, you don’t need to replant them, and two, your laziness actually finds reward.  I should also add point three:  Volunteers are Good.

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This picture shows Year #4 of a tomato crop.  Five years ago, my mother brought over some of those tiny annoying grape tomatoes because she was going out of town and figured we could use them.  Considering I am the only raw-tomato eater in the house and I find these tasteless things abhorrent, the majority of them made it to the compost.  And from the compost, the seeds found their way to this small patch of earth.  Granted, it will be the end of August when I get to harvest a tomato off of them, but look!  Perennial tomatoes!  And I should here mention these things taste so much better than my mother’s cast-offs.

So:  the moral of the story:  A bit of laziness is good!  Cold compost (that which does not kill all seeds) is a good thing to spread around the gardens.  So is letting a few things run to seed to self-sow.  It might just save you some time next year.

On “enough”

P1000024You know you’ve had a successful harvest if you still have some of last year’s produce in storage when the new stuff needs to be pulled.  I still have about a pound, maybe more, of garlic from 2008 so I did the head-scratching routine of “was I stingy with garlic this last year?”  I answered that in the negative; we had our fair courses of garlic soup, and enough homemade aioli to keep any vampire far away.  There were also plenty of heads to replant.

“Enough,” or even “adequate,” are tough nuts to crack when you’re growing your own.  It will either be a while before you hit that goal, or you’ll overshoot it and will feel pangs of guilt every time you open the freezer and see all those bags of broccoli, broccoli your family picks at if you serve it to them.  There is a happy medium in there, one in which you don’t feel like the food is overly precious or overly expendable.  And it will take you a year or two of doing this before you discover that sweet spot.

P1000248All cleaned up and ready for eating

But back to the garlic.  It was another good year for garlic, a crop I discovered does best when grown in the greenhouse, last hardneck batches sown on New Year’s Day.  It’s an indispensable kitchen item in this house; it, and parsley, populate every supper dish, or near enough.  I am thankful for a good harvest.

(And yes, some of it will be available in the seed trade.)

On seed trading

DSCN7910Part of last year’s squash haul

I guess I AM a bit obsessed:  on top of all the planting, weeding, and harvesting on the garden task list this week, harvesting the biennials’ seeds is also a top priority.  Spinach, beets, and three types of onions are ready to harvest, and then there are all those crazy lettuces that are likewise on the brink.  (And winter squash: I saved a few for seed of the ones that made it through the winter…it’s nearly past time to cut them open and haul out their seeds to dry.)

Seed-saving seems to have taken over as the subject of my blog posts, anyway…

Verily, I admit I save more than I use; it’s one of the reasons I have started seed-trading with local gardeners and even some online gardening friends.  The local angle is pretty great as seeds from the plants grown in this particular patch of earth will more than likely do well in other Michigan gardens.  But somehow the idea of seed-sowing over a wider patch of the world also appeals to me.  In point of fact, I believe I will start a limited seed trade with anyone who’s interested.  So, over the next…well, month or more, I hope to have a bit of a list on the sidebar of this blog for you to peruse.  All seeds will be open-pollinated, organically grown, and under two years old.

If you are interested, simply look at the list and email me and we’ll figure out a suitable arrangement for getting the seeds to you.   I might require some seeds from you in return, or maybe your first-born child.  You know.  Something equitable and fair.

On size mattering

IMG_1684Lettuces, gone to seed

Ostensibly, I understand how big things get in the garden.  Through years of trial and error, I *get it* that a blooming lettuce plant can reach 3′ tall and wide, and, should I wish to save seeds from this plant, I will need to allow that much space for the plant to do its thing.  Indeed, producing a plant for its seeds can be a lot more of a hassle than producing it for its food, mainly because of this land grab.  It becomes tough, say, to make the decision between saving the seed from one’s surprisingly frost-hardy oakleaf lettuce or yielding that same space to that tiny pepper plant growing in its shade in the new greenhouse.  Considering I didn’t expect that lettuce to survive our particularly freezing winter, that pepper must suffer!  (Is this a Sophie’s Choice kind of decision?  I am not sure.  There’s still plenty of time for peppers.)

Seed-saving can become an obsession in itself, of course.  Honestly, saving *all* the seeds from this one lettuce means I will be self-sufficient in oakleaf lettuce for 10 years and I still would never be able to use up all the seed!  YAY.  That makes me happy, frankly, in a hole-up-in-a-bunker kind of way, in a full-root-cellar kind of way.  And I like being happy,even if it means my pepper plant temporarily lacks proper real estate.

On spinach, and sex

You know, I would say I trend more toward prude than its opposite, but, as a seed-saver and new poultry husbanding person, I have become more aware of sex in the flora and fauna around me.  There are two reasons for this, prudishness be damned:  one, I *need* to pay attention and two, birth/sex/death is really…not closeted in farm life.

So in the interest of the didyouknow, I will heretofore tell you that spinach is the only commonly cultivated annual vegetable that throws either male or female flowers.  I can just see your eyes glaze over as I reveal this tasty tidbit!  Wha? you say.  Well!  Most plants propagate by being a lot more AC/DC (that is, bisexual):  they circle back and forth between throwing male and female flowers, either to self-pollinate or to time the blossoming of the male flowers to correctly match up with the female flowers, with the pollen either being wind-blown or availing itself of a willing intermediary pollinator (birds, bees, etc.) between the male and female flowers.  Of course, it’s our human world that absolutely categorizes everything as “male” or “female,” and I think that’s where a lot of problems start, and not just for plants.

IMG_1696Male spinach with its tendrils, with female plants beyond

But back to spinach.  Either a seed produces a female plant, or it produces a male one.  If you let them go to seed, you hope for both to ensure yourself a nice set of happily fertilized ova.  And luckily nature does lend you a hand:  like most other species in the natural world, the chances of having either a male or female seed of two is roughly even.

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Female spinach, with seeds

On plant genetics

It took me a few years, but I think I have finally come to understand the onion family.  I now get their germination, growth patterns, nutritional needs, and their preferred storage temperature.  I also “get” their propagation.  Behold:  the best of the best of last year’s yellow storage onions (Copra, in case you’re curious).  Instead of gracing some savory dish, I want their seeds!

IMG_1412Behold the power!

I’ve done quite a treatise on onions before. We take a many-pronged approach to this wonderful vegetable, and don’t “just” eat storage onions all year; I reserve their exclusive use for the depths of winter.  But storage onions are important.  So I select the heaviest, non-sprouting, biggest ones to save for seed-making.  These three are actually from seed saved here, so they’re obviously well-adapted to the rigors of the clay soil and the relative neglect that is storage in my root cellar.  And here they are, shining on a day in May.

Simply placing them up to their shoulders in the dirt, I wait for them to sprout.  They’re in the back of a bed:  their seedheads can get quite tall (one in the greenhouse from a red storage onion is now over 5′) and let them do their thing.  I will harvest the seedheads when they look kind of dry.  When fully dry, they’ll get shaken over a white pillowcase and then the little black seeds will go into an envelope, waiting for next year’s seedling season to sprout anew.

On missed opportunities

IMG_1167Celery seedlings by the hundreds

It is at this time of the year I start considering shortcuts.  There are too few hours in the day for all that we need much less want to do, right?  Why NOT just hop a fence here and there.

Well, even shortcuts require forethought.  Forethought, or at least opportunity.  Note, for example, the positively crazy self-germination of the open-pollinated Golden Self-Blanching celery above.  One plant (one!) out of 15 went to seed last year, its first year: these polite biennials generally wait until their second spring to do so.  Like all the umbelliferae, they’re prolific in the extreme…they believe in lots of seeds.  But anyone who’s tried to grow parsley or celery from seed will tell you it’s a trying endeavor.  They require soaking, they require up to 21 days to actually poke their heads above the soil.  They require effort, in other words.

And guess what I have in the greenhouse:  about 60 plants, three inches taller than these, that I have painstakingly sown indoors, coddled for weeks, and transplanted.

Humbug.  Where’s a fence to jump?

On potatoes

img_1162Rejects, soon to be populating the compost heap

We planted potatoes this weekend.  This is about 3 weeks later than normal:  I kind of hate to think our harvest will likewise be 3 weeks later, but, so be it.  Planting them “on time” would’ve been futile.  Our very wet and very cold spring, coupled with the clay soil here, would’ve meant rotting potatoes.

There are seriously fewer things that stink as much as a rotten potato.  I have stuck my hands in all manner of awful things, but a sodden, rotting potato is a small water balloon of horror.

Likewise, the late planting meant most of the spuds were spookily sprouting little forests of white-armed sprouts climbing from wrinkled tubers.  Every year, we consume a lot but not all the potatoes.  Every year, I plant more.  Every year, I tell myself I need to find someplace colder than my basement to store them.  Every year, this mantra is repeated.

But this year, I am glad they’re in the ground.  This year the land grab continued as I to devoted even more space to these “apples of the earth” as the French so lovingly call them.  This year kind blogging friends have contributed to the variety by generously giving me five crazy ones:  All Blues, Swedish Peanut Fingerling, Purple Majesty, Huckleberry and Purple Peruvian Fingerling:  I am really looking forward to those beauties! What a little rainbow of colors. (My typical potatoes are much more pedestrian; most are now in their 5th season of seed potatoes grown here so I at least know they grow well.  They’re russets, Kennebecs, Pontiacs, Katahdins and Yukons.)  Including the new additions, there are a lot of potatoes in the ground now.

I wonder what’ll happen next year.

The greenhouses in early spring

Early spring outdoors means late spring in the greenhouses!

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“Old” greenhouse:  You’re seeing 7 of 9 beds, most are 3’x6′

The old (Oct ’07) greenhouse has been acting as our seedling house:  it’s kind of boot camp before life outdoors.  In here, I transfer all seeds I start indoors.  Some of these seedlings have already done their turn in here and have been booted outside already (broccoli, cabbage, Asian brassicas like mustards and mibuna).  It’s also done duty for the last of the winter salads (planted December through February; that’s most of the color you see) that furnished the majority of our salads from February through April.  Soon, the seedling onions and leeks will go outside too.  That’s garlic in the back left; I am hoping for a late May-through mid-June harvest from here.

img_1107“New” greenhouse, now you’re seeing 10 of 12 beds, all 3’x6′

The new (Oct ’08) greenhouse is slowly being cleared of its fall and winter contents.  I still have lots of onions and leeks in here.  There are herbs, too, in here that are more or less permanent residents (parsley, celery, chives, chervil, thyme).  We are also presently enjoying lots of flowers from brassicas like purple sprouting broccoli and lancinato and red kales.  Speaking of flowers, and unlike the other greenhouse, this one has stuff that I am allowing to go to seed:  beets, carrots, lettuces.  Most of these plants that’ll produce seed have been self-selected by yours truly because they showed amazing perserverence over the slug and cold onslaught that left many of their siblings mushily dead mid-winter.  I appreciate hardiness!  I appreciate non-death!  Therefore, I will grant them the time and–more pressingly–space to go through their flowering and seeding.

Soon enough, both greenhouses will be too consistently hot for salad things so it will be time for the heat-loving summer crops.  As it is now, it does get mighty hot in there:  above 90 with the vents open, and as cold as 45 at night.  This is great for tomato seedlings but it’s a bummer for those pretty lettuces.

On baby brassicas

img_1014-1I don’t know how anything can grow in this blue light of the fluorescents, but it does

I confess I love the sprouting enthusiasm of the brassica family, don’t you?  It’s something I need to learn every year:  that the cole family with their cute little round brown seeds are ALL FABULOUS SPROUTERS, and I needn’t sow them as heavily as other families.  Indeed, I should really wise up and learn that one seed = one plant with them.

Oh well.  Live and learn, and relive what you learned before.  Relive and relearn?

Again, though, with the school garden as my excuse, I am able to use up all these pretty little things, and that makes me quite happy.  These are sowings of Aichi cabbage (napa-type), mibuna, pak choy, gai choi and chrysanthemum greens, most destined for the children.  They’ll get bigger, get transplanted to the greenhouse this weekend, then out to the gardens in 2 weeks.

On adventures in seed-saving

img_1027The Milkman’s child amongst the green Amish Deer Tongue seedlings

I’ve been saving most of my seeds from one year to another for a few years now.  In some instances, growing things to save their seed is actually more arduous than growing the plants to simply be eaten…but some veggies are not so very hard or complicated.  Beans are probably the easiest, right up there with saving seed potatoes from one year to the next.  Lettuce, thankfully, falls in the “easy” category.

A couple of years back, I mentioned my slam-bang way of saving lettuce seed.  Likewise, planting the autumn volunteers from the fallen seed of blooming plants is another way we keep our greenhouse in salad all winter, as is planting little greenhouse volunteers. But one thing I haven’t really addressed is the potential for cross-pollination amongst the various lettuce types that I grow.

I hadn’t really noticed much change when I harvested seeds from same-colored, different-leaved types of lettuce in times past:  the genotype for leaf expression must remain fairly steady between generations.  But what I have discovered, happily, is the variant for both color and spotting seems to be fairly readily cross-pollinated.  So, what the hell does this mean?  It means I get spots from my Freckles Romaine on the second generation of Amish Deer Tongue lettuces that grew next to it.  It means I get a blush on the green Bibb lettuce that grew next to Red Sails, a loose-leaf lettuce.  It’s not happening all the time, but maybe 5% of the time; it’s fascinating to me.

img_10251Please, tell me that I’m pretty

I figure I have the next 50 years of my life to kind of figure out this whole botany thing.  But for now, I just say, look, let’s eat that pretty salad.

On a better way of seed-starting

img_0989The seedling transfer bed, bottom to top:  Amish Deer Tongue lettuce (two leaves seen), arugula, spinach, unemergent seeds of spinach, Red Sails lettuce, orach, broccoli, minutina, mizuna, more spinach, more Red Sails and Grand Rapids lettuce.  Those are two beds of garlic you see beyond, as well as the overwintered fig trees.

Outdoors in the greenhouse is where I *love* starting our seeds.  It’s here, too, that some indoor seedlings find temporary shelter, growing out as best they can before they go outside to their permanent spots.  I have 6 of 9 beds in the old greenhouse that are filled like this one.  Now can you see why I hate starting seeds indoors?  Inside, I only have so much dirt and so much light:  here, well, here I can go crazy.

Perhaps a little too crazy!  Now that I have the excuse of “well, I am growing for the school garden too” I am, uh, taking it to heart.

On seed stories

img_0948Baby asparagus

We’re in the asparagus patch on a warm, windy day in February.  There’s not much to see but last year’s dead growth.  Not much, that is, except these bright-red berries.

“OOO!  Berries!  Mama, can I pick them?”

“Sure, honey.  But are they berries?  Do you remember what these brown plants were?”

“Artichokes?”

(Smart kid!  They’re in the bed too, buried under leaves and burlap.)  “Nope.  Asparagus.  Those are asparagus seed pods.”

“Can we plant them inside?”

And we did.  Here’s the result, some six weeks later.  Tiny little asparagus!  She was so excited, she wanted to show her father, so she took the pot up to his office for him to see.  “Look, Daddy, they’re little asparagus plants, and they look like little asparagus!”

“Well, that’s great, honey, but what did you expect them to look like?”

Ugh!  Obviously, I am gardening with the best person in the family.

On shallots

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There is nothing easier than planting shallots.  Seriously:  if you are all thumbs with tiny seeds, then you can reap immense personal satisfaction out of planting shallots.  The only problem I foresee is that it takes no time at all so that satisfaction may not last too long.

These are third-generation grocery-store shallots (really!).  They started spouting, so that told me it was time to plant them.  As you can see, they naturally divide for you; the bulbs usually do come in pairs.  Just pull them apart and stick them halfway into the ground.  They’ll sprout, then divide. You can harvest them, like all onions, when their tops die back/brown out.  If you plant them this spring, that should happen by August:  just keep your eyes on them.

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I planted them between my greenhouse garlic.  Aren’t they pretty?  Some are up to their 8th leaf (of 10, where 10 means the scape (flower blossom) happens) so I am excited.