SHARPEN YOUR KNIVES, TOMATOES ARE HERE!

As a gardener, going out of town for a week in July is like living through a time-warp. Is there a better word for that? For the gap between your last experience of a thing and the change that thing endures in the meantime? For instance seeing someone you haven’t seen in a while who has gained or lost a lot of weight. Or cut their hair. Or aged. Children who were this tall the last time you saw them. Something that has endured so much change that you are taken aback. Sucked into the now from wherever you were like Christopher Reeves in Somewhere in Time when he pulls the penny out of his pocket and love is lost forever. That passage of time and change needs a name. A poetic name!

“Life” is not quite what I had in mind.

Well my garden did that while I was away. I ran out of time to mow my yard and then it poured the night before I left. I circled it on my list, code for: to be dealt with later.  

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Dealt with indeed. While I was gone, summer in Arkansas happened. By the time I got home, it was a foot high and covered with seed heads. I’m surprised there wasn’t a code compliance sign in my yard!

Now, I have a lawn mower. And for that I am grateful. It is not the mower of my dreams, but we know each other well enough that by working together we can get the job done. Which does not mean I have not yelled expletives about my mother at it.

Sorry mom.

Sorry neighbors.

Or wanted to take this cool sledge hammer to it.

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Talk about missed opportunities for a zen moment.

But, if I can get it started without dislocating my shoulder, and if I lift the hatch on the back at the end of every row to allow the grass to shoot out onto my sweaty sunscreen covered leg, making me look like a female Sasquatch, and if I buck it up onto its back wheels every twenty seconds or so when it starts to sputter out, together we can get the job done.

This, however, was more than we had ever dealt with together.

So when it, very vocally, said “Forget you, I’m taking a break”, I took that opportunity to rake up the extra grass and dump it on my compost heap. Only to start the whole process all over again.

In this manner I cussed and sputtered and bucked and raked my sweat-drenched, grass-covered Sasquatch way through my foot-high grass for all the neighborhood to witness. And over the course of two days the yard that I can usually mow in twenty minutes was finally tamed. 

And now a week later it needs it again!

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Talk about the importance of keeping up with things!

I also came back to a mountain of tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, tomatillos, peppers, onions, hard-neck garlic, beets, carrots, zucchini as big as my forearm, and kale covered with harlequin beetles.

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Do you know these guys? Murgantia histrionica. Whenever I see these beautiful beetles, I feel like King Lear, “Oh, I have ta’en too little care of this!” Rebuked, as they tend to show up when things are outside their window of seasonality and therefore stressed. The compost heap for you!

Eventually though, we managed to get things a little more under control.

We harvested potatoes.

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And dismantled the potato box.

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These are a variety called Yellow Finn that we grew for the first time this year.

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We threw some on the grill wrapped in tin foil and they were astoundingly good. Creamy and buttery and rich and delicious. Truly stellar and highly recommended.

We also harvested green beans, onions, and tomatillos. Salsa verde, and soon!

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So now that the garden is a bit more manageable – although there’s still plenty of cleaning up and fall planting to be done – the overwhelm has moved indoors. What to do with all this bounty!?

First things first. Sharpen your knives!

Because we are in the sweet spot. Where a luscious summer meal can be made of a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato sprinkled with salt. But to unleash that goodness you need a really sharp knife.

And to get a really sharp knife you need a whetstone. I got mine in New York, but I chose it because it was made in Arkansas and I was homesick. I have since discovered that the finest natural whetstones are made out of novaculite, which is sedimentary rock composed of microcrystalline quartz. Novacula means razor stone. And the purest novaculite is found in the Ouachita Mountains near Hot Springs, Arkansas. Arkansas sharpening stones are the benchmark for oil stones and have been since native Americans used them on their arrowheads. Pretty cool, huh? There are several grades of sharpening stones, and many whetstones have two sides. Start with the coarse one and finish with the finer one, kind of like an emory board. Many sources I referenced recommended using a honing oil with your whetstone, but I’ve always used water and it has worked just fine.

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It’s important to soak your whetstone before you use it. I try to soak mine for at least fifteen minutes.

Once it’s soaked, get yourself set up with a towel and your knife.

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It’s good to have some water nearby to keep everything lubricated. If you google knife sharpening, people are all over the place with it and I think they make it seem much more challenging than it really is – people on the internet can be like that. I’ll refer you to this short video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAmxc_U2dGs), which demonstrates it quite concisely – if you find the music annoying, just turn off the volume. The important factor is consistency. A consistent 20º angle, consistent pressure, and being consistent on both sides of your knife. You could certainly have it done professionally, but it’s your knife and it’s not difficult. I believe in you. And as you know, a dull knife in the kitchen is far more dangerous than a sharp one. Buy a good quality chef’s knife and take good care of it. Don’t put it in the dishwasher, keep it honed. and it should last your whole life.

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And the livin’ is easy!

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ONIONS

Waxing philosophic about onions is a bit like writing poems to your feet. Yet where would most of us be without those? They are the foundation upon which everything else stands. They provide us with balance, structure, and support. When your dogs are barking, nothing else matters. Onions (Allium cepa) are much the same. Among the first vegetables ever cultivated, remains of them have been found that date back to 5,000 BC. It’s believed that they originated in Asia, but it’s also possible they grew wild on every continent.

If space is a consideration in your garden, onions might not be at the top of your grow-your-own wish list. After all being the most widely eaten vegetable in the world, they are available year round at any grocery store or farmer’s market. Still, I love onions and I can’t imagine cooking without them, so when I ran across onion seedlings at a nursery last March I thought, why not? And I’ll tell you, the experience of going out to my garden and harvesting an onion moments before I needed it was so satisfying that I’m doing it again this year. Homegrown onions taste better and can be harvested at any stage of their growth – as spring onions at their immature stage, throughout the summer as their bulbs begin to develop, and, if cured and stored properly, throughout the winter. Onions are with us full circle.

Nutritionally, onions are low-calorie powerhouses. They are high in vitamin C, dietary fiber, and folic acid and contain calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. They also contain the flavonoid quercetin, an anti-oxidant that may help in the prevention of heart disease and many cancers. They are anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. Eating them regularly increases bone density, strengthens connective tissue, and balances blood sugar.

Most onions are grown from seedlings or sets. Seedlings are tiny onion plants, about 5″ long, usually tied in a bundle of 50 or more. They look like baby scallions. Sets are tiny, immature onion bulbs, like cocktail onions. I have yet to try growing onions from seeds, but perhaps one of these days I’ll get ambitious. There are certainly more varieties of seed available than there are seedlings or sets, but growing from seed takes more space and time and is more of a challenge. I’ve been happy with seedlings.

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Onions are photo-periodic, which means they require a certain number of daylight hours before they begin to form bulbs. There are three categories of onions. Long-day onions will not begin forming bulbs until the days are 14-16 hours long. These do better in the north (in North America) where the days are longer. Short day onions, which do better in the south, need 10-12 hours of daylight to bulb. Intermediate-day onions do well when daylight reaches 12-14 hours.

It also helps to know your latitude. Northwest Arkansas, where I’m growing, is at 36º N, so the best onions for me are intermediate-day onions which work well from 32-42º N. Luckily, the nursery where I got my seedlings knows this and orders onions that work best in this area. The varieties I’m growing are Super Star, the only white onion to win AAS distinction, Candy, which works almost everywhere in the United States, and Red Candy, a beautiful, sweet, mild red onion.

I learned a lot for this post from Dixondale Farms (http://www.dixondalefarms.com). They have been growing onions since the early 1900’s and supply onion plants to the entire country. From them I learned that the perfect onion has 13 rings. This also means that it has 13 leaves, since each ring is a modified leaf. Don’t worry, a smaller onion is not inferior in taste, it’s merely smaller. The more leaves an onion grows before the days get long enough to trigger it to begin forming a bulb, the bigger it will be.

I planted my onion seedlings on March 17th. First I made sure the soil was fairly pulverized, as Barbara Damrosch advises in her The Garden Primer, and then I made three long shallow furrows down the length of the bed. I sprinkled a balanced fertilizer into each furrow.

The fertilizer I used is Nitron’s (http://www.gardeniq.com) Nature Meal Vegetable Fertilizer (4-8-4). Those numbers correspond to the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This one is made from feather meal, bone meal, sulfate of potash, and alfalfa meal. I purchased it at Ozark Natural Foods (http://www.onf.coop).

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I spaced the seedlings approximately 4-6″ apart and used a hand cultivator to gently bring in soil around them, incorporating the fertilizer, until the row was planted. Then I firmed the soil around each little plant all the way down the row and watered them gently. I’ll keep an eye out for weeds because shallow rooted onions don’t like the competition and weeds can rob them of needed nutrition. I’ll also keep an eye on the weather and if it looks like we’re going to get another freeze, I’ll water them well, mulch them, and cover them with burlap for protection. I’ll mulch them anyway when they get about a foot tall to maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds. When they get about as big around as my finger, I can start to harvest some as spring onions, which will give the others more room to develop.

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Another nice thing about growing onions is you can see what they’re up to. When the bulbs begin to form, their shoulders start to emerge from the ground, unlike, say, potatoes, where you’re left to wonder what they’re doing under there. Then in late summer, when the bulbs are done forming, the leaves begin to brown and fall over.

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Now you know it’s time to cure them for storage. Gently, (they may seem sturdy, but it’s important to be gentle with them as any bruised places will rot over time) remove them from the soil, and allow them to dry for a couple of days. This can be done in the garden, or if rain threatens, in a warm, dry, place. Next, find a dry place out of the direct sun with good air circulation and let them dry a good three weeks or so. You can then cut off the tops and store them in mesh bags, or even panty hose with a knot between each bulb, or you can braid their leaves together and hang them. Barbara Damrosch advises weaving in a strong piece of twine to help keep it all together. Keep them cool, dry and well-ventilated, and use any compromised onions and those with thick necks first. It should be noted that sweeter onions do not store as long as the more pungent varieties.

In the kitchen, onions are incredibly versatile. From France’s mirepoix, to Italy’s battuto, Spain’s sofrito, or cajun cooking’s Holy Trinity they are the humble beginning from which all else stems. They can be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches. They can be pickled. They can be stuffed and baked, sauteed slowly and pureed into a classic soubise, or allowed to release their sugars until they carmelize. They are essential in stocks, soups, stews, and casseroles. And is there anything more sublime than French onion soup?

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Every time I grill I cut one in quarters from the top down, keeping it intact at the base, then I wrap it in foil with olive oil or butter, or maybe some blue cheese and let it cook until the outside is almost burned, and the inside is meltingly sweet and mild. So good alone or with grilled meat. And what about onion rings? Or sausages with peppers and onions? Get outta here!

One of my favorite restaurant jobs was at a now-shuttered restaurant in Manhattan called Elettaria. It was a romantic, lamplit, cozy place with tiki-themed cocktails (27 rums on the menu!) and an open kitchen. Our chef, Akhtar, was of Indian origin and his food was laced with exotic Indian spices. I worked there from the day it opened until the sad sad day that it closed. Oh, the stories I could tell. I loved to watch Raphy scrupulously sharpen his knife and prepare the onions for the crab meat resala which was served with a turmeric laced soubise, (I’d also be hoping that he was making family meal). There was such zen precision to those perfect thin slices. I’ve thought about how an onion is cut ever since. Sliced, diced, minced, chopped, grated, it matters. Take your time with your onions. Prepping them and cooking them. If that prep makes you weep, make sure your knife is nice and sharp, or try refrigerating your onions before you slice them.

As Nigel Slater says in his gorgeous, passionate, wonderful Tender (2009), one of my all time favorite cookbooks, “Get the onion part of a dish right and you are halfway towards a good supper. Get them wrong and no amount of cooking and clever stunts can quite put matters to rights.” Amen to that, Nigel.

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In other news:

Everything survived the crazy hail storm on March 25th.

Beet, chard, kale, lettuce, arugula, broccoli raab, cavolo broccolo spiragriello, collard greens, spinach, and radiccio seeds have all been planted out. Pea and radishes seedlings are just starting to emerge and the fava beans are doing great. I planted some flat-leaf parsley plants in the leaf bed because I love it so and it’s challenging to grow from seed.

The perennial bed is slowly coming to life and the camassia and allium bulbs I planted last November have surfaced. I’ll take you on a tour of all that soon.

Asparagus spears are thrusting through the pine straw mulch! Too bad I can’t eat any until next year.

Seed potatoes from Seed Savers arrived in the mail and I’ll be planting them forthwith and telling you all about it next week.

I also MUST start tomato and pepper seeds. I should have started eggplants a month ago and I didn’t and that just has to be okay. You can’t win them all.

I hope everyone and their gardens are doing great, that you’re all happy, healthy, well-rested, and looking forward to your spring!

Namaste!

PEAS

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Peas are enchanting. And reason enough to have a garden. Their delicate nature, the fact that they start to lose their natural sugars once they’re picked, and their small window of availability makes growing your own a great way to insure that you don’t miss out on this early, rare treat of the garden year. And such lovely short term guests they are. So dainty and welcome with their pretty paired wing-like leaves, their sweet pale flowers, and their curlique tendrils. Those tendrils kill me. The way they seek and find and twine and draw themselves ever upwards. Emblems of curiosity and vitality. Like hope. In cursive. 

Circumnutation is the term used to describe this motion. It was coined by Darwin himself who was also fascinated by tendrils.

Peas, (Pisum sativum – sativum is Latin for cultivated) are one of the earliest domesticated plants (8000 BCE!). They also have the broadest range geographically and climactically of any legume, although they weren’t eaten fresh until the 16th century. These days a lot of fresh peas don’t even make it out of the garden, especially if my niece is around. (If you manage to end up with a glut of peas, please let me know.)

And because they express their genes consistently, Gregor Mendel used them in his experiments between 1856 – 1863 which laid the foundation for modern genetics. So, thanks again peas. 

The science of phenology tells us that the time to plant your peas is when the forsythia blooms. According to the Aldo Leopold Foundation (http://www.aldoleopold.org/Programs/phenology.shtml), “Phenology is a segment of ecology focusing on the study of periodic plant and animal life-cycle events that are influenced by climate and seasonal change in the environment.” Aldo kept records of the first occurrences of everything from blooms to migrating bird arrivals on his land in Wisconsin from 1935-1948 and these are chronicled in his seminal conservation treatise A Sand County Almanac (1949). His daughter Nina took up the work and kept detailed records of her own from 1976 until her death in 2011. These records, spanning 70 years, show that the first occurrences of certain songbirds and plant blooms are now up to three weeks earlier than when Aldo first began his observations. These records, and many more like them, kept by observant, organized, and generous souls, have important implications for the study of climate change, as well as for farmers, gardeners, and nature lovers. It’s fascinating, crucial stuff. Looking to nature for cues reminds me to be observant, as well as grateful, for the deep connection we share with every living thing. Turn,turn,turn.

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These days we recognize three kinds of peas. English, or shelling peas, which are the familiar peas in a pod type from which the peas are removed and eaten. Snow peas, (P.sativum var. saccharatum), which are flat and eaten whole and are sometimes called Chinese peas because they are so often found in stir frys. And snap peas (P. sativum var. macrocarpon), which are a relatively recent cross of the two. Snap peas have sweet edible pods with fat round peas visible inside. These latter two are sometimes called mangetouts, or French for “eat all.”

This year I’m trying two kinds of English peas. Lincoln is a high-yielding, heat-tolerant, delicious pea that was introduced in 1908. I saved seeds last year, so I’m hopeful that these will perpetuate themselves. I’m also trying Iona Petit Pois which are tiny French peas, about half the size of regular shelling peas and are reported to be an exceptional treat. I can’t wait to find out. I’m also trying Sugar snap peas for the first time. This variety was an AAS winner in 1979, with 5-6′ vines and exceptionally sweet pods. Snap peas are reportedly more heat tolerant than English peas, so hopefully that will extend my season of peas.

All peas are incredibly nutritious. They are good sources of protein and fiber while being low in calories. They have high concentration of vitamins A, C, K, and folic acid, as well as phytonutrients, anti-oxidants, and minerals such as calcium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, and phosphorus. The edible pod types are even lower in calories, but hold more vitamins and minerals than the shellers. The shoots, which include the leaves, stems, flowers, and tendrils are also edible and nutritious and can be lightly steamed or sautéed, or eaten raw in salads. Shelled peas can be eaten raw or tossed into rapidly boiling water for a mere three minutes. If you manage to resist eating them, they can be added to salads or risotto. Or you could make a lovely spring soup.

Well, the forsythia is blooming so it’s time to plant some peas! I planted mine close together against my garden fence, in two rows about 2″ apart and 1″ deep. I had planned to make some supports perpendicular to the fence, but David got worried about shade, so we’re just going to let them climb up the fence and give them something more to climb on later if they need it. Pea vines are very delicate, so I’m going to leave them alone to do their thing. The favas are already planted in front of them, so I’ll have no reason to disturb their ascent. I just hope they appreciate all this rain and don’t decide to rot!

I also planted some sweet peas. Flora Norton are clear blue sweet peas with an intoxicating fragrance. I saved these from last year and planted them all along the garden fence behind the perennial beds. They make a delightful cut flower too.

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When it’s time to harvest peas, I’ll start from the bottom up, since that’s how they mature. It’s important to keep up with them because they can start to lose their sweetness quickly, plus harvesting speeds up production. I’ll use my trusty harvesting scissors to avoid damaging the delicate vines, and I’ll get definitely get my niece in on the action.

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GARDEN STRUCTURES

Hello March!  It was 37 degrees on Monday, but I still ended up spending a good two hours in the garden.  I needed to be out there so badly I didn’t even notice the cold.

David got productive much earlier, leaving me at my desk.  About the time I was getting onto myself for not getting more done, he returned from the hardware store with a trailer load and I finally got motivated.  He had PVC pipe, rebar, and a 16’ cattle panel.  I’m not a fan of PVC, but I want a hoop house to put over my (4 x 8’) leaf bed.  Last year I used bamboo from my sister’s house and it worked pretty well, although the branch stubs tore the fabric in places and she has since moved, so I no longer have a source for young pliable bamboo.  Anyway, he got 4 – 10’ pieces of grey 1/2” PVC and 8 – 2’ pieces of 3/8″ rebar.  He pounded the rebar into two corners of the bed, stuck a PVC pipe over it on one side and carefully bent it onto the other.  Six more pieces of rebar, three more bends, and voila, tunnel supports.  All in all it cost under $20. 

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I’ve still got some Agribon+ AG-19 floating row cover fabric that I ordered from Johnny’s Seeds last year.  It’s 83” wide and I have about 40’ left of it.  I’m going to cut it in half lengthwise and sew two long sides together giving me a piece about 20’ x 14’ which will be perfect.  I’ll put that over the top first.  It will provide frost protection down to 28 degrees as well as insect protection.  It lets 85% light through and is water permeable.  Because nothing under there needs pollinating, it can stay put all summer.  I’m still debating on whether I need to cover that again with plastic for these last crazy weeks of winter. 

I can’t wait to start some spinach and lettuces under it, leaving room (if possible) for cauliflower and cabbages.  I got carried away when ordering from Seeds of Italy and ordered a couple of lettuce mixes.  Misticanza di Lattughe has 14 varieties of lettuces of all shapes, textures, and colors and Misticanza di Radicchi has 12 varieties of red and green radiccios and chicories.  I also got Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello aka sprouting broccoli “an iconic vegetable from Naples” that I’m looking forward to trying.

David also had a cattle panel on his handy trailer.  I’ve been wanting to make a tunnel between beds to grow cucumbers up.  The panel is 16′ long and the beds are 4’ apart.  When curved between them it needed some reinforcing to keep the sides straight, so he ended up making a frame out of 2 x 4’s.  I can hardly wait to see it covered in greenery with little cucumbers hanging from it!  Here’s David figuring it out.  I love how it frames the venerable Magnolia in my neighbor’s yard.  

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And I still need to tell you about the Hot Box! 

Fayetteville is one of those places where there are many routes to your destination.  I’ll go out of my way to drive down a street with a house or tree that I like or a garden I’m observing.  A couple of years ago I was driving down one of these streets and they were replacing the windows on a house I like.  After stalking them for several days, I got up my nerve and stopped to ask what they were planning to do with the windows in their refuse pile.  We had a lovely conversation about houses and dogs and gardens and landscaping and several trips later I had a new friend and thirteen lovely old wooden windows.  It is my hope they will ultimately be part of a phenomenal greenhouse, but in the meantime, I wanted to use them to make a cold frame.  Because he’s amazing David surprised me with this one.  I may paint it, or maybe I’ll be patient and wait till the plywood mellows like the rest of the garden structures.  

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I know they’re called cold frames, but for some reason we call ours The Hot Box.  He lined it with Perma R foam board insulation.  We put a thermometer inside and have been monitoring the temperature.  One day when it was sunny in the 60’s here it was 110 degrees inside! 

In their great book “The Four Season Farm” Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman (preeminent garden gurus, especially winter gardens) advise that 75 degrees is as high as you want to let it get inside the box.  They also advise that it is much better to err on the side of too cold.  We’re still trying to figure out the best way to vent ours.  We’re thinking about using chains attached to the fence behind it to raise the windows enough to keep the temperature moderate.  In the meantime it’s 25 degrees here and snowing, so I’m not going to worry about it today. 

On my blissful day in the garden I planted ‘Astro’ arugula, ‘Spring’ Broccoli Raab, ‘Quarantina’ Broccoli Raab, and Claytonia in the hot box. 

Claytonia perfoliata, also known as miner’s lettuce from when it was eaten by miners during the California gold rush, is a super cold-hardy green that is native to western North America.  Those miners ate it to prevent scurvy because it is high in vitamin C.  I couldhave/shouldhave/wouldhave planted it last fall, but I didn’t, so I’m trying it now.  We shall see.  As soon as the leeks sprout, I’ll put them in there too. 

I love having these new structures in my garden.  They expand it in all dimensions.  Into the sky and earlier into the season.  Gaining me space and time.  Cosmic.

FAVA BEANS

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Fava Beans, (Vicia faba) aka Broad Beans, involve you in a labor of love.  They have a short season, are hard to find, expensive when you do find them, and are laborious to prepare, but I adore them so I grow my own.  I admire the way their pods are lined with fluffy white batting, like some precious gift sent through the mail.  I love their nutty, creamy, texture and the way they taste like fresh green sustenance after a cold brown winter.  I love to pair them with their fellow spring compatriots – peas, asparagus, artichokes, mint, and arugula – in a salad or pasta.  If eating that crew doesn’t make you feel alive, I can’t help you.  They’re great in a frittata or mixed with goat cheese as a dip for crudites.  I don’t mind the work it takes to get to that meaty morsel, it’s meditative, and if I serve them to you, it’s because I love you.  In the garden they are lovely plants.  Easy to grow and fairly unaffected by insects with handsome black and white flowers like they have somewhere fancy to be.

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You can even eat the leaves in a salad.  The flowers attract bees and other pollinators and as a member of the legume family they fix nitrogen leaving the soil better than they found it.  They are an ancient crop, believed to have been part of the Mediterranean diet since 6,000 B.C.  They are a great source of lean protein with no saturated fat or cholesterol, are high in dietary fiber and folate, and contain a number of minerals including iron, copper, manganese, calcium, and magnesium.  And on the off chance you have too many, they also freeze well.

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I’m growing two varieties this year; “Aquadulce”, a Spanish heirloom with large white beans and “Broad Windsor”, and old English favorite and the variety I grew last year.

I get a lot of inspiration from British gardening sources.  My all time favorite garden magazine is BBC Gardens Illustrated and I love to watch Jaime Oliver’s show “At Home” online and pause it to lust after his gorgeous kitchen garden.  A while ago I came across a video of a British gentleman planting fava beans in what he called “loo” rolls.  (I love how it sounds like Lou Rawls, and so much better than toilet paper rolls.)  I began collecting loo rolls myself.  They are the perfect container for starting fava beans as they’re deep enough to allow a nice root system to develop and they’re biodegradable so the whole thing can be planted causing no root disturbance.  With a little forethought, they’re readily available.

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 I found an inexpensive plastic bin at Home Depot, lined them up in it, and filled them with planting mix.  (I made a funnel with some rolled up paper which helped.)

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I soaked my fava beans in water overnight, popped one into each container with the dark eye facing downwards, made sure they were buried to a depth about twice their size, topped them up if they needed it, and watered them in.  I’ve also been saving my half and half containers to make plant labels.  I clean them out, cut off the top and bottom, slice open one side and cut them into strips.  They are somewhat waterproof and can be inscribed with a Sharpie.  

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They should germinate in 8-10 days.  Last year I direct seeded mine on March 15th. 

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Here they are (above) on April 26, 2014.  

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And again on May 23rd with potatoes above them, swiss chard below, and “Calypso” bush beans just coming on in front of them.  I hope by starting them a little earlier this year and growing two kinds, I’ll get to enjoy even more of them.

It should be noted that ingesting fava beans and even inhaling their pollen can trigger a hereditary disease, known as favism, in susceptible people of Mediterranean descent.  If you’re curious, you can find a lot more information regarding this online.

And by the way, the leeks I planted last week have germinated!  I promptly removed the plastic wrap and have put them where they can soak up some sun.  I’ll keep you posted!

LEEKS

There’s still snow on the ground, but the days are getting longer and birds of every feather have something to say about it.  Crocus are erupting, I’ve seen daffodils blooming, and the maple trees are glowing rosy in the tree line.  It’s time to start some seeds!  The first seeds I’m starting are leeks. 

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What a gorgeous vegetable!  My eyes are especially done in by anything that pulses between blue and green.  I love the way I can feel my brain trying to process the visual information.  Is it blue?  Is it green?  Does it matter?  Iris leaves are great for this.  As are my bedroom walls.  And so are many varieties of leeks.  They have an ethereal quality in food as well.  When slowly cooked with butter they are onions’ sophisticated cousin, harmonizing with other flavors in a way that onions can’t.  Their mildness is a great complement to chicken and fish dishes and they are succulent alone.  Visually, there is something so pleasing about their symmetry, the way their flags weave back and forth along the stem.  The creamy white giving way to ever darker greeny-blue.  An ombre dream.  Left to flower they send up thick sturdy stems with happy white pom-pom flowers.  Fireworks arrested mid-explosion. 

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And hardy!  Over-wintering varieties can be harvested straight from the ground throughout the winter and into spring.  I don’t have a root cellar yet, so I am deeply appreciative of a vegetable that not only stores itself but looks great doing it.  

Leeks are easily started from seed, or so they say, and we’re going to find out.  Last year I grew sets that I got at a local nursery.  This was a great way to do it, and I would recommend it, although as enjoyable as it was, I don’t know which leeks I grew and that’s important to me.  I do know that the soup I made from home grown leeks and potatoes was simple, sublime, and satisfying. 

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This year, armed with a little more knowledge, I’m going to give starting them from seeds a go. 

There are two categories of leeks based on hardiness and grow time.  Shorter season leeks are harvested in autumn and called ‘summer’ or ‘autumn’ leeks.  Those that need at least 100 days to fruition and are harvested throughout the winter and into spring are called ‘over-wintering’. 

The seeds that I ordered, ‘Bleu de Solaise’ are over-wintering leeks.  They are an old French variety and their leaves are said to turn violet in the winter.  Once I started researching leeks, I couldn’t stand trying just one kind, so I ordered two more varieties.  ‘Giant of Musselburgh’ is an over-wintering Scottish variety that’s been around since 1834, its large stout stems are said to have very mild taste and to do well under many garden conditions.  ‘King Richard’ is an early variety with long pale green stems.

I wanted to sow them in something at least 6” deep so that they could get a nice root system working before I planted them out.  I saw a British guy online make good use of an old styrofoam cooler, but nobody had one lying around and I certainly wasn’t going to buy one (we can lament the existence of styrofoam another day).  I decided to make use of the literally hundreds of black plastic nursery pots I am encumbered with after several garden installations.  I hate to throw them in the trash and hence into a landfill, so I hold on to them in case I start a nursery someday.  I was pleased to have an opportunity to make use of a few of them. 

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I cut the tops off of them so they were about 8” tall, which was probably unnecessary and made the pots less stable, but I didn’t want to use any more potting soil than I needed (it’s expensive) and I didn’t want them to be shaded by having the dirt too far down in the pot.  I filled them with a bagged growing medium that I got at my local nursery. 

It’s worth buying a special mix for starting seeds.  The one I used is a blend of sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and dolomitic lime.  Seed starting mixes are sterile to protect seedlings from fungus and bacteria, they are light to allow tiny new roots to establish themselves, and they are very absorbent to keep those babies moist.  What they aren’t is nutritious, so once my seeds have germinated, I’ll give them a little diluted fish emulsion (until I start making my own liquid fertilizer a la Mother Earth News – http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/liquid-fertilizers-zm0z11zhun.aspx?PageId=1).

Once the pots were filled, I watered them thoroughly.  This is important because the soil medium is absorbent, but it comes dry, and I wanted it nice and saturated before I sowed the seeds.  When it was thoroughly moist and water had made its way out the bottom of the pot, I scattered the tiny black seeds generously on the surface.

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I sprinkled a scant layer of potting mix over the seeds and very gently pressed that down.  Next I sprayed thoroughly with a mister, labeled the pot, and covered it with plastic wrap.  I’m keeping them inside by the glass door.  When they germinate, in 10-14 days, I will thin them out, hopefully ending up with 35-50 leek plants that I can transplant to the garden in late April or May.

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Once they germinate, I may move them to the hot box.  Have I told you about the hot box?  It’s pretty exciting.

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I’m still figuring out the best way to use it, so I’ll tell you more about it next time.  Also coming up, my first experience making cassoulet with the Tarbais beans that I grew last summer!

Have a great weekend, see you next week!

PLANNING THE GARDEN

So now that I have assessed the seeds that I have on hand and new additions are on the way, I have to decide where to put it all!  We had a couple of beautiful 70 degree days here.  My sap began to rise and I got a little anxious.  I started to feel overwhelmed, like I was already behind.  I had to remind myself that gardening and well, a lot of seasonal things, and things in general, are continuums.  It’s not a race, it’s a circle.  You can jump on the train at any point.  Or you can enjoy watching it go by.  It’s nothing to get anxious about.  And really, what is?  Today is cold again anyway, so I can relax in front of the fire and get down to the business before me.  Okay, I’m not the one relaxing in front of the fire.

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What really helped me last year was making a plan. 

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I started with a blank drawing of my garden.  And then I began to fill it in.  It helped me prioritize space and desire.  Of course changes occurred along the way as happens when a creative work comes to life, but having this place to start was incredibly helpful.  It also serves as a document I can refer back to over the years.  And if I forget what variety I planted where, I can just check the plan.  I was careful to note planting dates, but I still need to make some overall notes on the season that was while last year’s successes and failures are fresh on my mind.  And a column along the side with weather and rainfall information would be a nice addition.  I definitely need to note harvest dates this year.  That will help with late summer planting.  For instance, last year I planted purple hull peas and potatoes way too close together and the purple hulls never had their chance in the sun, but then after the potatoes were finished, I was able to plant purple hull peas again and had a nice late summer harvest.  We’ve almost decided to skip purple hulls this year.  As much as I love them, they take up a lot of space for the yield and are almost always available at our exceptional farmer’s market.

This week, I got out last year’s map and made a copy in ink so I’d have a keeper and so it would read better in a photo for y’all.  This is not the garden’s finest hour, but I wanted you to have a real life comparison, so bear with me. 

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For this year, peas are a good place to start because they get planted first and the legume bed is pretty simple having only a few inhabitants.  Peas and fava beans can go along one side, several pole bean varieties up the towers in the 4 x 8′ bed, bush beans beneath them, and potatoes along the other side.  Ideally the peas will climb up the fence, but I think I’ll also make them some supports perpendicular to the fence and have them grow between fava bean varieties.  Yellow Finn potatoes supposedly spread more than other varieties, so I’ll keep that in mind when I plant them.  And voila, one quadrant planned!  I do like to think about how things will look together, because some combinations are more satisfying than others, but in the end, it’s all beautiful, so I’m not going to lose sleep over it right this minute.

The root bed is pretty simple too; onions, leeks, carrots, radishes, beets, parsnips, and maybe some turnips.  I’ll probably put some chervil in there too since it’s in the carrot family.  I really enjoyed it last year in all its ferny delicacy.  

I planted garlic on November 20th of last year in the then empty 4 x 8′ bed in the fruit quadrant so that it would end up in this year’s root bed.  I worked the soil and added compost when I planted, so that bed is prepped and ready for carrots.  As a space saver, I like to interplant radishes with carrots.  The radishes break up the soil for the slower germinating carrots and they’re gone and eaten when the carrots get going.  Onions can go along the long side to keep them away from the peas, just in case.  Supposedly they don’t do each other any favors.  Beets and leeks can alternate on the other side with parsnips taking their time along the fence behind them.  

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Already showing growth!  I should give them more mulch.

How about those name tags?  Sexy, huh?

So that’s half the garden planned for spring.  Thanks for the motivation!  Now to mulch the garlic, top dress the beds with compost, and figure out where to put all those leafy greens!  And it’s about time to get some seeds started!  This is when I’m thankful for a few more days of cold weather.  I hope everyone is staying warm and enjoying themselves.  See you next week!