fall gardening

Sage Brown Butter and Ricotta Gnocchi

Here is a quick dinner that sounds difficult to make. But it is really easy. Sage is still looking great in our garden with the long, warm fall we have had and it pairs beautifully with butter in about 5 minutes of gentle cooking. The ricotta gnocchi is a little more involved but not much, and if you have ever tried to make potato gnocchi and felt discouraged, redemption is at hand. These are super simple to make.  We first ate these when our friends Marjorie and Marian of Orb Weaver Farm made them for us, and we have been hooked ever since.

Ricotta Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups whole-milk ricotta (1 pound) Have you had the yummy one from Mountain Home Farm?
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (3 ounces), divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 10 to 15 whole sage leaves, depending on size. About 1/4 cup.
  1. Stir together ricotta, eggs, 1 cup cheese, nutmeg, and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add flour, stirring to form a soft, wet dough.
  2. Shape dough on a well-floured surface with lightly floured hands into 2 ropes that are about 1 inch thick. Cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces with a lightly floured knife. Place in 1 layer on a lightly floured parchment-lined baking sheet while you work.
  3. Cook gnocchi in 2 batches in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (3 tablespoons salt for 6 quarts water), adding a few at a time to pot and stirring occasionally, until cooked through (cut one in half to check), 3 to 4 minutes per batch. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain in colander.
  4. Meanwhile, cook butter with sage in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-low heat until golden brown, about 5 minutes.
  5. Gently toss gnocchi with brown butter in skillet and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Season with salt.

For a great photo explanation of this, click on any of these pictures for a link to the "Inspired Taste" website. They do a great job of explaining the simple process. 

Garlic Ritual

Planting garlic in Vermont is a great way to extend the gardening season and gives you a crop that is perfect in so many dishes, stores well all winter long and even generates its own seed. It is a perfect way to tune into the cycles of the gardening season and feel like you are growing an important part of your diet. Garlic is expensive to purchase so there are savings to be had with your own garlic crop. Please follow this guide for easy, step-by-step instructions that will give you a garlic patch for life. I have been growing out my own garlic for 18 years and usually do not need to ever buy seed stock or garlic in the grocery store. The pleasures of garlic growing are abundant and I encourage you to get familiar with this wonderful and simple crop.

When to start the cycle?

Planting dates in Vermont are anytime between mid October and late October. It is best to wait until then, because if you plant too early, the bulbs will break out of dormancy too soon and this weakens the plant going into our harsh winters. If you plant the cloves during those last two weeks of October, it gives them just the right amount of time to take root and hunker down until spring, but not send out any top growth.

To plant garlic, you need to follow a few easy steps.

1. Bed preparation.

This is the act of making your garden soil ready for garlic planting. You want a nice patch of garden, that is worked deeply so that the soil is loose about a foot down in depth. If your garden is very compacted and hard, the garlic will not be able to grow well and you will be sure to end up with small heads of garlic that are tedious to peel and not all that satisfying. You can prepare the bed with a 3 prong fork by digging in straight down, tilting the handle of the fork back and forth, and loosening the hard pan. This is a good work out! Don’t hesitate to get dirty here by kneeling in the earth and breaking up the clods of soil with your hands so they are not chunky at all. Add a bit of well rotted manure or compost at this time. Not too much. For a 5 by 10 bed, maybe a 5 gallon bucket’s worth. You don’t want to over feed the garlic roots in the fall, but a little compost will add organic matter and that will help the structure of the soil, keeping it loose, able to retain some moisture without staying too wet.

Take your time and your garden will reward you. I always look at garlic planting as a soulful moment in the gardening cycle. It is saying goodbye to summer and embracing the dormancy of winter, when seeds deep below the surface slowly get ready for their spring emergence. Living in a climate with such long winters, I need these small, but important, rituals to remind me that spring will come and the cold barren winter is a necessary part of it all. The seed garlic is planted in the fall because it needs to send roots far into the earth in order to feed itself the following year. I take this as a metaphor for my own winter activities that feed me all year long - catching up on sleep, feeding my mind with more reading time, eating great, nourishing foods, and spending more time with friends and family.  I digress here, but these are the thoughts I have as I plant garlic, and after many years of doing it, I find that it is a necessary part of my mental preparation for winter.

2. Mark the rows with a hoe, or hand tool. I usually keep the rows about 12 inches apart and since my beds are about 4 feet wide, I keep 3 rows per bed and can easily reach the center. Just drag your tool - the sharp tip of a hoe or the narrow edge of a hard rake works well - through the soil to delineate the rows. You can use string and stakes if it is important to be straight, but I don’t bother with that at all.

3. Break up the garlic heads into individual cloves. Do not peel! And notice that one end is the root end and one end is the stem end. This will be important for planting right side up with the root end pointing straight down and the stem end pointing straight up.

4. Space out the cloves. Lay the cloves on the top of the soil, following the line you have just drawn in the soil.  Allow about 6 inches between all the cloves.

5. Planting, spacing, and yields

Now you can start to plant. I always kneel down and take my time to feel the earth under me at this point. It just feels good and is a way to say goodbye to the garden before winter! Then, take a bulb planting tool, or a sturdy,  sharp pointed stick, or your hand if your soil is soft and pliable, and poke a hole about 4 to 6 inches down. Shove the clove of garlic deep down, root end down, and cover up with the soil. Continue down the row and repeat until all is planted. Three  heads of garlic will turn into about 24 heads next spring - assuming your garlic has about 8 cloves per head. . And with 6” by 12” spacing, a 5’ x 10’ patch of garlic will yield about 60 heads of garlic. That is enough to enjoy one head of garlic per week, all year long, and still have some left over for planting. To plant a patch this big, you will need to plant the equivalent of 7 to 10 heads of garlic.

6. Compost and mulch. I usually add another 4” of compost or well rotted horse manure to the bed. I then leave it like that for about 6 weeks. Then in mid to late December, I cover the bed with a thick layer of straw. You can also use leaves here, but straw is the best insulator with hollow stems that trap air and keep everybody warm down below. Another advantage of straw is that it usually does not have weed seeds in it; mulch hay, straw’s poor cousin,  should be avoided since it is laden with all sorts of perennial grass and weed seeds. The straw moderates the winter soil temperature and prevents buckling and heaving which could push those garlic cloves up and out of the ground.

Let winter pass you by now, and next......

7. Spring time chores with garlic. Once the snow melts and the soil warms up a bit, your garlic will break dormancy and magically pop up out of the earth. It is important to pull back the straw to let the garlic see sunlight. If you wait a bit too long, and pull back the straw only to see a bunch of yellowing stems, don’t worry! The garlic shoots will green up in no time and will look fabulously sturdy after a week or so of direct sunlight. I usually pull the straw into the garden path, let it pile up there and then replace it around the growing garlic to block out weeds once the garlic plants are about 8 inches high. I often will add a little granular fertilizer at this time, before putting the mulch back in place. For a 5 by 10 garlic patch about 3 cups of Pro-Gro from North Country organics or one bag of Compost Plus from Vermont Compost Company is just about right. This will insure you get large, easy to peel cloves that taste great.

8. Garlic scapes will appear on stiff neck garlic around late May. These look like green curly cues with a pointy end that gracefully swoops down and around, waving in the breeze. This is the budding and flowering portion of the garlic plant. It should be removed to help the plant spend its energy on sizing up the goods below ground. If it is allowed to flower, the plants’ strength will go towards the flower and the garlic forming below ground will be the weaker for it. The good news here is that the “scapes” as they are called, are good to eat. I usually cut off the pointy tip - it is rubbery and inedible, and then slice up the round stem and use it in stir fries, stews, pasta dishes, or pickles. When cooked, it has the texture of a nice green bean and the flavor of mild garlic. It is absolutely delicious and a once a year treat that marks the beginning of summer - a harbinger of good things to come.

9. When to harvest? Garlic is ready to harvest when about 70% of its leaves have turned yellow. This is somewhat subjective, and should be taken as not a hard and fast rule, but rather a guide. You can dig up one head of garlic and look for signs of well formed skin, plump cloves, and individuation (cloves that are individually formed, and not one big mass). This is usually some time in late July. In very wet and rainy years, sometimes it makes more sense to take the garlic our of the ground a little early so that the skin does not rot in the damp earth.

10. How to harvest? Take out your three prong fork again and use it to loosen the soil around the outside edges of each garlic row. This will break up the soil enough to allow you to pull out each plant with a firm yank. (If the stems break off, it is likely you waited too long and the skin and stems are starting to rot. At that point, just dig up the cloves with a spade and they will be okay in taste; they just won’t store well. ) Lay the plants on the surface of the soil so that they start to dry off. Once all the garlic is pulled up, wipe it with a towel or rag, and get ready to tie it into bundles. I usually take about 8 plants, hold them together in one hand, and with the other hand, wrap twine around the whole bundle. Tie off the twine and then hang the bundle in a dark airy space. The rafters of a garage, shed or barn work well. If you don’t have that type of space, just find a place out of the rain, out of direct sunlight and with good air circulation - a covered porch? a dry basement with a fan running? a spare bedroom that can get a little dirty? (no shag rugs please!).

11. Curing the garlic Curing is the process of letting the garlic dry which makes the papery skin that allows the garlic to keep all winter. The stems will turn brown and brittle and the exterior of the bulbs will become dry and paper-like, just like garlic in the store. At this point, it is okay to cut off those dry stems, wipe off any remaining dirt, cut off the roots, and place your garlic in a crate to store it. This can be done anytime from 3 to 6 weeks after you initially hang up the garlic to dry.

12. Storing the garlic Once the garlic is cured, cleaned and trimmed, you are ready to store it for eating all winter long. Garlic is best stored in the dark. In an airy, dry, cool place. I use milk crates, covered with a piece of burlap, and keep the crate in a very cool part of the basement. Ideal garlic storing temperatures are between 35 and 45 degrees, but a refrigerator is too humid, so please don’t be tempted to use that as a storage method. Other good places to store garlic (and onions for that matter) are unheated attics, attached garages that don’t freeze, but are not heated, or 3 season porches that do not freeze. Root cellars are great, but most of us don’t have one. If well stored, garlic will last until April or May - almost right in time for the garlic scape harvest!

13. Finding seed stock.

Until you build up your own supplies, you will have to purchase seed garlic. There are many great resources for garlic and for finding garlic seed, I recommend Johnny’s Selected Seeds, or locally, Last Resort Farm in Monkton, Hudak Farm in Saint Albans, or any farmer at your local farmers market who has nice looking seed stock. Seed stock is basically sorted out of the garlic harvest and selected for the following the following traits:

      • good size
      • evenly formed cloves
      • strong stem
      • well formed skin
      • great flavor
      • ability to store for a long time

If you have been growing out your garlic in your garden, you can pick out the best cloves at cleaning and storing time. Set these aside in a safe place where they will not be eaten and come October, experience the joy of planting your own seed garlic.

14. Plant garlic. Repeat Step 1. above and the cycle starts all over again!

Garden Things to do in December

  • Mulch your garlic. Need a good source of organic straw? Call up Aurora Farms in Charlotte, VT. They grow grains for the Nitty Gritty Grains Company, and their bales of straw are just beautiful - no weed seeds, nice long strands with hollow stems to insulate from the cold, and best of all it is organic. You don't want to risk introducing persistent herbicide residues into the garden.
  • Plant bulbs before the ground totally freezes (quick!)
  • Plant some paperwhite bulbs for forcing. You can find out how right here. 
  • Give your houseplants a trim, a feed, a little love. Check them for pests, wipe them off with a little neem oil if you see anything crawling around. This is a great time of year to give houseplants a little shower. The heat source in your house is likely quite dry, and most of your green friends like the feeling of rain. Recreate it for them. You can sing to them, too, while you are at it.
  • Make a few holiday gifts from the garden - herb salts, lavender sachets, cranberry apple chutney, herbal vinegars, calendula skin oil, or rosemary short bread. If you don't have any of the necessary garden ingredients, you can always purchase them and see it as inspiration for growing your own next year. Pinterest and the internet are brimming over with ideas and directions for making all kinds of beautiful  holiday treats from the garden. The links above will get you started.
  • Make a garland, wreath or swag with stems, twigs, branches, seed pods, dried flowers, and other goodies from fields, woods and gardens. I love growing a hedge of Ilex verticulata and a small row of red osier dogwood for their berries and twigs make striking additions to winter greenery like balsam or pine or cedar.
  • Poke at the compost pile. Try to introduce some air into its nether parts so that it really heats up before the cold sets in. Add some fallen leaves, and a little manure from a horse farm or friends with chickens. You get the idea.
  • Look at seed catalogs! They are coming out now and the best therapy for  December Darkness is those spring dreams of budding life and sowing seeds.

Stick Season Tasks

  • Plant bulbs. Watch this video with Charlie Nardozzi if you don't know how.  Gardener's Supply in Burlington, Williston and on line, has a great selection of flowering bulbs that will wow you in the spring.

  • Mulch your perennials with leaves. No need to think of leaves as waste...they are loaded with carbon and a perfect way to add organic matter to your gardens. They will offer some winter protection too.  Here are some other leafy ideas.
  • Cut back annuals if you have not done so yet. Or leave the sturdier ones such as sunflowers and amaranths since they make lovely perches for song birds. Not everything needs to be so tidy.

 

  •  Build a raised bed for next year
  • Weed and cut back perennial beds.
  • About all that food you diligently canned and froze all summer - start eating it!

  • Let us know what varieties worked well for you. You can contact us through this website.
  • If you want to make a new garden for 2013, now is a great time to mark it, remove the sod, and amend with compost.
  • Turn the compost pile.

 

  • Clean off tools, oil them, put them away neatly, and feel good about it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  •  Store garlic and onions in a cool, dark, dry place.
  • Make a pot of potato leek soup.
  • Mulch your leeks and root crops, if you have some in the ground still, with straw, so that you can harvest them after frost comes.

  • Sit by the fire if you have one, light some candles if you don't, and enter the time of contemplation and restoration.

 

Herb Spiral Workshop

 

Our retail greenhouse is co-owned with a wonderful business also located at the same site. It is Queen City Soil and Stone, owned by Charley Macmartin of Burlington. Not only is Charley one of the nicest people you could ever meet, he is also the talent behind all of the stone work you see in our parking area and our lovely display garden. Charley uses the retail greenhouse as the home of his winter workshop series for homeowners and landscape professionals who want to learn or perfect dry wall masonry. The first workshop in this series is a perfect one for the Red Wagon Plants community since it is focusing on herb spirals. These simple and elegant structures are a great way to plant lots of herbs close to your kitchen door and in such a way that you give each herb the type of micro-climate it craves. Herb spirals provide various conditions in one small space - dry and sunny, shady and moist and everything in between.

Here is Charley's description of the upcoming workshop :

Queen City Soil & Stone’s series on garden stone features continues in November with a workshop on herb spirals. An herb spiral is a stone wall twisted in on itself creating a garden bed of varying soil depth and planting possibilities from kitchen herbs to strawberries to cut flowers. The workshop will be held at Red Wagon plants in a heated greenhouse on Saturday, November 12, from 9am to 2pm.

The cost of the workshop is $50 and space is limited. To sign up, call Charley MacMartin at (802) 318-2411.

 

The workshop will be hands-on:  building an herb spiral, discussing herb spiral design and learning about the plantings that a spiraling garden bed allows.

 

 

 

 

 

Garden Chores this Weekend

The time to get things done in the garden is shrinking. My good intentions are to get lots done this weekend. Here is what I have lined up for this weekend in the garden: Fill the new raised beds that I just put in the back yard.

Get soil ready for garlic planting.

Finish planting shrubs along the fence line between our yard and our neighbors' new barn. I am planting Ilex verticulata, or winterberry. The bright red berries are a nice contrast against the wooden building and will bring lots of birds to the yard.

Add compost to some new flower beds for next year.

Turn the compost pile.

What do you have planned?

High Priority - Roasted Ratatouille for the Freezer

I have to admit that I don't love frozen vegetables for the most part. So if you have a favorite way to freeze a vegetable from your garden, please share it with me. Here is one I like and eat willingly out of the freezer come the dark days of winter. I want to share this simple thing with you in hopes you might have a similar beloved thing to pass on to me. For some reason, this year has not been a year when I put up a lot of food for winter. A few jars of tomatoes and this amazing thing I will now show you are the only things I have done. No beans, no salsa, no jams, no chutneys. Well there is still time, so maybe I will play catch up and do a plum chutney with the amazing plums passed on to us by our friend, Yvan.

This recipe starts in the spring. I basically plan part of my garden just so I can have all the right veggies to make this. You need

  • onions
  • garlic
  • peppers
  • eggplant
  • tomatoes
  • zucchini or summer squash

The garlic gets planted the previous fall, the onions go in in late April, and everything else goes in June 1. I like to freeze about 10 to 20 quart bags of this ratatouille, so I usually plant about 6 pepper plants (3 Ace and 3 Italia) ,  6 San Marzano tomatoes, 6 eggplants (usually a combination of Listada di Gandia, Orient Express, and Hansel), and 1 zucchini plant ( I do two plantings, one June 1 and one July 1 that way the plants are always healthy). Most households do not need more than 1 zucchini plant. Really.

Harvest all the veggies, wash them well. And start chopping. This year, I was a bit lazy and bought a few disposable pans to do the roasting. It made for easy clean up, but the veggies did not caramelize as much as they would have on metal or pyrex. Lesson learned.

So basically you just chop up all the vegetables into 1" chunks or so. The proportions are different every year, but it is usually about 1 part onions, 1 part peppers, 3 parts eggplant, 2 parts tomatoes, and 2 parts zucchini. I chop everything separately and then add it to the pans. I then drizzle olive oil over every thing. Add lots of salt, good sea salt is best, and then handfuls of chopped herbs to each pan. I like a blend of thyme, oregano, and rosemary. But other combinations work well.

Preheat the oven to 375F and slide in the pans. Turn and toss every 20 minutes, until everything is cooked and starting to caramelize. The overall cooking time really depends on the amount you are doing, the type of pan you are using, the thickness of the vegetable layer in each pan, etc. Basically, cook it until the whole house smells really good and the veggies are very soft and starting to brown. If I were making this for a meal to be eaten that night, I would do a single layer, in pyrex, and let it get golden brown. This is much harder to do in big batches in a home oven, and since freezing compromises texture and flavor anyhow, I think of these roasted veggies as additions to other recipes all winter long, not the main showcase in a meal.

Once everything is cooked, let it cool down completely, and then carefully scoop it into plastic quart-sized freezer bags. I usually use a measuring cup and one of those funnels for jars, since it makes life a little easier. Once frozen, the veggies can be used in pasta sauces, on pizza, in lasagnas, in soups and stews, as fillings in calzones, or as a topping for polenta, etc. You get the picture. It's such a nice way to have a little taste of summer in the winter and uses up so much of that amazing garden produce. Even in a summer like this one, when I have had to take some time away from gardening and preserving, I made sure to do some of these roasted veggies for the freezer.

Frost Dates in Vermont - South Hero is the Winner!

Here is a great chart that analyses all the temperature data collected in Vermont over the years and gives us the probability of dates for first and last frosts around the state. South Hero and the lake Champlain Islands have Vermont's longest growing season (measured by number of frost-free days according to N.O.A.A).  Take a look and prepare your garden for those first frosty nights. Here is what I do at my house to prepare for those first frosts:

If it is a really early frost, (September in Hinesburg), I will harvest all the ripe fruit on the heat loving plants (squashes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc) and if the plants still look healthy and have lots of unripe fruit, I will cover the plants with row cover. You can use sheets, blankets, plastic sheeting, etc. If the frost is coming at a later point, I often won't bother with the plant protection - just harvest all the fruit (green tomatoes can ripen indoors) and call it a day!

I don't bother to protect lettuce unless the first frost is very cold and very early. Lettuce can handle a few light frosts, so it is usually not a problem early on. Later in the season, I set up some simple wire hoops and keep the lettuce under row cover for the remainder of the season. This allows fresh lettuce to be harvested for salads well into November. It is good idea to seed or plant fresh lettuce in late summer and early fall so that the protected plantings of fall are fresh and tender. It is not really worth it, from a culinary perspective, to keep old or bitter lettuce alive. Plus it won't do as well if it is past its prime and won't fend off the cold like a younger planting can.

Hardy greens like kale, mustard greens, collards, etc do not need row cover and can live, unprotected, into December. You can always put some sort of protection over them in November to increase the harvest period past December, but it can be difficult to do with the taller plants. The wind dessicates them and makes them unappealing, and without a larger structure like a cold frame or mini-greenhosue, it can be difficult to give them adequate shelter.

All these attempts at fall crop protection will leave you grateful for the sweet rewards of fresh salads, tomatoes coming out of the cellar ripened and tasty, and nutritious leafy greens sweetened by the kiss of cold.

The Overwintered Garden

“Overwintered” is a term used to describe a vegetable that is planted in the spring, summer or fall of one year in order to be eaten in the spring of the following year. This is a great way to extend the growing and eating season in our Vermont climate. Overwintered crops generally are dormant all winter long and then come back to life with the lengthening days and warming temperatures of spring.

Overwintered Spinach - Not all vegetables can survive our VT winters, but the few that can include spinach, parsnips, leeks, garlic, and parsley. Spinach for early spring eating (mid to late April) should be sown in the first two weeks of September. Once it germinates, allow it to grow without harvesting or touching it. You can eat a little if you want, but ideally you will leave as much of the plant in the ground as possible. Once very cold weather hits, in early to mid-December, you can protect the spinach under a layer of straw, or leaves, or a few layers of thick row cover (Reemay or Agribon can be found at Gardeners’ Supply Company or ordered online at Johnny’s Selected Seeds). In the early spring, as soon as the ground has thawed out, remove the layers of protection and you will see the spinach slowly coming to life, long before any other plants begin to stir. It won’t look like much at first, but will quickly grow to be the size of spinach planted during normal times. It will be extra sweet from having survived the cold and will be incredibly rewarding - a truly vibrant food. This is such a delicious treat for early spring and really worth the trouble.

Overwintered Parsnips- parsnips are a long season crop. They are best when planted in very early spring and harvest the following year. This allows them to grow to a good size and then sweeten up with the cold temperatures. Plant the strange looking seeds in shallow trenches, ¼ inch deep (that is NOT very deep!). Keep well watered and well weeded all summer long. In the fall, you can harvest a few of the larger parsnips to eat September through December, but be sure to elave a few for spring time meals. Once the ground is frozen, in later December, mulch heavily with a layer of straw. The straw moderates the soil temperatures and prevents the soil from buckling and heaving with the freeze and thaw cycles. Pull off all of the mulch as soon as the ground thaws, and then in late April and early May, you can dig up huge, sweet roots that are a lovely addition to spring time soups, roasted vegetable dishes and purees.

Leeks are another crop that is planted very early in spring - mid to late April is ideal. The small and slender plants are planted in trenches, about 6 to 8 inches apart in rows that are 12 inches apart. Keep leeks well watered and weeded. Once they are about 10” tall, you can fertilize them with a good organic fertilizer such as Pro Gro from North Country Organics or Compost Plus from Vermont Compost Company. Then hill up the plants with soil from in between the rows. A good hoe makes this job much easier. The more you hill, the larger the plants will be. This allows for more of the white, edible portion to grow. Hilling also helps to keep the moisture even, another condition which encourages bigger growth. You can hill leeks one more time before fall, in early August or so if you choose to. If you cannot eat all of your leeks in the fall, leave a few in the garden for overwintering. Mulch well with straw (about 6” in depth) and let sit in the garden all winter long. On warmer winter days, you may be able to still harvest some of the leeks if the ground has not frozen solid under the mulch. With whatever leeks are left in the ground come snow melt, pull off the mulch and wait to see what happens. Not all leeks will have successfully lived through the winer, but about 40 to 60% should if you have followed these steps. You will see some yellow and rotting foliage with fresh green growth poking through. These are the leeks that have made it through winter. Let them size up a bit before harvesting. They will come back to life and can be picked and eaten in later April or mid-May. You will have to peel back some of the outer layers, but underneath will be a luscious, silky treat. So sweet in spring, and a great addition to soups, vegetable tarts, or braised meats.

Other crops: I have had good luck with late seedings of lettuce, scallions, cilantro and dill. These all overwintered fine and were good for a few salads in very early spring before they decided to go to seed. The lettuce varieties that I have found to be most well adapted to overwintering are Merveilles des Quatres Saisons, a beautiful French heirloom variety,  and Tango, a green oakleaf. You can also plant shallots and garlic in fall for early harvests. Green garlic is an immature head of garlic that tastes milder than its full grown version.  Parsley is a biennial and will also come back to life in the spring before it goes to seed. Biennials make a flower in their second year, so this is normal plant behavior! Remember, every winter is different. This type of growing requires flexibility, observation, and a willingness to experiment. Exact planting and harvest dates are not easily determined because they are a function of weather, where you garden is sited, and micro climates. The best way to understand overwintering is to start doing it, and see what works well for you. Observe each crops natural life cycle, and learn to work with it in the context of our long and cold winters. There is no better way to say “Hello, Spring!” than by harvesting your first salads in April when green life is just beginning to stir.

 

Fall Planting Guide

Mid-August is rolling around, and with it comes some vegetable planting possibilities that will feed you late into autumn and early winter. This is a great time to clean out some of the garden beds that have finished producing and replant them with some fresh crops for late season harvest. Here are a few options that you might want to consider incorporating into your later summer gardening routine.

A note on flea beetles and row cover. Flea beetles are little, black and jump around on your plants while making tiny little holes. They love anything in the brassica family - cabbage,broccoli, arugual, mustards, collards, etc. Row cover is a white fabric used to keep out insects and/or to warm up the soil and air around the plants. It does not hurt to use row cover to speed things along and to keep out the flea beetles. Broccoli - seed a small amount directly into garden beds, or buy transplants up to mid-August. If you are direct seeding into a garden bed, remember to thin or prick out and replant the broccoli babies so that they have proper spacing (15” or so). Cabbage - same as broccoli. Choose shorter day varieties. Seed packets usually list the days to maturity for all crops. In early August, you can usually get away with planting a 60 day cabbage that will be ready in early October. Kale - this is a great time to put in a few more kale plants or seeds, they will size up before snow flies, and will withstand lots of wintery weather. The good thing about kale, is that once it is full grown, it will just stand around in the garden waiting to be picked. It does not get “too old” or bolt (jump into seed production mode). This makes it a great early winter crop and a joy to harvest under snow fall. Collards can be treated this way as well. Arugula - a nice addition to salads, this tender green with a mustard-like flavor is also a great survivor of cold temperatures. It can withstand many hard frosts and will continue to add a little spike to your salads well into November and December. You can put row cover on it to keep away the flea beetles and to give it a little extra protection from cold winds that can dry it out. If it starts to turn a little purple in the colder temps, don’t worry about it, it is still fine to eat. This is just a symptom of not being able to absorb phosphorous in cold conditions. Turnips - a short season salad turnip can still be sown in August. I like the Hakurei variety from Johnny’s. It is delicious raw in salads, sliced thinly or finely diced, or sauteed in a little butter with fresh herbs (winter savory makes a special appearance at my house, often in this dish in particular). People who think they hate turnips will just be shocked when they taste these buttery slices that just melt in your mouth. Spinach - in the first half of August, it is a good idea to plant a large patch of spinach. It will germinate in the cooler night time temperatures (spinach does not like to germinate in the heat) and will last a long time in the field in the cool temperatures of October and early November. Carrots - fall carrots are best seeded right around July 4th. This gives you a chance to do an early batch of carrots for late spring, early summer eating, and then a second (or third) batch for fall eating. Fall carrots are considerable sweeter than spring seeded carrots and are definitely worth the trouble. Boc Choi - this is another crop that does really well in the cooler temperatures of fall. It is not a heat lover, and therefore should only be planted in April and May and then again in mid to late August for fall harvest. This benefits from row cover if you have a lot of flea beetle pressure. There are quite a few different versions of boc choi, and if you like the crunchy texture and delicate flavor of this crucifer, then please consider trying baby boc choi, red boc choi, or full sized boc choi. While it is easier to start with plants, it is certainly possible to direct seed this crop. Beets - fall time beets are sweet, tender, and do not have that “dirt” taste of beets grown in full summer heat. Last planting date for fall beets is around August 10th. They should be direct seeded in the garden and then thinned to one plant per 2 to 3 inches. You can space the rows 10 to 12 inches apart and fit about 3 rows in an average bed with a 4 ft width. The greens are tasty too, and the little delicate plants you pull out when thinning are a great addition to sauteed greens, soups, or even salads if very young.

Cilantro and Dill - these herbs can be planted directly in the garden from seed as late as mid-August. They grow well in the cold, and actually prefer it. The cold slows them down and prevents them from going to seed. Plant a good sized patch since you can harvest the plants well into December. They can take a frost, a snow fall and still will bounce right back.

Mustard Greens - these can be planted just like arugula. See instructions above.

Radishes - are a great addition to the late season garden. They can be planted right up to early September, and will maintain a high level of quality right up until it snows.

Lettuce - you can direct seed certain varieties of lettuce for fall harvest. Some do better than others in the cold. I like to plant Merveilles des Quatres Saisons and Tango for their beauty, taste, and cold hardiness.

Parsley - this herb can take very cold temperatures, so make sure, in mid-July or so that you have a nice patch of this going into fall and later summer. If this is an herb that you use frequently, it does not hurt to plant two or three different patches over the course of later April to mid - July. It is a slow grower, so after mid-July you can only plant it from transplants, not seed.

 

Things to Plant Now. You Will be Glad You Did.

August is rolling around, thundering ahead,  and with it comes some vegetable planting possibilities that will feed you late into autumn and early winter. This is a great time to clean out some of the garden beds that have finished producing and replant them with some fresh crops for late season harvest. Here are a few options that you might want to consider incorporating into your later summer gardening routine.

Broccoli

- seed a small amount directly into garden beds, or buy transplants up to mid-August. If you are direct seeding into a garden bed, remember to thin or prick out and replant the broccoli babies so that they have proper spacing (15” or so).

Cabbage

- same as broccoli. Choose shorter day varieties. Seed packets usually list the days to maturity for all crops. In early August, you can usually get away with planting a 60 day cabbage that will be ready in early October.

Kale -

this is a great time to put in a few more kale plants or seeds, they will size up before snow flies, and will withstand lots of wintery weather. The good thing about kale, is that once it is full grown, it will just stand around in the garden waiting to be picked. It does not get “too old” or bolt (jump into seed production mode). This makes it a great early winter crop and a joy to harvest under snow fall. Collards can be treated this way as well. A note on flea beetles: It does not hurt to use row cover to speed things along and to keep out the flea beetles. They are little biting insects that make little holes in the leaves and generally slow down a plant’s growth by stressing it a bit. All vegetables in the brassica family are susceptible to flea beetles - broccoli, kale, cabbage, mustards, arugula, collard greens, and boc choi are all in this family.

Arugula -

a nice addition to salads, this tender green with a mustard-like flavor is also a great survivor of cold temperatures. It can withstand many hard frosts and will continue to add a little spike to your salads well into November and December. You can put row cover on it to keep away the flea beetles and to give it a little extra protection from cold winds that can dry it out. If it starts to turn a little purple in the colder temps, don’t worry about it, it is still fine to eat. This is just a symptom of not being able to absorb phosphorous in cold conditions.

Turnips

- a short season salad turnip can still be sown in August. I like the Hakurei variety from Johnny’s. It is delicious raw in salads, sliced thinly or finely diced, or sauteed in a little butter with fresh herbs (winter savory makes a special appearance at my house, often in this dish in particular). People who think they hate turnips will just be shocked when they taste these buttery slices that just melt in your mouth.

Spinach

- in the first half of August, it is a good idea to plant a large patch of spinach. It will germinate in the cooler night time temperatures (spinach does not like to germinate in the heat) and will last a long time in the field in the cool temperatures of October and early November.

Overwintered Spinach - overwintering means keeping a vegetable alive through the winter for spring harvesting and eating. Not all vegetables can survive our VT winters, but the few that can include spinach, parsnips, leeks, garlic, and parsley. Spinach for early spring eating (mid to late April) should be sown in the first two weeks of September. Once it germinates, allow it to grow without harvesting or touching it. You can eat a little if you want, but ideally you will leave as much of the plant in the ground as possible. Once very cold weather hits, in early to mid-December, you can protect the spinach under a layer of straw, or leaves, or a few layers of row cover. In the spring, as soon as the ground has thawed out, remove the layers of protection and you will see the spinach come to life, long before any other plants begin to stir. This is such a delicious treat for early spring and really worth the trouble. A future post will be just about overwintered vegetables, so if this is something you have been wanting to try in your garden, check back here in a few days!

Cilantro and Dill

are good herbs for fall planting since their cold-hardiness is unmatched, and it will give you something to add to autumn salsas, salads, and pickles. Just sprinkle some seed into a shallow trench, press them in, and lightly cover with soil. The planting depth is very shallow here, just 1/4 inch or so. One of the most common problems with crops seeded directly into garden soil, is that they get planted too deeply. Remember this basic rule of thumb: the seed needs to be planted only 2 times deeper than its own size. Cilantro and dill will live until the first snow! They thrive in the cold. They are true soldiers of season extension.

Let us know if you feel inspired to try your hand with some of this season extension - we love to hear about it!

Extra! Extra! 85 pounds of food from one plant.

Help!  Today has brought in a rainy September morning and a houseful of the ubiquitous butternut squash.   I just can't believe that one plant could produce 17 (!!!) giant squashes (85 pounds).   Some will go to the food shelf and some will go to friends (watch out). The truth is, I thought that I had planted delicata squash, which is my favorite, not butternut.  Whoops.  Soups, gratins, and stuffed squash will be on our table this fall and, thankfully, the squashes keep well into winter, but I am sure my people will be tired of eating butternut long before it runs out. Here is a recipe I love, and it will use up about 1/17th of my harvest....

Butternut, Cheddar and Sage Gratin

This needs only a green salad.  It's a hearty dish.

  • one peeled and cubed (1/2" or so) butternut squash
  • 1 TBS butter
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic minced or pressed
  • 1/4 cup of finely sliced, fresh sage leaves
  • a drizzle of olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 c heavy cream
  • 6 oz grated cheddar cheese (I like sharp)

Preheat oven to 350.

Melt butter in a cast iron or other heavy skillet.  Over medium heat, add onion to melted butter and stir until it begins to soften (about 4 minutes). Add sage leaves and garlic.  Drizzle in some olive oil (about 1 or 2 TBS) and stir until fragrant and onions start to caramelize. (About 12 minutes)

Add squash to a butter or oiled 9 x 13" baking dish.  Toss in the onion and sage mixture, the cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Use your hands or utensils to get a good blend of all the ingredients.  Cover with foil and bake in preheated oven for about 40 minutes.  Take out the dish, remove the foil, turn up the oven to 450, cover squash with the cheddar cheese and return to oven until brown and bubbly, about another 20 to 30 minutes.  You can even turn on the broiler for a minute or two at the end to really make the top brown.

This freezes well.  It's great for potlucks and any other time you want to feed a crowd.

Planting the Perfect Pumpkin

We all want that giant, magical pumpkin come harvest time.  Here are a few tips to get you there.  Pumpkins are related to cucumbers, melons, summer squash, zucchini, and winter squashes and all of the vegetables in this family will benefit from this treatment. Warm soil. In Vermont wait until early June to put out the plants--a good rule of thumb is to wait until we have had a few nights above 50 F degrees. Transplants do better than seeds since you will have a head start on the season and don't risk having seeds rot in cold soil or be eaten by the local rodent.  It's best to keep two plants together when transplanting since the larger volume of foliage will help shade out weeds later in the season.

A raised bed or mound. This will help warm the soil and improve drainage.  It also gives the plants' shallow roots a place full or looser soil to spread without strain.

Lots of fertility. Compost is a  must for successful pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers and melons.  At home, we use rotted donkey manure (thanks to Pokey and Rosy) mixed with well composted yard debris (leaves, grass clippings) and food scraps.  More can be learned about compost at the Vermont Compost Company website.  A little granular fertilizer can be used as well if you do not have access to good compost and/or very poor soils.  A soil test is always a good idea, and can be done easily at your local extension office.

Adequate water. One inch a week.  That means that if it does not rain, you should gently pour about 3 gallons of water at the base of your plants.  A slow drip irrigation system or soaker hose is a great option as well.

Full sun. There is no compromise on this one.  The plants must have at least 8 to 10 hours of full sunlight.

Lots of room.  Plants (actually, groups of 2 plants) should be at least 3 feet apart. They need that much space for proper ventilation and so that the flowers and foliage are exposed to pollinators and sunlight.

Pollination. Plant a few bee friendly plants such as calendula, borage, mint and salvias around your garden to attract bees and other beneficial insects.  Cucurbit plants have male and female flowers on each plant and have to be pollinated by insects.  Welcoming bees to your garden will help yields since more female flowers will become pollinated--the only way for them to produce fruit.

Harvest at the right time. Winter squashes and pumpkins should be harvested when the skins are hard and cannot be pierced by your thumbnail.  Summer squashes and cucumbers and zucchini should be harvested at whatever stage you like to eat them, from baby to baseball bats.  Watermelons are harvested when the tendrils on either side of the attaching stem are dead and the yellow spot on the bottom of the fruit (where it rests on the ground) is a deep yellow, and when thunking the fruit with your knuckle produces a hollow sound.  Cantaloupes are ready when they slip off the vine with a gentle tug (called the "half slip stage").  Melons take a little trial and error to learn to harvest at the right time, but a good rule of thumb is "if in doubt, wait."

The Autumn Garden: Time to Gather and Restore

With these colder days also come a chance to produce a few more late season greens in the vegetable garden. These include lettuce, kale, parsley cilantro, arugula, mustard greens and spinach. Here is a simple system that can be followed by anyone wishing to extend the fall and winter harvest.

Don't Fear Frost! Extending Your Growing Season

Here in Vermont, we can count on just a few frost-free months. But with a little bit of planning, strategic planting, and getting the right tools, you can harvest through a bit of frost and snow. But by planning out crop planting so that crops are mature before the short days and cold weather hits, you can then protect them and harvest them well into winter.

Row covers such as reemay are usually used with hoops made of #9 gauge wire so that the fabric does not rest right on the plants. These covers breath and come in various weights. They allow light and water in, but raise the temperature of the soil and air inside the cover.

Cold frames are simple boxes that are filled with good quality soil and are covered with windows (called "lights") or clear plexiglass or sometimes plastic. They are used for season extension, plant protection, as mini-greenhouses, and as a place to overwinter tender perennials. The covers are closed at night and opened on sunny days. Lettuce, spinach, hardy greens, and herbs can be grown most of the winter in a hot bed with a south facing light. "Hot beds" are deep cold frames that hold a thick layer of manure below the soil. As the manure decomposes, it lets out a tremendous amount of heat which keeps the frame very warm at night even in the winter. Cold frames can be made out of wood, straw, stone, concrete with old storm windows on hinges. The windows must be small enough that they can be opened and closed easily by raising them up and propping them with a stick.

Straw mulch is a great way to extend the season for vegetables such as kale, spinach, carrots, beets and other root crops. Once the crops are matured, a very thick layer of straw around the base of the plants will keep the ground from freezing so that the roots may still be harvested. The straw also keeps the top of the crops from freezing in extreme temperatures. Spinach can be overwintered under straw so that an early spring crop can be eaten. Kale lasts well into winter and is also helped by a deep straw layer so that the cold wind does not completely dessicate the leaves.

Every home garden has microclimates. It is a good idea to take advantage of these when planning the fall garden. A south-facing foundation wall is a great place to prep a small area for greens and herbs that will be well sheltered from cold, northern winds. It's a good place to situate a cold frame as well and to plant it with radishes, greens, and other crops that will benefit from the micro climate.

Containers are another great way to extend the season. Herbs, greens and lettuces can be planted in pots, apple crates, milk crates, or window boxes and moved inside when the weather gets too cold. While they might not last all winter long, they will certainly give you some fresh eating for a few months longer...all you need is a sunny spot or some simple grow lights. Thyme, parsley, rosemary, and sage all do well in containers in the home and will last all winter. Kale and lettuce will last up to 5 or 6 weeks longer than they would outdoors.

Photograph by One Green Generation . Creative Commons license.