greens

Cold Season Gardening

As soon as the ground thaws, and dries out, I will be ready to plant. After chomping at the bit through this long, never ending winter, I long to get my hands in cool dirt and ceremoniously plant the first seedlings. A cold frame helps to rush the job along, and I can't wait to open ours up, fluff up the tired soil, add some compost and amendments, and dig in. My cold season garden is pretty predictable each year. I crave certain things, stick to those, eat only that the entire period of time it is ready, and then usually it is out of mind the rest of the year. Asparagus for example. It is pretty much a part of every meal during asparagus season, and then I never think about it the other 47 weeks of the year.  And it is ready before many other things, so why not give it the star treatment it deserves?  It takes up a good chunk of my garden for a reason....homegrown asparagus absolutely cannot compare to what you buy in the store.  There are so many delicate flavors in asparagus that are lost after any period of refrigeration, and I greedily await that first harvest each year.

And then there is bok choi. For some reason, I don't think about this vegetable too much 11 months out of the year,  but it is so cold hardy and so quick to grow, that earliest spring is the only logical time to insert it into the garden and into our kitchen. We grow 4 kinds of boc choi to give our gardens a real array of size, color, and harvest time. Violetta is quick to grow to baby size, and has shiny, dark purple leaves with pale purple and white stems. It is gorgeous and delicate and ready in just 3 weeks from the time I stick it in the ground.  Shanghai Baby Bok Choi is another quick and tiny one, but the palest green, with the most tender flesh. Red Choi is a medium sized boc choi with a more mustard like flavor, and the regular boc choi we grow, Joi Choi, grows up to be huge, heavy, and gorgeous (see below). These are all delicious chopped up and stir fried with ginger, hot pepper flakes, and garlic;  or thinly slivered and eaten raw as a salad or slaw or dropped into a warm bowl of broth.

Scallions are another cold hardy, quick to grow vegetable that makes it into all my early gardens. They can be planted in little clumps in tight spaces and harvested over a long period of time. I harvest them three or four at a time and leave the rest to grow for a later picking or two.

Next up are the salad greens, bitter greens and mustards. All of these can take multiple frosts and are happy to go into the garden long before the others.

In this picture from last year, we have Tokyo Bekana mustard in the bottom left corner. It is a light green, tender mustard delicious steamed or eaten raw. I especially like it in soups and broths with soba noodles and tofu. In the center is my favorite bitter green, Frisée ('Tres Fine Maraîchère") which I love to eat with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette. Behind that is some arugula which really should be planted multiple times throughout the season (just rip out the old plants and sow new seeds or seedlings). In the top right corner is a little bit of bulb fennel Zefa Fino poking into the frame. This is another great option for for those of us needing cold hardy and interesting garden plants. In the kitchen, I simply slice up the bulbs into long, thick wedges and roast in a 400F oven with olive oil, herbs and seas salt. And the bottom right corner is the soldier of the spring garden: Natacha escarole. This chicory relative is huge, easy to grow, and equally perfect cooked in a braise or sautéed or eaten raw in a salad, again with that garlicky Dijon vinaigrette. Escarole withstands multiple hard frosts, grows quickly to a 3 pound head, and is frankly one of the better values in the garden. A small to medium escarole in the grocery store can cost close to $4. And from one 4 pack, you can easily have twelve times the yield for about the same amount of money.

Here we have Lily sampling a bit of Lacinato kale. also known as dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale, or cavolo negro. We love it for its nutty flavor and the fact that a few plants stuck in the ground in April will produce until December. Again, a pretty good value! In front of the kale is more boc choi, Red Choi. And in front of that is ruby red chard. Chard is the least cold tolerant of all these greens, but it can take a few light frosts. The others can survive a few dips even into the 20's and come out fine.

From seed, I like to start radishes and spinach and peas, because really, who can resist this sight:

Get ready, set, go. Spring is coming, and we want to help you get ready. And soon, we will be looking at this:

What can you plant now?

Lots of things can go in the garden now. Take advantage of some season extension, gentle April rains, and your spring garden eating will be taking place a little sooner. Season extension - row covers, cold frames, and mini greenhouses......

Crops that like it cold.....

Cabbage

Leeks

Onions

Artichokes

Bok Choi

Kale

Spinach

You can use row covers to extend the season and create a little spring heat in this cold year. We use a white, floating row cover (called Reemay sometimes) over hoops made out of 9 gauge wire, which can be found at farm supply stores. You can buy fancier hoops in garden centers, but the home made wire hoops work really well and cost a fraction of the price. You will need bolt cutters to cut the wire.

Happy cold time gardening, and please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions!

Cabin Fever Gardening

It's the dead of winter and the weather has been...well, let's not even talk about it. The seed catalogs have poured in, they are lying all around the house, tempting us with dreams of future sunshine, dirt under the nails, baskets of produce, and all those things we are deprived of in these short, dark days.  Here are a few things I like to do to get through winter. I would love to hear other people's coping strategies, so please share your thoughts on cabin fever gardening. For one thing, meditate. Not necessarily in a formal way, but just sit still. Imagine seeds, roots, and bulbs that are buried deep in the frozen earth.  This period of short days is necessary in the life of a plant. It is a time of dormancy and rejuvenation, for plants as well as for humans. Rather than fight the dark days, embrace this as a time of year when you get to slow down, evaluate, and regenerate. I love that, because of my work, my life can follow seasonal rhythms to a certain extent. Winter is when I plan, plot, analyze, and restore.

 

Next, look for signs of green. As the days slowly lengthen, find a special shrub or tree to study on a regular basis. We have a row of willows along the edge of our property, and I love to check out the progress of the softening that happens very slowly, and then after mid-February, it speeds up a bit. The buds begin to swell, the color of the stems changes ever so slowly and slightly. Because plants are our best teachers, we can be the best students of plants with simple observation.

Focus on your houseplants. At our house, we neglect these poor plants all summer, but try to baby them a bit in the winter. Careful watering, cleaning, fertilizing as needed, potting into bigger pots, moving them around...these are all tasks we never have time for the rest of the year. You can also try your hand at propagating your own house plants. It is a great way to learn about plant physiology, and it gives you new plants as a bonus. Think holiday gifts for next year!  There is a great series of 15 short tutorials on You Tube that will teach you everything you need to know to multiply your houseplants. Ask friends for cuttings from their plants, diversify your own collection and learn about the various ways that all types of plants root.  Again, observation is key here, and the lesson learned in plant physiology will transfer to and inform your practical gardening knowledge outdoors.

Grow some sprouts.  There are great resources locally and on line. Here are some suggestions.

 

 

 

Grow some greens and shoots. You'll need a grow light, otherwise, things will be leggy and less nutritious, even in a south facing window. You will also need some trays with drain holes, about 2 inches high, some good potting soil, and some good quality seeds. You can sprinkle seeds onto the surface of the soil, press down, and cover with a very thin layer of soil. Press down again, and water very gently and evenly. Try these crops for a quick 3 weeks to harvest: arugula, tatsoi, mustard greens, boc choi. If you are willing to wait a little longer, in 5 weeks, you can harvest baby lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, cilantro, or dill.  The trick here is to stick to varieties that grow quickly. You can only cut them once, the light will just not be strong enough for them to grow again.  Here are some instructions for growing pea shoots.

 

You can do this so easily in any kitchen and it is a great way to add some fresh, living foods to your winter diet.

Hope this helps, and don't hesitate to get with us on facebook, twitter @redwagonplants, or leave comments here. We really want to hear your winter gardening habits, tricks, trials, and successes.

Rosemary

Rosemary is a great herb for winter use. It can be grown as a houseplant, it can be used fresh, dried, or frozen, and it adds a warming, deep flavor to roasted vegetables, all kinds of braised meats, roasted chicken, pork, lamb or beef, and can be used in soups and dips. Here are a few ideas that will help you make friends with this uplifting and aromatic herb all winter.
As a houseplant, rosemary is best brought indoors as late as possible. It can take some really cold temperatures, down into the teens, and still look rugged and healthy. When you do bring it indoors, give it a large pot, and keep it away from direct heat sources (woodstove, radiators) and place it in a window with indirect light (east or north facing). In winter time, in your house,  rosemary would like to have cooler temperatures and moist air. You can give it moisture by spraying the foliage with a spray bottle of water every couple of days. And only water the soil when it is very dry.  You are trying to recreate a foggy, cool San Fransisco winter.
When you harvest fresh rosemary or buy it in the store, the sprigs can be kept in the fridge, in a plastic bag that is not sealed tightly for up to 3 weeks. It can also be left out on the counter in a basket, where it will dry nicely and can be used all winter. Once fully dried, pull the leaves off of the stem and place in a jar, in a dark, cool place.
Here are some ideas for using the rosemary:
Toss a sprig under any meat you might roast - a holiday turkey, ham, chicken, lamb, roast beef, or pork loin. While roasting, the rosemary will add wonderful flavor to the pan juices and the gravy made from those pan juices.
Finely chop the leaves and add them to the onions that are sauteed for making stuffing or other casseroles.
Infuse some whole milk or heavy cream over low heat for about 15 minutes with a sprig of rosemary, and use this in making creamed soups....squash, tomato bisque, broccoli, any kind of vegetable potage, potato-leek, etc, These soups will all benefit from the earthy, woodsy fragrance and flavor of the rosemary-infused cream or milk. 
For a rosemary dipping or basting oil, finely chopped 1 or 2 TBS rosemary, mix with 1 or 2 cloves finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper and add in 1/2 cup of good olive oil. Serve in a small bowl and drizzle with a 1/2 TSP of balsamic vinegar and use as a dip for bread or raw veggies.
The same mixture can be used to baste a roasting chicken, or drizzled on roasted root vegetables (before roasting, you can toss the veggies with the herb oil), or used as a sautee oil for greens such as kale and chard.
Rosemary can also be used as a fragrant addition to hot baths, massage oils, and home made cleaning products. It is one of the most versatile herbs we can grow, and even though it prefers a California climate, with a little persuasion and help, it can adapt beautifully to our Vermont weather.
We've been harvesting lots of rosemary this fall, and you can find it locally at Healthy Living and City Market and in the Boston area through Farmers to You.
Happy gardening and cooking,
Julie

What Can I Plant for a Little Early Color Around the House?

It's been a pretty cold spring in Vermont this year. I cannot remember a spring like this in recent memory, with night temperatures dipping into the twenties in mid-April and day time temperatures hovering in the low 40's. Many of our customers are ready for some color around the house, and it's still not safe to put out hanging baskets, or most annuals for that matter.

What I suggest for early spring containers is a selection of cold hardy plants, especially the ones that seem unusual in containers, but will feed the need for signs of life around the yard!

The following plants are just great for a year like this and look really cute mixed together.

  • Violas and pansies
  • Allysum
  • Cold hardy herbs such as parsley, chervil, mint (ginger mint cascades down the side of the container), cilantro, dill. The textures and different greens at dimension to the arrangements. Plus you can snip at them and bring them into the kitchen for some spring time flavor boosts.
  • Colorful kales such as Redbor and Red Russian.
  • Fennel - the bulb kind or the bronze herb kind
  • Lettuces - especially the green oak, red oak, and cherokee red batavian
  • Frisee endive - it has a lovely frilled edge, and an unusual lime green color.

The beauty of this kind of planter is that it is multi-purpose. The violas and pansies and their "companion" foliage are all edible. What a nice gift for someone special, or a treat for yourself to celebrate the slow unfurling of spring.

Planning for a Full Harvest all Season Long

Growing vegetables in your backyard, community garden or in some containers by the kitchen door is a great way to feed yourself -- whether it be just a few ripe tomatoes in August or a full fledged homesteaders garden, you are on the right path to feeding yourself and your family.  Gardening is a great way to improve how you eat while spending some contemplative time outside. With all of these benefits in mind, it is easy to jump into gardening enthusiastically, and you will reap even more rewards with a little bit of planning. In Vermont, our gardening season seems short but can be stretched year round with a few simple tips.  I always recommend that people take a look at how their vegetable gardens have been in the past and find just one or two things they would like to improve so that they can grow more of it for a longer season.  For example a common questions I hear is "how can I keep cilantro from bolting?"  Well, in short, you can't! But with a few changes in your gardening practices, you can grow it all spring, summer, and fall without ever seeing it go to seed.  The trick is to understand the life cycle of each food crop and how to best plant it to maximize it's harvest.  With certain crops, like zucchini, it is best to understand how prolific they are and to plant them conservatively so that the entire garden (and thereby your diet and your neighbors' diet) is not taken over with just one thing.  It is also helpful to plant things seasonally so that the harvest is not so overwhelming in August with little to eat before or after. Succession Planting for Successful Gardening Certain crops should be planted multiple times throughout the season to ensure a continuous harvest.  How often you plant is a matter of taste and space and time. The following list describes the maximum you could do with each crop, but adjust according to your needs and priorities -- this is just a guide.

Lettuce can be planted from seed or from transplants.  Seed grown lettuce is often grown in a row that can be cut and will re-grow a few times.  Transplanted lettuce can be grown for full heads like what you find in the store.  Both methods require regular planting every week or two for a continuous harvest.  It can be planted from seed in mid-April to mid-August for cut greens and transplanted for full heads from late April through early August.  Some people will transplant a few plants and plant some seeds at the same time in a different area; this method provides two generations of lettuce.  Once the cut lettuce becomes bitter in the heat of summer, it is best to pull it up, recondition the soil and plant something else.  If the goal is to always have fresh lettuce and it is very simple to do if you remember to replant.

Cilantro is very similar to lettuce in its growing habits.  It will grow up to a point and then goes to seed, or bolts.  It i will bolt more quickly in summer heat and, conversely, will stand ready to harvest for many weeks in the cool weather of spring and fall--even early winter.  It can be transplanted or grown from seed.  Like lettuce, it is simple to do both at the same time, thereby giving the gardener two generations.  Cilantro seed is coriander, so it does have a use if you enjoy that flavor.

Dill can be treated just like cilantro, and like coriander seed, dill seed heads have a use in the kitchen, so it is fine to let some of the dill patch go to seed.

Basil can be planted multiple times for best results.  Plants can be pinched to slow down the flowering, but best flavor will come from newly replanted basil plants.  Heat loving. Should only be planted once soil temps are in the upper 50's.

Cucumbers, cantaloupes, and zucchini and summer squash are best in quality when well tended. Just a single plant or two of any of those is usually enough for the home gardener, but by planting it three different times, the quality will always be good. The dates are: June 1st (or last week in May if you are in a warm spot), July 1st and July 15th.  This method will ensure a continuous harvest of prime looking vegetables.  Just remember to pull out and discard the pest and disease prone plants.  If your compost gets very hot and is well managed, it is okay to compost these plants.  Pest problems will diminish when the older, less healthy plants are removed.

Arugula, Cress, and other cutting greens for salads are best if sown or transplanted on a weekly or biweekly basis.  Again, a small amount can be seeded next to the transplanted crops in order to give you 2 generations at once.  This way you can have smaller quantities coming in at various times. Broccoli gives the gardener a couple of options.  It is best if transplanted and can be planted 3 dates in the spring and 3 dates in late summer for a continuous harvest.  I would choose late April, early May and mid May for the spring plantings and then Early August, mid August and early September for the fall plantings.  Full heads can be harvested and the plants can stay in the ground to produce side shoots. Green Beans -- are best when fresh and young.  The seed is relatively cheap, so it is better to rip out old plants and have new ones coming along regularly.  Having multiple plantings also means that no on is stuck picking beans for ours on end.  Sow new seeds when the previous or first generation is about 6 inches high.

Boc Choi, Cabbage, Scallions, Cauliflower -- these can also be planted multiple times.  Cabbage holds well in heat and can be planted every couple of weeks late April through early August.  Boc Choi and Cauliflower are not as heat tolerant and should be planted around the same dates as broccoli (see above). It is best to use row cover like reemay on these young transplants so that flea beetles do not destroy the plants. Spinach is another one that does not do well in the heat, but can be planted multiple times in spring and late summer.  It can also overwinter with a little straw mulch for very early spring eating.  Date to plant are (up to every week) mid April to early June and then early August to mid September. The last plantings in September are the ones which will be over-wintered and eaten the following spring.

Beets, Carrots, Turnips can be planted every two or three weeks from mid-April until about the third week in July.  Summer carrots are not the same as fall carrots and certain varieties do better in summer than in fall. Celery and Celeriac are slower growing and can be planted 2 to 3 times during the season.  Mid May until early July.  These need lots of water and benefit from straw mulch.

Bulb fennel and radishes are similar to lettuce -- they can be planted each week if really loved, but they bolt in the heat and do best in cooler temperatures of spring and fall.  Best if planted late April to early June and then again late August to mid September.  Very cold tolerant and hold well in late fall,  radishes are sown from seeds and fennel is best transplanted. Corn -- it is possible to do multiple plantings over different weeks, but an easier method is to plant all at once, but with various varieties that have different days to maturity.  There can be a 40 day span between early and late varieties. Peas -- can be planted every week, but this requires a lot of harvesting, irrigating, trellising, and variety research.  It is possible though.  More practically, the home gardener can sow 2 or 3 varieties in late April with various days to maturity.  Fall plantings are sometimes successful but weather dependent. These should be done in mid August.

The following are generally planted just once a year, but the harvest can be staggered with a few tricks: Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant -- try a few varieties of each in order to not have everything at once.  Determinate tomatoes will provide you with a big harvest all at once which is a good thing for people who make big batches of sauce for canning or freezing.

Onions and Potatoes are generally planted all at once, and again a few different varieties will provide you with a longer period of fresh eating.  Both onions and potatoes can be stored for long periods of time in cool and dark conditions.  Both can also be eaten fresh. Winter Squash is another crop that is just planted once and stored.  Best if cured for a week or two in a warm spot before eating.

Spring Time and Season Extension

We are busy happily working in the greenhouses! Early spring is an active time for seed planting. Some vegetables need to be planted in  a greenhouse and nurtured along as the Vermont summer is just not long enough for them to be planted directly in the garden. The germination of the earliest vegetables is a thrill to us and we know that they will thrill you in your gardens. With a few simple strategies for season extension, Spring can  be a rewarding time to see a few early flowers and even to grow some cold tolerant greens. Containers are a great way to do this. They can be kept indoors on the coldest days and nights, covered up with row covers, blankets or plastic sheeting on the mildly cold nights, and left out all day and night once the weather permits. Any crate, or large pot with holes in the bottom can be filled with good quality potting soil such as Vermont Compost Company?s “Fort V” and then planted with an array of salad greens and edible blossoms such as pansies that you can cut from once they reach a few inches high. You can cut and harvest these plants and allow them to re-grow for multiple harvests, allowing you a gorgeous salad while it is still too cold to be out in the garden.

As soon as the soil can be worked in your garden, it is possible to get a jump on our seemingly late warm weather by building a simple shelter out of Number 9 gauge wire and some row cover or even old blankets and plastic sheeting. If you cut the wire into 6 foot lengths, plant each end into the ground (making a hoop) and repeat every few feet, you now have a very quick and easy tunnel frame upon which to drape your fabric. This creates a lovely shelter for some very hardy greens. With this type of simple tunnel, a version of a cold frame, it is most important to cover it at night and uncover it in the morning. The plants can get very hot unless you use special row cover designed to stay on night and day.

The most cold tolerant food crops we can grow here are things like kale, spinach, collards, arugula, mustard greens, mache (corn salad), and many herbs such as cilantro, dill, sorrel, and chives. Certain lettuces are very cold hardy, but they cannot take the frost quite as well as the plants mentioned above--good cold hardy varieties include the French heirlooms, “Reines des Glaces” and “Merveiles des Quatres Saisons.” These most tender and delicate looking lettuces can take quite a beating when it comes to cold weather. Overall, early spring is a great time to satisfy the need for green, fresh foods that are grown locally after a long winer of leafy foods trucked in from far away. The difference in taste and the level of satisfaction you will experience is well worth the effort.

Frugal and Fabulous

My pantry is small, but pretty well stocked with staples.  Between that and the garden, it's easy to spend a week without going to the grocery store.  I get milk from Family Cow Farmstand, eggs from a neighbor, and a few items at the Burlington Farmers' Market during the summer.  The main thing I go there for is the cheese from Does' Leap Farm: they make the  best chevre I have ever had.  The feta is fabulous too, and I used it in this dish.  Having a garden, visiting the farmers' market, and having a well stocked pantry (I buy stuff like pasta, beans, and olive oil in bulk, when it is on sale) means you can throw together simple meals for not much money.  We stretched Sunday's dinner to make 8 meals over two days.  That comes out to ahout .33 a meal.  Pretty good, huh? I made this escarole feast after I noticed a huge, beautiful head of the stuff in the garden (wish I had a picture).  It's one of my favorite vegetables, and has to be grown to be appreciated.  The flavor gets kind of bitter if it sits in the fridge too long, but if you cook it up right after harvesting, it is magnificent...silky, unctuous yumminess.  Frugality means not being afraid of leftovers.  Often, I will cook one large meal and then stretch it by morphing it into other things.  Shape shifting dinners.  Here's what I made on Sunday night,  and a few ideas for the leftovers. You can substitute any other greens if you must, but really, you should  give escarole a try next year in your garden...it's pest free, super cold tolerant, and gorgeous.  But for now, there might even be a head or two with your name on it at the farmer's market.

Escarole and White Beans on Pasta

1 TBS olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped or 2 leeks (for a sweeter flavor), white parts only, washed and chopped

1 jalapeno, chopped (use the seeds if you like it hot. Mine came from the garden, not to brag or anything)

3 cloves of garlic sliced, minced, or crushed (all three ways produce different results, figure out what you like).

1 large head escarole, washed, but not chopped.  (mine came from my garden...wish I had a photo, it was gorgeous) or any other green you like -- chard, kale, mustard greens, arugula

1 can white beans (butter beans are my favorite)

1 box pasta, whatever you like

Optional garnishes -- fresh squeezed lemon juice, capers, feta or parmesan, another drizzle of olive oil.

Salt and Pepper to taste

  • Get your (salted) pasta water going in a large pot.
  • While that is coming to a boil, heat the olive oil in a large skillet or dutch oven type of pot.
  • Saute the onion or leeks, garlic, and jalapeno over medium high heat, stirring.
  • After about 5 minutes, when everything is softening and realeasing its aroma, dump in all of the escarole (still wet from being washed so that it creates some steam).  Put a lid on the whole pan and ignore it for a few minutes.  Open the can of beans, rinse them if you need to, dump them on top of the escarole and put the lid back on for a few more minutes.
  • By now, you should also be cooking your pasta to the toothsome al dente point - i.e. not mushy.
  • Stir up all the escarole and beans so that they are evenly distributed, and season with the salt and pepper to taste.
  • Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking liquid if you want to stir it into the finished dish later if it seems dry.
  • You can combine noodles with the vegetables in the big skillet or pot, or alternately, you can serve big shallow bowls of pasta with the veggies on top, passing the optional garnishes around at the table.

This is a great dish to serve reheated as is, or you can turn it into a stew by reheating it with some broth.  I also love it with an egg cracked on top, and steam poached: just put the lid on the pot you are using and make sure there is enough liquid or fat in the bottom of the pan so that nothing sticks.   Super simple, and super yummy.  The escarole becomes silky, with a little bit of pleasant bitternes and the garlic and jalapeno balance it all out.  Bon Ap!