Friday, December 31, 2010

This screen saver bugs me

I was sitting at my computer when the screen saver came on. What? Had I fallen asleep? I haven’t ever done that.

Wait! That’s not a screen saver. I’m awake. I’m typing. That’s a live brown marmorated stink bug walking across my computer screen.

Did he like my draft blog so much that he flew down to read it at close range?

Resigned to catching yet another stink bug, I retrieved our soapy-water bottle, our Stink Bug Collector, from the kitchen and was about to introduce the stink bug to bubbly swimming when I had an idea.

Hummm. Clear text from screen. Type something topical—about stink bugs. Grab camera and take photo. Then introduce bug to suds.

What do you think? Is the photo worthy of screen-saver status?

I don’t think so. But it seems so appropriate as 2010 ends—what I call the Gardening Year of the Stink Bug.

What do you call it?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fennel or anise?

On Christmas Eve I was baking some loaves of Swedish limpa, a bread made with beer and flavored with cardamom, orange peel and anise seed, and it occurred to me to wonder, as it has many times before, what the difference is between anise and fennel.  This time I looked it up (once my hands were washed).  The answer is, not a huge amount, but you do need to know the differences if you plan to grow either one.

Both anise (Pimpinella anisum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are native to the Mediterranean region.  They are both umbelliferous herbs in the family Apiaceae.  Anise is an annual, dying after one season, while fennel is perennial.  I've never grown anise, so can't tell you if it self-seeds as readily as fennel, though many herbs in that family do.  Fennel is kind of a nuisance, actually; once you let it go to seed it can be hard to get rid of.  Though it can also work well as a landscape element.

Monarda with fennel as backdrop, in the demo garden
The flowers of anise are white, while fennel's are yellow.  Both plants are grown for their seeds, which taste similar (and also like the unrelated liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and star anise (Illicium verum)).  Fennel's delicate leaves are also nice for adding last-minute flavor to some dishes.

The type of fennel most of us are most familiar with is Florence fennel or finocchio, a variety with a swollen stem called a bulb (but it grows above, not under the ground).  Bulbing fennel can be eaten raw in salads or cooked either alone or in mixed dishes to add its unique light flavor.  I like to use it instead of celery in bread-cube stuffings.  The Giant supermarket I usually buy it at calls it anise - you now know that's inaccurate, but since it's in the computer, good luck getting them to change their minds.  At least when the cashier gives it the "what is this strange vegetable?" look you can say "Anise.  But it's really fennel."

I've never had great luck growing Florence fennel, though I have managed to get small bulbs from it.  This variety is technically a perennial as well, but since you have to harvest the whole plant it's grown as an annual.

Fennel or anise seeds are great for freshening the breath.  I like chewing on green fennel seeds as well as the dry brown ones.  And then I save the brown ones for my other Scandinavian bread recipes that call for fennel seeds.  I think when I run out of the anise seeds in the little jar I will just substitute fennel seeds where anise is called for!  Either way, a bright pleasant taste.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

God rest you merry gardeners

Time to sing to and give gifts to your apple tree? Barbara Damrosch, in her “A Cook’s Garden” column in today’s Washington Post, thinks you should. To read her merry column, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An exhibition for vegetable lovers

If you're in Washington, DC before January 9, it's worth stopping by the National Gallery of Art's East Wing to see the (free!) exhibit Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and FantasyGiuseppe Arcimboldo created some very weird paintings using food and other objects to form portraits.  Has to be seen to be believed!

I spent most of my viewing time in front of the paintings that used fruits and vegetables, trying to recognize the parts of the whole.  Food historians often use paintings (more usually still lifes and scenes of greengrocer shops or kitchens, but Arcimboldo would be a fun break from that) to discover what varieties were available in different cultures and periods.  Some of the paintings you can see at the link and in the show include ears of corn, which was a very new vegetable/grain for Europeans in the 16th century.  Can you pick out some of the veggies in the painting above?

The title of the painting, by the way, is not Bowl of Vegetables.  It's The Vegetable Gardener.  If you want to know why, just turn your computer upside down (or stand on your head).  (The exhibition has mirrors below this set of paintings.)

Monday, December 20, 2010


Celebrate the Holidays,
Celebrate "Grow It Eat It,"
Celebrate Gardening Year 2011,
--Coming to Your Garden Soon!

Bob & Ellen
December 2010

Our holiday “tree” is a home-grown Simpsons Curled lettuce plant decorated with cranberries

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Something else to do with brussels sprouts

Another in the series of "hey, I made a thing" posts - in other words, recipes, but that sounds too formal for those use-up-stuff-in-the-fridge meals.

What I had was a) brussels sprouts, and b) grated celeriac, left over from making too much for the root vegetable slaw recipe (which looked totally different in my version because I used beets.  Anyway).  My way with brussels sprouts these days is to slice them thin and saute them with stuff, so that's what I did.

Brussels Sprout and Celeriac Saute

About 12 brussels sprouts
About half a large celeriac root, grated
2-3 shallots (or part of an onion), sliced
Olive oil
1/3 cup apple cider
1 heaping teaspoon dijon mustard
dashes of red wine or other vinegar
Salt and pepper

Slice the sprouts thinly.  Heat olive oil in a pan and briefly saute the shallots, then add the sprouts and celeriac.  Cook until softened, stirring now and then.  Add the cider, vinegar, and mustard, and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Stir and cook a few minutes longer, then serve.

We had that with Japanese sweet potatoes (microwaved, with butter) and turkey meatballs seasoned with garlic and arugula, plus English muffin bread.  Yum!

This may seem a simplistic observation, but when you start trying to use local and/or seasonal vegetables in cooking, you start to realize that the vegetables that are harvested at the same time of the year usually go together pretty well.  Convenient, hm?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Try this yummy holiday slaw

Looking for a delightful slaw—slightly different—for a holiday potluck or feast?

Look no farther! The Food section of the Washington Post recently included a yummy recipe for what I’ll call “Holiday Slaw.” Unlike most slaws, this one is served at room temperature or even warm. But it’s “holiday” because it contains chopped dried cranberries and crystallized ginger.

Is your mouth watering yet?

I have a reason for calling this yummy dish “Holiday Slaw” and not the name printed in the Post. The reason is that the basic ingredient is Brussels sprouts, a veggie many people love to hate.

On Saturday we visited Bill & Noelene, friends who also had seen the Post recipe and asked us to contribute this dish to their dinner: “Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries and Ginger.” The dish was a hit. We’ll be making it again. It replaces roasted Brussels sprouts as our favorite sprouts recipe.

I salivate as I recommend it to you for holiday feasting—while fresh sprouts are available in the stores.

I found it more economical to buy the sprouts by the stalk—with the spouts on the stalk equaling about four and a half 10-ounce tubs of sprouts—and in far better condition. We’ll make two dishes out of sprouts from one stalk.

If this recipe has a downside, it’s that it’s labor intensive—shredding those small sprouts. I do it manually, which takes a half hour or so, but perhaps you have some new-fangled machine that would reduce that job to a minute or two.

When I took the label from the stalk, the brand name caught my attention: “Queen Victoria.”

That gave me an idea for a more inviting name for this recipe: “Victoria’s Secret Slaw.”

Isn’t that a winner?

To go to the Post recipe, CLICK HERE.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inner child garden planning, and other stages

Like Christmas decorations, the seed catalogs appear earlier every year, and for much the same reason - beating competitors to the sales.  I don't mind, though, because I start planning next year's garden early, and it helps to work from next year's catalogs.  In the gardening part of my brain, it's already 2011!

I'm a lot more organized about the demo garden than I am with my own garden, both in terms of fall cleanup chores (though I did use part of the relatively warm weekend to rake up leaves and get them piled on a new sheet-composting bed) and planning for the spring.  But I think I'll manage to slip the home-oriented tasks in around the Master Gardenery ones.  And at least I have lots of leftover seeds.  Hey Bob - it never occurred to me not to save the remainder of each year's seed packets!  How's that for frugal?  I have seeds dating from 2005 that germinated fine in 2010, though I do check germination rates on the older ones before planting. (More on that later.)

In fact, between my own supplies and those belonging to the demo garden, I have a whole heck of a lot of seeds, too many - alas - to keep in the fridge, but I do store them in the coldest room in the house.  So the first of the fall's planning tasks is to do an inventory.  This may not be necessary for those of you with only a few packets lying around.  My demo garden list came to 3 1/2 single-spaced pages.  I haven't inventoried all of my personal seeds (see what I mean about less organized?) but I did list those I am willing to "lend" to the demo garden if need be.  The lists are divided into vegetables, herbs and flowers, and each listing goes: common name, variety, year (printed on seed packet or guessed), and number of seeds (approximate) if there aren't many left.

Another part of demo garden planning that you probably don't need to do at home is choosing a theme, though by no means would I stop you if you wanted to.  I don't always have an overarching principle, but this year I decided on geography: designing "regions" of the garden based on where plant species originated.  The history of how useful plants have been moved around the world fascinates me, and I hope to convey some of that fascination to visitors and to educate them (and myself!) about where their food comes from in a larger sense.  It's also an interesting way to look at the different families of vegetables and how they developed in one or more parts of the world.

So, after some research, I had several lists labeled "Africa," "Americas," "Asia," and "Europe."  (Asia, Africa and Europe have a lot of crossovers, since the Mediterranean region, the Middle East and Western Asia are the source of many familiar edible plants.  So I've just had to be decisive about where I'm putting things.  The labels will be pedantically ambiguous.)  Then I cross-referenced with the seed inventory to figure out which plants I do not have seeds for, or not enough seeds, and started the first draft of the shopping list.

As the catalogs arrive, or as I get onto the websites of seed companies with 2011 information available, I check who's got what I want and note that.  I'll be comparing to see where the best deals are, and which varieties I'm most intrigued by.  Eventually I'll select a few sources to order from, and then budget realities will intervene, along with the realization that although I have a large space to work with in the demo garden it is not infinite in size, and I'll start narrowing down until I reach something resembling a final version.  (Last year my seed order list had four drafts.)  Painful decisions must be made, because I do not really have room for five different kinds of edible Asian gourds, or all the interesting kinds of cucumbers, or possibly even tepary beans.  And any vine that gets fifty feet long if you have an eight-month warm season to grow it in is pretty much out.  Seriously.  Don't even go there.

Part of the order selection process is going to be making a map of what goes where.  Right now I just have a vague idea that the whole left side is the Americas (for one thing, I have to accommodate the selections of my fellow MGs who manage tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and I have already been told that I may not have large squash vines crawling up the tomato cages... so, ample space!) and the right side is everything else, and in fact when I planted garlic and shallots (Asia) and multiplier onions (Europe) this fall I had that in mind.  But just how to manage the specifics, keeping in mind crop rotation and the areas that get some shade, is another matter.

However, right now I'm still in the "ooh, look at that, can I have it?" stage of planning.  Winged beans!  Popcorn!  Rainbow Lacinato kale!  Watermelon radishes!  Pretty flowers!  I urge you, in your own garden planning, to include this stage, because it's the voice of your inner child (speaking to Santa Claus, if that's where you're coming from) and deserves to be listened to.  Just let the outer adult make the final decisions.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Veggie snacks honor your guests

The following sentence from her “A Cook’s Garden” column in today’s Washington Post illustrates why I think Barbara Damrosch is one of my all-time favorite garden writers: “Ordinarily a bowl of carrot sticks wouldn’t have much cachet, but baby carrots in December, just plucked from the near-frozen soil that sweetens them, do honor to a guest.” To read “In the vegetable patch, a snack for all seasons,” CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

22° and windy: Good-bye Red Sails

The last of my Red Sails lettuce surrendered to last night’s 22° F. temperature—and collapsed. It survived increasingly low nighttime temperatures over the last several weeks with frost-burned leaf tips, but 22° was just too low.

This morning the nearby Ruby Red chard didn’t look quite as perky as it usually does either—but I think it will continue to grow slowly for a few more weeks. One chard plant survived last winter and put up leaves this past spring, probably courtesy of the insulation provided by last winter’s record snow cover.

Other than chard, only root crops survive, though their leafy tops are suffering from the below-average temperatures too. Two or three Short n’ Sweet carrots await pulling, and maybe a dozen Cylindra beets. Underground, they should be safe well into January.

Frigid days like today make me wonder whether I should try to lengthen my lettuce season for a few days or weeks with a row cover over wire hoops and anchored firmly all around. It should raise the under-cover temperature about four degrees.

But with windy days like we’ve been having, where would I find the row cover in the morning—in the next county?

And do I really want to go out in the frigid weather and open up and then close the row cover again to pick lettuce?

Most gardeners don’t. Some gardeners do.

I’ll have to think about that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Tis the season to bundle up & hoe, hoe, hoe

Repeated heavy frosts have severely damaged the last of my lettuce, as you can see in the photo, so I’ve got to pull it up some windless day soon. But, hey, what are those small green plants growing in the protection of the damaged lettuce? They’re weeds—winter weeds—chickweed and other winter opportunists.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that even though nighttime temperatures are dipping into the teens, many weeds continue growing. A less cold day here, a warm afternoon there, and many weeds will grow to substantial size by late March, when December’s sprouting chickweed will have grown into March’s thick mat.

So I have a choice to make. Am I going to bundle up now and enjoy the bracing weather on some winter day as I hoe winter weeds, uprooting them so their roots dry, freeze, and die? Or am I going to stay snug in my recliner and be faced with deeply rooted and matted weeds next spring?

I’ve decided that I’ll get pull my blue Polartec blanket up under my chin and stay snug in my recliner, and then when the winter wind stops and the weather warms a few degrees, I’ll dash to the garage, grab my hoe, and chop away at my winter weeds.

What long-term vision—weeding in December!

Hoe, hoe, hoe.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Over the river and through the wood

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Cara and Mika’s house I go;
The Tacoma almost knows the way
Through the flakes of showering snow.

Over the river, and through the wood—
Oh, how the wind blows hard!
It shakes my truck and makes me slow,
As I drive on to deliver the chard.

As I looked at our Swiss chard this morning, I noted that many of the larger leaves were beginning to wilt from the consistent, mid-20s nighttime temperatures. The three-day forecast calls for continuing strong winds with highs in the 30s and lows in the 20s.

So I decided to cut chard this morning. Niece Cara had asked for some so she can try a new recipe, so I cut her the best of the remaining crop, enough to fill a plastic shopping bag.

Chard this year has been a garden stand out. The seed was Burpee’s Ruby Red Swiss Chard. It grew vigorously after early spring planting, right through our extra-hot summer, and past our hard fall frosts. Leaves are large, a deep bronze-green with bright-red stems. I cut enough for a side dish for our Thanksgiving feast, and it continues to grow slowly into December.

But one early morning soon, as the temperature dips to 20 or below, the ten plants will succumb, so better to cut it now, I decided, than to lose all. If the plants survive until Christmas, perhaps I’ll be able to cut enough for another mess.

As I got out of my cab and grabbed the bag of chard, I saw three-year-old Liam smiling through a nearby window. Before I got to the door, he and twin brother, Beck, had it open and were shouting a duet, “Uncle Bob, Uncle Bob, Uncle Bob.”

“Lucky boys,” I said. “I’ve brought you some chard for supper.”

The boys are tolerant of their great-uncle, but seemed unimpressed.

“We’ve just come inside,” said their dad. “What were we playing outside, Liam—with sticks?”

“Lacrosse?” I teased these Canadian-Americans.

“Hock-key,” Liam answered.

Ho, ho, ho, I felt like shouting, as I handed over the sack of green and red chard.

Over the river, and through the wood … maybe this is the last of the chard.

Friday, December 3, 2010

FrugalGardener: Overwintering seed--a cool idea

Veggie Garden 2010 is cleaned out for the most part. Autumn leaves are mulched or composted. Garden notes are updated.

Next? It’s time to throw out all the left-over seeds—you know, all those half-filled, half-empty, green-bean, tomato, chard, and carrot packets.

Stop! You can save those seeds to use next spring.

For years the Ancient Gardener never thought about keeping unused seeds for the next year. He just planted and planted until all were used—or just trashed the extras.

At some point the Ancient Gardener started keeping the extra seeds over winter. At first he just tossed them into a container on the workbench in the unheated garage and hoped for the best the following spring, when he discovered that most sprouted quite nicely, thank you.

Really, that idea that veggie seeds will germinate after a year’s storage should be no shock. Seeds of our gardening adversaries, weeds, seem to remain viable for decades.

Here’s a simple way to overwinter your unused seeds: Put them in a capped jar (to minimize humidity) and keep them in your refrigerator (below 40° F).

How long do refrigerated seeds last? That depends on the kind of seeds and storage conditions. The Ancient Gardener usually uses a half packet of tomato seeds one year and refrigerates the remainder for use the next year, with no significant drop-off in germination rate. He uses the stored seeds the second year so hasn’t been pushing the envelope—oops, the packet—on the storage issue.

Interestingly, in some European countries seed packets often tell how long the seeds may be stored. Wouldn’t that be a convenient addition to the info blurb on the back of seed packets on this side of the Atlantic?

The lack of storage information, however, is easily remedied on the Internet. Several websites list veggie seeds and the number of years they may be stored. At the Colorado State University website, for instance, the Ancient Gardener picked out representative veggies and the years their seeds can be stored: lettuce, 1 year; sweet corn, 2; beans, 3; beets, 4; and tomatoes, 5.

Buy too many veggie seeds? Don’t trash your extras. Store them in your fridge and use them next year. That’s a real cool—and frugal—idea.

To link to the Colorado State website, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

FrugalGardener: Reasons to buy a cup o' joe

The wind-swirled rain this morning encouraged the Ancient Gardener to stop at Casual Gourmet in Glenwood for a cup o’ joe after his exercise routine in the fitness room and his half-hour walk in the gym at the nearby community center.

The warming cup reminded the Ancient Gardener of four gardening reasons to buy this special treat.

Reason 1: Use the cup next spring to start tomato or other seeds.

Reason 2: Use the wooden stirrer as a row marker.

Reason 3: Use the cardboard insulator to wrap around the stem of a tomato transplant to stymie cut worms.

Reason 4: If you stop at a Starbucks, pick up a free 5-pound bag of coffee grounds to add as a soil supplement. If the “Grounds for Your Garden” basket is empty, ask a barista how you can get a bag or two.