Tuesday, January 28, 2014


MG Robin Ritterhoff, who has been on assignment in Rome*, took this photo at a street vegetable market:

Just in case you, like me, feel the need to look at evidence that it's not freezing cold and snowy everywhere.

Has anyone successfully grown the Romanesco cauliflower/broccoli? It's so architecturally beautiful.

*Not for GIEI. I wish we had foreign correspondents.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Fluorescent Lights, Seeds, Transplants

What to do on a cold January day?  I think I'll finish replacing my old T-12 fluorescent fixtures in my light box with some new T-8 troffers (commercial ceiling fixtures) that I purchased at a big box store last week.  In 2013, I raised all of my vegetable and annual flower transplants under a set of T-12 fluorescent fixtures which I have used for over 30 years.  But, T-12 fluorescent tubes are getting harder to find and the ones that are available at reasonable prices are 34 watts and only produce around 2,000 lumens. To raise healthy transplants, I found that a lumen rating of around 2,600 is necessary.

So, last Thursday I went to a big box home improvement store and purchased 4 2 foot by 4 foot T-8 troffers  (without fluorescent tubes for $42 each) to replace 8 1 foot by 4 foot T-12 strip fixtures.  T-8 fixtures use 32 watt fluorescent tubes ($3 each) and I installed 2 warm white tubes (6100K) and 2 cool white tubes (4100K) which have ratings of 2,550 and 2,600 lumens, respectively.  While cool white tubes (blue/green spectrum) by themselves will raise good transplants, I believe the addition of red spectrum light provided by the warm white tubes produces better transplants for me.

To install them, I had to connect about 4 feet of 3 wire 16 gauge wire ($1.50) and a three prong plug ($5).  So for a total investment  of about $60 per installed troffer, I can raise 4 flats of plants.  I use my lights continuously from late January through the end of July to produce transplants not only for the initial planting of vegetables and flowers, but also to have transplants available for when a space comes open in my garden.  For example, about June 15, my spring broccoli and cauliflower are spent, so I'll have transplants of say zucchini ready to fill that hole in my garden. 

Remember that fluorescent lights lose some of their brightness as they age.  The T-8 tubes I purchased have a rated life of 20,000 hours, but will lose 10% of their brightness during the first 10% of their life.  Because I use my lights about 180 days a year for 16 hours a day (or 2,800 hours) a year, I replace my fluorescent tubes on an annual basis.  If your seedlings are looking leggy and you have the lights within an inch to two inches from the top of the seedling, try replacing the fluorescent tubes with some new tubes with at least a rating of 2,600 lumens.

If you are interested in seeing a picture of my light setup and reviewing an earlier (more in depth) blog I wrote on growing transplants under fluorescent lights, see my blog dated February 1, 2013 or search for "lights".  You can also view a quick video on seed starting by clicking on this link.

Saving your seed packets: how long are they good for?

Above are some of the many packets of seeds I'm considering using for this year's demo garden. We received generous seed donations from High Mowing Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds also has a donation program, which we may apply to next year.*

It's an exciting time of year, not so much in the garden (although I was in mine on Monday, when it was 50 degrees out - seems like a distant memory now!) but inside the gardener's head, which is full of imaginings of spring, summer, and fall. If some of you are sketching your garden bed arrangements, ordering seeds, or even getting a head start on seed-starting, you may be looking at last year's seed packets and wondering if you can still use what's inside them.

In most cases, the answer is yes, but seed life varies depending on species. There's some disagreement among sources as to how long seed lasts, but here are a few resources you can refer to:

Iowa State University Extension

Virginia Cooperative Extension

Johnny's Selected Seeds

And a post from Margaret Roach's blog that draws together information from several sources in a chart and points out the disagreements.

However, it's pretty much agreed upon that onion, parsley, parsnip and salsify seeds only last a year, so go ahead and throw those packets away (unless you want to experiment). For the others, you may want to do a viability test, as described in several of the above links. Most instructions for this will tell you to try sprouting 20 seeds between moist paper towels inside a plastic bag, and then decide based on the percentage of successfully sprouted seeds how viable the remainder are. Since I often buy small packets to begin with, I often don't have 20 seeds left, or don't want to waste that many (often the viability test has to happen too early in the year for the resulting sprouts to be planted). In that case, I just use 10, or 5, or whatever number I can spare; the viability percentage may not be as accurate, but if they all sprout then you're good to go, if fewer than half sprout it's not worth it, and if it's something in between, it probably is, if you accept you'll get fewer plants than anticipated.

*Mention of specific products, brands, or companies is not intended as an endorsement by the University of Maryland.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Mark your calendars!

Grow It Eat It classes are coming up in many Maryland counties - check our classes listing for details!

In Montgomery County, the Master Gardeners are presenting our Spring Conference on February 22. Register now as spaces are going fast! This conference includes three classes and two short lunchtime presentations, a bag lunch, and lots of resources for $55. GIEI-relevant classes include root vegetables (with a cooking demo!)seed starting, beekeeping, mint family plants, dealing with deer, irrigation, self-watering containers, and more!

Coming up on March 29 is our first Grow It Eat It Open House of the year, with classes on beginning veggie gardening, seed starting, fruits, growing squash, small scale intensive gardening, keeping animals out of your garden, composting, and a winter vegetable cooking demo; also a seed exchange, a plant sale, and many display tables! The demo garden will be open if the weather permits, and it's all free (though we accept donations).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Update: greens post-Polar Vortex

I promised an update on how various protected and unprotected vegetable plants fared in the recent cold snap. We heard from Gordon Clark on his greens before the single-digit cold; here's what he had to say about what happened next in his Silver Spring garden:

The "Polar Vortex," regrettably, proved to be more a test of my low tunnel's structural resilience than its frost protection capacity, as one of the 50 or so mile an hour wind bursts associated with the front blew it open.  This was in spite of the fact that I had MANY bricks, as well as a couple large rocks and a tree stump holding down the plastic cover.  Clearly, if you are expecting heavy winds tying down a low tunnel with clothesline (in the Elliot Coleman "chenille" method) is advised.  (All the more so if your tunnel is an open/exposed area, which mine is.)

Fortunately I had removed most of the remaining greens before the Vortex struck (they had been growing since August and I doubted such old plants could take much cold stress); by the time I discovered the tunnel mishap the arctic temps had turned my remaining lettuces, mustard greens and chard to mush.

On the positive side, I want to note that while the Polar Vortex destroyed pretty much everything still left outside (sans low tunnel) in our community garden, there were two notable survivors who made it through both the intense cold and the preceding snow in pretty good shape - the indestructible curly kale, and savoy spinach varieties, which despite some browning on larger leaves, retained perfectly healthy growing tips (both are pictured below).  Note to self for future winter plantings!

I also asked MG Robin Ritterhoff to report on her Bethesda garden:

She says: "The cold frame kept my mâche, arugula, a couple Swiss chards & lettuce alive during the polar vortex. By contrast, unprotected Swiss chard in the back bed is a mass of wet black mess."

Today I checked the beds at the Derwood Demo Garden to see what had survived. We also had lettuce alive under cold frames:

but nearly everything exposed to the open air was dead or almost dead, even Red Russian kale:

The only exception was a super-hardy plant of Even'Star Landrace Collards, developed on Even'Star Farm in St. Mary's County, MD.

All our plantings under plastic low tunnels look pretty good, though, and none of ours blew away, since we fastened them down not only with bricks but with pieces of wire crisscrossed over the top and stuck in the ground. Here's some Rainbow Lacinato Kale (a cross developed by Wild Garden Seed in Oregon) still doing fine:

One more surprising survival: in the unprotected 6-inch deep salad table on my back deck in Germantown (where it got down to near zero degrees), the arugula pretty much bit the dust, but I still have cilantro plants alive:

Time for some salsa?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Opening Jars in Winter

Aji limon hot peppers in sherry - NOT a science experiment
It may look like a science experiment but it’s actually a jar of lemon peppers  (aji limon Capsicum baccatum)– some ripe, some not so much – that I preserved in sherry last fall. The jar sits at the back of the fridge where the peppers are easy to pull out and add to all kinds of things: Thai shrimp soup, quesadillas, stews, whatever.

Today, I dropped two into the black bean soup I’m making. They add just the right amount of heat (about 2 large or 3 small for a 4-quart pot of soup usually does it for me and my heat-sensitive friends; my husband and when he’s here, our son, usually add more heat via a sprinkling of the dried aji limons we keep in a jar in the pantry).

The sherry-filled jar of lemon peppers is only one of a collection of jars and freezer bags of stuff that I put by from last year’s garden. It’s a treasure trove that in winter makes it possible to create an actual meal with little actual work. Yes, it’s plenty of work in the summer and early fall, but once it’s done you can sit back and bask in all that preserved glory.
Salsa, pasta sauce, tomatoes, etc. dried aji limon in the squat jar

On winter days, especially during days with the kind of bone-cracking cold that the Polar Express (yes, I know, VORtex) treated us to recently, soups and stews are what’s for dinner. Putting together something warm, delicious and nourishing inside of 15 minutes simply by opening jars and bags and whatnot from what you’ve produced yourself (along with Mother Nature, of course) is incredibly satisfying, to say nothing of economical. And it lets you dump things together, cover the pot, and go sit under the quilt on the sofa in front of the fire with a book or the news while you’re waiting for it to cook. (Or in our case, it lets you suit up, walk the dog, then haul in the wood for that fire, but never mind. It’s always something.).

While it’s great to have a store of homemade condiments, ingredients, and cooking sauces that you’ve made yourself, it’s also important to know what exactly you’ll actually use so you don’t end up with wastage.  Took me a while.

Everything dumped into a pot to simmer
Years ago, I got so carried away with the garden and fruit trees’ abundance combined with the plethora of recipes available, that I ended up with stacks of stuff moldering on the cellar shelves. I canned everything I could get my hands on, (and envisioned my children eating all of it – Hah!). I hauled the filled jars down there, then, years later when the moisture had attacked the lids (and then the stuff inside), I hauled them back up again to dump the contents of the jars, one by one, onto the compost heap. Wasteful of time, energy and produce. 

Over the years, I’ve learned. I now keep tabs on what we and those we love will actually not only eat, but also enjoy. Hence: spaghetti sauce, salsa, jarred tomatoes and home-made V-8, but not green tomato mincemeat or tomato marmalade; strawberry jam with walnuts and Cointreau but not rhubarb chutney; only two quarts of pickled jalapenos, not ten; two pints of pickled watermelon rind, not four quarts.

Being more circumspect about what and how much I put up doesn’t mean I don’t still experiment.  So many recipes, so little time. Year before last, I canned harrissa, a tomato-and chili-based condiment for Morrocan-y things, the recipe for which I found in the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. I put up ten half-pints and only used two here at home. Fortunately, our son used one to make wild goose stew from the Canada geese his father shoots, and loved it. So, I gave him all of the remaining jars. I didn’t put up any harissa this year, but plan to make more this fall, using both the Ball recipe and an alternative one that I found in a magazine. Something new and different.
Black bean soup  ready for cheese, pesto, sour cream, whatever

Having stuff like this in the cabinet and freezer feels unbearably virtuous. But for those for whom a smug sense of virtue doesn’t quite do it, (and heaven knows that only goes so far), the more important part of the exercise is what you end up with. Healthy, economical comfort food in no time flat.

Black Bean Soup

2 quarts of turkey stock (made from the remains of the Thanksgiving turkey and frozen that weekend – or 2 quarts of chicken stock)
3 tins of black beans (organic if possible)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic (cut from the hardneck that are hanging on the porch and that are already starting to send up green shoots way too soon; what’s THAT about?!)
chopped sweet pepper, or about a cup of frozen chopped sweet pepper from your freezer
1 pint of salsa
2 or three hot peppers –whatever you’ve got
1 tblsp smoked paprika
2 tblsp Worcestershire sauce
a sploosh of sherry (about ¼ cup) if you want
salt and pepper

In a heavy pot, sauté the onion and garlic in a splash of olive oil until the onion is clear-ish. Add the peppers and sauté for another few minutes. Add stock (doesn’t have to be completely thawed), beans and everything else. Cover and simmer for about an hour. Serve with cheese on top or some fresh cilantro or maybe a dab of cilantro pesto or basil pesto (we make it during herb season and freeze it in little packets of plastic wrap) or a dollop of sour cream or all of the above if you’re feeling in need of major indulgence. It’s winter. Why not?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Root of roots, and sport of sports

Bob Nixon's rutabagas
Sometimes you get hit with the realization that there is a lot in this world you just don't know about, and that is how I felt yesterday when listening to a CD by Joe Crookston which includes the song "The Rutabaga Curl." It seems that for the last 16 years, the International Rutabaga Curling Championship has been held each December in Ithaca, NY, to celebrate the last day of the farmer's market (at which rutabagas, among many other items, are for sale).

I don't know how I managed to get this far in life without being aware of this event, but I'm glad I am now.

If you would like to be just as informed, visit the official event website, watch a video of the winning toss from several years ago, listen to Crookston's song, and also take in the Rutabaga Chorus (to the tune and with the spirit of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus"). This is an awesome sporting phenomenon, celebrating an awesome vegetable.

For the record, Bob's rutabagas are not nearly round enough to work as curling stones, though I'm sure they tasted great.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Greens in the depths of winter

Today's super-cold temperatures made me think about winter gardening, so I asked Gordon Clark, Montgomery County MG and Project Director of Montgomery Victory Gardens, how his low tunnels were faring. He reported that in anticipation of the cold he harvested most of his winter greens, but in a day or two when temperatures rise he'll check on some lettuce that's still under the plastic, and let us know whether it's edible.

In the meanwhile, here's what Gordon had to say recently about the success of his tunnels in Silver Spring.

I am very excited to hear about the growing interest in - and success with - winter food gardening and low tunnels… we've definitely needed 'em this year!  (Last winter I didn't close the low tunnel until January 21, this year I was using it in November…)

Below are a few pictures of my own tunnel, before and after the December snowfall, and one of it after the most recent storm.  I put down some shredded leaves for extra mulch, but other than that have just been depending on the tunnel and have been harvesting lettuce, arugula, turnips, mustard greens, broccoli (second shoots!), kale and chard right up to the present moment [January 5].

As for holding it down, anything heavy works but I use bricks - they are regular in shape and size, easy to move, and there is always something I can use them for in the garden in summer as well.  (About one brick per 2 feet of tunnel seems to work fine.)  You can also use the chenille method of securing the tunnel with clothesline (as described by Eliot Coleman in Four-Season Harvest), but if you have enough bricks it's not really necessary.  (Although it does look sharp.)

I do hope more people get into winter gardening, and that we can give more classes on the subject.  It really is a big step toward more sustainable self-sufficiency in food, it's fun, it's easy, and nothing puts a smile on my friends' faces like a garden fresh organic local salad in the middle of winter!

So stay tuned for a report on Gordon's lettuces, and also whether the greens under plastic in the Derwood demo garden (and MG Robin Ritterhoff's back yard) survived temperatures in the low single digits. My guess is they're frozen beyond recovery, but you never know.

On January 21, Gordon will be giving a talk at Brookside Gardens on Food Gardening and Climate Change (sign up here) and keep an eye out at the MVG link above and the Montgomery County GIEI page for low tunnel classes coming in the summer.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Holiday Tromboncino Squash!

I meant to post this earlier, but procrastination pays off: now it can be a celebration of the Year of the Cucurbit. This is how MG Robin Ritterhoff decorated her front door for the holidays:

Look closely: the wreath is a tromboncino squash, the last of our pickings from Derwood.

We promise many posts this year on growing and eating cucurbits, including squash, melons, cucumbers and all their relatives! Happy New Year!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Grow It, Harvest It, Store it, Eat It

Well, it's the first day of the year of the cucurbit but I thought I would make one last post about versatile and nutritious root vegetables. Last week I posted about making venison stew with potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots and onions which are stored in the ground, with the exception of the onions and garlic which are in my basement.  Today, Mary and I have decided to make some venison osso buco using some more root vegetables and prime summer tomatoes that we froze during the summer.

I plant at least one Roma tomato every year just so that I have summer tomatoes for winter recipes.  I can store about 6 or 7 in a quart freezer bag and when needed. I just grab bag and take out what I need.  The great part about frozen summer tomatoes is that after plunking them in a bowl of water, the skins slough right off.

4  Tbs. of unsalted butter
3  Tbs. olive oil
6  3 inch meaty veal shanks or an equal number of whole front or rear leg venison shanks about 6 lbs.
1  medium onion small dice
2  rib of celery, small dice
2  carrots small dice
6  medium tomatoes, peeled, cored and coarse chopped
enough chicken stock to cover usually 3 to 4 cups

2  large cloves of garlic minced
one half cup of fresh Italian parsley minced
grated zest of 2 lemons

1.  In a large heavy skillet heat butter and oil until hot.  Working in small batches so as not to cool the skillet, brown the meat on both sides, about 10 minutes.  After browned, reserve the meat on a platter and season with salt and pepper.

2.  Reduce the heat on the skillet and add the onion, celery and carrot to the skillet and cook until softened, but not browned, about 5 minutes.  Deglaze the skillet with a half a cup of chicken stock, using a wooden spoon to scrape any bits off the bottom of the skillet.  increase the heat to reduce the liquid to begin to build a flavor base in the sauce.

3. Return the meat to the skillet. add the chopped tomatoes and cover the meat with chicken stock.  Cover the skillet and simmer over low heat for about  2 hours for veal and 3 to 3.5 hours for venison shanks or until meat is falling off of the bone.  You may need to add chicken stock to keep the pan moist or partially remove the cover to allow the sauce to reduce as the shanks cook.  The resulting sauce should be thick and gelatinous.
4.  As the shanks cook, mix the minced garlic, parsley and lemon zest to make the gemolata.  30 minutes prior to serving, sprinkle half of the gremolata on the shanks and reserve the remainder to garnish each plate.
5. Serve the shanks on a warmed plate spooning sauce over shanks and my favorite accompaniment Israeli cous cous.  Garnish the shanks with the reserved germolata and serve with a salad.
It's great eating from the garden on a cold winter day.