Monday, February 29, 2016

Take a Leap Day!

Today is Leap Day! So I'm inviting you to take a leap into the unknown and do one of my favorite things - grow an edible plant you haven't tried before.

It's great to have old reliables in our gardens, plants we know will produce well for us without falling to disease or pests, and that we'll enjoy eating. Some people grow the same varieties for fifty years and are never disappointed. But even those who appreciate the tried-and-true can also benefit from giving a little garden space to something new and unknown. After all, every seed or plant that ends up in cultivation and commerce is one that someone out there has loved! And if you grow something and don't like the results, generally you haven't wasted a lot of time, space, or money, and have gained some knowledge - but if you do like it you have a new plant in your repertoire (and your kitchen).

If I'm asked to suggest something new to grow, I usually recommend mouse melon, a.k.a. Mexican sour gherkin or cucamelon. I wrote about these adorable mini-cukes back in 2010, and the post has continued to be very popular, so perhaps everyone's tried them already.

But if you haven't, Leap Year is the time to do so.

What are my Leap Year choices? I'll hopefully be writing about quite a few new things this year, but here are some examples I pulled out of my seed list. (Links do not constitute commercial endorsement by University of Maryland Extension.)

King Harry Potato was developed to have hairy (ha ha pun get it?) leaves which resist leafhoppers, flea beetles, and Colorado potato beetles.

The herbs horehound and kinh gioi are both members of the mint family, so I'll have to watch their seeding and spreading habits, but if they end up being useful I have areas they can colonize a bit.

Horehound, Marrubium vulgare

The giant poha berry is a type of groundcherry or Cape gooseberry that bears extra-large fruit. It is a relative of tomatoes, as is tzimbalo, a fruit similar to pepino melon but purportedly with a shorter growing season. I've tried pepino before but run out of time for the fruit to mature - probably I will grow the tzimbalo in a container so I can bring it inside in the fall.

I also may try these pineberries (a relative of strawberry with a pineapple taste).

February 29th only happens once every four years, but you can Leap into something new every year! Give it a try.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Tronchuda: seconding the recommendation

Barbara Damrosch's Washington Post column today is about couve tronchuda, otherwise known as Portuguese kale or cabbage - you should go read it, but basically it's a rave. And I agree.

I just started growing this collard relative last year, and I'm already very fond of it, for its taste and culinary usefulness, for its gorgeous appearance, and for its relative heat tolerance (as these things go for brassicas).

Not a great photo (from last May), but I think it gives you an idea of how attractive this plant is in the garden, with those great big white stems and veins. Unfortunately, it's not any more bug resistant than other cabbage family relatives, but at least since the structure is open it's easier to get the caterpillars out. Or you can of course use floating row cover. You can grow it from spring into early summer, and then again in fall (but not winter, unless you have a greenhouse - really cold temperatures will kill it).

Here are this year's seedlings - probably started a bit too early, since the growth rate of tronchuda is more like kale or collards than like traditional cabbage:

But I'll have some nice big plants to go into the ground in early April.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Think tomatoes!

It is a good day to think about tomatoes, in part because the weather is completely the opposite of good tomato-growing weather - in fact it feels like someone is throwing rotten squishy icy fruit at us - and also because if you haven't ordered your seeds yet, you might want to consider getting around to it, since you'll be wanting to start them inside in about a month. A month, mind you - not today, not next week, unless you are prepared to care for enormous tomato seedlings until it's warm enough to plant them outside. A month, or quite possibly more than that. I keep meaning to wait until about March 30.

If you still have tomato seeds left over from last year, never fear, they are good to go. In fact, if you've kept your seeds under cool, dry conditions, they are good for several years. Experts disagree as to how many - tomato seeds five years old or even more seem to germinate at reasonable rates, but possibly the resulting plants are not as vigorous.

But even if we have enough seeds left over to plant twenty gardens, most of us can't resist acquiring a few new varieties. I have succumbed, this year, to two more Wild Boar Farms developments: a cherry called Blue Gold Berries (yellow with blue shading, as described), and a crazy multi-color small slicer called Cosmic Eclipse. Haven't yet decided what else I'm growing, but I will have to restrain myself, since I only have room for eight ten okay maybe twelve plants in my community garden plot, and the demo garden will only take a couple more of mine. But, you know, I have friends I can unload them on, so...

I quizzed a few other GIEI bloggers about their tomato-growing plans, and here's what they said:

Kent Philips: "This year, I'm growing my usual Pink Brandywine, Sungold, Big Rainbow and Big Mama.  I'm trialing Gilbertie and Joe Thienman Australian Heart."

Nancy Taylor Robson is dealing with a greenhouse emergency and hasn't made all her choices yet, but she is thinking about growing Persimmon, Mortgage Lifter, Beefsteak (organic), Big Mama hybrid, Big Rainbow, Sungold and Sunchocula.

Sabine Harvey: "I am growing my yearly favorites: Gilberti, Juliet and Cherokee Purple. New this year are: Sungold, Persimmon, Australian Heart, Striped Roman and Iron Lady. I may add one more."

Let us know what tomatoes you're trying this year!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Starting Vegetable Seeds Under Fluorescent Lights

Well,  all of my vegetable seed orders have been placed and the seeds are on their way.  Now, all I have to do is check my fluorescent lights in the basement, get a bale of seed starting mix and make sure that the heat mat is functioning.

In January 2015, I wrote a blog about starting seeds and growing transplants under fluorescent lights. This blog talked about replacing fluorescent tubes after they started to loose the quantity (lumens) of light they produced.  Below is a picture of a lettuce box I use as an exhibit for my container gardening talks.

That blog also referenced other links to GIEI webpages on using fluorescent lights to grow transplants.  In this blog, I want to talk about timing or when to start various types of vegetables.

I start most of my seeds under fluorescent lights and transplant them into the garden at the time recommended by HGIC's HG-16 Planting Dates for Vegetables Crops in MD or GE007 Vegetable Planting Calendar for Central MD.  Based on my planting date for Clarksville MD, I constructed a spreadsheet that calculates seed starting dates for all of my vegetables.  While my timing ( weeks prior to plant out date)  in my spreadsheet tends to be a little shorter than the number of weeks found on the backs of some seed packets and on the GIEI webpage, I find that I get younger and stockier plants by starting plants later and moving them into my cold frame the week prior to the plant out date.

This spreadsheet can be found of the  Howard County MG GIEI webpage.  The link to the spreadsheet is on the top right of the page under Quick and Useful Links.

So onions are started this week and the brassicas and lettuces two weeks later.  The days to germinate and my number of weeks to start the seed prior to the outdoor planting date are taken from the back of the seed packets, the Johnny's Seed catalog or my experience.

I even start most of my squash and cukes indoors in 4 inch pots, 4 seeds to a pot.  I cut off the two weakest seedlings and when I plant them out, cover then with row cover until they start to bloom. Using this method, I get excellent results and with the help of Surround (kaolin clay), I manage to keep the squash bugs and cucumber beetles to acceptable levels.  It also allows me to start transplants during late spring to replace spring crops pulled in early summer.

The GIEI website has lots of useful info on seed starting.  Many people will start their seedlings in a communal pot and transplant them to individual pots after they have their true leaves. Because I have a number of lights, I grow all of my seedlings in individual cells of cell pack.  This saves me from transplanting them to larger containers.  My system works well for me and over the years has saved me lots of money versus buying transplants from a nursery.  It also allows me to insure that the variety of vegetable transplants are available when I need them.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

2016: Year of the Tomato!!

Grow It Eat It announces that in 2016 we're celebrating everyone's favorite, the tomato! You can read all about it on our Year of the Tomato page - we're going to have a red and juicy time! (And other colors too. Let's celebrate a rainbow of tomatoes.)

Many posts coming up on this lovely (botanical) fruit, but meanwhile you can visit the links to old GIEI blog posts via the tomato page link above.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pulling Supper Off The Shelves

Bad picture of full pantry

One of the reasons I love to can is the bounty you end up with in the dead of winter. As long as there are jars of last year’s produce safely tucked away on the pantry shelves, I feel safe (smug even) when the weatherman starts talking about Snowmageddon and urges everyone to rush out to stores. I must admit, I made sure the wine and chocolate were sufficient to a few days’ cabin fever – but otherwise, we were pretty much good to go with what I had stockpiled from last year’s garden.

I know a lot of people don’t can tomatoes – they freeze them instead. But I do both – partly for space (only so much on the pantry shelves, only so much in the freezer) and partly for flavor and convenience of use. I like the flavor of canned tomatoes and you don't have to thaw them. I can quart and pint jars of tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, salsa V-8 (or my equivalent) and Bloody Mary mix, which is just as delicious in soup as in vodka. 

Half a quart of canned tomatoes going into soup
There are jars of bread and butter pickles (which is lovely on a tuna melt to say nothing of with chicken sausage or turkey sandwiches or just out of the jar for a sweet-sour snack), pickled lemon peppers for adding to virtually anything needing a little kick, and lemon peppers in sherry for black bean soup, curried red pepper jelly (a great hostess gift when you’re rushing out the door to a party your forgot you were invited to) and great on goat cheese and crackers or mixed into venison stew. There’s raspberry jam, raspberry shrub and raspberry vinegar.  Tomato bullion, a spicy mix of tomatoes, onions, black pepper, a little brown sugar and celery seed is called Ma Comp’s Soup Seasoning in Maryland’s Way Cookbook. A couple of tablespoons in a mug of hot water is a delicious and quick mid-morning pick-me-up.

There are pickled dilly green beans, which are nice when someone stops in for cocktails – also one of the imperatives when someone slogs through snow or mud to come visit because they’re going nuts at home after several days of shoveling. There are also dried herbs – oregano is particularly easy as is thyme and they taste so much fresher and more flavorful if you do it yourself – and dried beans – calypso beans and tiger’s eye, which I particularly like. (My husband very sweetly shells them out in the evening in late fall). To complement these home-grown and home-canned things, I stock other dried peas, beans and lentils and tins of things like sardines and tuna, chipotle peppers, and anchovies.

Sautéed leeks, onions and celery for tomato and white wine soup
Tomato and white wine soup about to simmer. Easy lunch
I freeze a lot of things too, and not just the things that aren't safe to can in a water bath. Last year I had plenty of tomatoes and peppers and so sautéed a kind of quick sofrito, a tomato-pepper-onion seasoning you can pull out and throw into a frying pan full of chicken or chorizo and rice with a little white wine and have supper in no time flat. I also did something I saw on TV years ago – put about four large tomatoes and one big onion into a Dutch oven with about 2-3 tablespoons of melted butter and let the whole thing simmer on the lowest possible heat until it’s all soft. Maybe 35 minutes. Puree it, cool it and stick it in the freezer in a quart bag or container. Pull it out to make a quick vodka sauce for pasta, or in my case, use it as the very quick base for red pepper soup. I happened to find three beautiful fresh red peppers (when I went back out to the grocery story AFTER everyone had picked the shelves pretty clean), chopped them up, threw them with three cloves of chopped garlic into a pot of that tomato-onion-butter base along with a chicken bullion cube and voila! Soup!

Why am I gloating? (AM I gloating?  I like to think of it as encouragement). Because NOW is the best time to start planning what you can plant to have a full pantry next winter, when Snowmageddon 2017 comes. The seed catalogues are here now, you can look with starry-eyed wonder at the perfect garden that you will plant (in your dreams), and you might be looking around your pantry – or whatever shelves or storage you have for what they could hold. (Marisa in Philly keeps hers in the closet along with her shoes).
Having a stocked pantry, or closet or whatever is like money in the bank.

Pureed tomatoes and onion in a little butter

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Maximize the Nutritional Benefits of Your Garden with This One Step

In my work in nutrition I am often asked the question “what is one thing I can do to improve my health?” My answer is almost always “eat more vegetables!”  The Dietary Guidelines of America, recently re-released with new changes as of January 2016, state that half of our daily caloric intake should come in the form of a fruit or a vegetable.  It is especially important to focus on eating more vegetables because they are low in sugar and calories while being rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals. 

Phytochemicals are chemicals in plants that have a health giving property but do not fall under that category of a nutrient (fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamin or mineral).  According to the Produce for a Better Health Foundation there may be as many as 4,000 different phytochemicals found in the plant kingdom. These chemicals serve many roles for the plants including protecting them from plant diseases.  Likewise, when we consume them through plant foods we can enjoy the health benefits of these phytochemicals.

You may have heard of some of these healthful chemicals including antioxidants, anthocyanidins, polyphenols and carotenoids. Often, these healthy chemicals are also pigments, giving the plant vibrant color.

Since these healthy phytochemicals are often associated with color you can maximize your phytochemical consumption through eating a variety of colorful fruit and vegetables. For example most orange foods contain beta-carotene which is great for your immune system and vision while purple foods often contain anthocyanidins which promotes blood vessel health. To learn more about the specific health benefits of these colorful chemicals visit this great interactive online tool from Produce for a Better Health Foundation:

Since now is the time gardeners start receiving seed catalogs and thinking about which seeds you will order it is a great time to start planning how you will bring a rainbow of color into your garden. You could grow red tomatoes, green broccoli and purple onions to get that color but you can also experiment with different varieties like yellow tomatoes, purple potatoes, pink beans, red lettuce or yellow cauliflower.  Often you can even get seed packets with multiple varieties.

So to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this post about one thing you can do to maximize the nutritional benefits of your garden: Grow a variety of colorful foods in your garden to ensure a wide range of wonderful and health promoting phytochemicals.