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Roasting as a Pastime

Roasted Italian Memories

The evening was stormy. Cracks of thunder played overhead. As we hurried up the old cobbled street, our feet danced around the growing puddles and streams. We were staying in an ancient hamlet buried in the hilly Umbrian countryside. Upon stepping into the trattoria, we took in the aromas of roasting meats, pizzas, breads, and vegetables.

A gorgeous and massive medieval pizza oven took up one entire wall of the kitchen. Stacks of olivewood sat neatly stacked to one side. This was my first exposure to the unabashed, divine nature of roasting. The cozy warmth on a cold and rainy night. The taste of a perfectly charred beet, halved garlic heads drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wild mushrooms and fennel bulbs. They pulled me in. I was hooked and haven’t looked back. I relegated the taste of bland canned beets and garlic powder from my childhood to the cobweb-filled attic of my memory bank. Going forward, it was roasting or nothing. This was a sort of genesis, a new horizon. I moved from steamed carrots to roasted carrots, from boiled baby potatoes to toasted wedges.

Roasting Beets

Let’s take beets. It seems simple enough. I slice the freshly scrubbed beets into wedges, toss them in olive oil, sea salt, and coarsely ground black pepper. Next I spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, placing them in a hot oven to roast (400 F). After cooling the beets, I drizzle red wine vinegar and a good quality olive oil and then add sliced green onions and toasted pumpkin seeds. I lightly toss the mixture and lay the salad over a bed of arugula.

As we tuck our forks into this ruby salad, a refreshing sweetness greets us. Roasting the beets has concentrated their sugars and given the tips of the wedges a slight crunch. The overall result is delicious.

Roasting vegetables produces a depth of flavor one doesn’t get with the other types of cooking. An almost caramel tone develops in them.

Roasting Cauliflower

Let’s look at cauliflower. Take a whole cauliflower, steam it for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, after taking it out, rub it all over with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it in a very hot oven (475 degrees) for 20 minutes or until toasty on the top surface. This version of roasted cauliflower is absolutely scrumptious served with a cool yogurt cilantro sauce.

Roasting Eggplant

Another vegetable that benefits immensely from roasting is eggplant. Roasting transforms the interior of eggplant into an almost buttery consistency. I recently made an iteration of an Israeli staple where I roasted the scored and oiled halves of an eggplant until they became nicely browned. Then I topped each half with a citrus, pomegranate molasses, and tahini mixture and broiled those halves for a couple minutes until they turned caramel in color. I covered these halves with dollops of a yogurt cucumber mixture, sprinkled toasted pistachios, slivered mint, and Italian parsley.

Adding Complexity with Sauces

The dry heat of an oven amps up the flavor of what can normally be a rather plain tasting vegetable. Roasting adds the char on the edges and a caramel-like sweetness. With a bit of creativity accented by fresh herbs and cool flavor filled sauces, roasted vegetables move from the ordinary to the deliciously sublime.

Using whole-milk yogurt as a base and adding refreshing ingredients such as lime, lemon, cilantro, Italian parsley, basil, dill, cucumber, scallions, and spring greens like arugula, sauces and dips can compliment the depth of flavor in roasted vegetables. It’s the savory counter to ice cream on a slice of pie. You can definitely do without it, but oh, its addition is so wonderful!

Vegetables Galore

We are about to enter into the season of ubiquitous vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, beets, carrots, onions, cabbages, and squash of all varieties will soon be at our fingertips. Try roasting these.

When garden produce is starting to pile up on my counter, I pull out a sheet pan, lay down parchment, spread out any variety of vegetables, drizzle them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and add whole garlic cloves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Then I place the pan in a very hot oven (400 F). Simple prep, yet it yields a divinely complex result.

However you end up using the vegetables in the end, roasting first will give a new dimension of flavor to the dish. Be it a salad, a soup, a side, an hors d’oeuvres, or a braise, roast and then combine. You won’t have any regrets.

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A Year for Beans

“Never ever ever mess around with my greens. Especially the beans!” My sentiments exactly. This line from the musical Into the Woods echoed through my mind as I watched the beans twist and curl their way up the fences. This summer was, for me, an adventurous journey into the world of funky, heirloom beans. 

Too Many Kinds to Count

There were so many varieties, each with distinctive patterns and colors. White beans inside yellow pods, black or brown beans in green pods, pink stripes, purple stripes, deep purple; these are just a sampling of this summer’s collection. Even multiple continents made an appearance. There were beans from Italy, Ireland, the U.S., Germany, France, the Netherlands, and even a bean developed in good ol’ Minnesota. 

I used the forgotten spaces of the fenceline to plant the pole bean varieties. I tucked the bush beans into open areas or spaces previously used by early spring vegetables like radishes.  Because beans need to be planted once the soil is warm, you can inter-plant them with plants like sugar snap peas and radishes that bear quickly in the spring and then are done. Beans mature much later than radishes or peas, so by planting them in the same space, you are maximizing your garden yield. 

A Beneficial Legume for The Garden

Beans are part of the legume family. Legumes are a beneficial type of vegetable to plant throughout your garden because legumes fix nitrogen. They pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air, and then the bacteria attached to its roots convert the nitrogen into a form usable as a nutrient for the plant. When the plant is done, the usable forms (ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites) are available in the soil for the nearby plant roots to use. Biological nitrogen fixation is an example of nature using its own plants to fertilize itself. 

Companion Planting the Beans

This concept is also referred to as companion planting, where plants mutually benefit each other when planted next to one another, a practice that has been done for centuries. Native Americans mastered this age-old practice when they would plant a combination of vegetables they named “the three sisters.” First they buried corn kernels into the ground in the shape of small rings, and then they surrounded the corn with beans. Lastly, they planted squash in the spaces between the corn/bean rings. The beans fertilized the soil for the corn and squash, using the tall corn stalks as a trellis to climb. The squash formed a high thick carpet on the ground that cooled the roots of the beans and corn, allowing them to thrive. The squash’s thick prickly leaves also served as a deterrent for animals that might want to come and nibble on the crops. 

The Health of Beans

Beans are not only good for the soil; they are likewise good for your health. A wonderful source of the B vitamin folate, they are also high in fiber, protein, iron, and magnesium. As a nutrient-packed, low fat, and very inexpensive vegetable, let’s just say their return on investment is huge. For each single little bean buried into the sweet summer dirt, you will reap a hundredfold in harvest.

Harvesting and Storing

I began harvesting the long, thin French varieties in July. They add a delightful crunch to salads. You can steam them with a touch of butter and lemon or steam and quickly cool them to dip into aioli on an antipasto platter. The wax and purple varieties came next. These went into stir fries, soups, and casseroles. Finally, a breakpoint arrived where I halted harvesting them so the remaining could mature and become dried beans for this winter. 

This is where I find myself now. I have brought all the beans in from the garden. I have threshed the driest of the bunch to get the beans out of the stiff, dried pod. The rest find themselves spread out in the basement until they are also ready for threshing. 

I have pulled out a select few from each variety to plant again next year. I will store these in a cool spot until early next summer when I will plant them. The remaining dried beans are awaiting incorporation into our winter menu of hearty stews, casseroles, bean salads, and dips.

Garden grown beans offer a welcome consolation in these cool, dreary, autumn days. Whether it’s a cassoulet or a bowl of ham and bean soup, these are the gifts summer has given to winter. The memory of delicate purple flowers gracing the tips of vines exploring their way up and over the fenceline. Tiny little bean pods transforming into delicious adult counterparts. I taste these memories as I bring a spoonful to my lips. 

Yes, as the fairy tales have claimed, beans are certainly magical. And they are not to be messed with.

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For the Love of Tomatoes

How is it that our favorite vegetable is only available in its perfectly ripened glory for a couple months in late summer? Tomatoes, naturally sweetened by the sun, have a fresh yet unami quality that is hard to replicate in the winter months. Their shortened availability feeds our ubiquitous obsession with the pomme d’amour of all colors and sizes.

Growing Tomatoes

I have grown (and attempted to grow) tomatoes for over 30 years. They can actually be quite a finicky plant to grow well. Many factors go into successfully planting, growing, and harvesting these beauties. They are known to be heavy feeders, so you want to plant them in rich soil. They tend to be susceptible to diseases, especially those that are moisture-related. A number of insects agree with us and think they are delicious. They do best in as much sun as they can get. The stems can break easily, so we’re always looking for the newest and greatest way to support them. This is getting to be a daunting list.

Despite these potential obstacles, tomatoes are the one vegetable around which my garden is organized. My primario. I decide where in the garden I am going to move my tomatoes (because, of course, tomatoes are picky about this as well. They shouldn’t be planted in the same spot year to year, or they will get a blight disease that harbors in the soil). Once I know they’ll be in a spot they fancy and where they’ll flourish, I lay out the blueprint for the rest of my garden.

Choosing Varieties

My first consideration in choosing which tomatoes to plant is always about how I am going to use them in the kitchen. Will they be eaten fresh, in sandwiches, in salads, or as part of an hors d’oeuvre? How much pasta sauce or salsa am I going to preserve this year?

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That leads me to which varieties are going to serve my needs best. I tend to prefer the complex flavors, shapes and colors of heirlooms, yet I am constantly frustrated by how easily they get diseased and how relatively few tomatoes each plant produces. After years of planting only heirlooms or hybrids, the last few years I have planted a cross between the two. I am hedging my bets, hoping that the best qualities of each will shine through.

I have faithfully done everything my high-maintenance, lipstick-colored orbs require. The soil has been enriched with compost, they have been fertilized, mulched, pruned, staked, nipped, and tucked. Now it’s time for them to start giving back. To earn their keep, so to speak. It’s August, and I have big culinary plans, almost all of which involves tomatoes.

Cooking with Tomatoes

Let’s start simply. The cherry versions often don’t make it out of the garden, nibbled by kids and adults alike. One of my favorite treats is to sprinkle an interesting sea salt on slices and eat these while still warm from the sunshine.

This is when I splurge on great olive oil, as freshly pressed as I can find. I lean toward the grassy peppery flavor tones. This gets drizzled over tomatoes, slivers of my newly harvested garlic, pieces of torn basil leaves, crushed pepper, and a flaky sea salt. When stacked atop a slice of grilled baguette, it becomes a dish I could actually eat every night of the year. I know I can’t, however, thus compounding its allure.

My imagination for their uses is only limited by the available waking hours of the days. I tuck tomatoes into tarts, crepes, tacos, soups, pizza, braises, pasta dishes, salads, and sandwiches. I haven’t included them in my oatmeal or homemade ice cream, so for now, breakfast and dessert haven’t been invaded. I’ll have to work on that. A tomato sorbet might be in my future.

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Random Beauty: Self-Seeding

It was a cool, late spring afternoon. The sun shone, but there was a slight bite in the air. We were itching to dig outside in the dirt. My kids inspected the garlic patch, which was by now a foot tall. They called out to me, “Mom, we can’t believe you haven’t weeded the garlic. Look at all the weeds coming out of the ground.” I came over to inspect, and then I started to explain each little plant. This one was arugula. That one was fennel. Over here was dill. There was cilantro. These weren’t weeds at all. They were self-seeding plants from previous years.

Self-Seeding: What is it?

Self-seeding happens when a plant is left to flower and then go to seed. In the summer sun, these seeds dry out and drop onto the ground or are blown by the wind. They sink into the soil and stay there until the time is right for them to germinate and grow into a new plant. This is nature’s way of sustaining itself. It’s also how a weed can go from one plant to 300 in no time flat.

Over the past number of years, I have been increasingly intentional about letting my herbs and vegetables produce flowers so the beneficial insects have nectar to eat. On any summer day, fennel, cilantro, arugula, and lettuce flowers are covered with little hoverflies or bumblebees busily sucking in the sweet nectar these flowers provide. As they move from flower to flower, these diminutive bugs play the essential role of pollinating our fruit and vegetable plants.

Why Self-Seed?

Many might say that letting plants self-seed is the lazy gardener’s way of operating. That is true in some respect. It can also be a frugal way to garden. When you let plants self-seed, you don’t have to buy the seed or plant the seed. It just comes up on its own.

I tend to have a favorable perspective on the philosophy of self-seeding. I love the whimsy of a coleus flower poking up in the middle of my radishes or a bachelor button in my beets. Cilantro taking root within my carrots brings me joy. Loveliness arises when a broad, white dill flower stands proudly next to the cucumbers. Order is laced with beautiful disarray.

Ordered Chaos

Yesterday as I was harvesting berries, tucked up under the branches of the mulberry tree which the birds planted years ago, I noticed that the clematis had vined up around a lower mulberry branch. The plum-colored flowers intertwined with the dark purple berries. This simple artistry caught me and drew me in. The intentional encircling the accidental, the fanciful result of order marrying chaos.

Many gardeners set aside a designated garden space for self-seeding plants. Sometimes they combine this with their perennial vegetable garden. Perennial vegetables include plants like asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, walking onions, thyme, chives, and oregano. If these two categories mix in the same space, technically one never needs to plant these vegetables and herbs again. As the saying goes, “One only plants tomatillos once.” Tomatillos are famous for self-seeding.

Exceptions to Self-Seeding

There are a few caveats in this whole discussion. I do weed extensively in places where I do not want self-seeding plants to grow. For example, a lot of dill came up in a section where I had planted beets. I harvested the dill when it was five or six inches tall, opening up the space for the beets to grow and thrive. A similar thing happened where I planted my Basil Genovese. Arugula was happily growing very tall, shading the tiny basil plants. Guess what I ate for dinner last night? An arugula salad. The dill is going to top a baked slab of fish shortly.

Another point I want to be sure and mention is to not let invasive plants self-seed. As much as the bees go crazy for mint flowers, I am fastidious about plucking them off the mint plants before they can drop their seed and spread around the garden. The same holds true for both regular and garlic chives. Heirloom tomatoes can be included as well simply because if you let tomatoes drop onto the ground and they rot there for the rest of the summer, a tight collection of tomato plants will sprout the next year. These will undoubtedly be planted in the wrong spot and too tightly together. You can carefully transplant a few of them into the intended spots, but the rest will probably go into the compost pile.

Compost Plants

Speaking of compost piles, there’s many a squash or plant that has emerged from its surface because someone discarded their extras the previous summer. Again, the delightful unintended consequences occasionally graced upon us by nature. The idea of something as delicious as squash growing out of the rot of compost is a concept paralleled in many aspects of life. I suppose this is what attracts me to the random beauty of self-seeded plants.

I will savor the cilantro in my mango salad. The radish flowers (a plant I’m allowing to self-seed for next year) are going into a bouquet on my dining room table. The sunflowers and bachelor buttons will bloom and then dry to drop their seeds for another year. Beauty moves forward, magnifying into the future.

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Garden Planning to Soothe the Soul

Spring Planting

Seed catalogs litter my couch. I keep pouring over the pages of flowers and vegetables. I have garden tabs open across the top of my computer screen, and I have been driving through town, stopping by garden shops. Amid all this planning, the plants are pulling me in, whispering, “I am beautiful. I am delicious. Buy me. Plant me.”

Planting time is approaching. The days are longer and warmer. We have been cooped up, self-isolating, and our reaction to this seclusion is to get outside. In the face of sickness, we have an inner voice inspiring us to self-improve and do what we can within ourselves to combat the enemy that is consuming our world.

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We have this urge to grow plants for eating. We want to surround ourselves with beauty, living greenery, and flowers. The desire to eat healthy foods enthralls us. We are exercising more than ever. It seems more important than ever that we plant our gardens. For our soundness of mind, we need to sink our hands in the dirt and bury seeds that soon will produce vegetal plenty.

Finding Garden Plants

Now, where to go to procure these seeds and plants? As local businesses are struggling, it seems more important now than ever to support them. I choose to buy my garden supplies from those I value and rely on during normal gardening seasons. I carefully tuck away the catalogs, turn off the computer, and buy from the shops in my community.

Whether it’s calling on the phone, ordering by computer, or, mask in hand, actually visiting these shops, seeds and plants will come home with me. The plants that fill my garden this year and the flowers that will spill out of my planters will mean more than ever.

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Planning the Garden

First, I start with a plan. What should I plant first? Second? In a few weeks? My garden map is sketched, pencil on graph paper. I need to place the nightshade plants in a new spot this year. Maybe where the basil was last year.

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I tend to go a little crazy on tomato plants. My resolution for 2020 is to control myself and carefully choose my favorite varieties. A few heirlooms, some Romas for pasta sauce, a couple sweet cherries, a couple dependable heavy producers, and most importantly, some new interesting colors and shapes. These are going to take too much room. I erase and rearrange the vegetables on my map, trying to squeeze in my indulgences. So many indulgences, so little space… There are simply too many have-to-have tomatoes.

Planning a Timeline

The cool weather vegetables need to go into the ground. Kale, arugula, sweet peas, radishes, lettuces, onions, leeks, carrots, beets, radicchio, Swiss chard.

My attention now turns to planning what I will plant in late May. It is important to purchase them now, as these unusual varieties tend to sell out. Plants include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cold-sensitive herbs and flowers. After bringing them home, they can harden in my yard for a while before they get planted.

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Lastly are the vegetables that cannot get planted until the ground is very warm: beans, cucumbers, and squash. I buy the seeds but will hold off planting until early June.

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With my plan forming, I can already smell the intoxicating scents of the garden. Tall dill that I allow to self seed everywhere (My small contribution to the black swallowtail butterfly). The delicate white cilantro flowers. Marigolds and nasturtium. The distinctive aroma of a just pruned tomato plant. Green fingertips. The yellow finches flitting from coleus to coleus, eating their seeds. This planning process elicits a visceral reaction. This garden is already worming its way into my soul.

The Hope of Spring

While on a walk, I hear the robins chirp as they busily go about building their nests. The squirrels race from tree to tree, busy with who knows what. The buds on the magnolia trees are just appearing, ivory cashmere petals emerging from pale green, velvety calyx.

The cool spring air. I breathe in deeply. Thankful. The soft new grass seems so green. Rhubarb and strawberry leaves push up through the soft, damp earth. The roses and clematis don’t realize there’s a deadly virus afoot. The plum and cherry trees are blithely budding. Nature is seemingly unaware of our current crisis.

This new birth is calming and reassuring. Heading to the garden, trowel and seed packets in hand, I settle in to dig, plant, and water, waiting for the future, waiting for new life to emerge.

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A Garlic Obsession

Is it possible to create a new food group? How about an additional nutrient? Maybe it was one of the treasures found in the pyramids of Egypt. Questions fly around such as, “Is it a vegetable or an herb?” Aaahhh, yes, you know I am talking about garlic. In my kitchen there are few things that sneak themselves into my cooking more often than that firm but juicy bulb named garlic.

Cooking with Garlic

I must admit, I have a self-diagnosed and historical obsession with the culinary bulb. As a way of denial, let’s call it a garlic penchant. Garlic has been inching its way more and more into my dishes and menus for several decades now. It started innocently enough back in the mid ‘80s when a little garlic powder sprinkled on my garlic bread was a natural accompaniment to spaghetti sauce with meatballs. When I moved from opening a jar to creating the sauce for the afore-mentioned spaghetti sauce, I realized the value of its culinary pungency. It was uphill (or should I say downhill?) from there.

I seem to regularly make dishes that just happen to have it as an ingredient. Or do I search for dishes that include it? In the back of my mind, I remember, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” In my way of thinking, it is “A garlic clove per day…”

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Ingredients for a Cambodian chicken curry featuring scratch lemongrass paste made with garden garlic and lemongrass.

Three square meals of garlic per day, you say? That is possible. Garlic for breakfast? Yep. A necessity in mushroom crepes. Lunch? Of course. The classic French oil and vinegar dressing drizzled on my garden greens by all standards Françoise must contain a minced clove. Then from 4:00 p.m. and onward, it shows up everywhere, working its way into every dish. Garlic is an essential part of the tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella cheese crostini I’m currently addicted to. Whether I make a Mexican dish like pork green chili, a toothsome Tuscan garlic and kale soup, a Creole classic Maque Choix, or Spanish paella, they are all rife with garlic.

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Garden tomatoes, basil, and garlic with mozzarella over French bread.

Growing Garlic

Garlic has been much more easily consumed in my kitchen than grown in my garden. My issues with growing a successful crop has included forgetting to harvest it in a timely fashion (it needs to come out of the ground once about half of the green tops have dried and turned a sandy color and in mid July), overcrowding the cloves when planting, locating the garlic plot in a sunny location, planting smaller cloves (large cloves=large bulbs the following year).

Well, this year I’ve finally arrived! I successfully grew garlic! Last summer I decided it was time I took the time and effort to buy and plant this beloved vegetable properly. After reading up on the specifics of growing garlic, I shopped around online and ended up ordering from Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. I chose the sunniest spot in my garden beds and prepped the soil. Garlic bulbs are heavy feeders, so I added extra compost to the area. In late September I buried them in the ground, layering inches of dried leaves overtop to insulate against our frigid winters. I secured these with battened down cardboard. Lo and behold, they even survived this winter’s Polar Vortex.

About the Bulb

Regarding garlic, it belongs to the onion genus, Allium, which in turn is a part of the lily family. In the garden, it has almost no enemies. I suppose the same odor that, when consumed by you and me, scares away friends and family also keeps away garden pests. As it turns out it is also rather easy to grow (a fact that previously seems to have eluded me). When you give it sun and space, it rewards you first with scapes and then large bulbous heads.

The only catch to success is that you have to plan a year in advance. In the upper Midwest, the bulbs need to go into the ground in the fall nine months before they are harvested. If you have a sunny corner and an interest in growing garlic, it is almost time to plant. You can check your local greenhouses or look at online vendors, bearing in mind that favorite varieties sell out quickly.

Varieties

The garlic that you find in the vegetable section of your grocery store usually is not successful in your garden. There are several reasons for this. First, much of our grocery store garlic comes from China and they treat it with a chemical to prevent it from sprouting. Secondly, most garlic you find in grocery store is soft neck garlic which isn’t hardy north of zone 6. If you live in zone 6 or south and want to try planting these soft-neck varieties, do it in the very early spring while it is still cold out.

The rest of us have to “settle” for the wonderfully interesting hard-neck varieties. These little gems we’re settling for, why do we love them so? I know I’ve mentioned juicy before, but that’s one of their prime descriptors. Juicy and crisp. Very different from your grocery store bulbs that have been sitting around for months before they get to the produce department. And quite honestly, the taste is fresher. Something is delicious about them because they are disappearing out of my kitchen faster than I can say “I am crazy for roasted garlic soup.”

Health Benefits

I know you are asking, is garlic actually healthy for me to eat? There has and continues to be a great deal of research around this bulb and its health benefits. What the holistic community has been touting for millennia the modern scientific community is working hard to confirm. From acting as an antimicrobial to helping to improve lipid profiles to aiding in the prevention of some types of cancer, more of garlic’s attributes are being discovered or confirmed every year.

This really is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation. Do we love the ethnic foods from every continent because they contain our beloved garlic, or is it because of our preoccupation with this crisp and flavorful bulb that we snatch up all available fresh heads at the local farmers market to work into our evening menu?

Does it matter? I say go forth. Indulge. And if you can’t convince your friends and family to join you in your garlic-feeding frenzy, make sure you have a stash of breath mints handy.

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Lettuce: The Shoulder Season Crop

My garden is planted. The carrots, beets, and kale are poking through the ground, the strawberries still little green orbs. Tiny flowers adorn the tomatoes and peppers in preparation for their future bounty. The rhubarb is mostly finished, having been transformed into many toothsome desserts. Alas, as far as gardens go, the middle of June is known as “shoulder season.” We are waiting, waiting for the vegetables we have planted to be laden with their bounty. Yet something is ready to be picked and eaten in all its tender beauty, lettuce.

A Time for Lettuce

My garden is bountiful with a host of lettuces. Purple and red varieties, lettuce with red speckles, lettuce with curly edges, and of course, green lettuce. These colorful leaves grace our gardens and plates.

This green loves to germinate and grow in the cool, wet weather of spring and early summer. In fact, it has a hard time germinating in the heat of midsummer. In the early spring and late fall, however, it goes to town.

The ground was barely free of snow when I planted the first seeds this spring. I’ll do this same thing again when the crisp days of fall are on the horizon. Planting in a sunny spot or one that gets a bit of afternoon sunshine will ensure that the plants quickly poke their little heads through the earth’s surface.

The spring rain showers help keep the ground moist. I usually scatter the seeds randomly in a square space. When they come up, they’ll be very crowded. I thin them as they grow, eventually leaving several inches between plants. In this way I get to harvest lettuce for weeks. I always leave a few plants to go to flower and then to seed. The flowers serve as food to the bees and little beneficial insects that drink their nectar. Once they go to seed, these seeds drop to become new plants next season.

Eating Well with Lettuce

We used to think that lettuce was basically just glorified water. We thought it did not have much nutritional value, but we now know this is absolutely not true. Lettuce and greens of all kinds are packed with nutrients, vitamins A and K, folate, and molydenum to name a few. Flavonoids and phenolic acids are just a couple of the antioxidants present that work their magic in you to help prevent diseases and keep you healthy.

If the nutritiousness does not propel you to make lettuce cups for your grilled salmon salad, the fresh crunchy flavor will. The taste of just picked lettuce is unlike any green I have tasted all winter. This is my launchpad into summer garden goodness.

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Garden lettuce is the first ingredient in any number of salads. It is the thick layer of crispness in my sandwiches. It adorns my platters of hors d’oeuvres. I fill the thicker romaine cups with endless variations of meat or vegetable salads.

Cleaning Garden Greens

One of the deterrents to eating garden lettuce is cleaning garden lettuce. I have found the fastest way to clean a pile of dirt-laden lettuce is to soak it in a sink full of cold water. Stir gently with your fingers to dislodge any soil from the leaves and stems. The dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink so that when you drain out the water, the dirt drains out first. I then refill the sink with cool water and repeat the process until the leaves are clean. This may take two or three rinses.

Finally, I scoop out the leaves and spin them in a salad spinner for a minute until they are dry. You can store it for a few days in the refrigerator by wrapping it loosely in a paper towel and sealing it in a plastic bag. Personally, I upped my intake dramatically once I started washing my lettuce in this way, and I always tend to use things faster that are washed and ready to go in the refrigerator.

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It is the season for eating lettuce. Just picked leaves of all stripes and colors is waiting for you. I, for one, will thoroughly enjoy waiting for the second wave of produce from my garden as long as I have lettuce on my plate.

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The Rise of Spring

Awakening Creation

Spring. Warm, sunny days. Cool rains. The green of the budding trees is almost electric, and emerging plants are the same. Their lime color is cheerful yet soothing. I am daily transfixed by the new strawberries poking their leaves up through the caramel mulch. Lily of the valley are slowly uncoiling their leaves. Soon the intoxicating perfume of their flowers will greet me each day.

The garlic cloves I buried in a corner bed last fall have long been up and stretching toward the sky. I cannot stop thinking about the garlic scape pesto I will be creating from the curly scapes that will swirl up from each plant. As I look across my other garden beds, I see the tiny evidence of early spring peas, lettuces, and pak choi.

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Garlic shoots

Spring Preparation

The time has not yet arrived for planting my summer seeds and plants. In this part of the country, we wait for the soil temperatures to warm up. What I am doing now is collecting. My stack of vegetable seed packets increases by the day. A wide array of pepper and tomato plants are hardening in my yard and garage. Flowers and plants with interesting foliage await being planted into ceramic pots.

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Collecting plants

Gardens with multi-season plantings bring life to the spring season when we have been without outside color for months. Some of my favorites are the early bulbs such as the subtly-hued Lenten rose, stubby crocuses that almost look like they are laughing at late winter as they push themselves up through the frosty remnants of winter, muscari with its clusters of tiny indigo grape-like flowers standing at attention up and down the stem, and fritillaria whose upside down tulip-shaped flowers look like miniature plum checkerboards. These are of course in addition to the many varieties and shades of daffodils and tulips.

The First Market

Just as I welcome the visual freshness of spring, so I also eagerly anticipate the clean crispness of spring fruits and vegetables. The weekly summer tradition of going to the farmers market began this weekend. Like walking through a seasonal portal, the opening of the farmers market is, for me, the start of my summer gardening season. Catching up with the farmers, scouting their new offerings, listening to the bluegrass band, buying something here, tasting something there. The aroma of coffee beans grinding or pizza baking in a wood-fired oven. It all comes together to lift my spirits. It is saying, “hello spring,” “hello warm sunshine,” “hello cool rich earth!” “Are you ready to welcome and nurture what I’m planting this year?”

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Farmers market bounty

Cooking for Spring

Of course, I brought home some culinary gems; trumpet mushrooms, Japanese spinach, and bok choy. These formed the components of our evening meal. So upon returning from the farmers market, I had to create in the kitchen. The ingredients called for simple dishes. We needed to hear the crunch of the bok choy and feel the bite of the emerald Japanese spinach. I decided to do an Asian interpretation by tossing in some pistachios and drizzling the greens with a mixture of peanut and sesame oil, Tamari sauce, freshly grated ginger root, minced garlic, and rice wine vinegar.

The just-harvested trumpet mushrooms that I buy at the market are so marvelous that I had to do the classic preparation of sauteing them in butter albeit with the twist of a sprinkling truffle salt. Strips of Ataulfo mangoes topped with coarsely ground pepper and charcoal-grilled chicken thighs marinated in a mixture of Vietnamese lemon curry, sea salt, and black pepper rounded out the dinner plates.

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I wake up to the multitude of birds chirping outside my bedroom window and go to sleep to the sound of gentle rain. Digging into the chocolate dirt, I carefully place my seeds within. I clean windows, sweep sidewalks, wash off yard furniture, and for the next five months we move our lives outdoors. Yes, spring has arrived. She has flung her bountiful self upon us, and I am basking in her presence.

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My Garden Muse

Starting Out with Gardening

By the time I was launching into my adult life, I had lived on three continents and had at one point or another been fluent in multiple languages. However, I did not have any idea how to garden (my cooking skills were not any better, but that is a story for another time).

I limped along every summer, reading what I could, listening to family and friends, and using a lot of trial and error, mostly error. I loved the idea of gathering fresh produce from my garden for the upcoming evening’s meal. My knowledge, however, was accumulating at a glacial pace.

Glenn the Gardener

My family then moved to a new house in a new city in a new state. Our next door neighbors were Cindy and Glenn. My garden muse presented himself in the unsuspecting form of Glenn, my new neighbor. A teacher by trade, he is a coupling of all that is both brilliant and quirky.

I had never heard of using corn gluten meal as an organic herbicide on lawns. Creating a garden conducive to attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects was a new concept to me. I knew not of the advantages and how-to of companion planting. It seemed that all my questions and garden challenges were answered with a wise solution or a “let’s figure this out.”

When Glenn planted a collection of prairie flowers on a strip of our adjoining properties, he introduced me to the multitude of benefits that come from using native wildflowers in your landscaping. Glenn has since graduated his prairie yard into an actual prairie on his 20 acre property just outside of town. If you want to see butterflies and other pollinators, this is the place to go. As they say, “Build it, and they will come”. Well, Glenn planted it, and they came in droves. Long before it became popular, he has been intentional about fostering a climate for pollinators.

Learning from the Master

As someone with many questions, learning was made simple because of being able to walk a few feet to the south and know I could get the answers. Glenn introduced me to collectible lilies, composting, building living soil, catching rainwater, how to grow grapes, garlic, fruit trees, seed saving, and so on.

Gardening wisdom oozes from Glenn and Cindy’s property. Cindy, Glenn’s wife, quickly became a dear friend, and together we cooked, preserved, and all ate from the bountiful quantities. As is so often the case in life, as much as I loved the ease from their proximity, I appreciated his wisdom even more after we moved away. Having a garden guru at the ready jump started my passion for gardening, and I have carried his many lessons with me ever since.

Although there have been many other wise garden savants since Glenn, he was my first garden muse. My yard and gardens blossomed profusely under his careful tutelage. As a result, I have adopted his passion as my own. I will always be grateful to Glenn for living next door to me.

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Bugs, Bees, and Butterflies

Insects Galore

The other day, when picking produce from my community garden, I was enthralled by a bumble bee buzzing in front of a cucumber blossom. It landed on the edge of the flower, burying its head inside. Soon it moved on to another blossom, then a third. Later, little hoverflies worked their way across a collection of white cilantro blossoms. It is the height of summer; plants have full leaves, and they are flowering. Fruits and vegetables are growing larger and ripening.

All of this verdurous growth creates a buzz in the insect world. A number of years ago, after deciding to garden organically and soaking in the wisdom of entomologists I have had the pleasure of learning from, both my tolerance of and fascination for bugs have markedly increased.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on three categories of insects. First, there are the insects that eat or otherwise destroy your plants, like the cucumber beetle I recently killed. Second, there are the insects that are very helpful, the above-mentioned bumble bee and hoverfly are two examples. Finally, there are the insects that “worm” their way into our hearts because they kill harmful insects (we love these guys!).

Fostering a Healthy Insect Population

There are many things one can do to foster the symbiotic relationship that insects have with one another and with our plants. As a baseline, it is wise to take the time to search for and plant disease resistant varieties of seeds or plants. I learned my lesson this year when I planted four kinds of cucumbers. A couple are resistant to cucumber wilt bacteria and a couple (that I just HAD to try) were not. Guess what? The varieties that aren’t resistant have cucumber wilt. This is a disease that is spread by the cucumber beetle, and the bacteria overwinters in the soil. This is happening in my community garden, where the history of what was planted in years past is unknown. (I might have been given a little bit of a break if I had known where cucumbers had been and planted this year’s in a different spot.)

A great way to help the pollinator insects is to let some of your plants go to flower and then seed. The butterflies, bees, and hoverflies will love you for it! I always leave a portion of my cilantro, arugula, lettuces, bak choy, basil, mint, among others to flower and seed. Those plants are very busy places right now. In addition, I scatter flower seeds throughout my garden. Nasturtiums, marigolds, and sunflowers are all edible and thus beneficial in several ways. Then there are the blossoms on tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, watermelon, squash, peas, beans, etc. What a plethora of options for our insect friends!

Another helpful practice is to plant things that are specific foods for certain desirable insects. I let my fennel reseed itself every year and plant dill everywhere because that is what the black swallowtail butterfly larvae eat. With Monarch butterflies, their larvae only eat milkweed, so including that in your landscape will help them multiply.

One of the more interesting groups of the insect world are the predatory insects. We all know about ladybugs eating aphids, but other examples include the cicada killer wasp as well as spiders. One of the more voracious predators, and maybe the most maligned, are spiders. Let’s just say spiders are not vegetarians. They eat other insects, many of them harmful to our yard and garden plants. So instead of cleaning up all those cobwebs in your garden, leave them. I’m not saying to leave the cobwebs around doors, windows, and house. But in your garden, these hungry critters are doing your work for you.

Think twice before you buy packages of earthworms, lady beetles, praying mantis, etc. I could write an epistle on the downsides of introducing foreign bugs into your environment. Instead, foster the conditions to help the native bugs that are already present thrive and do their thing.

It goes without saying, use insecticides either not at all or very, very sparingly. Most insecticides don’t discriminate between helpful and harmful insects.

It doesn’t take much to change your way of thinking and your practices. Just like many of us try attract birds to our yards, we can attract insects. In fact, it is easy to do this because much of what attracts insects is leaving your garden alone. Don’t harvest some of your greens, don’t apply insecticides, don’t pick all your flowers. This laid-back approach will, in the end, increase your insect population, which will increase the health of your plants and lead to higher production.

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Mulberries: The Forgotten Fruit

An Unsuspecting Gift

When we moved into our house, a weird, little tree was growing in the corner of our garden. I didn’t think much about it for a couple of years. One June I noticed berries forming on the branches. They looked like little blackberries. After doing some research, I discovered that this was a White Mulberry tree and that the mulberries were edible. We picked the dark juicy berries and popped them in our mouths. They are not quite as sweet as a blackberry, but they have a very nice taste that the whole family has grown to love.

People tend think mulberries and blackberries are almost the same fruit. While they do look a bit alike, they are actually very different. In fact, mulberries are not even a berry. They are a fruit that grows on a deciduous tree, whereas blackberries are a true berry belonging to the rose botanical family.

Summer Pickings

Ever since the mulberries first appeared on our tree, from mid-June to mid-July, I stop and nibble on these little darlings every time I pass under the branches. In fact, you can count on me taking three to four minutes extra every time I walk under it. One of the most enjoyable things about this tree is to listen and watch the robins go to town in the branches. They sing and fight with each other, but mostly they are busy stuffing their little beaks full of the nutritious, little berries.

People often call the mulberry tree a weed because said birds deposit the seeds elsewhere. For my part, I am glad they do. That, no doubt, is how we got ours. Next time, however, I will tell the birds to plant it on the back corner of our yard instead of the front corner, as I do spend a bit of time sweeping the berries off our sidewalk!

White Mulberry trees are quite a common tree in our region, probably for the above reason. They have an interesting trait in that they have leaves of three distinctly different shapes. One is unlobed, one is shaped a bit like a mitten, and one can look a little like a two-thumbed mitten. The tree originated in China where its leaves are used as the main food for the silkworm. The leaves are edible for humans if cooked first. They can be used in wrapping foods as you would with a grape leaf.

Cooking with Mulberries

This year I’m drying the berries to add to muffins and granola. They are also great served fresh in both savory and sweet dishes. After slightly crushing them, they are delicious sprinkled with superfine sugar and served over a lemon curd tart. They add depth to icy drinks by muddling them with fresh mint leaves. They make for a sweet/savory fresh salsa with lime and cilantro. I enjoy using them as an interesting counter to the savory taste of a bok choi salad. For breakfast, they are a great addition to crepes with brie cheese and cinnamon. Creating with these tasty little berries has kept my creativity working overtime.

Mulberry, brie cheese, and cinnamon crepes.

I love the idea of eating such an interesting berry from a tree that was planted by those chatty, fat robins, that many consider a nuisance. While mulberries don’t come close to matching the sweetness of raspberries or strawberries, I am thoroughly enjoying having this tree around. It is a part of my edible landscape. It truly is a multi-purpose tree: it feeds us, feeds the robin population, keeps us entertained, looks good with strands of twinkle lights wrapped around its branches, and provides nice shade and vertical dimension to that corner of the yard. We don’t dance around it singing nursery rhymes– wait! Maybe we should do that as well…

Mulberries over a lemon curd pie with homemade whipped cream.

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Rhubarb: The Vegetable That Thinks It’s a Fruit

The Heritage of Rhubarb

When I think of the classic plant that has anchored the corner of every Midwestern garden for the past century, I think of rhubarb. Some of my favorite dessert recipes are based on rhubarb. Rhubarb custard pie is oh, so delicious! I remember with fondness my Mom’s strawberry rhubarb freezer jam which we spread on warm toast. Warm Spilling Rhubarb over vanilla ice cream. My friend Jill Jorgensen’s gooey sweet Rhubarb Rolls. All these come from an unassuming plant that is so easy to grow you almost forget it’s even in your garden.

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that can flourish in most parts of the country. Rhubarb is delicious and easy to add to your garden. There are many recommended varieties to choose from. In my experience, the pinker the stems, the better they taste. Once planted, it can be left undisturbed to come back year after year.

Growing Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is very simple. The plants make a nice addition to the perennial section of a vegetable garden or even a perennial landscape. In milder climates where they can overwinter without freezing, rhubarb also grows well in pots if you give it enough root space.

Spring is the perfect time to plant. Working some well-rotted compost or manure into the rhubarb bed will increase production. However, don’t pick any stems in in its first year. The plant needs all its foliage to help it establish a strong root system. In the second year, a small percentage of the stems can be harvested. In the third year and after, removing up to a third of the plant every year will keep it healthy and producing strong stems year after year. Dividing the plant every five years keeps the roots from getting too crowded. Which of your friends would turn down the offering of one or two baby rhubarb plants?

Uses of Rhubarb

Even though rhubarb had been used medicinally in China for thousands of years, its use as a food really started in England in the 17th century once sugar became available to counter its tartness. In the U.S., its use didn’t take off until the 1930s.

Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. It can be a healthy addition to your diet if you curb the often added sugar. The stems (or petioles) are the only part of the plant we can cook and eat. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to ingest and irritating to the skin if there’s prolonged contact.

Rhubarb is a great addition to desserts such as pie or crisp, cake, muffins, jams and jellies, and more. It is also great as a tart chutney over meat such as pork. My favorite completely unsweetened way to regularly include rhubarb is in fruit smoothies. The sweetness of the other fruits counters the tartness of the rhubarb, which lends a refreshing brightness to the final product.

Common Questions

  • Can you eat the leaves? No, they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans. So throw away the leaves, and use the stems.
  • We just had a late spring frost that has damaged my rhubarb. Can I still eat the stems? No, when the plant has been affected by frost, the oxalic acid migrates from the leaves down into the stems, leaving them also toxic. If this has happened, throw away the whole plant. Look in your farmer’s market or grocery store for this year’s supply. If you live in a region prone to early or mid spring freezes, plant your rhubarb in a protected part of your yard. Last spring many in my area lost their rhubarb to freeze damage. Mine was spared because it is planted in a corner, protected on one side by a shed and on the other by a fence. The other option is to keep track of the weather forecast and cover it if a frost is on the horizon.

If you haven’t already, make this the year to add rhubarb to your yard. Like a long-time friend, it’ll always be there for you, but you never have to tend to it.

 

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The Invisible Glory of Dirt

What Happened to All the Dirt?

The new house we were moving into was in a section of town that was being carved out of native prairie. The neighborhood was located on a large (mostly) limestone plateau that looked out over the city below. I was excited. It was a large lot for a new subdivision. It was flat, and we had big plans for all that space. The final thing to happen before we moved in was for the contractor to grade the yard and lay down the sod. We had reserved a chunk in the very back for what would become our vegetable and flower garden. The rest they scraped and sodded. They said they had to do it so that we’d have a nice flat lawn. Our plan included flower beds surrounding the house and a stone patio with beds around that as well.

We moved in the fall, so when spring rolled around, we were ready, with shovels in hand, to create our flower beds. We pierced the ground with our shovels only to discover rock and clay hiding just below the surface. This was not the dark, rich soil we had envisioned. Our plants would not grow in this! Then we remembered; the native topsoil, teaming with living microorganisms, that was there originally had been scrapped away by those developing our neighborhood and by our builder as he leveled our lot.

Developing Good Dirt

At the time, we didn’t know a lot about dirt, but we knew enough to know the bulbs, flowering bushes, and perennials we had planned to put there weren’t going to thrive in rocky, clay soil.

So we decided to go about changing our dirt. First we carved the outlines of our beds. Next we removed all the dirt down about two feet. Truckloads of good, black dirt, compost, manure, and sand were dumped in tall piles on the end our driveway. We mixed these together, including some of the original dirt. Then we refilled all of our soon-to-be flowerbeds and vegetable garden with this new mixture.

All this work paid off in spades. We were rewarded with abundance in flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Though we didn’t know why exactly our plants thrived in healthy dirt, we saw the delicious and beautiful results.

The Microscopic World of Soil

Only relatively recently has the scientific community begun to put together all the many parts of what goes on under the ground in our soil. Scientists have historically thought that soil was made up of clay, sand, silt, and dead plant material. They didn’t know that in healthy soil the organic matter is almost completely made up of living and dead microbes. They are just beginning to understand how critical these microbes are to soil health and thus to plant health, and because we eat plants or eat animals that eat plants, to people health.

Life in the soil is mostly microscopic. What cannot be seen has not been understood. Now thanks to advances in scientific research, we are beginning to get a grasp on the role of bacteria, viruses, fungi, protists, archea, etc. The vast majority of these are extremely beneficial and essential to plant health.

Plant roots and the microorganisms that surround them have a mutually beneficial relationship. In a myriad of ways, this symbiosis makes our plants healthier. They have bigger root systems, and they have a much higher immunity to diseases. It has been shown they not only produce more fruits and vegetables, but those yields contain higher amounts of nutrients compared to plants grown in poor soil.

Creating Healthy Dirt

This begs the question, how can we get the healthiest soil possible? Of course, that is what we all want, right? Our solution over the past century has been to fertilize. If plants and soil need nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, let’s just give it to them. And we have … in abundance. The problem is that putting these minerals on the soil does not create healthy, living soil the plants need. Yes, the plants can grow large, but they are not growing better. They do not have the immunity to disease. They are not able to take advantage of the millions of organisms in the soil that make it possible for them to absorb necessary nutrients. Healthy soil absorbs and holds onto moisture better, making for more water for the plants as well as less runoff.

I liken it to the old adage, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Creating good soil is providing plants with the all the tools at nature’s disposal to flourish.

Enriching Your Soil

Healthy soil can be created almost anywhere by thinking through what you have at your disposal and faithfully applying it to your yard and garden.

It’s not unlike a recipe in your kitchen. Laying down compost and dried leaves in the fall (especially oak) grass clippings, wood mulch, compost tea, aged manure, even things like coffee grounds or fish emulsion. The more you add, the more food there is for the microorganisms to eat. This healthy soil makes for plants that can better fight off pests and diseases while bearing more produce.

As the saying goes, “We are what we eat.” And as it turns out, so are plants.

Spring is the perfect time to start creating great soil. Your landscapes are fairly bare, making it much easier to work with your soil. I would recommend just laying everything on the top of the ground. Don’t work it in. Trust me, the microbes will know where to find the food they need. It turns out the underground is like a microscopic city with infrastructure, pathways, and means of communication all set up. When we till, we destroy these established networks. Then it takes time to set it all back up again.

Soil experts and farmers around the world are only beginning to understand this and put into practice “no till” methods of farming. Farmers that practice just this one thing are seeing greater crops yields (as well as lower expenses because they are not spending the time and money it takes to till).

Try this: put away your chemicals, and instead feed your soil. Let’s see where this takes your yard and garden.
Soil is one of earth’s greatest assets, so let’s do what we can to make it better. The funny thing is, when we improve it, it will improve us.

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What Should You Plant First?

As early spring begins, I am starting to think about what seeds I want to plant in my garden beds for the first planting of the season. You are probably thinking it is too early to start thinking about one’s summer vegetable garden. However, this is the ideal time to plan and purchase those first seeds. Some of the most interesting varieties of seeds sell out fairly quickly, so once you know what you’re hoping to plant, get the seeds while they are still available.

A number of types of vegetables thrive in the cool, wet days of spring. Many plants need this weather to really do well.  I take the temperature of my garden soil, and when it’s around 50 degrees, it is time to plant.

The vegetables I am planting this early spring include:

Radishes

Last year I planted “D’Avignon,” the traditional French breakfast radish. This year I am trying two very different varieties. Early Scarlet Globe is a very dependable radish. It is ready in 20 to 28 days, so we can enjoy eating them early. And because I like to try new things, I am planting Purple Plum, a purple radish with a great flavor. A second new venture for me is Watermelon, a white radish with a stunning, dark pink center. This variety shines in the very early spring. It lends itself well to pickling, so I may play around with doing that later this spring.

Sweet Peas

I’m going all out on three completely new varieties of snap or snow peas this year. I chose two from Seed Savers Exchange (an organization that preserves historic and heritage varieties of seeds, saving them and also reproducing some for sale) The first pea variety is the Amish Snap. This is a pea that was been grown by the Amish community long before our present varieties existed. It vines tall and vigorous. The other choice from Seed Savers is Swenson Swedish. This heirloom variety was brought to Minnesota from Sweden in 1876. It is sweet, flavorful, and productive.

Another seed company that is doing great work in preserving rare and heirloom varieties is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds out of Missouri. I chose my third variety of sweet pea from them. This hypertendril snap pea produces more tendrils instead of some of its leaves. These, along with the beautiful pink blossoms, are deliciously edible and taste just like peas.

Lettuce

With lettuce I like to plant several kinds. I start early in the spring and reseed several times throughout the summer so I have a constant supply. I am planting two mixes, a Mesclun blend that contains some peppery lettuce varieties and a lettuce blend. All the Romaine lettuces are wonderful, so this year I am planting Red Romaine. A large variety, it is both a colorful and tasty addition to salads. Lastly, I am planting an English variety Craquerelle du Midi, sweet and crisp with dark green curled leaves. Its slowness to bolt in the heat of summer is another desired trait.

Carrots

I am starting with two varieties of carrots this year. One is an old faithful I have used for years, Scarlet Nantes. It is sweet, tender, and a proven producer. The other is a red carrot called Dragon. I love the beauty of red carrots. This tasty variety is red on the outside and orange in the center.

Arugula

The arugula I planted last year will come up again this year. I am also, however, planting a bitey variety that will nicely complement what is already out in my garden. Wasabi arugula has the spicy taste of wasabi, a very helpful addition to Asian dishes. It is more tolerant of swings in weather than other varieties. I’ll also be picking the edible blossoms to throw into salads or pasta dishes.

Kale

Lacianto Dinosaur is my kale choice this time around. This Tuscan variety dates back to at least the early 1800s. It is beautiful with dark green, deeply savoyed leaves. It is quite flavorful, making for a fabulous addition to soups and stews. This grouping of vegetables prefers the cool wetness of spring. At least a month before the final frost, I am out cleaning my garden beds and burying the these little nuggets in the ground. They don’t mind a little snow, frost, and cold spring rainstorms. They get to work, germinating and soon popping their little heads through the surface of the earth. The unsuspecting surprise of eating sweet lettuces or crunchy peas in the middle of May when most of us are just starting to put in our summer vegetables is refreshing indeed.

These early vegetables in an otherwise dormant space is like spring opening her door and saying, “Welcome to my home.” And, in fact, welcome it is!

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Microgreens in the Winter

Why Microgreens?

I am thinking about them right now in the colder months because they grow so easily inside. Microgreens are defined as the edible, immature greens that are harvested about two weeks after germination. Little pea shoots, the tiny leaves and stems from broccoli, kale, amaranth, red cabbage, and sunflowers; these are a few of the more common types of microgreens.

The Uses for Microgreens

They can be used in a myriad of ways including as a confetti topping on an open-faced sandwich or pizza, tossed as a salad, or as a refreshing accompaniment to any braise. I love including them in cold quinoa or rice salads because the raw crunch adds not only depth but also beauty to the dish. Try them in a wrap or a soup. Mix them into your breakfast smoothie. They are a tasty reminder of summer.

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Research done by the USDA has shown that microgreens are many times more concentrated in a wide variety of nutrients than their adult counterparts. Research is still being done on these jewels that pack so much nutritional punch, but in the meantime, eat and enjoy knowing you are eating something good for your health.

Growing your Own Greens

I buy my microgreens at out local co-op store. I love that they are locally grown. However, if you would like to grow your own, it is very easy. Any disposable tray or pie plate will work. Poke a few holes in the bottom for drainage, fill it with moistened potting soil, and sprinkle your chosen seeds per instructions on their packets. Usually you just barely cover the seeds with more soil. Water the soil by misting it with water a couple times a day. You want to keep the soil moist but not wet. Place the tray in your sunniest window or under grow lights. The plants should get about four hours of sunshine each day.

Next time you are building a turkey, vegetable sandwich, include baby pea sprouts instead of that leaf of romaine. You will love it!

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Garden Planning on a Cold Winter’s Day

Thinking of Spring

We are in the midst of a blizzard. Mother nature is dumping heavy, wet snow, yet inside my cozy house the growing stack of seed catalogs is whetting my appetite for summer. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has introduced “the first-ever red-colored Chinese cabbage with full-sized heads.” Park Seed has just introduced a bi-colored Echinacea where “yellow petal tips give way to magenta-red on these large, very abundant blooms.” I once again have zone 5 envy as I read about Spark Bros’ new variety of Honeycrisp/Gala apple cross.

My garden is buried, and the branches of my mulberry tree stark. However, I am starting to think, plan, and drool at the promise of a new variety of tomato. The juicy, sweet German Pink variety ensures greater disease resistance and heavier yields.

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Creating a Garden Plan

These cold, winter months give me time to reflect. What worked last summer? What do I want to do differently? Should I plant more pollinator-friendly plantings? How about more climbing vegetables? I love using my fence for vining peas, beans, cucumbers, and melons. Unfortunately it seems the most interesting seed varieties tend to sell out quickly. For that reason, if there is something I particularly want to try, I need to order soon. These deep, cold temps are essential for many of our native trees and plants, so I do not wish for a warm winter.

The variety of seasons offers a change of pace in our schedules. For me, on this wintry day, I am curled up with a mug of Chai tea with the strains of violin music in the background. A pine-scented candle burns as I nestle up with my garden planning book and seed catalogs.

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Beets

Attributes of the Beet

This deep ruby-colored globe is as delicately flexible to use in your cooking as it is beautiful to behold. The National Garden Bureau has named this “The Year of the Beet.” A justly deserved honor this is!

Beets are an obliging workhorse in the garden. They thrive in a variety of conditions, easily started in spring, after the last frost and not resowed until early August. They prefer slightly acidic soil (pH greater than 6.0) and are fine with a sunny or part-sunny spot.

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Microgreen salad with shredded beets, toasted almonds, crème fraîche, and dried cranberries in an oil balsamic vinaigrette.

Cooking with Beets

Both the leaves and the root are delicious and packed full of nutrients. I love beets roasted with a little olive oil and sea salt, used as one of the essential ingredients of Russian Borscht stew or boiled then tossed with goat cheese, crisp apple wedges in a toothsome salad. Likewise, the greens contribute well to soups, salads, or even smoothies. Because of their high nutritional value, they’ve taken the health-conscious world by storm. You can buy everything from beet pills or juice to beet powder.

Nothing, however, replaces a good old chunk of roasted beet.

Let’s explore together this versatile vegetable. From its humble beginnings all covered with loamy brown dirt to a rich garnet sliver poking out of a meaty braise, let’s celebrate the year of the beet.

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