Not surprisingly, I've managed to allow nearly 3 months to slip by since my last post to this blog. In that time, I've finished the last harvest of the summer crops, planted a few greens for fall production, and attended to various end-of-season chores. Next month I plan on doing another end-of-the-year wrap-up, covering the new vegetable and plant varieties planting and posting some favorite photos from the year I haven't yet posted.

South Garden Plan for 2007In this entry I'd like to talk about one winter garden chore that's already underway, which is the replanning of the south strip of yard that dominates most of my gardening activity. When we moved into this house, there wasn't much in the way of a garden beyond the somewhat neglected border along the east front walk. The sunny strip of lawn leading to the back gate contained one forsythia bush, lots of spider lilies, and not much else. The backyard was worse, containing only a brick patio and a small untended plot that had maybe been planted with marigolds at some point. I'd complain about weeds, but I've always liked the collection of violets, clover, and mock strawberries that grow throughout our yard. I spent a year holding back and just evaluating the space, deciding what I'd like to do with it. I checked the footprint and boundaries of our lot, measured the details (like bushes, fence, air conditioner, etc.), and in 2007 drew up the plan you see on the left. From the very beginning, I've always shot for a simple, organic design, building everything off a single undulating, snake-like path. While I'm pretty pleased with the execution of the concept overall, I've since realized that I didn't do a very good job accounting for the light conditions throughout the season. While there is a good strong patch of light on the deck and patio throughout the day, most of the backyard is dominated by filtered light throughout the height of the growing season. Of course, you wouldn't see this if you were looking at the backyard in late autumn through early spring, when all the offending trees lack any leaves.

I've been asked if it's possible to keep a vegetable garden in filtered or part shade conditions, and the answer is yes...sort of. More experienced gardeners are probably aware that spinach and other types of greens handle shade pretty well. Most other plants will survive at 4-6 hours full sun per day, but after two years of such conditions I can't honestly say they will thrive. Sure, my crops have been productive, but most of the fruits have been small. Not to mention the yields.

I began to think about this last year, concluding that I'd wait another year, see how the crops did, and move the garden if I continued to run into the same setbacks. One of the major problems in a small city lot like ours is finding space with reasonable levels of light, without trees or houses to block the sun. The optimal strip in our yard has always been dominated by the forsythia bush:

Now, I love forsythia bushes as much as the next person, but this one has just been a problem. It's so big that, for the throughway to be at usable, we're forced to trim it back in the late summer when it's sending out new shoots. These trimmings are apparently what's been keeping the bush from producing those gorgeous yellow flowers in early spring. Not that we've had much of a choice.

So, Step #1: Remove forsythia bush. Like so:


Now, I don't recommend removing an overgrown 10+ foot tall forsythia bush unless you absolutely have to. It's not quick, easy, or especially fun. But if you have to, start by trimming down the branches. Cut everything down to the stump. It'll make the rest of the job a lot easier. The only other step is to grab a shovel and dig the thing out. You'll notice that we haven't done this yet, having decided to wait until late winter, when the branches and roots are brittle and some of the plant has (hopefully) died.

South Garden Plan for 2010Having cleared up that problem and feeling impatient to begin, I measured the details of the space and began laying the new plan out on paper. Along the strip where the bush had been, now covered in grass, I wanted to set new boxes where they would get optimal light and use roughly the same amount of square feet as in my current space. While it would have been convenient to move all the boxes we built in 2007 straight to the new space, the restrictions prevented that from being a possibility. I spent an hour or two sketching out rectangles on tracing paper before arriving at the final plan on the right. The skinny 2' wide raised beds turned out to be a lot more flexible in the narrow strip in terms of space, and they're also easier than the 4'x4' raised beds to reach into (for a shorty like me, at least). I was able to eke out roughly the same square footage and will be adding a box around the raspberry, which is one of the easiest ways to manage the brambles. Between the boxes, I will have the same 2' wide paths, possibly covered with landscape fabric or mulch (I haven't really decided). I'm trying this time to avoid removing large tracts of sod, since it's back-breaking work and not absolutely necessary when planting in boxes. Many potager and square-foot gardeners simply lay something at the bottom of the box to block out weed and tree growth. The hardest part of this new plan will be dismantling and rebuilding boxes from scrap and building new ones as needed. Not to mention moving the layers of soil and compost I've built in the last two years. Honestly, I'm looking forward to all the work ahead of me this spring. I hope it will bring me closer to my goal of producing a more substantial portion of my own food.

As far as the space left over when the vegetable garden is moved...well, I'll be working on replanning that this winter as well. As mentioned in my previous blog, I'd like to create a beautiful woodland habitat of mostly native plants with some edibles thrown in. More on that in the future!


Permaculture in a Nutshell

Long time, no post, eh? My effort to stick to a monthly schedule with this blog hasn't exactly panned out. August saw us fulfilling our work commitment at the farm from which we get our CSA; we dug up potatoes, picked beans and tomatoes, and peeled onions and garlic. Harvests in our home vegetable garden have not been so abundant, which has prompted me to consider moving everything to a strip along the south garden and converting the backyard to more of a woodland habitat. Nonetheless, we have had a steady supply of snap beans and black beans for dry use. I've harvested plenty of tomatoes to augment the offerings from our CSA, and the last 3 weeks or so has been abundant with raspberries.

This morning I finished a book checked out from the Crossroads Infoshop (where I've been volunteering for the past 2 months) called Permaculture in a Nutshell, by Patrick Whitefield. Permaculture is design system that is compatible with organic, sustainable gardening, but goes well beyond such techniques by modeling itself after natural ecosystems. The clearest example of this would be a forest garden built with trees and multiple layers of undergrowth. Most of the plants would be perennial and multiple use. Layers of mulch would replace plowing.

Without going into ornate detail, Whitefield describes the basic principles of permaculture design and offers examples where it has been implemented. I was especially interested to learn that permaculture goes well beyond garden plots, addressing our food systems and use of land and resources, both in the country and the city. For instance, permaculture also promotes the LETS system, where goods are exchanged for services; unlike bartering, one can accrue credits. Community Supported Agriculture is another system permaculture supports.

If you'd like to learn what permaculture is and how it works, this is an informative, easy read.

I was enthused enough that, when I finished, I decided to research local permaculture resources. It would seem that most permaculture design resources are scarce and fairly scattered, especially in this region. The Permaculture Institute is probably the leading world resource for the permaculture system. There is also the Midwest Permaculture group, based out of Illinois. And a man named Deny Henke is blogging about his permaculture homestead in southeastern Missouri. Vajra Farm in Kansas also follows permaculture design practices.

As far as implementing the practices in my own garden, I'd love to introduce some more perennial and self-seeding edible natives into the garden, especially in the shady woodland garden I plan to build. But it's going to require more research into native plants. Another thing permaculture recommends is keeping a garden where you can easily see it. While the new location won't be as convenient from my back deck, I will be able to see everything from my dining room and kitchen, which is where I first look out every morning. I plan on keeping my boxes, since that system works well enough for me, but I will certainly be using permaculture as a means to think about my garden and lifestyle in general. According to Whitefield's recommendations, I'm already halfway there!


The Joys of Summer: Pesto & Salsa

First Tomatoes

It's mid-July and some of my favorite crops, basil and tomatoes, are entering their peak periods. It's no wonder that the two are often served together, particularly in Caprese salad or atop bruschetta. Both have been staples in my garden over the past 3 years. A total no-brainer.

Like many herbs, basil is easy to grow, preferring a sunny spot and well-drained soil. Most books and seed packets recommend pinching leaves off the tops of seedlings to encourage sturdy, bushy growth. I would amend this, however, by suggesting you hold off pinching leaves once the plant is mature. Allow a week or two to pass between mature trimmings, so the plant can recoup and produce larger leaves in abundance. Most sources also suggest not allowing the plant to flower, since this will induce woody growth along the stem and stave off leaf production. Just pinch off the flowers as they come. You can get several harvest from a well-managed basil plant until the frost hits.

Though I like basil added to tomato dishes and otherwise, I like it best as a base for pesto. Since I starting shopping the farmers market and keeping a garden in my backyard, the production of copious amounts of pesto has become something of a summer ritual. Because our CSA has offered plenty of basil in addition to the 12 or so plants growing at home, I've already made and frozen a couple of batches. Of course, I love pesto so much that it doesn't last very long in the freezer.

My first pesto recipe came from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, which also offered a winter variation with spinach that was surprisingly tasty (though just not as good as the classic basil variety). Because I didn't yet have a food processor, I would make it in the blender. It was an arduous task, and if you're as serious about pesto as I am, I would highly recommend just shelling out $100 for a good quality food processor. In 2005, Everyday Food published a Basil Pesto recipe specifically designed for freezing, which omitted the cheese and ingeniously instructed one to quickly blanch and shock the basil to retain color. More recently, I've been using the recipe in Andrea Chesman's Serving Up the Harvest, which includes the cheese, and have not discovered any issues with its inclusion. On Sunday, Emily from Everything Begins With an E posted her own recipe using a local cheese.

With the right equipment, pesto is very easy to make. It really shines with high quality fresh ingredients (local if you can) and is a great addition to pasta, minestrone, or toast. I've even thrown it in omelets with good results. Plus you can freeze it for those long winter months, when basil is less abundant.

Another simple summer dish I love, and am gearing up to make this weekend, is salsa. Jalapenos are popping up on the bushes, and this week I've harvested a few of 'Enchantment' hydrid saladette tomatoes. In addition to the sweet onions and heirloom tomatoes I received yesterday from the CSA, I have the makings of quality salsa. Usually, I make the cooked down sauce variety you get in jars or at restaurants. This is the base recipe I use:

1 gallon quartered tomatoes
2 cups jalapeno peppers, chopped
1 cup onions, chopped
2 cups white or cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup pickling or kosher salt

Cook over low heat until thickened.

This recipe was given to me by my boyfriend's father a couple of years ago. Cook time depends on your preferred consistency. If you like really thick salsa, you might need to leave it on the stove up to 5 hours or whip out the crockpot. And don't take the recipe as biblical truth. I usually add a few cloves of garlic and cut the sugar by at least half, since I find the original recipe too candylike, covering the already sweet flavor of the tomatoes. I also like to cut the vinegar with lime juice, throw in cilantro at the end, or switch up the tomato and pepper varieties, depending on what I have onhand. If you want to can it, ladle into hot jars, seal, and process at 220F for about 10 minutes. It will also keep in your fridge, unprocessed, up to a month (possibly more, because of the vinegar) and can be frozen for future use.

In addition to the traditional sauce variety, you might like to try some fresh salsa, which is more like pico de gallo. Alex at Unaccustomed Earth posted a recipe for this dish on Tuesday. I made something it yesterday as a topping for nachos. My version used 2 saladette tomatoes, a jalapeno, juice from half of a lime, and some baby shallots quickly dug from the garden and washed. It's a great addition to most Mexican dishes and a good way to get rid of excess tomatoes fast. Just don't leave it in the fridge any longer than a couple of days.

As the height of the season continues, I'll no doubt be spending more time in the kitchen, whipping up more batches of pesto and salsa. What dishes do you make to take advantage of the season?


On the South Side

South Garden - 3 Years

Since I've spent the last few entries focusing on my vegetable garden, I thought with the next batch of posts, I'd explore other areas of the yard. One area that's undergone the greatest evolution is the garden on the south side of our house. When we initially moved in, the space was dominated by cracked sidewalk that was blocked by the air conditioner. The only plants remaining were what are colloquially known as spider lilies and elsewhere called Resurrection Lilies or Naked Ladies (Lycoris squamigera, if you're curious). So, 2 years ago in 2007, we tore out the sidewalk and built a flagstone path that curled around the air conditioner and between the forsythia.

The space you see in the photo is what you see as soon as you leave the backyard. Since 2007, it's been in a sort of limbo--me uncertain what to plant. I knew that I would be planting creeping thyme along the path, along with the Roman chamomile (which grows lower than the German varieties and survives the winter). And though it wasn't my original plan, the spot east of the lavender along the foundation has been perfect for tomatoes. Much of the rest was up in the air.

This spring I decided to take some initiative and fill the space in. The first goal was to find a plant tall enough to block off most of the air conditioner, but small enough to fit the tight space (it's only about 5 feet from house to path). Once I decided on that plant, I would choose some shorter plants to add interest. After spending hours combing my catalogs and notes, I decided that a Russian sage was closest to what I wanted. I'd add a salvia and something else and be done with it. It took some searching to find a proper variety. The first nursery had only dwarf hybrids available, but they had the fantastic 'Caradonna' variety of salvia, which has deep violet flowers and stems and leaves tinged in purple. I found the sage at the second nursery and brought it home.

Because of this spring's abundant range, I was forced to put planting off for a while. When I was finally able to do so in May, I had had time to think things over and strategize my design. Here are the results:

South Garden - Recent Plantings

Of course, right now things are still filling out, but this gives an idea. The yarrow comes from another part of the garden, where it was too tall to fit in. Here, it should be fine, since it should stay shorter than the sage and the pink and white flowers will make the salvia pop. I also tucked in a variety of creeping thyme, 'Minus,' with tiny, tight leaves to cover the area between the stepping stones.

I'm happy with the results, though it's going to take another year or two before everything fills in to my liking. At some point this summer we're going to be removing the forsythia that you see in the right side of the photos. It's just too big and hard to keep from growing over the path without deep trimming, which prevents it from fully flowering in early spring. Removing it will also allow more light to hit everything I've planted.


Eventually, there will be another rain barrel in this area and another one on the other side of the fence. I was going to purchase another pre-built model online, but I discovered that a local non-profit, Bridging the Gap, sells kits as well as cheaper pre-assembled rain barrels. Since I support their efforts to promote environmental issues locally, I think it's the best option. If you're composting your yard and kitchen waste and don't yet have a rain barrel, consider it. You'll be preventing run-off, in addition to having a supply of free water for your garden.


Additionally, a friend of mine in Kansas City, Alex, started her own gardening blog a few months back called Unaccustomed Earth. If you're interested in urban gardening and exotic houseplants, I recommend having a look. I've found a number of her entries useful and entertaining, and I've even learned about carnivorous plants.

While I haven't been keeping up with garden blogs as regularly as I'd like, I have been reading a local food blog out of KC called Everything Begins With E. Emily belongs to and volunteers with the Fair Sharm Farms CSA and much of her blogs charts how she uses food from the CSA, as well as other local sources.


Spring in the Vegetable Garden

Vegetable Garden, May 2009
A shot of the garden as it looked earlier today.

It's been nearly a month since I last posted, but things have been busy in the vegetable garden. Since my last post almost everything (save a few herbs) has been planted for spring; the peas are flourishing, and the beans are growing tall; the cabbage plants are starting to develop small heads. There have been quite a few harvests, so I thought I would share some of what I've been eating in roughly the order of each harvest.

Raab, 'Sorrento'

I covered this in my last entry on the first harvest in late April. You can read my thoughts in that entry. The plants have continued to send up stalks since that harvest, but the leaves and heads are much smaller. I attempted to use the whole stalks in a pasta dish one night and, despite blanching and sauteeing them, found them far too tough. Last night I just used the leaves and heads and found them quite tender.

Overall, I'm liking raab (or rabe or rapini, etc.), but I have previously expressed my love of greens. It's definitely more useful in its initial leafy state, although the fact that it continues to produce something edible after that initial harvest is a plus. Another plus I've discovered is that most pests, especially cabbage butterflies, tend to avoid it.

Bok Choy & Kale
The bok choy and kale together...

Kale, "Improved Dwarf Siberian"

I already knew I liked kale, which is why I decided to plant it this year. The primary advantage of this variety was the (fairly) flat leaves and dwarf size that would presumably tolerate close spacing. Kale must typically grow rather tall, because I estimate the full grown leaves at about a foot. I've had a few bites raw and used this kale in a few stir-fries, and honestly, in terms of flavor, I haven't noted a substantial difference in flavor from the Scotch varieties. If you're like me and dislike the thick, curly leaves of those varieties but like the flavor, this one is worth trying. Another thing I really like about kale is that it grow leaves quickly, so you can do a measured harvest every 1-2 weeks.
Bok Choy
Dwarf Pac Choi, "Ching-Chiang"

I tried some dwarf/baby bok choy from a local grower at the City Market last year and really liked it. The water content in the stalks seems lower than the full-sized varieties, which makes it a bit more flavorful. Also, with the close-spacing I use and only two people to feed, dwarf plants tend to make better sense. The flavor on this variety is good, somewhat similar to cabbage but milder and lighter. I used a couple plants for stir-fry one night and then the remaining four for dinner the next week.

I noted that the cabbage butterflies also avoided the kale and bok choy. For whatever reason, they seem to prefer the brassicaes with the broader, leathery type leaves, i.e. cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards. My theory is that it related to the scent of the leaves.

Lettuce Seedlings

Now on to the lettuce! Since I planted only crisphead and romaine varieties, I had few thinnings to munch on while waiting for the heads to develop. I did experiment a bit and clip a few outer leaves from a couple varieties, apparently to no great detriment to the plants. After a few nibbles of the 'Reine des Glaces,' I decided to back off and let it develop full juicy heads, so I'll just cover the other two varieties I planted.

Romaine/Cos Lettuce, "Flashy Trout's Back" (Organic)

This is an heirloom variety which, absurdly, I just received in this week's CSA share. Like most romaine varieties, this one forms a sturdy head with pale, crisp leaves in the center, but you'll notice from the photo that the outer leaves are quite loose. The spread of the leaves gets to be problematic as they grow, so chances are next year I'll space them a bit further apart. Otherwise, I real like this variety. It's a bit softer than most romaines, in some ways similar to a looseleaf or butterhead variety, but it has more of the bite one expects from a romaine. I've found it pretty adaptable--good with a Mexican salad or a side salad dressed in mustard vinaigrette. The lime green, red-speckled leaves also add some much-needed visual interest.

Lettuce - Flashy Trout's Back
The lovely & interesting leaves of the 'Flashy Trout's Back' lettuce.

Lettuce & Beets
'Winter Density' lettuce beside some young 'Bull's Blood' beets.

Romaine/Cos Lettuce, "Winter Density"

This is, in a lot of ways, just a good basic romaine lettuce, with a nice deep green color and thick, tasty leaves. What I like most about this variety, and what I'd primarily recommend it for, is that it develops small compact heads, not much bigger than 8" high. It's awesome for close spacing and small servings.

The main problem I've been having with my lettuce is snails or slugs munching on the leaves at night. This is a typical problem with lettuce and not one I've made much effort to solve. They've been mostly attacking the outer leaves. And since the rain let up last week, they appear to be less active.

I'm pretty happy with the vegetable garden thus far. One great thing about starting a cool weather garden is that by May you already feel a small sense of accomplishment. In previous years, I've had to wait until June or July for that feeling. While I'm certainly nowhere near where I'd like to be in terms of production, I've still been able to contribute to a meal or two a week for nearly a month now.

Regarding what I've been making, I've been following a lot of recipes from a great book called Serving Up the Harvest, by Andrea Chesman. I'm really still exploring the book, but I love how it's divided according to seasons, along with the selection of basic recipes that can be modified according to what's on hand. If you find yourself online quite a bit, searching for recipes to match whatever's fresh from the garden or market, like I have, it's an extremely useful book.


First Harvest: Raab

Raab 1I had been hoping to finally plant the remaining cauliflower and broccoli plants last weekend, but on Saturday we had yet another spell of rain, so I was forced to wait once again. On Monday I wandering through the garden with Rob, seeing what needed to be done, and was surprised to find a yellow flower blooming on one of my raab plants. Now, I'm no expert on broccoli and its many relatives, but I'm pretty sure that's a sign your raab is ready to harvest.

Because I've never actually cooked with raab before, I decided to search for and try out a new recipe. The Hearty Peasant Soup from Whole Living sounded good, similar to minestrone, which I like. Anything with cannelini beans (or chickpeas, which are offered as another option) sounds good to me.

I cut the stalks for eating Monday night, leaving behind some little leaves in hopes of another harvest, tied them with a rubber band, and stuffed them in a plastic shopping bag overnight. Next time I think I'll harvest them the day of eating, so the greens do not turn limp. Also, freshly picked vegetables are loaded with more nutrients.

In case you're curious, this is what a stalk of raab looks like:

Raab 2

You might notice the little flower-head that looks like a mini-broccoli. The plant, though, is smaller and more loosely formed. They're grown primarily for greens. This variety is an open-pollinated cultivar known as "Sorrento."

Before washing the raab, I removed the big leaves like so:

Raab 3

After which I cut the leaves, stalks, and heads, then dropped them into the colander to be washed:

Raab 4

Finally, after I had sauteed the onions and garlic and thrown in some tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, and a can of diced tomatoes in the pot, I piled in the raab:

Raab 5

I served the soup with a an Italian bread from Farm to Market. I like to slice it up, brush on a bit of oil and salt, and toast it in the oven. Yum! The recipe recommends a whole wheat bread, which would definitely suit the sweet-tang of the tomatoes and rough texture of the beans and raab, but I think a nice rustic French farm loaf would also do.

If you're wondering how raab tastes, it's comparable to mustard, turnip, or collard greens (all close relatives). If none of those flavors rings a bell, think of a stronger, spicier spinach. Like most greens, when it's cooked down or mixed in something, the flavor turns somewhat milder. It adds a nice texture and bite to anything. A few years ago, I wouldn't have thought myself a fan of greens, but now I love them. Raab is definitely a green worth trying. I'll be planting more when Autumn nears.


Changing Seasons

Vegetable Garden 040209 The last couple of weeks has been interesting, to say the least. Not long after I wrote about veritably spring-like temperatures, everything got cold and wet. The next week we got snow. I'm afraid this is typical for Missouri--not very temperate, is it?

The day after the snow, the weather warmed fast. I walked outside to check on the garden and found that the weight of the snow had broken the glass of a window I've been using as makeshift coldframe. The plants below got squashed and cut by the shards of glass, but for the most part they made it through the trauma just fine. And luckily the weather warmed enough that I didn't need to cover the plants.

Seedlings 040209Last week, things stayed on an even keel. The tomatoes sprouted and so did the herbs. I raked up the remaining leaves and tore out dried-up iris leaves in the front. The muscari bloomed. The poet's daffodils sent up buds. On Saturday, the high was 70. It was cloudy but otherwise gorgeous (of course, if you're like me and like cloudy weather, it was gorgeous anyway). I decided to finally plant some of my lettuces in the ground while the neighbor's children watched through the fence. It was a good day in the garden.

That night, however, the temperature began to drop. On Sunday we had rain and sleet, and the frost inevitably re-appeared last night. I hadn't thought far enough into advance to cover my vegetables, but I worried over it as I went to bed. While most of the plants outside are varieties able to withstand light frost, there's always the possibility that they won't.

Seedlings 040209So this morning, after throwing some coffee in the pot to brew, I walked outside with a couple of old sheets and quickly examined my young crops. The cole crops looked a bit flimsy, but they had not shriveled up. The lettuce and remaining plants were a bit cold, but it was toasty in their glass-covered house then outside. I covered up my cole crops and also my peas (just to be safe) and walked back inside to eat breakfast.

All in all, quite a scare and a good reminder to never trust Missouri weather too much. Just when you think it's spring, winter returns. While I think climate change is playing into these strange shifts, I do think this region is just prone to it. Hence the old maxim, "If you don't like the weather, just wait another week." Or a couple days. Whichever.


Spring Has Sprung!

Officially 3 days into spring, and everything's busy preparing for the oncoming season. The temperature has sustained around 50°-60°, with very little frost at night. Today's high is predicted to be 70°. I suppose I should work on a few spring chores before it rains tomorrow.

Crocuses 2 The garden, of course, has been enjoying these conditions. The tulip leaves have been popping up, and the crocuses are in bloom in the front garden. I was surprised by a few daffodils in the south garden among the spider-lily leaves. Lately, I've been noticing daffodils everywhere in the neighborhood and recalling how much they delight me with their cheery selves. Save for the crocuses, the front flower garden is so void of color. So I think I might tuck a few daffodils in next autumn. I'm thinking also of adding some more crocuses, especially some smaller varieties, to add more interest. For now I'll just have to wait for the muscari, tulips, and allium to flower.

Bok Choy, Kale, and RaabThe vegetable garden is progressing slowly towards production. I planted peas outside last week and started some tomatoes and herbs indoors. Just yesterday I was able to plant a few of my cole crops in the ground--the bok choy, kale, and raab specifically (which you can see in the photo). If you look in the upper right corner of the photo you'll note what appears to be glass. This is one of the old windows I've been using as cover at night, just to stave off any late spring frosts. When we moved into our house in 2006, we found all sorts of odds and ends in the basement and attic. We have several windows and window screens, along with doors and what the inspector called "museum quality" knob-and-tube wiring. But my boyfriend and I are natural packrats who like old, weird things, so we look at such objects as opportunities, rather than landfill fodder.

Anyway, speaking of vegetables, may I entreat you to plant some kale?

Kale Leaf

I've eaten the stuff several times, but I've never grown it until this year. It germinates and grows very rapidly compared to nearly everything else I've planted. I have very little doubt that in less than another month I'll be rewarded with a bevy of leaves to sautee or throw into a tasty minestrone soup. This is a Russian variety, which means that the leaves are flatter and less curly than the Scottish varieties you often see in grocery stores.


Yes, it is a wonderful vegetable.

Lastly, yesterday Rob (my boyfriend) and I attended the orientation for our CSA. "CSA" stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It's like a subscription service for direct-from-the-farm produce where, for a few hundred dollars, you get a weekly supply of vegetables throughout the growing season. Our CSA, Fair Share Farms, maintains a blog to keep members up to date. I chose them because they had the most convenient drop-off point in the city and are committed to organic methods. There were a lot of people at the orientation and sign-up yesterday, which was both hectic and heartening. I'm glad that so many people like me are getting interested in supporting local agricultural economies and caring more about where their food comes from. Another interesting benefit of this CSA is that we are required to work a few hours on the farm in Kearney. We signed up for a couple weekends in August, so it will be a while before we contribute, but I'm looking forward to seeing the farm and how it operates. I'm excited!

If you're interested in joining a CSA, I recommend this website as a starting point. You can just input your zip code, and they'll throw out a few farms close by. There are over 2000 CSA's throughout the country, so chances are there's one in your vicinity.


Seed-Starting Begins


I've been wanting to write a new post for over 2 weeks now, but alas, I was waiting for all my seeds to arrive before blogging and one company was running a bit slower than usual it seems. I finally got all my seeds in last Friday and then spent the weekend out of town to celebrate my nephew's first birthday.

This year I'm trying to improve on my planning and get as much out of the garden for as long as I can. I'm also maintaining my crop rotation design (based roughly on suggestions in Rodale's Illustrated Encylopedia of Organic Gardening). Already I've got lots of plants sprouting, some of which will be ready to plant once the soil dries.

Here are the varieties I ordered this year:

Territorial Seed Company
Fava Bean, "Broad Windsor"
Potato, "Caribé" (Organic)
Dwarf Pac Choi, "Ching-Chiang"
Shelling Peads, "Dakota"
Buttercup Squash, "Discus Bush"
Romaine/Cos Lettuce, "Flashy Trout's Back" (Organic)
Kale, "Improved Dwarf Siberian"
Bush Beans, "Jade"
Crisphead Lettuce, "Reine Des Glaces" (Organic)
Broccoli Raab, "Sorrento"
Sugar Snap Peas, "Sugar Sprint"
Romaine/Cos Lettuce, "Winter Density"

John Scheeper's Kitchen Garden Seeds
Shelling Beans, "Black Turtle"
Romanesco Broccoli, "Shannon"
Collard Greens, "Morris Heading"
Tomatoes, "Enchantment" (F1 Hybrid)
Cilantro, "Caribe"

Pinetree Garden Seeds
Bronze Fennel
Nasturtium, "King Theodore"
Flat Leaf Parsley
Dill, "Dukat Strain"
Basil, "Italian Large Leaf"
Broccoli, "Waltham 29"
Broccoli, "Nutri-Bud"
Cabbage, "Early Jersey Wakefield"
Cabbage, "Danish Ballhead"
Cauliflower, "Early Snowball"
Yellow Wax Bush Beans, "Gold Crop"
Summer Squash, "Ronde De Nice"
Tomatoes, "Black Krim"

That's a lot more than last year. One of my big shifts in strategy was to focus attention primarily on open-pollinated strains in order to eventually achieve a level of self-sufficiency. I've also invested in early and late season brassica varieties, so I will ideally be able to harvest in late spring and autumn. I'll see how this works out as the season progresses.



As an addendum to yesterday's post, I assembled a photo montage from last year's vegetable garden. I like reminding myself how awesome everything looked at the height of summer...



2008 in Review

Late autumn and early winter were quite busy for me, far too busy to think about gardening. I hardly read any garden blogs in December and have only been seriously planning for spring since mid-January. I've been getting back into the swing of reading and just placed seed orders yesterday, so the slow crawl to spring has begun. Of course, this is Zone 5/6 and we officially have another 2 months until the last frost. Missouri has notoriously difficult weather, though. Right now it's utterly spring-like outside at 60 degrees, but forecasts suggest the usual 20-30 degrees by the end of the week. A couple of years ago, we had an early thaw in March only to suffer a late frost in April. Many fruit crops weren't able to recover.

In other words, I'm not planting anything outside until at least March. I envy those in warmer climes.

While I wait for my seeds to arrive and the seed-starting season to begin, I thought I'd share an assessment of some vegetable varieties from last year. Maybe they'll help you decide what seeds are worth buying for your own garden. Or maybe which varieties to look for at the market? Since I suffered a few setbacks, I'm including only the varieties that matured and produced, noting susceptibility to disease, yield, and flavor.

First, there's the Bull's Blood beet. While my plants failed to produce any bulbs, I did harvest a few meals' worth of lovely dark red leaves, which is what this heirloom variety is noted for. Beet greens have a flavor similar to spinach or Swiss chard (they're all close relative) and look great in salads--though, beware, they'll turn your pasta pink! Definitely something different with added decorative potential.

A 'Carmen' sweet pepper...great for roasting...

Next, there was the Carmen sweet pepper, an Italian variety bred especially for roasting and grilling. The walls are thinner, with a lower water content than your grocery store bells, but the sweet flavor is more concentrated and the roasted peppers weep less as a result. While you can use this variety the way you'd use any other sweet pepper, I don't recommend it sauteed or stir-fried. If you like to roast and freeze peppers, this is probably the variety to get. Regarding the plants, they are rather tall and seem to like a bit of support. Yield is pretty good, though my plants produced more towards the end of the season.

A variety of tomatoes from the garden: 'Early Girl,' 'Big Boy,' and a 'Striped German' on the bottom.

Tomatoes are always a big crop for me, and my goal last year was to branch out and try a few different varieties.

Because I like to can a lot of salsa, I thought I'd try a paste variety. Burpee's Big Mama, with its big, enticing fruits, looked like a variety worth getting, but as noted in a previous entry, it's very susceptible to blossom end rot. Initially I had assumed this was simply related to my container grown plant, but as the in-ground tomatoes matured, I quickly discovered this was not the case. I followed the same watering schedule for all my plants, but it would appear that this variety prefers that the soil remain moist at all times. Reading more about Roma/paste varieties, this problem is quite common.

Overgrown 'Big Boy' bushes in the south garden.

If you like productive hybrid beefsteaks, I can heartily recommend the Big Boy bush variety. The flavor is good and sweet, if not terribly unique, and grown in a good full-sun location it should produce nice big fruits.

'Early Girl' tomatoes (with a 'Big Boy' on the top right).

Another hybrid I tried as the Early Girl, a smaller early variety that failed to produce anything substantially earlier than the other varieties. Taste was somewhat bland, too, so I can't say I'll be planting it again.

I will, of course, be planting some seeds from the Cherokee Purple tomatoes I planted last year. It's not as sweet as the ever-popular Brandywine, but there is a mellow smokiness that adds a depth I really like. It makes a fantastic salad or bruschetta, and is pretty good on its own too.

Young 'Cherokee Purple' tomatoes on the vine.

I try a lot of different heirloom varieties when I go to the market and save seeds from the varieties I like. Last year I planted some Striped German plants from seeds I saved in 2007. While the plants aren't as leafy and robust as the Cherokee Purple, they have a certain "weediness" that's part of the heirloom charm. The fruits are a mottled orange and red inside and out and like the Cherokee Purple prone to a bit of cracking at the shoulders. More acidic than sweet but fairly balanced overall. I like it more on sandwiches or in addition to another tomato in a salad than by itself.

'Blue Lake' pole beans.

Another vegetable I always make an effort to include is the snap bean. In 2008 I tried the Blue Lake pole bean, which produced consistent yields from August to September. It likes lots of sun and water when it begins to flower (like most pole beans) and seemed to hold up through some bouts of mold. The beans were around 5"-6" long with a straightforward snap bean flavor and texture. Overall, this variety seems dependable.

'Dark Red Norland' new potatoes, freshly scrubbed.

I've previously mentioned my delight at growing my own potatoes, certainly one of my favorite vegetables and one I would like to keep growing in the future. I tried the Dark Red Norland, which did not garner high yields but was dependable in the production of tasty new potatoes. Thin-skinned and waxy, I would say they are best steamed and paired with green beans (preferably a filet variety) in a fresh nicoise style salad. Or make a light and vinegary potato salad.

'Jalapeno M' hybrid jalapeno peppers--small, but tasty!

Lastly, I planted the ever-dependable Jalapeno M, a hybrid I attempted in Vegetable Garden 1.0 and was mostly pleased with. It doesn't produce the big honking jalapenos you might be lusting after, but the yields are consistent and dependable, even after the high heat of mid-summer. The bushes are nice and compact and don't seem to require any support. The flavor is classic jalapeno, a low to medium heat that's great for salsa. Also good pickled.

Was there anything you tried last year that you would plant again or recommend to others?