Planting Plans and Crop Rotation

Spring is a week old and cover crops in kitchen garden beds need turning soon, but what I really need to do right now is make a planting plan for 2021. Beans and peas, beets, carrots and fennel, cucumbers and squashes, spring turnips and radishes, corn are still in seed packets, and tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, onions, lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower are growing indoors in pots and flats. Where will I plant each vegetable this year?

I have a paper layout of all the kitchen garden beds, twenty-one of them arranged in three groups of seven, each bed divided vertically into three sections for recording three years of planting.  I also have a table where I’ve recorded what’s grown in the beds each year since 2001. It should be an easy process of looking at what I’ve planted in each bed for the previous three or more years, selecting the appropriate vegetable for that bed this year and entering it on the piece of tracing paper I place over the garden bed layout.  Quick to describe, but not so quick to carry out.  

Crop rotation is what gardening books and websites call the process I’m puzzling over as I make a planting plan. It’s the practice of planting vegetables in different beds or rows each year.  Three reasons for crop rotation are to discourage insects that may have overwintered in the soil and could feast on the same plant again, to minimize build-up of diseases plants may leave in the soil over time and to improve soil fertility by alternating plants that take a lot from the soil with plants that return nutrients.   

I know why I should rotate vegetables from bed to bed or row to row, but how I should carry it out is a yearly puzzle with lots of pieces.  Fortunately, there are many excellent websites on crop rotation providing charts grouping all the vegetables I grow into their respective families and reminding me which families help each other and which don’t so much.  

The Washington State University Snohomish County Extension Fact Sheet on Crop Rotation in Home Gardens is a helpful two-page document that defines crop rotation, describes why it is important, and explains how to do it. It also has an easy-to-use chart separating vegetables into their families and a printer-friendly version. 

Seattle Tilth offers a short description of crop rotation that includes a useful sentence alerting gardeners to the disease susceptibility of several plant families: 

Certain plant families are especially susceptible to specific diseases, including the cabbages (broccoli, cabbage, kale, and many more), the nightshades (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes), and the onions (leek and garlic).

These are the families that I pay particular attention to when I’m making each year’s planting plan. I do my best to avoid planting members of the same family in beds where other members of the family have grown in the past two or three years, but one vegetable requires me to modify the rules: tomatoes.  I grow tomatoes every year in a greenhouse with permanent beds.  My solution to the diseases that tomatoes can leave in the soil is to swap the dirt in the greenhouse beds with dirt from beds in the garden, avoiding beds where other members of the nightshade family have grown. A couple of afternoons with the wheelbarrow accomplishes this task and has worked very well for the twenty years we’ve planted tomatoes in the greenhouse.  

A very useful site covering all aspects of crop rotation is Portland Nursery’s newsletter on crop rotation. In addition to describing the benefits of rotating vegetable crops and providing a list of vegetables and their families, it offers suggestions and sample plans for crop rotation in small year-round vegetable gardens.  It also includes cover crops as vegetables to include in crop rotations, useful for those of us who plant cover crops each fall. And in a side bar, it lists helpful rules for crop rotation.  

Portland Nursery’s Rules for Crop Rotation:

  • Two growing seasons should pass before a plant family returns to soil it has already grown in.
  • Heavy feeders such as brassicas, cucurbits, and solanums should follow light feeders (all others).
  • Surface feeders such as corn should follow deep rooters like brassicas.
  • When removing a finished crop, clean up thoroughly in that area, and leave no debris in which pests or diseases may overwinter.
  • Keep records of what happens and use this information to help plan future plantings.

I especially appreciate the reminders that “heavy feeders should follow light feeders” and that “surface feeders should follow deep rooters.”  And it’s always good to be reminded to tidy up and keep good records, on-going aspirations of mine.

Finally, the site Harvest to Table written by a kitchen gardener in Sonoma Valley of California is useful even for those of us gardening farther north.

He’s more specific than the other sites about plant families and their effect on soil: 

Some crops are heavy feeders; heavy feeders include tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, corn, eggplant, beets, lettuce, and other leafy crops.

Some crops are light feeders: light feeders include garlic, onions, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, and turnips.

Some crops are soil builders: soil builders include peas, beans, and cover crops such as clover.

And while he suggests that: “Simple crop rotation would plant heavy feeders in a dedicated planting bed the first year, followed by light feeders in the same bed the second year, followed by soil builders the third year,”he acknowledges that not all gardeners have the space to rotate crops so tidily and offers suggestions for working in smaller garden spaces.

Last, as an alternative to thinking about crop rotation by vegetable family, this author suggests crop rotation by harvest group, an intriguing way to think about the rotation process. 

Crop rotation by harvest groups is a simple rotation strategy: rotate leafy crops, root crops, and fruiting crops. Harvest group rotation is not a precise crop rotation method (for example, peppers are light feeders and tomatoes are heavy feeders, but both are fruiting crops—but it is an easy way to group plants and to remember the rotation from one year to the next. A simple three-year crop rotation divides crops into their harvest groups:

Leafy crops—lettuce, spinach and members of the cabbage family such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower

Root crops: carrots, turnips, parsnips, potatoes

Fruiting crops (flowering crops): tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash

In another entry, he writes in detail about the more traditional crop rotation by plant family.

After reviewing all this crop rotation information, I’m heading back to my planting plan, more confident than before that I can keep all the plant families getting along for another year.

Winter and Spring in February

February often feels like a transition month in our marine climate, one that can pull us back to winter and then propel us toward spring.  This year during the middle weeks of February, temperatures in the twenties followed by snow blanketing the kitchen garden definitely pointed to winter. And now, with the snow gone, the final week of February has brought warmer temperatures, lengthening days and the promise of spring.  

As a kitchen gardener, part of me is still in winter, cooking the roots and hardy greens I harvested before the deep cold, but part of me is also in spring and summer, imagining the food that will come from seeds I’ll be starting soon.  

In the days before the forecast cold, I harvested half a dozen large celery root, the last of the radicchios and chicories, a cabbage and some collards, bags of Brussels sprouts and lots of carrots, all vegetables I might not be able to get to beneath a cover of snow, mulch and tarps.  I’ve been cooking from this harvest ever since.

Raw celery root makes wonderful salads , but the cold compelled me to cook it into a smooth, comforting puree.  Melissa Clark’s recipe couldn’t be easier, especially if you use an immersion blender. I served it with stew for dinner and the next day thinned leftovers with the cooking liquid I’d saved to make soup for lunch.  The puree looks like mashed potatoes but tastes like sweet, earthy celery.

Celery Root Puree

4 medium celeriac bulbs about 3 1/2 pounds, peeled and diced

4 garlic cloves, peeled

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons kosher salt, more to taste

8 tablespoons butter

Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste

In a large saucepan, combine the celery root, peeled garlic cloves and bay leaves. Pour in 12 cups water and 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, discard the bay leaves and transfer the celeriac and garlic to a food processor. Add the butter and nutmeg; process until very smooth. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Keep warm.

With the carrots and radicchio, I turned to a recipe I tried for the first time this year from Marcella Hazan’s Marcella’s Italian Kitchen (1986). It’s yet another of her simple Italian recipes that is made wonderfully complex by the combination of contrasting flavors, in this case sweet carrots and slightly bitter radicchio. In her notes before the recipe, Hazan says that “endive substitutes for the long radicchio di Treviso I would use in Italy,” but for the pleasantly bitter flavor, any radicchio or chicory would do.  I used one of the red radicchios I’d harvested.  

I also used Purple Haze carrots to match the purple of the radicchio. I’ve made this recipe several times with Purple Haze, one of my favorite carrots for its sweet spicy flavor and also with Mokum, a perfect, deeply sweet orange carrot. Both dishes were pretty and delicious.

SLOW-BROWNED CARROTS AND ENDIVE

Marcella Hazan

In this combination with carrots, endive substitutes for the long radicchio di Treviso I would use in Italy. Its appeal is based on the racy contrast of flavors and consistencies: the carrot sweet, the endive slightly bitter; the former firm, the latter creamily soft. The carrot must first be cooked slowly and at length, with butter and no liquid, to evaporate all the moisture that dilutes its flavor, and to keep the carrot rounds firm. Since the endive throws off much liquid, it is also, at first, cooked separately from the carrots; otherwise it would steam them. It takes only a few minutes’ additional cooking together, after the preliminary separate procedures, to link the two vegetables’ flavors.

1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch rounds

4 tablespoons butter

Salt

¾ to 1 pound Belgian endive, shredded lengthwise into strips ¼ inchwide

  1. Choose a sauté pan or skillet that can accommodate all the carrots without crowding them. Put in the carrots and butter, and turn on the heat to medium low. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the carrots have greatly diminished in bulk, becoming withered and colored a light nut brown. It should take about 1 to 1½ hours. Sprinkle with salt, stir, and turn off the heat.
  2. Transfer the carrots to a platter, using a slotted spoon or spatula in order to leave as much butter as possible in the pan.
  3. Put the endive in the pan and turn on the heat to medium low. Cook, turning it over from time to time, until the endive becomes very soft, about 30 minutes. Add salt.
  4. Return the carrots to the pan and cook for 5 minutes longer, together with the endive.

With Brussels sprouts, I alternate between roasting oiled halves or quarters at high heat, 425 or 450, for about seven minutes or sauteing thin slices in butter or olive oil at high heat for less than five minutes, both easy and quick preparations.  In a tasty variation the other night, I roasted thin slices and used them as a pizza topping along with sautéed shallot and sausage to create an earthy, spicy very seasonal pizza.

Finally, with the cabbage and collards, I made one of our favorite winter sautés several times as a side dish, Sautéed Collards and Cabbage with Gremolata

Tasty and satisfying as these winter vegetables have been, I have fresh tomatoes on my mind.  Over the past several days, I’ve tidied up my seed starting room, pulled out planting trays and a bag of potting soil and today I started seeds for this year’s tomato crop.  I’m growing many of my usual favorite slicers, Brandywine, Cherokee Carbon, Cherokee Purple, Dester, Golden Sunray (aka Golden Jubilee), Momotaro and a rainbow of cherry tomatoes, Green Doctors, Orange Paruche, Sunchocola and Sweet Million. 

A new slicer I’m trying this year, in a nod to New Jersey friends, is Rutgers Original from Fedco.  Long considered an outstanding slicing, cooking and canning tomato, Rutgers’ medium-sized 4–6 oz mostly uniform and unblemished deep oblate fruits with a rich red interior and pleasing texture have that great old-time flavor, delicious and juicy. When Rutgers University “refined” the variety in 1943, they took out some of the vininess but also some of the flavor. Our taste tests confirmed that the original indeterminate strain is better, so that’s the strain we offer of this famous New Jersey tomato.

I’ll also grow Aosta Valley from Fedco, a small paste tomato I’ve grown for the past few years, perfect for roasting.  In addition, I’m going to try another paste tomato my friends Alan and Kathy recommended: Midnight Roma from Row 7 Seed Company: A deep purple-red paste tomato packed with phytonutrients. In the rows, it will stop you in your tracks. In the kitchen, this purple wonder shines for its quick cook time and memorable flavor. Check out this small company and its taste-focused mission.

As I planted seeds, the sun warmed up the small seed starting room to almost-summer temperatures, making it easy to imagine plates and bowls of luscious tomatoes when summer arrives.  

Winter Kitchen Garden Soups

It’s the season of root vegetables and it’s the season for hearty soups.  Rutabaga, turnip, celery root, parsnips, carrots as well as leeks are all on offer in the winter kitchen garden.  And cold days, whether sunny or cloudy, call for thick, comforting soups for lunch or dinner. 

A recent recipe by David Tanis for Creamy Leek and Parsnip Soup inspired me to go to the kitchen garden on a damp, dreary morning and dig parsnip and leeks.  As Tanis writes, “This soup has a kind of quiet charm. Whizzed until creamy in a blender, it is a happy marriage of silky leeks and earthy parsnips — think leek and potato soup, but with more depth of character.”  Yes, only two ingredients, but so good together. And the addition of a teaspoon of ground turmeric gives it a welcome, sunny color.  I followed the recipe exactly and used water to let the vegetable flavors shine.  This is a delicious winter soup and one that I’ll make again soon.

Creamy Leek and Parsnip Soup

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 large leeks, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • 6 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  •  Black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 6 cups water, chicken broth or vegetable broth
  •  Extra-virgin olive oil, crème fraîche or yogurt, for garnish (optional)
  1. Put olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add leeks and parsnips, and stir to coat. Add the 2 teaspoons salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Let vegetables sizzle and cook, stirring frequently until nearly caramelized, but without browning, until softened, 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Add bay leaf, turmeric and garlic, and stir to coat. Increase heat to high, add water or broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes more. Taste broth and adjust seasoning.
  4. With a blender, purée soup to a creamy consistency. (Small batches work best.) Thin with water or broth, if necessary — it should be like a thin milkshake, not thick and porridge-like.
  5. Reheat the soup before serving. Serve plain, or give each bowl a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil or a dollop of crème fraîche or yogurt, if desired.

Melissa Clark’s root vegetable soup is another to make often this season, many roots assembled in one pot for a louder, multi-flavored soup.  Her recipe calls for three-and-a-half pounds of mixed root vegetables.  This time, I used all the roots: rutabaga, turnip, celery root, parsnip and carrots, a generous half pound of each along with three-quarters pound of leeks.  Other times I’ve used higher proportions of turnip and rutabaga because I love their flavors. Each vegetable offers its own special sweetness, earthy sweetness of rutabaga and turnip, delicate sweetness of celery root and leeks, sugary sweetness of parsnips and carrots.  The result is a soup that is sweet but not too sweet. A few drops of lemon juice and a dusting of Urfa or Aleppo pepper flakes when serving add the right touches of acid and heat.  Finally, though Clark recommends 8 cups of water, I used only six cups because I like a thicker soup.  

Root Vegetable Soup

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large onion or 2 leeks (white and light green part only), chopped
  • 2 to 3 celery stalks, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 rosemary or thyme branches
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 ½ pounds mixed root vegetables (carrot, parsnip, celery root, turnip, rutabaga, sweet or regular potato), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 teaspoons fine sea salt, more as needed
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper, more as needed
  •  Juice of 1/2 lemon, more for serving 
  •  Extra-virgin olive oil
  •  Flaky sea salt
  •  Crushed Aleppo, Urfa or other chile flakes, optional
  •  Grated Parmesan or pecorino, optional
  1. Melt butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in onion and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic, rosemary and bay leaves; cook 1 minute more. Add root vegetables, 8 cups water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. 
  2. Remove and discard rosemary branches and bay leaves. Using an immersion blender, purée soup until smooth. (Alternatively, you can purée the soup in batches in a blender or food processor.) If the soup is too thick, add a little water. Season with lemon juice and more salt to taste.
  3. To serve, ladle soup into bowls and top with a drizzle of olive oil, a few drops of lemon juice, flaky salt and crushed chile or grated cheese, if desired.

With both of these soups, I used an immersion blender to turn the soft chunks of boiled vegetables into a thick, creamy soup.  I’ve always been a Cuisinart fan for pureeing anything, but my husband gave me a Breville “control grip” immersion blender and I’ve become a convert to this new kitchen tool.  It’s so much easier and faster to puree the soup in the pot than it is to transfer it to the Cuisinart.  

There are many more winter soups to get us through the next months, some I’ve made before, like Melissa Clark’s Golden Leek and Potato soup and some I haven’t but that intrigue me, like David Tanis’s Bright Green Leek soup. Though there is the welcome lengthening of days, the temperatures still say soup, so there’s time to make more.

Vegetable Gardening in 2020

During this pandemic gardening year, many people bought vegetable seeds for the first time, grew their first gardens and discovered the pleasures and challenges of growing food. Long-time vegetable gardeners shared extra seeds and gardening tips and often grew a little extra as insurance against these uncertain times.  Confined to home, we all had time to garden.  

As the year winds down toward Winter Solstice and the holidays, we now have time to look back on the gardening year and ahead to what the New Year offers.  How will we think about growing food in the year ahead and what seeds will we order for 2021? 

Ten years ago, I asked gardening friends to tell me why they grow vegetable gardens and published their responses in the monthly column I was writing at the time. I reread this column the other day and realized that the observations have perhaps even more resonance today as we reflect on why so many of us grew food this year.  

Why We Grow Vegetable Gardens

For all of us who grow vegetable gardens, the New Year is a good time to pause and consider why we choose to spend our time planting and harvesting food.  There’s the food, of course, but as a sampling of Lopez gardeners reveals, there’s also a sense of self-reliance and most of all there’s the garden itself.

But first to the food: “The obvious reason to grow a vegetable garden is to have fresh and delicious organic produce, especially the types that are either highly perishable (raspberries, lettuce) or mysteriously expensive (leeks, artichokes, kale). Be careful, though—our children now have expensive tastes and turn up their noses at pesto from the market.”

Others agree: “there’s the intense flavor.”  “Homegrown food just tastes better.  I’ll always remember the first time I ate a sweet pepper from my garden (it was a sweet banana).  It was so crisp, juicy, so flavorful.  The tastes can spoil you.”

And, others add, there are the health benefits of eating homegrown food.  “As more information continues to surface on chemical contamination and GMOs (“Frankenstein Foods”), I feel so blessed to be relatively free of those threats to my body.”

Freedom, security, and independence: these are more reasons people grow their own food.  “I love the security of not being dependent on other sources for my food. Truthfully, I have always possessed a ‘doomsday’ mentality. Not in a morbid, fearful way but simply in a non-dependence on the ‘system’ way.”

Another considers herself “more of a subsistence gardener, growing as much of my family’s food as I can, including grains, dry beans, edible seeds, etc., and seeds to plant in future years; my intention is also to provide as many material needs as possible from the garden (e.g. fuel, fiber, medicines, etc.). Mother Earth provides abundance for free, and I celebrate how that gives me some small measure of independence from a cash economy that enslaves people and brings about terrible harm.”

“When I first became interested in gardening (as a teen),” another writes, “it was mainly for the idea of growing my own food, to be self-reliant.  Having my garden produce food is a given at this point.”

And for another family, there’s “the satisfaction of eating a meal made up largely of our own produce. We sit at the table sometimes and list off all the foods that came from our own patch of dirt!”

Food we grow ourselves is important, but all the effort isn’t only for the food.

“I garden because I love spending my days in nature, amazed by plants, insects, birds, sky and I feel blessed to participate in the wondrous and the miraculous.”

“There is the eternal miracle of a tiny brown seed becoming a huge green plant. The transition from nearly bare brown spring soil to late summer, when there is barely room for a weed, astonishes every year.”  “I’m still in awe that seeds will sprout, that cuttings will form roots.”

“There is also an adventurous piece to gardening—you never know what will flourish and what will succumb in a given year. Gardens are for optimists!”  “Gardening teaches acceptance: there will always be some plants that just don’t thrive. OK, I lied about that—I still feel a little sad when a plant doesn’t make it.”

“I love the peace and solitude of my garden.  It is the pure joy of being on the land raising my own vital foods that keeps me hunkered down with my hands in the soil.”

“The garden surrounds us with enlivening energy, provides a place to see into nature, gently humbles, and welcomes us no matter what.  What a privilege!”

“I don’t think I would garden only to be growing food.  There are so many excellent farms in the area that can provide.  I garden because I love the process, the satisfaction of producing from seed to soup.  When I eat from my garden, I have a personal history with that food—it goes beyond sustenance, politics or economy.”

I’m grateful for all of these observations.  They remind me of the many reasons growing vegetables gives us pleasure.

Turning from reflections to practical tasks, an important step this time of year for all of us gardeners is getting seeds for next year’s gardens.  Some seeds we’ve saved from plants in our gardens; others we order.  With seed catalogs arriving daily, I’m reminded that this time of year I usually write a post about seed ordering, sharing the steps I follow and questions I ask myself.  Looking back through years of December and January entries, I see that I’ve written about getting organized by alphabetizing seed packets, inventorying the contents and checking the longevity of seed varieties to help me decide what to keep and what to discard;

about using catalog information like “days to maturity” to help me decide what variety to order; about the search for new varieties because an old favorite has been discontinued or because I’m ready for something new; about the pleasant distractions of reading through seed catalogs.

I also discovered two posts of advice from Lopez market growers and Lopez gardeners, as useful today as they were ten years ago.  

The turn of the year is a perfect time to look back on the garden year past and to immerse ourselves in seed choices for the year ahead. Happy new gardening year!  Welcome 2021!

Chicories and Radicchios

I’ve been harvesting beautiful chicory and radicchio this fall and enjoying lots of salads and sautés from these deliciously bitter greens.  The distinction seed catalogs make between chicory and radicchio is a bit puzzling since both are in the family Cichorium Intybus, but both Adaptive Seeds and Fedco Seeds distinguish chicory from radicchio by color, with chicory mostly green and radicchio mostly burgundy. It’s a useful distinction, I guess, because the most important thing to me is to grow enough of each color to have variety in the salad bowl.   

From Adaptive Seeds, I grew two chicories, Sugarloaf Borca, “tall, green romaine-like ‘loafs’” and Variegata de Castlefranco, “a big heading chicory with lots of bright colors, mostly green with red speckles.” Also from Adaptive Seeds, I grew two radicchios, Treviso Mesola, large, tall heads with “deep red leaf color and crunchy white midribs” and Variegata de Chioggia, large, round heads with “red-pink and white variegation.” And from Fedco, I grew my old favorite, Indigo, burgundy-colored “large tight heads of extraordinary rich interior color.”  I start seeds in flats in mid-July and transplant out in mid-August, spacing them at least eighteen inches apart.  They are ready to harvest by mid-October. When late fall and winter rains come, I put a plastic tunnel over the bed to keep the plants from rotting.

When I harvest chicory and radicchio, I take the whole head which is comprised of abundant, rather floppy outer leaves and a more compact inner head. The inner heads, in the foreground of the photo, are best for salads while the outer leaves, in the background, are wonderful sautéed in olive oil and garlic.

Though called bitter greens, these chicories and radicchios actually have a lot of sweetness.  On the bitterness scale, the green chicories seem to be a bit sweeter than the burgundy radicchios, but neither is ever unpleasantly bitter, and all mix wonderfully with truly sweet fruits and vegetables like pears and winter squash, rich nuts like toasted hazelnuts and slightly salty Pecorino Romano cheese. Even sautéed wild mushrooms are a tasty addition, as I found in a lunch salad I made the other day.  The crunchy, succulent texture of the inner leaves stands up well to these firmer salad additions, but the leaves alone are also delicious with only a light vinaigrette.  I have been making a vinaigrette with sherry vinegar, garlic and olive oil.  

When I sauté the outer greens, I usually cut each leaf in half, separating the central rib, and then slice the leaves into squares or strips. The leaves sautéquickly in hot oil and, because they are so succulent, they need no water.  They make a delicious side dish or pasta sauce and are great additions to soup.

A chicory and radicchio salad would be a perfect complement to turkey, gravy and stuffing and all the other rich side dishes of Thanksgiving dinner.  Sadly, our Thanksgiving will be a small gathering of just me and my husband this year instead of the dozen or more friends who usually gather with us to celebrate the day, but we will definitely make a chicory and radicchio salad to go with our small turkey and our much-reduced array of traditional side dishes.  Happy small Thanksgiving 2020 everyone, and here’s to large gatherings of friends again in 2021.

Update: Cover Crops

Now that summer’s warmth-loving plants have gone to the compost bin, the kitchen garden has bare dirt exposed in empty beds.  With a few exceptions, like arugula and mache (also known as corn salad), it’s too late to plant winter crops like kale and chard, leeks and hardy roots.  So, what can go into this bare soil?  Cover crops! They cover the soil, protecting it from hard winter rains and slowly building up foliage and roots that will add organic matter and nutrients to the soil when they are turned in the spring. 

Several years ago, I wrote about planting cover crops, explaining that this last step in the garden year was probably the most important thing I do for the kitchen garden.  Part of this process is selecting the right cover crop.  Over the years, I’ve used small-seeded fava beans, Austrian field pea, annual rye, and, as an experiment in a few beds, mache, also known as corn salad.  I’ve abandoned fava beans and field pea because they were attracting pea weevil, but I thought I was making a good choice with annual rye. According to garden authority Linda Gilkeson in a recent interview, I was not.

In a February 2020 blog post from the New Society Publishers, Gilkeson says: “don’t grow fall rye as a cover crop to turn under in the spring: that’s just a magnet for click beetles.”  Click beetles are the parents of wire worms, the pest that has increasingly plagued gardeners growing lettuce as well as larger-seeded plants like corn.  Yikes!  Was I attracting wire worms by using annual rye as a cover crop? No evidence yet that I have, and I hope it’s the same for anyone else who has used annual rye as a cover crop, but I’m not going to use it this year.

Instead, I’ve decided to sow all my open beds with mache. Years ago, a young Lopez gardener suggested I try it as a cover crop, and she gave me some seeds she’d harvested from her crop.  Since then, I’ve always sowed at least two beds in mache; this year I’ll sow nine.  

There are several things I like about mache as a cover crop.  It germinates reliably in the first weeks of October when I am ready to plant cover crops, and its foliage and mass of fine roots break down quickly in the spring. It’s very winter hardy, surviving temperatures in the single digits and even thriving in snow. And as a bonus, between winter and spring, the leaves make delicious salads.  I’ve always grown a bed of mache for winter Now with mache as a cover crop, I have enough for more salads than I could ever eat.

I’ve ordered seeds of mache from Osborne’s Seeds in Mt Vernon, WA. One 10 /M packet holds about 24 grams of seeds, enough to seed two 5-by-18 foot beds.  My friend Carol has ordered cover crop seeds from True Leaf Market. I may order from them next year.  

The seeds are tiny and light but are quite easy to broadcast thinly over a bed. 

I rake them in lightly, tamp the soil down with the back of the rake, and then cover the bed with a row cover like Reemay to protect germinating plants from birds. Once the plants are up, I remove the row cover.  If you’ve never sowed a cover crop, the video on this English site is a good guide.  I was interested to see that this site also recommends mache or corn salad as a cover crop.

If you’re looking for one last chance to be out in the garden before the garden year comes to the end, planting cover crops is a great way to spend a sunny fall afternoon.

Nearing the Autumn Equinox

In the mid-September kitchen garden, corn, beans, winter squash and potatoes are at the end of their growing cycles, their dry and yellowed stalks and vines destined for the compost pile. In the greenhouses, the last of the ripening tomatoes hang near the top of wilting vines and remaining eggplants and peppers still glow purple, red, orange and yellow though their leaves are tattered. These warmth-loving plants promise a few more meals before cold weather cuts off their production.  

In contrast to these drying, end-of-summer plants, the foliage of fall and winter crops is lush and green.  In early morning walks in the kitchen garden, my husband Scott has captured the beauty of leeks, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, chard and kale.  While it’s sad to come to the end of the summer kitchen garden, the freshness of these fall and winter plants and the anticipation of meals they’ll provide temper the change from one season to the next.

Recipes for Late Summer Bounty

In the abundance race playing out in the late-summer kitchen garden, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and corn are vying for first place, easily outdistancing mid-summer’s zucchini, cucumbers and green beans.  Much as I love all summer vegetables, this quartet of deep summer flavors and rich colors is my favorite.  So are the recipes that showcase their flavors.

It’s hard to beat caponata or sheet pan ratatouille to meld eggplant, peppers and tomatoes along with onion and garlic into the perfect late summer meal.

Eggplant caponata

Ratatouille roasted on pan

Narrowing the field to peppers and tomatoes, pepper stew concentrates the flavors of sweet peppers into a warm vegetable confit of peppers, onions and tomatoes.

Pepper stew

For raw peppers alone, there is sweet pepper salad, thinly sliced peppers in a spicy red wine vinaigrette.

Pepper salad

And for the pure flavor of eggplant, there is Charred Eggplant and Tahini Spread, our go-to sandwich spread and appetizer dip.

Eggplant spread

I’ve been returning to all of these recipes in the past weeks, serving them as often as I can as a way to hold on to summer even as the daylight shifts and daylight shortens.

I’ve also been making new favorites that have been working their way up my list of best late summer recipes.  Last year, I took advantage of an abundance of sweet corn and shishito peppers to make Spicy Corn and Shishito Salad, repeating this dish as long as corn and peppers lasted.  This year, I eagerly watched the ripening corn until I could pull the first ears and make it again with the green and turning-to-red shishito peppers in the pepper bed.  The other night, we served it with fresh crab. Perfect!

Spicy Corn and Shishito Salad

corn shishito salad

YIELD 4 servings

In this recipe, shishito peppers are sliced, lightly sautéed, then tossed with raw summer corn and a cumin-lime vinaigrette for a summer salad that’s crunchy, smoky and a little spicy. Traditionally used in Japanese and Korean cooking, shishitos are small, thin-skinned green peppers that have become increasingly popular in the United States. They are typically mild in flavor, but the occasional pepper packs a spicy punch. If you can’t find them, use diced green bell peppers in their place. Finally, cilantro-averse cooks can substitute fresh mint.

3 ½  tablespoons olive oil

2  tablespoons fresh lime juice

¼  teaspoon ground cumin

Kosher salt

⅓  cup diced red onion

1  garlic clove, minced

3  cups fresh corn kernels (from 4 to 6 ears of corn)

6  ounces shishito peppers, stemmed and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices, or green bell peppers, stemmed and diced

1  large jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed, diced

¼  cup grated Cotija or crumbled feta cheese (optional), or to taste (goat cheese works too)

¼  cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, plus more to taste

  1. In a small bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons olive oil with the lime juice, cumin and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Stir in the red onion and garlic and set aside until ready to use. (Do this step first so the onions and garlic have time to mellow slightly in the dressing.)
  2. Place the corn kernels in a large bowl and set aside. In a medium (10-inch) sauté pan, heat the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the shishitos, jalapeño and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are tender and beginning to brown, 4 to 6 minutes.
  3. Add the peppers and dressing to the bowl with the corn and toss well. corn shishito salad getting shishitosAdd the cheese, if using, and toss. Garnish with cilantro.

My friend Nancy makes beautiful tomato pies, so this year I tried one, following a recipe for Heirloom Tomato Tart.  It was beautiful and delicious, fresh tomatoes melting in a custardy, basil-flavored base.

tomato tart heirloom

I’ll make it again, and I’ll also try a few more of the many tomato pie recipes out there. It’s hard to beat a simple plate of sliced tomatoes, but my husband would argue that one way to do it is to wrap those tomatoes in pie crust.

We’ll keep eating late-summer food until it runs out. And after that?  Luckily, there are fall and winter vegetables growing steadily in the kitchen garden, ready when we need them to feed us in the darker, cooler days ahead.

Heirloom Tomato Tart

Vallery Lomas

Yield: 4 to 6 serving

Time: 1 and 1/2 hours

INGREDIENTS

  •  Dough for a 9-inch single crust pie, or use store-bought, rolled into an 11-inch round (see Note)
  • 1 ½ pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes (about 4 medium)
  • ¼ cup store-bought pesto
  • ¾ cup shredded mozzarella (about 3 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
  • 3 large eggs
  • ⅓ cup heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

PREPARATION

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Fit the rolled-out dough into a 9-inch tart pan, allowing the edges to rise about 1/4 inch above the rim of the pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork.
  2. Line the dough with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes until beginning to brown at the edges. Remove from the oven and carefully remove the foil and weights. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
  3. Meanwhile, cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch slices. Place in a colander to drain excess tomato liquid for 20 minutes.tomato tart crust and tomatoes
  4. Spread 1/4 cup pesto in an even layer over the parbaked tart crust. Sprinkle the shredded mozzarella over the pesto. Sprinkle the fresh basil and oregano over the cheese.tomato tart gettng pesto, mozz
  5. In a medium bowl, prepare the custard: Whisk together the eggs, cream, salt and pepper until combined.
  6. Place the sliced tomatoes evenly over the cheese and herbs in overlapping concentric circles.
  7. Pour the custard evenly over the tomato slices. Swirl the pan to evenly distribute the liquid. Bake until the filling is set and won’t jiggle when shaken, about 35 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before serving warm. This tart can also be served at room temperature.

Zucchini and Cucumbers

There’s a lot of abundance in the mid-summer kitchen garden right now.  Among all the summer favorites, the two vegetables vying for first place in this abundance are, no surprise, zucchini and cucumbers.  I’ve grown zucchini for years, specifically my favorite Costata Romanesca, and have learned that one plant is enough and sometimes even too much for two people.

Zucchini growing 2020

A single plant produces ribbed and striped squash steadily all summer.  I like to harvest them when they are about eight inches long and an inch-and-a-half or two in diameter.  Any I miss seem to double in length and diameter overnight, but fortunately, their sweet, nutty flavor and dense texture don’t diminish too much in the larger sizes.

Cucumbers are a more recent entry to my summer kitchen garden, thanks to encouragement from my friend Anne.  She recommended Marketmore which I grew last year and again this year because its sweet flavor and crisp texture are so refreshing that even cucumber skeptics like them. Like zucchini, though, cucumbers produce steadily, stealthily on their ever-expanding vines, but I’m learning how to spot the perfect 8-inch cuke under a leafy camouflage and harvest it before it reaches blimp stage.

Cucumber under vine

Two new-to-me recipes have made me glad for this abundance of zucchini and cucumbers.  My current favorite zucchini recipe is David Tanis’ Summer Pasta with Zucchini, Ricotta and Basil. It’s easy to assemble and, as a bonus, uses another of those abundant summer vegetables, basil. Tanis recommends using “the best artisanal ricotta,” but even regular store-bought ricotta works. Or, you could become an artisan and make your own ricotta. Both Melissa Clark’s very rich version of home-made ricotta and the slightly less rich recipe from the Kitchn website are easy and delicious.  And if you have access to Fresh Breeze Dairy’s superb milk, available on Lopez at Blossom Grocery, it’s sublime.

Summer Pasta with Zucchini, Ricotta and Basil

Serves 4-6

INGREDIENTS

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely diced

2 pounds zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick pieces (for larger zucchini, cut in half lengthwise before slicing)

Salt and pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced, or 2 tablespoons chopped green garlic

1 ounce basil, about 2 cups loose leaves

1 pound ziti or other dry pasta

8 ounces ricotta, about 1 cup

Pinch of crushed red pepper

Zest of 1 lemon

2 ounces grated Parmesan, pecorino or a mixture, about 1 cup, plus more for serving

PREPARATION

Put a pot of water on to boil. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the onions in 3 tablespoons olive oil until softened, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce heat as necessary to keep onions from browning. Add zucchini, season generously with salt and pepper, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until rather soft, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat.

Meanwhile, use a mortar and pestle to pound garlic, basil and a little salt into a rough paste (or use a mini food processor). Stir in 3 tablespoons olive oil.

Salt the pasta water well and put in the pasta, stirring. Boil per package instructions but make sure to keep pasta quite al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of cooking water.

Add cooked pasta to zucchini in skillet and turn heat to medium-high. Add 1/2 cup cooking water, then the ricotta, crushed red pepper and lemon zest, stirring to distribute.

Zucchini pasta with ricottaCheck seasoning and adjust. Cook for 1 minute more. Mixture should look creamy. Add a little more pasta water if necessary. Add the basil paste and half the grated cheese and quickly stir to incorporate. Spoon pasta into warm soup plates and sprinkle with additional cheese. Serve immediately.

Zucchini pasta basil

 

To keep up with the abundance of cucumbers, my current favorite recipe is cucumber and tomato salad.

Cucumber Tomato on counter

There are many versions of this classic combination, and the one I’ve been following lately is Pierre Franey’s 1988 recipe from his New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet column.  The dressing, made with red wine vinegar, red onion, chopped fresh dill, ground cumin and olive oil is the perfect match for the cucumbers and tomato.  It’s salad with a lovely echo of gazpacho.

So much to eat!  Here’s to more summer days to enjoy kitchen garden abundance!

Cucumber Tomato salad

Cucumber and Tomato Salad

Yield: 4-6 servings

Time: 15 minutes

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 medium-size cucumbers
  • 3 ripe tomatoes, 3/4 pound
  • ½ cup chopped red onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  •  Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

PREPARATION

  1. Peel the cucumbers and split them in half. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Slice the cucumbers crosswise. There should be about 3 cups.
  2. Core the tomatoes and cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. There should be about 3 cups.
  3. Put the onion, dill, vinegar, oil, cumin, salt and pepper in a bowl. Beat briskly with a wire whisk. Add the cucumbers and tomatoes. Toss well and serve.

Planting for Fall and Winter

What comes after spring garden planting? Abundant harvests of lettuce, radishes, peas, beets, carrots and, a little later, beans, zucchini and tomatoes.  But what else comes after spring garden planting?  Fall and winter garden planting!  Even as I’m enjoying vegetables from the spring and summer garden, I’m eyeing the spaces left by these harvests and plotting what I can plant there for fall and winter. If you have extra garden space showing up as you harvest, you can plant some fall and winter crops now and throughout July and August.  The reward will be vegetables from the kitchen garden this winter.

Most of the vegetables I plant for my fall and winter kitchen garden fall into two general categories, greens and roots. Greens that I always make room for are kale, collards, chard, radicchio, red mustard, arugula, mache. Winter roots that have a place are rutabaga, turnip, carrots, beets, parsnips, celery root. Brussels sprouts, cabbage and leeks don’t fit neatly into these categories, but I always leave space for them in my winter garden too.

Greens grown in fall and winter tend to be sweeter and more succulent than greens grown in summer.  They not only thrive in cool weather, but also get sweeter after a frost. Winter roots as well as leeks, Brussels sprouts and cabbage also thrive and sweeten in cold weather, and their rich deep flavors signal fall and winter in contrast to the lighter, brighter flavors of summer’s beans, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. And even when the weather gets really cold, there are lots of ways to protect your winter crops.

Here’s the planting calendar I keep in mind as space opens up in the garden. Some of these vegetables I’ll direct seed and others I’ll start in pots and plant out as space becomes available.

If you use Linda Gilkeson’s winter garden planting calendar, you’ll notice that I suggest dates a little later than those she suggests, but I’ve found that I can push the season a little more in my Lopez Island garden than she can on Salt Spring Island.

Greens:

Kale and collards: mid-July, direct seed or plant in pots for transplanting

Chard: mid-July, direct seed or plant in pots for transplanting

Radicchio: mid-to-late July, direct seed or plant in pots for transplanting

Red mustard: early to mid-August, direct seed or plant in pots for transplanting

Arugula: direct seed, mid-August through October and as late as December in a cold frame

Mache: mid-August, direct seed or plant in flats for transplanting

Roots:

Carrots: early to mid-July, direct seed

Beets: early to mid-July, direct seed

Rutabaga: mid-July, direct seed or start in pots for transplanting

Turnip: mid-July, direct seed or start in pots for transplanting

Parsnips: early June to mid-July, direct seed

Celery root: April to May in pots for transplanting late June

Leeks: late May, direct seed or in pots to transplant

Brussels sprouts: early June, in pots to transplant early to mid-July

Winter cabbage: early June, in pots to transplant early to mid-July

Over the years, I’ve written many blog posts about growing and cooking winter vegetables. If you’re interested in trying a few winter vegetables this year, check out these posts for photos and ideas and explore the site under Fall/Winter Vegetables. For many of these vegetables, it’s not too late to buy seeds. And if planting for fall and winter doesn’t appeal this year, there’s always next year!

Greens for fall and winter: Includes advice on planting arugula and mache.

Plant your Winter Roots: An overview, similar to this post

Undercover Greens: Includes advice on constructing a low hoop house

Kale: The first of many posts on kale on this blog.

Bitter Greens: Includes advice on growing and cooking radicchio and other bitter greens.

Mache: Includes advice on growing, harvesting and serving mache, also known as corn salad.

Red Mustard: Advice on growing and cooking red mustard.

Winter Vegetable Beauty: Includes a delicious recipe for winter cabbage

Gilfeather Turnip: Includes the “back story” of this delicious winter turnip.

January King Cabbage: Includes advice on growing this very hardy winter cabbage and a recipe for cabbage and collards

Roasting Colorful Carrots: Includes my favorite recipe for winter carrots

Sweeter after a frost: Explains why winter vegetables are sweeter!