Plant Some Winter Vegetables!

Last week, I planted winter vegetables: rutabaga, turnips, carrots, beets, kale and chard.  Most of them have germinated already, their tiny leaves a contrast to the dark soil.  If you have garden space and interest, you still have time to plant some winter vegetables.  Here’s a column I wrote last July with more ideas.   It’s here on the blog under Green Living Columns, Vegetables:  Think about it!  If you plant some rutabaga now, you’ll be able to harvest it this winter, even in the snow.

Purplette Mini Onions

My friend Molly put me on to Purplette onions a few years ago and I’m so glad that she did. What a treat to have a crop of sweet, tender onions come in just as the winter storage onions are running out.

She got the seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and gave me a packet. The catalog description captures their appeal: “These flavorful specialty onions mature early and hold well. Purplette is a glossy rich burgundy, transforming to a nice pastel pink when cooked or pickled. Can be harvested at golf ball size or very young as baby bunching onions with purple pearl ends.”

Johnny’s classes them as mini onions as opposed to scallions or bunching onions, perhaps because they form a bulb or perhaps because they are small and take half as long as storage onions to reach eating size.  I started the seed indoors mid-February at the same time that I started storage onions and set them out in the garden in late April, spacing them three inches apart in rows 12 inches apart.  They grew slowly in this year’s cold, wet spring, but by late May there were onions to harvest.

The first year I grew Purplettes, I harvested a few just as the bulbs were forming, cut off half of the green stems, brushed on a little olive oil and roasted them in a hot oven.  They softened quickly and were ready to taste in fifteen minutes.  We stood next to the oven and ate the entire batch.  They were that good.  They have a sweet, light onion flavor and are unusually creamy.

More often now I wait to harvest them until they are a bit larger than golf ball size.  I trim the roots, cut the greens off four inches or so above the bulb and slice the onion and stem in half or quarters before arranging them in a single layer in a roasting pan, brushing them with olive oil and sprinkling on some salt.  In a 425-degree oven, they roast in twenty to thirty minutes.  I take them out before they are completely soft yet they still melt on the tongue.

They are a perfect side dish with sausages, grilled polenta and grilled radicchio.  I’ve also added them to peas for a pasta sauce and used them as a pizza topping with fresh artichokes.  I haven’t pickled them yet because I’m so fond of them cooked but I’ll try to save some out next year and experiment.

Each year I’ve grown a few more rows of these delicious mini onions and each year I wish I’d grown even more. Thank you, Molly!

Sugar Snap Peas

Sugar Snap Peas were introduced to the gardening world in 1979 and immediately won the year’s All-American Selections Gold Medal.  That same year I moved from New England to the Pacific Northwest, a coincidence that comes to mind because I can still visualize the trellis of these new high-climbing peas stretched out along the narrow garden bed on the north edge of the tiny lot that surrounded our first house in Seattle.  And I remember my delight at the taste: a crunchy, entirely edible pea pod that tasted like the very best shell pea.

I’ve grown them every year since then as we’ve moved to new houses and made new gardens, finally ending up on Lopez Island in 1992.  I’ve tried some of the variations on this original sugar snap—Super Sugar Snap, Cascadia—but the flavor simply doesn’t measure up to the original.  Yes, the original Sugar Snap is susceptible to powdery mildew but I’m willing to put up with that to get the taste.

For years I direct seeded them, hoping that rodents and birds wouldn’t eat all the seeds or new sprouts.  Row covers helped deter these pests but I often needed to replant. Then a few years ago I began starting the seeds indoors in 1-inch cell trays.  By carefully setting each seed a half inch deep with the hilum down and keeping the soil barely moist, I got nearly 100% germination.  Here in zone 7B I start seeds in mid-February and set them out a few weeks later; I plant a second crop in mid-March.  Even in those years when the seedlings grow a little taller and are more root-bound than I’d prefer before setting them out, they grow quickly once they are in the ground.  And they do grow tall—Jack’s beanstalk comes to mind—climbing to the top of our seven-foot A-frame pea trellis and then on up into the sky.

Each year I’m amazed by how short the time is between the first white blossoms and the first fully formed peas, just a few weeks.  The temptation is to pick some right away but I’ve learned that the sweet flavor isn’t there until the pod is full and fat.  Then I get my scissors.  Cutting the stem rather than pulling off the pea is easier on the vine and the harvester.

The miracle of Sugar Snap Peas is that you don’t have to shell them to get the sweet pea flavor, but you do have to string them.  Put a knife at the blossom end and zip the narrow green string down the inner curve then zip back down the outer curve.  This task can be as restful as shelling peas and there’s less to compost.

And then to the kitchen where the simplest preparation is the best: for a pound of peas melt a tablespoon or so of butter in a skillet, rinse the peas and toss them in with just the water clinging to the pods.  Stir-fry for five minutes or so, as the matte green turns to bright green and the sweet pea flavor intensifies.

While they are delicious alone, hot or at room temperature, they also mix wonderfully with other flavors.  I picked some radicchio the other night and discovered a recipe on the blog Liking Pineapples that combines Shell Peas, radicchio, Pecorino Romano, lemon and olive oil.  Sugar Snap Peas are a fine substitute for Shell Peas and the salad is fantastic, one more reason to plant Sugar Snap Peas each spring.

Herb Garden

I love classic perennial borders and great splashes of annual flowers, but over the years I’ve reluctantly abandoned the idea of having them part of my gardens.  I give the time and space I have for gardening to a kitchen garden, vegetables and fruit.  Vegetables do have lovely blossoms, of course.  Peas and runner beans, potatoes and squash all bloom, but only briefly on their way to becoming food and not with the continual bloom of real flower gardens.

If like me you yearn for a patch of flowers but don’t want to take time away from vegetables, consider perennial herbs. Years ago, I planted an herb garden along the path that leads to our front door.  Each spring it’s filled with blooms for long enough to satisfy that part of me that still dreams of growing ornamental gardens.

Over the fifteen years that I’ve grown herbs in this garden, I’ve narrowed the selection to those that thrive: thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, catmint and lavender. All bloom intensely in shades of blue, pink and purple for most of May and June.  The rest of the year, after I sheer back the spent blooms, the plants offer shades of green and gray, and spiky, soft and lacey textures, all beautiful and even better all available to flavor the vegetables that claim most of my time.

Another plus of perennial herbs is that they grow well in areas where vegetables would struggle.  The 24 by 40 foot site of my herb garden lost what topsoil it had during house construction.  The clayey subsoil that was left gives way to bedrock in places.  After a couple of seasons of cover crops and the installation of curtain drains under gravel paths to draw away winter rains, I was left with a planting site that was OK, not good enough for vegetables but fine for herbs.

If you want to give perennial herbs a try, most are easy to start from seed or cuttings. Seeds of sage, thyme, catmint, hyssop and chives germinate easily.  Even lavender was surprisingly easy because I used the variety Lavender Lady, an AAS winner in 1994 that blooms the first year from seed.  And rosemary branches from a friend rooted in water and grew well. Space plants twelve to eighteen inches apart and in a season or two they’ll fill in the spaces between and spill over the paths.  I irrigate my herb garden several times a summer because Northwest summers are so dry but herbs do tolerate drought.

Nichols Garden Nursery catalog of “herbs and fine seeds for the gardener cook” offers a great selection, as do the herb sections of most seed catalogs.  Two herb garden design books that inspired me are Ethne Clarke’s Herb Garden Design and Jim Wilson’s Landscaping with Herbs but the greatest inspiration was a short row of blooming edible herbs I planted as an experiment and discovered could stand in for a flower garden.

Spring Turnips

I love the sweet, earthy flavor of winter roots like turnips and rutabaga, but until recently I didn’t realize I could get this flavor from spring grown turnips too.  Reading the Fedco catalog turnip listings, I saw the description of Oasis turnip a few entries above my favorite winter turnip, Gilfeather: “delicate sweet fruity flavor and crisp tender texture so suitable for salads and light cooking.”

Clearly I’d been missing out by limiting my turnip eating to winter.

Winter turnips are softball size or bigger, gnarly and thick-skinned on the outside and topped with coarse though still tasty greens.  Spring turnips are tiny in comparison, golf ball size and smooth, round and white, thin-skinned with tender green tops.  I plant winter turnips in mid-July and they mature by early October.  In our marine climate, they hold in the ground all winter, getting sweeter with each frost.  Spring turnips, I found, can be planted just as the winter turnip harvest is ending.  I planted the first crop in early March this year and another in late April.  The March planting was ready to harvest by early May and the April planting was ready even sooner, early June.

To minimize root maggot and flea beetle damage, I covered the just planted seeds with Reemay and kept the germinated seedlings and then maturing plants covered until they were nearly ready to harvest.  I planted the seeds about an inch apart and began thinning and harvesting turnips when they were an inch across.  Those that stayed in the ground grew quickly to two inches across.

Encouraged by Alice Water’s recipe for roasting spring turnips in her Chez Panisse Vegetables, I roasted the first harvest of spring turnips.  After cutting off the greens but leaving two inches of stem, I cut the turnips in half, lightly brushed them with olive oil, sprinkled on a little salt and roasted them at 425 for about fifteen minutes. As one of my friends said after a mouthful, “these melt in your mouth!”  Another added, “These are my new favorite vegetable!”  Mine too!

The flavor is light and delicate but still carries the earthiness that makes winter turnips so appealing.   And then there are the greens.  I understand now why people grow turnips just for the greens.  Sautee them in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes.  They wilt down and finish cooking very quickly, releasing the expected mustardy fragrance but also the surprising fragrance of corn.  They are delicious on their own or as a bed for the roasted turnips.

So next year, I’m planting more varieties of spring turnips and looking forward to more kitchen discoveries.  Suggestions?  Favorites?  Let me know.