Bees in the Worm Bin

We have a worm bin, a large plywood box our friend Kirm made for us years ago. The idea is to let worms turn vegetable and fruit trimmings into soil in the darkness of the box, safe under the heavy lid that keeps out pests like rats and raccoons. When I open the lid every few days to add more trimmings, all I see are slowly decomposing organic matter and the occasional sow bug.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I opened the worm bin on a recent afternoon and saw a mass of honeybees clustered around layers of honeycomb fixed to the upper corner of the lid.Bees closeup iPhone smaller

What the heck? That buzzing sound I’d heard when I neared the bin suddenly got louder. I quickly closed the lid.

There had been no buzzing or bees five days earlier when I left for a short trip, but in my time away a swarm of bees had found its way through a tiny opening where the lid met the box, perhaps mistaking the worm bin for a hive box. They had been busy.

We don’t have beehives but luckily our neighbors Kevin and Mary do. I called them and they agreed to come over that evening with their bee suits and a hive box and take a look. On the phone, Mary explained that swarming often happens this time of year. A queen and a large group of worker bees will leave their original hive and go looking, or swarming, for a new home. In this case, they found one in our worm bin.

We watched from a distance as Kevin and Mary, dressed in their protective bee gear, studied the layers of comb attached to the worm bin lid and planned how to transfer them to a hive box.

Bees K&M studying hive

Bees K&M closeup

Using a narrow scraper, Kevin gently eased each comb from the plywood lid and lowered it into the hive box. He explained that the comb was very warm and soft so the transfer was a bit tricky. In one of the combs he spotted the queen, a good sign he said for a successful transfer of the swarm to their hive box. A bit of comb broke off and Mary brought us the piece to taste. The honey was warm and runny, delicately sweet and almost fermented tasting like dessert wine.

Once they’d transferred the combs to their hive box, Kevin and Mary said they’d leave the hive box sitting in the worm bin until after dark, giving all the bees a chance to return to their new home, and then would come back and take it to join their other hives.

I called Mary a few weeks later to see how the new hive was doing. She said they were doing great and a few days later Kevin sent some photos.

Bees K & M #1

He wrote: “The first shows the swarm’s stack.  The bottom box (green) is a swarm from our hives.  The second box (white) is the “Hatch” swarm and the top box (green) contains the comb that they had built while in the worm bin.  We have since taken the green box away as they had cleaned out the comb, and we will melt it down with other wax we save.”

Bees K & M # 2

“The second picture shows some of our other hives, the swarm stack is on the right.  The “Hatch” swarm is very busy and the queen has started laying eggs.  It takes a couple of weeks from egg to bee, but soon we will see some young bees emerging from the white box. Thanks again.”

Here at my house the worm bin is back to its dark, quiet state. There are traces of wax on the lid where the worker bees attached the combs but that’s the only reminder of the temporary tenants. I haven’t tried to close that little gap between the lid and the box, though, hoping that maybe another swarm will decide to visit.

Transplant or Direct Seed?

Along with the decisions about when to plant, where to plant and how much to plant, one more decision for the kitchen gardener is whether to start seeds indoors for transplant out later or to direct seed in a garden bed where the plants will grow undisturbed. Heat-loving crops like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are obvious candidates for seeding indoors and setting out when temperatures warm up while vegetables with long taproots like carrots and parsnips are clear candidates for direct seeding.

tomato seedlingsCarrots growing 1But for all the other kitchen garden vegetables, weather and soil conditions, garden pests, seed size and germination times, past experience and advice from many directions—seed catalogs, gardening books and friends—all come into play when deciding whether to transplant or direct seed.

Though planting advice in seed catalogs like the excellent Territorial Seed Company’s says that peas “may be sown as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring,” I stopped direct seeding peas years ago after losing too many plantings to hungry rodents. Instead, I start peas indoors in one-inch cells. The seeds germinate quickly and are ready to harden off and transplant in two weeks.Seedroom peas growing

I’ve always started storage onions in half-inch cells in late February for planting out in mid-April, but following Steve Solomon’s advice I’ve directed seeded leeks in late May in a “nursery bed” outdoors, raised them to “pencil size” and transplanted them to their permanent bed in mid-July. Leeks in nursery bedLeeks transplantedLast year though, the leeks seeds germinated very poorly due perhaps to dry weather and erratic watering so I ended up starting some indoors in pots then planting the not-quite-pot-bound clumps of tiny leeks into the garden. These potted leeks grew really well, reaching final transplant size about the same time as the direct seeded leeks did, so this year I’m starting all the leeks in pots, a first for me.

We always direct seeded squash, corn and beans in my family’s Massachusetts garden, but in the years that I’ve gardened in the Pacific Northwest, cool, damp springs and cold soil have pushed me to experiment with indoor seeding and transplants. The transplant method worked so well for squash that now I always start squash indoors. In 4-inch pots, the seeds germinate in less than a week and the plants grow quickly, ready to harden off and transplant in less than two weeks. This year seeds planted April 28th went into the garden beds on May 9th.

Squash seedlings

Transplanting also works really well for corn and beans and I’m grateful for gardening friends’ encouragement to try indoor seeding of these crops when spring is cool. This year, though, warm days in the first week of May tempted me to plant corn and beans directly in the garden beds. Luckily, the good weather held and a week later both beans and corn had germinated and begun to unfurl their leaves and grow. Next year’s weather may be different!

Corn seedlingsBean seedlings

The small seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, broccoli raab, Brussels sprouts and cabbage all germinate better for me if I start seeds indoors and transplant seedlings later. The one challenge has been hardening them off without stressing the plants. Cauliflower is especially sensitive to stresses from uneven watering, shifts in temperature and sudden sun so I have to be vigilant when introducing potted seedlings to the outdoors.

Kale, on the other hand, I’ve always directed seeded in mid-to-late July despite its tiny seeds. It usually comes up quickly and I can thin it to the final sixteen-inch spacing and put the thinned plants in salads. Last year, though, I had only a few seeds of one kale variety so I decided that starting indoors might hold fewer germination risks. The seeds all germinated and the plants grew well and transplanted beautifully. Direct seeding requires fewer steps so seems easier but I’m tempted take the extra time and try more kale transplants this year.

Finally, greens: lettuce, radicchios and escaroles, mache, arugula, mustards, spinach. They thrive both from direct seeding and from transplants but are sensitive to temperature. In my kitchen garden, I’ve learned that early and mid-spring direct seedings of lettuce germinate well in cooler temperatures and grow slowly so their leaves are more succulent. Lettuce mix small rowAs temperatures rise, I have better luck starting heat-tolerant summer lettuce varieties indoors for planting out. Or I simply wait until late summer when temperatures cool again and direct seed lettuce. Radicchios and escaroles also do better in my garden in cool weather so I grow them in spring and fall and because their tiny seeds are slow to germinate, I start them indoors and transplant them.Greens in flat

Mache is my favorite green for the winter garden and while I know that it will self-seed with abandon if I leave a few plants to flower in spring, the plants are never where I want them. For more orderly succession plantings, I start seeds indoors or in the garden in mid-August through September. If it’s still hot in August, I start seeds indoors and transplant. When cooler, damper weather arrives in September, I direct seed.Mache plants

Arugula and mustards are two more winter favorites that thrive in cooler weather. And because their tiny seeds are so quick to germinate, I’ve always direct seeded them. Spinach, on the other hand, has always been a germination challenge. Some years I’ll direct seed it in late September and it germinates vigorously and grows just enough to winter over and begin growing again in spring. Other years the seeds germinate poorly and/or garden pests nibble them away and I have to start seeds indoors and transplant. It’s a kitchen garden mystery I’ll keep trying to solve. And I’ll continue to experiment with transplanting and direct seeding for all these kitchen garden vegetables. As my lovely neighbor Frances often said, “There’s always next year.”

Days to Maturity

“Days to Maturity” is the number that appears in seed catalogs and on seed packets, often in parenthesis right after the variety name, and refers to the number of days it takes for the seed to grow into edible form: Cherry Belle Radishes (25 days), Oasis Turnip (50 days), Sugarsnap Snap Pea (68 days), Spring Treat Yellow Sweet Corn (71 days), Flavorburst Pepper (75 days), Cherokee Purple Tomato (77 days), Diamond Eggplant (78 days).

But as even one season of growing vegetables will teach you, this handy-looking number is really just a rough estimate. Weather and temperature, soil condition and rainfall, day length and sun exposure all influence it. Recording seeding, transplanting and harvest dates as well as weather conditions for your garden each year helps customize the days to maturity and plan future seed orders and planting calendars.

If your record keeping is well intentioned but haphazard like mine, or even non-existent, catalog predictions of days to maturity can still be useful estimates because they help sort varieties that ripen earlier from those that ripen later. Here in our cooler marine northwest climate, selecting varieties that ripen earlier can be a good idea. Most years, Spring Treat Corn at 71 days is more likely to reach maturity than Silver Queen at 96 days. Some catalogs supplement or even replace this number with the categories early, mid-season and late making selection for our climate even easier.It’s also a useful number if you want to plant more than one crop of quick-growing spring vegetables like radishes, spring turnips or lettuce. Sowing at intervals of one to three weeks helps ensure a steady supply during cooler spring months.

Most sources also distinguish between direct seeding and transplants when predicting days to maturity. For vegetables that you sow directly into the ground, the days to maturity estimate begins when you sow the seed though some prefer to start counting when seeds germinate. For vegetables that you start indoors and transplant, the days to maturity estimate begins when you set out the transplants in the garden or the greenhouse. Even with this generous handicap, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers transplanted to my greenhouse still exceed the catalog prediction of days to maturity most years.

While customizing days to maturity with record keeping and using this information to create planting calendars are parts of my garden planning, once I actually have the seed packets in hand and the potting soil or the garden dirt under my fingernails, all this information and planning falls away and my mind fills with the meals ahead: the first salad of tender new lettuce and spicy radishes, a bowl of roasted spring turnips on a bed of their sautéed greens, the first sugar snap pea raw from the vine sometime in early June and the big bowl of them I’ll take a month later to my neighbors’ 4th of July party.

_Turnips cookedPeas closeupThinking past spring into summer, I imagine the first tomato sandwich of the season, the first eggplant pizza, and the first crisp pepper salad. Eggplant pizza with bowl of green beans Pepper salad As I plant seeds for each of these meals, I’m confident that they will germinate in a week or two, the plants will grow over more weeks and months, the harvest will happen as weather and temperature allow, all this as the days get longer and warmer. A planting calendar based on days to maturity and record keeping nudges me along but the real motivators are the meals ahead and the pleasure of imagining them.  Happy Spring!

Seed Ordering 2015

There’s a lot to distract the kitchen gardener trying to put together seed orders for the year ahead. For starters there’s the “New For This Year” page at the beginning of every catalog, hard to resist pausing over before turning to the catalog proper. Once into the listings, there are the names of each variety, sometimes descriptive, occasionally amusing or even puzzling, and then, in engagingly written paragraphs, the story behind each seed and its particular traits of cold-hardiness or early ripening, taste or nutritional value. All these details invite a pause to compare possibilities and wonder whether to stay with an old favorite or take a chance on an intriguing new variety.

A new distraction in recent years is the unusual colors of vegetables that traditionally came in one color, orange carrots now in red, yellow or purple, snowy white cauliflower now in green, orange or lavender. Are these simply novelties or improvements? Would they taste as good as the original? Are their flavors and colors better raw or cooked?

A final pleasant distraction for the kitchen gardener is imagining meals from vegetables that haven’t had a place in the kitchen garden for a while or have never had one. Is this the year to grow a few Savoy cabbages again, to grow broccoli raab instead of relying on spring kale buds or maybe to plant some rows of flint corn to dry and grind for polenta?

Seed catalogs 2015I’ve been spending the past week indulging in all these distractions as I page through favorite Maine catalogs, Fedco, Johnny’s and Pinetree, Oregon’s Territorial Seed Company, British Columbia’s West Coast Seeds, and some wonderful, smaller Pacific Northwest seed company catalogs in print and online, Adaptive Seeds and Wild Garden Seed from Oregon and Uprising Seeds from Bellingham, Washington. I’m getting close to finalizing orders, to finding a balance between old and new, familiar and startling, between comforting tastes and exciting new flavors.

While non-orange carrots seem a bit trendy I’m tempted to order some purple, red and yellow carrots. Many companies offer Purple Haze, a 2006 AAS winner, and Yellowstone, a truly yellow carrot. Uprising Seeds offers Dragon, a dark red to purple carrot, claiming that it’s spicy and sweet. New this year at Territorial is Red Samurai, “a great tasting true red carrot.” I’ve been roasting my favorite orange Mokum carrots sprinkled with cumin and coriander seeds following a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s inspiring new cookbook Plenty More (2014). Adding purple, red and yellow shades to this mix would be pretty on a summer or winter table.

Brussels sprouts have satisfied our taste for cabbage flavor from the winter garden and their great cold hardiness and manageable size are other points in their favor. For two people, a dozen small Brussels sprouts are gone in one meal while a whole cabbage lasts for several days at least. Still Savoy cabbage with its crinkly leaves and sweet cabbage flavor tempts me this year. When I used to grow it, I made a delicious pasta dish with buckwheat noodles, Fontina cheese and Savoy cabbage wilted in olive oil and lots of garlic. I’m going to order seeds of January King, an heirloom offered by Uprising, Adaptive and West Coast Seeds. A point in its favor is its cold hardiness.  Uprising’s catalog description calls it “practically indestructible.”

Flower buds from kale, Brussels sprouts and mustards are an early spring treat, sweet with only a slight cabbage flavor. Broccoli Raab looks similar but has a much more pungent flavor. Whenever friends serve it, I wonder why I don’t grow it. It’s so delicious. This year I plan to. Territorial carries Sorrento and Fedco carries Quarantina, meaning “40 days,” the time to maturity for this fast-growing Italian green. I’ll plant it for a fall and early winter crop.

Fedco and Adaptive Seeds offer Abenaki flint corn, described by Adaptive as “best for polenta, grits and wet batter cornbread” and “tolerant of difficult growing conditions.” I have success ripening sweet corn listed at 70 days to maturity so I’m optimistic that Abenaki, listed at 80-90 days to maturity will ripen so I can experiment with grinding our own polenta. Soft, warm polenta topped with sautéed greens or roasted vegetables is a favorite winter meal as is polenta cooled, sliced and grilled and served hot with sausages or pork chops. Of all this year’s seed order candidates, this one will be the biggest experiment.

All of these distractions are part of the pleasure of planning a kitchen garden, a perfect way to spend early January days. I’ll send in the orders in the next few days and soon boxes of seeds will arrive at the mailbox carrying the promise of many delicious meals in the garden year ahead.

Renewing the Herb Garden

Herb garden view  2014The sage, thyme, rosemary and lavender that make up the bulk of our front entry herb garden are getting old, ancient even. Seventeen years ago when I was planning this twenty-by-forty foot herb garden, books I read noted that perennial herbs would eventually need to be replaced. According to the Rodale Herb Book (1974) sage “should not be allowed to outlive three or four years because of the tendency of its stems to become woody and tough.” Not only the sage but also almost all the other herbs in this garden are definitely at the woody stage and probably should have been replaced several times over. But each July after they finish their lovely May and June bloom, I begin shearing them back, finding new growth despite the matted and woody stems and branches, and decide I can put off replacing them for one more year.

The idea of starting over is so daunting. There are the tasks of starting and growing new plants, pulling out the old ones along with the dandelions, vetch and other persistent weeds, renewing the soil, updating irritation lines, replanting, possibly with a new design and then ending up with a garden of smallish new plants, a disappointing contrast to the lively tangle of overgrown plants that characterizes the herb garden now. Surely there is something else I could be doing.

Sage woody stems

I’d have put off doing anything for yet another year if my friend Carol hadn’t told me how easy it is to propagate plants from cuttings. She lent me her copy of the American Horticultural Society’s Plant Propagation manual and suggested I also look online at how-to videos. Encouraged, I found an excellent UTube video by Tim Rumball, editor of Amateur Gardening Weekly, a British gardening magazine.  The process did look pretty easy. And the rest of the steps involved in renewing the herb garden? Well, I could put those off until fall or winter. And perhaps tackle only one of the three long beds that make up the herb garden.

Following the steps in Rumball’s video, I cut six-inch branches of several sage varieties, removed the lower leaves with a sharp knife, sliced off the top half of the remaining leaves, firmed these stems into pots of my regular potting soil, topped the soil with a layer of quick-draining material, perlite because that’s what I had though Rumball used horticultural gravel, watered the pots well and pushed in sticks around the edges of the pots to hold the plastic bag propagation tents away from the leaves. They are in a warm, shady spot in my seed starting room where I’ll check them regularly for roots emerging from the bottom of the pot. In six to eight weeks, I hope to be transplanting new sage plants to individual pots.

Sage cuttings removing leaves

Sage cutting leaves

Sage cutting firming in pot

Sage cuttings in tent

I took cuttings from three favorite varieties of sage that have been growing robustly since the first years of the herb garden. ‘Bergartten’, a rounded-leafed, gray/green sage with a mounding habit and light blue blooms recommended by Jim Wilson in Landscaping with Herbs (1994); purple sage whose leaves contrast wonderfully with the softer greens of other sage; and an unnamed sage variety my neighbor Frances gave me when I began the garden. Frances explained that a gardener friend “from a fancy estate” gave it to her and told her it was special. It is a lovely sage with pointed light green leaves like culinary sage but more modest light blue blooms that hold longer than the robust purple blooms of ordinary culinary sage. If these cuttings thrive, I’ll take cuttings from the rosemary, lavender and thyme in the weeks ahead.

Inspired by these first steps, I’ve pulled from the shelf the herb garden books I used to begin this garden, reviewing both herb varieties I’d underlined and noticing design ideas. The process of renewing this garden is starting to seem less daunting and more fun. And what better way to spend a warm summer afternoon on the terrace than with garden books and daydreams about new gardens.

Training Tomatoes

The richly flavored heirloom tomatoes like Amish Paste, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Prudens Purple and Speckled Roman and the equally tasty newer varieties like Momotaro, Sungold and Sweet Million that we grow in our kitchen garden greenhouse all are indeterminate varieties. Also known as vining or climbing types, indeterminate varieties keep growing, Jack-and-the-beanstalk style, putting out new blossoms and setting new fruit all summer and on into fall until frost.  In contrast, determinate or bush tomatoes grow only two to four feet tall and typically blossom, set fruit and ripen over a much shorter time, great if you want tomatoes all at once for canning or drying but not so good if you want to eat and preserve tomatoes at a manageable rate all season long.

The wonderful flavors and long season of indeterminate tomatoes do come with one challenge though.  The climbing vines need support and training to take advantage of their ongoing growth.  Fortunately, my husband Scott is a master at both supporting and training the growing vines.  In mid-May, as the tomato plants in greenhouse start their serious growth, Scott applies twine and nippers to each plant, beginning a process that will create a wall of tomatoes by mid-summer.

Tomato wall'13

Scott’s method of training is based on allowing just two lead branches per plant. When the plant is still young, only about a couple of feet tall, he selects the two strongest branches and pinches off the rest.Tomato leaders closeup

Around each of these leaders, he loosely ties and wraps lengths of twine that he then stretches up to a cross piece fixed seven feet above the plants.  These lengths of twine create the frame for the future tomato wall.

Tomatoes, Scott training

Tomato twine wall

Tomatoes before 2nd training

About once a week, he wraps the twine around the new growth emerging at the top of each leader. The plants in the second and third photos above show an interval of ten days with plants ready for their third training and pruning.  Most of the plants will eventually grow beyond the seven-foot high crosspiece and when that happens, Scott will extend the twine for each plant up to the top of the ten-foot high greenhouse.

Pruning is the other on-going task.  Tomatoes will send out new side branches just above every leaf stem and the main leaders will occasionally vee into two equal branches, so at the same time that he’s training the leaders to the twine support, he’ll prune away this new growth.  On the plant in first photo below, he’ll cut off the branch to the left, leaving the branch to the right with the tomato blossoms.  On the plant in second photo below, he’ll remove the sucker emerging at the vee of the branch.

Tomato branches

Tomato sucker

By the end of August most of the leaders have reached the top of the ten-foot high greenhouse.  Because it’s too late for new blossoms to become ripe tomatoes, Scott tops the leaders at ten feet so the plants can use all of their energy on the fruit that is already set.  By this stage, we’ve been enjoying delicious tomatoes for a month and a half so it’s not too painful to stop future growth.

I imagine that every tomato gardener has his or her variation on training indeterminate tomatoes.  We like ours because it suits our greenhouse structure just as it suited the plastic structures we used before we built the greenhouse, but even more we like it because Scott learned the basic technique from my dad over forty years ago in our first garden in Massachusetts.  Like heirloom tomatoes, this technique is an heirloom too, a lovely legacy from my dad and one that I find pleasure in knowing my sisters and brother still use as well.  Every week or so, all summer long fingers turn sticky and green and smell of tomato leaves as they train and prune, our dad’s instructions guiding our hands.

Spring Planting

Through many years of experiment and observation, I’ve created a planting calendar for my kitchen garden, a monthly reminder of what to plant when.  This time of year, every week or two from early March through late May there are seeds to sow, usually in pots indoors but sometimes out in the garden, and growing plants to harden off and set out.

The onions I seeded indoors in early March went into a garden bed this past week, thin green shoots that will be robust spears by mid-summer, and the potatoes I greened up in late March went into the ground in late April, their sprouts buried in a shallow trench but promising vigorous above-ground growth in just a few weeks.

Onion planting

Potatoes in trenchThe sugar snap peas I planted in early March and set out in the garden ten days later are already over a foot tall and climbing in the bed next to the potatoes.  The tomatoes I seeded indoors on that same March day went into the greenhouse in early April and are thriving, almost ready to start training into the tall vines they will become by summer.  The eggplant and peppers started indoors in mid-March went into the greenhouse yesterday. They’re much smaller than their tomato cousins but will catch up soon.

Peppers, Eggplant, Tomatoes in GHAnd last week on the last day of April I planted seeds of radishes, chard, lettuce, carrots, beets, and turnips in a garden bed.  A few warm days and the radish sprouts will be showing followed soon by the first green of the other roots and greens.  As May warms and dries, I’ll plan beans, corn and squash and at the end of the month another bed of greens and roots.

There’s great pleasure in repeating these tasks every spring, planting seeds, watching for their germination, tending the growing plants, setting them out in their permanent spots. Coming regularly as they do each year makes them less a chore and more a part of the natural rhythm of the year, a link to the lengthening daylight and warming temperatures, the blossoms and leaves on fruit trees and shrubs, all signals of the welcome turn to spring and summer.

An Old-Fashioned Cold Frame

Cold frame open 2014

We’ve had a cold frame against the south side of our garden shed for nearly twenty years.  Scott built it soon after he built the garden shed.  We hadn’t planned on making a cold frame but our observant and generous neighbor Bucky Lee noticed the empty space on the south side of the new shed and offered us two old, three-paneled wood and glass windows he didn’t need, saying that they would make a nice cold frame there.

They were just the right size, each 60 inches wide by 50 inches tall, wide enough to fit between the downspout on the west and the doorframe of the shed entry on the east and just the right height to fit up under the eaves when open.  Of course, these heavy old windows were just the start of a cold frame. Using their dimensions, Scott attached a ledger to the building 28 inches off the ground, built the sloping sidewalls, the long, low ten-inch-high front wall, added a support in the middle where the windows would meet when down, and finally attached the windows to the ledger with hinges that allow us to raise and lower them and added sturdy eyes to the window frames and hooks to the shed so we can latch them open.  Bricks work to prop the windows open when we want to provide just a little ventilation.

While Scott did the carpentry, I prepared the soil, removing sod, breaking up dirt, adding compost and raking the area level.  When the cold frame was done, it looked like it had always been there especially after we painted the frames green to match the shed windows.  The wood frames held up to the weather for the next five years before finally deteriorating to the point that we needed to replace them.  Using plexiglass and strips of wood, Scott made new, lighter covers that we’ve used ever since.

Perhaps because my father had a cold frame near the back door on the south side of our family home in Massachusetts, I’ve always thought of cold frames as old-fashioned structures, their glass tops and wood frames more permanent than today’s plastic covered tunnels and low hoop houses that can be moved from bed to bed as crops and seasons change. Attached to a building, cold frames cover the same plot of soil year after year.

My father used his cold frame only in the early spring to give a head start to plants like broccoli and tomatoes that he’d later transplant to the garden.  In the summer, my mother filled it with flowers.  Here in the temperate marine northwest however, I can use the cold frame in all seasons.  In fall, I plant it with greens, either seeds or starts, and they thrive there over the winter and into early spring.  Greens planted in mid-September are ready for December salads. This year’s arugula planted in mid-November has been giving us salads since mid-February.

Cold frame open:closed

Cold frame with Mustard:Arugula

In early spring, if we’ve eaten all the greens or if the greens are going to seed and are ready to pull out, I’ll plant an early crop of lettuces, salad radishes and spring turnips.  Or if the greens last into late spring, as this year’s arugula may, I’ll skip a spring planting.

In the summer, I’ve sometimes filled the cold frame with basil, leaving the plexiglass open and draping Reemay over the frame to protect the basil from sunburn.  Other summers, I’ve planted cucumbers or melons in the cold frame and their vines have sprawled up and over the sides. Even with the cover raised for the summer the south-facing space framed by the garden shed is warmed by the sun, so some years I’ve planted several varieties of indeterminate cherry tomatoes and Scott has tied them up in front of the windows. And some summers I’ve simply left the cold frame to a volunteer riot of nasturtiums.

Coldframe with tomatoes

Cold frame with nasturtiums

By fall, whatever crop has grown there in the summer is ready to pull and I once again plant greens for winter salads.

With several portable plastic cloches in the main garden, I’ll admit that I really don’t need a cold frame.  Winter salad greens, early spring vegetables and heat-loving summer plants all thrive in these other structures, but our cold frame is so beautiful in all seasons, so much a part of the permanent garden and so sweet a connection to the past that I’ll never give it up.

2014 Seed Orders

Seed Packets 2014

My 2014 seed orders have arrived and I’ve interfiled these crisp, unopened packets with the tattered and taped, partially full or nearly empty envelopes of seeds I’m carrying over from past years. It’s a perfect rainy day task, alphabetizing seed packets, moving from arugula to beans, beets, broccoli and Brussels sprouts and on through to tomatoes and zucchini, thinking about what varieties worked well last year, what I’m not likely to plant again and what I’m looking forward to trying this year for the first time.

Beans: I rarely grow bush green beans, preferring the flavor and growth habit of pole green beans, but last spring my friend Carol gave me a handful of Maxibel bush beans seeds and persuaded me to try them.  They were delicious and productive so I ordered some more from Fedco. Pole filet beans like Fortex are still my favorite but these Maxibels give us a welcome taste of beans earlier in the summer.

Eggplant: Last year I tried two “mini eggplant,” Fairy Tale and Hansel from Johnny’s. Fairy Tale was too mini and not very tasty but Hansel was bigger and good enough to try again.  I still prefer full-size eggplants like Galine, Diamond or Rosa Bianca sliced into thick rounds and grilled with other summer vegetables or cut into inch-size chunks for caponata but smaller Hansel is handy to have for quick sautés and careful grilling.

Kale: Last year’s new White Russian Kale, a relative of Red Russian, was just as tasty raw or braised as its cousin and stood up even better to the deep cold that hit the winter kitchen garden several times this season.  It’s also a pretty addition to the kale bed so I’ll be sure to grow more of this Territorial Seed offering this year.

Leeks: I tried Bandit and Lexton from Johnny’s this year in hopes of finding a leek that is resistant to leek rust.  A few spots of rust did appear on the green spears of these leeks but was no where near so aggressive as rust has been in recent years on varieties like King Sieg or Bleu de Solaize.  I’ll try Bandit as well as Lexton again and hope for continued rust resistance.  Their flavor is a bit more delicate than that of other leeks I’ve grown but they are just as cold hardy.

Mustard: last year, my sister Sarah gave me seeds of Scarlet Frills mustard, a dark red, deeply cut salad leaf with a spicy flavor similar to that of my favorite Large Red Mustard. I planted it in late August and we are still enjoying it in February salads.  It’s also great tucked into a sandwich.  The winter cold knocked it back a bit but it has rebounded with strong new growth.  I’ve ordered my own packet of seeds from Johnny’s.

Peppers: last year I tried two new yellow horn-shaped peppers, Superette Sweet Banana and Golden Treasure.  Both were OK but this year I was tempted by Gilboa, an orange bell pepper with an “engaging fruity flavor,” and Golden Star, a “sweet and crispy” yellow bell, both from Fedco. I’m looking forward to some taste-offs with my old favorites orange Gourmet and yellow Flavorburst.

Radicchios:  I like both the round “Chiogiia” type and the tall “Treviso” type radicchios and this year I’m adding a “sugarloaf” type, Pan di Zucchero from Fedco.  This member of the chicory family has light-green leaves and looks like a tightly wrapped head of romaine lettuce.  I’m anticipating using it both raw and grilled and hoping that it is as tasty as Belgian endive but easier to grow.

Radishes:  after discovering this year how tasty Red Meat winter radishes are, I’ve ordered seeds of Green Meat and Black Spanish from Fedco for more winter radish treats.  Red Meat is more sweet than spicy, Green Meat is likely the same but Black Spanish is billed as very spicy.

Squash: I love all sorts of winter squash but I’ve never grown butternut squash.  Delicata seemed to fill the slot for a small one or two person squash.  This year, though, I’m trying Burpee’s Butterbush, a variety the Fedco catalog says provides “a perfect one-person serving chock full of deep, reddish-orange flesh ‘as sweet as the best sweet potatoes.’”  I’ll plant just one hill and see how they turn out.

Tomatoes: I had both losers and winners in my tomato experiments last year.  The big disappointment was Velvet Red, a cherry tomato that did have pretty, silvery foliage but also fuzzy skin and not much flavor.  Ukrainian Purple, a small plum type, was also disappointing because it didn’t have the rich flavor of other dark tomatoes like my favorite Cherokee Purple.  Winners more than made up for the losers though.  Dester, a pink beefsteak, was productive and close to Brandywine in flavor and Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye was almost as good as Cherokee Purple, close enough to grow again.  And for a new tomato this year, I’m going for stripes and trying Pineapple, a favorite of my friend Carol and said by Fedco to be best of the striped genre.

Tomatillos and Ground Cherries:  This past summer, friends shared so many bowls of wonderful tomatillo salsa that I’m inspired to grow some of these papery-husked green globes myself.  I’ve never grown them before and am looking forward to the salsa adventure.  From the same Physalis family, I ordered some seeds of Ground Cherries, the fruity berry relative of tomatillos.  Last spring during a trip to England, we enjoyed many desserts garnished with a cluster of these sweet fruits.  I’m hoping they’ll be a permanent addition to our fruit crops. Both seeds are from Territorial.

Now that I’ve merged my new and old seeds alphabetically the next step is reorganize them by planting date.  Years ago a friend told me that she organized her seeds by her planting calendar.  I tried it and have organized them this way ever since.  I have one box for seeds I start indoors and another box for seeds to start outdoors and file the packets by planting week or month.  When I’ve planted a crop I either move the seeds to a storage box for next year or move them further along in the calendar boxes for a second or even third planting.  Organizing the seeds this way certainly makes it easier to find seed packets on the days I want to plant and reminds me of what else I can plant, but now, on a cold and rainy February day, it also lets me indulge in daydreams of the garden year ahead.

Two Years of Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens

Two years ago this month I started writing Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens blog.  Thank you all for your enthusiasm and encouragement as I’ve posted stories and pictures about what I’ve been doing in the garden and the kitchen.  Your responses online and in person have been one of the biggest pleasures of writing this blog.

When I began this blog I wasn’t sure where it would take me.  What would it be like to write regularly about gardening and cooking, two activities that have been constant pleasures in my life for years?  I’m pleased to say that this blog has turned out to be a very satisfying way both to stop and think about what I’m doing and to figure out how to share my experiences and discoveries.

Many of the posts I’ve written have given me the opportunity to focus on growing, harvesting and cooking a single vegetable.  Having an excuse to pull out gardening books and seed catalogs, old article files and new Internet resources has been a wonderful way to review and build on years of lessons taught by trial and error.  The pleasures have been the same in the kitchen, revisiting favorite recipes, techniques and cookbooks, experimenting with new ways to prepare vegetables, often inspired by current ideas from favorite cookbook authors and food columnists.  There are so many engaging food and garden writers.  It’s been a treat to make the time to read them regularly.

In addition to vegetables I’ve written about garden planning and about the infrastructure that underlies the garden.  Seed ordering, planting calendars and seed starting begin each gardening year and irrigation, mulch, bean and pea structures, bug and bird barriers and protection from cold, heat and wind all help the plants thrive.

Figuring out how to share what I’ve learned from experience and research has been satisfying too.  The question “What do I want people to learn?” is left over from my years as a teacher but it continues to help me focus, to select what’s important and let the rest go. Writing a first draft and revising and revising again until I’ve found what I really want to say are processes I deeply enjoy.  And then there are the photographs! WordPress makes it so easy to insert images into the text, color photographs to illustrate stories about a beautiful vegetable, delicious meal or piece of garden infrastructure.  From the beginning of this blog, my husband Scott has provided exquisite photos.  And yes, we do get to eat all the food he photographs.

Finally, I’ve discovered that writing this blog has been a way to think more about what it’s like to be in the kitchen garden and at the table in all of the seasons of the gardening year. As I reread two years of posts, I noticed how often I referred to light, to the gradually lengthening days of spring, the long days of summer sun, the early dark of fall and winter as background to the vegetables I was planting, harvesting or cooking.  Kale buds, asparagus spears, early lettuce welcome the growing light of spring, dinner plates full of fresh green and the beginning of a new planting season.  Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green beans highlight long, warm days and evenings, summer dinners of sliced tomatoes, crisp peppers, caponata, sweet beans.  Root vegetables mark shortening days, harvesting in nearly dark late afternoons and sharing hearty dinners indoors, blinds drawn and candles illuminating the table. Looking back on these posts I’m also struck by how quickly the year in vegetables goes by.  But writing this blog has also slowed down the garden year, giving me the chance to notice and enjoy the vegetable markers of each subtle change.  I hope I’ve given you the same experience.

P.S.

To make it easier to find posts on different topics, I’ve created new categories on the right hand side of the blog under the heading Browse by Subject.  Just click on Spring Vegetables, Summer Vegetables, Fall/Winter Vegetables, or Garden Planning and Infrastructure to find the posts on each of these topics.  WordPress also makes it easy to search the entire blog for specific topics.  Just type a topic into the Search box on the upper right hand side of the page above the garden photo and click the Return key.  Or just browse the blog by month.