Cold Snaps

We’ve had a lot of cold weather in the past few weeks, days barely above thirty-two and nights close to twenty. Almost every winter we get these cold spells, those of 2012 and 2014 come to mind, and during each I wonder what will still be thriving in the winter kitchen garden once the cold passes and we return to our usual temperate coastal winter temperatures. Experience tells me that the heavily mulched root vegetables, the rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, carrots, beets, will be fine and most of the plastic and Reemay-covered kale, mustard, arugula and radicchio will be too.  Walking through the garden, surveying the mulched mounds, the frosted cold frame, plastic tunnels and Reemay blankets, I remind myself that everything will taste sweeter after this cold. But it is hard to look at this frozen garden.

cold-mulched-beds-16

cold-cold-frame-16

cold-reemay-16

Luckily there are storage vegetables to get us through these cold times. Winter squash, potatoes, onions, dried beans and dried tomatoes and the shell beans, corn and peppers I put up at the end of summer all offer comforting meals. I have a black bean, poblano pepper and onion soup simmering on the stove for lunch. I may add a bit of leftover baked Buttercup squash to it for sweetness. And I’ll top it with a dollop of spicy red pepper hazelnut sauce.

black-bean-soup

I’ll roast another winter squash or two and make a savory tart and perhaps some squash soup. I’ll sauté some onions, thaw some roasted peppers and put them on a pizza.

pizza-pepper-onion-sausage

For a salad perhaps some corn, black beans and slices of dried tomato.

corn-black-bean-salad

We’ll be fine until the more temperate weather returns. And we’ll enjoy the clear skies and sun that come with these cold spells. If cold brings sun, it can’t be entirely bad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/drying-tomatoes/

Seed Ordering 2016

Just after the New Year my friend Diane asked me if I’d finished my seed orders yet.   I laughed and said I hadn’t even begun. The fun of the holiday weeks had filled up any garden planning time.

But I knew I needed to get started and that the first step, before I’d let myself open even one of the 2016 catalogs piling up on my desk, was to organize and inventory my seeds. After arranging the seed packets alphabetically in shallow cardboard boxes, I peered into each packet and jotted down what I had enough of for another year and what I’d run out of and needed to replace. This bit of organization always gives me the illusion that all I need to do next is order the seeds I’ve run out of and I’ll be done. It should be that quick and easy, but it rarely is.

Seed boxes on desk

In addition to noting what I needed to replace,  I found myself jotting down phrases like “a new red beet,” “another broccoli,” “a yellow carrot this year and a better red carrot,” “a new sweet corn” “a bolt-resistant variety of fennel,” “a new red pepper,” “a new orange or yellow tomato.” It’s not that I’d run out of these seeds, but it was time for some change. And seed catalogs with their enticing descriptions and photographs offered lots of possibilities for change, maybe too many possibilities. At least the list of changes wasn’t too long.

On first reading, every variety looks great and it’s lovely imagining all of them growing in my kitchen garden, but knowing I should choose only one or maybe two or at most three varieties I reread the descriptions paying attention to the details wrapped in the tempting prose. Flavor and texture, appearance and color, size, days to maturity/harvest, heirloom, open-pollinated or hybrid, germination needs, disease resistance, cold or heat tolerance, preparation or serving suggestions all vie for attention.

Seed catalogs on desk

I started with beets, narrowing down Territorial Seed Company’s sixteen offerings to five candidates—Boro, Merlin, Cylindra, Lutz and Avalanche—and comparing them to beet descriptions in Fedco, Johnny’s, Pinetree and Adaptive. Boro has a slight edge over Merlin because I’m worried that Merlin, touted in Johnny’s for its sweetness, might be too sweet, and Boro’s “sumptuous, thick leaves” remind me of how much I like beet greens. Then there’s Cylindra, an heirloom with “bold, earthy flavor” and unusual shape that might be fun to try though Johnny’s catalog description notes that: “roots tend to push up out of the ground as they grow” and that for smoother shoulders hilling is a good idea. Would I get around to that? I’ve grown Lutz before for its winter-keeping qualities and liked it. Maybe it’s time to grow it again. And then, just to slow down the decision making process a bit more, there’s a white beet, AAS winner Avalanche, something completely new. I grow golden beets now, and white might be a nice addition to create a color trio. After nearly half an hour, I was ready to move on to broccoli.

So this is why it takes so long to complete seed orders. But it’s such a pleasant way to spend some January days. After several afternoons working through my list and through all my catalogs, I finally made my orders. And it’s still only mid-January.

The new entries are: Boro, Lutz and Avalanche for beets, a sprouting broccoli called Summer Purple, Yellowstone and Atomic Red carrots, Honey Select sweet corn, Preludio fennel and Mantovano fennel, Lipstick red pepper, and for orange tomatoes, two heirlooms, Persimmon and Valencia. These new varieties will arrive with all the other seeds that I ordered. The new garden year has begun.

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.