Hope and Gardening: spring planning

February and March may seem like the absolute doldrums for gardeners in the North East, but for me this is really where the fun begins.  Starting in mid January my daily run to the post is enhanced by the plethora of seed catalogs and gardener supply fliers that inundate the more mundane sampling of bills and offers of credit.  These magazines, filled with flawless, sparkling, brightly colored fruits and flowers not only bring the remembrance of springtime just when it seems like winter will never end, but spark the planning and scheming process that every gardener goes through each year.  Moreover, for me they offer not just ideas and choices of what to grow, but actual hope for the delights of spring, and desire for a bountiful garden, in much the same way that ads for fancy skin cream lure us in with the unattainable promise of youth and beauty.  I know it sounds foolish, but there it is.

This winter, when John Scheepers and Gurney’s and Burpee came to tempt me with their seductive photos, I threw them immediately into the recycle bin, and here’s why.  Last fall on my birthday I received a wonderful present from a girlfriend of mine.  It was a gardeners journal, a subscription to Heirloom Gardener, and a seed catalog from Baker Creek.  She knows me well.  I devoured the magazine.  I learned more about GMOs and gardening history in the US, and I vowed that never again would I plant a seed whose origin was questionable.  I saved the seed catalog for February.

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The decision to plant a non GMO garden was a big one for me.  While I profess that organic is best, I’m not above sprinkling my soil with a little Seven when I can’t get rid of those pesky ants around my eggplant.  Even thought I detest chain department stores and all they do to wreck local economy,  I’ve been known to buy a tomato plant at Home Depot on impulse. While I tout the values of a nutrient rich, homegrown local and balanced diet, I’m the first one to order pizza when I’m too tired to cook.  So Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a hypocrite.  But now it’s time to step up to the plate.  Genetically modified food is bad. Bad for us nutritionally, bad for local economy and a just plain bad for the environment.  Get more information on this at www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more

When I plan my garden in the spring I start with a list of what I’d like to grow.  Then I make a map of my garden and, referring to last years map, add each thing where I feel it would grow best.  When I actually do the work my plan often changes, if, for instance, I bought more tomatoes than will fit in the allotted space.  Sometimes I cluster, other years I might mix it up, say putting the carrots in with the beets or planting every other tomato and pepper.  My garden is quite small, so I often cram.  Every year I plant some things from seed, like beets, and beans, and carrots, and some things from plants that I purchase, like tomatoes and squash and melon.  The only things I start from seed indoors myself are pepper plants and this mostly because I have more of a selection than I can find at the greenhouse.  Deciding to choose heirloom and non GMO plants means that I have to either find a source for heirloom plants, or grow them myself.  While there is a local CSA that I believe sells plants in the spring, I didn’t want to limit my choices, and since I have had some luck with peppers, I decided to go ahead and start my entire garden from seed.  That means all the tomatoes, melons, squash, eggplant, cucumber, spices, cabbage and peppers.  Yikes!

Last month I finally made my choices from the Bakers Creek Heirloom Seed Company catalog.  I highly recommend this company to anyone who is a vegetable fanatic.  Their selection is unbelievable and their knowledge extensive. Their website has tons of valuable information and it’s just fun to browse.   Check it out at www.rareseeds.com   After days and weeks of poring over the descriptions and photographs of exotic and divine vegetables (am I the only one who finds vegetables alluring?) I ordered 38 types of seeds.  10 types of tomato alone, with names like Green Zebra and Black Prince. Where I’ll put them is still a mystery.  I made a schedule by counting back in weeks from the average last frost date (May 20th).  I borrowed some growing lamps and purchased seed pots and starter mix.  I rearranged my bathroom and tub area to fit the seed trays.  I planted the onions and the eggplant.

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While I tell myself that it’s the best thing to do, I remain nervous about starting all the seeds myself.  I’m not a very technical person but I’m smart enough to know that if I was, I’d have a better chance of growing healthy plants.  There is a science to it that I have yet to figure out.  My policy of flying by the seat of my pants and hoping things work out for the best might not serve me so well in this instance.  If I were so inclined, I would spend some time figuring out optimal light cycles, temperatures, nitrogen mixes and hardening practices for different types of plants.  Then again, it’s just nature, after all, and there really is no stopping it.  The worst case scenario is that I have to source the plants after all.  It’s not like I’ll never eat another homegrown tomato if my seeds fail to thrive.  And there is hope!  Even though there is still 2 feet of snow on the ground, my 300 onions are already an inch tall.

I’d love to hear from anyone with any advice or expertise on starting plants indoors.  My set-up is not very complicated, but advice on light times, bulbs, best starter mix, or just about anything would be much appreciated.  Happy growing!

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First Out of the Garden

Early June in Connecticut is an exciting time for gardeners.  By now most things are in the ground that are going in, and all the planning and planting are complete.  I usually estimate mid to late may as the time to plant, but after the 15th I keep an eye on the weather and wait for a few days when the night time temperatures stay above 55.  Most plants don’t like to root out in the cold.  Now in early June the new garden, with its tiny shoots of new growth, is just getting itself established, and it’s too soon to count any success or failures.  Those of you who have a greenhouse might be laughing at me, for by now your gardens are lush wonderlands of heavily foliated plants happily bursting with buds and fruit.  Sadly, I only have my little bathtub and a grow lamp for starting seeds, and have relegated it to peppers only, so I start most of my vegetables from seeds right in the ground.

There are a few exceptions of course.  I always buy tomato plants already started, and with those it’s just a matter of money. The more money you pay, the more plant you get.  In early June, for the right price, you can get a plant with fruit already on it, or, if your pocket is not quite so full, at least a 4 to 5 inch healthy looking specimen.  This year my budget for plants was a little short, so I went with the smaller choices.  I try to buy heirloom varieties in most cases, but there is a good argument to be made for the old standbys like Big Boy and Early Girl.  They are reliable producers, are pest and drought resistant and produce nice firm fruits (just like you find in the grocery store!) but the heirlooms for me are much more exciting to grow.  I like the idea of plants that are not genetically modified almost as much as I like the unique fruits themselves, whether they are German green stripe or Purple Cherokee.  Check out Seed Savers, a wonderful source for heirloom seeds and a really great company, to learn more about heirloom and heritage seeds and genetic diversity (or lack of it) in the American food industry.  http://www.seedsavers.org/About-Us/

 

Another plant I buy already started is eggplant.  I have never tried to grow these from seed because I rarely succeed with the plant itself.  I have yet to produce a bumper crop of eggplant of any kind, which might be just as well, as I’m the only one in the family who enjoys it.  I usually plant just two plants, as I have very limited real estate in my garden, but even with constant attention and words of encouragement, they never seem to thrive.  Whether its those damn tiny aphids, blight, rot, or just plain weakness, they always look jaundiced and produce thin tiny fruit.  This year, when I saw my two healthy plants begin to yellow, I went to ask advice from a local gardening expert.  She starts many plants from seed in a greenhouse and sells them to local gardeners like me.  I have never bought from her before, but have heard about her renown with plants of all kinds.  She is the type who looks at gardening through the eyes of a chemist, while I’m more of a hope and a prayer type.  She explained that most people (me) plant eggplant too early, before the soil has warmed sufficiently, and they fail to thrive.  She said that most people (me) fail to protect their plants with a copper fungicide dip prior to planting, and that most people (Not me!) over water and leach the nutrients out.  She recommended the copper fungicide spray, a natural pesticide with soap in it, and a fish emulsion top dress to enrich the roots.  Maybe with these tools, and of course a few good thoughts, I’ll be serving eggplant Parmesan in August!  Oh, and she also gave me three varietals of eggplant that she had left over.  With five plants in the ground, I almost hope they don’t all thrive, or I’ll be eating eggplant by myself every single night!

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With everything going in, there is not much coming out this time of year, but that’s not to say there’s nothing to eat in the garden.  All my greens are up and we have been feasting on fresh spinach, sorrel, arugula and lettuce for a few weeks.  The radishes are full to bursting and the second planting is already coming up.  I love radish, and usually plant a spicy blend, with all different shapes and colors.  I use radish in a variety of dishes as well as eat them fresh washed out of the dirt.   I like the diversity of flavor and color, whether on a salad or sandwich, or stirred into an Asian inspired soup.  I made just such a soup the other day.  Recipe to follow.

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The green onions are ready to be picked, if you can bring yourself to give up a full sized onion later on in the year.  I always have a hard time with this.  While I’m not a patient person by nature, the thought of yanking out those half formed babies for a quick turn on the grill makes me pause.  It’s not that they wouldn’t taste delicious, it’s only that I think of myself trudging to the store in the middle of February to buy some old generic onion instead of plucking one out of the lovely onion basket in the basement, filled with my very own. Instead, I satisfy my taste for fresh onion by snapping off the stems of the onion flowers and chopping or grilling those. They taste just as fine as the whole thing, but I can leave the roots of the onion itself in the ground to fulfill it’s destiny.

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Aside from the radish, greens and onions, we have been eating lots of cilantro, parsley and basil as those plants establish themselves.  The beets are ready to thin and the greens are delicious sauteed or in salads.  The strawberries which I transplanted this spring are a bit behind the curve but are beginning to ripen.  The peas are blooming and the squash are flowering and the tomatoes continue to make suckers and flower.  It’s an exciting time in the garden and lots more to come.

 

ASIAN NOODLE SOUP

6 cups broth (I used pheasant broth because I had some left over)

3 TBS Mirin

4 TBS Soy sauce

1 TBS sugar

 

2 cloves garlic chopped fine.

salt and pepper to taste

dash of something hot (chili paste, Tabasco, red pepper)

3 cups cut up cooked chicken (or pheasant)

4 cups chopped fresh spring veggies, such as radish, baby carrot, green onion, endive, peas,

1/2 lime

 

 

Prepare rice noodles as directed on the package.  Mix the first 7 ingredients and adjust to taste.  Simmer and add the chicken.  When noodles are done add the fresh veggies to the soup and simmer for 5 minutes.  Be careful not to overcook the vegetables or they will be soggy.  Place a serving of rice noodles in a wide bowl and ladle the soup over them.  Squeeze the lime over the soup.  Serve with chopsticks and extra hot sauce.  Enjoy!

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