What we’re growing

What we’re growing

Remember when you were a kid, and the holidays or your birthday rolled around? Remember that excitement about looking through the catalogs and sales flyers, circling the toys you just had to have? And then the excitement as the gift-receiving day got closer and closer, the wonderfully delicious wondering of what would be wrapped up for you?

I think the closest thing to that hopeful anxiety is the feeling gardeners get as they spend the winter months pouring over seed catalogs and making endless lists of what they want to plant this year, and then waiting for the seeds to arrive.

I polled our dedicated staff about what plants they were really excited about growing this year. Proving they’re also eager as children awaiting Christmas, they all got back to me right away with a great list of plants that I knew I just had to share with you all as well!

Something new:
O’Henry Sweet Potato
Kristee: These white-fleshed sweet potatoes are intriguing. Originally grown in the Southeast as an alternative to regular potatoes, they are becoming popular with folks who aren’t big fans of orange-flesh sweet potatoes. Their texture when baked is often described as “creamy.” They’re also less stringy, which means they make wonderful mashed sweet potatoes.

Trieste Finocchio
Bobby: I recently got the Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian cookbook which features a recipe “Finocchio al Burro e Parmigiano” (fennel with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano). I decided to give this Italian favorite a try. WOW. The bulb’s anise-like flavor becomes slightly mild and nutty when cooked with butter, a perfect match for the Parmesan cheese melted over the top. I can’t wait to try this recipe with fennel bulbs fresh out from the soil. Fennel has no serious pests or diseases and is so well adapted to San Francisco that is actually a weed in abandoned lots and gardens throughout the city.

Romanesco Italia
Brittany: I am obsessed with this plant. It is so cool! I can never find it at my local Farmers Markets so I’m just going to grow it myself!

Louisiana Purple Pod Beans
Karen: I usually grow a couple varieties of pole beans every summer, like Rattlesnake & Purple Pole Beans. When I saw that these are drought-resistant, I decided to give them a try. With our Mediterranean climate here in Sonoma County, it’s important to save water in the summer. Plus, as a Louisiana-native, the name cinched it.

Sunny Supersett Crookneck Summer Squash
Bobby:
 San Francisco’s cool foggy summers makes it a perfect environment for plant diseases. One disease in particular, Powdery Mildew, is a common problem for Cucurbits in the area. Sunny Supersett is resistant to Mildew and it is very early to mature, making it a perfect crop for San Francisco’s cool foggy summers. I grew them last summer in a large container and the plants were really productive, providing the usual glut of fruit that summer squash are known for. The nutty flesh of the fruit is at perfection when grilled with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Rainbow Sweet Inca corn
Kristee: This beautiful multicolored corn is sweet, and when cooked fresh,while the colors are still very pale it has a delicious corn flavor. It is also a great variety for grinding into colorful corn meal. And the dried ears make lovely autumn decorations.

Sub Arctic Plenty Tomato
Frank: One of the hardiest tomatoes, I want to try getting very early tomatoes this year.

Sorrel
Brittany:
 I really want to make the classic french Sorrel sauce, so I’m going to grow some Sorrel this year to do it. I also only have a container backyard garden so it’s perfect for my small space.

Salad Burnet
Brittany: 
A cucumber-like flavor. I love cukes, but can’t grow them in the chilly, foggy summer in SF. I’m going to grow this instead and see if I can make things like tatziki/raita taste the same.

Blood Shot Pumpkin
Carl: A fun ornamental pumpkin with white flesh and orange and red “veins” that make it look like a blodshot eye. Hence the name. It’s very unusual, and not easy seeds to come by, but I picked some up at a seed swap and can’t wait to grow some!

Old favorites:
Dark Green Italian Parsley
:
Bobby: Whether or not I have access to land, I always grow Italian Parsley in a container outside the window of my 5th story apartment. Parsley is really hardy and isn’t bothered by the brisk seasonal winds that blast over my roof from the ocean, plus it’s delicious on almost anything you put it on. It’s a must for salads, soups, meat dishes and is even good for some desserts. A little bit of chopped parsley goes surprising well with a slice of apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The plants will produce for a really long time if you make sure to cut off any parts of the plants that try to bolt. I’m still harvesting from my parsley plants that I sowed last spring.

Hill Country Heirloom Red Okra
Karen: As a kid in Louisiana, I did not like okra. But something weird happened as I grew up: I developed a love of okra in soups and, of course, in gumbo. Buying okra here in California is hit and miss, so I figured it’s time to grow my own. I settled on this variety because the color looks beautiful, and the plant is drought-resistant.

Sugar Loaf Chicory
Frank: When grown to perfection the blanched heart of this relative of radicchio is one of the very best salad plants. It is also perennial and very hardy.

St. Valery Carrot
Kristee: These sweet, tender carrots are one of our favorites. We eat them straight from the garden, sliced in salads, or lightly steamed, and have been known to rinse the soil off and snack on them while harvesting other veggies.

Baby Pixie cabbages
Carl: These are smaller heads than the great big ones you get on regular cabbage plants, which makes them perfect for cooking up as a quick dinner for two people. These plants are especially well suited to a Midwestern garden, since they can handle both extremes in temperature we get here.

White Beauty Radish
Karen: We grow radishes year-round here. These all-white radishes are lovely sliced into a salad, but are also mild enough to eat by themselves as a snack.

Fairy Tale Eggplant
Carl: These cute little striped eggplants are prolific producers and have a great flavor!

Papalo Papaloquelite
Frank: This member of the daisy family tastes a lot like cilantro, but is very heat tolerant and grows like a weed.

Strawberry Spinach

Strawberry Spinach

If you think that strawberry spinach (Chenopodium capitatum) is going to be a vegetable your kids will love, you are probably in for a disappointment. The name is somewhat unfortunate as it really has no connection to strawberries at all (unless you include the rather tenuous one that it produces red berries). Another name for it is Beetberry, which is somewhat more logical as it’s in the beet family and produces berries. It’s also known as Strawberry Blite, Strawberry Goosefoot, and Indian Ink.

When approaching this plant it’s best to ignore the strawberry and concentrate on the spinach, as the young leaves are a good substitute for that plant (it is actually a relative), either cooked or raw. You can eat the sweetish berries in salads, but I find they add more visual appeal than taste. Native Americans used them to dye skin, clothes and basket material and apparently they can also be used as red food coloring, though I haven’t tried this. Like spinach it contains oxalic acid and so should be eaten in moderation, or it can interfere with the absorption of calcium.

Strawberry spinach is native to North America and grows wild across all of the northern part of the continent. The cultivated plant is essentially the same as the wild one and so needs little care (it often self-sows and grows itself). It is more heat tolerant than spinach, but it is an annual and will eventually bolt. Unlike with spinach this isn’t a bad thing, as it then produces the edible red berries.

This plant has been cultivated at various times, but has never been very widely grown. It’s now enjoying something of a resurgence, as it is easy to grow and quite ornamental when in full growth (but becomes less so when you’re eating it). It grows best in moist soil with full sun and reaches a height of 1 to 3 feet. In mild winter areas you will get a longer harvest season by planting it in fall — it will grow right through the winter. If you try it be aware that some people complain that it self-sows too freely and becomes a serious pest.

Stevia

Stevia

The herb garden is a place where tradition rules — the same plants having been grown for hundreds of years — so it is surprising how rapidly Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) has earned a place there. When I first started gardening, it was unheard of and only a few years ago I had to buy a plant by mail order. Now it is commonly available in garden centers, where it is sometimes sold under the name Sweet Leaf. This meteoric rise (by the standards of the herb garden) has come about because it has a unique and intensely sweet flavor unlike any other common plant. This sweetness is due to several chemicals (mainly stevioside and rebaudioside) which are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, but don’t contain any calories.

This South American herb is a tender perennial and my garden in zone 9 is close to its limit for cold hardiness. Plants usually survive the winter here, though a particularly cold winter would probably kill it off. In colder climates it can be brought inside for the winter and will survive as a houseplant if kept in a sunny place. You might also leave it outside until it dies back and then put it in a cool garage where it will stay dormant for the winter.

Stevia can be grown from seed and is sometimes grown as an annual, but superior strains must be propagated vegetatively. It can be grown from cuttings fairly easily, but I find it is best to divide the plants in spring when they first start to emerge. These break up into separate plants very easily and grow quite rapidly.

This is a tropical plant and requires short days to flower, so in northern areas it only flowers late in the year. It often produces seed abundantly, but it is only worth saving seed that is black or dark brown, as lighter colored seed isn’t usually viable.

A Stevia leaf is 300 times sweeter than sugar and can be used as a sweetener in a variety of ways. To use in baking you simply dry the leaves and crush them to a powder. A large tablespoon of powder is equal to a cup of sugar.

Stevia is most often used to sweeten herbal tea. You can add a couple of leaves to a cup, but the sweetness doesn’t seem to come out very well. A better way is to steep a quarter cup of powder in a cup of water for 24 hours. Keep the liquid in the fridge and use as much as needed for tea.

My children roll up a leaf of stevia in a couple of leaves of spearmint to make a natural candy and I have started doing the same thing.

There was once some controversy about the safety of Stevia, with some claiming that various constituents were toxic. As a result it was banned from use as a food additive in the USA and Europe for a long time (though it could be bought as a food supplement). These concerns have now been largely dispelled and it is undoubtedly less toxic than approved artificial sweeteners. It has been suggested that previous bans were promoted by manufacturers of more toxic artificial sweeteners (hard to believe, I know). Now that Coca Cola/Cargill and Pepsi have developed Stevia sweeteners, it has been approved for use. If you Google “Why was Stevia banned” you can read the whole sorry story.

Stevia is now available to add to your garden. You can find it by browsing under Herbs:

Mexican Tarragon

Mexican Tarragon

Mexican Tarragon (Tagetes lucida) is a beautiful addition to any herb garden. The leaves are often used as a tarragon substitute (hence the name), and the vibrant yellow flowers bloom well into late summer, and can perk up an otherwise drab landscape. The flowers are also known as Mexican Marigolds, and are an important symbol in the annual Día de los Muertos festivities, where they are placed on the graves of family members as ofrendas, or offerings. The flowers are often depicted in Huichol art, and are used to create a vibrant yellow dye.

The herb is a remedy of the Curanderos, who use it make a tea infusion for treating the common cold. It is also dried and burned as ceremonial incense, and as an insect repellant. But, most commonly, it is used as a spice — it has a flavor quite similar to tarragon, with a touch of anise. It adds a complimentary, savory flavor to eggs and other meat dishes.

As a plant, it is much more heat-tolerant than tarragon, and is often grown in its stead in warmer climates, where tarragon does not thrive.Although it is treated like an annual in regions with cold winters, it is really a half-hardy perennial in areas with warmer winters. The plant itself might die down, but will sprout back from the roots when the spring comes.

Mexican Tarragon is now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by browsing under Herbs:

Calendula

Calendula

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) are are delightful flowers to having blooming in the garden — they add vibrant color and attract butterflies and bees and other beneficial insects. They are very easy to grow, tolerate poor soil, bloom all summer, and are prolific self-seeders. The seeds germinate easily in sunny locations and bloom within two months. In very hot areas, they grow better as a spring or autumn flower.

Also known as Pot Marigold, they are not the same as annual marigolds, although they are often found planted near each other in decorative gardens. Part of the daisy family Asteraceae, they are native throughout the Mediterranean region, from Northeastern Africa to Iran. The flower petals of the calendula plant have been used for medicinal tinctures and teas since at least the 12th century. Traditionally, calendula has been used to treat stomach upset and ulcers, as well relieve menstrual cramps. Today, calendula is often used topically, to treat wounds such as burns, cuts, and dermatitis.

In fact, applications of calendula ointments may help wounds heal faster, by increasing the amount of blood flow bringing oxygen to the area, helping the body to grow new tissue. Calendula flowers are full of flavonoids, the plant-based antioxidants that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. It is most often applied directly to the skin as a paste made by blending the fresh flowers with warm water, although it is sometimes used as a tea or rinse to soothe sore throats and inflamed mucous membranes. The dried leaves can be used in a tea, to make a tincture using alcohol, or to create aromatic oils.

Aside from the medicinal properties, calendula flowers make a wonderful, colorful addition to salads, and can be used as a substitute for saffron.

To harvest calendula petals, it’s best to pick the mature flowers in the mid-morning, after the dew has dried. A simple way to dry the flowers is to spread them on a sheet or screen and place them in the shade, making sure to stir them several times a day. This will allow the petals dry evenly and slowly. If you have a dehydrator, that will work well too. Store in a air tight jar in a cool, dark location.

We now offer 11 varieties of calendula to add to your garden layout. There’s the lovely creamy yellow and orange Kabloona, and the beautiful, frilly, creamy pink and yellow bi-colored blooms from Pink Sunrise. For more vibrant colors, the bright pinks, oranges, yellow, and bi-colored blooms of Flashback will perk up any garden.  Why not try a couple of different versions?

Bay Laurel & Lemon Verbena

Bay Laurel & Lemon Verbena

When Herbs launched, 15 herbs were available to add to your garden. Now we have over 30 varieties of herbs available to browse through–with more varieties added this week. We would like to introduce Lemon Verbena and Bay Laurel to you and your Smart Gardens.

Bay Laurel

Native to the Mediterranean, the Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) may have more stories and traditions than any other culinary herb I know of! In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he tells the story of the young Daphne turning into the Bay Laurel to escape from Apollo. Daphne is the Greek name for Bay Laurel, and the tree is also a symbol for the Greek God, Apollo. Also in Greece, to have a wreath of Bay Laurel is the highest nobility. In fact, the wreath was given as the prize during the Pythian Games, a precursor to the Olympics. It also translated over to the Romans, as a symbol for victory. Hence the words bacclaureate and post laureate, and the phrase “resting on one’s laurels.”

Show off your garden’s prosperity by adorning it with a Bay Laurel. Although this tree can get rather tall, yearly pruning and regular harvest can keep the plant small and shrub-like. In fact, Bay Laurel is commonly used as a topiary plant! If your winters are too cold to keep Bay Laurel outside, you can also grow it in a large pot, which you move indoors during the winter.

Bay Laurel is a great culinary herb, and I recommend adding it to any meat, stuffing, beans, soup, or stock you make. It has also been known for medicinal uses, such as alleviating arthritis, lowering high blood pressure. It also makes a great astringent, salve for open wounds, or oil to treat ear aches, bruises and sores.

Important Note: When cooking with whole Bay leaves, be sure to remove them before serving; they can be sharp enough to damage internal organs.

Lemon Verbena

As you may imagine, Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora) is well known for its addition of lemon flavor and scent into culinary dishes, herbal teas, adult beverages, and household cleaning products. Although it sounds similar to Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena is much different. It is native to South America‘s Chile and Peru, while Lemon Balm is native to Europe and found along the Mediterranean. Also, Lemon Verbena requires full sun in order to grow well, while Lemon Balm can survive in partial shade. A significant difference for gardeners, is that Lemon Verbena is a shrub, and can grow as large as 10 feet tall in your backyard! While the size may be a bit intimidating, the large harvest and sweet fragrance will not have you thinking twice about it. You can also limit its growth by growing your Lemon Verbena in a pot. This method is more ideal for those with cold winters, as the plant cannot survive below 0˚ F.

Lemon Pot de Crème
* this recipe will require 6 ramekins or souffle dishes

1 cup water
14 lemon verbena leaves, 2 – 2 1/2″ long (fresh or dried works)
10 lemon peels, 1/2″ wide and 2″ long
6 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
6 egg yolks
1 tsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 425˚ F.

In a saucepan bring water, lemon verbena and lemon peels and to a boil until it reduces by half, about 4 minutes. Whisk in sugar and boil until the mixture is now 1/3 cup. Strain out peels and leaves and return liquid to the heat. Whisk in the whipping cream.

In a separate bowl (that can take heat), whisk your eggs together. Gradually whisk in the hot mixture from saucepan. Stir in lemon juice.

Transfer mixture into 6 ramekins and cover with foil. Put ramekins into a baking sheet, at least 2″ tall on the sides. Add hot water to the baking sheet so that it rises to half the height of the ramekins. Bake until it sets, about 45 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool in the water. Transfer ramekins into refrigerator and allow to cool for 4 hours, or overnight. Serve chilled with a lemon verbena leaf for garnish.

Lemon Verbena and Bay Laurel are now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by Browsing under Herbs:

Echinacea

Echinacea

This unique cone-shaped flower is native to the United States, and makes a great addition to your garden. The plant produces beautiful purple-pink or yellow flowers with bright, pineapple-like capitula in the center. While many know this plant by it’s flower, it’s medicinal properties are highly concentrated in the roots–which are best harvested after the plant finishes blossoming.

Native Americans used Echinacea after observing sick or wounded elk eating the plant. The native peoples did not use it to treat colds, although they did use it for the common cold’s side-effects including coughing, sore throat, and headaches. Now Echinacea is a well-known plant to use when ill. In fact, most tea blends that are marketed to help treat the common cold include Echinacea! Now you can grow your own Echinacea, and use the harvested root to make your own tea!

Cold Prevention Tea

1 cup Spearmint, dried
1/2 cup Lemongrass, dried
1/2 cup Echinacea root, dried

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Store loose tea in an airtight jar or tin.

When ready to make tea, scoop 1 tablespoon into a loose leaf tea cup or pot. Pour just boiled water over and allow to steep for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove strainer an enjoy. Add honey or lemon for extra flavor, and extra prevention for the cold!

Echinacea is now available to add to your garden; you can find it by Browsing under Herbs.

New Arrivals!

New Arrivals!

We have been busy as little bees in the spring time, working on all kinds of new features and plant varieties for SmartGardener.com! Here is just a quick sample of some of the really special plants we’ve added.

Borage
These flowers are great for any garden, big or small. Their beautiful blue, purple, and pink colors make an attractive addition, and they encourage more pollinators to come to your garden. The best thing about Borage (Borago officinalis), in my opinion, is that it’s edible! Every time kids come to my community garden, I take them on a tour showing them all the things we grow and play plant identification games with them. During the tour, I would always be sure to stop at the Borage, which is now self-seeding in a sunny spot of our garden. No one could identify it, so when I popped off a flower and put it in my mouth they would all go wild in excitement. Usually the braver children of the bunch will want to taste it immediately, while more reserved children stand back to watch their peers’ reactions. “It tastes just like a cucumber!” is a common response, and soon enough all of the kids will join in delight. It’s simple moments like these that always make me love sharing my garden with others, and especially children!

Fun Fact: Give drinks a fun twist by freezing the flowers in ice cubes, or use them as a garnish on salads, cakes, or other desserts.

Growing Tip: Grow Borage near tomatoes, as the plant repels a common pest, the Tomato Hornworm.

German Chamomile
Chances are you’ve probably had German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) in tea. It’s commonly thought of as a sleep aid, but has many medicinal uses beyond that. But did you know that it’s called “the plant doctor” by farmers? Chamomile can improve the growth and health of nearby plants, and has also been proven to improve the flavor and scent in Mints and Basil. You can also give your plants a “sip” of Chamomile Tea to decrease fungal growth by misting it over seedlings to prevent dampening off.

Growing Tip: Since you’ll be harvesting the flowers of the Chamomile plant, try to avoid using any pesticides or sprays.

Important Note: Although it has so many beneficial components, women that are pregnant should avoid consuming Chamomile, as it can cause uterine contractions that can lead to a miscarriage.

Borage and German Chamomile are now available to add to your garden; you can find them by Browsing under Flowers:

Cowpea
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what a cowpea is. That’s probably because we commonly refer to this crop as Black-Eyed Peas (Vigna unguiculata subsp. unguiculata) in the grocery store. While they are not as common on US dinner plates compared to other Peas, like Sugar Snap, they are an important staple crop for much of the world. These heat-tolerant, drought-resistant plants have shown that they can perform well in drier, arid climates where other crops fail. For gardeners in the Midwest, Mid Atlantic, and Southern states, this is an excellent crop to experiment with this year! While Black-Eyed Peas are the most commonly known, other varieties are also available. Red Ripper offers growers a red bean with a cream colored “eye,” while the Pinkeye Purple Hull variety makes a cream colored bean with a maroon “eye.”

Eating Ideas: You don’t have to grow Cowpeas for the seed, though. You can harvest it at any time during its growth, using the greens as a potherb, or the immature pods in the same way as preparing snap beans.

Growing Tip: To avoid fungal disease, don’t water on the leaves of Cowpeas.

Cowpeas are now available to add to your garden; you can find all of our available varieties by Browsing under Vegetables:

Winter Savory & Summer Savory
Both in the same plant family, Lamiaceae Satureja, Winter and Summer Savory offer chefs a fragrant peppery-thyme flavor that complements meats, soups, and bean dishes. Unlike similarly named Winter and Summer Squash, the savories prefer opposite growing conditions. Winter Savory is a hardy perennial that can survive cold conditions, even down to 10˚ F, and tolerates poor soil. Summer Savory is a tender annual which cannot tolerate any frost, but does like the heat, and requires more maintenance, moist fertile soil, and regular pruning. All that extra work will pay of though, since many agree that Summer Savory has a more refined taste and a less pungent kick than Winter Savory.

Since Summer Savory is an annual, you’ll be able to harvest it in your first year, while those growing Winter Savory will need more patience as harvest is slow the first year. While Summer Savory sounds more ideal, Northern climates have too short of a warm growing season to grow it, which makes Winter Savory a good alternative. Winter Savory is also a good option for those who want fresh sprigs year round, rather than only during the warm season.

Planting Tip: In the garden both Savory types are great companion plants as they repel common pests. They are especially good with Beans and Peas, in the garden and on your plate!

Growing Tip: Savory does well in containers, and can benefit from starting off alone, as the plants grow slowly at first and weeds and neighboring plants grow much faster.

Roselle
This unique member of the Hibiscus plant is not grown for its flowers, but mainly for the calyxes. The calyx is the collection of sepals, which are the light green parts behind a flower bud. During bud production, the calyx protects the pedals. Once harvested, the calyxes are boiled to create a variety of different drinks, including a deep-red beverage commonly called “agua de flor de Jamaica.” The intense color from Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) has made it a common food coloring, especially in drinks labeled as “berry flavored.” The flower buds contain natural pectin, so it’s also commonly made into a red, tart, plum-like jelly by simply boiling the flowers and adding sugar.

Fun Fact: The plant is actually native to the tropics of the Old World.

Growing Tip: This plant can get to be 3 to 5’ tall, so plant it somewhere in your garden where it won’t cast a shadow on neighboring plants (unless they prefer the shade).

Winter Savory, Summer Savory and Roselle are now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by Browsing under Herbs:

 

Sugar Snap Peas

Sugar Snap Peas

Have you considered growing peas? Looking for something to feed your sweet tooth, straight from the garden? Look no further than the Sugar Snap pea. There’s a reason they’re called “garden candy.”

The Sugar Snap is actually a relative newcomer to the garden (first introduced in 1979), but it is now established as one of the great treats of spring. When my Sugar Snaps start to ripen they become the center of the garden and remain so until all the pods are gone.

The Sugar Snap differs from traditional garden peas (like Green Arrow) in that the whole pod is edible, and differs from the edible podded snow peas (like Mammoth Melting) in that the pod is fat, sweet and succulent. As the whole pod is edible they produce a significantly bigger harvest and don’t need shelling. The original Sugar Snap variety was so successful it eventually spawned a whole range of snap peas: bush varieties, disease resistant types and some without strings. There are now even yellow, purple and pink tinted types.

The Sugar Snap was hailed as a revolutionary new kind of pea when it appeared, but it wasn’t actually as new as it seemed at the time. It turns out that the Amish have been growing snap peas for a long time and they are so similar that a casual observer probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Should I grow peas?
Peas (along with beans) have a special place in the vegetable garden because they are host to nitrogen fixing bacteria and so can add fertility to the soil as they grow. This won’t happen unless the right type of bacteria is present in the soil though, so if you haven’t grown peas within the last five years you should inoculate the seed with a suitable strain of inoculant.

The real flavor of Snap peas comes through best when they are eaten raw and this is how almost all of ours get eaten. My children will eat them straight from the vine all day long and few pods actually make it as far as the kitchen (their friends have been known to strip a planting of all pods of any significant size). They are also good when very lightly steamed, but don’t cook them for more than a couple of minutes, or they may turn to mush.

Tips on growing great peas

  • Air Temperature – Peas thrive in cool weather and don’t like heat, with 60-75˚ F being optimal. They are fully hardy and the first planting can be sown directly into the garden in early spring, a month before the last frost date.
  • Soil Temperature – The soil doesn’t even have to be very warm, as they will germinate (if rather slowly) at temperatures as low as 40˚ F.
  • Succession Planting – It is a good idea to make several succession plantings about 3 weeks apart, to ensure an abundant supply of pods until the weather gets too warm.
  • Weeding – The established plants don’t require much care. Weeds can be a problem for the young seedlings, but they soon outgrow and overshadow any weeds.
  • Watering – They do need regular moisture, but in early spring there is usually plenty in the soil and you rarely need to water.


Set up

The original Sugar Snap is a pole variety and must have a tall support structure for good growth (hog wire fence works well). If it isn’t tall enough they will eventually run out of climbing room and flop over (when my dad first grew them in England they went right over the top of his 6 foot high wall and started supplying his neighbor with pods). It is a good idea to set up your supports before you plant, as it’s easy to damage the fragile seedlings. If you don’t want to deal with such a tall plant there are now bush varieties, such as Sugar Ann.

It is easier to provide support for the plants when they are growing in rows, so they are commonly planted in double offset rows with 3” between the plants and 6” between the rows. If you need more than one double row, then leave 24” between the pairs of rows. You can also wrap hog wire fence into a cylinder and plant in a circle around it (this looks quite ornamental when fully covered, though not for long). Established plants grow vigorously and quickly produce a wall of foliage 6 to 8 feet high, which makes an attractive (though temporary) screen.

Pests
The biggest obstacle to growing Snap Peas is getting them established. It’s not that they are hard to germinate (this is easy) but rather that birds like to eat the succulent green parts and often pull the emerging seedlings out of the ground. The best way to prevent this is to cover the whole bed with netting. Mice can sometimes be a problem too, as they sometimes dig and eat the seed before it has even germinated. If they are a problem you might have to start your plants indoors, though they dislike transplanting, so must be grown in individual cell packs (and not kept indoors for too long).

Harvest
The pods mature quickly after pollination and you need to check and harvest the plants regularly (every day or so). Harvest the pods when they are fat and round and sweet to taste. Don’t harvest too early or they won’t be as good as they can be. It is important to pick all of the pods as they size up, if you leave some on the vine the seed will mature and production may decline (if this happens save the seed for planting next year). In cool weather, a well managed planting may yield for 6 weeks or more, though if the weather turns hot it may be as short as 2 weeks.

Leeks

Leeks

When the weather gets cold, the leek takes the spotlight as one of the stars of the winter garden. You can pick them fresh from the garden to add great flavoring to any recipes that normally use onions or enjoy them as the featured vegetable of your meal.

Though nowadays the leek is considered one of the more refined members of the onion family, for most of its history it was an everyday staple of the common people. This was partly due to the fact it was easy to grow and could be left in the ground all winter, even at -10 F. But it was surely also appreciated for its sweet and delicate flavor. It is milder and easier to digest than other onions and was very important for enhancing the bland staple foods that made up the European peasant diet for centuries.

Perhaps the leek’s most common use was in making soup, no doubt because when cooked it has a slightly mucilaginous quality, which make soups smooth and creamy. Notable leek soups have been prepared in Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. The ingredients in Scottish Cock-a-leekie soup hint at its humble peasant origins. You don’t get much more basic than leeks, chicken stock (the bird was boiled in the soup for a couple of hours and then eaten separately) and barley (later potatoes were added). The more refined vichysoisse, involving lots of cream, is a 20th century transmutation of a French leek soup and was invented by a French chef at the Ritz Carlton in New York (not exactly a peasant hangout).

From the gardeners viewpoint the best thing about leeks is that they are so easy to grow. Unlike the related onions and garlic, you don’t have to worry about day length and its effect on bulb development. Leeks are a biennial and so, unlike many annual vegetables, they have little inclination to bolt or turn bitter in their first year. They just keep getting bigger. In mild climates like we have in California, they will continue to grow right through the winter and still be good to eat in early spring. In colder climates they won’t grow much in the winter, but they can be left in the ground for months, even at below freezing temperatures. The outermost leaves might get a little slimy, but the interior will be perfectly fine (mulch can help to protect them and keep the ground from freezing). They will eventually bolt in spring when the days lengthen and the weather warms, but you will probably have run out of Leeks to harvest before this happens.

If any leeks do get around to bolting you can admire the spectacular flowers and then save their black seeds for planting next year (they are cross-pollinated, but there are unlikely to be too many leeks flowering around about). The flowering plants also produce offsets, which can be used to grow new plants (these are known as leek pearls).

To grow a winter Leek crop you must choose a winter variety (these are hardier than summer varieties) and start the seeds in mid-summer (they are fairly slow growing). This gives them plenty of time to grow so they are close to maturity by the time cold weather arrives and the day length drops below 10 hours. The plants will then stay in good condition for eating all winter and will even continue to grow slowly. The Leeks you grow for summer use can simply be left in the ground into the winter, to be harvested as needed for the kitchen. These varieties don’t tend to be as hardy as the preferred winter types, so eat them first.