Vegetable Seeds for the Spring Garden

Vegetable Seeds for the Spring Garden

November isn’t quite over as I write this, but already the seed and fruit catalogs have started to arrive. They will increase in frequency through December and into January and then peter out in February. No doubt they arrive at the most convenient time from the perspective of the seed production business and for the convenience of spring seed starting, but by coincidence it is also a master stroke of marketing. They just happen to arrive when gardeners are first starting to experience garden withdrawal symptoms. We may have been confined inside by inclement weather for weeks and are starting to pine to be outside doing garden things (we have already oiled the wooden handled tools with linseed oil and sharpened everything that needs sharpening).

Perusing seed catalogs has long been a treasured ritual among avid gardeners. We curl up with them by the fireside on cold winter nights (hot cocoa and fuzzy slippers are optional but recommended accessories).  Our catalogs allow us to dream about vegetables and gardening even if our gardens are actually frozen solid beneath three feet of snow (not very likely in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, but that’s part of the mystique). We get to read and reread those descriptions of plump, sweet, tangy, succulent tomatoes and crisp, green, frilly lettuce and admire the glorious color photographs until our imaginations start to run wild, especially if there’s brandy in the cocoa.

Of course we Bay Area gardeners are blessed in that we can actually get out and garden on any day of the year, weather permitting. So we can’t get as intense a seed catalog experience as gardeners in Vermont. Nor would I say that receiving the catalogs is one of the highlights of the gardening year (they don’t actually involve any gardening), but they certainly help to keep the gardening portion of my brain busy during the gap between Christmas and seed starting time.

Receiving seed catalogs predates the electronic age, but just because you love looking at them doesn’t mean you can’t use the Internet to do your buying. One of the great benefits of Smart Gardener is that you can not only plan out your vegetable beds for the next season and get immediate feedback on what you need to do to prepare and plant your garden, but you can also buy the seeds and starts you need all in one place.

If I get all the planning work done in early December, I can look forward to receiving a fat padded yellow envelope in the mail in time for Christmas. I get a little buzz of excitement as I open it, exactly like I used to feel as a child opening my presents. These days, new seeds and the anticipation of getting back into the garden is gift enough for me.

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.

 

 

Kitchen Tip: Escarole

Kitchen Tip: Escarole

If you desire delicious young tender leaves, you can constantly thin the outer leaves. This helps to extend the life of the plant and provides you with tender greens for saute or salads.

Caramelized Winter Squash with Sage and Pomegranate

Caramelized Winter Squash with Sage and Pomegranate

Squash and Pomegranate seem like a natural pairing since the the slightly sweet and sour note of acidic tannins in the juice of the Pomegranate compliment the sweetness of the squash. The pomegranate makes an excellent sauce for caramelizing and adds a colorful and fresh touch to the overall presentation.

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Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

With its rich orange color and hearty texture, butternut squash soup is my idea of the quintessential autumn meal served alone or with a gooey grilled cheese sandwich. It can be made simply with squash and broth, but throw in other seasonal produce and you’ll have a true harvest treat.

If you pick the squash when it is fully mature (its hard skin cannot be pricked by your fingernail and its surface has lost its sheen and appears dull and dry), you can store it for up to 3 months at 50º with a 50% to 75% humidity. You can also cube and freeze raw squash or cook it first and freeze the puree.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
(Serves 8)

1 4-pound butternut squash
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 sweet yellow onion, chopped
3 medium sized leeks, cleaned, sliced
3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cubed
10 sage leaves
8 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
Sea salt to taste
Pepper to taste
4 Shallots

1. Preheat oven to 425ºF.

2. Slice the squash lengthwise and remove the seeds. Place on a roasting pan, skin side down and spray or drizzle each half with olive oil. Sprinkle with allspice and roast for 1-1-1/2 hours until the squash is soft when poked with a fork.

3. While the squash is roasting, chop the onions, leeks, apples and sage leaves. Coat the bottom of a stock pot with olive oil and sauté the onions for 2 to 3 minutes on medium heat. Add the leeks and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add the apples and sage, cover the pot, reduce the heat and let the ingredients simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. When the onions are soft and translucent, add the chicken broth to the pot and bring the mixture to a boil. Continue to boil on medium heat for 20 minutes. Take off the heat and let sit until squash is ready.

5. When the squash is cool, scoop the flesh from the skins and add it to the stockpot. Puree all the ingredients with a hand blender—or in batches in a regular blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper and reheat.

6. Peel and slice the shallots and sauté them in olive oil until nicely brown. Garnish the soup with a sprinkle of crispy shallots and serve.

Prepare Clay Soil for Spring Planting

Prepare Clay Soil for Spring Planting

Clay soils can be heavy and difficult, but if you persevere they can be very fertile and productive. Ideally your soil will contain at least 20% clay, but no more than 35% (or you can have problems). While clay soils hold on to nutrients well, you may have to adjust the pH of the soil to make the nutrients available.

The downside of clay soil is that roots have a hard time penetrating it because the pores are so small and the particles so densely packed. Additionally, clay soils hold a lot of water (up to eight times as much as a sandy one) and are slow to dry out. This is an advantage in times of drought, but in wet climates it means they get waterlogged easily. Wet clay soils tend to be cold and slow to warm up in spring. It’s no wonder that many plants don’t over-winter well in clay soils.

Use the tips below to turn your clay soil into an environment your plants and other beneficial organisms will love.

Tips for working with clay

•    Limit cultivation to times when soil is not too dry or wet. If you work with dry clay soil it will be so hard it is almost impossible to dig and may crack into large chunks that crumble to dust. When this dust gets wet it sets rock hard, almost like plaster. Cultivation of wet clay is even worse. Wet a clay soil compacts very easily when you put any pressure on it, creating a sticky mass that is also hard to penetrate.
•    Roughly dig the soil in autumn, when it’s relatively dry, and leave it over the winter for frost to break down the large clumps.
•    Add well-decomposed organic matter to help particles cluster together and form larger aggregates. This will improve drainage and aeration.
•    Use green manures to improve structure.
•    Double dig to incorporate organic matter and calcium.
•    Use raised beds to improve aeration and prevent future compaction. Build them high to help them drain and warm up.
•    Slope the sight slightly so the soil can drain more quickly.
•    Never allow the soil to get so dry that is cracks. These cracks increase evaporation and make the soil hard to re-wet because water simply drains away down the cracks. If it does dry out, cultivate the soil surface.
•    You can improve clay soil’s structure by adding a  mix of 80% gypsum and 20% dolomitic lime. Use an ounce of this mix per square foot of soil in spring and again in fall. This may be repeated for a second year, while also adding as much organic matter as possible.
•    Adding calcium may be useful to improve soil structure temporarily, until you can get sufficient organic matter and soil life into the soil. But this only works if the soil is low in calcium.

The Winter Vegetable Garden

The Winter Vegetable Garden

As the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, many gardeners move indoors for the winter. But for those of us who live in a mild climate where we can grow late autumn and winter crops, we can keep right on growing as long as we pick the right crops, get them in the ground early enough and provide them with the proper protection.

Crop Selection

Some cool weather crops are much better suited to growing in autumn than in spring. Often by the time it’s warm enough for plants to mature in spring, longer days will cause short-day crops (spinach and oriental cabbage) to bolt. The warm temperatures adversely affect their flavor as well. If you plant these crops in late summer, they’ll grow quickly to start and then mature more slowly in the shorter colder days that follow.

For cold weather growing, stick to the tried and true hardy crops:

•    Broccoli
•    Brussels Sprouts
•    Cabbage
•    Carrot
•    Cauliflower
•    Chard
•    Citrust
•    Cornsalad
•    Horseradish
•    Kale
•    Jerusalem Artichoke
•    Leek
•    Mustard Greens
•    Parsnip
•    Turnips

It is important to use the right crop variety at this time of year, as hardiness varies considerably within a crop.

When to Plant

Fall and mild winter crops commonly take longer to mature because the sun is weaker and the days are shorter. To determine the right time to plant a fall crop, figure out the number of days it takes for it to reach maturation (adding extra days to allow for slower growth in autumn). Then determine the day you want them to mature (in areas with frost, this is normally just before the weather turns too cold for good growth). Subtract the number of growing days from the maturation date and you have the sowing date.

It’s a good idea to plant a few successions at this time to make sure you get at least one crop before the frosts and possibly more if the frost is later than expected. If you rarely have frosts, you may be able to continue growing these crops through the winter.

Where to Plant

The beds for winter crops should receive all of the sunlight they can get, so make sure they won’t be shaded. A south-facing slope is the best choice as it gets extra heat from the sun. You might shape your shape winter beds so they tilt slightly to the south to give them a little extra solar gain.

The beds should be well protected from cold winds. Don’t plant the winter garden in a low-lying area, as it might be a frost pocket and much colder than a more elevated slope. The soil should also be well drained, as dampness is often as great as enemy of winter plants as cold is (much of the value of cloches and cold frames is due to their protecting plants from moisture).

Season Extension

The simplest season extending technique is to protect the tender crops from the first occasional autumn frosts. If protected, the plants can sit in the cold garden in an edible state for weeks before having to be harvested. The hardiest autumn/winter crops will continue bearing until temperatures drop down into the 20’s.

The first frost may be followed by several weeks of good growing weather before the next one, so the simple act of covering your plants for a night or two may reward you with several more weeks of harvests.

A quick freeze will do a lot more damage to plants than a gradual decline in temperature (which gradually hardens them off). Happily you can get advance warning of an oncoming frost and act to protect your plants. Almost anything will give protection from a light frost:

•    cloches
•    cold frames
•    old blankets
•    row covers
•    plastic sheeting
•    hay or straw mulch

Cold frames and cloches can even protect plants from more severe frosts. Tall plants such as tomatoes can be unstaked and laid down on the ground for easier protection.

If your unprotected plants are hit by an unexpected frost you may be able to revive them by washing the frost off with a spray of water. This must be done before the sun hits them and thaws them out too quickly. You can also follow the example of commercial citrus farmers and leave a slow sprinkler going all night (don’t turn it off until all ice has melted). But this wastes a lot of water.

You should protect the tender crops for as long as there is good growth in the daytime. It isn’t worth protecting them once the days get cold, as they won’t thrive. It is better to replace them with hardy crops. Or maybe you do want to take a break for a month or two and hibernate. If you’ve been diligent and canned, dried or frozen some of your earlier harvests, you can enjoy the fruits of your own garden until you’re ready to start preparing again for the spring.

Cabbage

Cabbage

I was first introduced to cooked cabbage on a beach on Orcas Island in Puget Sound, where a friend sautéed it in a black iron skillet over an open fire. It was the only accompaniment to fresh barbecued oysters and, with its deep purple color was not only visually dramatic but surprisingly delicious. A vegetable I had  considered peasant fare took on a new status that afternoon and has stayed on my list of favorite vegetables ever since.

Cabbage may still not be the vegetable that entices you into organic gardening. It’s not graceful like the climbing pea plant or dramatic like the artichoke. But it’s an ideal crop for so many reasons. It is easy to grow and store, rich in vitamin C and several cancer preventing phytochemicals, high yielding, hardy (late varieties will survive temperatures down to 20˚ F) and can be harvested in cold weather after most other crops are finished.

If you live in a mild climate and have a nice crop of late season cabbage going in your garden now, you can let mature plants stand right through the winter in good condition. In fact, it is easier to leave them in the garden until you need them, protecting them with mulch if necessary.

Harvesting Cabbage

You can begin harvesting the first cabbage heads as soon as they are big and solid enough to provide a meal. Harvest by cutting through the base of the stem with a knife. Remove the roots after harvest, and compost or burn them to help prevent the buildup of disease. Then look to our blog for new ways to enjoy this versatile vegetable.

If a mature head begins to crack (this may be caused by excess nitrogen, aging or irregular water supply) harvest and use it promptly. The cracking won’t affect its edibility, but it does affect its storage life.

If too many Cabbages are maturing at once, you can slow their growth by cutting through some of their roots with a spade. You can also twist the head a quarter turn, to break some of the roots.