Too Many Seeds, Too Little Space.

I remember when I first started gardening. As I recall, I went to the hardware store and bought three packets of seeds which I planted that afternoon.  I’m not sure how I followed my lust for seeds until today when my saved and leftover seeds now require two shoe boxes….and that’s after I gave away many many seeds.  So I look at all those seeds…and the envelopes of newly arrived seeds I’ve gotten in the mail…and wonder how I’ll ever have enough room on windowsills one plant rack to get all those exquisite young plants going.

Winter Sowing of course!  As fun as it is to germinate seeds on the heat mat that creates new plants in a few days, that’s not very practical when it could be another three months until the soil is warm enough that it isn’t freezing at night.  I learned Winter Sowing back in the early days of the internet….and it is still the most effective method for starting winter seeds.

The basic idea is you have plastic containers (I used water jugs). You cut them in half. Put some soil in. Label the name of the seed. Water the soil. Sow the seed. Tape the container closed. Move the entire container OUTSIDE to the north side of the house where it’s protected from the wind.  And that’s it.  Now as the season warms, Nature will cause them to germinate at the right time when the temperatures are best suited for the seeds.  Monthly watering is all the maintenance that this needs….and of course planting out all those seedlings when the time is ready.

The phrase Winter Sowing was coined by our hero, Trudi Davidoff. For years she has tirelessly gathered info and shared her wisdom on Garden Web, then her own website http://www.wintersown.org, then Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/groups/102675420505/  There really isn’t much more to doing winter sowing than I’ve said….but there are dozens of web pages via her website and Facebook and Google, so enjoy learning.

You know all those seed failures you’ve had in the past? Probably won’t happen with Winter Sowing.  Seeds that need to be chilled get chilled.  Seeds that need a long time to germinate can sit there till they are ready. No leggy plants because they are outside in the bright light.  You’ll need to water every month or so….but that’s all you need to get 100s of plants going.  One plant I still start indoors is tomato because I want my tomato plants big sooner in my short season.  But otherwise….there is no end to what seeds you can try.  The biggest challenge will be getting them transplanted to the garden.

Growing for your Freezer

by Sandy Swegel

The avid vegetable growers on my gardening email list have noted that alas, despite trying to plan well, their freezers and pantries are almost bare despite the fact that there’s still snow on the garden. We’re fortunate to live in times with well-stocked grocery stores.

We’re also lucky to live with reliable electricity. I know how to can and make preserves, but the freezer is still the easiest way I know how to easily capture garden produce at their peak. I keep a baking pan in my freezer and bring in surplus I’ve picked that I won’t use today and after washing, spread the beans, peas, corn, cherries or strawberries on the baking pan for a kind of home flash freeze. Later when I have time, I bag up the frozen item to protect them from freezer burn. Easy and fresh. And despite what all the books tell us, we’ve had really good luck with freezing produce without blanching it first.

Suggestions on what items are good for freezing: Tomatoes of course…Sauce or diced, roasted or stewed. We agree tomatoes are the most versatile item in your freezer.

Prepared meals:  ratatouilles, bean stews, chilis, lasagnas, stuffed peppers.  Who isn’t delighted to find a home-grown, home-cooked meal in the freezer on a cold January evening ready to thaw and eat.

Individual vegetables, loose.  Here I take inspiration from the freezer section of the grocery and make small Ziploc bags of everything the grocery store freezer section supplies:  beans, corn, peas, okra, black-eyed peas, baby limas, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, red and yellow peppers. Basically, anything that would make a quick side vegetable to balance out a meal or something to give a soup or stock some extra zip. One great suggestion I’ll try this year is to freeze poblano peppers whole ready for stuffing.

Pre-cooked foods. Here’s where I’ve learned that pre-cooking some foods turns ordinary vegetables sublime.  Frozen cut spinach isn’t too impressive, but frozen spinach previously braised in olive oil and garlic is sublime.  Likewise, braised mixed kale with a splash of tamari is welcome.  A great way to freeze these greens is to lay them on freezer paper in a long thin log and wrap them up.  Cut off a section of what you need and return the log to the freezer. Cooked and seasoned beans.  I love green beans fresh but there’s something about them frozen plainly that is unimpressive.  But I like heartier beans like broad beans that have been cooked and seasoned.  Potatoes. I’m still experimenting with potatoes, but I’m so crazy for mashed potatoes that frozen individual servings of mashed potatoes with a little gravy disappeared by December.  The texture wasn’t as great as fresh…but they’re still mashed potatoes!  Shredded potatoes for hash browns are pretty good too. Roasted eggplant slices….ready to go for lasagna. Baby beets, well-cooked and seasoned. Stir-fry mixes of favorite vegetables pre-cooked to almost doneness.

Fruit. You can’t make enough of this. Keep trying, but whether dried or frozen, cherries, raspberries and peaches just disappear.  There’s still applesauce and a few strawberries in my freezer and some dried cherries I didn’t see.  Freeze more next year!

Now that my freezer is almost empty, I know how to plan for this year’s garden.  Plant more of the foods that disappeared by December and fewer of the foods that are still frozen from the year before last.

Ask the Kids

What do you think is special about our Garden?

I recently returned from my annual trip to New Orleans. I go every Winter for a trip to my hometown so I can enjoy a minor respite from Colorado’s below-zero weather and smell fresh gardenias and camellias and remember that oranges and grapefruit grow right on the trees while the snow piles up in Colorado.

Besides walking through citrus orchards and hiking in the swamps, a highlight of New Orleans from a gardener’s perspective is The Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, an amazing program that teaches 2500 kids in five different public schools to grow and cook their own food. They have a ton of fun (It is New Orleans….there’s a big emphasis on throwing a party to eat the food) and kids learn more than just how to grow a garden.  I don’t know if the kids get grades for growing food, but they’ve become pretty darn wise. Here’s some of what those kids have to say about “their” gardens:

“We grow our own food because it’s better when it’s freshly made. And because we use our food to cook with.”  –Ariel Surrency   “I think the garden is special because people from the neighborhood get to come pick things from it.” –Christian Powell

“The garden is special because there are all different varieties of flowers and vegetables and fruits. It’s peaceful and shows respect because it’s never messed up and everyone keeps it together.” – Biyon Calvin.

Go find the kids in your own family or neighborhood and ask them, “What makes this garden special?” Wait till you hear the wisdom your little garden has inspired.

Hundreds of Vegetables

The holiday season always involves lots of cooking. Each time I’m shopping for food I find myself thinking, I could have grown that.  A big winter squash cost me $5 the other day. And paying $2 for parsley that practically grows itself suddenly seems crazy.  As I think about January resolutions for dieting and really like the Plant Nutrient Dense Diets, I’m kicking myself for not having more vegetables still harvestable or in the freezer. So next to my grocery list on the refrigerator, I’m making my list of the vegetables I’m buying so that I have a more rational way to make a list of seeds to buy to grow for next year’s vegetable garden.

Things I wish I coulda woulda shoulda grown more of:

Beets.  Several parties I’ve been to have had roasted beet dishes. So yummy and easy. And beets are nutritious and great juicers. With a little extra mulch protection, they survive most of the year I should have at least two beets per person per week of the year. I need at least a hundred beets for me.

Carrots. Such a good juicer as well as cooked vegetables…I need at least three carrots per person per week.  150 carrots just for me.

Onions.  Duh, Another easy to grow plant that I use almost every day….4 onions per person per week is 200 onions.

Tomatoes.  It wasn’t a great tomato year so it’s not surprising I’ve gone through most of my stored tomatoes already.  I didn’t notice how often I rely on diced or stewed tomatoes in my recipes.  I need at least 2 16 ounce cans of chopped tomatoes per week.  100 “cans” of chopped paste potatoes.

Cooked Greens.  This year I preserved kale and chard and collards by steaming them and then freezing them already cooked.  I’m eating twice as many greens now than usual because they are already cooked and ready to be served as a side dish or added last minute to soups.  Cooked, frozen greens:  At least 3 pounds per person per week. 150 pounds of greens.

Peas.  I love peas. Why don’t I have more in the freezer or dehydrator? One pound of peas per week. 50 pounds of peas.

Fruit.  Frozen and dehydrated fruits are my favorites in winter.  I’ve gone through all but two jars of my tart cherries.  I was tired of picking and pitting cherries in the summer….but now I’d happily do that work since I can’t buy any tart cherries now.  I should have a pound per week of fruit preserved for the winter per person.

 Parsley and Celery. I love cooking and juicing with both of these. I’m completely out of both and they are just great sources of nutrients.  I need at least 50 “bunches” of parsley and celery chopped and frozen or celeriac in the frig/root cellar.

Rosemary. For the first year, I have enough rosemary. I bought one of those rosemary Christmas trees.  I love to roast vegetables with rosemary….so now I pick up the plant and use the scissors to keep snipping the plant back into the Christmas tree shape.  I get at least a couple of tablespoons per trimming…finally enough rosemary.

So that’s my lesson this week.  If I want a diet full of plant nutrients and I don’t want a huge grocery bill, I need to think of my vegetable garden as a source of HUNDREDS of plants. I’ve never really noticed how many vegetables it takes to have a nutritious diet.

Another way to think about it is…let’s modestly say you need five vegetable and fruit servings per day.  Here in Colorado, we have about 4 months of non-growing seasons. So five servings per day x 30 days x 4 months means I need to have at least 600 servings of vegetables and fruit PER PERSON preserved in cool storage, cans or the freezer by December 1st if I want to grow my own food. WOW. All I can say is thank you to all the farmers who have been providing this for me my whole life!

Quick Potluck Meals From Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Last night I went to our annual culinary gardener’s potluck holiday party.  When you have good organic produce you’ve grown yourself, the flavors are so much better than standard grocery store fare, it doesn’t take much work to make potluck dishes everybody loves.  The vegetable provides most of the flavor!

Some of last night’s easy dishes:

Roasted vegetables.

Sweet potatoes cut in 1-inch chunks, marinated in olive oil and lots of rosemary and garlic. With the oven at 425°, bake on a cookie sheet (not a deep dish) 45 minutes. Turn halfway through.  The cookie sheet lets the heat slightly crust the pieces of sweet potato. This works for butternut squash too.

Beets, small quarters, marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, roasted to soft perfection. Oven at 350, about 30 minutes depending on your beets.

Kale, sliced in quarter inch strips, sauteed in coconut oil with sesame seeds, cranberries, cashews and lemon juice. Saute nuts first then lightly saute kale till tender.  Turns out a beautiful bright green color with red highlights.

Apples, small quarters or eighths, soaked in mulled wine and apple cider, then simmered to tenderness. Dust with cinnamon. Serve as a main course side, not as dessert.

Very thinly julienned beets and carrots, in a vinaigrette sauce with pomegranate seeds and tiny mandarin orange pieces.

Quinoa, cooked and mixed with well-sauteed thin slices of red chard, buffalo mozzarella cheese and blue cheese and bits of chopped pistachios.

All these great dishes were healthy and intensely flavorful. It’s really not difficult to cook good vegetable-based dishes for potlucks or for our nightly meals.  It’s the reward for a long season of gardening in a hot drought year.

Best Ways to Learn to be a Better Gardener

I was browsing through the Amazon best-selling gardening books, thinking of possible gifts for gardeners. So many of the books are truly beautiful and full of information, but information isn’t as hard to find as it used to be.  A quick Google search can teach you all you really need to know about growing, say, brussels sprouts.  So I asked myself the question, what’s the best way to learn how to be a better gardener.

The common denominator of the gardening resources I continue to learn from is that they are based on observation and lots of practice.  The writers or researchers have spent a lifetime observing plants or soil or the gardener and have used careful observation backed with science or practice to come to good recommendations.

Here are my favorite sources that I refer to year after year:

For tending flowers and perennials, the best book is Tracy Di-Sabato-Aust’s Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques. Her advice on pruning and grouping plants and deadheading creates long seasons of spectacular color.

For winter gardening, Eliot Coleman is the man. If he can grow fresh vegetables year round in Maine without supplemental power, you can too. His Winter Harvest Handbook explains it in great detail.

For dealing with pests and bugs, an online source is my go-to place. UC-Davis maintains an extraordinary database of “integrated pest management” that has cultural and organic and traditional chemical ways of treating almost every problem you could have. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/

For planning your vegetable garden, John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) continues to be the best way to design your vegetable garden and decide what and how much to plant to become self-sufficient.

And finally, to prepare your food, I have old favorites and an online favorite.  Rosalind Creasy’s 1982 Cooking From the Garden is a constant source of inspiration.  Her latest book “Rosalind Creasy’s Recipes from the Garden” has excellent recipes for turning your garden produce into culinary delights.

My second favorite inspiration is the New York Times’ many food columnists. Recipes are all conveniently online.

If you prefer to use these sources, you can have the things people most often want from their gardens:  More Color. More Beauty. Healthy Food, and Easy Recipes to turn their produce and fruit into sublimely Delicious Food.

Pumpkins, They’re not just Decorations!

by Sandy Swegel

I thought I had a great bargain when I found organic butternut squash at the grocery today for only $.99 per pound.  I was in definite sticker shock when the squash rang up over $4.75.  Well worth it for high-quality food of course, but suddenly, all those pumpkin and squash decorations I’m seeing around town look like they ought to be food for me and not just for the squirrels.  My neighbor starts cleaning up after holidays the minute the holiday is over…so on November 1st I loitered in her driveway and offered to carry off that large uncut pumpkin she had decorated the front porch.  At .99 cent/pound, it was at least a $25 value.

There are lots of ways to cook pumpkin, but like most winter vegetables I find roasting makes the flavor sublime.  I decided to cut the pumpkin in thick slices as I’ve heard they do in France, marinate the slices in olive oil and rosemary, garlic and oregano, and roast in the oven for 45 minutes or so.  Just as yummy as the butternut squash I cook that way. And free!

Once I started prowling the web for French recipes for pumpkin, I found what I will do with another big section of that pumpkin:  French fries. Well, officially they are called “Chips de Citrouille.”  A traditional French recipe has you them in milk, dredge them in flour seasoned with salt, and deep fry in a cup of oil for two minutes per side.  You can make lots of variations without gluten or even bake them instead. http://www.traditionalfrenchfood.com/fried-pumpkin-slices.html

Yum. Now what to do with a big pile of pumpkin seeds!

http://www.yumsugar.com/Fast-Easy-Pumpkin-Fries-Recipe-12010370

End of the Growing Season

by Sandy Swegel

We had our first big snow…just six inches but very cold and wet followed by more snow and below freezing temperatures so one might easily assume the vegetable garden is done for the year.  It certainly looks forlorn outside my window.  But fortunately, Nature is kinder than that.  For reasons I can’t quite fathom, lettuce that freezes if it’s too far in the back of my refrigerator can handle quite a lot of extreme temperature especially when it’s well insulated by snow.  I expect that when the sun returns in a couple of days, I’ll be able to brush away any remaining snow and harvest excellent crispy sweet lettuce.  Hardier greens like spinach and chard can even be exposed to the air and frozen solid at 8 am but then be perfect and ready to eat by noon with a little mid-day thawing.

The warm season plants like basil and tomatoes have no chance in the cold.  Basil turns brown below about 35 degrees.  Tomatoes don’t taste nearly as good once night time temps dip into the 30s.  Squash leaves croak right at 32 although sometimes the ambient heat from the ground will keep the pumpkins and winter squash edible even though the air is freezing.  Still, the warm season plants are done. Corn on the cob is a memory held by the dried stalks turned into Halloween decorations.

The root crops are another story.  Carrots and beets improve with each freezing night.  As long as you can pry root crops from the freezing ground, you’ll be rewarded with intense flavor and sweetness that improves even more if you roast the vegetables with some olive oil. Many a picky eater who refused to eat turnips or rutabagas, finds November turnips roasted with rosemary and thyme to be irresistible.

The growing season might be over….but the eating season has just begun!

Curing Winter Squash

by Sandy Swegel

All winter squash improve greatly by having a curing time.  Most of us inadvertently cure our winter squash without even realizing it…by leaving it on the counter or a shelf until we get around to cooking it. Curing is keeping the squash at a warmish temperature (70-80) for about two weeks.  If the growing season is long in your area and the squash is ripe before temperatures start to freeze at night, squash can cure perfectly well just sitting in the field.  Here in Colorado this year, we had a hard freeze that caused us to run out, cut all the squash off the plants and bring them indoors.

What is it curing actually does?  Even though you have picked the squash from the vine, it doesn’t “die” but continues to breathe or respirate (a creepy kinda of thought of all those pumpkins on Halloween porches “breathing.”) Respiration is a good thing because it means the squash are still vital and full of life to nourish you. What curing does is lower the temperature so the respiration slows down. During the curing time, many of the starches in the squash convert to sugar making for a yummier squash.

After keeping the squash at room temperature for 10-20 days, you can then move the squash to a basement, cool garage or unheated room where it will last for months.

Some helpful tips on storing winter squash:

Space the squash so they aren’t touching one another.

Don’t put the squash directly on a cold garage or basement floor. They need to have air circulation around them and will be more likely to rot at the spot where they are touching the floor. Put it up on a shelf or on a board.

Don’t try to cure and store acorn and delicata squashes…they don’t keep well and should be eaten soon after picking

Heirloom Tomatoes 2012

by Sandy Swegel

What were your favorite tomatoes this year?  Or should I say who were your favorites since we do have relationships with our plants!

We had a killing frost so it is officially the end of the tomato season, although just the beginning of the “what to do with green tomatoes” season.  My neighbor, Leah Bradley, is a gifted local artist who works in oils and had an Open Studio yesterday. What a delight it was to walk into a room full of paintings of heirloom vegetables.  Tomatoes everywhere and vivid kales, eggplants and pears. Even gnarly tomatoes that had viruses and blights this year were remarkably beautiful seen through her eyes.

There were lots of tomato diseases this year, so be sure to clear all that diseased foliage out of your garden beds and into the garbage (not back into your compost).

Who were the garden award winners in your tomato category this year?  Some of my buddy gardeners have been voting for Juliet, Red Beefsteak Heirloom, Brandywine, and Sweet 100 Cherries.