Guest Post: I Wish I Were a Gardener

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

I never wanted this blog to only be about my kitchen garden so, from time to time, you’ll see guest posts from gardeners I’ve been fortunate enough to meet during my time in this world.  This first post is written by a friend of mine who gardens in about a zone 8 where the hot, humid summers have everyone seeking air conditioned space and the best growing season is from fall to spring with a couple-of-days break for winter in between.  Lisa and I met in a book group and I always looked forward to when it was her turn to host since she made the best food (and served the best cocktails).  This was a few years before she started writing her lisa is cooking blog, a popular read on her attempts to actually use her vast collection of cookbooks.  I didn’t think she’d mind expanding on her subject and asked her if she would describe the delicious connection between her kitchen and her garden.  Enjoy!

I thought I knew gardening from watching my parents and grandparents grow vegetables in Illinois. It looked easy enough. When the weather finally warmed up, tomato plants, potatoes, and lettuce, radish, green bean, cabbage, zucchini, and carrot seeds went into the ground. It rained occasionally, things grew, we ate those things, everyone had too much zucchini, and that was vegetable gardening. After planting tomatoes for the first time in Austin, Texas, I realized that gardening in central Texas is not gardening in central Illinois, and maybe I don’t really know edible gardening as well as I thought. What I do know is that buying herbs at the grocery store is expensive. You end up with too much or not enough, and it’s much simpler to walk outside and snip exactly what you need. So, after accepting the space limitations of the area of my edible garden and really considering how much time I could devote to watering and maintenance, I realized that what would make me very happy in the way of gardening was to have as many herbs as possible with a few edible flowers.

A flexible herb and edible flower planting plan.

A flexible herb and edible flower planting plan.

Origanum heracleoticum aka Greek oregano

Origanum heracleoticum aka Greek oregano

Kirsten created a garden plan and planting guide for me, and I’m still trying to do the plan justice. In the winter, my garden gets more direct sun because nearby trees have lost their leaves. In the summer, a little shade isn’t a bad thing when the sun is at its most punishing, and one side of the garden is shaded more than the other. That means I have to plant things strategically. I have oregano on the sunny side, and that’s one thing that always does well. It survives a freeze, lives through the whole winter, keeps going strong in the heat of the summer, and adds great flavor to pizza sauces and Greek salads. I also make sure that sage gets plenty of sun, and my luck with sage is so-so. It will do well for about a year, but I’ve never had sage survive longer than that. I now know to only expect cilantro and parsley to live from fall to spring. Although, I once planted parsley on the shadier side of the garden, and it lived through the summer. Cilantro, however, is chopped and made into pesto when it gets tall and starts flowering. Pizza with cilantro pesto and sliced chicken sausage is a celebration of the end of cilantro season. Now, mint is another matter. I know how easy mint is supposed to be to grow. I’ve even read about how one should plant mint in a container in the ground so as to prevent the roots from spreading. Mint will take over your garden, I hear. It doesn’t take over mine since it never lives for long. I have no idea why I can’t grow mint, but I keep trying.

Calendula officinalis aka calendula or pot marigold

Calendula officinalis aka calendula or pot marigold

Tropaeolum majus aka nasturtium

Tropaeolum majus aka nasturtium

Laurus nobilis aka bay laurel

Laurus nobilis aka bay laurel

One of my favorite plants is my lemongrass which I love to use in Thai dishes and chicken soups, and I keep meaning to steep some in apple cider but haven’t tried that yet. It dies back in the winter, but it seems to get a little bigger each summer when it’s happiest. I now have four Chinese chive plants which provide visual structure in the garden and herby garlickyness in spicy chicken in lettuce cups. Kirsten gave me two plants, and I successfully divided them which is why I now have four. They don’t die back during the winter, so they’re always there bringing order to the rest of the chaos. I also have a bay laurel tree which was a gift from a neighbor years ago, and it’s so convenient to be able to grab fresh bay leaves for soups and stocks. The tree is in a large container in the middle of the garden, and it’s evergreen as well. From fall to spring, I like to have arugula and lettuces growing, but I was late in getting the seeds planted this year. I’m hoping I’ll be able to have a salad or two before the hot weather arrives and the plants wither. I completely missed the time frame for growing nasturtiums this year, but last year I had great luck with them and used the leaves in a peppery aioli. I’ve also enjoyed having violas in the past which can be candied and used for decorating cakes, and the petals of calendula flowers, which also grow best from fall to spring here, add nice color to salads and rice dishes.

banana_500

Banana

Ocimum sp. aka basil

Ocimum sp. aka basil

Beyond my little garden’s borders, I have herbs like rosemary, Mexican mint marigold, and Mexican oregano growing as ornamentals in my front yard. Since those three grow well, it’s easy enough to snip what I need and still have plenty of plant remaining for visual appeal. Another ornamental that has culinary uses is the banana plant. Here in Austin, our winters aren’t warm enough to easily grow banana fruit, but the leaves are good for wrapping tamales or enclosing fish to be grilled. Other herbs like lavender and basil are planted in containers that sit on my porch. I keep basil in pots so I can move them to get enough sun but not too much during the extreme heat. I’m so used to having at least a couple of varieties of basil growing from about April through at least early December that I never buy basil at the grocery store. I go without for the few months that it doesn’t grow well outside and then enjoy it even more when I have it. I’ve learned a lot about what grows well in my garden and what doesn’t, and I’m always amazed at what other people are able to grow in their gardens. Figuring out what works, what you use, and what’s delicious might be the key to being a good gardener. Now, if I could just figure out how to properly grow mint.

Nasturtium:
http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/2009/04/nasturtium-jalapeno-aioli.html

Basil:
http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/2008/10/basil-oil.html

Arugula:
http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/2009/05/roasted-potato-leek-soup.html

Mexican Mint Marigold:
http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/2009/04/grilled-halibut-with-tomato-butter.html

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Seed Starting: The Shelving

Friday, March 19th, 2010

After much hemming and hawing, I decided to try out an Ikea heavy duty storage system for starting my seeds indoors.  We have a blank area in our kitchen that, at the moment is the catchall space for the recycling, beer-making paraphenalia, a stepstool, and whatever other flotsam and jetsom eddies into it – it could do with some kind of organizing and I’ve planned on incorporating all of it into the plant growing shelving unit.

I need to add another shoplight to the shelf to make sure the plants get enough light.

I need to add another shoplight to the shelf to make sure the plants get enough light.

I decided on the Broder system because it looked like it could handle the weight of many potted seedlings, would allow me to adjust shelf heights and quantities as needed, wouldn’t be afraid of a little water, wouldn’t drain my piggy bank, and my husband keeps suggesting that perhaps I’d like to gift it to him so I know if I get tired of it, it won’t go to waste.

It can be a bit problematic to move the shelves around – definitely a two-person job – and the shelves are slightly warped but there are two things I always expect with Ikea – cheap price and, as long as you squint, it looks good.  And, for those of you who quibble about having to put Ikea furniture together, hire yourself a couple of preschoolers – my 5- and 3-year-old nephews had the pieces unpacked, and the shelves and feet put together in less than an hour (although there was much fighting over whose turn it was to use the screwdriver, making me long for a screwdriver of the alcoholic kind).

For the price of a few cents over $180, I’m pleased with the shelving; it’s flexible and fits in with my urban aesthetic (although maybe not the slightly country 70’s sensibilities of our rental kitchen) – I don’t think my husband will be getting his hands on it anytime soon.

Trying to coordinate the shelving with my traditional dining room chairs.

A view into the dining room.

A view into the tiny kitchen.

A view into the tiny kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seed Starting: The Container

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

In preparation for starting my seeds (March 9, 10, and 11 is when I start my peppers this year), I began making my pots to hold the little seedlings.  We have a small garden and I’ve found that, because I don’t need to start a lot of plants, sowing seeds in flats isn’t an efficient method for me.  In order to fill a flat, I have to sow a small number of each variety, which can get confusing, and I find pricking out (transplanting tiny seedlings into a larger container) an endeavour fraught with tension as I hold my breath and gently, gently tease the little plant out of it’s snug home, into a new pot, and gently, gently tamp it in.  Frankly, I don’t need that kind of stress!

Simple tools required to make a paper pot.

Simple tools required to make a paper pot.

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The newspaper pots filled with soil, planted with seed, and watered.

So I sow my seed directly into a little newspaper pot that I create with this handy tool.  The pot goes onto a water-catching tray, gets watered (just enough to dampen the soil), and then the tray and pots get covered with a plastic bag to prevent the soil from drying out while they sit in a warm place waiting for the seeds to germinate.  I check on the pots several times during the day to make sure the soil is damp enough.  If not, I find misting the pots and soil is a better way to increase the moisture than directly watering the soil – it’s easier to control the amount of water and it won’t create little pockmarks in the soil surface.  Note: When watering seedlings, use only filtered, room temperature (or slightly warmer) water – you don’t want the tender little things to be absorbing chlorine or lead or other toxic chemicals, and you don’t want to shock them with cold water (at least, not yet).

Once the seeds have germinated, I remove the plastic bag, and place the emerging seedlings under a grow light.  When the plants look like they’re outgrowing the newspaper pots (indicated by roots starting to push through the newspaper walls), and if it’s still too cold to transplant them directly into the garden, I pot them up into larger plastic containers (about 20cm diameter size), newspaper pot and all.  I find this to be an easier method of starting seeds for a small garden.

There can be, however, the occasional problem.  If I’ve watered too much, the newspaper disintegrates – although you’d be amazed at how much water that takes.  If I’ve watered too little, the newspaper crumbles, usually at the bottom, which necessitates transplanting the threatened seedling into a 10cm plastic pot.  These things don’t happen frequently enough, though, that I feel the need to change my method.

I’ve been asked whether the inks in newsprint are toxic and I’ve yet to discover a definitive answer to that question.  All I know is that they are less toxic than they used to be, for whatever that’s worth.  From what I’ve read, the amount of heavy metals used in the ink has been severely reduced and, in the case of lead, been almost eliminated.  There is still concern, however, about benzene, toluene, and napthalene (among others) although the good news is that many newspaper printers have been moving toward soy-based ink rather than petroleum-based, thereby reducing the toxicity even more.  As I understand it, if you’re unsure of what ink your newspaper is written in, your safest option is to use only the black and white part of the paper and never, ever the glossy, colorful inserts since these contain the highest amounts of lead, cadmium and chromium.  Although I’ve never tested my plants for heavy metal contamination, I’d hazard a guess and say that it’s probable; but whether that contamination comes from newspaper ink or simply from the air and water that plants absorb from our toxic environment would be impossible for me to say.  What I can say, is that my plants have never shown any visible sign of contamination and their health seems to depend more on the quality of the potting soil than whether I’ve started them in plastic or newspaper pots.  I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has more knowledge than I do in the printing process (and an unbiased opinion).

In addition to being able to grow more interesting varieties than you might find in your local nursery, starting your own seeds can be an inexpensive alternative to purchasing plant starts – I’d love to hear how other gardeners start their seeds, particularly any frugal, stylish, and/or sustainable ideas.