16 Days…

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

…until the last frost! We’re coming down the homestretch to spring, to digging in the dirt, to sowing seeds. But we’re not there yet so, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m still depending on CBC Radio to keep me sane until the snow melts, and, specifically, this morning, it was a Spark interview that I enjoyed with my morning coffee – an interview with Ingrid Fetell and her research into the “aesthetics of joy”.

I felt she made a convincing case for the importance of designing for joy but it’s probably because I already believe that we need more joyful spaces – more places that lighten our mood, make us smile, engage our hearts. It’s why I designed my kitchen garden the way I did.

Believe it or not, but I’ve gotten flack for my kitchen garden. I’ve been told it’s not efficient, it doesn’t make the best use of the space, and some parts are too tight to work easily in. These things are all true, to a certain extent, but only if the goal of my kitchen garden is to produce the most amount of food in the allotted space with the least amount of effort.

Hear that sound? That was the sound of joy being sucked out of my garden!

That’s not my goal for my kitchen garden. My goal always has been for it to bring me joy – in the looking at, the working in, and the eating of.

I designed the garden with raised beds because I like tidy edges; with bamboo trellises because I like the feeling of walls; and with lots of flowers…because I like flowers. These things also allow me to control the type of soil I use, provide support for tomatoes and climbing vines, and attract pollinators, but that, to me, is secondary to the joy it brings me to see these elements.

I decided to lay down gravel for the paths – I love the crunchy sound it makes when I walk on it and raking it smooth reminds me of those Japanese sand gardens. Okay, so it’s an inexpensive and easy to lay surfacing material – that’s so not the point.

I plant things we love to eat fresh – peas, radishes, tomatoes, lettuces, beans. These are almost all consumed during the course of the growing season because to me, the flavor of food harvested right from the garden, sometimes still warm from the sun, brings me intense joy. Frozen beans eaten in the dead of winter don’t always produce that same intense sensation – although the Romano bean I grew last year tasted better after being frozen, which was a joyful discovery (Ingrid talks about surprise being one of the elements in creating joy).

And the other thing that gives me joy in my kitchen garden, when the snow is white and thick on the ground, is the designing of it. Below, is this year’s plan for the garden. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

2011 Kitchen Garden Plan; click on plan for a larger image

2011 Kitchen Garden Plan

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Everybody’s Growing It

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
A portion of the zucchini harvest.

A portion of the zucchini harvest.

It seems like everyone grows zucchini! And, why not? It’s easy to grow, it’s prolific (understatement), and its leaves provide a lovely, bold contrast to the smaller foliage of most of the other plants in the kitchen garden. It’s also easy to cook with – it can be used up front and center when stuffed and baked, it plays well with others in dishes like ratatouille, and it can be disguised with sugar and chocolate and baked into a cake. What’s not to love?

Well, for me, I’m discovering 3 plants is more than enough for my husband and I. I’ve missed a couple of days of harvesting and now have a zucchini the size of my thigh! Seriously, I’m not kidding!

Also, it’s been a wet summer and, while I’ve placed the zucchinis in the hottest part of the garden, there’s been a good amount of fruit rot and slug damage, making harvesting a sometimes icky process.

I’m growing two kinds of zucchini this year. Ronde de Nice is a French heirloom whose seeds I purchased from West Coast Seeds. It’s a cute thing – round and stripey – with unusual grey and pale green variegated leaves that really stand out in the garden. To take advantage of the shape of the fruit, in cooking I think it would work well stuffed and baked. It’s supposedly bruises easily which is why it’s not readily available in grocery stores (although you may be able to find it at some farmers’ markets). Portofino hybrid is the other zucchini I’m growing with seeds from William Dam Seeds. An Italian zucchini, it seems to be more prolific than the Ronde de Nice and its taste is usually described as nutty. But, as I mentioned, it’s BIG; if you grow this type, be prepared to get creative in your cooking because one squash is going to provide you with a lot of dishes!

Ronde de Nice zucchini hiding behind its stunning leaves.

Ronde de Nice zucchini hiding behind its stunning leaves.

Ronde de Nice leaves.

Ronde de Nice leaves provide a striking counterpoint in the kitchen garden.

Both are, as I mentioned, easy to grow. Give them a well-draining, compost-rich soil, lots of sun, and, most important, consistent watering. In the south, you might be plagued with squash vine borer – a nasty little bug (it’s actually the larvae that causes the damage) that inhabits the stems of plants and causes the plant to constantly look wilted no matter how often you water. There are a number of recommendations to prevent the squash vine borer – prevention seems to be the key since there don’t appear to be any organic pesticides:

1. Make sure to dispose of any infected plants – and not in the compost, unless you know your compost can really heat up. The larvae inhabits the stem before burrowing into the surrounding soil and you don’t want it to just be kept warm and toasty through the winter – you want it to fry!

2. For those with the room, you can till the soil. I’m not so keen about this method since I think one should disturb the soil as little as possible to allow the micro-organisms and mycorrhizae to do their thing but if you’re desperate and have been battling the squash vine borer for a while, you might want to try it as a last-ditch effort.

3. The adults are considered a moth and, when they emerge from the soil in about June, they lay eggs at the base of the plant. You can put down floating row covers over the plant to prevent the moths from laying eggs but, if you’re worried that pollinators won’t be able to get to the flowers, you can try…

4. …Wrapping the stems in nylon pantyhose to prevent the larvae from chewing its way in.

5. Once you know you have squash vine borer larvae (those wilting leaves), sometimes you can remove them by hand. Make a slit in the stem and, after digging the larva out,  cover the stem with soil to promote root formation.

Here in the north, this summer, the squash vine borer is not my problem – slugs are. I made a tactical error and planted too close together – space the plants about 2 feet apart – and then we had a wet growing season. The big leaves shade the soil and provide a moist environment for the slugs that proceed to chew to their heart’s content. I take great delight in stomping on them, proving yet again that gardening is not a gentle art.

I’ve been really looking forward to the zucchini this year, maybe because I could never grow it very successfully in Texas, and last year, the first year for the northern garden, I didn’t plant it because I didn’t grow my own transplants and had to rely on what was available in the garden centres. They’re an easy thing to start inside and you can find my tutorial series on seed starting here:

on containers http://www.seedandbean.com/blog/?p=500

on shelving http://www.seedandbean.com/blog/?p=511

on lighting http://www.seedandbean.com/blog/?p=575

on hardening off http://www.seedandbean.com/blog/?p=728

I’ve already used the Portofino in a couple of ratatouille dishes and I’m definitely going to make a chocolate cake at some point. But zucchini flowers, in fact, all squash blossoms, can be used in cooking. When you’re in the mood for something different, head on over to my terribly talented friend Lisa’s blog and see what she can do with a squash blossom.

If you’re not growing it already, what are you waiting for? Jump on the zucchini bandwagon.

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