Sunday, January 29, 2023

My favorite "unusual" edibles

"Unusual" varieties"
Sunday, January 29, 2023

 When I started my first edible garden, it was with herbs interplanted in my flower bed.  Herbs are pricey in the store and a single plant can give all you and your friends need for a year from one harvest.  Plus, most are perennials and thrive on neglect.  What's not to love?  The next step in the edible garden journey was buying plants from the local nursery.  Nurseries carry the most popular varieties.  As I expanded to seeds, the catalogs had all kinds of unique fruits and vegetables you could grow.  I have been trying a few "unusual" varieties that grow from seed for several years now.  

Here are ones that have become standbys in my garden and why:

Trombetta squash-this variety can be eaten like zucchini or can be stored as you would a winter squash.  Plus, it seems totally pest and practically disease free and extremely productive all the way to a hard freeze.  On the downside, the vines can run up to 20' long so give them room to roam!

Egyptian walking onions-these onions are the size of leeks, can be grown in the ground or in a pot, spread through division underground and by bulbets that grow at the top of their stems in June that can be replanted.  They are extremely hardy.  I got my start from a lady in Kansas that had a B&B.  She kept hers in a pot year round outside.  The bulb has the taste of white onions, the green leaves can be used as chives and they self-propagate so you only have to plant them one time and harvest from them year round.

Winged or yard long beans-I grow these in addition to the purple podded roma vines.  I love the winged beans for their beautiful blue flowers.  The beans themselves have an asparagus taste.  They are best grown in regions that have a long summer season as it takes a bit for them to produce.  Yard long beans are extremely productive and seem to be disease and pest resistant.  They do have a long vine so give it a nice sized trellis to grow on.  They come in green, red or purple colored pods.  They are great sautéed. 

Cardinal and Nuun basil-I love Cardinal basil for its beautiful burgundy "flowers" and Nuun basil for its strong fragrance and self-seeding habit.  Both can be used for pesto.  I grow enough basil to keep us in pesto year round.  I make it a couple times during the summer and fall, freezing it to break out the rest of the year.  I brought some Nuun basil inside that had taken up residence in pots.  There is one plant that is still going.  The rest gave up after going to seed.  They just smell so good!

Cherokee Purple, Chocolate Pear, Indigo Pear Drop and Italian Red Pear paste tomatoes-I grow the first 3 as they seem to always do well in my garden.  You can easily get Cherokee Purple tomatoes at the big box stores these days so it's not really an "unusual" variety any more.  I love the Italian Red Pear paste tomato because the fruits are huge and it gives such silky sauce.  They take the longest of any tomato variety I grow to get to harvestable tomatoes, but they are worth the wait.  I put at least one of these paste tomatoes in every quart of frozen tomatoes I put up so they are in any dish I use frozen tomatoes to prepare.

Orach, Amaranth, Chinese cabbage, and Red Malabar spinach for salads-because we have such hot, humid summers here and I love salads, I have branched out from just traditional spinach and lettuce for salad greens to enable salads all summer long.  I grow a variety of colors of orach, Chinese Multi-Colored Spinach amaranth, Love Lies Bleeding amaranth, Chinese Hilton cabbage and Red Malabar spinach in addition to the most heat tolerant lettuces I have found to keep our summer salads going. Love Lies Bleeding is a really striking plant grown for its seed heads.  You can harvest the seeds to use as a grain.  Red Malabar spinach has a pretty burgundy vine and berries, a beautiful burgundy flower and likes to self-seed.  I brought 2 indoors for the winter and they are both still going.

Tigger melon-it has the taste of cantaloupe, but is a small fruit that it just right for one or two people, its fruits ripen over time versus all at once so you aren't overwhelmed with 20 cantaloupes to eat at once, it's fruit is cute and it is tasty.

Don't be afraid to try something new or unusual.  Try just one new variety each season.  I look for descriptions that address a need I have; whether it be pest/disease resistance, giving lots of food per plant, able to handle our hot summers or just for their beautiful foliage and flowers.  Doing so has given me more food from the same space and time with crops that require less from me.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Take stock in late winter for your edible garden

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Late winter is the time to take stock of the seeds you have stored in the refrigerator, how much you have been eating over the winter to plan for your new edible preservation garden, and what did well in your winter edible garden to plan for the spring edible garden.

I store my extra seeds in the refrigerator in ziplock bags.  Typically when you buy a pack of seeds, it is enough for one family's needs for years.  I store the extras and use them for years.  You can test a few each year to make sure they are still germinating well by putting them on a damp paper towel to see if they sprout.  

Another option is to do seed exchanges with friends, either from seeds they have saved from their open pollinated edibles or getting together to see what everyone is thinking of growing and splitting up between you what each is going to buy and then sharing.  Even if you do pay for a full packet of seeds, the bounty you get from the ones you plant more than makes up for the cost of the packet.

Many towns have community seed banks where people leave their extra seeds for others to use.  You can so an internet search or get in touch with your local Master Gardeners to see what is available in your area.  Many Master Gardener programs provide local training on how to grow edibles and some will even provide seeds or plants as part of the training to help you get your first garden going.

The local dollar stores are even carrying seeds for edible gardening for $1 per packet.  The selection is limited, but cover the basic vegetable types that are the most popular to grow.  

If you have been tracking what you eat over the winter to see what and how much you want to grow starting this spring, now is the time to collate all the data and put together the plan.  Use this winter to figure out what to grow in the spring!  You can use the chart here to see how many of each variety you would need to have enough for an entire year's worth to eat.   Chart for how many to plant   If you are just getting started, it is best to start small and grow just a couple of plants of 5 or so varieties.  That way you can learn with a smaller number of plants and not be overwhelmed.  The first year you can just eat fresh and move up to growing more that you can put away to eat year round.

For those that have been gardening for a while, now is the time to do an inventory to see what you have left in the pantry and adjust your planting to keep you stocked all through the summer.  Or you may find that you can reduce what you planted last year because you still have plenty to eat into summer.  Be sure to put in your garden journal how much you actually used over the winter and the adjustments to make for this year's planting.

Now that you know what you want to grow, take stock of the seeds you already have to see if you need to purchase any new seeds.  I keep a spreadsheet of my seeds.  As I got more into gardening, I had a hard time of knowing if I already had a cool sounding variety.  To keep for buying more, I sat down and created a spreadsheet with all the varieties I had, with growing instructions, when to start, and days to harvest along with a comments column for what was best about that variety.  Now you have the list of seeds to acquire.

In our Zone 7 garden, daffodils, surprise lilies and daylilies are all sprouting.  Daffodils already have buds on them and apple tree's buds are swelling.  It won't be long before spring is here!

Take stock of what is coming up in the edible garden and what did well in your portable greenhouses as well as what did not.  Write in your journal what you DO want to plant again in lates summer to harvest over the winter and what you do NOT want to plant as it did not do well in your conditions.  Keeping a journal has been super helpful for my gardening to make sure I don't re-try varieties that didn't do well or forget which ones did as well as how many I really need to plant.  Keep a garden diary

   If you are just getting started, try a small edible garden like Grow a Sicilian/Italian kitchen garden in as little as 6' x 6'  Or you can grow an herb garden to start.  Mediterranean herbs thrive on neglect and most come back year after year.    Start a kitchen herb garden!

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Time to sow lettuce, spinach, mustard greens and peas outdoors

Winter cress in portable greenhouse
Sunday, January 22, 2023

Last half of January is not too early to sow seeds outdoors and plant bare root fruit trees/bushes for early spring harvests.  I sow peas as soon as the soil can be worked.  I sow cold hardy green seeds in my portable greenhouse to get a jump on spring harvests.  

Snow peas and Austrian peas can be sowed as soon as garden soil can be worked in late winter.  Since I grow my snow peas in pots, the soil warms (and cools) quicker in pots than the garden bed.  My uncle shared childhood stories of planting pea seeds when the ground was still icy.  Back in the day, fresh greens were needed as soon as they could be grown.  Most peas will sprout once soil temperatures get to 40F.  You don't want to plant them if the ground is frozen or sopping wet as they can rot before germination.  All parts of the pea vine are edible, including the leaves and flowers.  I grow snow peas because you the whole pod is edible and great either fresh in salads or cooked.  I also have Austrian peas that have sprouted that I planted in early winter.  They can be planted now, too.
In portable greenhouse, Austrian peas in front, lettuce to left and rear, celery in back pot
Winter or cold hardy green seeds can also be planted in either a greenhouse or hotbed.  If planted in a hotbed, they will germinate and grow quicker than in a greenhouse.  I currently only have portable greenhouses covering my pots.  I have lettuce, cress, tat soi, celery, arugula, sorrel and mustard greens that have overwintered and are starting to really grow now.  You can sow seeds for any of the cold hardy greens now.  I will be planting spinach seeds to round out my spring greens in the portable greenhouse.
Tat soi on right in portable greenhouse
You can also plant any bare root fruit trees or shrubs right now in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked.   

January outdoor greenhouse or hot beds
Cold hardy lettuce, kale, mustard seeds
Snow pea seeds
Spinach seeds
Austrian winter pea seeds

January yard, garden bed
Bare root fruit trees and bushes

For more on edible gardening in colder weather: 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

What do seed packets tell you?

Front of seed packet
Saturday, January 21, 2023

Seed packets are a wealth of information on the plant.  All give you the plant common and botanical name, many show you when to plant in your zone, when to plant in relationship to your frost date, how far apart to plant, how many days from sowing until the plant is harvestable, and a detailed description of the highlights of the plant itself.  I love reading plant descriptions, looking for varieties that are "compact" and "prolific" for my small garden or "winter hardy" for winter gardening, or "heat tolerant" for summer gardening.  They give a wealth of information to decide what new variety or crop to try next.

On the front of the seed packet, you typically get the common name, the botanical name and a picture or drawing of the plant.  Some seed companies will also put a clay pot symbol on the front to indicate that the plant does well in a container (see pic of Burpee's seed packets below).  Many will also indicate if the plant is an annual or perennial (comes back every year).  Many also give a very short description of the plant.  They will also say if they are "organic" or "hybrid".  Some will also state if the plant is "open pollinated" or "heirloom".    
Back of seed packet
On the back side of the seed packet there is a wealth of growing information.  You typically get when to plant the seed in relation to your frost date for both starting indoors and outdoors, germination time (how long does it take from when you plant the seed until it sprouts), how deep to plant the seed, any special treatment of the seed prior to planting, how far apart to space the seed, when/how to thin the emerging seedlings and days to harvest if it is an edible plant.  There is a longer description of the most desirable traits of the plant and which season it thrives in.  If a flower seed, it will give timing of flowering.   There will also be a date that the seed was packed for and a "sell by" date.  Unless you store in the refrigerator, germination rates dramatically decline after the first year and this varies by plant seed type.
Burpee's seed packet front even has the pot symbol for those that do well in  containers
Key attributes I am looking for to improve the productivity in my garden, I look for on the descriptors on the back.  Examples-if I want to maximize the harvest I get from a pepper plant, I will look for words like "prolific", "produces until frost", "continuous harvest".  If I am having a disease problem in my humid summer garden, I will look for words of "disease resistant", "powdery mildew resistant", "blight resistant" or whatever disease issue I am having.  For the best summer producers, look for terms like heat tolerant, thrives in hot temperatures.  For the best cold season crops, look for terms like "winter hardy", "frost tolerant", etc.  If you want to harvest just one time, look for the description "determinant".  

For even more information about a particular variety, check on the seed company's web site or seed catalog.  When I first started gardening, I poured over Territorial Seed catalog.  Even now if a crop isn't doing the best, I will go back and look at all the great growing information that they have for every crop they sell seeds for.  I will go on line to look at Johnny's Seeds for their seed starting date calculator.  You plug in your last frost date and it spits out the dates for you on when to plant your seeds.  Baker Heirloom Seed puts out an enormous annual catalog that dives into the history and growing of different crops.  They have a huge selection of all kinds of unusual varieties.       

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Get more from your garden-start earlier, end later

Seed packets give "Days to Harvest" and other information
Sunday, January 15, 2023

If you are thinking about how to maximize what you get from your garden space, one easy way is to start earlier and leverage the seasons longer.  There are a few of ways of doing this.  Leverage different varieties of the same crops you are currently growing, try new crops or use cover to give your early and late crops a "coat" to weather the colder dips in temperatures in spring, fall and winter.

If you are growing exactly what you like to eat already, you can look for varieties of the same crops that have quicker "Days to Harvest" as the variety you are already growing.  "Days to Harvest" is the time from planting to when the crop is ready to harvest or pick from.  There are a wide range of "Days to Harvest" in almost every crop grown.  The "Days to Harvest" is listed on most seed packets and on the plant label if you are buying a transplant.  If your seed packet or plant label does not have a label or you don't have the information on the variety you are currently growing, a quick google search will give you the info.  

Some companies will say they don't like to give that information because "Days to Harvest" varies based upon region, when you plant, and your weather that particular year.  Even if it is not exact, you can use the information to know which are "early" producing varieties and "late" producing varieties.  It is a good guide to compare against the variety you are currently growing.  You can just substitute a variety that comes much earlier and one that comes to bear much later.  Keep a journal to get a better idea in your specific garden and area when your varieties come to bear to fine tune for the future.  Keep a garden diary  

I also look for varieties that are more "hardy" for the conditions I want to be able to grow them in.  When I begin planting for salad greens, I start with those that have descriptions like "cold" hardy, winter types, etc.  I can start the spring season with these and sow these again in late summer for fall and winter harvesting.  After early spring planting, I start planting lettuces that are "heat resistant", "slow to bolt", "stays mild in summer", etc.  This way, I keep the lettuce harvest going as long as possible into summer and sometimes all the way through summer.  You can use this approach for almost any crop.  There are cold tolerant tomatoes that you can plant for earlier and later harvests as an example.

Another option is to try new types of crops that grow best during a different season than the ones you are currently growing.  They can be ones that fulfill the same need in your diet as the ones that you currently grow or something totally different.  For instance, I have been experimenting with different greens that do well in the summer months to find a substitute for spinach and lettuce for salads.  At the same time, I keep trying new varieties of lettuce that are better at heat resistance.

 Your local farmers market is a great place to go through the seasons to try new veggies, fruits and herbs.  You know they grow in your area and you get to try them before you commit to growing them.  I also look for a new veggie or fruit that I would like in a smaller quantity than the most common type.  For instance, I grew Tigger melon instead of the common cantaloupe varieties.  It produces small fruits and over a longer period of time.  Most canteloupe I have seen grown in my area produce many over a very short time.  Way too much for just 2 of us to eat.  Tigger was just right.  

The last easy way to start earlier and go later is to use cover to give your crops a "coat" for dips in temperature early and late in the season.  You can use sheets, light weight materials made for gardening, a portable greenhouse, cloches and other techniques for keeping your tender plants warm enough to make it through a cold snap.  

For those that have the time, you can start seeds indoors that gives you a few weeks jump on the season if the variety you like isn't available at your neighborhood big box store, farmers market or nursery.  If the variety is available there, it costs more to buy the transplant, but requires less time investment on your part.  Using transplants for many varieties gets you a jump on the harvest by a few weeks. 

Saturday, January 14, 2023

My best performing self seeding edibles

Marigolds and chives in forefront
Saturday, January 14, 2023

Self-seeding plants are ones that drop seeds that sprout into more plants.  There are many herbs, veggies and flowers that are good at self-sowing.  You gotta love planting once and getting self perpetuating crops.  The biggest watch out with self-seeders is that they are not too aggressive at spreading!

There are a few edibles and flowers that I don't worry about planting any longer because I can count on them to be back next spring.  

For salad greens, there are many self seeders in my edible garden: sorrel, arugula, mustard greens, lettuce, sprouting broccoli, Chinese multicolor amaranth and Red Malabar spinach.

Sorrel and arugula are perennials and self-seeders.  Sorrel has a Granny Smith apple taste in the cool months and becomes more bitter in the summer.  Arugula has a peppery taste in cool months and much stronger in the hot summer months.  

Mustard greens are an annual and self seeds.  It has a more peppery taste than sorrel.  More mild in the cool months and biting in summer months.  There are mustard varieties available now that are very mild all the way through summer.  

If you harvest just the outside leaves of lettuce plants, lettuce plants will "bolt" when the temperatures stay in the 80's consistently, sending up a flower stalk.  If you leave the flowers to bloom and make seed, you will get volunteer lettuce plants in your garden.  I dig up the plants and replant them where I want them to mature.  They don't produce tons of seedlings and I eat lots of salads so I do supplement the volunteers with transplants and seedlings.

Sprouting broccoli and Chinese multicolor amaranth self seed regularly in my garden.  The leaves stay mild all through summer and sprouting broccoli leaves taste like broccoli.  In June, sprouting broccoli produce individual broccoli florets that are also great for salads.  

The last salad green that is a solid self-seeder in my garden is Red Malabar spinach.  It loves the heat of summer, produces a beautiful maroon vine and flowers.  The leaves stay sweet all the way through fall.  I brought one pot inside this fall and it is still doing well indoors.  The leaves taste similar to spinach but is thicker than spinach leaves.

Herbs that self sow in my garden are garlic chives, mountain mint, dill, basil, parsley, celery, cilantro, and horseradish.  Mint will also spread invasively in the garden if left in a bed.  I grow mint only in pots to keep the runners from spreading.  I have had years that garlic chives, cilantro, and dill have self sown more than I would like!  Mountain mint, horseradish and celery are always prolific.  I have to do thinning every spring from all their volunteers.  For basil, I usually get one or two Genovese and Cardinal volunteers and lots of Nuun basil volunteers.  I and the bees love basil so I am happy to see them come back each year.  I do grow additional Genovese and Cardinal from seed.  I love the Cardinal basil flowers and scent and use the Genovese for making pesto so like to have many of each in the garden.

The self sowing veggies I grow are Egyptian walking onions, carrots and tomatillos.  Egyptian walking onions put on bulbets at the top of their green stalks that fall over and replant themselves.  Their underground bulbs also divide and create more onions.  Carrots only self-sow if you allow them to go to seed and not pull all you have planted to eat.  They send up a flower that looks like Queen Ann's Lace.  The two are in the same family.  Tomatillos will self-sow easily from any husks that you don't harvest.  The bushy plants seem to hide fallen husks so you get volunteers.

Ground cherry is closely related to tomatillos so the same applies to them.  Their fruit is smaller and the variety I grow has a yellow colored fruit.  Both are in the nightshade family so love summer weather.

Last category of self-seeders in our garden are flowers.  Marigolds, Love Lies Bleeding amaranth and Cock's Comb all self-sow enough that if I am patient, I have plenty of seedlings for all I need.  I usually can't wait for the marigolds and also buy a few to get a jump start on their flowers.  All of these flowers are edible.  The Cock's Comb and amaranth leaves make good salad greens as well.  The leaves don't become bitter in hot weather either. 

There are other edibles that will self seed if fruit falls like tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers.  If you are growing hybrids, the babies can be markedly different than the parent.  Squash can cross pollinate giving you a different fruit than either of the parents.  This can be a fun surprise.  Just make sure that any volunteers from this group did not come from a plant with a disease like powdery mildew or blight.  If in doubt, pull it out.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Don't grow too much of one thing

Potted pepper with petunia
Sunday, January 8, 2023

As you are planning your spring edible garden, one tip to making it more productive is to not plant too much of one thing.  Every variety comes to maturity in a specified amount of time.  Planting a whole bunch of a single variety will leave you with a glut of a single veggie when it is time to harvest.  It can also provide an ideal set up for pests that love that particular crop.

In an ideal world you would plant exactly the number you need for harvesting fresh in real time.  In reality, Days to Harvest on seed packets will vary based on what Mother Nature decides to do between planting and harvesting.  

A couple of ways to decide how many to plant is to keep track of what you are eating so you have a realistic estimate of how much you need.  Check seed packets to see if it is a one time harvest.  If it says things like "continuous" or "extended" harvest, then it is not a one and done crop.  You can plant one and keep getting harvests over a period of time.  A few good examples of this are peppers, indeterminate tomatoes, and lettuce if you harvest leaves from the outside versus cutting the whole plant at once.

Another way to get a longer harvest is to succession plant.  An example is planting lettuce seeds every 2-3 weeks so as one plant is done producing, you have another one ready to eat from.  A second way to achieve the same thing is to plant a different variety at the same time.  For example, there are squash and tomato plants that have a shorter Days to Harvest and those that have a long Days to Harvest.  If you plant 3 different varieties of the same crop with 3 different days to harvest, you get an extended harvest.  

  One way to keep pest pressure down if you want to grow multiples of the same crop is the interplant different families of edibles together (This blog gives "families" Another way to look at crop rotation groups).  That way the pests have to travel further to infect another crop they love to eat.  You can also utilize companion planting.  Companion planting is based on those plants that when planted together benefit each other.  This benefit can either be providing nutrients or repelling pests from their neighbor.

If you are just starting gardening, the biggest watch out is to not start too big.  Use the first couple of seasons to learn with a very manageable number of plants.   Starting an edible garden   

Don't be intimidated by gardening. Herbs are a carefree crop to start with if gardening is really scary.  Most are perennials and will keep coming back.  Just get started with 5-7 edibles you love to season with or eat.  You can buy plants at your neighborhood big box store this spring and plant in a pot or your flower garden.    

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Mediterranean diet-healthiest and easy to grow anywhere

Garden on Amalfi coast in Italy, overlooking the sea

Saturday, January 7, 2023

The Mediterranean diet was rated as the healthiest diet again this year.  It comes out number one year after year as the best way to eat for health and a healthy weight.  It is also yummy and easy to grow anywhere in the US.  You can grow a Mediterranean diet garden in your own small space.  Eating fresh from the garden is convenient, has the highest nutrition and saves money.  I have found that having a garden makes me plan our meals around what is ready to be picked or what I have put up for the winter.   

You may think you can't grow what they do in the Mediterranean region here in the Midwest, but you can grow everything they do outside except for citrus and dates.  Both can be grown in pots and brought indoors in the winter.  I have a kumquat that does great spending the spring, summer and fall outdoors and winters indoors.  It is full of fruits right now in my sunroom.  It does just as well overwintering in a well lit unheated garage or basement.  

Here are Mediterranean garden plants that you can grow in your own backyard.  A space as small as 6' x 6' can give you all you can eat spring, summer and fall.

Fruits, vegetables and nuts
Beans-chickpeas, fava beans, snap beans, navy beans
Beets and turnips
Dates (needs to winter indoors or heated greenhouse)
Grapes and grape leaves
Citrus (winter indoors or heated greenhouse)
Greens-lettuce, radicchio, spinach, chard, arugula and others
Nuts-almonds, pine nuts, pistachio (Zone 7-10), walnuts
Olives (varieties available to Zone 7)
Onions, shallots and leeks
Peppers-sweet and spicy
Zucchini and other squash

Marjoram and Oregano
Saffron (stamen from crocus flower)

Dates and citrus are the only things on this long list that cannot be grown in our zone outdoors year round.  You can get varieties that can be brought into an unheated garage/basement or grown in a heated greenhouse outdoors.  

The key to Mediterranean eating is eating lots of vegetables, to plan around what produce is in season, the liberal use of fresh herbs, cooking with olive oil, and very little red meat or processed foods.

What could a small space Mediterranean garden include?  
Below is a plan for a 6' x 6' space.  Feel free to substitute for the veggies that you prefer to eat.  All below can also be grown in pots as well.  Edibles that love pots
Herbs (1 each)-thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano and flat leaf parsley
3 basil plants (for pesto and season)
2 tomato plants-1 Roma type for sauces and 1 slicer or cherry type for salads
2 sweet pepper plants
1 bush zucchini plant
1 eggplant
8 red onions
8 garlic plants
Arugula, spinach and lettuce scatter sown

For more info on growing herbs and a kitchen garden: