Vegetable

There's few things more rewarding than growing vegetables in your own backyard. The fresh taste of a vine ripened tomato or snap pea harvested at its flavorful peak is second to none. Vegetable gardening is a great family activity, one that provides rewarding outdoor exercise. And knowing that your organically-grown veggies carry none of the risks of today’s commercial, factory-farm produce can be priceless.

To ensure you raise the best-tasting, most nutritious food for your family — in ways that make your garden as safe and healthy as it can be — takes planning, know-how and experience. Click here for information on locating your new garden plot, improving soil health, selecting the best vegetable varieties for your growing conditions, and caring for your plants — naturally! — all the way to harvest.

Doin’ the Pollinate Shake!

Hand PollinateHow to hand pollinate plants in the vegetable garden.

No, it’s not the latest dance craze. It’s what certain plants in your vegetable garden need to set fruit: a good shaking. Yes, it has to do with sex, er, pollination and plants can sometimes use a little help. But what it really has to do with is better yields come harvest time. So let’s get ready to pollinate!

Not a year goes by when we don’t hear someone complain that their tomatoes, cucumbers, or squash didn’t set fruit. Oh, the plants grew like crazy and blossomed to beat the band but when it came time to produce? Little or no fruiting occurred. We’ve even had this happen ourselves, usually after relocating to a different part of the country. When we’re asked what went wrong, we realize (doh!) that we didn’t do what needed to be done, that’s when we remember hand pollination. Now that July has arrived and gardens around the country are beginning to flower, it’s time to pollinate. (For those of you in cooler climates or whose gardens might be a bit behind schedule this year, here’s hoping that your blossoms are soon to show.) (more…)

Tomatoes & Basil: How Does YOUR Garden Grow?

Tomato GardenCompanion plants for tomatoes — not always a perfect pair!

Last evening, your friendly and inquisitive Planet Natural Blogger visited a couple of distinguished food writers — they are a couple and have a couple James Beard Awards to their credit — to get their opinions on some local barbecue for a story I’m writing. We ate outdoors in their beautiful patio garden, their chickens serenading us from the nearby coop that was just out of sight.

Their garden is incorporated into the modest outdoor living space. A pair of cherry trees, their growing space circled in rock, is at the center of the stone patio (no cherries this year; a late frost took all the blossoms). Around the first cherry tree were various flowering plants. Only the bleeding hearts were in bloom. The earth around the second tree hosted a variety of herbs, partly shaded, that were just reaching picking size. One of those herbs was basil.

Elsewhere, beans, cucumbers and tomatoes were growing on terraced steps in full sun near the walls of their white-washed adobe house. By the house’s entrance, among several other plants and close to some lettuce that was already past its prime, was a yellow pear tomato plant already holding some blossoms. The space, with its various pots, growing areas, and walking spaces, not to mention the table where we sat enjoying ribs and brisket, seemed well designed. But I was puzzled by one thing. Knowing that tomatoes and basil, both full-sun lovers, did so well together, I wondered why they weren’t growing side-by-side. “We tried that,” one of my friends said, “and it just didn’t work.” (more…)

Garden Tasks for June

Gardening TipsJune is often our favorite time in the garden. Sure, the rewards of harvest can’t be beat — and June does offer some harvest, especially in warmer zones — but the orderliness of our straight planted rows and the germinating perfection gives us a thrill that’s at once reward for the hard work that’s gone before and the promise of bountiful and beautiful things to come.

There’s nothing better than pulling up a lawn chair and surveying our garden kingdom no matter its size: the neat lines of bright green seedlings planted just days before, the transplanted seedling started weeks ago indoors now flourishing in their new outdoor homes. Yes, there’s a break in the action once the garden’s in — or maybe you’re still furiously trying to get everything in the ground — but that doesn’t mean you can step back and let things go off on their own. (more…)

Garden Transplanting

Garden SeedlingsTips and techniques for planting vegetable seedlings outside.

We’ve just returned home to find a notice from our local community garden announcing a seedling planting party this weekend. Now the Farm is a big operation and it will take a party-sized crowd a couple days to get all the tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and melons out of its green house and into the ground. You may not need much help getting your seedlings outdoors and into the garden… or maybe you do. Either way there’s some principles to keep in mind.

One is hardening off. The plants that you’ve germinated in the warm indoors on heating mats and raised under lights aren’t used to the cool, windy conditions they’ll experience outdoors. Give them time to adapt by placing them in a cold frame or taking them out for a few hours each day letting them enjoy their first taste of the great outdoors in sheltered conditions. (more…)

Plant Thinning

Thinning SeedlingsTips and techniques for thinning vegetable seedlings.

What’s the hardest thing — at least for us — to do when gardening? Thinning. We’ve worked so hard to prepare our soil and get seeds in the ground. Now here they come, all crowded together and struggling against their too-close neighbor. We know that if we want our plants, be they lettuce, radishes, or green beans, to grow quickly and be healthy, we’ve got to get in there and cull the herd. But, but… they’re our little plants! They represent our hopes and dreams! Can’t we just let them go and see what happens?

No. Now is not the time for sentimentality. Crowded plants not only discourage growth, they encourage pests and disease. Crowded seedlings shade each other from the sun. As they get larger, it only gets worse. Crowded root vegetables, including turnips, beets, and radishes, won’t develop useable roots if they’re crowded.

The earlier you thin your freshly germinated garden plants, the faster they’ll grow. We’ve recommended gradual thinning in the past, as well as using thinning as a means of collecting greens for the first spring salad. But really, you don’t want to wait that long. (more…)

Early Garden Harvest

Heirloom RadishOur Farmers Market here in 7,000 foot high Santa Fe, New Mexico is now in full swing. Drawing from farms in the lower, warmer and dryer areas south of town as well as the cooler, mostly higher, and slightly damper north, the market is filled with greens and other early season vegetables despite the fact that frost can occur into June depending on the variable elevation and micro-climates. Here are some take aways from this early harvest and what they might mean for your garden and even your lifestyle.

Yes, greens, as you might expect are to be found in abundance. Lettuce, both mixed mesclun and small heads of leaf lettuce were everywhere as well as arugula, baby chard leaves and some spinach (we weren’t sure why there wasn’t more spinach around and nobody seemed able to tell us… is it because small farmer avoid the crop since it’s so voluminously represented these days in our grocery stores and organic markets?). (more…)

Sweet Corn: Hybrid and Heritage

Sweet CornYour friendly Planet Natural Blogger was standing in line yesterday at the grocery store — one with a focus on healthy eating and a claim that it never uses GMO products in its store-label items — when an equally friendly checker commented on the fact that we were buying ears of sweet corn. “I have relatives in the Midwest,” she said, “and they say that they put the water on to boil before they go out and pick sweet corn for dinner.”

Well, your talkative PN Blogger, raised in the Midwest, had heard this before and, indeed, had told the story himself a number of times. And having just read up on the history of corn, we felt we had to put our two cents in (though what we said was probably worth half that).

“That’s good, old fashioned, home-grown corn,” I explained. “This commercial stuff has been bred to keep it sugars longer, so it can be shipped and held before sale. But it’s not as good, it’s not as sweet as good, home-grown sweet corn. The sugars in homegrown sweet corn aren’t as stable. But the corn is tastier.” (more…)

Foraging Wild, Organic Foods

Foraging FoodSpring is a wonderful time of year for foraging food. Greens — dandelions, nettles, wild asparagus, miners lettuce, ramp — are especially fine this time of year and spring mushrooms notably morels, rival the mushrooms picked in the fall. Some wild plants, including fiddleheads, are edible only when they first emerge (and one should be cautious eating even these). Even though nature is doing the gardening for you, it’s important to remember that you want even your foraged plants grown the way you grow in your garden. Organically.

We’ve been amazed at the interest in wild foods that’s grown over the last few years. There’s been a plethora of books released on the subject and classes on identifying, picking and cooking with foraged foods are offered in both rural and urban locations. Even restaurants and gourmet chefs, long-time users of wild mushrooms, have gotten in on the fad, flavoring their dishes with wild greens. Ramp, that favorite east coast spring green that was once harvested by eager Italian immigrants and seen as a measure of class distinction, is now so popular now that it rates a kitchen story and recipes in a major American newspaper. (more…)

Fast (Fresh, Organic) Food

Fast FoodA reader and friend has pointed out that I seem to have an old-school view of the patience required to be a successful gardener. She’s suggested that your friendly, all-in-a-rush Planet Natural Blogger actually finds more timely gardening gratification with fast growing, quick-to-harvest greens that not only are ready in a short amount of time but also offer nutritional and flavor benefits that longer-grown vegetables don’t match.

That kind of growing for us anxious types is the subject of Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz’s The Speedy Vegetable Garden, a new book that shows the patience we’re always urging gardeners to display isn’t really necessary when it comes to some harvests.

We’ve mentioned Diacono and Leendertz’s book before in regard to growing microgreens and certainly used it as reference when talking about sprouts and edible flowers. But in a half-dozen chapters they also address quick cut-and-c0me-again salads as well as quick-harvest vegetables. (more…)

Growing, Enjoying Microgreens

Growing MicrogreensMicrogreens are all the rage. Professional chefs and home gourmets love them for their concentrated flavors and beautifully tangled appearance. Gardeners love them because they are quick and easy to grow … indoors! The health-conscious among us love them because they are a concentrated and delicious way to get vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants.

What are microgreens? They’re basically seedlings, planted in soil, and harvested early — very early — when their first true leaves appear. The difference between microgreens and sprouts? Sprouts are typically raised without soil and harvested before true leaves are formed. Sprouts are otherwise much the same, just younger. Growing microgreens in soil with sunlight, allowing them to reach the point where they are setting leaves, gives them both a nutritional and flavor edge. They’re the miniature, fledgling form of greens and other veggies you plant in your garden in tiny concentrated form. Strong-flavored greens and herbs — things like radish, basil, arugula, beets, fenugreek and Asian greens — make the best microgreens. But almost anything you sprout or any green you plant in the garden will make delicious microgreens. (more…)

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