Few pursuits are as rewarding as growing your own organic garden. Not only do you get to enjoy the fruits of your own labor, but you have the satisfaction of knowing that the produce you are eating was grown free of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides. Growing organically produces healthy, more diverse ecosystems which are better able to resist significant pest damage… naturally!
“Winter’s herbs are summer’s herbs, too, but they seem to matter more in winter,” writes Joe Eck and the late Wayne Winterrowd in their warm and wise book To Eat: A Country Life. The book, out earlier this year, is a celebration of gardening and cooking with the harvest, a wonderful poem, in prose, to the life-long, life-affirming relationship between growing and eating. If you haven’t picked up a copy — it will make wonderful winter reading — I suggest you do.
The chapter that’s on our mind most these autumn days is the one on winter herbs. The authors make several good points, maybe the most important of which is that fresh herbs are much more complex and flavorful than dry herbs. We appreciate our home-grown fresh herbs in the winter for the very reason that they bring a bit of summer into our kitchens. Another is that the herbs that go best with winter cooking — dishes like stews, soups, roasts, even omelets — are those that can be overwintered successfully for fresh harvests, with some work and preparation, even in Vermont where Eck and Winterrowd’s North Hill Farm was located. What are those herbs? Bay, sage, parsley and rosemary. (more…)
We so often focus on the benefits of gardening: the harvests of fresh, healthy vegetables, the joys of beautiful flower beds and landscapes, even the resulting exercise and time spent in the fresh air of the great outdoors. But there’s one benefit we don’t so often mention, despite its prevelance and importance: Social contact!
Whether formal or informal, gardening brings people together. I learned this lesson early, joining my grandfather in his garden plot, walking over to the poor excuse of a fence and talking to the neighbor there in his garden plot. Things were passed over that fence throughout the entire season — onion starts and extra seed in the spring, tomatoes, corn and squash in the late summer. In the middle of summer? An occasional beer. But the most important commodity that was exchanged was neighborly-ness in the form of gardening advice, talk of the weather, or just an agreeable back-and-forth. (more…)
One of the big literary surprises of the past summer is the success of a memoir on small, organic farming. Forrest Pritchard’s Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, released to fantastic reviews, has been featured on American Public Media’s Splendid Table and named a top ten book by Publishers’ Weekly. It’s basically the story of a farm boy who leaves the country to find a bigger life but returns to the farm to save it. Both personal and (somewhat political) Gaining Ground give insight into the problems faced by small farmers and all the hard work and planning that it takes to overcome these problems.
It helps that Pritchard earned a degree in English. His writing is both entertaining and well-constructed. His father becomes a central figure, and dad’s declining health is used as a vehicle to explore unhealthy life styles and the medical problems that come from a lifetime of eating junk and processed food. Pritchard also writes with a sense of humor, much of it self-deprecating. The phrase so often applied to movies — “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” — aptly describes the reading of this book. (more…)
Fall is an important time for growers of garlic. Savvy garlic growers know that cloves planted in the fall yield larger bulbs than those planted in the spring. Some garlic partisan’s will tell you garlic that experiences a winter in the ground will taste better but we’ve never been able to conduct a side-by-side taste test. That’s because all the growers we know plant their garlic in the fall.
But it is true that garlic planted in warmer regions needs an exposure to cold to grow properly. Hardneck garlics need a cooling period — two or three weeks at 40 to 50 degrees — before planting to grow properly in areas where soils temperatures stay warm.
Autumn is also a crucial time for those who’ll plant in spring. This is the time to prepare your soil so that it’s at its maximum growing potential come March and April. (more…)
Among spring’s greatest visual joys is a fat container sporting thick green spears of emerging tulips, daffodils, and other flowers. And when the flowers emerge tightly circled, like beautiful eyes following wherever you go, there’s little that can compare. The time to make sure your spring will be full of beautiful flowers from bulbs is now, in the fall, to give them a chance to establish roots and to chill-out over the winter, just like most gardeners do.
Don’t get us wrong. We love spring blossoms from bulbs as they poke out from the thawing ground, sometimes even through the snow, in our borders and gardens. And there’s little that’s as impressive as a huge plot of daffodils, their bright petals announcing sunny days, turning through the day as they follow the light. But growing bulbs in containers is a great way to add spot-specific color and interest. They’re especially useful to the small gardener, even apartment dwellers with verandas, in that they provide a space for growing color where none may have existed. Best of all? Growing them is easy.
Almost any spring-flowering bulb will do for container planting. And as you plan your bulb containers, consider planting major flowering bulbs like tulips, gladiola, and daffodils with smaller flowers like crocus, snowdrops, windflower, or grape hyacinth (though the latter tends to spread and take over pots). Combinations of bulbs will give you both staggered blooms and a layered, understory appearance. (more…)
We’ve been offered sweet corn from a road side stand that wasn’t ready only once and that was from a couple neighborhood kids who got carried away with their picking. That experience turned out to be a learning experience for all of us.
The corn obviously wasn’t ready — the young gentleman hadn’t thought to pull back the husks to check — and we pointed out the short green silk as we bought an ear (cheap) and pulled away the cover. It was obvious. The kernels hadn’t plumped up and we showed that to the boys. We told them about testing the kernels when they did look ready — otherwise known as the pinch test — and what they would see. We pointed out that it was a shame they’d pulled all these ears that weren’t ready and now never would be.
Their father, our neighbor, was also unhappy about that. But the kids wanted to make some money and remembered their dad saying how well their corn was doing this year. Dad and I had a fatherly, adult laugh over the incident and chalked it up to the “boys-will-be-boys” syndrome that had excused both of us a time or two in our younger days. Later that season, the neighbor kids brought me over some of the ears with long brown silk and we gave one the pinch test. They already knew what to look for . . . corn milk! (more…)
September is here and many plants in the garden are going to seed. Some of those plant are weeds. Depending on how carefully you kept your plots and landscapes weeded this season, you may have lots or you may have few. However many weeds you have, now’s the last chance you have to get them before the cycle starts all over again next spring. Any work you do now will make your weeding easier next year.
I know, I know . . . the best and most effective weeding is done in early season when the ground is soft and the weeds are small, shallowly rooted, and vulnerable. But it’s too late for that. And next spring will be too late to stop weed seeds from spreading now. Weeding is a continuous activity in the organic garden and one’s attitude towards it has a lot to do with seeing it as a chore and impossible task or an ongoing activity that provides exercise, fresh air, and a chance to get close to one’s garden. Part of that attitude requires acceptance. You’ll never get all the weeds (or maybe you’re one of those people with small plots who will) and it’s better just to accept some. Even those herbicides we see advertised on television as giving complete control don’t get all the weeds. Just make sure the weeds you miss aren’t the most noxious or persistent. Those are the ones to concentrate on.
One other thing regarding attitude. It’s said that weeds are plants for which a use has yet to be found. They’re often the same local wildflowers we admire when they’re not in our garden. This may all be true, but we don’t want anything to limit or compete with our flowers and vegetables, let alone add their own improvisational touches to our landscape plans. (more…)
. . . or buy them from your small, local organic farmer. This article on efforts to produce a tastier commercial tomato is, frankly, sad. We all know the problem with grocery store tomatoes (pdf format): they’re bland if not completely tasteless. Compare them to the most mediocre tomato grown in someone’s back yard and that mediocre tomato shines by comparison. Compare them to any decent, heirloom tomato from your garden or a small, local, organic farmer and, well, there’s no comparison.
Not only do homegrown and small farm organic tomatoes taste better than commercial tomatoes, they have more nutrition.
So you have to feel bemused if not sorry for professor Harry Klee at the University of Florida’s Institute for Plant Innovation program. Sure, his goals are admirable: he’s trying to “build” a better supermarket tomato. That means more flavor. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And he’s going about it very scientifically. He extracts the “flavor compounds” in tomatoes, separates their various components, and then studies them genetically in an attempt to duplicate them in commercial tomatoes. While he studies the genetics of these tomato components, he isn’t out to genetically modify tomatoes. Instead he uses standard hybridization techniques, albeit in the laboratory, in an attempt to create commercial tomatoes with improved taste. (more…)
Here we are in the last days of August and peppers are growing everywhere. They’re hanging big and bright in our gardens, the produce sections boast an abundance, and farmer’s markets offer bushels of varied-colored, varied-sized peppers of types we’ve never seen. In places like New Mexico where chile peppers are deeply embedded in the culture. It’s no joke to say that as summer progresses, so does the heat, at least when it comes to peppers.
With all the attention given to hot and hotter peppers, we want to make sure that you don’t overlook those other peppers, the ones grown for flavor and sweetness rather than heat. They’re often called sweet peppers, and frequently limited to traditional bell peppers, the kind every gardener has grown at some point. But we’re talking about the wide and ever-expanding variety of mildly or even barely spicy sweet peppers that have been commonly called wax and Hungarian peppers, the type that do well in stir-fry, gazpacho, and pickled.
We’ve been on a binge of sweet peppers this year and find that they’re a great addition to pastas, casseroles of grains and veggies, and wonderful ingredient to include in salsas. Not only that, they’re among some of the most beautiful and ornamental plants in the vegetable garden, their sizable blossoms giving way to a host of colorful fruits in all sorts of shades. Even their names are attractive: piquillo, lemon drop, padron, peperoncino, guindilla verde, corne de chevre (goat’s horn), Basque. (more…)
A friend likes to tell the story of how he almost proposed marriage to a woman who made indescribably delicious eggplant parmigiana. Then he found out it was the woman’s mother who was the genius behind that wonderful eggplant dish. So he proposed to the mother instead. The woman, a widow in her 80s, refused because our friend didn’t garden. “Where am I going to get the good eggplant and tomatoes I need?” she protested.
The mother had it right. The sad truth here is that it’s tremendously difficult not only finding good tomatoes in commercial grocery stores but good eggplant, too. All of our favorite dishes are only as good as the ingredients that go into them. Growing eggplant (and tomatoes) yourself gives you a decided advantage when making parmigiana. If you’re lucky, you’ll find good, organic eggplant in your local farmers market. But growing your own is best. (more…)