Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The First Harvest

A couple of days ago, I walked out to the asparagus patch. I hadn't been out there in a while, and I was excited to find a patch of perfect asparagus among the weeds: spears about 8" tall and perfectly pliable. I picked all that were ready, and walked down toward the second patch, only to find the asparagus on the brink of flowering out. I went ahead and picked it, knowing it will try again. And, knowing the tiny branches taste perfectly fine, and are very good sauteed. So I picked all of that, too, hoping that the plants will produce another round of spears. Yesterday I picked the first bunch of broccoli raab from the raised beds. I picked about a half a pound of bright green mustard-tasting leaves, florets, and perky yellow flowers. Today I pulled about eight perfect radishes from the raised beds and picked enough lettuce from the raised bed to make a big salad. I put all of those things together with some sausage and pasta and feta cheese and made a delicious meal. So excited to be eating fresh food from the garden. I served the lettuce leaves whole, with sliced raw radishes, dressed simply with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Kosher salt and cracked pepper. I sauteed the asparagus and broccoli raab in the fat from the sausages and chicken stock with garlic, then added feta at the end. 

Beyond the pleasures of the tastes on the table, knowing that the vegetables were from the garden, and how they were grown, just added so much to the flavor. This is why I garden!

The first picture is the Broccoli Raab after I picked it. The second, of all the veggies before I made dinner, and the last picture is of the meal!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What a Difference a Week Makes

A week ago, I was making contingency plans for the garden. It had been raining so much and so frequently, that I figured it would be at least two more weeks before the garden would be dry enough to support a tractor. 

I spent much of the weekend repotting seedlings into larger pots because they were getting much too large under the lights. But as I was inside the seed room getting muddy, outside the weather was sunny but cool. And windy. And that wind made all the difference. When I got home Monday afternoon I noticed that the garden plot had been mowed down and disced. When I got home on Tuesday, the garden had been meticulously tilled. We have a neighbor who tilled the garden last year. He tills every garden on our block, actually. It can be stressful not having complete control over when the garden gets tilled, but I know that after Frank tills the garden, it is going to be like butter. Grainy, deliciously rich butter. 

So now the garden is ready to plant. I will start hardening off the seedlings this weekend, (when it is a little cooler and less windy, hopefully) I may put some seeds in the ground this weekend, and finish planning the whole garden. It is very exciting, very exciting indeed!

The first picture is the garden plot Monday afternoon. The second, Tuesday afternoon!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Weather Delay

Today, when viewed from inside, was a beautiful day. Sunny skies, everything bright and green outside. But once you stepped outside, you realized it was much too cool and too windy to be comfortable. Our high was only in the fifties, and currently there is a frost advisory for tonight's clear and cold weather. Despite the cool weather, there was work required for the garden that had to be done today. Many of my tomatillos and tomatoes, planted in soil blocks over the past eight weeks, have grown too large and were starting to show signs of stress: yellowing leaves, roots growing above the soil line. These plants had to be transplanted to larger containers immediately, or they might not make it through the week.

At this time the past over two years, I had been very busy planting in the garden. But this year, the garden isn't even  tilled... And I don't think it will be within the next two weeks. It is still too wet to work. The tractor would simply compact the soil and make it impossible for any plants to grow through. And this is why today's work was so imperative: without transplanting, these plants wouldn't last two more weeks in the seed room. 

So this afternoon, I put all my tomatillos into larger pots. Last year we had 4 tomatillo plants. Today, I transplanted 30 plants, evenly divided between purple and green fruit. I also transplanted about thirty pepper plants that seemed to be struggling in the little plastic cells they were started in. I can't blame them, and hope they grow in their new, roomier homes. I also transplanted about 70 tomato plants. Almost all of the plants I transplanted seemed healthy, and in better shape than plants I grew from seed and successfully planted in the garden the last two years. So, although I am sore, and honestly a little overwhelmed, I feel like we are on track. Once the garden is tilled and I am able to put plants in the ground, things should go like gangbusters! 

I am now more than out of room in the seed room. Not only is all the space beneath the fluorescent  lights taken, but the floor around the set up is now completely packed with plants. And there are more plants in need of transplanting... I may have to start hardening off plants this week, even before the garden is remotely ready for planting. 

It seems that every year the weather, or the plants, provide a new learning experience. Who knew we would get so much rain in April and May that the ground is unworkable. Who knew that I finally got my timing right this year. I planted seeds in enough time for the plants to be viable at the last average frost date (although even that may be off...if it frosts tonight, it would be three days after our general last frost date). And though my tomatillos, peppers, cabbage, and tomatoes are doing great, the eggplants are not. I started about 50 eggplant seeds 12 weeks ago. Right now I have about a dozen plants growing, but they are not very large... And today, I moved almost 40 soil blocks with eggplant seeds that didn't germinate into my leftover soil bucket. I gave up on all those plants, because even now, if they were to germinate this week, they would still be too small to be viable int he garden in June. It was sad, and I realize that I may have to buy eggplant plants if I want eggplant this year. It just goes to show you never really know what will happen with your seeds...

Today's picture are my newly-transplanted tomatillo plants waiting watering, and then one group of tomato plants right after being transplanted. I am growing two varieties of tomatillo and today I transplanted five kinds of tomatoes (Taxi - yellow, Cherry Blend, Principe Borghese, Wapsipnicon Peach, and Puple Calabash). 

I will continue to hope for the garden to dry out enough for it to be tilled. In the meantime, you will find me in the seed room, tending to summer even as this wet spring continues on.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why I Garden

When I was a boy, my Grandpa had a huge garden in his suburban backyard every year. I remember corn, beans, tomatoes and potatoes growing in the plot that occupied what seemed like a quarter of the yard. I remember him having me climb the fruit tree (was it pear or peach or plum?) in that backyard and passing down the ripe fruit that he then gently put in the large wicker basket. On special days (probably when the afternoon thunderstorms rolled through, eliminating the possibility of any further work outside), I got to help Nana deal with that morning's harvest. She canned, froze, and pickled things from his garden. She made pies and Grandpa made ice cream, and we snacked on fruit and vegetables that had just been picked.

My family didn't always have a garden, but I remember that for a few years before my Dad built the big shed, we had a garden. All I remember from that garden is the corn, beans, squash, and radishes. I am sure we grew cucumber and lettuce and tomatoes and peppers, but maybe that is just my adult bias (I can't imagine a vegetable garden without those things!) I recall crawling between the stalks of corn, weeding, and bringing in armfuls of beans that my sister and I would then string while sitting on the back porch, throwing the ends to the dogs.

By the time I was in high school, the only gardens I knew were flower gardens in everyone's yards. I grew up in Denver, and by the 1980's xeriscapes were common. Although every yard had a lawn, people were encouraged to plant native plants to save on water consumption. By this time, home-grown produce was a special treat, but the bulk of our produce was purchased at King Soopers and was generally frozen. When I went to college, in Nebraska, I was amazed at all the farmland. Endless miles of milo, soybeans, and wheat. There were long miles along I-80 that stank of pigs and cows. Or at least their feces. At times, I viewed the drive from Denver to Hastings as nothing but seven hours of industrial waste. And none of it looked edible.

In Chicago, in the early 1990's, I worked at a great cafe that is still around, Uncommon Ground. The cafe had a fairly set menu, but soups and quiches revolved around fresh produce the owner would bring from the farmers' markets in Western Michigan and northern Indiana. It was there I really learned how to cook with fresh produce, and the absolute joy of eating in season. The fresh taste and variety of the produce got me hooked. I learned how to use fresh herbs. I finally understood that a tomato from the store in December is nothing like an August tomato.

Ever since then, I have grown plants. Maybe it was only a basil plant on my kitchen window sill. Maybe it was berries in our dark Chicago backyard. Tomatoes on the front porch in Denver. A yard full of veggies in the Baker District of Denver, and all the meals shared with friends in that wonderful backyard in the ghetto!

I haven't bought a tomato at a grocery store in years. It just isn't worth the money. If they're not in season, I buy canned. Luckily, this year, we didn't even have to buy many cans, as we only recently ran out of tomatoes I canned last summer and fall. In the freezer, we still have tomatoes, ready for a soup or sauce. We are still eating frozen peppers from last year's garden. Ground, dried peppers as spice. Pickled peppers on sandwiches. I know the quality of much of the produce I eat. I know there is nothing genetically-modified about it. And the taste is unbeatable.

There is no going back. In fact, now that we grow a lot of the vegetables (and a good portion of fruit) we eat, our goal is to grow more. Eventually we would like chickens and goats. Maybe sheep and pigs. Already much of our meat was raised and slaughtered locally. I want my food to be as pure as possible. Grown locally, without pesticides and without chemicals. I know I can't meet this goal perfectly. But I will do what I can. It is more work. Today, on a cool and rainy day, I spent a few hours in my seed room. Transplanting cabbages. Starting some late-arriving peppers (Purple Jalapeño, something I know I couldn't find anywhere else) and basil. Already, my garden takes up at least an hour a day, with watering in the morning and evening. And weeding the raised beds where the peas are growing among spinach and lettuce and radishes. And come fall, when the harvest is in full gear, it can be exhausting trying to pick and then process all of that produce. On those days I remind myself how amazing this work is going to taste on a snowy January day, when our dinner tastes as fresh as it would in September.

This is why I garden. It is food for my body, work for my body. It is meals shared with friends. It is a continuing fight against corporate ownership of our food. It is knowing the food I eat and serve to my friends is truly healthy, and not laden with chemicals, plastics, and poisons. It is feeling part of the local food movement. Every time I work in the garden, I learn something new. It is becoming aware of the affects that weather, climate, soil, and animals have on our food. It is the memory of the gardens of my childhood.

The pictures below: 1.) Purple Jalapeño seeds in soil blocks. I didn't cover them as I read that exposure to light will speed germination. 2.) A newly-transplanted cabbage plant. 3.) A flat of tomatoes in soil blocks, climbing every day!