Posts Tagged ‘growing your own food’

Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Two days ago, I planted half of the hardneck garlic I intend to put in this year. I had chosen a bed that hadn’t held any last season and yanked out the desiccated tomato plants (we picked our last green ones, which are turning red on the porch as I write, about five days ago) and the defunct peppers. Loosened the soil with a fork, weeded what needed to be weeded and planted the cloves that I’d chosen from among the largest bulbs I’d grown this past year.

Since I first learned about hardneck garlic from Colchester CSA manager and grower, Theresa Mycek, probably ten years ago, and started planting it in my own garden, I’ve come to depend on it. Hardneck garlic is terrific because it’s delicious, beautiful (those tall green tops with the curlicue scapes are such a nice visual counterpoint to the clumpy greens and beans), and like a culinary Double-mint gum: it’s two, two, two garlics in one.

The first one is the scape.

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Wait; let me back up a little. First, sometime in late-October through November, you sit outside on a nice autumn day, separate garlic bulbs into cloves and plant the cloves about 8 inches apart – I plant in a grid, others do it in rows – in a prepared bed. Tuck them in gently beneath straw or some other light but effective mulch. In spring when the earth wakes up, the green shoots start coming through the mulch. In about May, you notice that the shoots have grown rather tall – knee high at least. In maybe mid-June, when the tall stiff shoots have continued to grow and are now curled around themselves a bit (i.e. turned into true scapes), you clip or break them off – it’s kinda like asparagus; you snap them where they are happy to be snapped – bring them in and cook them any one of a number of ways. We sometimes tempura them, or grill them for a great snack/ hors d’oeuvre/side dish, chop them into omelets, sauté them with other veggies, quick-pickle them in the fridge in a vinegar-and-herb-and-peppercorn bath or hang them by the kitchen door to ward off vampires. Whatever.

Hardneck bulbs - notice the central hard neck

Hardneck bulbs – notice the central hard neck


Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith's Garlic cloves

Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith’s Garlic cloves

In July-ish, when the green tops have browned and died back sufficiently, you dig – or pull, depending on how soft the bed is – the now cloved-up bulbs, wipe off the earth, and hang them up to dry. (I clump them in bunches of about 6-8 bulbs and hang them on the back porch). Then you use them. They go into the spaghetti sauce I can during tomato-and-pepper harvest, into chicken cacciatore (which is ONLY truly delicious when made in season with fresh garlic, fresh basil and fresh parsley plucked only a few minutes before chopping into the red-wine-soaked braising liquid), into the oven to spread on homemade bread with good olive oil, into salad dressings, well, you get the idea. But if you’ve planned right and the fates have shined on you and your little bed of hardneck garlic, you will also have enough to save, separate into cloves and plant to continue the whole cycle. The miracle of gardening and life perpetuating itself.

This year, I prepped one bed, but the second bed I wanted to plant was a knotted thicket of wire grass, wild aster, which has determined root systems, and the bind weed just to put a topping on it all. My husband volunteered to dig it all for me, bless him, so this afternoon I’m going to sit outside with the dog, separate six more garlic bulbs into cloves and plant that bed.


Scapes beginning in late April-May

When I’m in prayer position on my knees stuffing the cloves – or anything for that matter – into the ground, I think about a little garden plaque a friend gave me years ago that said: Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God. It’s an acknowledgement that while we can become really good gardeners, we are all at the mercy of so many other elements in life beyond our own control. But I have faith. And I keep on planting.


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Unknown     When I first heard of grafted tomato plants, I thought: Grafting? Of annuals? Really? Grafting woody perennials, yes. The time, attention and effort required to produce a successful graft rewards us with years of fruit (trees) and/or beauty (think: roses). But all that work for the tender stems of tomato plants that only last a season? Yet grafted tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber, eggplant, and peppers are catching on worldwide — and for good reason.

Grafting joins two plants of the same species but different varieties to create one plant. It’s designed to be a marriage of strengths – usually disease resistant roots (stock) wedded to a top cutting (scion) of a less disease-resistant but more appealing variety, for example vigorous Maxifort tomato root stock joined to the scion of luscious heirloom Tangerine tomatoes.

The process of grafting annual vegetable plants is theoretically simple. Take a plant with a strong rootstock, slice off its green top at an angle then slice through the stem of the desired top-growth plant (scion) cutting off its roots. Mate the sliced ends of the two plants and clip them together until the slice heals.

Grafting Tomato plants

Grafting Tomato plants

“The plant can begin to draw nutrients within 10 seconds,” says Peter Zuck, vegetable product manager at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, ME, which sells grafted plants, “but the after care of the newly joined seedling is critical.”

As soon as the graft is made, plants must be kept at just the right temperature (70-74F) and humidity (80%-90%) and remain in low light to prevent top growth while the graft heals completely.

“Some people incorrectly think of it as similar to genetic engineering,” says John Bagnasco, managing partner at SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables in Vista, CA, “but it’s not at all.”

Unknown-2Grafting has been a horticultural practice for centuries. The Bible mentions grafting olive trees in the book of Romans. The Chinese grafted the strong roots of wild tree peonies to their favorite cultivated stems in the 9th century.* But grafted annual vegetables and fruits are a relatively recent addition to the horticultural pantheon.

“The Japanese began grafting them about thirty years ago,” says Bagnasco, who notes that Japan struggles with depleted, disease-prone, and challenging soils. “They have to graft to get

them to grow.”

Additionally, the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which outlawed methol bromide used to control soil-borne fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, prompted an upsurge in the use of grafted annuals among its 197 signers, who needed an effective alternative to the pesticide.

Cut the stems of root stock and graft at exactly the same angle

Cut the stems of root stock and graft at exactly the same angle

“Almost 100% of the watermelons grown in Mexico are grafted now,” says Zuck.

In 2011, it was estimated that 1 billion grafted fruiting annuals were sold worldwide. In 2015, the number was 1.5 billion.

“Most were watermelon plants and most were sold in China,” says Bragnasco.

In addition to disease-resistance, the grafted plants tend to stand up to the kinds of climatic and regional stressors — soil salinity, temperature extremes, short seasons, and lower light — that can doom a vegetable garden, especially that succulent emblem of summer: tomatoes.

“Tomatoes don’t care for the broiling hot weather we have in summers around here,” says John Campbell of Annapolis, MD. Campbell has been growing grafted tomatoes in his home garden for ten years. “If the weather stays above 90 degrees for more than five days, they slow up on production. What I have found is that the grafted tomatoes suffer through this rotten summer weather with no problems, and I have not had any problems with disease.”

Tomato graft held in place with a graft clip

Tomato graft held in place with a graft clip

In addition to withstanding stressors, grafted vegetable plants can produce well despite less than optimal light. Most vegetables require six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day to fruit well.

“I had a small lot in Belfast [ME] with mature trees,” says Zuck. The tomatoes got about five hours of direct sun coupled with dappled sunlight and shade the rest of the day. “I found that the grafted plants helped me overcome that. They were much bigger and more productive than the non-grafted plants.”

“The plants produce anywhere from twice to three times the fruit, and they are exceedingly hardy,” says Campbell.

Another advantage for the home gardener with limited space is that grafting bypasses the need to rotate crops, a common practice used to avoid recurring soil-borne problems. Although grafted vegetable plants are obviously more expensive than non-grafted, for many home gardeners it’s worth it.


* An Illustrated History of Gardening, by Anthony Huxley, Lyons Press, 1978.



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Gardening for Geeks by Christy Wilhelmi packs a big punch of great practical organic information, ideas, projects, and philosophy into a lot of small, easily digestible pieces. Bright and informative without being preachy, the book includes a huge range of stuff in a relatively small space.  It runs the gamut from how to create a sustainable ecology to

Gardening for Geeks covermaterials, gadgets, fertilizers, native plants, pollinators, making a worm bin, a bee box, raised beds, storing saved seeds, vertical gardening, building soil, using either a compass or the internet to decide how to situate your garden, canning and water catchment, among other things.  (PHEW!) It also touches on French Intensive, bio-intensive and square-foot gardening, (each of which have had whole books written about them) — all distilled into straightforward prose. The first chapter focuses on what (habitats, for example), why (because you need a balance of all the creatures that make the whole system – food for you, food for pollinators, food for pests, which are food for pollinators and other beneficial creatures in the garden – it’s a complete circle) and how you achieve it.  The last chapter includes some recipes followed by an appendix with a few seed sources.

 Gardening for Geeks offers succinct reasons why you would do something (create compost, check to see if the redwood you plan to use to make raised beds has been chemically treated or kiln-dried, for example) – keeping in mind the average person, who doesn’t have the luxury of turning growing some food from part-time pleasure into a fulltime job (even if they wanted to). IMG_0513 - canning tomatoes

The format is visually appealing and well organized with plenty of illustrations both photo and drawing, and includes great little break-out tips that catch your eye as you flip through.  This is a book you could give to inspire a novice gardener without making them feel overwhelmed, to your favorite gardening friend without insulting them, since there is bound to be something inside that even he or she hasn’t come across or imaged yet, or to yourself since it’s like the crib sheet to a host of gardening courses. Gardening for Geeks by Christy Wilhelmi (Adams Media, $15.95).

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Tomatoes in Walls o' Water

Tomatoes in Walls o’ Water

 It was 36F when I got up yesterday morning, close though not actually freezing, but last night, we had a definite frost. And I have ten tomato plants that I started from see already stuck in the garden.  

I never seem to time it right – some years, I’m way early, some years way late starting my tomatoes. I like to push the season — having your own tomatoes by 4th of  July is an undeclared but fierce competition over here in the upper Eastern Shore’s farm country. But the increasingly unpredictable seasons have made the calculation about when you start seeds and when you can actually put plants in the ground more complicated. Normally, our last frost date here is about April 15 or so. Clearly, we’re in a new normal, hard enough for gardeners, but the farmers and the CSA growers, who plant out in the fields, have it way harder; with our smaller scale, gardeners can do all kinds of things to protect our tender plants even if we’ve miscalculated the timing or if the season’s unkind.  To help deal with the vagaries of climate change, ingenious gardeners and commercial enterprises have developed a host of strategies to cope. Like Walls o’ Water (a trademark, though I think there are similar kinds of things now with different names).

Filled Wall of Water ringing 5-gallon bucket

Filled Wall of Water ringing 5-gallon bucket


My tomato plants were desperate to get into the ground, but I knew — thank you Marty Bass — that we were potentially in line for a frost on Monday, last night and tomorrow. So, while the soil thermometer indicated that the soil was borderline-OK to plant some of my overgrown Solanaceae babies, the air temps were iffy. So, bit by bit over several days, my husband cleared some beds (bless his heart) and I planted ten tomatoes — Big Mama, Supersauce, Big Rainbow, Renee’s Mandarin, Sungold, Green Envy, grape, Sunchocula, Gold Medal and Super Beefsteak — inside Walls o’ Water.


Tomato in Wall in the midst of greens

Tomato in Wall in the midst of greens

Walls o’ Water are clever little season-extenders (actually more like season-precursors since you use them at the beginning not the end of the season). They’re translucent plastic cuffs about 15 inches tall, ringed with vertical channels that you fill with water. Once filled and in place around a plant, they absorb the sun’s warmth and retain enough of it overnight to protect against nights like the past two. They can be a bit awkward to deal with when you’re filling the channels and then lifting them into place, but they work well once installed. To make filling and moving them easier, I put an empty Wall o’ Water around an empty 5-gallon bucket, which acts as a stiffener, then fill each channel with the hose. Once filled, it’s easy to lift the filled wall, still ringing the bucket, into a garden cart and haul it out to the garden. However, lifting it into place over the planted tomato plant is a little tricky (two sets of hands help – again, thanks, Sweetheart). Once the Walls o’ Water were in place, I put metal cages over the whole rig, which also helps to keep everything in place when the wind’s blowing 40 as it was the other night. Spent yesterday evening weeding the tiny spinach, carrots, and radishes as well as the space around the tomatoes; everything was still thriving. So far so good. Most of them have about six inches of top sticking out of the plastic protections, o we’ll see as the day wears on whether last night was too much for their bare little arms. If so, I’ll clip off the frost-burnt bits and keep going. Tomatoes can be amazingly resilient if you give them a little encouragement.

Tomatoes inside Walls o' Water after a night's frost

Tomatoes inside Walls o’ Water after a night’s frost


More tender plants will go in next week when the weather (presumably) settles down some. Can’t wait to bring in the first tomatoes in town!

Tomato sticking out of top of Wall o Water

Tomato sticking out of top of Wall o Water








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Blanching leeks

Blanching potted leeks with straw

Well, looks like we finally have spring – or maybe early summer – so I’m hauling the cool weather greens that I started in the greenhouse in and out every day to both harden them and keep them from frying as the heat inside ramps up. (So far, the tomato seedlings are loving the heat).  Managed to get some pak choi, lettuce and kale into the ground over the weekend along with two packets of last year’s pea seeds, so I’ll be interested to see what their germination rates turn out to be.

Pak Choi and kale just about ready for harvest

Pak Choi and kale just about ready for harvest

The experimental kale and pak choi are going to be ready for harvest this week (can’t wait – looking up recipes for inspiration) and the leeks I planted in two pots are looking happy, unlike the poor guys I planted in the garden when the blankety-blank plant company sent them two solid weeks before I had specified on their site while ordering. The garden leeks look moribund, though I’m going to give them a chance to resurrect themselves. But the potted leeks have grown quite a bit in the past week-plus, and are now about 11 inches out of the soil with beautiful blue-green shoots. Time to start blanching them by shielding the stalks from the sun while keeping enough greenery exposed to gather rays so they can actually continue to grow.

potted Buttercrunch lettuce nearly ready for a salad

potted Buttercrunch lettuce nearly ready for a salad

Leeks take anywhere from 90-120 days or so to come to a size that you’d expect to pull and use them, so this will mean I need to feed these potted guys a little as I go along with organic fertilizer. I had planted them the same day I put their confreres in the garden in a combination of soil and compost. Their long growth rate, and my competitive longing for huge, fat stalks, compel additional feeding of the potted ones every four weeks or so.

I love leeks. I often sauté them with shallots, poblanos and a few dried chopped tomatoes (and some chili, adobo and hot sauce) and bake them into a frittata, though last night I added them to the cod filets for supper. Yesterday evening,  I shaved some carrots and chopped leeks (bought) and a shallot, sautéed them for about five minutes in olive oil, added the cod and a splash of pinot grigio and simmered for another five minutes until they were barely done (they were thin). I added some capers and served it up with a dollop of sour cream. Quick, easy, delicious. Gotta love leeks.

p.s. I didin’t think about photographing supper last night until I started writing this — sorry. It looked pretty with carrot ribbons and spirals of leeks alongside a glass of white wine. Boring description will have to do.


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Raw roots 2

Gold Ball turnips, Hakurei turnips and carrots right out of the ground and washed

I don’t really know who makes these declarations — I hope they don’t clog up an already clogged Congress to get something like The Official Year of The Root Crop powered through — but it is, officially, somehow, The Year of The Root Crop. It’s a good thing, since little by little, we as a society are trying to drag ourselves back to the kind of eating that once made us one of the healthiest nations on earth only a few decades ago. For those who don’t already love vegetables; I’m sorry. I hope you can learn to enjoy them, as there are literally thousands of ways to prepare them, and with a little assiduous and open-minded work, you, too can get there. I have friends who only eat the white food groups, or the chocolate food groups, or the wine and beer food groups, so I do get it, but we continue to have people in for breadth of experience to say nothing of fun and laughter and conversation.

Among other things, I write for University of Maryland’s Grow It Eat It blog along with a lot of other gardener cooks, who have recipes for all kinds of seasonal veggies as well as pictures, tips on growing even a little bit of your own food — some of of have patio pots that produce cukes, lettuce, some carrots, whatever. Have a look. It’s a nice variety of people and ideas.


Now to the root vegetables: I didn’t grow them, but I’m eating them like crazy this winter. I get turnips (and carrots and more) from our friend, Theresa Mycek, the grower/manager of Colchester CSA, who lives just down the road and grows a fabulous selection of carrots, beets, turnips, and daikon radishes (and the proverbial more). http://www.colchesterfarm.org/

Peeled turnips

Peeled Hakurei and Gold Ball turnips

I’ve always loved vegetables, but I didn’t used to like turnips ONE BIT until I had some fresh from the ground – and not overcooked.  Old, and overcooked they’re bitter and icky. Fresh and well cooked, they’re really good. Theresa grows three kinds of turnips – Purple Top, Hakurei, and Gold Ball. Purple Top, with pretty purple shoulders, is what we usually see in the grocery store. Hakurei is a white globe that’s crisp and slightly juicier and milder than the purple top, so in addition to being good cooked, it’s nice cut up raw in a salad or shredded in coleslaw like a radish. Gold Ball turnips have creamy, pale yellow flesh and are sweeter than Purple Top, especially when roasted.

Turnips (brassica rapa), which are relatively high in Vitamin C, are members of the same family as broccoli, kohlrabi (aka turnip cabbage), and rutabaga, (aka Swedish turnip or Swedes). The turnip itself is a large taproot, whose leaves are also edible. People over here on the Eastern Shore often stew the greens (which constitutes a mess of greens) with bacon or ham and some onions or sauté the young leaves.

Turnips take 40 to 65 days from seed to maturity, depending on variety. For example, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s fall-planted Amber Globe turnip is 63 days to maturity, while the spring-planted Nabo Roxo Comprido turnips reach maturity after only 40 days. Turnips are generally cool weather crops; you can sow seed practically as soon as you can get into the garden in spring. Succession plant if you want a steady crop until the heat sets in in June, then sow them again in August for fall and winter eating. You can actually grow turnips in containers too, being sure to thin them so they have sufficient space to grow. Below is a link to a list of turnip growing tips.


Turnips prepped on sheet

Turnips cubed, carrots all prepped for the oven

I didn’t learn to enjoy turnips until I began to grow them myself. We’d usually steam and mash them with caramelized onions, parmesan and a little splash of cream, like rich mashed potatoes – and they’re delicious! Some roasted garlic adds a little dash of je ne sais quoi. But there are other ways to cook them. For Christmas this year, I roasted some in the pan with the leg of lamb along with potatoes, carrots and onions. Yum yum yum. Usually, though, I dice, season and roast them and keep them in the frig to pull out when I want. They’re delicious as a side dish with chicken or goose (or duck or whatever else your resident Visigoth drags home).  More often, I pull a handful out of the container in the frig, warm them a little and add them to salad with toasted hazelnuts and blue cheese with a splash of pear or fig vinegar and olive oil.

To roast turnips:

Peel and dice turnips into whatever sized pieces you like. I usually do them about ¾ of an inch because they shrink as they roast, and I like to have the outsides toasty and the insides still soft. Others cut them small for a chewier texture.

turnips roasted in salad

Roasted Gold Ball with greens, stilton and toasted walnuts waiting for balsamic dressing

Toss them with maple syrup or honey, salt, pepper and a bit of oil with whatever spices you like to add.  I usually do either berbere spice or smoked paprika and Adobo. Curry’s nice too. Toast at 350F for about 35 minutes or until desired doneness.

For seed, you can check out:





(Just to get your started).

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