Monday, June 28, 2010

If vegetables were race horses...

We have been watching Planet Earth again (I love David Attenborough) and I'm always so amazed by the time-lapse footage of plants and fungi and corals growing. If I were a nature videographer, I might skip the mountain of cockroach-infested bat guano in Indonesia and instead set my sights on more mundane subjects, like my garden plants. I would love to see the ever-so-slight circular movement of plants as they angle for the best light and the speedy coiling of pea and cucumber tendrils.

I go and look at my garden every day, partly because I am trying to stay ahead of the weeds and partly because the garden is on either side of the driveway where I park my car. So, I see that my peppers are getting longer, the tomatoes keep putting out new suckers, and all of a sudden, the eggplants are twice the size they were the day before. Or at least, they seem twice as big. It would be SO cool to actually track and document the daily progress of my garden plants and correlate growth rates with weather, microsite conditions, and other factors (heirloom vs. hybrid.)

Then I would know who to put my money on... in the great Belmont Stakes of mid-summer garden growth. Is it the snow peas who keep outgrowing their fence? Is it the arugula that sprouted in a day and a half? Is it the Sweet 100 tomatoes from my mom that put out new flower stalks on an almost daily basis? This is a very happenin' time in the garden, with the front-runners showing a lot of potential and the stragglers (like the tomatoes in the non-raised bed with regular soil) are falling way behind.

So, who would you bet on? It's still early for most vegetables - I'm harvesting lettuce, arugula and snowpeas this week, but haven't even seen a baby green tomato yet. What plants will make it through to the harvest, retaining their penchant for productivity?

Cast your vote by leaving a comment below.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Food I never ate growing up - Swiss Chard

When I was a kid, I was not a particularly picky eater and we had dinner table rules about eating vegetables, so I definitely grew up eating leafy greens, beans, peas, corn, tomatoes and a lot of other garden veggies. But when I got to college, all of a sudden the world of vegetables expanded and my new friends introduced me to artichokes, avocados, eggplant, mixed greens (the kind with bitter-tasting mustard greens), and olives that did not come from a jar labeled "Black Olives" or "Green Olives with Pimientos." Somewhere along the way I was introduced to Swiss chard, which is really one of the strangest veggies.

1. Its wildly colored stalks seem completely improbable, from a Mendelian genetics perspective.
2. You cook the leaves and the stalks separately and they both taste different.
3. How can something look so similar to rhubarb but instead be chard?
4. The Swiss are known for many things (cheese, the Alps, neutrality, anonymous bank accounts), but vegetable farming is not one of them. Turns out it's really from the Mediterranean.
5. Ever look at the seeds? Even these are strange.
6. Swiss chard is a beet. Seriously. (Cooperative Extension doesn't lie.)

After 2 years of planting chard seeds with zero success and the plants never surviving past the 2-inch stage, I have actually got 5-6 thriving chard this year. I started the seeds inside which may have contributed to their continued existence. I did just plant some golden chard seeds, so maybe those will survive as well. And while I still think chard is strange, I also find it strikingly beautiful.

I'll share my favorite recipe for swiss chard.

Steamed Swiss Chard Salad
Cut the leaves off the chard stems and cut the leaves into pieces.
Steam leaves until soft (about 3-5 minutes.)
Toss with olive oil, red pepper flakes, and a handful of pine nuts/walnuts.
Squeeze a lemon over the whole dish - I like it when some of the pulp falls into the salad.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

If you give a mouse a strawberry...

It's raining today, but lately, it's been really nice. Spring came early this year and everyone I talk to seems to mention that their lilacs bloomed early, the black flies came AND went (thankfully) early, and the strawberries are now in - two weeks ahead of schedule!

I did plant some runner-type strawberries this year, thanks to the generosity of the McM's and Starky-starks, but I don't expect much from those until next year. Last year, I read up on and then purchased some alpine strawberries, which do not produce runners and are less likely to run rampant over the lawn. They actually produced a few strawberries in the early fall, but it's absolutely incredible what they are up to this year!! They started blooming in April and have been prolific in both fruit and flower - the first berries ripened almost 2 weeks ago.

Aren't they gorgeous (even if a little out of focus)?? These are fruit straight out of a fairy tale. I remember a book I read as a child that involved a cute little grey mouse and in the story, he eats a cute little red strawberry... just like the ones I have growing in my yard.

Alpine or woodland strawberries are actually native plants of North America. Their Latin name is Fragaria vesca. These strawberries are also known by their more alluring French name, fraises des bois. (This translates to strawberries of the wood - oh my, how poetic.)

My three plants in the front garden are substantially more prolific than the wild woodland strawberries in the back yard, but I also coddle them by putting them in a location with full sun, giving them water, pulling weeds, and piling leaves around them in the winter. The wild berries have to tough it out on their own.

These are not the kind of berries you would care to turn into jam. For one, they are tiny - compare to the size of the basil leaves in the picture above. You would have to pick and pick and pick and pick until your fingers couldn't move. The second reason is that these strawberries are too irresistible to wait to bring back into the kitchen. They have a subtle perfumey flavor layered on top of the sweet strawberry taste - they really do deserve their fancy French name because they are far more sophisticated than their strawberry farm cousins. Considering the Latin genus Fragaria, it should be no surprise that the fragrance of strawberries stands out. Barbara Damrosch is much more eloquent in describing the flavor profile in her Washington Post article on this special fruit.

Our cats have been controlling the rodent population for the neighborhood this spring, so I'm hoping that the cute little grey mice won't eat all my fairy-tale strawberries.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

First, select a sunny spot...

I'm pretty sure that I've checked out every book on gardening from the Lebanon library (except the ones from the 1970s with the garish photos on the cover because I never want a garden that looks like a psychedelic tropical jungle hemmed in by brick work.) You think I would have taken the authors' cumulative advice to heart on how to establish a garden, but I managed to ignore all of it and to pick the worst sites for vegetables last year. Too dark, terrible soil, and I reaped a very poor harvest accordingly. Very sad but of course COMPLETELY AVOIDABLE!

Had I heeded the advice of Chapter One of every gardening book, I would have picked the sunniest spot for my garden, but the only sunny spot is in the front yard and on top of our septic leach field. Roadblock #1. But this spring we had a big frankenpine taken down and amazingly, our yard near the driveway now gets sunlight - yay! Roadblock circumvented.

Adam built several raised garden beds out of Douglas fir planks and these cool metal corner brackets, which he filled with a mixture of aged manure and loam. I'm using a modified version of Mel Bartholomew's square-foot gardening method, what I like to call the "yeah, that's probably about a foot" gardening method. I don't own a 12-inch ruler and didn't want to get dirt in the tape measure, so I just eyeballed it. Which is why some of the tomatoes are a little more tightly bunched at one end of the bed.

So now I've got my vegetables in the right spot so let's see how this season goes! The weather has been surprisingly warm and the plants are loving it.