Food and Flowers

Sweet Basil: Choosing, Growing, Storing and Recipes

basil 'Green Ruffles' (Ocimum basilicum

‘Green Ruffles’ makes a good bouquet filler after it’s gone to flower. Leaves are a bit larger than this at what might be called best edible stage.

 

“Write more about growing basil” has been on the do list for some time – years, actually, ever since the  basil harvest tips post that appeared back in 2006. (Nothing hasty, that’s my motto.)

But filling out this year’s seed orders has finally given me the requisite nudge. In catalogue after catalogue, Occimum basilicum and its close relatives are available in a far wider assortment than any other culinary herb (at least among annuals; thyme is another matter). This year we’ll be planting eight varieties and that’s just a small sampling.

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Starting Seeds

tashkent marigold

Tashkent Marigold, from one of my favorite seed companies, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Well, I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour, as the Car Guys would say, going through the umpty-millionth seed catalog, marking every tempting vegetable, herb and flower.

Have I checked which seeds I’ve already ordered? No. Have I checked which seeds I already have? Also no. Were any of these markings made with an eye to the limits of the garden, or for that matter the limits of me?

Of course not, because the truth is the hour wasn’t wasted, it was used as a tranquilizer. Locally, it’s too cold to work in the garden; globally, it’s too hot for the world as we know it to endure. Both of these facts have the potential to be depressing, but just thinking about planting seeds pushes all gloom away.

No matter what else is happening, a seed would rather grow. What could be more wonderful than that?

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Securing Special Seeds (Martian Jewels Corn, for instance)

martian jewels corn

An ear of Martian Jewels on the stalk – note the rich color of the stem and husk. (See end of post for useful tips on choosing and ordering vegetable seeds).

As far as I’m concerned, this time of year is already plenty busy enough. Had I my druthers, I’d just let the seed catalogs pile up until that lovely lull between Christmas and New Years when most of the baking is safely done but it’s not yet time to go see the accountant.

However. Thanks to the ballooning assortment of esoteric goodies for which not even the largest company has sufficient room, waiting is not an option. Between “last chance” and “limited supply” something unique is going to get sold out soon, and she who hesitates is going to be

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Crapaudine Beet (the Lady Toad), a Root to be Reckoned With

crapaudine and mango salad

Salad of Crapaudine beets, endive and mango, with (optional) sweet cicily

As I see it, my unseemly craving for Crapaudine beets can be blamed squarely on heirloom tomatoes, the gateway drug of historic vegetable addiction. Growing these famously delicious “unimproved” varieties isn’t all that easy,  but it’s not difficult, either, and the pleasure payoff is immense.

So you go along with the tomatoes for a while and then you try maybe a special snap bean saved by somebody’s grandmother. Good! Onward to Black Mexican corn, introduced in the  late 19th century, then lettuce that Thomas Jefferson grew…

In other words, you’re hooked, – or at least I was -  easy prey for a weird beet that was already being called “one of the oldest varieties” in 1882 (in Les Plantes Potagères, translated as The Vegetable Garden, by MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux, a seedsman whose company was founded in 1742).

Crapaudine beet with greens

Crapaudine beets (lady toad is a rough translation from the French), even look pre-modern, from their fat carrot shape to their rough, barklike skin. The triple top on this one is unusual, but the rest is pretty true to form – including that dancing auxiliary root; Crapaudines often fork somewhere, independent of the stoniness of the soil.

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On Starting a Garden

truck garden

Our garden is big. Yours doesn't have to be to yield lots of great food and flowers

I did not hear this in person. Bill did (on Marketplace Money on NPR last Friday). But he couldn’t resist telling me about it, chortling loudly the while.

As well he might. According to him, a garden advisor – whose name he didn’t catch – had pronounced that “if you can’t keep your room swept, you shouldn’t try to garden.”

This struck me as so wildly improbable I thought he must have heard wrong, so I looked it up.

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When To Start the Seeds

seed racks at nursery

This picture (taken at Adams, in Poughkeepsie, NY) is actually a bit of a cheat - I buy almost all of my seeds online, from too many favorite suppliers.* But it does say "time to think about starting seeds” in an unmistakable way.

This year’s gigantic assortment of seeds has finally arrived, bringing with it the usual gigantic dose of buyer’s remorse. I had firmly decided against bulbing onions, for instance, having concluded that purchased plants  -  also available mail order, in convenient bunches of 50 to 75 -  do much better than the plants I start myself.

Yet somehow, mysteriously, here is a packet of heirloom Australian Brown storage onion seeds, roughly 700 incipient plants. Here also are 8 kinds of peas, most of them the kinds that require poles. We cut way back last year and they were sorely missed, but this does not explain where the hell I’m going to put them all. As usual, too many tomatoes, but on the other hand I’m not going to start any eggplants.

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The Gooseberry Fool

Would be me; thinking I could just make some of this classic English dessert, put up the recipe and move on to something gardenly like breeding peonies, growing great basil or one of the many other topics on the tip of my desktop.

However.

Reading up on gooseberry fool – don’t laugh; it turns out to be a much explored subject* – led me into a briar patch of nursery catalogs, from which I have only recently emerged.

gooseberry fool prepared 2 ways

Two ways of serving Gooseberry Fool.

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Tomato Pests (Hornworms) – and THEIR Pests (Braconid wasps)

(female) luna moth, Actias luna

A Luna moth (Actias luna). Not the enemy, even though its children are very large and green.

I don’t have a picture of a hawkmoth, aka sphinx moth or hummingbird moth (so named for its ability to hover and its very long tongue). But if you see one of these gray-brown creatures, almost big enough to pass for a small bird, you’re seeing disaster on the wing. The Hawkmoth’s very large green children are hornworms.

Manduca quinquemaculata or Manduca sexta, tomato or tobacco hornworm

Tomato – or more likely tobacco - hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata or M. sexta), both voracious consumers of tomato, pepper, petunia, tobacco and other plants in the nightshade family.

In our New York and Maine gardens, hornworms usually show up in late July or August. But I’m thinking about them early this year because a Facebook friend in Virginia is already beset.

“Hornworms are eating my tomato plants,” she wrote, “anyone have advice on how to get rid of them?”

But of course!

Try the tips on Hornworm eradication at the end of this post, I replied, and if you get the chance, employ these two major organic defenses:

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Growing Great Lettuce – and The Best Spring Salad Dressing

After years and years of happy harvests, garden mainstays like heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms and armloads of fresh herbs are as familiar as breathing, but every spring I get surprised all over again by the lettuces: how beautiful they are, how delicious, how willing…

And how different from the lettuce at the market, whether super or farmers.’ Being both extremely bulky and highly perishable, first class lettuce is a perfect poster child for home-grown.

panisse lettuce, forellenschuss lettuce

Panisse (left) and Forellensclhuss – one modern, one heirloom. One toothsome, one super-tender. Neither suitable for any but the most local commercial cultivation.

It’s an ever-changing parade, with overlapping performers. First come the mild, mid-green frills of Black Seeded Simpson, dotted around in self-sown clumps, offspring of last year’s late summer’s crop. Then close behind them the classics of spring planting, including our favorite: buttery thick-leafed Webb’s Wonderful.

volunteer black seeded simpson lettuce

Self-sown Black Seeded Simpson, being permitted to stay in place beside the tomato patch. It grows so fast we ignore Rule # 1 and just cut the crowded seedlings by handfuls until we’ve used them up.

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Rhubarb – In Pie and Beyond

Oh dear, HOW has the time passed so quickly (as if gardeners didn’t know). I have now planted 6 kinds of peas, multititudinous onions and leeks, beets and lettuces and other comestibles galore, as well as the first  flowers. Also pruned and deadheaded and mowed and edged and…

Result: blog silence. And here it is time for the next spring fling recipe swap.

rhubarb custard pie

If asparagus comes, can rhubarb be far behind?

This time it’s rhubarb, about which I have had a lot to say over the years on account of because I love it. Please use the search to find everything or go directly to the Rhubarb Custard Pie pictured above.

That post has links to other pies, but if you’re interested in the garden angle

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