Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seed Starting Update: Peppers & Brussel Sprouts

Today was pepper starting day! I used to start peppers and tomatoes on the same day, but I'd end up repotting the tomatoes two or three times before they made it to the garden. I doubt I really got that much of a head start that way, so this year I'm planting the tomatoes the minimum of six weeks before they go out in the garden. I'm giving the peppers the full eight weeks though, because they take a while to size up. It's somewhat depressing to realize that it's still a full eight weeks before I'll be planting my warm weather plants out.

I prepared my seed trays, and the first packet of seeds I opened was Chervena Chushka. This is a new pepper for me this year. It's supposed to be prolific and sugar sweet. I thought it would be excellent for salads and relishes, as well as for snacking. I was extremely disappointed to open the packet and find only two seeds. The packet was supposed to have 25, and I needed to plant 12 to fulfill my needs and my friends that had requested this type. I didn't want to mess around with planting two seeds, so I pulled out a 2012 packet of Big Red peppers from Pinetree and planted those instead. I also emailed Seed Savers to let them know my packet was under-filled. I hope they send me a new one; those peppers sounded delicious!

Here's what peppers got planted today:
Big Red (sweet)
Bull Nose Bell (sweet)
Chocolate Beauty (sweet)
Mini Yellow Bell (sweet)
Jalapeno (hot)
Chinese Ornamental (hot)
Joe's Cayenne (hot)

I'm hoping the sweet peppers do well; I've always had hit or miss luck with them. I'm planting 32 pepper plants total, and at least 24 of them will be sweet peppers. I need a lot for roasted tomato sauce, salsa, and relish, and I want to have a lot of chopped peppers in the freezer to use for chili.

I also planted my brussel sprouts today (Long Island Improved).

It's gorgeous outside (compared to our previous weather; today it's in the 40's), so I might try to stake out the hedge garden border. If I can get a shovel in the ground, I'd like to plant my currant bushes tomorrow.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Seed Starting Update: Alliums, Brassicas & Herbs

Today was the third seed-starting day of the 2014 gardening season. I have now filled an entire shelf on my grow rack.

Seed Starting Shelves

I planted the onions and leeks on February 16, and they received their first haircut last weekend. They're looking great.

Onion Seedlings

Last weekend, I started broccoli, cauliflower, celery, eggplant, head lettuce, and chives. The celery, eggplant, and chives haven't germinated yet. I put the eggplant seeds on a heat mat today to help with germination. The broccoli & cauliflower are looking great, but the lettuce was easiest to photograph.

Red Iceberg Lettuce Seedlings

Today I seeded herbs, including basil, cilantro, dill, fennel, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, and thyme. Some of the plants don't really need to be started early (cilantro for sure), but I'm looking forward to having an early crop and then seeding successive crops in the garden.

Speaking of the garden, the snow is gone! I haven't walked out there yet, but the weeds that I didn't get to last fall are definitely waiting for me. One bed is planted with garlic and covered in a loose layer of hay. I hope to see some green shoots poking up there soon.

Backyard Garden After Spring Thaw

Yesterday I got my first delivery of cuttings for the edible hedge—a dozen red currant plants. Given that we have snow in the forecast tomorrow, and we haven't yet staked out the border, they'll be hanging out in the garage for a week. I'm confident we can stake the border next weekend and get the currant plants in on Sunday. The rest should arrive in mid April.

This is going to be quite the transformational year for the back yard. In addition to the hedge planting, we'll be adding an arbor with a gate, finally having a full season of vegetables, and we'll be adding a patio outside the dining room. It should give us some excellent outdoor living space to enjoy a Wisconsin summer.

Next week, it's time to start peppers!!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Planning An Edible Hedge

As I look outside the window towards my garden, I can't even make out where the beds are because we've gotten so much snow this winter. More snow is falling as I write this, but I'm thinking of spring.

I last wrote in January, when I ordered my seeds. They have all arrived, and the leeks and onions were started on February 16. They're up and looking great. I'll start chronicling seed starting more in earnest when I start more plants in March.

I haven't shared my 2014 garden plan yet. It is mighty ambitious. Take a look:

We live in a subdivision that doesn't allow fenced yards, so I'm choosing to grow an edible hedge instead (I may sink chicken wire on the inside if we still have a problem with critters—only time will tell). I just placed the order today, and it was pretty overwhelming. To create a 35' x 60' hedgerow, we'll need:

  • Caroline Raspberries (9) - fall bearing
  • Red Lantham Raspberries (9) - spring/summer bearing
  • Hinnomaki Red Gooseberries (12) - fall bearing
  • Red Lake Currants (12) - July bearing
  • Hansen's Bush Cherries (12) - summer bearing
These varieties were readily available from Gurney's, which appears to be a reliable source, and I got an excellent price. They have a coupon code in March that gives you $100 off an order of $200 or more. When all was said and done, these bushes were going to cost just over $500. So, I split my order into three, threw in the asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries I needed....and ended up getting some landscaping bushes for the front of the house for a grand total of $310 + $75 shipping. That sounds like a lot for plants, but when you consider what it would cost to fence in this area (which wouldn't provide a delicious harvest), I think it's worth it. Also, I just got a credit card in the mail that has 0% interest for a year, so I can continue to use my monthly gardening budget to pay it off while I'm already reaping the benefits of the plants.

I can't wait to see what this looks like. All the bushes should grow to be 3'-5' tall, and after a few years of filling in I think they'll look wonderful—particularly in the spring when they're all in bloom. The gap in the hedge at the top of the plan will be an arbor with a gate. I got some free morning glories with one of my Seed Savers Exchange shipments, so maybe I'll grow them over the top of the arbor.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2014 Seed Order

You didn't hear from me much last year because I was without a garden. However, by September we had all the raised beds constructed and filled in the back yard, so it will be full steam ahead in 2014! Look at all the growing space I have:

That's eight 3'x3' beds, and 16 8'x3' beds (set up in adjacent pairs).

I've been using some garden planning software to lay everything out and plan for succession planting. Even with so much space, I'm still tempted to overdo things. There are currently 75 cloves of garlic (Music) planted, and the following seeds have either been ordered or will soon be ordered. Time to start a seed starting calendar!

  • Arugula 
  • Asparagus: Jersey Knight Hybrid
  • Bush Beans: Royal Burgundy
  • Fava Beans: Windsor 
  • Beets: Cylindra, Golden, Chioggia 
  • Broccoli: Calabrese, De Cicco
  • Brussell Sprouts: Long Island Improved
  • Cabbage:Premium Late Flat Dutch
  • Carrots: Cosmic Purple. St. Valery
  • Cauliflower: Early Snowball
  • Celery: Tall Utah
  • Chard: Rhubarb Red
  • Corn: Blue Jade, Bear Paw Popcorn
  • Cucumbers: Parade, Crystal Apple
  • Eggplant: Black Beauty
  • Genovese Basil
  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Bouquet Dill
  • Garlic Chives
  • Florence Fennel
  • Mint
  • Greek Oregano
  • Giant from Italy Parsley
  • Green Culinary Sage
  • Thyme
  • Kale: Halbhoher Gruner Krauser, Red Russian
  • Lettuce: Forrellenschluss, Red Iceberg, Green Oakleaf, Tango
  • Leeks: Blue Solaise
  • Onions: Alisa Craig Exhibition, Yellow Sweet Spanish
  • Peas: Sugar Lace, Mammoth Melting Sugar Snow Pea
  • Sweet Peppers: Chervena Chushka, Bull Nose Bell, Chocolate Beauty, Miniature Yellow Bell
  • Hot Peppers: Chinese Ornamental, Joe’s Long Cayenne, Jalapeno Traveler Strain
  • Potatoes: Purple Viking, Yukon Gold
  • Radishes: Cherry Belle, French Breakfast
  • Rutabaga: Joan
  • Spinach: America, Strawberry Spinach
  • Summer Squash: Black Beauty Zucchini, Golden Zucchini 
  • Winter Squash: Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck, Waltham Butternut, Table Queen
  • Strawberries: Honeoye
  • Determinate Tomatoes: Rutgers, Oregon Spring, Tip-Top, Principe Borghese, Roma, Martin’s Roma, Silvery Fir Tree
  • Indeterminate Tomatoes: Brandywine, Blondkopfchen, Dr. Wyche’s Yellow, Dester, Italian Heirloom, Riesentraube
  • Tomatillo

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Common CSA Dilemma: Too Much Kale

This is what happens when you get one week behind eating all the kale in your CSA:

Over the last two years, I've learned to like Kale. However, this week I've got lots of other great stuff to eat in our CSA share, including three different type of fresh greens that I won't be able to preserve. So, this kale is destined for the freezer. It took me less than hour to convert this into meal-sized servings in our freezer. I know a lot of people that find themselves with too much kale at once, so I figured I'd provide a step by step guide to deal with it.

First, de-stem and wash all your kale. I filled up an entire sink with cold water and it was able to handle this bunch. You'll be left with some tough stems that you probably don't want to eat; bonus points if you cut them into little pieces for compost.

In manageable batches, chop the kale into small - medium pieces, just as you would if you were cooking it for dinner. I put all of my chopped kale into a large stainless steel bowl (it filled it).

Next, prep your cooktop. You'll need a large pot of boiling water, a basket for blanching (or a slotted spoon if you plan to fish all the bits of kale out individually), and a container to safely transport the steaming hot kale back to the sink. Here's my setup (from left to right: large bowl of fresh, chopped kale, wire basket, boiling water, empty bowl).

Place some of the fresh kale in the wire basket (be sure not to add more than your pot can handle). Place the basket in the boiling water, mixing the kale around to make sure it's all covered with water. Blanch for two minutes. (If you don't have a basket, you can put the kale directly in the water, but you'll need to fish it out with a slotted spoon). The kale should be bright green.

After two minutes, remove the kale and let the water drip for a couple seconds. Place the basket in the empty bowl for transport to a waiting, empty sink. Immediately rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Get your hands in there and make sure you don't leave any warm spots.

Remove as much water from the kale as possible (I just used a spatula to press it against the basket). Measure the amount of kale you normally eat with a meal or in your favorite recipe, and place it in a freezer bag. Remove as much air as possible (you can use a FoodSaver, but I just used a straw and some quick moves with my fingers). Place in the freezer, and use throughout the fall and winter as you normally would use cooked kale (it will likely need a few more minutes of cooking when you use it).

I ended up with 7 cups of kale. My favorite way to cook it is sautéed with olive oil, onions and garlic, then placed over a hearty grain or toasted bread and topped with a soft boiled egg. Yum.

How do you use up your extra kale?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Driveway Container Garden

We are still eagerly awaiting the arrival of the construction crew to backfill our yard and seed our lawn. Until then, construction of Gross Farms 2.0 is on hold.

However, I couldn't take another day without something edible growing outside our home. This morning we took a trip to the greenhouse and farmers market to get some things growing in pots. I was careful not to go overboard, but make sure we had all of the herbs we like to use fresh.

First, at the greenhouse we came across a beautiful clay planter planted with four different varieties of rosemary. For the cost of what we would normally pay for the empty planter, we have excellent starts of one of our favorite herbs that is very hard to grow here. Yes, I know rosemary grows like a weed in some climates, but it's mainly an annual for us so it's hard to get it growing to a size suitable for harvest until late in the season. From left to right, the varieties are Foxtail, Spice Island, Common Rosemary, and Gold Dust.

The next planter was rescued from the garden pile in our garage and filled with starts picked up at the farmers market. It includes chives in the middle, flanked by parsley and cilantro. There's a basil plant on each end, although the top of one broke off when I transplanted it. There are tiny leaves left below where the stem broke, so I'm cautiously optimistic that it will regenerate. 

While at the greenhouse I came across some attractive, yet affordable plastic circular planters. In the largest I planted Fernleaf Dill surrounded by sage, Italian Oregano, Hot & Spice Oregano (a variety I've never heard of but had to try) and thyme. Hopefully this plant will be overflowing with herbs in a few weeks.

We purchased three of the smaller version of this pot, and each holds its own pepper plant. We got Jimmy Nardello for a sweet pepper, Kung Pao for a medium pepper, and Thai Chili for a hot pepper. I may edge these containers with flowers (nasturtiums?) as the peppers get a bit bigger. Rounding out the driveway gang is another pot of basil (aquaponicly grown basil we got at a dinner last night—I hope it adapts to the soil) and a small pot of spearmint. 

We only get late morning/afternoon sun in the driveway and afternoon sun on the porch. These containers really belong in the back yard but we can't do that until the dirt pile is knocked down. Hopefully they'll do alright in their current location for a few weeks.

Our CSA should be starting any week now, so my need for greens should be fulfilled. I can't wait to start building the new garden.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

No Garden This Year

I haven't updated the blog with the realization that hit me just before we moved into our new house: we won't have a garden this year. Why is that, you ask? Well, it's mid-May and our backyard looks like this:

Until that dirt pile moves and our yard is graded, there will be no garden construction. Unfortunately, we don't know when that will happen. It could be next week, or "sometime before July 4." You can't really tell in this picture, but the yard really is a good size. Right now, we're planning on using the back 35' of the lot for the garden, which will still leave us with a large yard. Of course, all plans are subject to change until the actual garden goes in, but this is what I'm currently thinking of using for a layout:

This plot is approximately 60' x 35' and features a living fence (hedgerow). I'm not exactly sure what I will plant yet, but I want it all to be edible. The key is to find plants that will all grow to roughly the same height (I would like 4-5 feet) and won't be damaged with a little pruning. Our backyard is open to all of our neighbors, so I want the hedgerow to be presentable.

Our new neighborhood has bylaws that restrict fence building. If I were to get approval to build a fence, it would have to match the character of the house, meaning it would be very expensive. I think a living fence is a good compromise - I can sink chicken wire on the inside to keep out critters, and all my neighbors will see is the hedge.

The beds in the plan are 3' x 16' and 3' x 3', giving me 456 square feet of growing space in the beds. My previous garden had six 4' x 16' beds (384 feet). I know I definitely want more space than I had in my last garden, and I'm a bit too short to reach the center of a 4' bed. I'm using the long and square beds because I want to try to plant each bed in the same family for crop rotation purposes...and a 3' x 16' bed of some plant families might be a bit much. It also gives me flexibility in terms of early/late season planting to make the most use of the space.

I anticipate that at least one of the 3' x 3' beds will be planted with strawberries and another with rhubarb, and one of the 3' x 16' beds might get planted full of asparagus. Perennial herbs may not be a concern, because I have plenty of other areas to landscape around the house and could work my favorites (chives, oregano, thyme) into the landscape.

I hope to have the garden in by fall so I can plant garlic, and maybe get a cold frame growing to overwinter some spinach and other greens. In the meantime, I've signed up for a CSA with Three Brothers Farm. They're just five miles from my house and in their second year of transition to organic. They've told me I can visit whenever I like, and they're planning some formal on-farm events. Hopefully this will satisfy my need to get my hands in the dirt.

So, this year the blog will probably be a combination of CSA photos and related recipes and an update on garden construction. I'm starting to feel the void where my gardening (and fresh produce) normally is this time of year, but hopefully our new garden will be even better. We learned a lot at out last house, and hopefully can avoid a few mistakes this time around.