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[Obviously, I’m a bit behind on my garden blogging this year. Okay, much more so than usual. If I have any readers left, however, they will be relieved to know that I am not behind on my garden planting; there is plenty going on there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to catch up. Please note, though, that many of the posts will contain very little text, if any.]

Well, so much for 2014.

It was a long one, trying in many ways, but in the end a good year. That was true for life in general and for the garden in specific.

What worked and what didn’t? Let’s start with the negatives.

Growing herbs from seed: It’s a wonderful concept and something that promises the heat of summer in the dead of winter. I started thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, spearmint, and sage at the end of January last year with high hopes. The only seeds to germinate were the rosemary (perhaps two) and the basil.

I sowed a second batch of thyme, oregano, spearmint, and sage in early March, this time with fresh seeds. The germination rate was much better but the growth of the seedlings was slow. They did not need potting up until the end of April and we didn’t set them out until late June (everything was late last year due to the harsh winter). My conclusion is that herbs are best purchased as seedlings.

Eggplant and peppers: These are not exactly negatives—we had a decent harvest—but they needed extensive feedings (weekly) and did not produce ripe fruit until the early fall. It is possible that I planted them too close to each other (again!) and this year, we will give them even more space. I’m determined to make them work because their flavor is so much better than what you can get at the market, even the farmers’ market.

Photo by Rachel

Radishes and carrots: It pains me that neither the radishes nor the carrots performed well last year—or the two prior years, for that matter. Radishes in particular are supposed to be one of the easiest vegetables to grow. They are also supposed to be quick to mature. In our experience, they are quick to sprout but then their growth slows to a crawl. Carrots are slow in all respects.

With most of the root vegetables, we have also had the problem of too many greens and not enough roots. It’s not a huge problem—I enjoy radish, beet, and turnip greens as much as I enjoy radishes, beets, and turnips—which is a good thing because there does not seem to be anything to be done about it. We will continue to try different varieties to see what works best in our garden.

Cucumbers and summer squash: Like radishes, summer squash is supposed to be easy. It is also supposed to be prolific. Not for us. We had enough but leaving sacks of zucchini and cucumbers on the neighbors’ doorsteps was never an option. This is another case where finding the right variety—a trial and error approach—is really the only solution.

Photo by Rachel

And now, the positives.

Lettuce from seed, indoors: Sure, the germination rate of lettuce seeds is abysmally low but there’s no reason not to sow a hundred seeds at a time. If too many sprout, they can be culled and used as micro-greens (in salads arranged with tweezers!). More likely, only just enough will grow to fill out the planter.

We use window boxes that fit nicely on the bottom shelf of our seed-starting apparatus. We keep one fluorescent light fixture on them continuously (controlled by a timer) and so I only need to remember to water them every other day or so to maintain a steady harvest. If I can figure out a safe way to automatically irrigate the boxes (without fear of flooding the basement!), then the process will be perfect.

Photo by Rachel

Sugar Snap peas: Peas with edible pods are tied with turnips as my favorite home garden vegetable. They are the first to start outdoors (theoretically, as early as March 17) and quickly add a touch of spring green to the garden. The sprouts are useful whether raw, as a topping for crostini, say, or cooked in a stir-fry. The blossoms are beautiful and once the vines start producing, they continue for weeks.

Turnips and beets: Turnips are my co-favorite home garden vegetable both because they are easy to grow and are versatile. Unlike the other root vegetables, we’ve never had a problem with too many greens, which are delicious raw (in a salad, usually) or sautéed (e.g., with onions and garlic). Likewise, the roots can be eaten raw—thinly sliced, with bitter greens and a honey-based dressing—or cooked. I don’t know why more chefs haven’t included them in their farm-to-table menus.

Beets are slightly more problematic and sometimes the roots suffer due to over-abundant greens growth. On the other hand, they are very resilient and last until early fall. (And for all I know, they could over-winter in the ground without damage.) Despite the additional effort needed to spur their root growth, home-grown beets are worth it. Nothing beats the earthy flavor of beets, pulled from the ground and roasted in a hot oven. That’s terroir defined.

Tomatoes: As in previous years, we planted twelve vines last year but only six in a raised bed. The other six we planted in the ground, in alternation with the summer squashes. Also unlike ever before, we only placed one tomato vine per cage. More experienced gardeners might be saying, “Duh!”, but we’ve finally arrived at the conclusion that the tomatoes are easier to manage (by which I mean, easier to keep pruned) when they have more space between them.

Photo by Rachel

We also benefited from an unusual late-season growth spurt last year; our vines were still producing fruit in mid-November. It was odd, but in a delightful sort of way. Having fresh tomatoes in the fall—which were still green, for the most part—made us think about them in a different way. Whereas the soft, ripe, red tomatoes of summer were best eaten raw, the firmer, tart, green fall tomatoes tasted better in cooked dishes.

String beans: Pole and bush beans are another vegetable on the too-short list of reliable producers. Their preferred schedule (mid-summer to early fall) makes them the perfect candidate to follow the Sugar Snap peas when they start to peter out. Like the peas, beans sprout quickly, climb their trellis rapidly (one can almost see them creeping upwards), and supply an abundant crop of crisp, brightly-flavored beans that last for an extended period. They are a good choice to end the growing season.

Well, the temperature never dropped below 40 degrees, so there was no real danger of frost.  Yes, 40 degrees is cold—more wintery than autumnal—but not low enough to damage anything.  Still, everybody (people included) will be moving slowly until the sun warms us up again.

Of course, the frost warning underscores the fact that we are in an end-of-season race with the weather.  We have plenty of fruit—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, string beans and squash—that could potentially ripen if given enough time.  The question is, will a damaging frost or freeze occur before the vegetables are ready for harvest?  It’ll be a closer finish than I think because the days are shorter and the garden more shaded than in summer.

If the summer squashes froze, it would be no great loss; they have yielded many fruits already this year and, in fact, this is the first season that we have actually had enough.  The same is true of the string beans.  We will make one more search through the vines to collect the stragglers before pulling the vines out.

There are many tomatoes left and it would be a shame if most of them cannot reach maturity.  On the other hand, there is plenty that can be done with them when green.

We didn’t get many bell peppers but we did enjoy the few we had (with sausage and onions).  There are several in the earliest stages of development (right now, they are green miniatures of their full-grown selves).  It would be nice to have a few more but I consider this year’s experience to be research into ways to achieve better success next year.

My main hope is that the eggplants can survive until they are ready for harvest.  At their current size of about three inches in length, they would not make much of a meal (although I’m sure that they will be delicious at any size).  If we are lucky, however, they will continue to enlarge until big enough for us to throw on the grill or roast in the oven.  Two of them have a good chance; the others are questionable.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Believe it or not (I almost do not), we still have carrots, beets and turnips in the ground.  We’ve been storing them in place until we are ready to eat them.  Based on prior experience, the root vegetables experience no loss of firmness or flavor as a result of continued exposure to soil and the elements.

In the last few days, however, I have noticed that the greens are starting to look a bit tired.  Eight hours a day of unfiltered sunlight takes a lot out of a leaf.  Also, we are getting into fall now and the color of the leaves is changing.  I’m not talking about autumn reds and oranges; vegetable coloratura this is not.  But the green is fading and streaks of yellow and brown run through the leaves here and there.

Besides, these veggies were planted in the spring!  If we had sowed a second batch of seeds in late summer, they might be ripening about now.  The last of the carrots, beets and turnips are well past their intended season.

So, we pulled up all of them.

There were only a few turnips left, anyway (we’ve been intermittently grabbing two or three to add to salads these past weeks).  I’ve been saving their greens—they keep well in the refrigerator—but we found this last batch infested with caterpillars.  Most likely, these are the same critters who chewed the cauliflower leaves into lace.  With their preferred meal long gone, I suppose, they found the turnip greens to be just as delicious.

Likewise, just four carrots remained.  This is due more to the poor performance of the crop than our use of them in the kitchen.  Still, these final four are the best of the season, full-sized and full of flavor.  Two of the four are of the Atomic Red variety.  The color comes from lycopene (or so says the seed catalog), the same beneficial anti-oxidant in tomatoes.  Of the multi-colored varieties we planted this year (also, Purple Dragon, Red Samurai, Royal Chantenay, Snow White and Yellowstone), the Atomic Red have the sweetest flavor (and possibly the coolest name).

I’m happy to say that almost an entire row of beets had been waiting for us.  Most of them are Chioggia, which when sliced crosswise, display concentric circles of red and white flesh (the outside is always red).  There are only a few Touchstone Gold beets and they are generally smaller than the Chioggias.  The sparsity and scarcity (relatively speaking) are representative of their relative performance all year.  Although their color is lovely and bleeds into the leaves, giving them a yellow glow, the golden beets do not seem well suited to our soil conditions.

While we were at it, we harvested the first three ripe bell peppers.  What a happy trio they turned out to be.  They remained in the garden about three weeks longer than we anticipated but the extra time was well spent.  They never completely lost a slight tinge of green but even so, their colors are brilliant.  A long sweat over low heat (along with onions from the farmers’ market) should deepen their hues and intensify their sweetness.

Lately, I’ve been concerned about the beets.  The first batch has been sitting in the ground since April.  How can they possibly need more time?  Their leaves are a beautiful, dark green color that signifies their high concentration of iron.  But are they still okay after all of this time in the ground, exposed to the summer heat?

To find out, we pulled up the entire first row.  They range in size from marble to baseball and all of them are firm and dry.  They show no signs of rot or other decay.  Also, the growth patterns of the Chioggia (red) and Touchstone Gold beets appear to be essentially identical.

From this, I conclude that any issues (and perhaps that is too strong a word) have to do with the growing conditions and not with the particular beet variety.  Most likely, our soil had too much Nitrogen (which promotes the growth of the greens) to begin with.  Then, when the weather turned hot and the beets were still in the ground, they went into self-preservation mode.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the beets have survived safely in the ground.  Beets are excellent storage vegetables and can be kept for long periods of time if they are protected from light and moisture.  A farmer friend of ours packs his surplus crop in sand-filled wooden crates in which they pass the winter, stacked in the basement of one of his barns.

We won’t keep ours that long.  One night soon, when it is cool enough to run the oven, we will roast them with olive oil and salt and then chop them into a salad with arugula and goat cheese.  The greens, which we carefully cleaned of mulch and soil (but did not wash so as to keep them dry), we will sauté with garlic and onions.

We ended up with a few pounds of green tomatoes this year, fruit that started to develop in the early days of September but which languished on the vine as the daylight dwindled.  They are beautiful in their varied—and variegated—shades of green and still good to eat.

We contemplated breading and frying them in the classic southern style or perhaps pickling them (I prefer pickled tomatoes to pickled cucumbers and consider them a delectable deli treat).  But then Rachel found a recipe for Cherry Tomato and Yellow Squash Crumble in the July/August issue of Vegetarian Times magazine.  The dish looked tasty.

Of course, we have neither cherry tomatoes nor yellow squash but I liked the idea of a savory crumble (fruit crumbles are among my favorite dessert dishes).  So we substituted our green tomatoes and upsized to a medium onion (to account for the missing squash).  And I confess that we probably used more than a half-cup of grated Swiss cheese (okay, we used at least twice as much).

Despite our modifications (or perhaps because of them), the crumble was absolutely delicious.  I highly recommend it to anyone who still has green tomatoes to dispose of (and I suspect that the original dish is good, too, for those lucky enough to have ripe cherry tomatoes and squash of any color this late in the year).