When the Garden Gets Ahead of You


Cauliflower Bigger Than Your HeadSooner or later something growing in the garden gets away from me. The lettuce plants go to seed one hot afternoon, the peas fatten up way beyond sweetness, that nice round cabbage turns oblong and splits. But how I managed to miss this monster in development, I will never know.

Just the other day I made a video of the back garden calling this plant collard greens. I almost cooked the leaves! Wonder what that would have tasted like? As it was, I caught this cauliflower at the perfect moment and sent it straight into the curry pot. I simmered it with some newly dug fresh potatoes, onions, green garlic (my new favorite food) and peas.  It took no time at all and will be delicious for days.

When the arugula went nuts this winter and sprouted up faster than we could eat, even with friends pitching in, I cut big batches of it to process into pesto. I simply washed the leaves and stuffed the food processor full of them, drizzled in olive oil, a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Then I tossed this sauce with crushed up walnuts or good Parmesan, or both, and served it over pasta, crackers, spaghetti squash or bruschetta. As the plants got closer to flowering the peppery taste got intense so I added balsamic vinegar to the pesto to cut the spiciness. Delicious!

Onion growing in the groundLast winter there were way more onion plants that there was room, so many of them got tucked into odd spaces in bunches to be scallions or green onions this spring. When those got thick and bushy, I cut the stems, sliced them into rounds on the thin side and put them in the dehydrator. Not too long though! The first batch didn’t hold color and flavor as well as I wanted because I must have dried them too hot or too long. The rest came out a beautiful green, with good onion flavor that will keep the rest of the year.

When I don’t pick the peas as regularly as I should, I let the pods that are now too big to eat fatten on the plant until they dry. The best ones I save for seed. The rest I store like my dried beans and toss them into soups over the winter. I do essentially the same with hot peppers. Grinding up the whole peppers once they are thoroughly dried. Though this year I plan to ferment many of them into homemade Tabasco sauce.

Any fava beans and ready-to-bolt cold weather crops I didn’t keep up with are about to become compost, which is also a worthy goal. If your vegetable plant gets past you as food this time, you can always turn it into something delicious next season by thinking of the plant as much-needed biomass and adding it to the compost pile. Toss it in there with the coffee grounds and dried leaves and fertilize next season’s dinners with whatever gets ahead of you now.

Salad Days

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Green onionWe actually managed to over-winter a few loose-leaf varieties of lettuce and a surprisingly hardy French chicory whose leaves turned a gorgeous deep burgundy in the cold weather. But most of our winter salads are made of chard, spinach, mustard greens, beet greens, radish sprouts, arugula and green onions we discovered bursting out of a compost pile. Now that we are on the far side of the Winter Solstice, I’m starting the Asian greens–the Pac Chois and Chinese Asparagus–and a much more expansive salad garden.

I chose High Mowing Seeds ‘Beta Mix’ to anchor the salad garden this spring. It’s a blend of beet and chard varieties that should have no trouble germinating even if we have a cold February. Of course, that’s anybody’s guess. The next ten days of weather here call for Sunny and 60’s which will make a wonderful germination window for just about anything I want to plant as long as I can keep all the seedbeds moist enough.

I plan to include spinach, mostly the Guntmadingen from Adaptive Seed, several Romaine varieties and some ‘Rubin’ lettuce they gave me yesterday when I made the pilgrimage to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Petaluma. The ‘Rubin’ leaves have a warm red-gold color that just has to be good for you.

If I can bear to cut and compost more of the favas and other cover crops, I’ll also put in some of Territorial Seeds Italian Saladini blend. But the problem with lettuces is that you really don’t want them all at once, you want them over time. Unfortunately, the window of optimal eating for any individual lettuce plant is actually very short. I’m using two different strategies to try to keep the family in salads this spring. First, I’m planting mixed varieties, so not all the plants in the mix are ready at once. And, second, I’m planting in small sections every couple of weeks from here until the weather gets settled and really warm and we switch over to eating orach and other summer greens and tomatoes and cucumbers fill our salad bowls.

Are you starting the spring salad garden yet? What are you putting in this year?

The December Garden

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Yacon Flowers

The tasty tubers are much bigger than the bright flowers

I apologize if it sounds a little sad to say that the yacon plant’s reward for making these sweet little flowers was that we ripped it out of the ground, ate it’s tubers and cut it’s roots into five separate sections before replanting them.  I couldn’t help it. It was delicious. Yacon, also called “Bolivian Sunroot,” has a crisp, fruity tuber that ads a satisfying crunch to salads and can be prepared a number of different ways. I bought this one on a lark from Pam Peirce when she was visiting Common Ground. Now that I have tasted them, I hope to have a stand of five plants next year. They can get as tall as 6′ and should make a nice visual break between the front garden beds and the street.

Red and green tomatoes in December

Glacier Tomatoes ripening in December

I brought in the last of the peppers, eggplant and Armenian cucumbers right after Thanksgiving. If you had to eat out of the garden right now in mid-December, you could have spinach, kale, chard, arugula, lettuce, green onions, a couple snap or snow peas, mustard greens, broccoli, cabbage (the loose leaf kinds anyway), rutabagas, turnip greens, chicory, sorrel, radishes, rosemary or thyme, and tomatoes. Seriously. I have tomato plants flowering and setting fruit, in December. I put the ‘Glacier‘ tomatoes my mother-in-law sent over in large pots, uncovered so pollinators could get to them, on the patio set against a south-facing wall. It’s a cozy spot, sure, but we had frost for days running a week or two ago. These tomato plants do not care. And who am I to argue?

Seed flat

Keep 'em coming

This week the plan is to set out transplants we have grown of more arugula, chard, kale, Osaka Purple mustard, Chinese asparagus, winter leeks and mesclun mix. And to seed new flats of rutabagas and spinach. If I get to it before the rains come back, I’m going to try a stand of Alderman shelling peas near where I put in the Green Beauty snow peas. They aren’t in a well protected spot, but last year I had both snow and snap peas grow right through the winter. Frost got some of the pods, but the plants survived and flowered again.

All the weather folks keep telling me to expect an unusually wet and cold winter, which sounds an awful lot like the summer we just had, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Yesterday it was 65 degrees. Those tomatoes were probably sweating. ;-)

Up the Bean Pole

White Emergo Pole Beans

White Emergo Pole Beans

Remember that crazy thing we did this winter with a dozen or more varieties of peas? Well, I think it’s happening again, this time with beans. White beans, black beans, heirlooms, perennials and beans with packaging in languages I can barely understand. Ever wonder what the opposite of monocropping would be? Stop by and I’ll show you.

We like green beans, especially if Chinese sauces are involved. But most of these beans are intended for drying. This winter they will turn into chili and baked beans and hearty soups.

Tarahumara Black Bean Trellis

Sprouting Tarahumara Black Beans

Some of the beans are heirloom black beans traditionally grown by the Tarahumara. We are trying both the bush variety and the pole beans. They are used to a very dry climate and I initially over-watered the bush beans giving them “chlorosis” which is a yellowing of the young leaves that occurs when you give them so much water that you actually wash away some of the nutrients they need for photosynthesis. Oops! I mulched them with some Happy Frog and cut back on the water and they seem much happier now. It helps that it’s not over 90 degrees any more.

Druzba Tomato and Hutterite Soup Beans

Eastern European Cousins

Another interesting variety we have in the garden right now is the Hutterite Soup Bean. Seeds of Change says these beans immigrated to the U.S. in the 1760’s with a religious group from Austria. Which sounds nice and is about all you can fit on the back of a seed pack, but the Hutterite’s have a rich and interesting history. And let’s hope they have some good soup recipes too, because these beans sound delicious so far. In homage to their Eastern European connections the Hutterite Soup beans are interplanted with a Druzba tomato, an heirloom from Bulgaria. They may actually be planted a whole lot too close for comfort. In my research about the Hutterite beans, I came across one site that recommended planting them 18″ apart. I’m lucky if mine are 3″!

Contender Bean Pods

Our First Contender

The first beans planted in the garden this year, Contenders planted on March 30th, no less, were the first ones to give us pods. I’m surprised they didn’t curl up and die from the cold. I know I nearly did! I planted a tiny patch of them, maybe a dozen plants, just to see if it was warm enough to sprout beans yet. I have been cautiously adding different varieties to the garden since mid-April when these came up looking no worse for wear. So far the list includes:


White Emergo
Christmas‘ Limas
Fagiolo di Spagna ‘Spagna Bianco
Bush Black Beans ‘Tarahumara Ejotero Negro
Hutterite Soup Bean
Swedish Brown
Pole Black Beans ‘Tarahumara Chokame
California Blackeye Pea
And I have some Fin de Bagnol seeds around here ready to slip into a spot where nothing else is growing yet.
Why didn’t I get more pole bean seeds? They are so much easier to find room for. Though I think the real question will be, how many beans of a given variety do I need to plant in order to save enough dry beans to cook something from them? I guess we’ll find out.

Starting Seeds – Take Two

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The Mary Washington asparagus crowns never did sprout. It’s been a long, wet, cold spring here. Maybe they are still down there thinking about it. Probably the ground was too cold and wet when I put them in and they have succumbed to rot. I will dig them up when the sweet potato slips arrive from Sand Hill Preservation and see. In the mean time, I am starting asparagus from seed. Italian seed, no less. The packet says, “Asparago Precoce d’Argentuil” which I am pretty sure means early asparagus and leaves a bit to be desired on the descriptive end. For $2.99 I figured it was worth a try. I’ve already lost this year’s growth since the 1-year-old crowns didn’t make it and I really want enough asparagus to pickle some eventually. I broke down and bought asparagus this year, planning to pickle some of it, but we devoured it.

And speaking of things being devoured. Where are my beautiful Appaloosa beans? I know I planted an entire 4′ x 4′ of them! OK, it was mid-April. And that same wet, cold rainy spring that I mentioned earlier. But still, they are in a raised bed against the house in a nice sunny spot. ONE bean came up–and something ate the top of it off. Ugh. Remind me to reseed that planter bed now that it is finally warming up. Where did I just read not to rush to plant your bean seeds because you will just end up wasting a lot of seeds? Sometimes I think I am just gardening to learn patience.

But then I have a week of eating like we just had. I have a big board in the kitchen and last weekend I wrote down everything in or from the garden that was ready for us to eat; shell peas and snap peas, potatoes, salad greens, spinach, chard, beets, green onions, strawberries, oregano, celery, chives, carrots and the last of the kale and parsnips. Then I set about eating or finding a way to preserve all of it. It was actually fun trying to ‘live off the land’ there for a little while. And the vegetable curry I prepared in the middle of the week made it all worth while.

Today I also started some of the Principe Borghese tomatoes that I love for drying. I know, it’s mid-May. But last year, I was wishing I had started a second round of them by the time the first group were finished and the tomatoes were all in the dryer. Assuming it ever warms up this year, I may want them again. I also started Bottle, Dipper and Corsican Hard-shelled gourds. It’s probably warm enough for them to sprout outside, the watermelons and pumpkins are coming up, but I figured, why torture the poor things? They can get started under the grow lights with the last of the peppers and go into the garden when it really is ready for them. Plus, I don’t know where I am going to put them yet. And there’s all those sweet potatoes yet to fit in.

And did I mention that I started 40 or so quinoa plants? I was thinking about experimenting with a quinoa and sunflower version of The Three Sisters. I got some nice looking Hopi sunflowers from Native Seeds to mix in with the quinoa. I started a couple varieties of pumpkins in the bin to shade the soil and keep the weeds down. And I’m wondering if I can grow some pole beans up the quinoa. I think the sunflowers will be strong enough. The quinoa part might be crazy. I’m still reading up on it.