Bridging the Hungry Gap at Dirt to Dinner

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Fresh peas

No Time to Cook These Peas

Historically speaking, this time of year was often referred to as the ‘hungry gap’ when food stored for the winter was running low–or running out–and spring crops had yet to produce. But this year the Dirt to Dinner garden is doing its best to bridge the hungry gap.

Yesterday we picked a big bowl full of ‘Petit Pois‘ shelling peas so sweet we ate every last one of them before we even started cooking. Today we tried the ‘Telephono‘ peas.  And there are four other varieties of peas ready to pick and six coming on soon.

There are lettuces for salad, along with celery, spinach and the last of the wintered-over kale, arugula, scallions and snow peas. There are still some carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips and radishes in the ground. And the potato patch planted on Christmas is just starting to pass its peak of leaf growth. If we reached around under those slightly weathered branches, I’m sure we could find some new potatoes. And we may have to, as the last Dirt to Dinner ‘All Blue’ potato accompanied a pot roast into the slow cooker earlier this week.

Mini Purplette Onions

'Purplette' Onions Before the Dryer

There are plenty of herbs around to flavor whatever we do find to eat. We have chives, sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary and parsley all doing well, and some marjoram trying to fight its way back to full vigor. Some of the herbs are already finding their way into the dehydrator. Today we did three full trays of thyme leaves. Tomorrow I plan to add slices of green onion to the drying list as there are beautiful stems of ‘Purplette Bunching’ onions ready in the middle of the asparagus bed. There are also bulbing onions tucked here and there around the garden that we could pull and eat if we needed to.

But, thankfully, we don’t. We can wait and plot and plan for summer’s tomatoes, basil, beans, cucumbers, squash and melons. And sip fresh lemonade as we count the blossoms on the apricot, cherry, nectarine and apple trees. For this year at least, no one will be hungry in the Dirt to Dinner garden.

Melons by the Moon

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Melon varieties

Seven Select Melons

The Old Farmer’s Almanac includes this weekend on the list of “Moon-favorable” dates to plant melons, which is a good enough excuse for me. Though I did check the soil temperature in the beds slated for the melons. Several hours after the sun was off the beds the temperature still held at over 65 degrees. Frank Tozer, in the Vegetable Growers Handbook, says we can expect germination in about 8 days at that temperature, though 70-90 degrees would be optimal. I’m soaking the seeds overnight to help improve germination. I figure with that, some good compost and all the moon power, we ought to be set.

This year’s melon trials will include ‘Will’s Sugar‘ and ‘Yellow Desert King‘, both donated by the Victory Seed Company, ‘Cris Cross‘ from Seed Savers, ‘Mickylee‘, an ice box watermelon sent to us by Botanical Interests which sounded perfect for our trellising, a ‘Blenheim Orange‘ heirloom muskmelon Seeds of Change sent us last year, ‘Iroquois‘ and Thai Melon ‘Golden Round‘ both donated by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Trellised Watermelon

2009 'Rainbow Sherbet' Icebox Watermelon

Melons need hot weather to be sweet and delicious, hotter than what we usually have in Northern California. Our average high temperature here even in July and August is only 84 degrees. But we were able to produce a dozen or more ice box style watermelons last year with excellent flavor which the kids really enjoyed. My sister is trying half of these same varieties in her garden in Union, Kentucky. Her latitude is pretty much the same as ours and her July average temperature is only two degrees hotter than ours, but the humidity there may affect the melon production. Or is it only humans who feel like it’s hotter when it’s humid out?

I don’t know how much the phase of the moon matters to the melon seeds–there seems to be some actual science on it, but not much in the way of conclusions. But I do know that melons like compost, so we’ll be digging in a 2″-3″ layer of compost mixed with our own earthworm castings where the melons will be growing. And, just in case it really is too early to be planting melon seeds outside, I think I will start half the seeds from each variety indoors, just in case. We also plan to start another group of these same seeds at the end of April so that we can compare the plantings.

3/26/2010 Update

‘Iroquois’  melons planted indoors, in the comfort and splendor of a heating mat and overhead lighting, started sprouting yesterday. Looks like we will have a few more of the indoor varieties up tomorrow. No sign of any of the outdoor seeds yet.

Growing the Perfect Pickle

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A & C Pickling Cucumber

An important part of the perfect pickle, the crunch, is impossible to recreate unless you have fresh pickling cucumbers on hand and pickle them at peak freshness. Or so I have been told. My family’s pickling tradition consists of my mother doing whatever was printed in The Joy of Cooking and turning out a jar or two of kosher dills if the mood struck her and the cucumber harvest was cooperative that year.

In Dirt to Dinner, we like to teach the kids as much as possible about their food, where it comes from, how to grow it, what it’s history is, and how to preserve it for later. So today we started four different varieties of pickling cucumbers in the raised beds in the back garden, where the soil is well warmed. ‘Bushy Cucumber’, from Seed Savers Exchange, a variety from southern Russia where it is recommended for your dacha garden because it grows a compact “bushy” plant. ‘Double Yield Cucumber’, a variety from 1924, that we ate fresh last year. ‘A & C Pickling Cucumber’, also from Seed Savers Exchange, a variety introduced in 1928, that says it produces very uniform fruit but shows some healthy diversity in the photo. And ‘The Pickle of Paris’ or ‘Cetriolino Piccolo di Parigi’ which I hope will produce small gherkins for pickling, but we’re not totally sure of, because all the printing on the packaging is in Italian.

Lemon Cucumbers

There were also some slicing cucumbers that we couldn’t do without. We started a few seeds for some of the good old ‘Straight Eight‘ cucumbers that have been favorites here for the last few years. We also planted heirloom ‘Lemon‘ cucumbers, donated by Botanical Interest. These plants grew very slowly last year but the fruits were delicious when they finally came. That should probably be a lesson to us not to start them so early in the year, but here we go again, planting them in March. Maybe in a few weeks I will start a few plants from these seeds inside so we can do a comparison of the harvests. We also started ‘Armenian‘ cucumbers from seed donated by Territorial Seed Company. We had a variety of Armenian cucumbers last year that did well and were delicious. In fact, these are my personal favorites for quick-pickling with salt, vinegar and herbs, or for dipping in hummus. They were grown in a very protected spot last year and did well. I’ll be looking for another sheltered corner for them for this season.

This summer we plan to try the Pick-a-Vegetable Dill Pickle recipe from the Complete Book of Home Preserving and these Garlic Dills from Food in Jars.

3/26/2010 Update

Our first direct-seeded cucumbers sprouted today, the ‘Bushy‘ variety from Seed Savers. The slicing cucumbers all started in pots are starting to poke up their heads today as well, ‘Lemon‘, ‘Armenian‘, and ‘Straight Eight‘s which were first and look strongest out of the gate.

New Raised Beds


The Dirt to Dinner crew wants to send the folks at Naturalyards a big Thank You! As many of you already know from The Great Raised Bed Debate, if money had been no object, we would have started with lots of their untreated, kiln-dried Port Orford cedar raised beds on day one.

Hexagonal Raised Bed from NaturalyardsBut you’ve gotta let people know you’d like their help before they can help you. As soon as I talked with the kind people at Naturalyards, they promptly donated three of their beautiful, easy-assembly raised beds. Not only that, but we found another gardening fan who happened to be driving from where Naturalyards is in Oregon, right to our doorstep in time for the next Dirt to Dinner session! How’s that for service and support?!

Strawberry Tower Planter from NaturalyardsAt our next meeting the kids will be assembling three different Naturalyards raised bed designs; a rectangle planter, a hexagonal planter and a strawberry tower. We’ve also received several alternative suggestions for assembling the beds. We could make a potato growing bin, or instead of two large towers we could make three smaller planters. And we’ve been toying with a design that would combine the strawberry tower and the hexagonal planter into a single bed.

It will be fun to see what the kids decide on. Some of them relish the construction projects as much as they do the food.

The Thankful Garden

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I’m amazed at all the things still going strong in the Dirt to Dinner garden at this time of year. In the Midwest, where I grew up, all I had in my garden in late November was frost.

If you’d like to see all the ingredients we have available this year for a Thanksgiving feast, I made a VoiceThread to share them with you.

If you just want the short-list of what is growing, it goes something like this: Ancho peppers, artichokes, arugula, asparagus, basil, beans, beets, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, chives, chicory, collards, ginger, gourds, Hungarian peppers, kale, Komatsu, luffa, mustard, onions, parsley, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, tomatoes, turnips, sage, shelling peas, snap peas, snow peas, spinach, strawberries and a lone watermelon.