Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The girls, the guys and the gardens

Tonight I put the finishing touches on the Tree and Twig 2011 seed listing and with a push of a button, it is gone to my website magician.

Soon it will appear on my website and with that, another year is done.

I've just finished off my 13th year of growing food for people.

I never imagined where this journey would take me as I quit my job as a social worker after 13 years, and delivered full bushels of vegetables to former co-workers and friends that first year.

It's been good.

I've grown with my business and really followed my true interests in growing my business too.
With the surge of interest in home gardening, my transplant business has become pretty much as large a part of my business as the veggie end of it.

 I believe in what I do, and it is nice to be able to say that.  I believe in growing heirlooms and in all the reasons they need to be saved.  I believe in growing organically, whether certified or not.

And 2010 was a spectacular growing season. The temperatures cooperated, the rain came when it should and everything flourished.

I think that is why gardeners never give up.  A miserable year can always be followed by the best ever.
It keeps you optimistic.

 My life here has three priorities.  My girls, my guys and my gardens.

My two wonderful girls are everything everyone's children are.  My pride, my worry, my hopes and my dreams. They have both been a big part of my business, or should I say it has been a big part of theirs.
They never have been excited about helping in the garden.  But they have been dragged along on the "veggie route" and markets, toured folks through the garden in my absence and made friends along the way.
It delights me when I hear my eldest say "of course I'll grow my own food."
And my fondest memories of my youngest, educating her teachers about the colours of carrots ("they aren't just orange!") and grazing through the gardens, taking bites of this and that.

And the guys. Well, to me "the guys" are all my friends here that make life a bit more special...the puppies, cats, bunnies, chickens, ducks and of course the perennial crowd pleaser, Joey the pig.
Early this year, I took a chance on a puppy the girls found on the internet.  He was part beagle and was rescued from a kill shelter in Ohio.

There was something about him.  Was it the description.."a prince among dogs?"  I don't know.  I kept going back to look at his picture, and I just knew he was right for us.  I completed the application, built up the courage to tell my husband (who loves him too), and shortly after Darwin moved in.

He's just right for us, and is a prince. Gentle, loving, loyal and patient. If you have room in your heart and home for a dog, so many wonderful souls are waiting.

It's been a tough year too.

My husband has been away for his work a great deal and has been dealing with many stresses that accompany a weakening manufacturing sector.

My eldest daughter has been very ill. My aunt developed cancer.

I've tried to tame my frustration over the politics of the local food situation in Niagara.  Lots of talk.  Not much action.
I try not to get frustrated, but sometimes just do.  I hope I don't offend people when that frustration spills over.  Different opinions are just that.  Different opinions and nothing more.

And finally, sincere thanks to everyone who has supported me this year. If you bought a pack of seeds, a tomato plant, a basket of veggies, or purchased produce for your restaurant.  Thanks for coming to my little Saturday morning market and my tomato tasting and tour. Thanks for calling to ask questions, ask for free seeds, and for allowing me to donate seeds in the memory of a fine young man.
Thanks for reading my blog. Thanks for just stopping by to chat.
And may you be blessed in the new year...as I am with girls, guys and gardens.  And a husband who understands all this.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Vegetarian Bean Bird for Christmas dinner

I have been a vegetarian for as long as I can remember.

My cookbook cupboard is overflowing with books, some have become favourites, some I need to find a new home for.

One book, coverless and tattered that has been really well used is Nikki and David Goldbecks "American Wholefoods Cuisine".  The recipes in it are simple and smart.  It's the kind of book you can grab 1/2 an hour before a meal and still come up with something tasty.

More than a few recipes in it have become staples in our house, and two in particular have become tradition...The Bean Bird or alternately The Boston Roast.  These two are very similar recipes, and I always make one or the other for our vegetarian entree at Christmas.

Bean Birds

Mini Roasts make a warming winter meal with veg gravy, cranberry sauce, cooked vegetables and salad.  Cold leftovers make for a delicious sandwich.

1/2 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
3 cups cooked beans (kidney, chick peas, Limas, etc)
1/4 cup wheat germ
3/4 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup poultry seasoning
1 egg (for vegans use 2 tbsp peanut butter)
1/2 cup tomato juice

Grind beans in a food processor.
Combine all ingredients and shape into 6 -8 mounds on a baking sheet.  Brush lightly with oil and bake for 30 minutes, until firm and crusty.  For best crust, baste with additional oil midway through cooking.


And best wishes to all for a wonderful Christmas! Wishing you love and peace.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tomatillo and Wild Tomatillos

 I've talked before on this blog about things my mom grew some 40 odd years ago that I JUST DIDN'T LIKE!!

Tomatillos were right up there on the list.

Back in those days there wasn't a whole lot of talk about them.  I rather suspect my mom found the seed for them, grew them and then wondered what the heck to do with them.

Of course this was pre-"everything at your fingertips" days.  No computers and no easy access to library information.

Which explains why my mom did some of the things she did with them, and perhaps why actually none of us were too excited to see them on the supper table.

She would throw them into unsuspecting soups or stews, stir fries or salads.  They weren't always the best fit.

Of course tomatillos are a bit more well known now, and known to most as one of those essential Mexican staples.

And I grow them, whether I want to or not.

 I say the whether I want to or not because if you have had them in your garden one year, and not picked them all, heaven forbid, they'll come back one hundredfold from self seeding the next season!

But I would grow them anyways, they have kind of grown on me. And when used as they should be used, they really are irreplaceable.

Tomatillos (physalis ixocarpa) are in the nightshade family and closely related to tomatoes.  I find the physalis really one of the most interesting families to grow and am always looking for new physalis family members to grow.

I do grow several varieties of tomatillos in purples, yellows and greens.  My favourite is one I don't actually know the name of.  I bought the original fruits from a vendor of Mexican decent at a farmers market in Salinas, California, popped the seeds out and have been growing it since that time. It is an extremely large fruited variety, and I am selecting these larger fruits when I save the seed beause there is a bit of inconsistency in the size.  I'm calling it Salinas tomatillo as, well....I don't know any different!

Tomatillos are native to Mexico, having been grown there for many , many years.  Salsa verde  or green salsa is a Mexican essential and is made with tomatillo fruit.  Often mexican recipes will call for green tomatoes, but are actually calling for tomatillos to add to the confusion.

Tomatillos are not as well known or loved in other parts of the world.  I find I always have people who are excited to find them and purchase either the fruit or the plants from me, but those numbers are limited.  An acquired taste?  Maybe.  But sure worth a try!

I was super excited last winter too to finally find seeds for physalis philadelphica, or wild tomatillo.  This smaller fruited variety is often preferred to the larger fruited tomatillo in Mexico, for it's finer flavour and the period of time it will hold, which is months.

Both are prolific producers and very easy to grow.  I start them early April here in Southern Ontario (Zone 6b where I am) , and set them out in later May.  I don't find they are fussy growers at all, and they always do well on my amended clay soil.  I may throw a scoop of compost in their planting holes, and that is more than enough to hold them for the season. Give each plant a good square yard.  they really will branch out and spread.  If you are container planting, go big! A tomato cage can be used to contain them to some degree. As well, I water until I know they are established, then they are on their own.

When the papery husks of the tomatillos are filled out, even split a bit , then they are picked.
Last year was my first year growing the wild tomatillos and I found that they tasted best when I allowed them to drop off the plants.

An interesting lemon-sour-sweet flavour awaits you. And if your plants produce as much as mine, take off the husks, give them a rinse, washing off the stickiness on the fruit, dry them and put them in the freezer for a nice winter treat.

Now... what to do with them!

Salsa Verde recipe
(from allrecipes.com)


  • 1 pound tomatillos, husked
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 serrano chile peppers, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 2 cups water


  1. Place tomatillos, onion, garlic, and chile pepper into a saucepan. Season with cilantro, oregano, cumin, and salt; pour in water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until the tomatillos are soft, 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. Using a blender, carefully puree the tomatillos and water in batches until smooth.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Certifying madness

"You can't regulate integrity"

I don't claim to be the creator of this phrase, but nonetheless, I love it.  Wish, in fact, that I had said it first.

But I didn't, of course.  This is Joel Salatin's phrase, that rebel pasture farmer from the US, who is somewhat of a hero to small farmers like me.  I like people like him...people who say what is on their mind, and aren't afraid to think a bit differently.  Ruffle a few feathers, as it were.

I think about this phrase frequently when I come across some people and situations in the course of doing what I do.  And I think, with so many regulatory bodies and checks and balances in place, it is even more important to consider this thought when you buy your food.'

"You can't regulate integrity."

But everyone tries.

The fact you can't is everywhere.

No more evident of course than government.  There are all kinds of checks and balances and red tape in government, but government officials and employees are frequently highlighted for misdoings.

Banks, red taped to the hilt, rip people off.  Advertising blatantly lies to people in order to make a buck.  The  "it's all good" campaign of a major food manufacturer, and the"real" campaign of a mayo maker have made me a tad cynical.
I love the" You're richer than you think" ads.  Wish I was, but know I'm not.

What to believe, I wonder.  I also hope people don't believe it all.

Natural, local and even organic are not always what they appear to be.

Certified organic has had it's share of folks who have been found to not to be going along with the regulations which govern certification. What about all the others?
 Certified naturally grown, certified locally grown, certified humane, certified fair trade.  And there's more, no doubt. A financial burden to the farmer who certifies and a way of distancing people from the source of their food, by allowing a certifying body to stand between them.

It seems to me there was a point in time where people trusted themselves to make decisions about food they bought, or other products as well, without this third party being necessary.
I recall reading a brochure a few years back promoting certified organic.  In it was the notion that people aren't really capable of deciding if produce is organic or not.  They need to be told it is by the presence of a certified label.

I find when I sell produce, the word "organic" doesn't come into it much anymore.  Of course it can't, because I am not certified.  But it also doesn't because it is not the driving point behind what I do.  I sell good food, I am honest and I do what I say I do.  Simple.  And there are lots of people like me. I know some true gems, who are honest to a fault.

And of course I come back to the idea that as long as a system is in place, people will do their darndest to get around it.

I think the most important thing is the relationship you develop with the person you buy your food from.  And sadly, it does not necessarily follow that certified IS what it claims to be or by virtue of the fact a person is a grower or farmer they are "salt of the earth."

I think most growers who have been around a while can think of people they know who buy produce in, claiming it to be their own, claim to be organic and aren't, or would stab you in the back to make a buck.

I know most people don't buy local because of the cost and inconvenience.
But if you do go that extra distance, trust your own judgement.  If you like the person you buy from, if they are open to you seeing where and what they do....if they strike you yes, as a person of integrity, then you've hit the jackpot.  Can't certify that!

 But you can feel good about it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Garden Huckleberry ( solanum melanoceresum )

When I was young, my mom, an avid gardener,
grew some wonderful crops that we would sell at a roadside stand on Highway 6, at the end of our farm lane

My mom was a public school teacher and principal by day.
But in her heart she was a grower. She volunteered at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington for, well, forever.
Hey-it's huckleberries!
She seeded highly unusual things, she took cuttings from public plantings (knife was always in the purse), she collected maple keys and chestnuts for planting. To wit, I have 2 interesting maples growing along the side of my driveway, from a parking lot in downtown Huntsville, produced from keys she collected probably 30 years ago. Two of my favourite trees ever, of course.

She grew tomatillos, ground cherries, vine peaches and heirloom tomatoes some 40 years ago.  And of course huckleberries.

I remember sitting around the big old harvest table in the kitchen of our farmhouse and complaining, along with everyone else.  "Mom, can't you grow anything normal?"

And one of the prime irritants was huckleberries.  She would whip up the most wonderful pancakes that can be imagined, and serve them with a huckleberry sauce.  Maple syrup, mom.  I want maple syrup!

Funny isn't it, that we end up being so much like our parents.  

Of course I LOVE growing all the things my mom used to grow now, including huckleberries.  

Garden Huckleberries are members of the solanum family, also known as the nightshade family.  If you are interested in growing a fruit that produces for you in the same year as you seed it look no further.  If you have not been blessed with an acid soil for blueberry growing, look no further.  Although huckleberries are not as versatile as blueberries because they cannot be eaten raw as is, what they are good for, they are very good for, like pies, jams and yes...sauces.

Garden huckleberries are not to be confused with the huckleberry which grows in the US, a member of heath family, a woody plant and a perennial.  Also, may I add, the state plant of Idaho.

In Southern Ontario, where I am growing, Garden Huckleberries are grown as annuals, with the same culture as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, also in the solanum family.

I start mine around the beginning of April and set my plants out in the garden when they are around 8 weeks old.  A good scoop of compost in their planting hole and they are good for the season.  Separate the plants out about 2 feet when planting and expect a plant that can grow a good 2 1/2 feet.

Each plant produces hundreds of very dark purple berries, about 1/2 inch in diameter blueberry sized fruit.  As with other fruits in this family, don't mess with them when they are unripe- they are toxic. 1 plant should produce enough fruit for 1 pie.

When the fruits go from shiny to dull, they are ready to pick.  I usually just pick mine by the sprig, then pop them off the branches when I am in the house.

We made a good bit of jam with them this year.  It is so good with plain yogourt, Hewitts Dairy brand for me here in Niagara.  The colour is astounding and the taste better yet.  I am always dazed by the selection of yogourts in the grocery store- low fat, no fat, fake flavours, colours and sweeteners. This is food?   Ahh-but no huckleberry.  Never.  You'll have to grow your own to try it!

If you need seed in 2011 I'll have it on my seed listing.  I had a great 2010 crop and saved lots of seed.

Try something a bit different!

Huckleberry Jam
Wash 3 lb fruit, add ½ pt water, and boil until the fruit bursts and is tender. Add 5 lb sugar and juice of 2 oranges and 2 lemons and bring to boil. Add a knob of butter to reduce foaming, maintain a rolling boil for 2 minutes, take off heat and add 1 bottle of Certo. Bottle in sterilised bottles.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sunberry (Wonderberry)

There are so many very cool things to grow out there once you really start looking.  The best part of gardening is seeing how things no one else has ever heard of grows....and tastes!

Some things you hear lots about, like heirloom tomatoes.  Some things you don't hear so much about.  Like intriguing berries...not raspberries, strawberries or blueberries.  But annual berries, like the sunberry, huckleberry, jaltomate and I'll lump the physalis family in the lot too.

Lets talk a bit about the Sunberry, also known as Wonderberry, (Solanum x Burbankii)

I got the seeds for my original plants probably 10 years ago from a fellow seed collector in Pennsylvania.  I was just curious about them, and I've grown them ever since.

They were described to me as being sweeter than the huckleberry, which is no great feat at all if you know the huckleberry and as being smaller. 

Well that they are, and more.

These plants were originally created by Luther Burbank way back in the early 1900' s.  Burbank had a very interesting career as a botanist and was responsible for more than 800 varieties of fruit, vegetable and flower strains.  He is best known for the Russett Burbank potato, but also created the loved Shasta Daisy and the freestone peach.  And, of course the much lesser known Sunberry.  

The Sunberry was created by crossing two closely related species, Solanum Villosum and Solanum Guineense.  The solanum family is the night shade family and this little plant does look similar to the deadly night shade, if you are familiar with it.  It has very similar leaves and flowers, but the berries of course are deep purple, not red.

Sunberries are extremely easy to grow.  If you are starting them indoors, look at the same schedule as you would tomatoes.  I find seeding them in early April indoors in a nice light soil-less mix does the trick.  Then I'm planting them out in the garden when they are around 8 weeks old.  Add a bit of compost to your planting hole, and you are good for the season.

But don't let them become a problem!  The are terrific self- seeders and this alone could be the reason that i've had them in my garden for the last ten years.  They come up faithfully in the hoophouse year after year, to the point that if they didn't appear, well, I'd be surprised and a bit disappointed.

In good soil the plants grown to about 3 feet.  It is said that when the berries are green they are poisonous, so I wouldn't mess around with that.  But when they are ripe and a bit soft to touch, start using them.  These berries are small, so for any quantity, like a pie for example, be prepared to pick a while. I guess the size is very comparable to a small currant.
As well, if you are going for a reasonably big crop to give them a good culinary trial, plant lots.. The plants don't produce huge quantities of fruit, so to be fair, put in at least 5 plants if you have the space.

The fruit itself is very mild flavoured.  Mildly sweet and I always think a bit wine flavoured, when cooked and enhanced with a bit of sweetener, be it sugar or honey, they really shine.  They make a great jam, tart or pie.

And if you need seed, I'll  be selling it again in 2011.

To make the wonderberry jam use about a cup of washed wonderberries, 1/3 cup of sugar and a squeeze of fresh lemon.  
Cook until thickened and pour into a sterilized pink.  Now you've made something no one else has ever heard of!  and the best part?

 It is REALLY good.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Astounding Arugula

Some people may not agree with the title to this blog entry. What exactly is astounding about arugula?

It seems to be one of those greens people either love or hate.  It is eminently more popular than mustard greens, if my sales are any indication...but not in my family.  No one, save me, will eat it.

I think it adds a fabulous flavour to salads, and I have been known to use it as the entire salad.  Of course that is if I am dining alone.

I remember years ago when I first started my CSA one of my customers began complaining about the salad greens in the basket.  "Something is wrong with them, they're skunky tasting!"

I aim to please, so was somewhat hurt by this comment.  But during one delivery, I identified the culprit with her as she tasted leaf by leaf the various elements of her salad....and of course it was the arugula.

Never again did those leaves grace her basket.  I understand that aversion to strong tasting greens-mustard greens and arugula rock my socks, cilantro not so much.  In fact---yuck!  I dislike (intensely) cilantro.  So an arugula dislike I can live with.

Arugula (Eruca sativa) is a member of the brassica family as well, whose many forms all derived from one single mustard so many years ago.   Also known as "Rocket", it's uses years ago were culinary, but also medicinal as well.  English herbalist John Gerard claimed that "the root and seed stamped and mixed with vinegaer and the gall of an Oxe, taketh away freckles....blacke and blew spots and all such deformities of the face."  It was also used to aid digestion and as a pain killer.

Although arugula came to North America with the Puritans, it is really only within the last 10 or so years that it has hit it's stride as a culinary star.  It has long been popular in Italian cuisine, but now is more commonly used in mesclun mixes or as a braising green here.

There are also several varieties to choose from when you are going to grow your own. There is the standard arugula, but I'm also growing wild arugula (Sylvetta) with it's beautifully serrated smaller leaves and pungency, Apollo with larger spoon shaped leaves and Ice Bred Arugula which is a hardier variety for winter growing.

Arugula is an easy crop to grow.  It is particularly fond of cooler weather and I find does well in spring, fall and winter.  In the heat of summer it tends to go to seed quickly and becomes too pungent and bitter. If this happens though, don't consider the crop a total loss.  The white flowers are delicious in salads, lending their lovely peppery arugula flavour in another form.

Best of all, arugula is an ideal crop for our Southern Ontario winters.  My hoophouse has lots of arugula growing in it, and I know, without heat, it will do extremely well all winter.  It is one sturdy green.

When I pick it, I actually pull it.  I believe it stores better when it has the root attached.

In the spring however, the danger to arugula can be flea beetles, as with any mustard crop.  The shiny little hoppers pepper the leaves with holes, so covering carefully with agriculture fabric can be a necessity.

To plant arugula, create a fine seed bed and add a good inch or two of compost.  The seed is teeny,tiny, so either scatter your seeds, or plant in shallow rows and cover very lightly with soil.  It will pop right up under ideal conditions, often in 2 or 3 days.  Keep consistently watered and in 40 or so days, you'll be in eating lots of arugula.

Arugula is also very successful as a microgreen crop.  Scatter seed in a flat or container that is filled with a very light soil less mix, water evenly (don't cover seed), put in a window(or ideally under lights), and you'll be eating those super peppery greens in a weeks time.  That enlivens a sandwich!

Arugula also makes a great pesto!

Arugula Pesto
In this recipe, the strong, peppery snap of mature arugula finds its counterpart in Asiago cheese. Blended to creamy smoothness with garlic, olive oil, and toasted pine nuts, this vibrant pesto will make something brilliant of a basic pasta meal. You can also try it tossed with roasted potatoes or steamed vegetables. If you plan to freeze it, don’t add the cheese until after the pesto has thawed. 
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cups mature arugula
1/2 cup freshly grated Asiago cheese (about 1 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, smashed
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. 

2. Toast the pine nuts in a dry, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over high heat until they start to brown in spots and become fragrant. Transfer the nuts to a dish to cool.

3. Combine the arugula, Asiago cheese, oil, garlic, and pine nuts in a blender or food processor; process until thoroughly combined and smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


Friday, December 3, 2010

guest Post-Mollie is back!

                                                               MY GARDEN !! 


     This year I had a really good garden with all kinds of things.
I had tomatoes, flowers , onions, a Gingko tree,peppers , and a few other things. The tomatoes didn't  produce that much, but when I got some they were very good.
  Flowers, I had all different kinds like snap- dragons, small yellow flowers were growing around the outside (not dandelions), lilies of all different kinds, mums ,  and violas.
 Peppers, I had two bell peppers my mom didn't want, one was tiny but it was the only ( out of two) that produced!
I had a few onion plants growing nothing really to say about them.
My Gingko tree , one of the oldest trees in north america (not mine but the type ) my favourite tree!
Chives. My chives usually stay good all year,as they should , they are also one of my favourite Vegetables!
     But ,as you could guess , most of the things in my garden are now dead.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Marvellous Mustards

If you are interested in adding a little zip and zing to your meals, this is one vegetable family you shouldn't ignore.

And a most fascinating and large family at that!

Mustards are many things.  They are vibrantly coloured, they are ripple leaves, or feathered.  They are strap leaves.  They are pungency defined or a subtle cabbage -like flavour.  They are often the beauty and the bite in your packaged salad mix.

Mustards are members of the brassica family, as are cabbage, broccoli and other similar vegetables.  It is believed that all brassicas were originally descended from one single type of mustard, which was continually reselected for the interesting forms we now have.

Mustards are known to have been consumed in the far east in all likelihood since food growing began, but  are only first mentioned in the literature in 5th century B.C.  The Chinese mustards, of which I speak here have never become hugely popular elsewhere.  Despite being a staple to the Chinese throughout history, seeds that were brought back to Europe in the 18th century by missionaries, failed to capture the imagination of Europeans.  Perhaps the taste or lack of knowledge about how to use them was off-putting.

It was really not until the 20th century that mustards have become more popular.  But still....when people hear "mibuna, mizuna, giant red or green wave" the names really don't ring a bell much of the time.  What is a mustard lover to do?

Well....I guess grow it and hope for converts!

And there are lots of reasons to eat them.  Historically mustards were eaten as remedies for a whole legion of conditions-everything from arthritis to stomach disorders to ulcers.  And as with all leafy greens they pack a punch nutritionally, being high in Vitamin A and iron.

I will say that in my family, there aren't too many lovers of strong flavoured greens.  There is, say for example....me.  Mustards, arugulas and even kale are not on the top 10 of the most asked for greens.

But I love 'em.  I can make a whole salad out of these greens in their smaller form.  And the heat and strong flavour is really much more limited to full leaf mustards like Giant red, and the green varieties such as Green Wave .  The beautiful mizunas and mibunas don't bite back- they have pleasant mild flavours regardless of size, but do add unique form and texture to you dishes, with their serrated leaves (mizuna) and strap leaves (mibuna).

And although I don't grow much in the way of hybrids, I do like the newer purple mizuna, and the frilly mizuna.  Art in the garden.

Convinced yet that maybe this is worth a try?

Mustards are very easy to grow.  Like most of their brassica relations, they thrive in the cooler weather.
They can be planted throughout the season, but if flea beetles find your mustards, you will have one holey mess on your hands.  I grow mine only in the cool fall and cold winter in the hoop house when the threat of flea beetles is gone.

As with most greens and brassicas, they like a reasonably fertile soil.  You can dig a few inches of compost into your seeding bed, or rows then sprinkle the small seed evenly down the rows, or broadcast.
The seed should be covered with 1/4 inch of soil or so and will emerge in a weeks time.  To ensure this, keep the seed bed moist until you see germination.

if you are hoping for larger heads of mustard, thin out your seedlings until they are 6 inches or so apart.  But if you are picking the leaves small, keep them planted tight.

If flea beetles do turn out to be a problem, you can very carefully cover your plants with agricultural fabric, or plant a trap crop.  I have planted a crop of a green leafy mustard, like Green Wave around my desired crop in the hope that this crop will lure the flea beetles to it.  Does it work?  To some degree...but when you are selling your produce a few holes in leaves is still too many.  if you are simply eating the leaves at home, a few holes is no harm.

Mustards are one of my most important winter crops however.  They are extremely winter hardy, and in an unheated hoop house, with a layer of ag fabric, can tolerate very low temperatures.  I plant them mid to late September and begin harvesting 3-4 weeks later.  I pick the leaves individually..small for salads, larger for braising mixes.  And in the spring when the plants start to bolt the cheery yellow flowers are eaten as a tasty treat.

This, of course is how I save the seed as well.  In the spring, after the plants have overwintered, the longer days encourage the seed stalk to shoot up, flowering, then forming seed pods.  Mustards will cross readily so if seed saving is your mission, you must bag the blossoms, or plant one variety only.

Hungry to try them yet?  I hope so- mustards are marvellous, dahling!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lovely Lettuces!

There is a bit of a standing joke in my house about my salads, perpetuated by my oldest daughter, Emily.

When I make a comment about salad  I've prepared for supper, you know like "have some salad", or "pass the salad"- the retort is always this.  "You mean bowl of lettuce?"

Because I guess that is what my salads are.  No sweet tomatoes or crispy carrot chunks, no colourful peppers or cool cukes.  Bowl o' lettuce.

And if that is what your salads are, the lettuce and greens had better be good.  There is nothing to divert your attention elsewhere.  If your lettuce isn't up to snuff, your salad is a failure.  Limp and browned leaves won't cut it.  Leave that to the chain restaurants.

There are far more lettuce varieties in the grocery stores now than there was even 10 years ago.  But, my friend, tip of the iceberg.  The number of lettuce varieties out there is astounding.  And the best ones aren't in the grocery stores.  The best ones are in your garden.

But first a little lettuce primer.

Most lettuce cultivars, (Latuca sativa), are one of five types of lettuce; leaf, romaine, butterhead, summer crisp and crisphead.  Each type offers the grower different desirable characteristics usually related to texture.  Do you prefer a crispy, soft, frilly or succulent lettuce?  Some are easier to grow than others, while some are sweeter, some have a huge range of colours, some are more heat or cold tolerant and some will hold in the garden longer.  Ahh, so many decisions!  But don't think about it too long- just buy some good seed and get growing!

Lettuces have been around for a long, long time.  They were first mentioned in literature in 440 B.C. and were deemed valuable as both medicine and food.  As medicine they were thought to act as a sedative and help with sleep, while also refreshing the body. It was believed that in fact it was a lettuce tonic that cured Augustus Caesar when he was ailing.

According to Greek mythology, when Adonis died, Venus threw herself on a bed of lettuce to stem her grief and cool her desire.  Sounds quite reasonable doesn't it?  I'll give that a try next spring!

Despite this earlier greatness, advice in the 16th century was that children born of lettuce eaters "do become idle foolish and peevish persons".

Clearly a divergence of opinion as time went on.

Intriguingly enough, lettuce is a member of the sunflower family and a descendant of a weed called prickly lettuce ( Latuca serriola).  Prickly lettuce is a very common weed, found all over my farm and probably many properties across Canada and the US.

There are hundreds of known cultivars of lettuce, some unique to the culture they are grown in.  Hundreds are listed in my 2010 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, and reading the descriptions of them can make one a tad hungry for some leafy goodness.

I don't really have a clue how many varieties I grow.  Let's say lots!

But every year there are some that always grace my garden because of their preferred goodness.
Bronze Arrow (aka Bronze Arrowhead) is one.  It is considered a leaf lettuce, and has gorgeous colouring; bronze-purple oakleaf type leaves, and a sturdy crunchy spine.  It holds well in the garden and has a distinctive taste.

Other favourites are Forellenschuss, a gorgeous speckled romaine type, the frilly Black Seeded Simpson and Susan's Red Iceberg.  But I could go on.

A great way to try different types is to buy a mix.  I like the Seed Savers Lettuce Mix.  It can be started in flats and transplanted out early in the season to obtain heads, or sown as a cutting mix which means sowing close together and cutting when several inches tall.

I find lettuce needs a good fertile soil, a smooth and fine seed bed, and lots of water.  It is possible to grow lettuce throughout the year, if watering is paid particular attention to in the summer heat, and the right varieties are chosen for hot or cold conditions. In the winter in Southern Ontario, a cold frame or covering of some sort is essential.
When planting, I generally draw a rectangle around the area I wish to plant my lettuce mix, add a good few inches of compost and scatter the seed evenly over the area.  Because lettuce needs light to germinate, there is no need to cover the seed....just keep it moist.  If your scattering skills are rusty, rows about 6 inches apart work too.

Mesclun mixes are very popular right now, but with many of these mixes, different elements grow at different rates and have different pest problems.  I like to make my own mixes up, but also sow the various elements separately.  All the lettuces go in together, with the funky stuff that grows much quicker like arugula and mustards sown in a separate area.  These two are also very vulnerable to flea beetles, who quickly fill the leaves with holes, sometimes rending them fit for chickens only.  A covering of agricultural fabric can help with this.  When all the various components of the mesclun are 2-3" tall, cut and mix together.

When saving seed, simply let the lettuce remain in the garden.  It will develop a seed stalk and look vaguely reminiscent of -yes-prickly lettuce the weed( also known as sow thistle). It has small yellow flowers, which will dry and look like miniature dandelions with the fluff.  Let the seeds dry on the stalk, and collect.
Lettuce does cross easily between varieties and also with prickly lettuce weed.  If necessary, blossoms can be bagged to prevent cross pollinating.  A makeshift cover of agricultural fabric is ideal for this purpose, tied with string below the seed heads.

A good aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil are my only requirements for good lettuce-enjoy!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Incidental Onion

Onions might be one vegetable that don't garner a great deal of attention.

Most people have them in their kitchens because of the incredible flavour they add to dishes, but they seldom play a starring role or are given a whole lot of consideration.

When my Mollie was little and was learning to graze ( and I mean graze!) in the garden, she hit the alliums first. Garlic, onions and chives, any of those were fair game.  Never mind that I wasn't likely to munch on some of them as is because of the heat.  She did...without hesitation.  She even loved them so much that she called her beloved doll "Baby Onion"(pronounced "on-yon").  I'd tuck her in bed at night with Baby Onion and she reeked to high heaven of onions.  Still did in the morning too.

Most kids don't have that crazy enthusiasm for onions. Or older folks for that matter too.

 My sister won't eat them at all, which is hard to understand.

But it was not always that way for onions.  They have been around forever, and at one point in their history were nearly worshipped.

They are believed to be one of the earliest domesticated crops, but were most certainly consumed prior to domestication in the wild.  They were found in the gardens of royalty as early as 2100 BC, and were held in high esteem in Egypt because their "circle within a circle" configuration was thought to mean eternal life.  It was also believed their strong smell could bring the dead back to life.

They were considered a valued herbal treatment by Indian culture as they were deemed good for the eyes, heart and joints and early Greek Olympians used onion tonics and poultices for strength.  By the Middle Ages they were so important that they were used at times for rental payments and wedding gifts.

Well, we might not get away with THAT now.  What a world it would be if onions could pay the rent.

I'll let the reader dwell on that one.

Amazing really how this once revered vegetable has fallen from grace.  But not with everyone!  My 2010 Seed Savers Yearbook distinguishes 126 varieties- and of course there are more than that.  But most certainly when you go into the grocery store and peruse the onion department, you will likely see one variety of scallions, one red, one cooking onion type and a shallot.  Perhaps a pearl onion for good measure, and a tidy little bunch of chives.

I grew a mere 5 varieties this year, but they were really good ones.  If you want to experience some wonderful onion varieties, you simply have to grow your own from seed.  Garden centres have limited varieties of transplants and sets, but seed catalogues, my oh my!

I find when I grow onions, I really don't end up selling a whole lot of them..with one exception.  The very pretty Red Torpedo onion, pictured above is quite popular and that works for me because it is also one of my favourites.  I also like some of the big ones, like Walla Walla, and Ailsa Craig and the pretty flattened cippolinis.

I start my onion, leek and chive seeds early, usually around mid-February, placing them under my fluorescent lights indoors.  They require deep pots for seeding, so the roots can stretch.  I usually seed them in 4 inch pots that are at least 4 inches deep, and spread the seeds out about 1/4 inch apart. As they grow and the greens shoot up, they require regular trimmings, to redirect the plants energy back to the root.  These trimming make a nice zesty addition to late winter salads and sandwiches.

By April, it is usually possible to find a workable area in the garden, so out they go!  I hoe a planting row about 2 inches deep, add a nice layer of compost into the row, and plug the tender little onions in.  I firm the soil around them, water them in, and keep a look out for weeds.  My experience is that onions are heavy feeders, like to be well watered and don't like weed competition.  If possible, it's a good idea to mulch them with straw, when they have grow a little bit.  They don't mind being crowded in the rows, so you can plant them pretty close together.

One particularly interesting onion is the Egyptian Walking onion.  That is the other picture at the top of my blog. This is a perennial onion, and it reproduces by plunking it's little topsets on the ground, which then root themselves, beginning the cycle all over again. In this way, it "walks" across your garden. These onions are lovely and pungent, and you need never be without onions as long as they are around.

For seed saving purposes, most other onions are biennials- that is, they develop their seed in the second year of growth.  To collect seed they need to be overwintered in the garden( with a heavy layer of mulch), or in cold storage, then replanted in the spring.

Most information from seed companies indicates that onion seed viability is short lived, but I have had onion seed last many years.  Correct storage must be the key-dry and cool.

Want to try a yummy and different dish?  This one is from Canadian Living, and is most certainly worth the effort!

Caramelized Onion Lasagna

This twist on lasagna is great for a Saturday night get-together. Serve with salad and a special loaf of bread.
This recipe makes 10 servings



In skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tbsp (25 mL)
of the butter; reduce heat to medium-low and cook onions, stirring occasionally, for 35 to 45 minutes or until soft and golden. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in heavy saucepan, melt remaining butter over medium heat. Stir in flour; cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, stirring for 10 to 15 minutes or until thickened. Remove from heat; stir in 1/4 cup (50 mL) of the cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Meanwhile, in large pot of boiling salted water, cook noodles for 8 to 10 minutes or until almost tender. Reserving cooking liquid, remove from pot; rinse in cold water. Arrange in single layer on clean damp tea towel.
Squash Filling: In food processor, pulse ricotta with squash puree until very smooth. Transfer to large bowl; stir in egg, egg yolk, bread crumbs, cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg until well blended. Set aside.
Return reserved cooking liquid to boil. Add broccoli and cook for about 2 minutes or until almost tender. Drain. Refresh under cold water; drain again.
Set aside 1 cup (250 mL) of the cheese sauce. Arrange 3 noodles in single layer in greased 13- x 9-inch (3 L) baking dish. Spread with half each of the squash filling, broccoli, onions and remaining cheese sauce. Repeat layers. Top with remaining noodles and reserved cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake in 375°F (190°C) oven for about 40 minutes or until light golden and bubbly. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Eat fresh all winter

 I've been outside today pulling beets and it is bloody cold.  But being November in Southern Ontario means only one thing.  It is going to get colder!

Most people with gardens are heading back to the grocery stores at this time of the year to get their produce.  But growing (ha!) numbers of people are not. They are relying on preserved summer crops, stored crops and fresh greens from protected structures such as hoop houses and cold frames

Here on the farm we are in pretty good shape for the winter after a super growing season.  I've talked on this blog about some veggies I store in barrels in the garage-winter radishes, beets, cabbages,carrots and also kohlrabi and turnips.  I've got potatoes and squash in the fruit cellar as well as onions and copious amounts of garlic and some English walnuts from my trees. Dried beans, canned tomatoes, peppers and beans and a wonderful assortment of jams round out the fruit cellar, making it look like a grocery store.  My freezer holds my strawberries, raspberries, huckleberries and cape gooseberries and my cooler, apples from my trees.

We'll eat well.  But I couldn't really just get by with these foods.  I need greens and my two large hoop houses are just full of them.

I sell a fair bit, but of course we eat 'em too!

I pulled the tomatoes out of the hoop houses in September, and after a quick till, started seeding one of the houses. I don't worry about precision seeding.  I practise the "scatter seed" approach.  I put in lots of arugula, mustards, chards, kales, walking onions and a few potatoes for fun.  I watered the seeds in and before long was rewarded with a sea of green. I'm harvesting these greens now, mid-November, but only when absolutely necessary....there still is so much outside!

The other hoop house is a different story.  I purchased it from a different company and the design was poor - exposed screws on the top of the structure weakened the plastic, and a huge wind mid-September ripped the plastic right off.  Best greenhouse, hands-down is the one from GGS in Vineland.

We had this greenhouse completely tilled and ready to go, but without the plastic, I wasn't too worried about getting it planted.  And getting the plastic on isn't a job I can remotely consider doing myself.

So on a fine breeze-less morning in October, we got the plastic on.  But a really great thing had happened....the house had seeded itself!

I have chefs who like the flowers from the crops I grow in the winter-the cheery yellow mustards,white arugula and purple radish flowers that inevitably start appearing when the longer days of March and April send up the seed stalks.  So I let lots of these crops flower, then go to seed.  And although the hoop house was fully planted to heirloom tomatoes this summer, I tried to "dry farm" the plants, that is I didn't water them after they were established.  And because of this minimalist approach to watering, the plants that went to seed didn't grow.

When the plastic ripped though, the rain came down and the seeds germinated like crazy.  That house is packed with mustards and chards, mizuna, choi, claytonia, cress, lettuces and of course lovely little tomato plants which will expire when the deep freezes hit.

I'm done watering the hoop houses now.  Obviously much less water is required in the cold weather.  From here on it is just a matter of covering the crops with agricultural fabric when the temperatures dip quite low, and of course harvesting. And the taste?  Oh my. Winter greens, sweetened by the frost are so good and fresh tasting.

Eating local has become the mantra of so many.  But I am a stickler for good food, be it local or not. And much of what is in the stores is intolerable crap, sadly whether it is local or not.
I firmly believe the best food people will ever eat is the food they grow themselves.

Got a bit of ground?  Time to think garden for 2011!