Taste Spring at the NW Flower & Garden Show

I can almost taste spring. Can’t you? When a warm wind casts across the yard like a fishing line tossed into a lazy stream, I cast my eyes toward the ground, seeking shoots and sprouts. When they appear, my spirit soars.

.pea shoots

Another way to get that feeling is to visit the giant Northwest Flower & Garden Show–excuse me–Garden Festival being held this week at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle (blog, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest).

Over the weekend I was in the cavernous show garden area helping set up the Arboretum Foundation’s always-enticing garden, so I’ll give you a tip: brave the crowds, traffic and parking, and come on down. It looks like it is going to be a blooming success.

Here’s another tip: buy your tickets online before 11:55 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21 and get the early-bird price, $5 off.

Display garden 2016

Giant colored pots lit from within highlighted one of last year’s display gardens.

I’ll be there a few times during the week, and look forward to meeting readers and gardeners. On Wednesday, I present “Eat Your Year: Month-by-Month Actions for Continuous Edibles” at 6:45 p.m. slide snapshot

I’ve mined my garden journal for cultivation and harvest tips throughout the year. You’ll be surprised what can be done in the doldrums of winter, and what needs to be done in the sweetest swell of summer if you want to eat from your yard year round. A book signing follows, and I look forward to personalizing a book for you.

Then on Saturday at 11:45 a.m., I employ my journalism chops by interviewing Seattle’s star restaurateur Tom Douglas and his business partner, wife and chief farmer in the family Jackie Cross. In “The Learning Curve,” we’ll discuss their quest to generate perfect produce for their many restaurants.

If you’ve eaten at Etta’s, Dahlia Lounge, Seatown, Serious Pie, Tanaka San or one of Tom’s other great restaurants in the last few years, you’ve probably eaten produce from Prosser Farm. Six years after breaking ground in the hills west of Prosser, they have learned much (I’ll ask about the rascally rabbits!) and Tom Douglas logonow deliver a significant amount of vegetables for the restaurants from their farm, taking the farm-to-table concept to a wild new level.

Tom will sign copies of his excellent cookbooks after the talk, and I’ll head up to the University Book Store’s booth (#211) to meet and greet and sign my own books for an hour, 1-2 p.m.

You might also find me at my publisher’s booth. The Mountaineers Books and their green living imprint Skipstone will have their books on display and for sale (booth #2354) and will have lots of authors as well as staff to visit with. Learn about recent and upcoming titles, including my next cycling book, Cycling the Pacific Coast: A Complete Guide, Canada to Mexico, which will be out this fall.

I hope you’ll consider attending one or both of my events, but do you realize how much there is to do at the show?

  • Attend one of the 110 seminars and demonstrations going on throughout the show. Besides learning and being entertained, you’ll get to sit down and relax after touring the giant exhibit hall and display gardens.
  • Speaking of which, tour the 22 show gardens for inspiration and that “taste of spring.”
  • Shop at the 350 exhibitors offering garden, nature-related and gourmet food goods in the Garden Marketplace. I especially like the non-profit organizations that offer information and help build our gardening community. I also enjoy touring the Vintage Garden Market to find some rusty old thing that would give my garden a bit more character.

    Windows

    Old windows repurposed into a shed — probably the easiest way to build a cold frame.

  • Snack and sip your way through the Tasting Corner, a new gourmet food and beverage marketplace offered this year. Nearly 30 vendors will offer samples of their tasty wares.

This is the second largest garden festival in the U.S., so plan enough time to enjoy it fully. It’s a great way to get spring underway, even while waiting for those first buds to break.

Results of Extended Cold Spell

Sunny, cold days have been the norm in Seattle for a number of weeks, which is “unseasonal” for us here in the Maritime Northwest. And it’s having a punishing effect on my overwintering edibles.

Starting with a snowstorm the second week of December, we’ve had what I’d call a hard winter, as “hard” relates to frost and freeze, that is. Many nights in the low 20s or even teens, and days when the thermometer barely tops 32. Freezing.

The effect has been mixed, according to today’s survey, done in balmy 42-degree sunshine. I opened the zippered front of the long plastic cloche, expecting to find slimy messes where my lettuce and radicchio starts were living, along with a seeded bed of mustard greens. Across the path, floating row cover blanketed a bed seeded with corn salad (mache). All had been alive after that December snowstorm, but I hadn’t uncovered these areas in weeks. Here is my delightful find:

salad cloche

Mustard greens have sprouted in the first bay of the cloche, and in the back two, Winter Density lettuce and Palla Rossa radicchio are standing tall. To the right of the path is thickly sown Vit corn salad.

You’re looking at Winter Density lettuce and Palla Rossa radicchio under the cloche, and Vit corn salad sprouted densely on the right, where the corner of the floating row cover has been removed. Definitely winners in a harsh environment. The existing leaves probably wouldn’t be desirable, but they provide a good base for new growth, which will find its way into late winter salads.

The cloche, which doesn’t look like it would provide much protection, is also a winner. It’s sitting on a raised bed made of stone, which helps radiate heat back into the bed, and I’ve placed stones in bare spots within the cloche to add to that effect.

However, a trek to the back 40 brought down my mood a bit. The purple sprouting broccoli has been shivering with just a smattering of straw mulch around its stems. It had bounced back after the snow melted in mid-December, but since then it’s been in severe retreat due to the cold nights. I should have covered it, but went away for Christmas, when the first cold nights really set in, and by the time I returned I figured it was too late. The cold has continued, with a brief letup, and I hope for the best. But here’s what it looks like right now:

PS Broccoli

“PS” might stand for pretty sad instead of purple sprouting in this bed of broccoli, but who knows, it may recover. Stay tuned as the weather warms.

Behind the broccoli, though, are two A-frame cloches, one covering carrots and the other beets. Although the edges of the cloches are frozen into the crusty soil, I can see green leaves through both of them, giving me hope that these two root crops are hanging in there.

beet and carrot cloches

I haven’t opened these cloches yet – their edges are frozen into the soil – but the beets (left) and carrots (right) still have good greenery.

Speaking of the crusty ground, it needs to be pried open like a stuck car-door in order to rescue a parsnip or two. But it’s worth the effort, as those roots have been nice and sweet.

Other above-ground plants have not fared well. A bed of parsley in an open cold frame is matted against the soil, although might recover. Slimy mounds that once were ruby chard hold less hope. Onions and celery root look OK, but haven’t been pulled yet. Kale, usually a staple in our winter garden, is suffering.

Taking stock of the successes and failures, I can see things I should have done: more mulch around the broccoli, maybe a floating row cover or cloche over it. Definitely much more protection over the poor chard. But just keeping myself warmly clothed on my rare forays out into the crisp weather has been enough of a challenge. I’ll chalk it up to experience and hope the broccoli will finally bounce back. Warmer weather is on the way; this week’s forecast is for high 40s daytime, and mid-30s overnight. I’m ready.

empty bucket

My harvest bucket is pretty empty on a mid-winter walk through the frosty garden landscape.

Happy Seed Year

“Happy New Year!” When I hear that, seeds come to mind. The new year’s first month is when I plan my garden, fueled by favorite seed catalogs.

In this month’s “Edible Garden” column for Edible Seattle magazine, I offer glimpses into my annual plunge into the seed catalogs. I’ve written about this before in a series on this blog as well–here’s the first one. I took my writing inspiration from Katherine White, whose “Onward and Upward in the Garden” is a funny, perceptive, classic read.

The arrival of colorful seed listings literally whets my appetite, and I dig into my canned veggies and winter garden when browsing the offerings. Sautéed kale pairs quite nicely with down-home Territorial Seeds, while pickled beets (my mother’s recipe) brightens even further the glossy Seed Savers Exchange catalog.

Since Edible Seattle wouldn’t let me take over all their pages to wax poetic about seed companies, I’d like to offer links and comments on a number of favorite catalogs.

SSE's Prickly Caterpillar

Entry for Prickly Caterpillar in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog.

Here are some of our stellar bioregional Pacific Northwest growers:

Adaptive Seeds — They seem to have a little of everything, including a number of tomato varieties unknown to me. Till now, that is.

Bountiful Gardens (a project of Ecology Action) — This is the seed catalog of the non-profit garden educators. Check out their collection of plants that will create habitat and food for beneficial insects, one of founder John Jeavons’ important messages.

Irish Eyes Garden Seeds — What started as potatoes (those Irish eyes!) and garlic has blossomed into a full seed company. But still, check out the spuds!

Kitizawa Seed Co. — They offer the broadest selection of Asian vegetable seeds, which means I can try two or three new mustard or choi varieties. Happy 100th anniversary to the Kitizawa family business!

Resilient Seeds (& Backyard Beans & Grains Project) — Resilient offers a curated list of legumes and grains that grow well in our climate. I’m excited to try their Overwintering Fava, which they say has more tender skin that eliminates the need to peel.

Territorial Seed Co. — The giant in our midst, this full-line vegetable seed company always has a couple of pages of new offerings, as well as nearly all your old favorites.

Uprising Seeds — One of my fave newer companies, Uprising offers a wide variety of seeds, including the Felder cabbage mentioned in my Edible Seattle article that’s going into my garden this year.

Victory Seeds — They focus on rare, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, a wonderful combination.

Wild Garden Seed — This treasure offers many “farm originals” that have been bred for our region. The catalog also includes an annual essay from Frank Morton, whose Wild Garden Kale mix has become a staple for me. It’s always interesting to see what he’ll come up with next.

 

And here are some valuable companies outside the Northwest:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds — With the most amazing print catalog (a real work of art) and a penchant for quirkiness, this company also sells unusual heirloom seeds not found anywhere else.

Botanical Interests — The providers of my recently unearthed gigantic parsnip, this company has a full array of vegetable seeds, sold in beautiful packaging.

Fedco Seed Co. — This Maine-based company focuses on cold-hardy vegetables, which is a good angle for our maritime growing season.

High Mowing Organic Seeds — Serious about organics, this company provides high-quality seeds and sells to commercial growers as well. They grow much of their seed on a 40-acre farm, and have more than 40 new varieties for 2017.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds — Another Maine company, this one 100% employee-owned, was a pioneer nationally in garden seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange — This revered non-profit leads the heirloom seed movement and, through their extensive seed bank, offers thousands of little-known varieties. I urge gardeners everywhere to support this organization as well as to try some of their unique varieties.

I know this is not an exhaustive list (although a bit exhausting, when you pile up all the catalogs on your desk!). If you sell seeds to home gardeners and want to suggest I add you to the list, please contact me.

ps: If you’re crazy about seeds too, come to our Great Seattle Seed Swap at the King County Seed Lending Library. It’s the last Saturday in January in north Seatt.e

Shirley’s Beet Pickles

If your beets are sizing up, or you can get a big batch of them at a farmers market, how about making some tasty pickles? This is my mother’s beet pickle recipe, simple and yet delicious.

Beet Pickles

And of course, since it came from her and it is food I loved as a child, it always takes me back to my North Dakota farm roots.

I don’t know what variety beets she grew, but for pickles I like to grow Detroit Dark Red or Early Wonder Tall Top for the rich burgundy color.

Ingredients

  • 5-1/3 cups cooked beets (about 6 large)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1-1/2 cups vinegar
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon whole cloves
  • 1 stick cinnamon, broken
  • ½ teaspoon whole allspice

Directions

Remove beet tops, leaving 1 inch of top. Boil the beets in lightly salted water. When tender enough for a knife to pass through them, drain. Cool the beets in icy water, slipping the skin off them while they’re still hot. When cool, cut into 1-inch chunks.

Simmer the water, vinegar, sugar and spices for 15 minutes.

Pack the beets into jars and cover with liquid to within 1/2 inch of the jar top. Process for 30 minutes in a hot water bath.

Makes 3 pints.

p.s. For details on growing successive plantings of root crops, including beets, for fall and winter, see my column in the July-August, 2016 issue of Edible Seattle.

Holiday weather blues? Don’t despair, plant!

It was the best of weather, it was the worst of weather.

Memorial Day Weekend in Seattle will bring up brooding Dickensian thoughts. What should herald the start of summer here often disappoints. When all you want to do is take your kids hiking, go to a music festival, wheel off on a nice long bike ride, or simply just host a BBQ, you have to look to the skies, and judge the depth of the grey.

Why, then, would I start this post so optimistically? The best of weather, by what standards? Well, my Brussels sprouts love it.

Brussels sprouts seedlings

These Brussels sprouts, sown on May 7, got potted up to 4″ pots this week, and will be ready for the garden by mid-June.

At this stage of the year—what I call mid-spring in my catalog of mini-seasons—I am engaged in a garden tug-of-war. Part of me wants to grow the fattest red tomato on the block, so juicy it drips down my shirt. I want big pepper plants heavy with spicy pods. Some years, I even yearn for a stand of corn.

But my muscles yank me back to cool-season crops too, and possibly more to reality. Mid-spring is a time for struggle on the part of my tomato plants, and the peppers can stay under cover or fight for their survival. But it’s a glorious time of growth for cool-season vegetables. They celebrate this dreary holiday weekend weather like twirling hippies at a Phish concert.

And now, when you’re focused solely on getting those hot crops of summer in the ground, let the cool breezes of a maritime spring clue you in: time to give those long-season vegetables of next winter some love.

Tomatoes and Peppers in Greenhouse shelves

The tomatoes are getting leggy, and the peppers aren’t getting any younger in their pots. But the greenhouse shelves work great!

Here’s a quick list of what to sow now in pots for planting out in June and July:

  • Purple sprouting broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage (winter)
  • Parsnips

And here are some things to plant directly in the garden in mid-July for fall and winter eating:

  • Collards
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Kohlrabi
  • Rutabaga
  • Turnip

There are many other, shorter-season veggies that can be sown later in the summer and into the fall for fall and winter eating, but for right now, instead of trying to jump-start summer, skip over it and look to fall. Put on a Dead record and rave on with your brassicas.

Final presentation at City People’s

Many Seattle gardeners are mourning the impending loss of City People’s Garden Store on Madison, which got the land sold out from under it for the inevitable mixed-use development. It was the first nursery I used when I moved to Seattle in the mid-1980s, and I still hold it fondly in my mind. When it closes at the end of this year, it will be a major loss for city gardeners. I will miss it.

I’ve been giving a series of edible gardening talks there for years, and my last talk is coming up next weekend. On Sunday, June 5 at 11 a.m. I’ll do a seminar on starting long-season vegetables. Hope you can join me, support the store with some purchases and give City People’s a proper send-off.

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