Nature springs back at vernal equinox

I sought signs of vernalis in my garden today. Figured it would be an appropriate thing to do on the vernal equinox, also known as the first day of spring.

Vernal literally means “of the spring,” from the Latin vernalis. And I’ve long been known to toss around Latin phrases just to show off. Carpe diem! Although anyone who tasks me with plant i.d. can quickly tell that my gardener’s Latin is suspect, to say the least. Caveat emptor.

But on the first day of spring, as the lengths of day and night are at their equinoctial point, is a good occasion, ipso facto, to assess vernalis.

In a walk after lunch (post meridiem) I found evidence in many facets of my edible garden, which should not have surprised me. Every spring that I have been alive, and to my knowledge every spring throughout eternity, sprouts have risen and buds have popped in flore as the earth rises again to life. Ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

And here, in images, is the documentum. Q.E.D.*

Asian veg in cold frame

This cold frame is planted with bok choi (back) and tatsoi that I started indoors in January.

Corn salad

Corn salad (mache) growing wild in the mulch in front of my compost bin chopping block (which itself has been colonized quite nicely by volunteers).

Early Red Treviso radicchio

Early Red Treviso radicchio overwintered in a cloche and is spicing up our spring salads while Viola tricolor (Johnny jump-up) kept it company.

Mustard greens

Mustard greens, overwintered in a cloche, are exuberantly growing.

Pear buds

Buds on the pear tree promise sweet blossoms.

Artichoke

The fresh, silvery leaves of the globe artichoke cheer up a border bed.

Cabbage - probably

This is probably a cabbage, sprouted up from a stray brassica seedling. I have no idea if it will make a head. if not, I’ll probably start eating the leaves.

Mystery Brassica

This volunteer, clearly a Brassica but not clearly what type, popped up on the edge of a bed. Looks like a cross between collards and dinosaur kale. Also looks like good eating!

Red-veined sorrel

Red-veined garden sorrel sprouts back to life from a dense head.

Lettuce under cloche

Lettuce seedlings, begun indoors, gain strength under my Triangle Tunnel cloche.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

The plant is healthy but our cool late winter weather has delayed the buds on the Purple Sprouting broccoli. But they are coming.

Dino kale in bud

Lacinato (dinosaur) kale going to flower. It was planted too late last year to reach “full frame” before winter, but we’ll eat it soon and pull it up to make room for something new.

Garlic and bike

Garlic slices through the straw mulch behind a whimsical steel bike sculpture.

 

* Disclosure: I had to look up some of those phrases — okay, most of them — to make sure I was not misusing them too drastically.

 

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.

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

Cover Fall Edibles Now

In my Seattle garden, fallen leaves are drifting up around the edges of my vegetable beds like Technicolor waves lapping at the shore. Time to deploy the season extension.

This time of year, nature is getting ready to go dormant. Despite the occasional warm, sunny day, the weather pattern is changing. Shorter days (and longer nights), cooler temperatures, glorious rain, from drizzle to downpour, all signal the change in plants. Growth slows down. Cell walls begin to thicken in the plants, mirroring our defensive layers of fleece and wool.

Stave off the inevitable decline in your vegetable garden by covering those plants that are actively growing. The ones that will feed you salad this fall can be nursed along for a few more weeks if covered with a cloche or a cold frame.

Three devices

Three season extension devices protect fall and winter crops: hoop-house cloche, triangle tunnel and cold frame.

The root crops that are going to be overwintered will be aided by a blanket of garden fleece, also known as floating row cover. Later this fall, you can pull off the FRC and cover those beets and carrots with a cloche, giving them more protection during our coldest time.

dome hot cap

The last of the summer basil crop is nursed along under the dome hot cap.

The kale, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts will benefit from a top-dressing of compost and straw mulch, between the rows and around the plants. This step can be taken for all the fall and winter veggie plants, but isn’t as necessary for those under a cloche or cold frame until the weather really reaches our daytime winter temperatures of 45 degrees. Still, I often do this now around my salad greens too, just since I’m out in the garden with the straw at hand. It’s often more pleasant to do it on a nice fall day than try to wait for a break in the winter rains that will take hold in November.

The main reason to do this season extension and mulching work is to protect our plants from the colder temperatures, pounding rains and desiccating wind.

A few weeks ago I put in a late batch of lettuces and raddichio into a long hoop-house cloche. With the unseasonably warm weather, I’ve been able to take that off for days at a time, and the veggies are nearing harvest. Now that rains and cooler weather are predicted, I’ve put it back on again.

Often at this time of year I’ll set up the cold frame over a bed with starts. It’s amazing to check the soil temperature inside the cold frame and in the bed next to it. Inside the bed, the temperature of the soil will be well above 60, while in the open garden the soil temperature is inching down toward the mid-50s. Capturing that warmer soil temp, keeping it from dropping so fast, is a key benefit to season extension.

cold frame

My Twinwall cold frame is keeping the fall salad greens robust.

Also this week we’ve had a couple of days of significant rain. At times, it’s come down pretty hard. A soft rain is great for watering the beds, and I open the season extension devices for a few hours in early afternoon if a light rain is coming down. The best situation is a nice soft rain for an hour or two, followed by a clearing and light breeze, so the plants dry out. Regular moisture on the leaves and stems of fall veggies can promote rot. If I can’t get the timing right to open the season extension during a light rain, I hand-water the beds as needed.

And I always keep the devices closed during a heavy rain. Over time, heavy rains will compact the soil, leach out the nutrients, and reduce those soil temps — all things I’m trying to avoid. Score another benefit for season extension.

floating row cover

Fall beets and carrots are growing nicely, and bug free, under a layer of floating row cover.

The winds are also gusting this time of year. Combined with cooler temperatures and rain, the wind can be hard on tender vegetable crops. The worst effect is when it blows the top layer of

hot caps

A couple of unusual kales that were struggling are getting a boost by being covered with glass hot caps.

mulch away from the base of the plant, exposing the plant’s fine root system. Those roots will dry up, making it tough for the plant to survive, much less grow. Such stress will invite pests, and can trigger the plant’s desire to bolt and go to seed.

One final idea concerning season extension: what’s good for the plants is also good for the pests. In this sense: the pests love the warmer, drier location too. I’m picking a lot of slugs and snails out of my season extension devices right now, and off the plants. I need to be diligent about this, because they’re all drawn to the warm place with plentiful food. As the temperatures continue to drop they’ll become less of a problem, but right now, I need to pay attention if I want to keep those fall crops around for my autumn dinners, and not just be feeding the pests.

new cloche

I’m having fun with my commercial-made cloche. The long single-row device has an internal wire frame and zippered vents with mesh.

Fall in the maritime garden is a time to appreciate our weather. The change is usually not abrupt, giving me a chance to also adjust my own pace to the slowing rhythm of nature. But the decline into winter is inevitable, which is another lesson. At this pace, it seems more possible to stay in the moment, enjoying the color and patterns of those fall leaves as they naturally mulch the margins of my garden.

 

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.

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