A Tip for Impatient Gardeners

by Sandy Swegel

Gardening can be frustrating for people who hate to wait.  It’s not easy to speed Mother Nature along, so on a fine warm day, we find ourselves at the garden centers spending a lot of money on bedding plants or transplants.  Seed lovers know that is not always a good use of money.  Sure, if you didn’t start long season plants like tomatoes, it makes sense to buy a plant because you want lots of tomatoes soon, but here are some crazy plant starts I saw for sale this weekend:

Lettuce starts. Once the weather is warmer lettuce seeds will be growing in two or three days from seed.

Chard and kale starts. One grower was selling weak-stemmed red chard starts for $3. Sure they were organic, but you could buy an entire bunch of organic kale for less than that.

Bean starts. Beans germinate so easily that they are a reliable seed for kids to germinate for science projects.

Cucumber plants.  Another seed that comes up so easily all on its own.

Zucchini. Another plant that germinates quickly and then grows a foot when your back is turned. It doesn’t need a head start.

Pre-sprout your seeds if you’re in a hurry. If you’ve soaked peas overnight before planting, you’re already half-way to pre-sprouting your seed.  Take any seed and soak it overnight in water.  Then pour the damp seeds onto a paper towel or coffee filter and put in a baggie or put a plastic lid over it.  As soon as you see the first white roots coming out, you can (gently) plant them in your garden.  This works great for slow germinators like carrots, or old seeds.  My neighbor pre-sprouts all the big seeds like corn, beans and cucumber. She wants an orderly garden without having to do a lot of thinning…so when she puts pre-sprouted seeds every three inches….she knows that exactly where plants will come up.  This saves time thinning too.

Pre-sprouting doesn’t save me from spending some money on garden center plants. Besides tomatoes, I sometimes buy a winter squash that takes a long time to grow to maturity.  And I can rarely resist buying some flowering plants in bloom.  Little yellow marigolds and hot pink dianthus in full bloom are making my garden a happy place.

3 Veggies You Gotta Grow at Home!

These three veggies aren’t easy to find in grocery stores.  Even if you can buy them, they are so much better fresh out of the garden AND super easy to grow.

Broccoli Raab Rapini This is a relative to big broccoli stalks. You get the same great taste and vitamins as the bigger broccoli except this is easier and faster to cook. You can buy raab in the grocery stores sometimes, but it’s often large and the leaves can be tougher. Clipped young out of the garden and sauteed with olive oil or in stir-fry, it’s tender and sweet.  And it’s easy to throw a little in your juicer without it overwhelming other vegetables.

Chioggia Beets You can buy beets with greens attached, but again you don’t get the young tender sweet greens you can clip directly out of the garden that are great for stir-fry or slipped into a mixed salad.  Any beet would work, but the Chioggia have those super cool stripes that look great sliced very thin in a salad.

Dwarf Grey Sugar Peas Anyone who has read this blog knows I’ve got a thing for peas. But the dwarf grey sugars reign above all the others.  First, the plant with its pretty pink flowers could pass for a sweet pea.  Second, even the leaves of this pea are tasty and you could grow these peas just for microgreens. Third, the young pod is sublime. Eaten young right off the plant it is sweet and tender. Grown a little more, it’s a great snack refrigerated or even to be used in the traditional way in a stir-fry.

Gardening is fun but also can take a lot of time and work. I like to grow food that I can’t just buy in the grocery store but is a delight when grown at home.

Growing for your Freezer

by Sandy Swegel

The avid vegetable growers on my gardening email list have noted that alas, despite trying to plan well, their freezers and pantries are almost bare despite the fact that there’s still snow on the garden. We’re fortunate to live in times with well-stocked grocery stores.

We’re also lucky to live with reliable electricity. I know how to can and make preserves, but the freezer is still the easiest way I know how to easily capture garden produce at their peak. I keep a baking pan in my freezer and bring in surplus I’ve picked that I won’t use today and after washing, spread the beans, peas, corn, cherries or strawberries on the baking pan for a kind of home flash freeze. Later when I have time, I bag up the frozen item to protect them from freezer burn. Easy and fresh. And despite what all the books tell us, we’ve had really good luck with freezing produce without blanching it first.

Suggestions on what items are good for freezing: Tomatoes of course…Sauce or diced, roasted or stewed. We agree tomatoes are the most versatile item in your freezer.

Prepared meals:  ratatouilles, bean stews, chilis, lasagnas, stuffed peppers.  Who isn’t delighted to find a home-grown, home-cooked meal in the freezer on a cold January evening ready to thaw and eat.

Individual vegetables, loose.  Here I take inspiration from the freezer section of the grocery and make small Ziploc bags of everything the grocery store freezer section supplies:  beans, corn, peas, okra, black-eyed peas, baby limas, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, red and yellow peppers. Basically, anything that would make a quick side vegetable to balance out a meal or something to give a soup or stock some extra zip. One great suggestion I’ll try this year is to freeze poblano peppers whole ready for stuffing.

Pre-cooked foods. Here’s where I’ve learned that pre-cooking some foods turns ordinary vegetables sublime.  Frozen cut spinach isn’t too impressive, but frozen spinach previously braised in olive oil and garlic is sublime.  Likewise, braised mixed kale with a splash of tamari is welcome.  A great way to freeze these greens is to lay them on freezer paper in a long thin log and wrap them up.  Cut off a section of what you need and return the log to the freezer. Cooked and seasoned beans.  I love green beans fresh but there’s something about them frozen plainly that is unimpressive.  But I like heartier beans like broad beans that have been cooked and seasoned.  Potatoes. I’m still experimenting with potatoes, but I’m so crazy for mashed potatoes that frozen individual servings of mashed potatoes with a little gravy disappeared by December.  The texture wasn’t as great as fresh…but they’re still mashed potatoes!  Shredded potatoes for hash browns are pretty good too. Roasted eggplant slices….ready to go for lasagna. Baby beets, well-cooked and seasoned. Stir-fry mixes of favorite vegetables pre-cooked to almost doneness.

Fruit. You can’t make enough of this. Keep trying, but whether dried or frozen, cherries, raspberries and peaches just disappear.  There’s still applesauce and a few strawberries in my freezer and some dried cherries I didn’t see.  Freeze more next year!

Now that my freezer is almost empty, I know how to plan for this year’s garden.  Plant more of the foods that disappeared by December and fewer of the foods that are still frozen from the year before last.

Hundreds of Vegetables

The holiday season always involves lots of cooking. Each time I’m shopping for food I find myself thinking, I could have grown that.  A big winter squash cost me $5 the other day. And paying $2 for parsley that practically grows itself suddenly seems crazy.  As I think about January resolutions for dieting and really like the Plant Nutrient Dense Diets, I’m kicking myself for not having more vegetables still harvestable or in the freezer. So next to my grocery list on the refrigerator, I’m making my list of the vegetables I’m buying so that I have a more rational way to make a list of seeds to buy to grow for next year’s vegetable garden.

Things I wish I coulda woulda shoulda grown more of:

Beets.  Several parties I’ve been to have had roasted beet dishes. So yummy and easy. And beets are nutritious and great juicers. With a little extra mulch protection, they survive most of the year I should have at least two beets per person per week of the year. I need at least a hundred beets for me.

Carrots. Such a good juicer as well as cooked vegetables…I need at least three carrots per person per week.  150 carrots just for me.

Onions.  Duh, Another easy to grow plant that I use almost every day….4 onions per person per week is 200 onions.

Tomatoes.  It wasn’t a great tomato year so it’s not surprising I’ve gone through most of my stored tomatoes already.  I didn’t notice how often I rely on diced or stewed tomatoes in my recipes.  I need at least 2 16 ounce cans of chopped tomatoes per week.  100 “cans” of chopped paste potatoes.

Cooked Greens.  This year I preserved kale and chard and collards by steaming them and then freezing them already cooked.  I’m eating twice as many greens now than usual because they are already cooked and ready to be served as a side dish or added last minute to soups.  Cooked, frozen greens:  At least 3 pounds per person per week. 150 pounds of greens.

Peas.  I love peas. Why don’t I have more in the freezer or dehydrator? One pound of peas per week. 50 pounds of peas.

Fruit.  Frozen and dehydrated fruits are my favorites in winter.  I’ve gone through all but two jars of my tart cherries.  I was tired of picking and pitting cherries in the summer….but now I’d happily do that work since I can’t buy any tart cherries now.  I should have a pound per week of fruit preserved for the winter per person.

 Parsley and Celery. I love cooking and juicing with both of these. I’m completely out of both and they are just great sources of nutrients.  I need at least 50 “bunches” of parsley and celery chopped and frozen or celeriac in the frig/root cellar.

Rosemary. For the first year, I have enough rosemary. I bought one of those rosemary Christmas trees.  I love to roast vegetables with rosemary….so now I pick up the plant and use the scissors to keep snipping the plant back into the Christmas tree shape.  I get at least a couple of tablespoons per trimming…finally enough rosemary.

So that’s my lesson this week.  If I want a diet full of plant nutrients and I don’t want a huge grocery bill, I need to think of my vegetable garden as a source of HUNDREDS of plants. I’ve never really noticed how many vegetables it takes to have a nutritious diet.

Another way to think about it is…let’s modestly say you need five vegetable and fruit servings per day.  Here in Colorado, we have about 4 months of non-growing seasons. So five servings per day x 30 days x 4 months means I need to have at least 600 servings of vegetables and fruit PER PERSON preserved in cool storage, cans or the freezer by December 1st if I want to grow my own food. WOW. All I can say is thank you to all the farmers who have been providing this for me my whole life!

Quick Potluck Meals From Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Last night I went to our annual culinary gardener’s potluck holiday party.  When you have good organic produce you’ve grown yourself, the flavors are so much better than standard grocery store fare, it doesn’t take much work to make potluck dishes everybody loves.  The vegetable provides most of the flavor!

Some of last night’s easy dishes:

Roasted vegetables.

Sweet potatoes cut in 1-inch chunks, marinated in olive oil and lots of rosemary and garlic. With the oven at 425°, bake on a cookie sheet (not a deep dish) 45 minutes. Turn halfway through.  The cookie sheet lets the heat slightly crust the pieces of sweet potato. This works for butternut squash too.

Beets, small quarters, marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, roasted to soft perfection. Oven at 350, about 30 minutes depending on your beets.

Kale, sliced in quarter inch strips, sauteed in coconut oil with sesame seeds, cranberries, cashews and lemon juice. Saute nuts first then lightly saute kale till tender.  Turns out a beautiful bright green color with red highlights.

Apples, small quarters or eighths, soaked in mulled wine and apple cider, then simmered to tenderness. Dust with cinnamon. Serve as a main course side, not as dessert.

Very thinly julienned beets and carrots, in a vinaigrette sauce with pomegranate seeds and tiny mandarin orange pieces.

Quinoa, cooked and mixed with well-sauteed thin slices of red chard, buffalo mozzarella cheese and blue cheese and bits of chopped pistachios.

All these great dishes were healthy and intensely flavorful. It’s really not difficult to cook good vegetable-based dishes for potlucks or for our nightly meals.  It’s the reward for a long season of gardening in a hot drought year.

End of the Growing Season

by Sandy Swegel

We had our first big snow…just six inches but very cold and wet followed by more snow and below freezing temperatures so one might easily assume the vegetable garden is done for the year.  It certainly looks forlorn outside my window.  But fortunately, Nature is kinder than that.  For reasons I can’t quite fathom, lettuce that freezes if it’s too far in the back of my refrigerator can handle quite a lot of extreme temperature especially when it’s well insulated by snow.  I expect that when the sun returns in a couple of days, I’ll be able to brush away any remaining snow and harvest excellent crispy sweet lettuce.  Hardier greens like spinach and chard can even be exposed to the air and frozen solid at 8 am but then be perfect and ready to eat by noon with a little mid-day thawing.

The warm season plants like basil and tomatoes have no chance in the cold.  Basil turns brown below about 35 degrees.  Tomatoes don’t taste nearly as good once night time temps dip into the 30s.  Squash leaves croak right at 32 although sometimes the ambient heat from the ground will keep the pumpkins and winter squash edible even though the air is freezing.  Still, the warm season plants are done. Corn on the cob is a memory held by the dried stalks turned into Halloween decorations.

The root crops are another story.  Carrots and beets improve with each freezing night.  As long as you can pry root crops from the freezing ground, you’ll be rewarded with intense flavor and sweetness that improves even more if you roast the vegetables with some olive oil. Many a picky eater who refused to eat turnips or rutabagas, finds November turnips roasted with rosemary and thyme to be irresistible.

The growing season might be over….but the eating season has just begun!