Sunday, April 29, 2012

Growing steady in moody weather

T.S. Eliot was right: April IS the cruelest month. Two weeks ago it was sunny and seventy degrees; I tidied up flower beds, planted bushes and trees, and, most rashly, started beans, cucumbers, peas, artichokes, and cilantro. Kale, collards, and spinach were sprouting happily in the cold frame. Last Monday morning, I woke up to six inches of snow.

            Though the vegetables I had sown are technically “cold-weather crops” I have found that my assessment of cold spring temperatures and the seed companies’ varies quite a bit. Here in far Upstate New York, winter is over when ice stops crystallizing on your face (this is also known as the beginning of flip-flop season). Apparently, true “cold crops” are usually sown when the temperature is reliably sustained at around sixty-five degrees (up here we call that bikini weather). Considering our growing season is really only about four months long, different understandings of what it means to be "cold" or "warm" (which up here we actually never achieve for very long) really matters for one's harvest. 

            I could only think one thing: thank the gardening gods I container planted. In my earlier posts, I mentioned how much I admired my friend Julia’s container cucumbers. Determined to do the same thing, I started scarlet runner beans, pickling cukes (my favorite), and sugar snap peas in single-cell containers right after St. Patrick’s Day. As they started to grow (and they grow quickly!) I filled twelve-inch-deep containers with a bottom layer of composted cow manure and topped it with potting soil. I made a few very simple trellises from dry sticks (grape vines are also very helpful here, depending on how you want your vines to grow-- perhaps in fun shapes?) and stuck them in a triangular formation in the rear of the pot. I then planted each pot with combinations of beans and cucumbers, and planted hanging baskets with peas. I placed them all in front of a window in my back kitchen which is separated from the house and is maintains a constant fifty-five to sixty degrees.

            When the weather was still warm, I began the process of hardening seedlings that had developed at least two leaf sets (this is important—you don’t want to start them too early). I have learned from experience that planting indoor-sprouted seedlings directly into the great big wide world is seldom successful. Most expert gardeners say that leaving the seedlings outdoors, in their nursery cells, for a few hours a day (providing the day is a lovely one) helps them to harden and acclimate to garden life. Through this process, the seedlings can experience harsher climate factors—direct sunlight, winds, even temperature fluctuations—and get used to them gradually before being permanently placed in them.  Thus, I had first hardened my seedlings in their primary sprouting cells, and then had set out the containers entire when they were comfortably planted. When colder evening temperatures set in, I whisk them back into the house for shelter. Voila: a literal (potential) moveable feast. 

            Currently,  my beans are about eighteen inches high with a  healthy growth of leaves and my peas hang from their perches about the same (the cucumbers seem to be waiting for some warmer weather). They have been largely living in the back kitchen as the weather has been lousy this past week, but they got to see some outdoor sunshine today. While (as always) I’m a little nervous that I began too early, if all continues to go well, I’ll have a very early veg crop this year. 

Don't know your gardening zone? Check here.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Eating Your Lawn Part II: the Awesomeness of Dandelions

I held Easter dinner at my house this year for about fifteen friends and family. In developing the menu, I wanted to stick to a spring theme: early vegetables, in-season game, and savory but light seasonings. For the first course, I planned a split pea soup with my own oatmeal wheat bread, herbed butter, and a light spring greens salad. Though I planted mesclun greens, spinach, and kale in the cold frame during a warm spell a few weeks ago, the seedlings were definitely not ready to be called anything near salad-ready. I had resigned myself to that great evil that cooking for a large group often necessitates—the trip to a bulk produce store (shudder)—when an epiphany occurred. 

Early Friday morning I puttered around the lawn with a can of salt, finishing off the last stubborn vestiges of my thistle invasion, and then decided to get a head start in weeding one of the flowerbeds. Even from a distance, I could see that young “weeds” were sprouting up more quickly than the Echinacea, gerbera, day lily, phlox, or honeysuckle I had planted.
I had pulled about a dozen young dandelion plants from the bed when I stopped dead.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of this before. Here I was, “weeding” young dandelion greens when I was planning a large salad only a day later!  What a waste!

Though the dandelion is a weed to most of us, this delectable and nutritious plant is actually quite a boon to have around. Each part of the plant is delicious in its own way, and can be used for different purposes. Pluck the young greens (before the plant has flowered) for high iron and vitamin C veggies that also have detoxifying properties. If you look closely, a greens floret will have a small bud nestled in the center. This is the jackpot. They are absolutely tender and full of vitamins. Toss them right into your salads. Once the dandelions bloom, pick the young yellow flowers and eat them raw or sauté them in olive oil and salt until slightly crunchy for the maximum delivery of liver assisting detoxifiers. The root, dried and ground, makes a great tea any time. If you aren’t ready to use your young dandelion greens, flower, or root at the time, dry them in the sun and crush them using a mortar and pestle. They are amazing added to a stir-fry, rubbed onto meat, or mixed in a soup.

This plant is undoubtedly as useful (and most likely more nutritious) as the industrially farmed and processed spices and herbs for which we pay a lot at the grocery store. Our unfortunate mentality tends to be that if we pay for something at a store, it must be of better quality and better for us. Often this is false, particularly so in the case of our dear friend, the dandelion. As we simultaneously seek food that is not chemically treated and does not leave a carbon footprint, yet is also nutritious, it seems that the dandelion is the ideal solution. With plentiful dandelion greens growing within our sight, no chemicals or trucking necessary, it would seem very nearly foolish to go to the store.

So I served dandelion greens and young buds to accompany my pea soup and homemade bread; if I can judge by the fact that none of the salad was left after dinner, it was a hit. I dressed it in olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, mustard and, since dandelion greens can be a tad bitter, a bit of honey. Delicious. Next time you’re hankering for a gratifying and green gourmet experience, look no further than your back yard.