Thursday, June 7, 2012

Putting in the Garden, Part 2

Seeds fascinate me. How a living plant is contained within a tiny capsule, sometimes no bigger than a pinprick, is truly mind-boggling when you stop to think about it. With a little water and sunlight and the right kind of soil, a whole plant, even a tree, can grow from this miniscule speck.

Some of my garden vegetables I purchase as plants, as I described in my post last week, but the ones I can start from seed right in the ground are even more satisfying.  I’ve tried different seed companies, but am most loyal to The Cook’s Garden. They started out as a family-owned mail order company based in Londonderry, Vermont, but have since been bought up by Burpee. While the catalogue has gotten glossier, I haven’t noticed a decline in the quality of their seeds. They still offer an excellent selection of organic seeds, European and American heirlooms, and their signature seed blends, such as their Provencal mesclun.

I’ve been growing this mesclun for years, along with a variety of other greens, including arugula, mizuna (a spicy mustard), mâche (a mild, nutty green I discovered in France), and butterhead and curly lettuces.

There’s nothing better than snipping your own batch of mixed greens right from the garden and eating them immediately in a salad. Well, except maybe eating tomatoes or berries warm off the vine, or herbs fresh off the plant. It’s all so good, so who needs to choose?

In case you’re wondering about the burlap, I’ve found that it’s an effective way to mulch. It dramatically cuts down the weeding, while at the same time helps retain water in the soil. I like that it’s a natural fiber and is highly porous, allowing water and air to circulate freely, making for happy plants.

Another vegetable that’s easy to grow from seed is broccoli raab. It always proves challenging to harvest at the right moment, though, before it fully flowers. But when I catch it at that perfect moment and then sauté it at once in olive oil with garlic and cracked pepper, I could make a whole meal on it. And have.

Even though I put in a few kale plants, you can never have enough kale, so I also plant the same two varieties, Redbor and Lacinato, as seeds. One of the benefits of planting kale from seed is that you can eat the baby kale leaves as you thin the row. I usually have to force myself to thin rows, and hate to throw away (in the compost) perfectly good micro plants, but when they’re edible, thinning becomes a treat. The remaining kale plants have room to spread out, and leaves can be harvested from them until well into the fall. Fortunately my family loves kale as much as I do, and we eat it nearly every week.

I always grown some kind of summer squash, and this year I’m trying Italian Largo, a variety that promises a fuller flavor.  Although I like zucchini, I find it to be a little bland, so I mostly grow it for the blossoms. They’re difficult to find in the markets and have such a brief shelf life, so if you want to have access to zucchini blossoms, growing your own is the way to go.

Radishes are another challenging plant for me because of my issues with thinning, and I’m never quite sure when to harvest them. They’re either too young and small, or I wait too long and they’ve become fibrous. I’m trying a thinner variety this year, Radish d’Avignon, and am hoping I have better luck with this shape.

Nickel Filet beans, an haricot vert, is another vegetable that I’ve grown for years. Long, slender, and possessing a full bean flavor, these beans can be harvested for weeks before they get too thick and tough.

If you like peas, Sugar Sprint snap peas are a lower growing variety that doesn’t need a support. I mainly eat the pods right off the vine as a snack while weeding, savoring their sweet, green flavor that’s incomparable and can’t be improved upon by any preparation. I also like the tendrils and add them to salads. By midsummer the heat has done them in, so I pull the plants out, making room for a new row of greens. I recommend using a bean and pea inoculant before planting these seeds. It’s an extra step, but is easy to do and improves yield.

I like to try a new plant or two each season, and this year it’s Mei Qing Bok Choi. We’ve been enjoying baby bok choi all winter from our food coop, stir fried with lots of fresh ginger and garlic in toasted sesame oil and soy sauce. Some of my experimental plants do well and others not so much. Fava beans and edamame were two that weren’t worth the time and effort due to very low yield. I’ll keep you posted on how the bok choi does.

Finally, I always grow a few flowers in this part of the garden too, such as Nasturtium Tip Top Mix for their vibrant edible blooms. Their leaves are often overlooked and have the same peppery zip.

Along the back of the garden, just in front of the pergola, I plant a row of sunflowers, this year two kinds:  deep red Moulin Rouge, a favorite, and one I haven’t tried before, Jua Maya.

Zinnia (Cook’s Cutting Blend) and Cosmos Versailles Mix, are the two other annuals I like to grow because they provide saturated crayon color in the garden and for the table all summer long.

My companion during this whole planting process these days is Callie, now that Faye and Isabel no longer delight in digging for worms or pushing seeds into the soil with tiny fingers. I’m hoping that they eventually come back around though. I remember when I was in high school seeing my mom working in her garden and wondering what in the world could be so  enthralling out there. Now I know.

I have to admit I can become a bit obsessive about it, not in a perfectionist way, but when I’m out there with my plants I find it hard to stop. Whether I’m weeding the vegetable garden, deadheading flowers,

or trimming the herbs,

I can get lost for hours. It’s meditative, productive, and puts you in direct contact with the cycles of nature, which are all the more elusive in this technological age.


  1. Merci pour ta description de ce coin de paradis! Je suis complètement inspirée.

    1. Merci, mon amie. Et maintenant je suis inspirée à parler en français. Je dois aller aux Boulangers très bientôt !