February Garden Activities

Highs in the 60s can almost fool you into thinking it's springtime. My crocuses have flowered and the daffodils are popping up, but it is still about 7 weeks until the average last frost for this area (gardening zone 7). So winter gardening still prevails, even though all my indoor south-facing windows are full of seedlings, with some of the cold-tolerant crops (brussel sprouts, lettuce, parsley, onions, leeks) in front of the basement window to harden off, where it's about 50 degrees (or outside in the daytime sun).

My lunar gardening calendar declared last Sunday a good day for planting root crops, so I planted about 90 yellow onion sets, and several rows of beet seeds. I used a 3/4" diameter round wood stick to plant the onions, amending and loosening up the soil first, then poking the stick in about 3" deep, 3" apart. That made it easy to pop one onion set into each hole, root side down, then push soil over it. I also transplanted the garlic from various places in my 20' x 40' veggie garden, so those which have wintered over are all in one area of the garden. For my final "root crop" task, I filled a large pot with purchased organic soil + vermiculite + peat moss, wet it, and planted 5 of the smallest sweet potatoes which I had set aside from my harvest last year. In the past, I've tried starting them in soil as well as in mason jars of water, and the soil method has worked better for me. This is the earliest I've tried starting them, since they don't go into the garden until June, but perhaps it will give me larger plants for the garden. These little potatoes will send up leaves, with little hairy roots at the base of each stem. When I am ready to plant, I'll separate these from the starter potato and plant those "slips" to start the vines.

My Lenten Rose (hellebore) just began to flower.
I've also been transplanting seedlings for other vegetables - such as tomatoes, jalapenos, sweet peppers, and pimentos - from 1" peat pellets into 3" plastic pots, with the same soil mix as described above. This will allow the roots to grow thick and healthy. As an experiment, I planted a 2 foot wide window box type planter with cilantro seedlings. I love to have fresh cilantro for making salsa when my tomatoes ripen, but the heat makes the cilantro produce flowers instead of leaves. I am hoping I can grow this planter either in cooler shade or in the basement window, to successfully harvest leaves in mid to late summer. If you have a better way to coordinate cilantro harvest with ripe tomatoes, please let me know. Just don't suggest I move back to northern New England!


Bread Baking Simplified

If you've never made your own bread, or if, like me, you've been making breads for years, there's a whole new, simple, fast, fool-proof way to make fabulous breads at home.

I learned about this fairly recently, in an excerpt from ARTISAN BREAD IN FIVE MINUTES A DAY by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François, which was posted by Mother Earth News.

Half a batch of dough stored in the fridge.
I made the dough, trying their basic "boule" (which means ball in French) and made a small loaf. Then I made some English muffins. Then I made another small loaf, followed with some "naan" skillet bread. Everything I tried came out perfect. I was sold! I started sharing my discovery with friends, and baking bread in five minutes seems to be spreading like a chain letter. This is so easy!

The basic idea is that you make a large batch of a very simple dough, using just flour, yeast, water, and salt. No kneading; you just mix these ingredients in a container until blended (it's wet and sticky dough). You let it sit for two hours. You can use it right away to bake bread or put it in the fridge and use it little by little over the next 2 weeks. And when you go to use it, you basically just shape your bread, let it sit at room temperature, bake, and eat. And it's delicious!!

My boule, scored and ready to bake.
It's not only the simplicity and speed of making great bread that I like about this method, it's also the ability to just make a little bread at a time. A standard small loaf made in my bread machine is too much for two people, so I usually end up freezing the extra. Tastes ok when thawed, but certainly not as good as freshly baked. With the 5 Minute Bread dough, I can use little amounts at a time, to make two english muffins, or one skillet bread, or two hamburger rolls… in hardly any time at all.

I've now used the dough for pizza crust, calzones, and dinner rolls - every one a success. I've experimented with various flours too, using King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour for one batch, my own freshly ground whole wheat for another, etc. [Whole wheat has less gluten, and won't rise as much - but very healthy and tasty]. I own a baking stone, which they recommend, but mine is on permanent loan to my friends who make homemade pizza. But I read of an alternative, which is to use a cast iron skillet instead. I have a round one with a very low lip, and this works perfectly for a small "boule" loaf, set on a piece of floured parchment paper.

Skillet naan bread.
After finishing my 4th batch of this dough, I just purchased the authors' second book HEALTHY BREAD IN FIVE MINUTES A DAY, which focuses more on whole grains. Now I'm trying many of their other recipes - whole grain hamburger buns today. Still the same basic concept, but yummy variations. There are recipes for gluten-free breads too. Artisan breads I've tried in the past take a long time and a lot of fussing over how to knead, how long to rise… too much bother for me.

I also review the authors' website for FAQs, I have subscribed to their blog, and I've "liked" their Facebook page- all link from their website and they have many videos too [see one posted here]. So I can keep up with variations beyond their books, like adding sourdough starter to the dough, or reducing the salt, or making their beet bread into a valentine heart!

Slice whole wheat loaf.
Try this yourself. Unless you use only refined white flour or slather on loads of butter, you probably need not worry about eating too much. One of my friends said she might as well just stick the dough on her hips! But eating whole grains is healthy, so go for it.


Heirloom Seed Misconceptions

Some of my heirloom seeds
The growing popularity of heirloom (aka "open pollinated") vegetables and fruit is great, when considering the massive loss of plant variety and diversity in recent times, as well as the near monopolization - and genetic manipulation - by the seed industry. I sense, however, in casual conversation with fellow home gardeners, that there are misconceptions about saving seeds to grow your own plants.

Consider these scenarios:
  • Your neighbor gives you a cantaloupe, a honeydew and a watermelon, all grown in his garden from heirloom seeds. Can you save and plant the watermelon seeds and end up the same kind in your garden next year? (not likely - this family of vegetables readily cross-pollinates with each other)
  • You buy several tomatoes at a farmer's market which are labelled "heirloom tomatoes." Should you save the seeds from the Cherokee Purple variety you really liked and start your own heirloom tomato plants with them? (no - you don't know the conditions under which the plants were grown)
  • You planted one variety of carrots from heirloom seeds bought by a reputable seed catalog. None of your neighbors grow carrots, so you know you've isolated the variety. You carefully overwinter several carrots and replant for a second season (since they are biennials and don't flower and set seeds until year 2). When you save the seeds from these plants, they should grow the exact same type of carrots again, right? (not necessarily; even with all the precautions you took, the plants could have crossed with Queen Anne's Lace, a wildflower which is actually a wild carrot with a white root - even if they grew 1/4 mile apart!)
  • I've started all my garden plants from purchased heirloom seeds. Does this mean I'll never need to buy seeds again? (maybe, but it depends on many various of growing and seed saving factors)
I'm certainly no expert in saving and growing heirloom seeds, but I've learned enough from books and online literature that I know all the above scenarios send up red flags. If you intend to save seeds for replanting and want to insure you'll get the same plant as the mother plant, I suggest you do your own research. I recommend Suzanne Ashworth's book on seed saving, Seed to Seed, which some consider to be the "bible" of seed saving.

Here's my abridged version of seed saving guidelines…
Generally speaking, plants make flowers, and, if pollinated (i.e. fertilized), the flower will die off and create seeds. Often the seeds are incased in fruit, like many of the vegetables and fruits you are most familiar with: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, grapes. With root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, or beets, we are less familiar with the flowers - but all of them do flower, some not until the second year of being in the ground. Leafy vegetables, like lettuce and spinach, are also not known for flowers or fruit, but they too will flower in order to set seeds. With many other vegetables, we eat the "seeds", as with corn, dried beans, and peas. Sometimes we eat the seeds without awareness, like in eggplants, bananas, blueberries. And with watermelon, we spit out the seeds!

Vegetable and fruit plants have various ways of pollinating. With the help of insects, wind, and/or the location of stamen and pistil within one flower (oops, don't want to get too technical!), flowers are fertilized to produce future seeds. Methods of pollination include:
  1. Plants whose pollen from one flower can self-pollinate itself [ex. beans]
  2. Plants whose numerous flowers on the same plant can pollinate each other [ex. tomatoes]
  3. Plants which do best with pollen from another plant within its own variety to fertilize its flowers [ex. blueberries]
  4. Plants which might cross-pollinate with other varieties within its plant family [ex. melons]
  5. Plants which can even cross pollinate with what we think of as weeds [ex. carrots]
Why is this important for saving seeds? These variations mean that planting more than one variety of tomato, melon, or carrot might result in production of seeds not matching the "mother" plant, since they might be pollinated by a "father" from a different variety. The package of some cantaloupe seeds I bought says that for seed saving you should not grow any other cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, and others listed within 1/4 mile, since the pollinating bees might travel that distance. So even your close neighbor's garden can affect your seed saving plans. Zucchini squash will cross with yellow crookneck squash, and might also cross with butternut squash, it's "cousin" - same family, different species. On the other extreme, you can grow two types of peas in your garden, separating the two varieties with a row or two of other vegetables, and be fairly insured that seeds saved will grow the same variety. Somewhere in the middle is corn, for which two different heirloom varieties are recommended to be grown 1000 feet apart to insure purity when saving for seed. Books and websites on heirloom seeds often list recommended plant isolation distances for saving seeds successfully, so this info is readily available to you as a gardener.

Some of my heirloom seedlings, in front of a south window
Even if you plant only one variety of tomatoes, and have no neighbor gardens closer than a mile away, you also need to consider the gene pool. Yes, you may be lucky and pick one lone huge tomato from that one plant, save the seeds properly, and grow the same variety next year. Ideally, you want to be sure to select a very healthy plant, and pick many of its best fruit (weak plants produce weak seeds). Even better, plant loads of that variety of tomatoes, take the best fruit from the strongest plants, and mix all your seeds together. This maintains a broader "genetic base" for your seeds (vs. inbreeding), and, over the long run, can even result in fruit better adapted for your specific garden conditions. It's the old "survival of the fittest" thing.

These are just a few of numerous factors to consider when saving heirloom seeds. To do so seriously, you also need to know the best timing for gathering the seeds (watermelon seeds are mature when you are eating the fruit, bean seeds should be left on the plant to dry out, for example), how to best dry seeds, how to store seeds, how and when to plant, etc.

My personal conclusion from all this is that I have converted to starting all my garden seedlings from heirloom seeds purchased from good suppliers, but I am not going to worry about the proper conditions for seed saving. If there comes a time when I can no longer purchase the seeds, I can refer to my library, and isolate my favorite vegetables - as necessary - in order to save seeds for the next growing season. Happy gardening!


The Easiest Vegetables to Grow

Would you like to grow vegetables that need no special tools, no weeding, no green thumb, no sunshine - in fact, no garden? Vegetables that will grow any time of year, in any climate zone, in any weather? Vegetables that can be eaten days after starting the seeds, cost little, taste great, and are jam packed with nutrition? If you answer "yes," then you need to start growing SPROUTS!

I'm not going to teach you how to grow sprouts here - there's lots of instructions, including videos, online. I just want to share what sprouting methods have worked best for me.

What is a sprout? It's the first growth (germination) of a seed, usually including a root end and a leaf stem. The nutrients which are packed into a seed to allow it to grow are transformed in the sprouting stage and are highly beneficial for human health. There are many varieties of seeds you can sprout, and some are vegetables you've perhaps never eaten and would never grow in a garden, like fenugreek or arugula. Other popular sprouting seeds might be more familiar, like radish, lettuce, peas, and dill.

To get started, you should buy seeds specifically labelled for sprouting, not seeds sold in packets at the garden center. Seeds intended for garden sowing might be treated and processed differently than those for sprouting. This might require a visit to the nearest health food store. You are only going to grow a few tablespoons at a time (which will fill a quart jar with sprouts), so one bag goes a long way. Prices vary, depending on the type of sprouting seed; radish is far less expensive than broccoli.

The growing process will take only minutes of your time per day, and generally includes these steps:
  • soak the seeds in water
  • rinse and strain the water (sprouts that sit in water can rot quickly)
  • grow on the countertop
  • rinse and drain 2  to 4 times a day while growing
  • eat
Mung bean sprouts ready to eat

Stacked tray, with mixed seeds in top layer, cover to the right

My sprout jar, just rinsed and drained
I have grown sprouts in glass jars, woven baskets, natural fiber bags, and stacked sprouting trays, but I prefer using a jar. If you don't want to buy any special equipment, you can simply use a cleaned-out mayonnaise jar with a piece of cheesecloth over the opening, secured with an elastic band. Alternately, plastic lids with plastic screens are sold specifically for using on wide-mouth Mason or Ball jars. Many health food stores sell sprouting jars, usually larger than quart size, with a mesh screen inside the screw band lid. This is what I use most often, but I wish the jar was more squarish (like the canning jars) so it wouldn't roll when turned on its side on the countertop. I resort to setting mine in a corn-on-the-cob plate to keep it stationary.

How long it will take to grow the sprouts depends on the type of seeds and the temperature of your growing spot, and how long you like them to get. Quinoa seeds need only 30 minutes of soaking  and will sprout two roots per seed within 24 hours (note: from experience, I recommend using quinoa seeds sold specifically for sprouting, since the quinoa grain for cooking is sometimes processed differently and won't sprout). Other sprouts might require 8 hours of soaking and a few days of growing.

I most often sprout alfalfa, red clover, broccoli, radish, and lentils - mixing them together because they have similar soaking and growing requirements. Combined seeds such as this are sold pre-mixed as "sandwich mix" sprouting seeds. I usually grow these sprouts for 4-5 days in my kitchen, which is heated between 61-68 degrees in winter. If you are growing in warmer temperatures, you might need to rinse the sprouts more often so they don't dry out. I don't bother growing sprouts in summer because I have lots of fresh vegetables from my garden.

I individually grow mung beans because their requirements are a bit different. I start them in soaking with warmer water than usual (about 90 degrees) and soak for a full 12 hours initially, which helps the harder seeds to sprout. I lay a small terrycloth hand towel over the jar to block out light, and I find this keeps the sprouts white, rather than green, and keeps little side root shoots from forming. They usually reach the length I like in about 4 days.

Some sprouting instructions suggest ways to remove the seed hulls after the sprouts have shed them, but I've never found these to be bothersome to eat. Most are paper thin so I don't even notice them. Plus they probably provide added fiber to your diet.

After my final rinsing and straining, I like to let the sprouts grow for another 8 - 12 hours on the counter, to sop up the extra moisture. Putting the sprouting jar in more light to "green up" the sprouts, especially the small-leafed ones, adds chlorophyll to the array of vitamins and enzymes which sprouts provide as a living food - all beneficial to your health. You can start eating them right away, raw in salads and on sandwiches, floated in warmed soups, cooked in stir-fry, etc. Even after your sprouts have reached "maturity" they will continue to grow in storage in your refrigerator, but so slowly you won't notice any difference. You can just place the growing jar in the fridge, or put the sprouts in a zip bag into which you've place a folded dry paper towel to absorb excess moisture. Be sure to eat them within a few days.

So start sprouting and enjoy your harvest!