January in the Vegetable Garden

This week we return to 10 hours of daylight in Zone 7, and my new garden seeds will be arriving tomorrow. So my thoughts are on gardening 2012! Meanwhile, I am still harvesting fresh veggies from the garden daily. Our winter continues to be mild, with regular rainfall. I actually transplanted some of those tiny celeriac seedlings from the cold frame to the garden a few days before Christmas, and they are growing fine. I bought a big ugly celeriac root at the supermarket and tried planting it too - no sign of life yet though. Earlier this month the mercury fell to about 15 degrees for two nights and we had a light snow cover; I didn't bother to cover the brussels sprouts and they survived - I harvested some, halved them, and sauteed them with onions and tamari soy sauce one day last week… they tasted excellent! I've been picking and using fennel as a raw veggie dipper with homemade dips (cut like celery stalks), as well as sliced thin in a salad with apples, toasted almonds, and my Caesar dressing. I love the fennel seeds I saved last summer too - they are a great addition, whole, to my morning granola, and I've also ground them and added to biscotti recipes. A few beets are still in the ground from last summer, probably big and woody now, and they continue to provide fresh leaves for harvest. Many wild plants are growing well this winter too; the white clover we seeded as a ground cover has established itself in a healthy patch just off the front steps, and I use the fresh leaves in our green smoothies. My crocuses have begun to flower and daffodils are several inches out of the ground, so spring is just around the corner here.

More of my gardening time is spent indoors this month, as I plan what I'll be growing. Here are the basic lessons which my 2011 garden taught me:
  • Don't grow plants which attract bugs and succumb to disease
I am surrendering to some of my bug battles, and simply not planting many of the vegetables most attractive to them. This means I will not grow squash-family plants, since I got little or no harvest last year, due to squash bugs. No zucchini, no butternut squash, no melons. I will try one new heirloom "pumpkin" called Cushaw (which is an edible winter squash) which is described as resistant to squash bugs. I am also planning to grow a gherkin instead of cucumbers, for fresh eating. I am not planting calendula, which is a very pretty edible and medicinal "pot marigold" - even the ones which reseeded themselves in late fall grew full of little bug holes in the leaves. The amaranth I tried to grow also succumbed to bug attacks, so that's off my grow list too, as well as oriental greens such as chinese cabbage, tat soi, pak choy and others I've tried. I now know that fall/winter is the best time for my cabbage family favorites, like brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens, and, fortunately, their pests are not around in the cooler seasons, so that's when I will grow them from now on.

A solution to tomato blight still escapes me, so here is the 2012 tomato plan:
  1. Plant "blight resistant" varieties only (I've found and purchased seeds for two heirloom varieties, Legend and Old Brooks Red)
  2. Plant the tomato plants outside the vegetable garden this year
  3. Try ground cinnamon on the ground around the plants as an anti-fungal (a tip from gardener friend John)
  4. Don't start the tomatoes outdoors as early - makes them more susceptible to "early" blight
  5. Clean all the tomato cages and garden tools, so fungus residue from last year is destroyed
  •  Don't grow plants with little yield
The only snap beans I intend to grow are my favorite Blue Lake Bush beans. I planted yellow wax beans at the same time, and the yellow beans took forever to mature, with very sparse production. Meantime I was harvesting the green beans continually, and the Blue Lakes are great raw, cooked and frozen. The "bush" nature of this heirloom means it doesn't need trellising, since the plants only grow about 18-24" tall and stand upright on their own.
  • Don't grow plants which take up too much space, when smaller comparable varieties taste as good
The Thai "long beans" were an interesting novelty, and tasted ok, but their long vines overtook and spilled out of one corner of the garden. Yes, I only needed about 2 beans to make a side dish for two, but they took a long time to mature. And the flowers attracted too many little biting bees. Fortunately, I used up the whole envelope of seeds.
  • Grow plants with a longer harvesting season
I was disappointed with my sweet peppers last summer - even though I started the plants very early and grew one in a red plastic Kozy Koat, I didn't start harvesting any for a long long time. So this year I'm growing some described as early, and also described as "dwarf" which should result in quicker harvesting.

  • Don't grow too many of one vegetable
If I grow any jalapenos or eggplants this year, I know that one plant of each is enough. I have a large supply of dried and powdered jalapenos, so I only need some to use fresh, in salsa and other dishes. I prefer eggplant used fresh also, and one eggplant at a time is all I need to harvest; one plant will give me a supply over many weeks. I will again limit my planting of basil, since I still have lots of frozen pesto. I am going to try "lime basil" as well as a large-leaf variety.
  • Grow more edible greens in the hottest part of the growing season
Since we've adopted a routine of daily green smoothies, I've loved having cool weather greens to harvest. Now I want to be sure to have a variety of greens to harvest in warm weather, when spinach and many lettuces will not grow well. The "heat tolerant" edible greens I look forward to planting this year include: two variaties of edible Japanese chrysanthemums; leaves of black garbanzo beans (I can harvest the pods and beans too); two spinach-tasting plants which are not true spinaches: "strawberry spinach" which is related to lamb's quarters, and "red malabar spinach" which is a heat loving vine of greenery; and a bronze lettuce. Some of these are for fresh and cooked recipes - you'll be hearing more about how they taste later this year.
  • Try new plants
I am adding okra to my garden this year. I've ordered seeds for a dwarf variety - only 3 feet tall! As you can tell, this is normally a very tall plant. It grows well here in the south, seemingly with no pests or diseases, and I've developed a taste for it. My friends Bill and Julie grill the whole pods (with a little coating of oil) until crunchy and eat them like french fries, and they are yummy this way. I am also planting more herbs, including lovage (celery flavor), stevia (so I can dry the leaves again, for a great natural sweetener), shiso (a red leaf, used to color pickled Japanese ginger), dock, and cilantro (a hot-weather cilantro).

Start planning your garden for 2012, even if it's just a pot of herbs on your porch!