March in the Vegetable Garden

March is nearly over, and it's been such a busy time in my gardens that I'm just squeaking in this post before the month ends. Anyone who thinks that Zone 7 is only for warm weather gardening is missing some of the best months of harvests. I've been doing every imaginable garden task this month - weeding, seeding, transplanting, thinning, harvesting, turning soil, raising seedlings, freeezing produce, drying herbs, and EATING great food.... but not having to deal with bugs, diseases or fungi. Unseasonably warm weather (in the 80s) for many March days has made some plants think it is time to flower, like my collards and kale, so I've been harvesting, chopping, and freezing bags of greens (beet greens too). I was concerned when the blueberry bushes began to flower, thinking it was way too early, but the bees appeared just as quickly, doing their pollinating job. I also blame the off-the-chart temperatures on some of my seeds failing to germinate outdoors - particularly several lettuce varieties I sowed, which won't germinate in hot weather. Our average last frost date is April 15th, so I'm still keeping my warm weather seedlings - like peppers, tomatoes, basil, eggplant, etc. - in their pots, rather than planting them in the garden.

Here's what is growing this month:
  1. I've harvested greens every day since last October (for our daily green smoothies) and this bed of spinach has been a great producer, particularly since winter was mild. I will need to start pulling whole plants rather than just harvesting leaves, since crowding is one clue that makes spinach think it is time to go to seed. I will continue to harvest, wash, dry, chop and freeze spinach for future enjoyment.
  2. I planted a bed of Sugar Ann bush pea pods here in February, and the plants are up about 5" now. Should be ready to harvest in late April.
  3. This is a bed of lettuce which has germinated well, even in our March heat. It's an heirloom variety I am trying for the first time, Mignonette Bronze, which is supposed to tolerate heat better than other varieties. Further toward the south in this row were 3 other beds of various lettuce seeds which did not germinate, I think due to the heat.
  4. Pointer ends at a lush grouping of Chiogga beet greens, which have generously supplied me since last fall. To the north of the beets I've transplanted Siberian kale seedlings from a bed in the next row where they were growing too close. It's been so hot since I did the transplanting that I have had to drag out the hose to keep the bed wet while the little plants get re-established. Further south down this row, to the south, is a fabulous patch of cilantro. As I've stated before, cilantro will quickly bolt (send up a flower stalk) in warm weather. Since taking this photo, I harvested a huge bowl of cilantro, washed, dried, and pulled the leaves off the stems (which can be stringy). I've now frozen the chopped cilantro in freshly squeezed lime juice, as ice cubes, to see if I can preserve the taste to use in my homemade salsa next summer. I'll report on my success.
  5. My strawberry plants - June varieties - began to flower in early March. I have about 6 dozen plants, along this side of the garden and in other beds. 'Can't wait for harvest time!
  6. I probably will regret this planting. I grew "Breadseed Poppies" last year, a pretty purple flower I photographed in June in the Vegetable Garden, which produces larger (though still tiny) seeds, suitable for breads and other baked goods. As with my red poppies, I scattered the seeds in one of my flower gardens last fall, but not many germinated. So during the winter, I scattered more of the seeds in the vegetable garden - and loads germinated! I've thinned and transplanted them (I have a very hard time throwing any plants or seeds away!) and now I have a bed of breadseed poppies about 3' x 8'. They will be beautiful, but my challenge will be to harvest the seed pods before they fall all over the vegetable garden and replant themselves. It will be Judy vs. poppies!
  7. I took a chance and planted Oregon Sugar Pod Snow Peas in a bed here at the end of January. Peas tolerate cold very well. I was lucky, and they germinated well and now the bush-plants are about 8" tall and I expect they will begin flowering soon. They are twisting their tendrils on the sticks I've stuck in the ground around the plants to support them. I don't like to have to accommodate peas, beans, and other climbers on big supports, since I rotate my plantings all around the garden constantly, so I favor bush varieties. Did you know the leaves of pea plants are edible and very tasty raw? Flowers are beautiful and edible too, but you loose a pod for every flower you eat. Also in this garden row are curly kale plants and brussels sprouts. The brussels sprouts plants I started from seeds late last summer have grown well, but I think this warm weather will prevent them from forming sprouts. Next time I'll start the plants much earlier, perhaps July, keeping them in the window of my 60 degree basement to grow until fall planting time.
  8. This row has yielded more beet greens, more lettuce, scallions, and collards all winter. In the front row of the garden are the plants I've awarded the "slowest grower" award - celeriac, a root vegetable related to celery. The seeds I started in July started plants which survived in the garden and in the cold frame all winter… but they are only about 2" tall now. I had hoped to be harvesting a big celery-tasting root during the winter, to use in soups and stews. I'll keep it growing, and I can harvest the green tops as I wait for the roots to develop - but the harvest will be small!
  9. My patch of Florence fennel has reseeded itself behind the cold frame. I love the fennel seeds I harvested last summer, using them ground in baked goods or throwing a big spoonful in my breakfast granola. I think I will move these young fennel plants from the vegetable garden into my "excess garden" where it can grow and spread relatively unrestricted, where I grow horseradish, mints, jerusalem artichokes, and other perennial or reseeding plants considered to be invasive… that's where the breadseed poppies were supposed to be growing! Next to the fennel I have planted seeds for two types of Japanese edible chrysanthemums, a new crop for me. My regular flowering chrysanthemums grow well, without any pests or problems, so when I read about these greens I thought they might be successful for me. The curly parsley growing here has provided me abundantly all winter, and we enjoy tabouli salad from freshly harvested parsley, scallions, and mint (click for my tabouli recipe). The Italian flat leaf parsley has grown well in the cold frame, being a bit more cold sensitive.
See how the strawberry flower becomes the fruit.

In addition to what is in the vegetable garden, I also have trays of many different seedlings I've been growing indoors - tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, beets, squashes, eggplant, stevia, hyssop, and others. My friend Judy's suggestion that my big patch of lemon grass would not survive our winter proved to be correct. Fortunately, I had dug up a portion of it and grew it in a pot in the basement window, so now I've replanted that outdoors. I've also been tending to the grape vines, blackberries, red raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, as well as to my perennial herbs - sage, chives, lavender, oregano, thyme, lemon balm, rosemary, mints, and others. I've started a bed of marigolds to transplant around the garden, but most of my flower beds are perennials. The ajuga is blooming in waves of blue, my fragrant irises are now open, the lilacs are flowering, lily of the valley are perfuming the air, and carpets of creeping phlox are cascading over my rocks. I love this time of year! 

By the way, in the garden photo there is a leaning flowering dogwood in the background. It had been uprooted when we had a direct hit by an EF-2 tornado last April and we propped it up, buried the roots in good dirt, watered it all summer, and hoped it would survive. It has been struggling, but looks like it might make it. It will probably end up with a lovely asymmetrical shape and much character, like a bonsai. Mother Nature does awesome things.

I've now done a monthly garden post for an entire 12-month cycle. I'll continue to update you on what is in my garden, but more sporadically. I hope this will allow me to devote more of my writing time to bring you new recipe ideas, nutrition information, food preservation tips, and other good food news. Please subscribe to this blog in any one of the ways listed in the right column, and share it with others too. Thanks for reading and for all the continuous positive feedback.


Mystery Plant Identified!

The unidentified plant pictured in my February garden post aroused much interest. A commenter said it might be a member of the mustard family, but when I google the commenter's identification of the plant as "Leavenworthia" the flowers didn't quite match my plant, although the leaves are similar. Someone else said it likely is a "Cress", which is indeed plant family related to mustard plants. I searched my books and online references and I finally have narrowed it down to two possibilities, both Bittercress:

Wood Bittercress
(Cardamine Flexuosa)
Hairy Bittercress 
(Cardamine Hirsuta) - "hairy" refers to the very tiny hairy spikes, which show best if you click on the photo on my February post to enlarge it.

And my research reveals it's an edible plant. The young raw leaves taste mildly similar to watercress, which you might know from gourmet produce markets - a bitter, peppery taste. Watercress grows wild in my creek (roots need moving clean water) and has very similarly shaped leaves to the Mystery Plant. As with many plants, once it starts to flower the leaves get more bitter tasting. My large photo matches one I saw on a good wild edibles website which said: "…when the leaves form a rosette on the ground, it's a small, insignificant weed. However, this is very early in the year when there's not a lot around that's worth eating…. ripe seed heads and stalks tend to be fibrous, therefore unpalatable." The young leaves can be mixed into a fresh salad or used in a sandwich, for a peppery bite.

Beware if you don't want this weed to re-seed. The Barbie-doll size seed pods which form after the flowers contain many tiny seeds. I often hear them "POP" and scatter the seeds when I bump into the plant… meaning many more plants in the future.

As with any edible wild food, be 100% sure of your identification before ingesting. One of my upcoming blog posts will be on more wild edibles now growing.