Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison, Plus a Springtime-Fresh Garden Recipe: Peas with Baked Ricotta & Breadcrumbs

April 23rd, 2013 § 6 comments § permalink

Madi_Vegetable LiteracyVegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison

As organic vegetable gardeners, we know how important it is to become familiar with the various plant families and to develop an understanding of how they relate to one another in the garden. Botanical knowledge is key to avoiding many pests, diseases and cultural problems. Having recently reviewed the topics of crop rotation, companion planting and intercropping in the organic vegetable garden —Kitchen Garden Planning, Part One, followed by Kitchen Garden Planning, Part Two— now seems like the perfect opportunity to discuss how this same botanical knowledge can guide creative use of homegrown produce in your kitchen.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been devouring Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, sent to me for review by publisher, Ten Speed Press. One of the most highly-regarded vegetarian cooks of our time, Deborah Madison is author of eleven cookbooks. In her most recent title, Madison explores the relationship between botany and cooking, and how that knowledge can serve us as we prepare produce in our kitchens. A new gardener herself, the author takes a down-to-earth approach; with stories and observations that will be both familiar and inspirational to those who, like Madison, are just beginning to grow their own food. More experienced green thumbs will be delighted by new botanical discoveries and unexpected, creative ways to use the fruits of their labor.

Late_Spring_Potager_michaela_thegardenerseden  Nothing will improve your culinary skills faster than growing fresh produce in your own backyard, and learning how to use those edible flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs, creatively in your kitchen

New gardeners will quickly observe that some natural companions in their potagers —tomatoes and basil or garlic and potatoes, for example— are also delightful partners in recipes. In fact, the joy of experimenting with garden fresh ingredients in the kitchen is often what leads a gardener’s hands to soil in the first place. By learning the ways in which edible plants relate to one another, a gardener can become a more versatile and confident cook. Out of onions, spinach or some other key ingredient and need a quick substitute? Looking for a way to jazz up a simple plate of carrots, but haven’t a clue what might work with them? With a bit of coaching from Madison, gardeners may find the creative answers to these culinary challenges, right in the backyard vegetable patch!

Filled with delicious, vegetarian recipes and gorgeous, full-color photographs, Vegetable Literacy is as beautiful to behold as it is delightful to read. Chapters in this cookbook are divided by plant families (Apiacea, Lamiacea, Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, etc.). In addition to 300-plus recipes, the author has included a chef’s notes about her favorite varieties of each edible plant, as well as interesting and useful botanical details for gardeners. I’ve flagged a number of dishes to try with my early crops, but the one featured below, “Peas with Baked Ricotta and Breadcrumbs”, simply couldn’t wait. Although it’s a bit early here in Vermont for garden-fresh peas, I did try this recipe with some of last fall’s bounty (stored in my freezer), and was thrilled with the result. I can’t wait to enjoy this comforting dish again; only next time, with the incomparable flavor of hand-shucked peas, plucked straight from my garden . . .

Peas with Baked Ricotta Peas with Baked Ricotta & Breadcrumbs from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy. Photo © 2013 Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

Peas with Baked Ricotta and Bread Crumbs

A light supper for 2

Olive oil

1 cup high-quality ricotta cheese, such as hand-dipped
full-fat ricotta

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

4 teaspoons butter

2 large shallots or 1/2 small onion, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)

5 small sage leaves, minced (about 11/2 teaspoons)

11/2 pounds pod peas, shucked (about 1 cup)

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Chunk of Parmesan cheese, for grating

Heat the oven to 375°F. Lightly oil a small baking dish; a round Spanish earthenware dish about 6 inches across is perfect for this amount.

If your ricotta is wet and milky, drain it first by putting it in a colander and pressing out the excess liquid. Pack the ricotta into the dish, drizzle a little olive oil over the surface, and bake 20 minutes or until the cheese has begun to set and brown on top. Cover the surface with the bread crumbs and continue to bake until the bread crumbs are browned and crisp, another 10 minutes. (The amount of time it takes for ricotta cheese to bake until set can vary tremendously, so it may well take longer than the times given here, especially if it wasn’t drained.)

When the cheese is finished baking, heat the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the shallots and sage and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the peas, 1/2 cup water, and the lemon zest. Simmer until the peas are bright green and tender; the time will vary, but it should be 3 to 5 minutes. Whatever you do, don’t let them turn gray. Season with salt and a little freshly ground pepper, not too much.

Divide the ricotta between 2 plates. Spoon the peas over the cheese. Grate some Parmesan over all and enjoy while warm.

With Pasta: Cook 1 cup or so pasta shells in boiling, salted water. Drain and toss them with the peas, cooked as above, and then with the ricotta. The peas nestle in the pasta, like little green pearls.

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Reprinted with permission from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Madison. Photographs © 2013 Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

All Other Photography & Text ⓒ Michaela Medina Harlow/The Gardener’s Eden. All images, articles and content on this site (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Please do not take my photographs without asking first. Thank you! 

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Sampling Sweet Heirloom Treasures … Apple Tasting at Scott Farm Orchard

October 20th, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

The Golden Light of Harvest Season at Scott Farm Orchard in Vermont

If a rose is a rose is a rose, does it then follow that an apple is an apple is an apple? Of course —except in the most simplistic of senses— neither statement is true. Each of these closely related species —both of which belong to the family Rosaceae— is tremendously complex; with a fascinating variety of forms, habits, flowers and fruits. Like many gardeners, I’ve long considered adding fruit trees to my landscape and many heirloom apples top the list of this most-wanted species. But with so many fruit trees to choose from, how will I decide which varieties to grow? There are apples for cooking and baking, apples for cider, jam and sauce, and there are even apples for floral arrangements, crafts and decorating. Of course, there are also oh-so-many apples perfect just for eating, and is there anything more delicious than a bite of crisp, tart apple on a cool autumn day? I decided to consult with a true, heirloom apple expert, who also happens to be a local friend …

Heirloom Apples at Sunset: Scott Farm Orchard

Earlier this month, I was invited to local, historic Scott Farm Orchard in Vermont for a private, heirloom apple tasting tour with orchard manager and apple expert, Ezekiel Goodband.  This is harvest season, and with apples to pack, cider to press, guests to greet and a farm business to run, Zeke Goodband has hardly a minute to spare. Yet my kind and knowledgable friend took time out of his very busy day to share some of his favorite heirloom fruits and bits of their fascinating histories. Below is a small sampling, and descriptions of the many treasures I took home from my stroll through gloriously beautiful Scott Farm Orchard

Black Gilliflower or Sheep’s Nose Apple: this beautifully colored, fragrant apple is one of my tasting favorites. When I took my first bite, Zeke advised me to look for the flavor of clove. And indeed, the sweet, floral flesh is followed by just a hint of spice at the end. This old, New England apple dates back to the early 1800s and it is wonderful both for cooking and baking or eating fresh, straight from the hand. I like it with a good, sharp cheddar cheese

Heirloom Winesap: amid all the green foliage and golden light, this pretty red apple really stood out in the trees. The Winesap is an American apple dating back to the early 1800s. Named for its wine-like flavor, this juicy red fruit with golden flesh is incredibly fragrant; with floral notes and a hint of spice. Tart flavor is nicely balanced with sweetness, making this a perfect choice for cooking (excellent for sauce, butter and puree), baking, cider making and eating out of hand

Lady Apples: this variety is the oldest of the heirlooms still in cultivation today. Known for their blushing, delicate beauty, clusters of Lady Apples often appear in autumn flower arrangements and wreaths. Of course I can’t imagine wasting a bite! This apple may be small, but it carries an intense, bright flavor. Try popping a couple in your pocket for a snack on your next autumn hike, or arrange slices amongst whole fruits on a platter of cheese as a beautiful appetizer

Heirloom Golden Russet Apples: this gorgeous gem from New York state dates back to the mid 1800s. The Golden Russet is crisp and flavorful; often called the ‘champagne’ of cider apples, it’s also delicious cooked in apple butter, sauce, puree and for baked goods. Rumor has it this variety makes a wonderful hard cider as well

Pinova: According to Zeke, extraordinary beauty and complex flavor makes the Pinova a favorite apple during tastings at Scott Farm. And without a doubt, an apple laden Pinova is truly a sight to behold. The photo simply can not do the color justice (and then there is the annoying lack of click-and-sniff on the screen!). Originating in Germany, this crisp apple posesses a perfect balance of tart and sweet. It’s a fine choice for baking and for eating out of hand.

Whenever I visit Scott Farm, it occurs to me that in addition to their delightful fruit value, apple trees truly are some of the most lovely ornamental plants for home gardens …

When asked about fruit trees for backyard gardens, Zeke Goodband’s first advice is to grow what you like and what you will use. Beyond peaches and pears, which Zeke recommends and sells to home gardeners, there are heirloom apple trees for sale at Scott Farm as well. Some of the more suitable backyard apple tree varieties tossed about in our conversation? The reinettes and russets were first to roll off the orchardist’s tongue, followed by some specific names; including Calville Blanc, Cox Orange Pippin, Holstein and Black Oxford. When choosing apple trees, it’s important to try many varieties of fruit and research their uses, to be sure that you select the apples you like best. Of course, when it comes to doing homework, apple tasting can hardly be considered a chore! If you happen to be traveling in Vermont this fall, I highly recommend stopping in to Scott Farm for an heirloom sampler and some delicious, fresh-pressed cider.

Below are some more of my favorite heirloom apples; chosen for beauty, unique flavor and usefulness in baking or cooking. Interested in continuing your backyard orchard research? The books listed at the bottom of this post are a good place to begin furthering your education. Many thanks again to Ezekiel Goodband at Scott Farm for sharing his time, delicious fruit and orchard expertise with The Gardener’s Eden

Good things do come in small packages: meet the Lady Apple (also pictured above in the orchard) Though she may be small, this apple is one gorgeous and delicious fruit

Another diminutive treasure, the Royal Medlar apple reminds me of winter-dried rose hips. The fruit is hard when harvested, but after “bletting” (a process of ripening off the tree, on a cool, bright table for a few weeks) these tiny apples become soft, juicy and delicious. Sweet with a hint of cinnamon, this fruit is sometimes used for jelly and is also delicious roasted, or baked; especially in pies. Royal Medlar trees are quite striking, with lovely blossoms, and make fine ornamentals in the garden

In terms of baking apples, Calville Blanc d’Hiver is a culinary favorites among the heirloom varieties. This unusually shaped, blushing, golden, 15th century French apple adds wonderful flavor to cakes and tarts, and it holds its shape and texture beautifully in a hot oven. Eaten out of hand, the flavor is both tart and sweet, with hints of spice and vanilla. If you love to bake with apples, this is one you will want in your home orchard

Ashmead’s Kernel is a delightful old English variety dating back to the 1700s. This gorgeous russet fruit is used for baked goods, cooking, eating fresh and also for both fresh pressed and hard cider. The flavor is truly exquisite; a complex ride that starts off with a kick of lemon, followed by a rush of fruity wine and finishing with lingering floral notes

Another favorite with bakers, the Belle de Boskoop apple originated in the Netherlands and is a commonly used dessert apple. The slightly tart flavor and firm, crisp texture hold up exceptionally well under heat. This variety makes fantastic apple strudel as well as other sweet treats

Books for the Would-Be, Backyard Orchardist …

The Best Apples to Buy And Grow (BBG)The Best Apples to Buy and Grow (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide Beth Hanson

Growing Fruit RHS Harry BakerGrowing Fruit (RHS Encyclopedia of Practical Gardening Harry Baker

the Backyard Orchardist stella ottoThe Backyard Orchardist: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruit Trees in the Home Garden Stella Otto

The Apple Grower, Michael PhillipsThe Apple Grower: Guide for the Organic Orchardist Michael Phillips

Photographs and Text ⓒ Michaela Medina/The Gardener’s Eden. All photos, articles and content on this site (with noted exceptions) are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Thank you!

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Spring Brunch from the Kitchen Garden: Shirred Eggs with Shiitake & Arugula …

April 30th, 2011 § 6 comments § permalink

Shirred Eggs with Homegrown Shiitake Mushrooms & Garden-Fresh Arugula

I’ve always been a breakfast person. French toast, waffles, eggs, potatoes, pancakes; I enjoy them all. Sometimes, in fact, I would like them all at once. Because of my love affair with breakfast foods, I have developed some pretty liberal ideas about when they should be served. Brunch is a great idea of course, but I also happen to think huevos rancheros make a fine dinner. And those restaurants with the round-the-clock breakfast menus? Those are some of my favorite places.

During the growing season, my work day usually starts before sunrise. I love the early hours, but they seem to go by too fast. Often, I’m juggling a couple of different jobs, scrambling to get things done here in the office or out in my garden, and running off to appointments with landscape design clients. I don’t have time to sit down for a leisurely morning meal. So when I have a free weekend or morning off,  I treasure the opportunity to create an old fashioned breakfast or relaxing brunch. And at this time of year, I especially enjoy cooking with fresh, early-spring produce —mushrooms, arugula and fiddleheads— from the garden and surrounding forest.

Shiitake Mushrooms Emerging in the Woodland Garden at Ferncliff

The woodland mushroom garden began as a small experiment here, but has since blossomed into a full-blown production. There are so many mushrooms popping up right now, that it’s probably time to start selling them. Shiitake mushrooms are surprisingly easy to grow, and early-spring or autumn is the best time to begin a mushroom garden of your own. Wonderful when harvested fresh in spring and fall, shiitake can also be air-dried and stored for later use (soaked in water or wine they are easily reconstituted for use in myriad recipes; including soups, sauces, pasta and rice dishes). If you are interested in how shiitake are grown, travel back to last year’s post —by clicking here— for a step-by-step tutorial on the process. Of course, I have plenty of space for full-sized mushroom logs here. But if you enjoy cooking and eating mushrooms, growing them is within the realm of possibility for any gardener; even one with very little, or no outdoor space. Small, pre-inoculated mushroom logs can even be purchased online (in season) from retailers like Gardener’s Supply Company and Terrain. There’s nothing like the taste of fresh mushrooms, and with the cost gourmet food items like shiitake, it’s really worth your while to start growing your own!

After Great Success with the First Dozen Shiitake Logs – The Mushroom Garden Grew Again Last Fall

This Morning’s Crop

Another Favorite, Seasonal Crop: Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads (learn more about fiddleheads, and find a recipe for a fiddlehead omelette, by clicking here)

With a basket full of fresh shiitake and fiddleheads from the forest –and of course baby arugula from the kitchen garden— I had plenty of delicious produce for my late-morning breakfast today. I decided to save the fiddleheads for tomorrow’s omelette, and made shirred eggs with shiitake, arugula, cheddar cheese and cream. Shirred eggs —baked in ramekins or muffin tins— make a delicious meal; perfect for entertaining a crowd at brunch. And with Mother’s Day coming up next weekend, I thought I’d share this recipe and give you a chance to practice before you making it for company (once you taste this delicious combination of flavors, you will definitely want to share). Earthy shiitake have a wonderful, rich flavor that works well with the fresh zing of baby arugula. But if you don’t have access to your own or locally grown shiitake (yet) you can substitute a different mushroom or vegetable of choice . Have access to freshly foraged fiddleheads? Perhaps you’d like to try the Ferncliff Fiddlehead Omelette, which I featured last spring in this post ( click here ).

Shirred Eggs with Shiitake Mushrooms, Arugula, Cheese & Cream

An original recipe from my own kitchen

Ingredients (Makes 12, average muffin-tin sized baked eggs):

12          Fresh, medium-sized, organic eggs

3            Cups baby arugula leaves, freshly washed

3/4        Cup shiitake mushrooms washed & chopped into bite size pieces

3/4        Cup heavy cream (optional)

3/4        Cup cheddar cheese, grated

Softened butter for tins or ramekins

Fresh ground black pepper & salt to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325°  Fahrenheit

Generously butter 12 ramekins or 12 regular size muffin tins. At bottom of each container, add one tablespoon chopped shiitake mushrooms, approximately one tablespoon baby arugula leaves (torn into bits if necessary) and 1/2 tablespoon of cheddar cheese. Pat ingredients to settle them in, and (optional) add one tablespoon of heavy cream. Carefully crack each egg over the top of the other ingredients. Place ramekins or muffin tins into the hot oven.

 

Bake at 325 F for 10 minutes or until the eggs are just starting to set. Remove from oven and sprinkle each egg with 1/2 tablespoon of cheese. Return to the heat for approximately 2 – 3 more minutes or until cheese is melted.

Meanwhile, arrange a nest of arugula greens on each plate.

Remove tins/ramekins from the oven and gently scoop each shirred egg from its container with a rubber spatula or large spoon (it helps to loosen each container around the edge with the tip of a rubber spatula or butter knife).  Settle each egg atop a bed of greens and garnish with a few arugula leaves, freshly ground black pepper & salt to taste. Serve warm.

These shirred eggs are wonderful with a fresh-squeezed minneola mimosa (click here or on the photo below for recipe)

Minneola Mimosa

You may also enjoy the Ferncliff Fiddlehead Omelette (click here or on photo below for the recipe and more about fiddleheads)

Ferncliff Fiddlehead Omelette

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Article and all photographs are copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden, all rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used, reproduced or reposted elsewhere without written consent. Do you enjoy The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through affiliate links here. A small percentage of each sale will be paid to this site, helping to cover web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you so much for your support!

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Getting Rooted: Pretty Potatoes, Colorful Carrots, Radiant Radishes & Beautiful Beets…

February 23rd, 2011 § 6 comments § permalink

Now that I have enlarged the potager, I’m planning a bumper crop of colorful potatoes!

Radishes and carrots make great companions, not only in salads, but in the potager as well (see pelletized carrot seed planting tip/velvet carrot recipe here, and read a carrot/radish companion planting article here)

Colorful Salad of Red and Gold Beets Arugula and Feta (Click here for recipe)

I’m getting back to my roots this week… My root vegetable roots, that is. The first carrots of the season were sown in the hoophouses last week, and I’ve just finished ordering a half dozen colorful varieties of seed potatoes from Ronnigers/Potato Garden and the Maine Potato Lady (potatoes are planted when the soil temp. reaches about 50° F, approximately 2 weeks before the last frost date. Usually that is early May here in southern VT).  I’ve been enjoying summertime produce all winter —potatoes, carrots and leeks in particular— pulled up from my cool root cellar. This year I plan on planting even more earthy jewels —in every color of the rainbow— to enjoy throughout the summer and harvest in fall for winter storage. Most root crops are planted early in the season, and some can be repeat-sown for a second, autumn harvest. So, I like to plan out this part of my garden very carefully.

Potato Hills in My Spring/Summer Potager: Here Planted with Early Crops & Flowers (incluing chard, nasturtium, peas)

Root vegetables grow best in deep, loose, sandy loam. I plant my potatoes in trenches and then hill them with soil as they grow. Potatoes may also be planted shallowly and mulched up as they grow with clean straw or other materials, or they can be grown in containers; including barrels, wire cages and bags. Other root vegetables —such as carrots and beets— are best grown directly in deep, loose soil or in raised beds. I like to grow my vegetables in wide, earthen mounds (similar to constructed beds, but with sloped sides, exposed for extra planting space) which give my crops an extra 8-12″ of depth at the root zone. There are many ways to grow vegetable crops, and how you choose to plant your garden depends largely upon your site. Raised beds offer many advantages for gardeners struggling with limited space and/or poor soil. Some vegetable growers choose to adhere to a strict ‘Square Foot Gardening‘ planting plan —popularized by Mel Bartholomew in his book by the same name— while others continue to grow crops in straight, narrowly hoed rows. My approach to potager design is a somewhat looser; closely resembling French vegetable gardening in style, with cultural methods similar to those of garden author Ed Smith (I am a fan of his classic, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, and always recommend it to my garden clients). I like to encourage gardeners to experiment with their space and adopt methods of cultivation that work best for them. Necessity is the mother of invention, and some of the most interesting horticultural innovations have come from creative, experimental growers.

Colorful vegetable crops delight the eye and jazz up the dinner plate

Last Year’s Delightful Potato Crop

I have two, somewhat overlapping careers. In addition to designing gardens and gardening professionally, I am also an exhibiting artist. And as a painter, my eye is naturally drawn to the full spectrum of color, form and textural possibilities in vegetable gardening. Sure, I grow orange carrots, red radishes and brown potatoes. But I also love electric yellow and rose-colored carrots, pink and white striped radishes, gold and ruby-hued beets, and potatoes in every color from yellow and pink to red, purple and blue. And why not? If I’m growing my own food, I might as well have fun with it. And with many colorful cultivars, the tastes are as deliciously varied as the hues.

This year I am planting Adirondack Blue and Red standard potatoes, and Peruvian Purple, Red Thumb and French fingerlings; among other varieties chosen for color, flavor and texture. As for other roots, I’ll be growing Atomic Red, Purple Haze, Deep Purple and Yellow carrots, in addition to the usual orange. And planned radish crops include French D’avignon, Watermelon, Purple Plum and Cherry Belle. As for beets? I am growing Golden, Chioggia and Merlin this spring, but if you know of something beautiful and tasty, let me know and I’ll put it in as a fall crop! I buy the bulk of my vegetable seed from several east coast companies; including High Mowing and Johnny’s and  I also order herbs, greens, flowers and gourds from Renee’s GardenBurpee, and Botanical Interests.

Pasta with Potatoes, Rocket and Rosemary (click here for recipe)

Getting the maximum productivity out of a vegetable garden’s usually-limited space is a goal most gardeners can relate to, and with a bit of creative planning, it is possible for a well designed vegetable garden to be both efficient and beautiful. If you haven’t visited this site’s “Potager” page in awhile (over to the left), you may want to click on over for a visit. I have been updating the page —and will continue to do so throughout the season— with links back to vegetable gardening articles and recipes for all of your beautiful garden produce. If you are looking for more potager ideas, I highly recommend the two excellent vegetable garden design books linked below, which I personally own and absolutely love…

Jennifer Bartley’s Designing the New Kitchen Garden is one of my favorite vegetable gardening resources. I highly recommend it. Bartley has a new book out, The Kitchen Gardener’s Handbook from Timber Press. I have not seen it yet.

Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping is a title I chose to review for Barnes & Noble. This is a wonderful new book, filled with fantastic ideas for building a pretty potager all your own.

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Article and photos ⓒ Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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Here Comes the Sun, Doo’n Doo Doo: Gettin’ Started with Seed Starting…

February 10th, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

On your mark, get set…

Twenty degrees fahrenheit. Ow… That’s nippy! Yes, the outside temperature still says ‘winter’ loud-and-clear, but the good new is that the days are getting longer, and the sunlight is getting stronger. That means it’s just about time to get a jump on the growing season by starting seed indoors. At this time of year in Vermont, I’m already sowing chives, onions and hardy herbs indoors. Cold crops like lettuce, spinach and arugula are now growing within the spring-like climate created by the hoop houses in my vegetable garden (click here for more information on how to build your own). I’m looking forward to an even more productive potager this year, with more home-grown gourmet vegetables started from seed.

Why start seed indoors when you can just pick up vegetable six-packs in early spring at the garden center? Well, first of all, it needn’t be either/or. Even though I still buy organically-grown vegetable starts from Walker Farm (by the dozen), I have plenty of reasons to start some seed here at home. Starting seed indoors gives me a jump on the growing season; allowing me to plant certain crops outdoors, and harvest before the local garden centers even open. When I start my own seed, I also have the option of experimenting with unusual, gourmet vegetable crops. Seed catalogs (and Seed Saving exchanges) offer far more variety than any local greenhouse can possibly supply (see sidebar and links below for some sources). And if you don’t have an organic grower nearby, starting your own plants from seed insures that your produce will be raised to your own high standards: you control the quality right from the start. Although there is an initial investment in grow lights and other gardening supplies, starting your own seed indoors can save quite a bit of money over the long haul. But the best part? I get to see the entire, magnificent process of life right from the beginning. If you have children, this is a great opportunity for teaching, and a wonderful experience to share.

A fine-textured medium (growing mix) is essential for seed starting. Regular potting soil is too heavy, and won’t drain efficiently. Buy or make your own seed starting mix for best results.

Seed Starting Basics

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Start your new plants the right way: Purchase fresh seed from a reliable, organic source, near your region. Seed collected close to your own geographic area tends to perform best. Farmers in my area (New England), almost always buy their seed from New England sources. And although I do buy seed from elsewhere (some from as far away as California) I purchase the bulk of my vegetable seed packets from suppliers in nearby Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. And when choosing germinating mix, remember to always use an organic seed-starter with very fine, loose particles. Never use regular potting soil to germinate seeds. Why? It’s much heavier and it won’t drain well. Seedlings need moist, but not water-logged soil.

Select your containers and trays: Many garden centers and online suppliers have plastic or peat cell-packs available for purchase. These packs are handy, because they usually come with plastic tops to keep the starter mix moist while seeds germinate. But, you can always use plastic wrap for ths purpose if you make/recycle containers. Some of my gardening friends like to make their own biodegradable starter pots from newspaper. You can also recycle old plastic six-packs or other containers, but you must sterilize those reused pots properly with warm, soapy water and a bit of disinfectant (bleach) to prevent the spread of disease. You will also need leak-proof trays to place beneath the seeds, in order to water them from the bottom (prevents washing the tiny seeds to the side of the pots and/or disturbing delicate roots). Whatever you choose to use, get everything ready —in one place— before you start.

Set up grow lights: While it’s true that you can start seed in a brightly lit window (I do this with some windowsill herbs) you will get much better results (stronger root systems, stems and overall growth) if you use grow-lights positioned close to the seed trays. You can use regular florescent shop-lights, or you can purchase grow-lights (available at many garden centers and online suppliers). If you are serious about starting seed indoors (or growing tropical houseplants) grow lights are a great investment. If you already own grow-lights, clean them and check bulbs and timers before you start your seed. Most vegetable seeds do not require heat-pads for germination. But it’s always a good idea to check the back of seed packets before you start, to be clear on requirements. Grow lights work best when they are raised up as the seedlings develop, keeping them close to (but not touching) the leaves. Crafty gardeners can try to construct their own systems, but grow-light systems —either floor or table mounted— can be purchased at all price points. Aim for durable, quality construction – with stands built to last.

Quality grow lights (like the one above, from Gardener’s Supply Company) are a great investment if you are serious about getting a jump-start on the growing season.

Time your starts: Check the back of your seed packets for the number of days to germination, and the start date. Usually the packet will list the start date by referencing the number of weeks prior to the last frost date. Do you know your last frost date? Check with your local USDA cooperative extension service (click here for interactive map) or, the awesome, easy-to-use table for common vegetable start dates on The Farmer’s Almanac website (Just enter your city and state in the pace provided – love the Farmer’s Almanac)! If you live in zone 4 or 5, February is a good time to start onions, leeks, chives, celery and hardy herbs. Later this month (or early March) you can begin cool-season crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and brussels sprouts. Unless you are located in zone 7 or warmer, wait to start warm-season crops (like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant) until mid to late March, or even early April.

Moisten the starter mix and fill containers: One the best ways to insure that your seedlings have plenty of moisture is to soak your germinating mix overnight prior to planting. I like to wet the mix in a big tub the night before planting; adding enough warm water to make it damp, but not soupy. I know the starter medium is ready to use when all of the water is absorbed and the mixture is moist like a fresh cupcake, but not wet and gloppy like mashed potatoes. If you try to form a ball it should crumble apart, but still feel moist to the touch (just like natural garden soil at planting time, remember how great that smells?)

Hello baby!

Plant your seeds in the containers: Plant two to three seeds per cell (you will thin the plants later) Not sure of how deep to plant? The back of the seed packet should list planting depth. But if it doesn’t, aim to plant the seed three times as deep as it is large (measuring by diameter).

Cover the seeds and wait for germination: Once all the seeds are planted and set in their trays, cover them with the plastic tops, or loosely with plastic wrap (to contain moisture and raise humidity) and place them in a 60-75 degree (fahrenheit) room. Be sure that the catch trays are filled with water, and check the seed starts daily to insure that the soil remains moist. A plastic spray-misting bottle can be useful in the early stages of seed starting to insure that the surface of soil remains moist. Seed trays can be placed beneath grow lights, but you won’t need to turn them on until the seeds pop out of the soil. Again, unless the seed requires warmer germination temperatures (or if you are starting plants in a cool/dark spot like a cellar) you won’t need heating pads for the trays.

Sunflowers are an exciting and easy crop for youngsters to grow in recycled milk cartons. But wait a bit longer on this crop. February is too soon to start sunflowers in New England…

Light up their life: As soon as the seeds germinate, they’ll need at least 12 hours of light per day (and for many vegetables 14-18 hours is even better) In these northern parts, this is where grow-lights come in. Remembering to turn lights on-and-off can be tricky at first, and an inexpensive timer can really be your best work-buddy!

Feed me Seymour!: Once the seedlings have a set of “true” leaves (as opposed to the tiny seed leaves, which emerge first), give them their first meal: a bit of dilute, organic fertilizer (I use a very weak fish emulsion solution, diluted in water).

Biodegradable pots allow room for root development, and can be popped right into the soil (no struggling to remove tiny plants without damage!)

Transition time: Once spring closes in, seedlings will begin to really take off. As certain young plants grow, they will need thinning and perhaps later, transplanting to larger pots before being “hardened off” (process of bringing seed outdoors for short periods of time to adjust to outside temperatures and light). We’ll talk more about this process later. In meantime, If you are starting many seeds, it’s also wise to invest in a fan for air circulation. Check with some of the seed supply sources linked here for more information, or visit your local garden center. It’s also helpful to have some larger sized pots and regular potting soil on hand for later. Peat pots (or other biodegradable containers) are particularly good for the purpose of transplanting, because they can be placed directly into the soil. This reduces root-disturbance and makes for a swifter, stress-free transition into garden soil.

And although we are all anxious to get back out in the sweet earth, resist the urge to rush tender plants into a cold garden. Unless you have hoop houses, row covers, cloches or other protection for your crops, it’s too risky to push them out before the recommended date (again refer to the links at the top of this post). I’ll be writing more about the process of seed starting over the coming weeks and months.

For more information and seed sources, please visit previous posts, linked here!

Here comes the sun! It may still be a little early for most vegetable starts, but growing windowsill herbs (like chives and cilantro) is fun and easy anytime…

Special thanks to Tim Geiss for his fantastic seed starting photos. Visit Tim’s site here.

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Article and noted photo ⓒ Michaela at TGE

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