Quickie Dinner? Fresh from the Garden? Penne with Oven-Roasted Broccoli…

June 19th, 2010 § Comments Off on Quickie Dinner? Fresh from the Garden? Penne with Oven-Roasted Broccoli… § permalink

Penne with Oven-Roasted Broccoli – Photo ⓒ Michaela at TGE

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I have been stalking the broccoli in my garden for more than two weeks. The weather in New England at this time of year is prone to wild mood swings -one minute it’s hot and humid and the next it’s cold and rainy again- and late spring temperature fluctuations can force crops like broccoli into maturity faster than anticipated. The minute yellow color begins to show up in the florets, the heads are over-ripe and losing flavor. When eaten straight from the garden, at its peak of freshness, the taste of home grown broccoli is one of the best arguments for retiring yet another stretch of lawn. So, early every morning I’ve been obsessively checking to see if my first broccoli crop is ready. And guess what? Here it is!!! Those dingy, yellowy heads of broccoli at the grocery store can never compare to this!

For a great initial harvest, and continued production of smaller side-shoots for weeks, be sure to fertilize your broccoli plants with fish emulsion or another organic product once a month. Broccoli performs, and tastes best when grown in compost rich soil with even and ample nitrogen content. Warm temperatures, full sun and steady moisture will give the fastest and highest yield . Spring planted crops usually mature right about now and summer-yielding crops will continue to produce florets even in the hottest months. A fall crop may be direct sown in the garden anytime in late spring or early summer. Although broccoli starts transplant well, this must be done with care as the seedlings do not like root disturbance. I plant my broccoli a little more than a foot apart in a compost and leaf mold enriched bed with companions such as radish, carrot, lettuce, and nasturtium. Mulching roots will help keep them cool, and prevent accidents with a hand weeder or hoe…

Oh so fresh…

Freshly harvested blue-green florets…

Steamed, blanched, sauteed or baked; I love broccoli just about any way, including raw, straight from the garden. I have tried many broccoli recipes , but one of the tastiest I have found is Ina Garten’s Parmesan-Roasted Broccoli from her Back to Basics cookbook. Since trying this garlicky-parmesan seasoning blend, I have taken to adding the cooked vegetables to pasta for a quick and satisfying early evening meal, or as a cold pasta salad dish at lunch. As is usually the case with Ina’s recipes, there’s nothing time consuming or complicated about this method of preparation. This dish is fast and easy to make, and the simple flavors of lemon, basil, pine nuts and parmesan perfectly enhance fresh broccoli, but never overpower it’s wonderful fresh flavor…

Penne with Oven-Roasted Broccoli and Parmesan

Based on Ina Garten’s Back to Basics Parmesan-Roasted Broccoli Recipe


Ingredients: Serves 4-6

8                  cups fresh broccoli florets, washed and prepared

4                  cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin

1 1/2           teaspoons kosher salt

1/2              teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

2                  teaspoons lemon zest

2                  tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4              cup pine nuts, roasted to golden brown

1/3              cup fresh grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

2                  tablespoons chopped basil leaves

1 lb              dry, packaged penne

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees while preparing broccoli. Arrange the broccoli florets in a single layer on a baking sheet or in a pan. Sprinkle garlic on top of the broccoli, then coat with olive oil, (about 5 tablespoons) salt and pepper. Roast in oven 25 minutes or until cooked and a bit brown on the tips of the florets.

While broccoli is roasting, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the penne according to package directions. Drain and reserve about 1/4 cup of the pasta water.

Remove broccoli from oven into a skillet or pan and toss with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, pine nuts, parmesan and fresh basil. Add a bit of pasta cooking water to the pan and slowly add the penne, stirring as you go, tossing well on low heat to combine flavors. Remove and serve in shallow bowls with extra parmesan.

Roasted broccoli may also be served as presented by Ina Garten in her Back to Basics cookbook -without pasta- as a simple and delicious side dish.

Almost High Summer…

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Article and photographs ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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What’s Up Doc? Waskilly Seeds and a Recipe for Velvety Baked Carrots…

January 23rd, 2010 § 7 comments § permalink

Baked Velvet Carrots

Beautiful Bolero …

Flat leaf Italian parsley from the windowsill herb garden…

Sliced Bolero Carrots…

We all know that old Elmer Fudd thinks Bugs Bunny is a terribly, waskilly wabbit. But frankly I think Elmer has it wrong. I think it’s Bugs Bunny’s carrot that’s a bit waskilly – at least as a seed. Itsy bitsy, teeny weeny carrot seeds are notoriously difficult to sow. Tiny, fine and lighter than a feather, it’s easy to lose track of those little devils. They stick to the packet; slip through your fingers; blow down your shirt; and before you know it they are spilling all over the ground. Waskilly Kawits. Unfortunately, if you want beautifully shaped, full size carrots, then seed spacing is pretty darn important. But you know, I’m also fairly sure that I’m not the only gardener to lose track of how many carrot seeds have fallen into the soil, and how close they ended up being planted together. To solve the spacing problem, some gardeners broadcast seed with sand or coffee grounds. Other gardeners have showed me how they create elaborately folded paper contraptions. And a few frugal New England gardeners I know have ended up breaking down and buying pre-seeded carrot tape. Me? Oh I am stubborn. I usually struggle through the planting and then, weeks later, I test my patience by thinning seedlings with a pair of scissors on a buggy day. But there is another, fully-organic, OMRI approved solution: pelleted seeds. This year I am going to give them a go…

Pelleted carrot seeds with radishes, (photo courtesy of The Old School House Plantery)

Never heard of pelleted, (or pelletized), seeds? Well, they are just regular old seeds, coated with an organic substance, (usually an inert material like starch), that makes them easier to see and handle. The coating is sort of like the dusty, crusty stuff on the outside of a chocolate truffle, (sorry chocoholics, I didn’t mean to do that to you). If you are planning on planting a vegetable garden with kids, or if you have less-than-steady hands, or less-than perfect eyesight, (or, err,  less-than saintly patience, like me), pelletized seeds can come in very handy. I just ordered up pelleted Bolero, Mokum and Sugarsnax carrot seed from Johnny’s Seeds yesterday. I also chose a few packs of pelleted lettuce seed, since I find them a bit waskilly as well. Johnny’s Seeds is a wonderful employee-owned company in the great state of Maine, and they carry a wide variety of organic, heirloom and gourmet vegetables. I order many of my unusual vegetable seeds from Johnny’s Seeds and the other great online companies, including Renee’s Garden Seeds and Botanical Interests, listed in the sidebar at right under “seeds”. I have found that each company usually has some special variety I want, (such as the pelleted seeds from Johnny’s), so I always end up spreading my orders around the country a bit. And this year, I notice seeds are selling out faster than usual, so it’s always helpful to have a few reliable sources.

Carrots are a cook’s kitchen staple. The foundation of many stocks, carrots also add color, sweetness and vitamins to everything from salads, appetizers and soups to savory baked dishes, casseroles and breads. And can you imagine life without carrot cake and cream cheese frosting? For such a rewarding crop, carrots are remarkably easy to grow in the garden. These bright colored veggies aren’t fussy, but they do like very deep, loose, compost-rich soil. So if you have rocky loam, you might have better luck with carrots if you raise your beds with mounds or planters. Many gardeners use radishes as companions for carrots to mark the row, and to help break the crusty soil. Of course it also helps to keep the soil evenly moist during germination, (but be sure not to overwater carrots during the growing season). During the hot summer, carrots will benefit from a layer of mulch; keeping their roots cool and their tops warm enhances flavor. I also like to shade carrot roots by planting them between rows of leafy lettuce, spinach and/or chard. If you sow a fast maturing variety in the early part of the season, (when soil temps reach a consistent 60° F), and then plant a second crop when the soil is warm enough to plant tomatoes, (70-75°), you can harvest carrots all year long, (and for those of us with frozen tundra, carrots will also store well in root cellars, layered in damp sand).

Hungry yet? There’s nothing like a serving of bright orange, velvety carrots to remind me of summer’s sweetness, and I truly love this rich, savory old recipe. Brilliantly colored baked carrots are the perfect side dish for a potato-vegetable gratin or a roasted or baked pretty-much-anything. Mmmmm. Sweet Bolero, my lovely carrot, you don’t seem quite so rascally now….

Greene on Greens

Velvety Baked Carrots

(an oldie but a goodie, from Bert Greene’s Greene on Greens cookbook)

Ingredients (serves 4-6 as a side dish):

3 1/2 c       homemade vegetable stock or chicken broth

1 pound     peeled carrots cut in half lengthwise

3 Tbs         unsalted butter

3 Tbs         all-purpose flour

1/2 c          heavy cream

1/8 tsp       ground allspice

1/8 tsp       fresh grated nutmeg

dash          Sriracha hot chili sauce, (or other pepper sauce)

to taste      salt

to taste      fresh ground pepper

1/4 c          fresh bread crumbs

2 Tbs         fresh chopped parsley

1 Tbs         grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350° F. Wash and peel carrots, and slice them in half lengthwise, (more if they are particularly large). In a medium saucepan, bring 3 1/2 cups of vegetable, (or chicken), broth to a boil.  Slowly add the carrots and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the carrots, uncovered, until they are soft. Test with a fork after 25 minutes. Drain the carrots over a bowl, reserving the broth. Place the carrots in a separate bowl and mash, (lightly with a potato masher), until smooth but still attractively textured. Set aside.

Return the saucepan to the stove and melt 2 Tbs. of butter over medium-low heat. Stir in the flour and cook, continuously stirring, for a couple of minutes. Add 1 cup of the reserved cooking stock and whisk together while brining the mix to a boil. Reduce the heat to low. Add the nutmeg, allspice, pepper sauce. Whisk in 1/2 cup of cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the mixture from the heat and combine with the mashed carrots. Pour into a buttered, shallow baking dish and set aside.

In a small skillet, melt the remaining butter over medium heat. Add the bread crumbs and stir into the butter, cooking and turning until golden brown. Remove from the heat and add in the chopped parsley. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over the carrots and top with grated Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the topping is bubbling.

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All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden, and may not be used or reproduced without express written consent. Please do not use photographs or text excerpts without permission, (see contact at left). Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams.

Thank you !

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Rich, Beautiful, Dreamy Dirt…

November 6th, 2009 § 7 comments § permalink

A nice delicious bowl of…. dirt?

Has someone been making mud-pies? Sometimes I think I got into gardening because I never grew up. Yes, I know, that is a silly photo. But I couldn’t help myself. All the cooking blogs and magazines showcase gorgeous, slightly-off center bowls filled with the most mouthwatering food. So I got to thinking – what about the plants? They need to eat too! If plants could read cooking blogs, this photo would really pull them into the recipe – rich, beautiful, dreamy DIRT !

There is nothing more exciting to me than playing in a big, sun-warmed pile of dirt. I just love it. And of all the gardens I work in, it’s the vegetable plots I get really excited about – think of all those mounds and mounds of dirt! So, right now I am having a ball, because fall is when I usually plan and prep new vegetable plots. This is the best time of year to test and supplement garden soil, because it takes awhile for organic materials to decompose and for pH to change, (more on that in just a bit…). If I make adjustments now, the soil chemistry will have plenty of time to correct before next year’s planting season rolls around. So I have been playing with dirt a lot lately. Glee !

Great vegetable gardens always begin with beautiful, fertile earth. And every kitchen gardener wants a productive potager filled with healthy plants and colorful, plump, delicious vegetables. The good news is that building productive soil isn’t magic – it’s simple science. But in order to give plants what they need, a gardener needs to observe soil structure and learn a bit about chemistry…

compost, marigold, spinach

I am going to keep this as simple as possible, because most of us aren’t aiming to turn our backyards into farm-schools – we just want our little plots to produce good food! It really only takes a half an hour, a few supplies, and a little effort to get the basic answers you need about your soil’s fertility and, if need be, how to correct it.

Plants require Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus, (P) and Potassium, (K) in order to steadily grow a strong framework and create vigorous, richly colored leaves. Plants with insufficient nitrogen often look yellowish and unhealthy, and if a garden is low in phosphorus, plants will be stunted and produce poorly, (a purplish cast on tomatoes is a common sign of phosphorus deficiency). Potassium deficiency is harder to detect, but equally problematic. Plants suffering from potassium deficiency are internally weak; unable to control moisture and distribute nutrients, among other things. And perhaps most important of all, in order for a plant to absorb N, P and K, the soil needs to have the correct pH level. Nutrients will not dissolve in water that is too acid or too alkaline, and unless nutrients dissolve in water, plants can not absorb them through their roots. No one wants to starve their garden! How can a garden feed us, unless we feed it ?

A simple and fun way to find out about your garden’s soil chemistry is to buy a home soil-testing kit. This is a great project to do with kids. Basic soil chemistry kits are inexpensive, (almost always under ten dollars for a basic kit, and under 20 for more extensive testing), and can be purchased in most garden centers and mail-order supply stores online. The kit I use most frequently requires a one to five ratio of dirt to water for testing nutrients. So I begin by scooping up a cup of soil from the garden, or if I am working in a large garden and want to do various tests, I will take a cup from several different areas, (marking the sample with a location note)…

Soil Sample for TestingSoil sample scooped from the vegetable garden. Take your sample 4-5 inches below the surface for best results…

I usually test soil pH first, since I only need a small amount of dry soil, (see photo below). This particular soil-testing kit requires that I add soil to the first line of the test-tube. I then add pH reactive powder, (it’s non-toxic and safe for kids to handle), from the color-coded kit, add water to the top line, replace the cap and shake the vial, (ideally distilled water, which you can get in most supermarkets, should be used for all of these tests). This test-tube is set aside while I continue with the rest of my experiments…

Dirt in a vile for pH testing...The first test is for pH…

Next, I take my cup of garden soil and place it in a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl. To the dirt, I add five cups of water and stir thoroughly. This muddy mixture needs to settle for at least ten minutes. So, while I am waiting, I investigate the results of my pH testing…

Dirt in a Bowl plus WaterNext, five cups of water are added to one cup of soil, stirred and left to settle 10 minutes or so…

Below you will see pH test-results from two different vegetable gardens. The color of the water will range from dark green to bright orange, with green indicating alkalinity and orange, acidity. It sometimes helps to put a piece of white paper in back of the tube when comparing the color-results with the pH chart. The first test, (A: directly below), indicates that the pH is just slightly more acidic than neutral. Most plants prefer a pH in this range – but it is always a good idea to know the exact preference of your crops. Soil testing kits usually come with a small pamphlet about this, but if not you can look this information up in a good gardening book, (see recommended book linked below). The third photo, (B), indicates alkaline soil. The soil in this garden will need to be amended in order for plants to properly absorb nutrients…

pH test in progressTest A: Slightly acidic soil

soil testing kit color barTesting chart

Ph test alkalineTest B: Here is an alkaline soil sample, (it actually looked darker greener than it appears in this photo). This soil will need to be amended with organic matter and/or agricultural sulfur this fall in order to bring it closer to the acid-neutral range.

Soil that is too acidic for vegetable gardening can be corrected, (or ‘sweetened’ as farmers sometimes say), with lime. Limestone and wood ash both raise pH. Organic lime can be purchased at most garden/home centers. Be sure to follow instructions and wear a mask when spreading lime on soil. Wood ash is an old-fashioned remedy for poor soil, and it is useful because ash also adds magnesium and potassium. If nutrient testing reveals low potassium, then wood ash is a good, economical supplement for an acidic vegetable garden. However, if the garden soil is alkaline, (as in test B), wood ash should not be added.

If test results reveal alkaline soil, (as in vial B, above), there are two ways to lower the pH. The best long-term solution for improving alkaline soil is to add organic matter. Composted oak leaves, pine needles, peat moss or untreated sawdust are all good supplements. However, it takes time for these additives to work. So, if you are looking for faster results, or your soil is very alkaline, (like test B, above), then adding agricultural grade sulfur makes sense. This supplement can be purchased at garden centers and it is applied in the same manner as lime. Always work additives into the soil with a garden fork after they have been applied, and then cover the bed with a good, thick layer of compost.

For the next three tests, (N,P,K), samples are drawn from the bowl containing the soil-water mix. Take care not to disturb the settled soil when obtaining the samples. There is a bit of organic matter floating in the tubes shown below. A small amount is OK, (it can be tricky to get a clean catch in super organic soil, especially for little hands), but try to keep as much as possible out. Your results won’t be skewed from a bit of floating debris, so no worries if some gets in the tube. Next add the reactive powder to each vial, replacing the color-coded cap to match the test. Be sure your caps are on tight! Then, shake the tubes and wait another 5 to 10 minutes for color-results…

soil test with some depletionsHere are some test results for K, N and P  – The Potash, (orange) content is good. Nitrogen, (purple) is very low, and the Phosphorus is depleted, in fact it’s just about non-existent !

When the color in the tubes has developed, match your results with the chart provided in the testing kit. Low and depleted levels of nutrients can be corrected with organic supplements. Low nitrogen? Good compost will raise the nitrogen in garden soil and fish emulsion or blood meal will also correct low nitrogen. During the growing season, cover crops like alfalfa can also be turned into the soil to raise nitrogen levels. How you improve soil fertility depends upon when you are correcting the situation and how depleted the soil is. In cold climates, adding a rich layer of compost to the soil in fall will often do the trick for correcting fertility in the long term. But if levels are particularly depleted, additional supplements may be needed. The phosphorus test above indicates complete depletion. To improve this situation, rock phosphate is recommended. Like the other supplements mentioned, this can be purchased at any garden center. Always follow instructions on the bag. The orange-capped test above indicates ample potassium. If potassium is low however, it can be improved by adding granite-dust, greensand or wood ashes. But remember, wood ashes will raise pH. Only add wood ashes if your pH test indicates acidic soil. And remember, you can add supplements like greensand and rock phosphate to your compost as well – they are all natural…

compost:hands

In addition to checking soil chemistry, it is important to have a look at soil structure. If a garden has particularly sandy soil, or clay soil with poor drainage, now is a good time to add organic matter to the garden. Compost, leaf-mold, clean straw and other organic matter can be worked in and raked over the garden in the autumn. This healthy mix of ingredients will continue to decompose over the winter months, building a healthy, hearty stew for next year’s plants.

Building a vegetable garden, testing and building soil can be fun and rewarding for kids. This soil testing process is a great way to teach young gardeners about practical science. For less than $20, a real-life skill can be acquired while having a great time. For more information about creating great vegetable gardens, I highly recommend Edward C. Smith’s book, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible , linked below. This book is easy to read and follow, and it makes a great gift for beginning vegetable gardeners, (and even the more experienced, for reference!)…

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Article and photographs copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express written permission. Inspired by something you see here? It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Bringing Nature’s Beauty Indoors: Flowers Just for Cutting…

August 11th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

a bouquet of annual dahlias and calendula Walker Farm

~ A bouquet of dahlia and calendula brightens my windowsill ~

One of the great pleasures of successful flower gardening is, of course, the access to seasonal, fresh cut flowers for the dinner table, desk and elsewhere in the home. I also really enjoy bringing an exotic bouquet to my host or hostess when I am invited to a dinner party, or to a friend as a surprise. Earlier this summer, in my posts about designing a potager and companion planting in the vegetable garden, I mentioned the horticultural benefits of growing flowers in a kitchen garden. But as an artist, I have many reasons, way beyond the practical, for a cutting garden. Flowers are a great inspiration; the extraordinary colors and amazing geometric forms can shift a mood, spark a creative impulse, or simply add a touch of beauty to the day. Know someone with a bland office cubicle, or sterile waiting room? Imagine what a few colorful zinnias would do to change the atmosphere. It’s amazing really. That old 1960’s slogan “Flower Power” couldn’t be more accurate.

zinnia and dahlia, c. Tim Geiss 2009

Zinnia and Dahlia ~ copyright 2009 ~ Tim Geiss

Growing annuals for cutting can be as simple as sowing seed or planting six packs in the vegetable garden in spring. I grow my cutting garden in well drained soil enriched with compost, and I fertilize with Neptune’s Harvest or whatever fish emulsion I have on hand. My own cutting garden varies in size each year depending upon my available time, space and budget. This year, I purchased common annuals in six packs from Walker Farm and a few of the specialty annuals they are known for. I chose dahlia, zinnia, cleome, cosmos, verbena bonariensis, specialty calendula, (French marigold), and moluccella laevis, (Bells of Ireland), among others. I also grow some perennials in and around my vegetable garden, including early bloomers like bulbs and peonies and late-season favorites such as coreopsis tripteris, physostegia virginiana, liatris ‘Kobold’, veronica ‘Goodness grows’, rudbeckia, echinacea and solidago, (golden rod), to name but a few. Native goldenrod is a great addition to flower arrangements. Sadly, although solidago is a prized perennial in much of Europe, this native flower is shunned by many North American gardeners who mistakenly believe it to be a cause of hay fever, (ambrosia artmisiifolia, or common ragweed, is usually the culprit). I always buy my annuals locally in spring. But you can also find bulbs and plants through online retailers, including my two of my favorite sources for summer bulbs, Swan Island Dahlias and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.

Combining perennials and annuals in casual arrangements is one of my favorite ways to bring the garden indoors, (see photo below). I like to play with contrasting colors like orangey-yellow and purple, or bright blue and reddish-orange to enliven my kitchen table. When creating bouquets for the bedroom or bath, I often soften the mood a bit, and combine flowers in more complimentary hues; using tones of blue and green, or shades of lavender and rose. Whatever I create with flowers from my garden, the arrangements have a way of making the whole house look brighter.

In order to get the most life from cut flower arrangements, I try to harvest the blooms in early morning, before the heat of the day, or in the cool of the evening after the sun has set. I choose flowers with swollen buds or petals just opening. With sharp scissors, I cut the stems long and at a slight angle. Immediately, I place them in a bucket of lukewarm water kept in the shade while I make my other selections. Certain flowers, such as poppies, will need to have their stalks seared with a match in order to seal the stem. And most early bulbs, such as daffodils, prefer cool vase water. Cut flowers will stay fresh longer when you add a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice, about a tablespoon of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of bleach to each quart of vase-water. Changing the vase-water every couple of days will extend the life of your bouquet and keep the flowers looking fresh longer. Bacteria is responsible for that nasty flower-water slime and smell when you forget to change the water for a week. I try to avoid that olfactory experience at all costs!

Bouquet of cosmos candy stripe, calendula pacific beauty mix, echinacea purpurea, physostegia, goldenrod, liatris and veronica goodness grows

Annual Cosmos ‘Candy Stripe’, Calendula ‘Pacific Beauty Mix’, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Becky Mixed’ here with perennial Veronica ‘Goodness Grows, Liatris ‘Kobold’, Echinacea purpurea and Solidago Canadensis Gunmetal Glazed Pitcher by artist Aletha Soule

double rudbeckia "Goldilocks" (small), cutting garden

Rudbeckia hirta ‘Goldilocks’ produces 18″-24″ stems with 4″ double orange blossoms… perfect for late summer bouquets

To add a little something extra to my bouquets, I often add ornamental grasses, (such as miscanthus), foliage plants, (including ferns and perennial plant leaves), vines, (such as bittersweet), and branches from trees and shrubs. Shrubs with darker foliage, including physocarpus ‘Diablo’ or ‘Summer Wine’, and weigela ‘Java Red’, among the many choices, add a nice contrast to floral arrangements in complimentary hues. When adding woody plants like these, as well as flowering hydrangea and lilac to an arrangement, it ‘s important to “smash” the woody stems with a mallet in order for the cut branch to absorb water, (see center photo below).  In addition to beautiful color and texture, woody plants add structure to a vase, and can help support both delicate flowers and heavy blooms, especially those with a tendency to flop.

cleome, zebra grass and weigela java red foliage

White cleome, zebra grass and weigela florida ‘Java Red’ foliage in a vase by  Aletha Soule

pounding woody stems

Flowers harvested from shrubs with woody stems must be ‘smashed’ as shown, to help them absorb water

Ninebark,(Physocarpus) 'Diablo', False Indigo, (Baptisia foliage) Foxglove, (Digitalis davisiana),Queen Anne's Lace'(Anthriscus sylvestris Bells of Ireland, (Moluccella laevis)

~ A beautiful raku vase by Vermont artist Richard Foye ~

And from the garden: Ninebark, (Physocarpus), ‘Diablo’, False indigo foliage, (Baptisia), Foxglove, (Digitalis davisiana), Queen Anne’s Lace, (Anthriscus sylvestris), and Bells of Ireland, (Moluccella laevis)

Hydrangea paniculata 'limelight'

~ Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ in a small vase by artist Aletha Soule ~

When it comes to choosing vases, I am a big believer in experimentation. Although I have a nice collection of vases from Vermont artisan Richard Foye and California’s Aletha Soule, I do not limit myself to traditional vessels for holding fresh flowers. I am just as likely to stick a bouquet into a rusty tin can when the orange-brown contrast strikes my fancy. Old mason jars, drinking glasses, perfume and liquor bottles, beach buckets, cookie tins, soda bottles and milk cartons have all served as vases in my household. In fact, pretty much anything that holds water is fair game. Floating flowers in a shallow bowl with candles makes for a memorable center piece at a dinner party, and the low display draws attention to the structure of larger flowers such as dahlia and sunflower. I also like the look of one spectacular blossom filling the top of a thick glass, as photographed by artist Tim Geiss below.

floating dahlia copyright 2009 tim geiss

As the seasons change, I like to bring autumn leaves and bare branches into the house for my larger urns. And early autumn vegetables, such as kale and cabbage, make dramatic additions to flower arrangements as well. When November and December come ’round, I will bring in winterberry, (Ilex verticillata), and dried grasses from the garden by the armful. Do you have any favorite additions to your floral arrangements? I will be featuring more articles like this one in the future, but for now, please feel free to share your ideas and add comments for others here on the forum. In a world filled with chaos, stress, uncertainty and pressure, we could all use a little beauty to brighten our day. Sometimes, even a milk carton of roadside daisies will do!

zinnia on a table copyright 2009 Tim Geiss

~ Freshly cut Zinnia, copyright 2009, Tim Geiss ~

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~ Special thanks to Tim Geiss for his beautiful flower photographs as noted ~

~ Article and other photos copyright 2009 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden ~

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Companion Planting in the Organic Vegetable Garden

June 2nd, 2009 § 13 comments § permalink

chives-thyme-rosemary-savoryChives and thyme in the potager

Companion planting is a very old-world, organic gardening method. Unfortunately, much companion planting knowledge has fallen out of use and favor in modern times due to a focus on efficiency. Of course on large farms efficiency is very important, but in a home garden I prefer to concentrate as much on process as I do on product. Instead of rotor-tilled planting strips, I have raised beds of mounded earth in my potager. My vegetable garden is organized in wide planting groups, not narrow rows. This sort of arrangement is not practical for commercial growers, but in a back yard vegetable garden, it works beautifully. From a design stand-point, I like this method of vegetable gardening because it maximizes my space, and allows me to create whimsical-looking arrangements of flowering and fruiting plants. There are also more practical and scientific benefits to this shared-space arrangement as well. Mixed-vegetable beds with herbs and flowers create many opportunities for synergistic relationships between plants. Utilizing natural plant relationships is one of the oldest organic gardening methods for vegetable growing success.

marigold-close-upCalendula, (marigold)

Herbs and flowers make attractive companions to vegetables, and many decorative potager plants lure beneficial insects. Blooming, fragrant herbs and flowers appeal to insects such as bees, green lacewings, hover flies, and lady bugs, among other helpful creatures. Yarrow is a pretty garden flower, and morning glory vines look beautiful growing up a garden fence. More importantly, and worth noting: these plants attract lady bugs and other insect-carnivores. Wild flowers, such as golden rod, are often mown down or uprooted by gardeners as ‘weeds’, but these flowers attract parasitic wasps, assasin bugs and lady bugs as well. Keeping native wild flowers around is a good idea for the organic gardener, as these plants are natural magnets for beneficial insects. Many insect-helpers eat pollen, and they are attracted to blooming plants during their adult stages. Later their off-spring, in the larval stage, will devour aphids, thrips, white flies, mealybugs, and many more pests. For useful information on how to identify friend from foe, visit sites in the entomology -links section to the right of this post on the blog-roll.

Attractive potager plants make the vegetable garden a beautiful and pleasant place to work and many are flavorful additions to recipes. However not all living things enjoy the presence of pungent herbs and flowers. These plants can also serve to repel insects and to mask the odors of more attractive plants, confusing or distracting pests. Onions, chives and garlic tend to deter aphids, ants and flea beetles. Rosemary may be flavorful to humans, but it is an unattractive, powerful scent to carrot flies and cabbage moths. Calendula, (marigold), is a traditional French potager plant used ward-off aphids, white flies and potato beetles. French marigold is also a deterent to nematodes and tomato hornworm. Basil and borage are also unappealing to tomato hornworm, and basil in particular makes a great edging plant for tomatoes. Surrounding tomatoes with basil may fool insect pests by masking the attractive odor of the tomatoes. Sage deters carrot fly and it also is unappealing to cabbage moth, as is thyme, hyssop and artemesia.

Companion planting also utilizes the harmonious and beneficial relationships between the plants themselves. Some crops, when grown near one another, may grow and yield better, and also protect one another from insect pests. Native Americans developed companion planting schemes based on such experiences; growing pole beans with corn for support, and surrounding corn with squash to deter raccoons, (apparently they dislike climbing over the leafy plants). Clearly it is important to plant taller or larger-growing crops, (like corn, pole beans and pumpkins for example), in beds where they can spread out and up without blocking sun, or smothering smaller crops near-by.

Most gardeners love to grow tomatoes. Herbs like parsley, basil, mint and chives are all good companions for tomatoes.  Flowers, such as nasturtium, marigold, and bee-balm also make good neighbors for tomatoes of all kinds. Lettuce grows well at the foot of tomato plants, and cucumbers, celery and chili peppers are happy near-by, (with proper spacing of course). Keep in mind that tomatoes, eggplant, bell pepper and potatoes should not be grown directly next to one another, as they all attract Colorado potato beetle. When planting these plants, mix them up with other plant groups, like herbs and lettuce. Another planting combination to avoid is tomatoes and corn, as they both attract a pest known by two names: corn ear worm/tomato fruit worm. Try planting tomatoes and corn at opposite corners of the garden to deter these pests.

Pole beans are also popular potager plants, and in general they will do best planted away from members of the cabbage family, (broccoli, cauliflower, cress, kale, mizuna, arugula, radish, turnip, brussel sprouts). However most bush-beans are not so picky. All beans do well mingled with rosemary and celery, but should not be next-door-neighbors with fennel, basil and onion.

Cucumbers, another back-yard favorite, are a rewarding, fast-producing crop. They grow well near bush beans, eggplant, cabbages, peas, tomatoes lettuce and all herbs except sage.  It is wise to avoid planting cucumbers near potatoes, and also provide separation between this plant and squash, pumpkin and melon, as they are all host to the stem and fruit boring pickle worm.

Summer squash and zucchini are also popular garden crops, and they make great companions for onions, radishes, and corn and celery.  But as mentioned above, this plant is best grown away from cucumber and potatoes, to deter pests.

Head lettuce grows well beside most vegetable plants, and it does particularly well in mid-summer near taller plants, as they give the lettuce a bit of shade. Pole beans or peas provide an excellent opportunity to test this synergistic relationship. Because lettuce is a fast growing crop, benefitting from cool conditions, it can be sown at the feet of many vegetables through out the growing season.

These planting suggestions are best viewed as guides, not hard and fast rules. There are many, many more plant relationships to explore.  Research companion planting online, and in some of the books mentioned on this site in the ‘Bookstore / Library’ (page left), under the ‘vegetable garden’,(last section). Try keeping a journal of your garden to note your experiences with companion planting, and to help you plan your garden next year. Remember that synergistic plant relationships can help reduce the need for insecticidal soaps and other pesticides. Above all, keep in mind that vegetable gardening is good for you in many ways. Experimenting with the beauty and benefits of herbs and flowers can only help you to enjoy companion planting as part of your overall garden experience.

flower-baskets-in-potagerNewly planted flower baskets in this year’s potager will attract beneficial insects

herbs-in-the-gardenThyme, rosemary, savory and chives at the vegetable garden entry

Article copyright 2009 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. All rights reserved.

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The Art & Science of Designing a Vegetable Garden…

May 25th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

potager-furnitureCreating a beautiful and bountiful potager

harvest-basket

A vegetable garden can be an incredible source of pleasure.  Every sunny morning, my four-legged companions and I take a walk to the potager where we enjoy each other’s company while I sip my morning coffee.  I like to start my day listening to the mocking bird and watching the butterflies flutter about the herbs and vegetables from the comfort of my old wicker chair. Although my potager is relatively small, it provides me with enough vegetables for myself, and extra to share with friends and family.  For a modest plot, the garden is quite productive.

The renewed interest in vegetable gardening this year is exciting to observe. Jack Manix of Walker Farm presented a seminar on vegetable gardening earlier this May, and the turn-out was so overwhelming that he and his wife Karen decided to add a second session.  For those of you unable to attend the talk, this article will pass along some of Jack’s tips, as well as some of my own creative ideas and experiences for designing and planting a beautiful, productive and welcoming potager.

Bountiful harvests in the vegetable garden are usually the result of good planning. Full sun, attentiveness, regular deep-watering, disciplined weeding, and most importantly, good earth, make for success. Vegetable plants generally prefer deep, loose, well-drained soil. And the most delicious crops tend to grow in mineral rich earth with plenty of organic material worked in. Dark, fertile soil is home to aerating, fertilizing earth worms and microscopic life invisible to the naked eye. But the soil’s texture and quality is only one part of the good-dirt equation. Just as important to your plants is the soil’s fertility, provided by the nutrients in the earth. Natural, organic soil chemistry is what makes for fertile soil. Good garden soil provides balanced nitrogen, potash, and phosphorus.

Green, healthy, steady growing leaves are the result of proper nitrogen, (N). Nitrogen provides plants with nutrition, and its presence results in deep green foliage and balanced growth. Too little nitrogen and plants will be yellowish and stunted; too much nitrogen and plants will become jolly-green-giants, growing an over-abundance of lush foliage but little produce.  An excess of nitrogen can also result in poor quality fruit and plant disease. Overly fertile conditions and rapid growth also tend to attract pests like aphids. In addition to nitrogen, plants also require potash, (K), for strong, healthy growth.  Soil rich in potash will produce colorful, flavor-rich vegetables and fruit.  A lack of potash will result in poor root systems, curled and spotted leaves, and low yields. Phosphorus, (P), is another key nutrient in the garden. Like potash, phosphorus plays an important role in healthy, vigorous plant development. Cold, heat and disease resistant plants are the product of adequate phosphorus. Conversely, stunted growth and slow maturity are often signs of phosphorus deficiency.

It is important to check garden soil fertility at least once or twice a year.  As soon as the soil dries out in spring, pick up a soil testing kit for N, P, K and pH to test your soil.  The process is quick and easy with a kit from your local farmer’s supply store. Or if you prefer, you can send a soil sample to your local university extension service.  Test in early spring and amend your soil according to the kit’s instructions. It also makes sense to test your garden again in fall, and amend the soil before mulching the vegetable beds for winter.

Balancing plant-diet is as important to garden health as it is to our own.  But no matter how nutrient-rich the soil, plants need to be able to make use of what is available to them in order to grow. Checking both the soil pH, and the preferred pH of plants within the garden, will let the gardener know if the plants are able to absorb the nutrients in the soil. Correcting pH is best done in fall or early spring, but if you are building your garden at a different time, this is the first step to take no matter when you plan to begin, or what you plan to plant.  Even the most optimally textured, fertile soil can not help plants if the nutrients can not be absorbed.  Soil may look dark, rich and moist as chocolate cake, and it may contain a wealth of nutrients, but the improper pH will keep those nutrients out of the reach of the plant system. Incorrect pH will cause poor seed germination, and a weak, disappointing garden.

Building great garden soil is an ongoing process. Regularly adding compost to the soil helps to retain moisture, improves air circulation, and attracts earthworms and microscopic organisms. Another great addition to garden soil is green sand, which loosens clay soil, binds sandy soil, supplies potassium and helps soil hold water. Green sand is a great soil conditioner containing loads of minerals. It can be added directly to the soil, or sprinkled into compost.  Mined from ancient ocean floors, green sand is a little-known garden secret to building great soil.  Once I began using green sand, I was amazed at the difference in my garden.

At his vegetable gardening seminar, Jack Manix stressed the importance of waiting for proper temperatures to plant out your vegetable garden.  This is very important. Working wet soil too early can lead to compaction, and seeds planted in cold earth will fail to germinate.  If you must get a jump on the season, start plants on your windowsill or in a cold frame, and wait until the recommended planting dates for your area to sow seed. The Farmer’s Almanac is a great online source for planting dates. All you have to do is enter your zip code. Following the garden calendar and measuring soil temperature is an easy way to avoid disappointment and crop failure.

Planting the right plants for your area is also key to your success. Ask long-time residents about favorite crops, and buy your plants from a local grower. When buying seeds, Jack Manix recommends buying from companies testing in the Northeast, (or wherever you live). Some of these companies are listed under the seeds section on the links bar to the right of this post. I buy my vegetable starts from Walker Farm because they grow what they sell, so I can be certain that what I am buying has been tested and proven on the farm. I also care that my crops are raised organically, and it is important to me to support my local organic farm, and the people employed there. Why gamble money on a pretty picture in a catalog when I can see, touch and smell a plant at my local farm before I buy it ?

When planning your garden, try to make notes in your calendar as a reminder to rotate your crops each year.  Planting vegetables in the same location makes it too easy for insects playing hide and seek in your garden.  Make things more challenging for pests by moving crops around, and by using companion plants like calendula, (marigold), nasturtium, thyme, sage, chamomile, and other herbs and flowers. Beneficial insects are attracted to companion plants, and this helps to naturally protect your veggies from not-so-desirable creatures.  Organic gardening starts with good planning.

Regular weeding and thinning in the vegetable garden are so important, that I make them part of my daily routine. Every morning, I spend a half hour or so gently thinning extra seedlings, and removing tiny little weeds with my hand cultivator. Removing competition from weeds and excess seedlings is essential to a plant’s success. The paths between my mounded vegetable beds are lined with straw. This makes a comfortable, dry place to sit while tending to my plants. The straw paths also retain moisture and keep down weeds.  Weeds: the not-so-glamorous secret to successful gardening is weeding. Learning to love weeding, and making it a relaxing, meditative process, will help both you and your garden.  In this respect the old advice, “the best fertilizer for plants is the gardener’s shadow”, couldn’t be more true. I do some of my best thinking and problem solving while weeding.  And on my favorite days, I leave the garden thinking about nothing at all.

With this in mind, why not make your potager a truly desirable destination? Properly siting your vegetable garden is the first place to start. Almost all vegetables require full sun from dawn to dusk. This also makes the garden a pleasant place for people. An artful, winding path leading toward the potager is attractive to the eye. Make the path wide enough to easily transport plants and soil supplements via wheelbarrow. It is often true in life that the more pleasant the journey, the more frequent the trip. Adding a couple of chairs and an old table will make for a warm gardener’s welcome in a vegetable plot. Nestled amongst the fragrant herbs and flowers, a table and chairs set in the garden can be a place to read, talk on the phone, or share a glass of wine with a friend. One afternoon as I was driving home from a visit with family, I spied some cast-off wicker furniture wearing a “free’ sign, sitting on the side of the road . Now that I have found a new home for that furniture in my vegetable garden, I find that I spend much more time there. Adding annual flowers, particularly those attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, will also make a potager more inviting. My rustic fence also looks much more attractive to me with sweet peas and morning glories scrambling up the wire and winding round the saplings. A few old wicker baskets scattered about the garden are helpful for collecting weeds and spent vegetable plants for compost. And when my baskets show too much wear and tear for carrying debris, I often position them in corners to be filled with soil and trailing annuals until they decompose. This year and next, adding berry bushes and fruiting trees to the potager  are on my list. I love having a fresh pantry right outside the kitchen door, and I find the more time I spend in my garden, the happier and healthier my summer.

potager-big-viewThe potager, June 2008…

potagerRaised beds (earthen mounds) of vegetables.  Here, last year’s radish, lettuce, bunching onions and hot peppers happily mingle.

teepee-in-potagerCopper-wire teepee with pole beans

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Potager and fence design : Michaela M

Fence construction : William B / Michaela M

All vegetables starts : Walker Farm or grown from seed

Article and photos ⓒ 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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