Thursday, December 18, 2008

Three Favorite Garden Gifts

Here are three really useful, practical and functional tools that I truly appreciate and use with pleasure and satisfaction throughout the gardening season. I think all three make wonderful holiday gifts, so I wanted to share why I really like them and tell you where to get them as well. I really don't have any association with these companies, these are just my personal faves!

Sgarden gifts sport hatunday Afternoons Hat's "Sport hat" model
Great for comfort, looks, convenience and sun protection. I have always had a hard time finding a good garden hat because I find most hats to be uncomfortable and annoying. Several years ago, I discovered this one and everything changed. I actually own 3 of these hats so that I can have one stashed in the house, in the garden shed and in my car. The hat is so lightweight (2.2 ounces) that you forget you have it on. The design features a full crescent 4 inch sun protection brim that extends around the sides of the head, tapers over the ears, and includes an extension you can tuck up or wear down to cover your neck and it even accommodates a ponytail. I think it's still pretty good-looking even with all of this protection. The mesh air vents keep my head from getting too hot and the hat is adjustable for all head sizes and easily washed in the machine. I buy them right from the company's website, while not cheap at $34, they are often available for $19 on their sale page, although in more limited colors. Look for these hats at:

Joyce Chen "Never Dull" Scissors
garden gifts of all-purpose scissorsMy favorite go everywhere scissors for kitchen and garden.I carry these little handy all-purpose scissors when I go out in the garden. At 6 1/4 inches, they are especially well sized to work for a woman's hand and great for everything: trimming dead leaves, cutting bouquets, snipping lettuce and herbs and as a main workhorse tool for cutting bouquets and harvesting vegetables. The bright red scissor handles are made from soft vinyl, making them freely comfortable for heavy use. The well-balanced high carbon steel blades give excellent leverage and easily cut even woody stems. They "never dull" as their blades are electronically hardened and don't require sharpening over a lifetime of use. They fit easily in my jeans pocket and I think they're essential for every working gardener. I also keep another pair in the house to use for kitchen chores -- these well-made small scissors are truly multipurpose. Usually available for about $21-$25 from many websites -- just google Joyce Chen scissors and take your choice.

Bloomsaver Flower Harvest Caddy
Every Flower Gardener Should Have One
garden gifts flower caddyThe idea for the Bloomsaver began in the garden when two good gardening friends decided to design a tool making it easier to collect flowers for bouquets. The Bloomsaver Flower Caddy they came up with is a lightweight, three section container with a detachable handle. It allows you to harvest and collect large quantities of blooming flowers without wilting, crushing or bruising them and carry them around the garden as you harvest. With three different sections, you can sort your flowers by size color or type as you harvest them if you like. The base unit is molded of high-quality plastic and the detachable Lexan handle is shatterproof. I find the Bloomsaver easy to carry and very stable.

I found out about the Bloomsaver from one of my rose loving friends and now I wouldn't be without it. For flowers like sweet peas or zinnias are roses which can crush and bruise easily if you pack them together tightly, it really is a wonderful solution. Sometimes I just fill it up with flowers and don't even bother to transfer them to individual vases because it looks quite lovely as a casual arrangement. The Bloomsaver sells for about $28.95, but it's worth it and I've had mine for years. Still made by its original developers, it is only available on their small company website:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Receiving the Seed Harvest

freshly harvested seedsAt this time of year, our warehouse is getting filled to overflowing with new crops of seed that were just harvested this fall, carefully winnowed, sorted, cleaned, tested for germination and purity and finally shipped to us from all over the world. The warehouse floor is filled with the sweetly pungent odor of carrot seeds, the spicy scent of very fresh dill seed, and the simple physical beauty of dozens and dozens of different seed shapes, colors and sizes. In the old days, just 10 years ago, seeds were routinely shipped in muslin or linen sacks, but nowadays they come in airtight buckets or foil packages; not as romantic but probably much more moisture proof. When they arrive, we take out a sample and send it off to the seed lab to be sure that the germination rate has stayed as high as when we first arranged to purchase the crop.

Many of these purchase agreements were made long before the seed was planted last spring, so getting the seed into the warehouse means we finally can relax, knowing that variety has been successfully grown and we will have plenty of seed to fill our packets all season long. When we place our purchase orders to growers, there is no guarantee that a crop that meets our standards will result nine months later. Too much or too little rain; disease or pests; harvesting too early or too late; improper postharvest handling; all of these factors can mean we will get no crop that season and we never know for sure until the harvest is complete and the seed is inside our doors.

international rainbow of vegetablesAll of this involves lots of communications throughout the growing season with growers in very far-flung places. It reminds me again that in today's world, planting a garden can be a truly ecumenical act because we enable gardeners to grow vegetables and herbs from all the world's regional cuisines, and flowers from every continent. The seeds we are offering have been grown by producers both large and small in the US, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany, England, Israel, China, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. All have their histories and stories in their home countries.

I think one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is the annual process of connecting with our growers to hear about their varieties and how they are used. california gardeningWhen I first started in this business, I really had to travel to far away places to find new varieties, but now the Internet has meant that I can more easily find out about new introductions and track down the varieties that we need from among the world community of seed producers. I have been working with many of these folks for over many years. The next step is getting and beginning the long process of growing them out and evaluating, first in our California trial garden and then in our other regional gardens. The end result is where I began -- the seeds coming to our warehouse so I can share them with all of you!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Slowest Performing Art

Here's a quote I read this week that I want to share:
"Gardening Is the Slowest Performing Art"
...the more you think about it, the more it seems to unfold in your brain...
This week I wanted to share a few of my favorite seed variety requests:

horse winter treatsWe heard from a family in New Jersey who had just bought a horse and wanted to know if they could buy some grass mix to grow in the windowsill to take to their new horse for winter treats. I explained that it probably is much more practical to rely on carrots and apples, which are perennial horse favorites. In actual fact, unless you have some additional artificial light boost, it's really pretty hard to grow things on your windowsill in the winter, let alone enough grass to satisfy a horse' s treat tooth. But what a charming image this makes anyway!

gardening for pet foodThen we got a request for dandelion greens to feed tortoises from a woman in Southern California who is an avid tortoise hobbyist. I suggested that I could buy some seed for edible dandelions and her tortoise hobby group could distribute it to other members if they liked. Edible dandelions are a popular salad in France and that's where I would go for the seed if she is interested.

organic cat grassI would love to hear from other customers who have nontraditional pets they would like to grow food or treats for. I'm hoping that our blend of 4 different organic grain seeds for "cat grass" will meet most needs, but I'd be interested to know what folks need for other pets like hamsters and lizards, etc. Getting these kinds of questions and requests is what makes this job fun and makes me feel like we are connected to the everyday lives of so many of our customers.

misticanza lettuce with parsley dressingHere's my latest answer to that perennial question: What to make for lunch:? It's a really delicious and vitamin- rich salad dressing that's a scrumptious way to use up any parsley that might still be available in the garden:
Creamy Parsley Dressing:
1- 1/2 cup of chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 green onions chopped
1/4 cup fruity olive oil
1 clove garlic minced
generous pinch of salt
generous grinds of fresh black pepper
1/4 teaspoon fish sauce or use 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 cup fresh plain yogurt -- whole milk is best but low-fat is fine
Blend all together well and enjoy on crunchy greens with sliced cucumber and colored bell peppers strips or over leftover cooked vegetables. A whole meal if you add cold sliced chicken or chilled salmon or shrimp.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cover crops and fall salads

The last few weeks have been busy as we finish removing and building new compost piles with all the vegetation from our summer crops and generally cleaning up. We clean, sharpen and oil our garden tools before storing them, and tackle the inevitable task of organizing our garden storage shed after a busy summer of pulling things out without putting them away properly. (Now if I could only be as organized about all the CDs piling up around my stereo or at least act on my last year's resolution to get them onto my computer so I can listen to them when I work! )
fava beans as green manureTrial garden manager Lindsay and her assistant Mila are busy sowing fava beans as a "green manure" crop in many of our biggest garden beds that grew heavy feeders this summer and will lie fallow over the cold season. Although we get hard frost here, the sturdy fava beans will grow through the winter and both fix nitrogen in the soil and produce lots of top growth. When they begin to bloom in spring, we will pull them and compost all the green material so they end up being entirely recycled. ( Of course we always save a little patch to grow the beans to the shelling stage and harvest them. I particularly like to quickly steam young ones to make fava bean pâté with fruity olive oil, minced garlic, lemon juice and salt-and-pepper!)
summer bouquet lettuce seedsIn our upper garden beds, we are enjoying looking at and eating a late crop of our "Summer Bouquet lettuce" trio. Alongside is a small bed of Merveille de Quatre Saisons butterheads, one of my other favorite late-season lettuces for their bronzy color and sweet flavor.
Merveille de Quatre Saisons butterhead late season lettuceThese tasty lettuces make really appetizing fall salads combined with a few fresh chives, a big handful of Italian parsley and slices of golden orange persimmon with a sprinkle ruby red pomegranate seeds and toasted sliced almonds over the top. New harvests of fall fruits like these are in the markets now as we head for Thanksgiving.

I've been lucky to have had a persimmon tree for years but it got split by lightning last fall and what remains of it has taken a year off from fruiting. Our local farmers market continues weekly through the end of November and I've been going regularly to buy persimmons, artichokes, new crop walnuts, almonds and raisins.
king midas carrotsFinally, we've grown out our King Midas carrots. They are ready to harvest now although we'll probably keep some in the ground to sweet up even more with the frosts. fall produce harvestLittle Pepper, the adorable ( but feisty) dog that Lindsay takes care of when his owners are away, has been a regular trial garden visitor and love his carrots. Here's a picture of him guarding them and another of my harvest basket yesterday afternoon.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Northeast Trial Garden Journal

Middlebury College Organic Garden in Vermont for Renee's Garden Seeds-by Jay Leshinsky

For the past six years I've been running the Renee's Garden's northeast seed trials at the Middlebury College Organic Garden in Vermont where I serve as "farmer/advisor". The garden is located about a half mile from campus on a 2 acre knoll with sweeping views of the campus and the Green Mountains. During the spring and fall student volunteers do the planting and harvesting at the garden. Over the summer four student interns work with me to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers for the college's dining venues and for local restaurants. This gives them lots of opportunity to trial Renee's Garden varieties against those from other seed companies and to do a lot of taste testing!
Middlebury College Organic Garden in Vermont for Renee's Garden SeedsThis summer was a most challenging one for the student gardeners. Almost no rain from mid April to Mid June, twenty inches of rain from mid June to mid August and back to very little rainfall to end the season. The Middlebury College student interns were up to the challenges and we managed to produce bumper crops of most vegetables, spectacular flower blooms and abundant herbs.
Middlebury College Organic Garden in Vermont for Renee's Garden SeedsMost of our trial vegetables and herbs go to the Middlebury College Dining Services and some local restaurants. Raven zucchini and Baby Persian cucumbers were two favorites of our customers. Although there were the heavy rains during harvest, we consistently harvested the fruits when they were small and kept the plants well picked. Despite the spate of wet weather neither the cucumbers nor zucchinis had any mildew and the usual challenges from cucumber beetles and squash bugs were almost non existent. I think this was a benefit of the ample rain on our well drained soils. As an extra gift from this abundant harvest we consistently brought large amounts of zucchini and cucumbers to our local Food Shelf program where they disappeared not long after we delivered them. Middlebury College runs its own dining program and takes the extra effort to buy local whenever possible.
Middlebury College Organic Garden in Vermont for Renee's Garden SeedsOur favorite chef in Dining Service appreciates our fresh, flavorful offerings. Since he serves our produce to an international array of students at the College's summer language school, he has a ready audience for the stunning colors and sweet flavor of sautéed Bright Lights, Scarlet Charlotte and Neon Glow Swiss chard, or the full tomato tastes of Summer Feast heirloom tomatoes with our Pesto Basil in a Caprese salad.
Middlebury College Organic Garden in Vermont for Renee's Garden SeedsEach garden bed has an insectary planting of flowers and herbs to attract insect pollinators and beneficials. Many of our insectary plants are annuals and this year we planted all varieties of Renee's Garden zinnias, nigella, and nasturtiums to enhance the insectary rows and provide swaths of color throughout the vegetable plantings. It gave the students great pleasure to cut bouquets of zinnias and deliver them as gifts to offices all over campus. As a bonus the Catering staff bought our nasturtiums as a garnish for many of their offerings.
Now that we've had several frosts it is time to review the summer planting data and begin plans for next year's trials.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Three Sister Harvest and Bean Recipes

coxcomb celosia
We had our first frost in the trial garden at the beginning of this week, a full three weeks earlier than I can ever remember it coming. It was a reminder to get everything in that needed harvesting. One of the prettiest things we grew this summer was this coxcomb celosia sourced from a Japanese seed company. I really loved its vibrant color, but the plants were quite short and I want to see if there is a variety that will grow a little taller for garden use to grow in our trials next spring.

I had Lindsay harvest the stalks of bloom to hang up and air dry in the cool dry air of the garage. If they keep their striking color , I'll substitute them for the more faded flowers I have in the big arrangement of dried blossoms I keep in our living room.
sugar pie pumpkins from Three Sisters GardenOne of the true treats of closing the garden down was to bring in the little sugar pie pumpkins pumpkins and the beautiful ornamental corn we grew out in our Three Sisters Garden, one of our larger sized themed bonus packets. This dent corn, which can be ground for cornmeal, is called Earth Tones, and as you can see, it has the most marvelous shades of blue and green as well as the traditional reds and oranges -- I've never seen anything like it! I've been thinking about whether we should offer it as a separate individual packet and would love to hear if our customers are interested. We get Earth Tones from a fine family farm called Bisek Gardens in Minnesota who specialize in an amazing array of different shades of ornamental corns as well as broom corn and other unique varieties.

Three Sister Garden Earth Tones dent cornJust a follow-up on last week's post, I did make up recipes for both the dried Christmas lima beans and Rattlesnake beans. I found that the freshly harvested dried beans didn't need a very long preliminary water soak -- just about 3-4 hours. For the Christmas limas, I sautéed onions and garlic, added salt and pepper and a couple of bay leaves, dried lemon thyme, finely chopped celery and a few big handfuls of chopped Italian parsley. Then I added the drained, soaked beans and covered them generously with chicken broth. The beans which are beautiful and big and striped white and burgundy cooked up in just about a half an hour.

For the dried Rattlesnake beans, I sautéed up onions and garlic, added lots of sliced carrots, six chopped up tomatoes, a couple of bay leaves, a generous amount of dried marjoram, salt and pepper and a pungent dried chile and three pieces of smoked ham hock. I added a generous amount of chicken broth, brought to a boil and then turned the heat down so the covered pot cooked at a very slow simmer. The Rattlesnake beans took much longer to cook -- a couple of hours. The cooked beans have a delicious firm texture and the addition of the carrots and ham hock gave it a bit of savory sweetness. Truly delicious -- Lindsay and Milo and Miguel from the trial garden and Sarah from the office came over to feast with me and I still had enough to take to a last of the season picnic potluck with the folks in my swim class.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Battle of the Giants

giant sunflower seedsWell, the battle of the Garden Giants is finally over for this year. We grew and compared four tall sunflowers to see which was the tallest, most sturdy and had the nicest, biggest heads. I was in love with the cool -sounding name of the variety "Mongolian Giant", which we got from Seed Savers, but it turned out the weakest in germination and growth and sadly uneven in height.
Our own proud Sunzilla shared the first-place ribbon for tallest variety with heirloom Titan, but Sunzilla proved its hybrid vigor in that the stalks were thicker and stood up better to heavy winds. Our soil here at the trial garden is super sandy, so it's a good test for sturdy sunflowers, although
giant tall sunflower gardenwe don't have too many really bad windy days. One useful trick that I just learned at our meeting of the Home Garden Seed Association last month was that if it really gets windy where you garden, you plant 3-5 sunflower seeds in a circle about 4 inches apart, then space these little planting circles about 3-4 feet apart. The sunflowers grow up into amazing tall clumps that help support each other in high winds -- what a great idea! I'm going to try it in our own trials next season for sure and check it out.

Mila just finished shelling all the dry Rattlesnake beans , Christmas lima beans and Scarlet Runners out of their dried pods and storing them in 1 quart glass Mason jars. They are so beautiful with their rich colors and they make me feel quite proud and self reliant to have them
Rattlesnake beans, Christmas lima beans, Scarlet Runnersstored away.

Next week, Lindsay and I are going to make some slow cooked bean recipes with them to prove to ourselves that both of these varieties are really good eating.
I've had lots of requests for Christmas limas in the last two years but have never trialed or cooked with them before. They bore well, but were ready to harvest somewhat later than I would like, so we'll try them again next season and grow them in our trial garden in Vermont too see how they do.

My plan is to offer the Rattlesnake pole beans paired with Purple Podded pole beans as a mixed packet. At the fresh pod stage, Rattlesnake pods are deep green handsomely streaked with purple and in combination with the purple pods it's really a pretty mix to eat the fresh pods as snap beans. Once I know how the mature, dry rattlesnake beans taste in the pot, I'll know if we can recommend leaving some to mature their beans inside the pods to the dry stage to shell out in use in cooked bean recipes. I'm thinking to make them by sautéing some garlic and onions in olive oil, then adding the soaked beans, dried oregano or maybe marjoram, a bay leaf or two and maybe some of my freshly canned tomatoes, plus salt and lots of fresh ground pepper. While adding a ham hock would be nice, I think I will leave the meat out the first time so I get a good sense of what the beans themselves taste like.
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