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

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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