Friday, January 22, 2010

Winter Planning In the Trial Garden

-by Lindsay, Trial Garden Manger

Winter is in full force at the Renee’s Garden Trial garden. The weather is cold and the heavy rains continue. This is the time of year when I do a lot of garden planning. I keep a detailed database of all of the trial varieties and I already have about 200 varieties on the list for the 2010 sprng/summer season. Our database helps me to keep an updated inventory of both the seed samples that I have, and what I still need to request from our seed producers.
Renee and I browse a lot of producers offering lists and want to grow everything that catches our eye. But we have to balance that with reality and space constraints. To make a sensible plan, I have to figure out how many feet I need to grow of each variety, and then plot it out on my illustrated maps of the trial garden spaces. This gives me a real sense of how we will use the space, and what I have to work with. The garden mapping is also necessary so that we can rotate our crops appropriately. For example, we do not want to grow tomatoes or any brassicas in the same place year after year because soil diseases may accumulate.

Our garden is in good shape despite the weather. Last fall in the “In the Trial Garden” section of our monthly e-newsletter, we featured the cover crop blend that we sow in all of our empty raised beds. Our soil is extremely sandy and porous, so a good cover crop to protect it and help build organic matter is very important in the winter season . I use is a mix of oat grass, vetch, bell beans and peas. The vetch, beans and peas help by gathering nitrogen into their roots, to benefit the soil. The thick roots of the oat grass hold on to the soil and protect it from erosion. The cover crop is now mature and surviving happily in the cold wet weather. Instead of tilling the cover crop into the soil in spring, we pull the plants and quickly compost them. When the plants have broken down in finished compost, we add it back into the garden to take advantage of all its benefits.

In the beds that were not given over to cover crops, there is still much to feast on at this time of year. Our northern CA trial garden is in USDA Zone 7/8. A cold winter night here is usually no lower than 22-25°F and ground does not freeze hard. Cool weather crops that were sown last fall to overwinter are still standing mature in the ground for us to finish harvesting them: Napa and Green Cabbage, Carrots, 10 different varieties of Lettuce, Spinach, Pak Choy and Kale. There are also Leek, Onion, and Beet seedlings that will mature once the weather starts to warm up in the spring.
We also have many varieties of fall -sown flowers sitting patiently in seedling stage that will start to grow and mature when the weather starts to warm. Sweet Peas look so delicate, yet we have found that they can really tolerate frost when they are small seedlings. There are eight varieties of Poppies that we had direct sown into the garden beds that germinated at the start of the rains. Once they begin to grow vigorously, we will thin out the seedlings to give them adequate room to mature. We are looking forward to this spring when there will be a fabulous show of colorful flowers!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Please -- Complain to Me. Plus Winter Squash Curry Coconut Soup

I was delighted to find Renee's Garden has earned two Dave's Garden "Five Top Garden Badges". Besides many great gardening forums and excellent services, Dave's Garden encourages members to rate garden product websites. Renee's ranks high, but when I read through all the comments about us, I saw that while there were 44 positives, there were 3 negative ones (although not very current as one dated to 2003, because "anything that plays on the web stays on the web").

More to the point: when I read them, I felt so frustrated! One negative complaint was that we had sent the wrong packet with the comment that while she knew companies often substituted items, we had exceeded her tolerance for that. The truth is that our two seed packet order "pickers" had made a mistake and pulled the wrong item. We don't substitute items and would not do so, because if you order something from us, I assume that you want that item, not something else. Errors in orders don't occur very often, but our order pickers are human and, once in a great while, they may mix up packets or omit one.

It is my fervent wish that customers whose orders are incorrect would call us on our toll-free number (1-888-880-7228) or e-mail us ( as soon as they see the error, so we can properly apologize and replace the packet immediately.

One of the other complaints was of getting crushed seeds with a comment about quality control. We do ship in padded "jiffy packs", but the realities of the Post Office mean that once in a while a packet gets mashed in transit. Once again, if that person had called or e-mailed us, we would have sent them a replacement the same day.

What's hard for me to understand is: why do people with complaints make the time to post the complaint on the Internet without being willing to take the time to contact the company who made the error in the first place?  Very often the order can be corrected and they can get what they wanted and paid for. Moreover, why do people assume that if a mistake happens on their order, it's somehow an indication that as a company we don't care about quality or customer satisfaction?

My company's policy is that we treat our customers in the same way we would want to be treated as a customer -- an extension of the Golden Rule. Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but unfortunately some customers just assume that even small companies like ours don't care about their customers and don't intend to do a good job. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Soup

Beautiful soup
So rich
 So green,
Waiting in a hot tureen
Who for such dainties would not stoop.

Soup of the evening
Beautiful Soup,
Soup of the evening,
Beautiful Soup
Lewis Carroll -- "Alice in Wonderland"

Lindsay's Winter Squash Curry Coconut Soup

Having lots of winter squash harvested last fall from our trial gardens, Trial Garden Manager Lindsay concocted this lovely soup. She's a very talented cook and often comes up with ways to incorporate her favorite Asian flavors into everyday meals. This is one of my favorites. I've made this recipe 3 different times now and can recommend it heartily. I have happily divided the soup into in lunch-size portions and then frozen it in individual containers. Then I take the individual portions to the office with me and microwave them into hot deliciousness to enjoy on cold afternoons. I particularly like to top each portion with fresh whole plain yogurt and chopped fresh cilantro. Yum.
What scraped out squash looks like

2 large leeks, each 1 1/2 inches in diameter, long white shank portions only
3 tablespoons canola or other mild cooking oil
1 tablespoon good-quality curry powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 1/2 cups cooked hard-shelled winter squash, seeds and skins removed, flesh mashed
1 13 1/2-ounce can “light” coconut milk
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, divided into1-cup portions
GARNISH: Seeds from one large pomegranate and cilantro

Cut the leeks in half lengthwise. Wash all the layers very well to remove grit, then thinly slice. Heat the oil in a large heavy soup pot. Add the sliced leeks and sauté over medium heat for 5 or 6 minutes until they are well caramelized and beginning to brown. Stir in curry powder, ground cayenne and salt and sauté slowly for another minute or two. Add the cooked squash and entire can of coconut milk and mix in well. Add the chicken stock slowly and then add 1 cup of fresh cilantro. Mix thoroughly to smoothly combine ingredients. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce to simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and add more salt if desired. If the soup seems too thick, add a little more chicken stock. Serve piping hot in large individual soup bowls. Sprinkle the top of each serving with the additional cup of cilantro and the pomegranate seeds.

Note: If you prefer a smoother texture, blend the soup in a food processor or blender before serving.

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