Monday, December 19, 2011

On Our Way to Renee’s Garden Organics

This past year, I've been working hard to source seeds for our new USDA certified organic seed packet line which will be introduced next July.

It's been an interesting challenge to find the quality and diversity of seed varieties that I want to offer for our brand. The big American packet seed companies that carry certified organic seeds all get the same old standard varieties in bulk quantities from one of two large producers. I want to go farther afield and offer newer and more interesting, flavorful varieties that are great in the kitchen along with herbs from their authentic countries of origin.

Prototype of organic packet design
One alternative was to buy seeds from a myriad of small growers which is a path some smaller organic packet seed companies take. However for Renee's, I have always focused on sourcing high germinating top quality seeds, free from weed seed or seed-borne diseases grown by people who really know what they're doing. So I prefer to get our seed from established sources - seasoned professional seed growers who have experience and the capacity to produce the quality of seed we want to put in our packets. Of course, many varieties we already carry are certified organic, so we are making those packets reflect that status.

Tasting and evaluating new organic carrots
Originally, I expected to find certified organic seeds available from some of the well-established growers in Germany, France and Italy that we buy conventionally raised seed from regularly. As it turns out, they all do indeed have great certified organic varieties available, but their seed is certified organic according by the European Union standards.

Unfortunately for me, the American USDA's National Organic Program standards operates in the US only, so European certified organic seeds cannot be considered certified here. The European organic standards and the American organic standards have never been, as the bureaucrats call it, "harmonized," so that either certification could be accepted in both the US and Europe.

According to industry officials I talked to, the "harmonization" process will eventually happen (the certification standards are very similar), but since the process involves government programs in both the US and European Union, this will probably take a long time!

 Organic dutch cauliflower
That said, with a lot of searching and trial growing, I have been able to find a reasonable number of varieties from some of my favorite sources in Italy, France, Germany and Holland that they have also taken through the USDA certification process so I can offer them in our organic line. I'm also contracting for some varieties from small certified organic farmers I've known personally for years and am working with a larger organic seed producer that grow seed for really special heirlooms.

Ready to stirfry: organic mustard greens
The design of our new organic packs packets is completed and Mimi Osborne, our Renee's Garden illustrator, is busy working on the new watercolors of the herbs and vegetables that will go in the line. We plan to have about 65 different varieties. Last summer, we grew out and evaluated most of the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons squash, etc. that will be in the new organic lineup. Right now, Mimi is working from the harvests of our extensive late summer/fall garden crops.

This weekend, I was able to harvest a bevy of organic varieties and take digital photos for her to work from: five varieties of lettuce, baby beets, two varieties of carrots, two varieties of radishes, broccoli, broccoli Raab, cauliflower, fennel, mild mustard greens, spinach, chard, kale, parsley, dill, cilantro and chives. Early spring will produce many more.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fall in Our Vermont Trial Garden: Frost Maps and Cover Crops

-By Jay Leshinsky, NE Trial Garden Manager
It is 80 degrees in Vermont on October 9 and the student volunteers who work with me at the Middlebury College Organic Garden where we do Renee's Garden trials aren’t thinking about winter. In early October, we were still picking warm weather crops like Hot Crayon Colors zinnias, Padron and Suave peppers, Asian Trio eggplant, Italian Pesto basil, and Rattlesnake pole beans. We still have Super Bush tomatoes growing and ripening in our unheated hoop house. Then came one night of frost and our green beans, peppers, eggplant, zinnias and basil all succumbed to a white coating of ice crystals. We are still are harvesting cool weather fall crops like Catalina spinach, Pot of Gold chard, Bolero carrots and Lacinato kale, but the tops of the Bright Lights chard (planted in a different bed than our Pot of Gold chard) were frost damaged.
Hot Crayon Colors Zinnias blooming beautifully before the frost
Why were some but not all, lettuces damaged by frost? Our garden is on a hillside and there are cold spots scattered throughout were things are more vulnerable that we are gradually locating and identifying. My friend, Scout Proft, who has farmed organically in Vermont for more than 25 years (and also does seed trials for Renee’s Garden) has created frost maps for her garden. Over the years, she has purposely planted her most frost sensitive crops (basil and beans) throughout her plots so she can use them as markers to map the locations where frost occurs earliest. This way, she avoids planting fall crops that are sensitive to light frosts in those spots and is able to extend her season by planting them in her more protected, less early frost prone areas.
After the first frost, some top damage is evident
So many of the newer student volunteers see this October warm spell as an extension of summer. But the more experienced student interns who worked with me all summer have a different perspective: we have been preparing the garden for winter for over a month. Well before the average date of first frost, my focus has gradually moved from harvesting to protecting the soil over the winter from wind and rain erosion, and providing nutrients to feed the soil life that makes out garden fertile.

We have 20 different beds on our garden and rotate crops throughout the beds. Some beds are double cropped, but several are singled cropped with spring and early summer vegetables that will be finished producing by August (carrots, lettuce, spinach, beets, and bush beans). In most of those beds, we plant oats that will grow 2-3 feet in height and form a mat of green before the hard frosts of late autumn fell them. They turn brown and keep the ground covered over the winter. The oats will not regrow in the spring. We either leave the mat of brown in the bed for mulch for large transplants or rake it off the beds and compost it. These are the beds that we can plant in early spring. The texture is springy and loose.
Student interns in the oats
By early fall , we switch to cover crops of winter wheat or clover. They will get some top growth and substantial root systems before the hard frosts stop their growth. In early spring, they will turn green and start to grow quickly. We turn in the wheat or clover for a green manure crop in late spring. We put wheat and clover in the beds that won’t be planted until early June, so we can give the green matter time to decompose in the soil after we incorporate them in May. We also add compost to some of our beds based on soil testing. If we don’t cover the beds with a cover crop or compost, we cover them with straw from out wheat crop. Using this method, we’ve raised the percentage of organic matter in our soil from 1 percent to 7 percent over the past 7 years. So when signs of fall begin and summer crops slow down their production, I tell the students that it is not the end, but the beginning. It is time for them to do the essential work of protecting and improving the soil for next year’s garden.
Jay spreads a straw cover on the empty beds

Friday, October 7, 2011

Soups from the Portuguese Kitchen and Garden

I'm so pleased to have a guest post from Joy Albright-Souza, part of the earliest Renee's Garden team, who left us to start her own landscape design business. Her company specializes in edible landscaping and her designs grace many fine local gardens, including manager Sarah Renfro's, who described the installation in an earlier post. Find Joy at Enjoy this exploration of her husband Frank's Portuguese family food traditions in connection with our 2012 introduction of Portuguese kale –eating it now seems more meaningful and delicious!
Portuguese Kale  "Tronchuda Beira"
“Oh I haven’t had that in such a long time!”, that’s what Auntie said when I told her that Renee added Portuguese Kale to her garden seed line. Once common in the gardens of Portuguese immigrants to the US, this old-world green is called by a variety of names: couve tronchuda, sea-kale or braganza among others, making it difficult to find. Although the handsome leaves can be prepared in many wonderful ways, the beautifully ruffled green leaves are most famous for their starring role in the traditional Portuguese greens soup known as Caldo Verde.
About the Kale
My mother-in-law remembers that you never had to buy this staple at the market because if you didn’t have it in your own garden, someone you knew did. Friends and neighbors were always trying to send you home with a bag after a visit. It has the broad leaves of a cabbage but never heads up, thus it is sometimes referred to as the Portuguese head-less cabbage as well. Plants grow in a tall, handsome, vase shape with large deep green, ruffled leaves that have white mid-ribs like chard, which are sometimes prepared separately alongside regular cabbages and curly-leafed kales which were both considered quite distinct.

Portuguese Kale "Tronchuda Beira"
In the garden Portuguese kale provides a solid backbone of the winter garden but these plants are also good performers in the warmer months. Right now I am growing it right in the midst of my flower garden. It looks especially nice alongside my Iceberg rose bush with a seasonal mix of scabiosa flowers. There’s no need to harvest the whole plant - harvest it leaf by leaf as needed. I have fond memories of my father-in-law never cutting his plants back at all, but getting a kick out of seeing how tall they would get…sometimes becoming 5’ tall “trees” before he would finally relegate them to the compost pile. For cooking though, the leaves are most prized while young and tender.
About the Soup
Ok, back to the most important part….how you eat it. Everyone agrees you can’t make the greens soup of Portugal without the right green…so it’s inclusion in Caldo Verde is generally a given. But this beloved simple soup, as you might find with any “national dish”, inspires a number of strong opinions as to its proper method of preparation.
At its heart, the soup is simply broth with Linguiça sausage, onions, garlic, Portuguese kale and potatoes. But life is never really as simple as that. I have to admit my bias here as I am only “married into” the Portuguese community. My husband's family originally comes from the island of Madeira on his father's side and the Azorean island of San Miguel on his mother's side. So, for my informal research on this subject, I not only asked my relatives but friends and clients of Portuguese descent and received many opinions and variations from the experts, and other hungry people I have known.

The Experts (from left):
Frances Souza, Dolores Luz, Lorraine Souza
Cutting Matters: Preparing the Kale
 Auntie Dolores stressed that cutting the kale into the thinnest possible ribbons is very important. Indeed, this is how I have usually seen the dish prepared. It gives a particular texture to the soup and is almost like eating blades of grass out of your bowl. In Portugal, they will shred it for you at the market, using a contraption somewhat like a meat grinder. At home, the best way to get the thin ribbons is to remove the center ribs from the leaves, stack them up and then roll them long-ways like rolling a cigar, and cut 1/8” (or finer) strips working your way down the roll. If you are using the young tender leaves, the length will be about right. If you are using the larger, older leaves, then again cut out the center ribs and cut again cross-wise to end up with shreds that are no more than 2”to 3” in length. Most Portuguese cooks pride themselves on just how finely they can shred the leaves.
Auntie shows how it's done
The Right Stuff: About the Sausage
Linguiça is a smoked Portuguese sausage available just about anywhere else with a sizeable Portuguese community or a gourmet deli. It is made in both hot and mild and it is the distinctive spice mix and high paprika content that gives  Caldo Verde its flavor and color. Portuguese Chouriço is used in some regions, especially Madeira. Spanish Chorizo and Italian pepperoni are fairly similar and can be substituted if absolutely necessary. Mexican Chorizo, however, is quite different in every way and is not an acceptable substitute.
The Potatoes
Thin-skinned, boiling potatoes are the usual choice for this soup. They can be peeled, or cooked whole or cubed for a quicker result. Sometimes they are sautéed with the sausage, garlic and onion, then the broth is added for the remainder of the time. But I got very strong advice from cousin Theresa’s sister, who comes from Madeira. She stresses that you should boil the potatoes until they are just done, then remove from the pot, set aside, mash, finish the rest of the soup then add them back at the end. When questioned as to why you couldn’t just keep cooking them until the end, she was appalled and firmly noted that the soup' s texture just wouldn’t be right if you did that.
Some people like to cook the potatoes in an entirely separate pot so that the precise texture can be managed more easily, then added to the other ingredients that have been cooking in another pot at the last minute. I take the easy way out and just cook everything together. Regarding the potatoes, I have seen everything from leaving them chunky to mashing them creamy (much like the variations on clam chowder) but an easy version is to finish the soup with small chunks that can be smashed more, with a spoon in the bowl, at the discretion of the eater.

Enjoying a meal of Caldo Verde
When Is It Sopa Instead?
In my mother-in-law, Frances’, home, the preferred dish was called Sopa de Couves rather than Caldo Verde. The distinction is pretty much a sliding scale which varies with each household. Basically the more ingredients you add, the more the result might be called Sopa (soup) rather than Caldo (broth). Frances has fond memories of Grandma Amaral making the dish using broth from a beef bone, which in those days, you could get free from the butcher. Their favorite way was more of a chunky stew, flavored with the meat from the bone and adding small white beans in addition to the potatoes and kale. On Sundays, an entire cut of beef was cooked on the stove, then the roast was removed from the broth and served separately from the soup made with the broth.
However you decide to make it, remember that any Portuguese meal should be accompanied by good crusty bread and a glass or two of hardy red wine. The dish is best enjoyed with family and friends and some fairly loud conversation.

Renee's Caldo Verde Recipe
3 lbs. medium yellow- fleshed potatoes, cut in half (Yukon Gold or Yellow Fin varieties are perfect).
48 oz. chicken stock
4 cups water
2 large yellow or white onions
6 large cloves garlic
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 pounds Portuguese kale leaves – a sizable big bunch
4 Portuguese Linguiça sausages – close to 2 pounds total.
Garnishes: freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
In a large heavy soup pot, combine the potatoes (peel them first, if you feel it's important, but I don't because the best nutrients are close to the skin) with the chicken stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, until the potatoes until almost tender – 20-30 min. or so, depending on your potatoes. (The cooked potatoes and stock will remain in the soup pot as you add the other recipe ingredients to the soup.)
While the potatoes are cooking, coarsely chop the onions and garlic and slice the sausages into 1/2 inch slices. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan, add the onions and garlic and sauté gently at low heat until they are translucent (5 – 8 minutes). Add the sliced sausages and cook them together for a few minutes longer. Turn off the heat.
Prepare the kale: cut out the white center ribs of the kale leaves and discard. Stack three or four leaves together and roll them up into cylinders like cigars. Then, slice into one 1/4 inch wide ribbons. Repeat until you sliced up all the kale leaves.
When the potatoes are almost tender, add the sautéed onions, garlic and sausage mixture and the shredded kale leaves and the 4 cups of water to the soup pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cook, covered, for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until the kale is quite tender. Serve hot with freshly grated Parmesan cheese to sprinkle over serving.
8-12 servings, depending on how hungry everyone is!
Renee's Notes:I know it's not traditional, but here are some additions I have added when I have made the Caldo Verde at various times: 2 cups sliced carrots (for color) added in to cook with the potatoes; 1 cup finely chopped Italian parsley (I love the taste of parsley in soup), which I added just before serving. Be sure to have crusty bread to help you mop up and enjoy every last drop in your soup! The potatoes seem to melt into the kale- rich broth and add a satisfying creamy texture to the soup. The flavorful Linguiça sausage is on the lean side and doesn't render a lot of fat, so I've never felt this soup was too oily; it's a deliciously full- flavored complete meal in a bowl and tastes just as delicious and satisfying heated up the next day. If you don't have Portuguese kale you can use regular kale instead - it won't be authentic, but it will taste fine.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Summer's End in Seattle - the NW report

By Sue Shecket, Webmaster and NW trial gardener
September has arrived with a sense of humor here in Seattle -- teasing us with sunny 80 degree days and the bright sunny skies that were denied us much of these past few "summer" months. And my garden has behaved in just as mischevious a manner, with spring flowers still blooming happily together with mid-summer flowers way past their usual lifespan. My front flower bed, for instance, has sunflowers, sweet peas, larkspur, nasturtiums, shasta daisies, shirley poppies and dahlias all hanging out together in a very surprising combination.
An improbable mix of spring and summer flowers blooming simulateously on my east facing deck
The vegetable beds responded to the lack of warm weather by growing thick foliage - I got great lettuce and greens, but my "Asian Trio" eggplant is more of an ornamental than an edible this year, with loads of lovely purple flowers, but no "eggs". In the last few weeks, the "Heirloom Lemon" cucumber vines went nuts, and have created a jungle in their raised bed alongside those lush but empty eggplants.
"Heirloom Lemon" cucumbers are overwhelming the "Asian Trio" eggplant
The "Romanesco" zucchini, while last out of the starting gate, has once again proven to be a winner, much to the delight of my neighbors and friends. My favorite "Musica" beans were delicious while they lasted, but although they came on strong for a short while, they quit quite early. Most tomato varieties didn't get enough heat around here this year, and those that did manage to color up don't have much flavor. Fortunately that was not the case with my favorite "Sungold" cherry tomatoes. I started them indoors and couldn't put them into the ground until June, due to those lingering cold nights. I helped them along by covering their bed with black plastic, made slits for placing each plant, and then tucked the plastic back around the stem. I gave them very little water over the summer, which encouraged deep strong roots, and we have been gorging on big bowlfuls of tangy/sweet fruit every day for the past few weeks.
Sungold tomatoes came though with delicious fruit despite the long cold wet spring
My containers did fare better than I expected, and I am just about to make a batch of scented vinegars with my "Scented Trio" basils, "French Perfume" lavender, and herbs. I follow Renee's recommendation in her article "Herbal Teas and Vinegars". I have also enjoyed playing around with making my own potions and lotions described in "Making Your Own Herbal Cosmetics" - great fun, good gifts, and economical as well.
I keep my various pots of herbs right outside of my kitchen door on the deck
Container "French Perfume" lavender
My neighbors are all crazy about the bed of "Watercolor Silks" dahlias that I planted alongside the sidewalk for them to enjoy. I keep them blooming by regularly patrolling with my scissors, cutting off all the spent pods which stimulates more flowering (also especially important for Sweet Peas). It's a very therapeutic thing to do in the evenings. To my delight, the lovely "Chantilly" snapdragons wintered over in their pots. I also cut them back when the flowers drop off leaving little balls along the stems, and they re-bloom continually all season.
"Watercolor Silks" dahlias bloom their first year from seed
"Chantilly" snapdragons by my front door
This gift of great weather has gotten my fall plantings of lettuces, greens, carrots, beets and peas off to a roaring start, so I do hope Mother Nature keeps smiling on Seattle for a while longer.
Happy gardening, and our best wishes and sympathies to all those whose gardens suffered from the extreme weather and terrible storms this year!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

seedGROW August Update: Pesto Pizza Homecoming

By Nellie Boonman, Marketing Assistant
Neighborhood cat "guarding"
my seedGROW project
This is the third month of the seedGROW project for Renee's Garden, and I just got back from a big, fun Europe trip with my sister It was exciting to come home, walk out into my backyard, and see how HUGE everything got while I was gone compared to when I last saw my plants. My roommates were great sports: conveniently taking care of watering, fertilizing, and taking pictures for me so I could blog from abroad. Even the neighborhood cat got in on the action, fiercely guarding the plants from a lofty position on the hay bale.

Cameo Basil, looking beautiful - Summer Splash
Marigolds with their first blooms in the back

Since my arrival back into Santa Cruz last week, I've been busy in the kitchen after work. I haven't had access to a kitchen and green vegetables for a while, so I'm finding it enjoyable to be able to walk outside, pick some herbs, bust out the food processor, and whip up a batch of something green.

I also harvested a few heads of the Garden Babies lettuce, and made some tasty summer salads with Trombetta Squash, green beans, and feta.
Garden Babies Butterhead
Summer salads
Renee suggested I make her Classic Fresh Pesto Sauce and share it with our blog readers. I was craving pesto pizza, but the sauce tossed with pasta is delicious, too.
Cameo Basil growing in the container
Renee's Classic Fresh Pesto Sauce
Personal preference: I stir the microplaned cheese in
after blending everything else. If you are freezing pesto sauce, I recommend
leaving the cheese & garlic out until you are ready to serve.
Classic Fresh Pesto Sauce
3 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
3 large, peeled garlic cloves (more if you love it, but I only used 1)
1/2 cup pine nuts or pecan meats (I used walnuts)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
1 teaspoon fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1/2 to 2/3 cup fruity olive oil
salt to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor or blender, adding enough olive oil to make a thick, smooth sauce.  Pour the pesto out into a bowl with help from a spatula. If you are going to use the pesto sauce immediately, stir in the grated cheese and add salt and pepper to taste. Add to hot pasta or spread on top of rolled-out pizza dough, serve with a crisp salad. If you plan on freezing the pesto sauce, don't incorporate the cheese or garlic until after it's defrosted and you plan on serving it.

If you want to make the pizza, it's easy - just roll out some pizza dough (homemade or store-bought), spread a layer of pesto on top, add some fresh sliced mozzarella, thinly sliced tomatoes, and sliced, cooked Italian sausage. Top with more Parmesan if you like, bake at 425 degrees for at least 15 minutes, and check on the pizza every few minutes after that.
A thick layer of pesto never hurt anyone
Pizza fresh out of the oven

I look forward to seeing the updates from the other seedGROW bloggers to see how their seeds are doing - you can check them too by going to the seedGROW website. See you again in September!

- Nellie

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Comparing Current and Test Varieties for Renee's Seeds

by Lindsay Del Carlo, Trial Garden Manager
To ensure we are selling the very best seeds, we regularly grow out the same variety from different seed producers to see which is the best strain for our packets. This summer, we've grown "Cherries Jubilee" nasturtiums from two different vendors to evaluate. Now that both are in full bloom, we can see that our current Renee’s Garden selection has the characteristics that we are looking for: plants are very uniform in germination and growth habit and the pretty blossoms are super abundant, and open well above the foliage for a better massed color effect. The other test selection germinated and grew well and the flowers have good color, but the blossoms are less prominent and more hidden in the foliage. So in this case, we will definitely stay with our current seed producer for this variety.
"Cherries Jubilee" Nasturtium - trial seed in back,
 Renee's variety in front
Renee's Garden Cherries Jubilee Nasturtiums
The winner - profuse blossoms are set  nicely above leaves
We are also growing out our crookneck summer squash variety,"Sunny Supersett" to comparison to a newer selection of yellow crookneck squash. Our Supersett germinated very quickly with uniform, vigorous plants and abundant, early fruit set and overall it is consistent with what it should be. However, in comparing the varieties side by side, we see that the new trial variety has some very favorable differences. The little sunny squashes have more slender and graceful crooks and somewhat deeper color. Also, the stems of the squash are longer than the current Renee’s Garden variety which makes them much easier to snip from the plant. So the next step, which is always our favorite part, is to do some serious taste testing. If the flavor wins us over, then we may choose to change the variety that we offer.
Crookneck Squash Trials
Current Renee's "Sunny Supersett" squash on the right,
potential new seed on the left.
Another comparison trial is Renee’s Garden ‘Empress of India’ Nasturtium alongside another seed growers selection of the same variety. This classic Nasturtium has beautiful blue-green leaves with rich, vermilion- red flowers. Here we can see that the plants from the other vendor’s seed are small and quite stunted. With this lack of vigor, it is no question that we would stick with our current grower!
Nasturtiums, Empress of India
"Empress of India" nasturtium trial:
Note the poor quality of the test in front
compared to the Renee's variety in back.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer (Sort of) in Seattle - By Sue Shecket, webmaster and NW Trial Gardener

We “mossbacks” in the Pacific Northwest are resigned to the fact that actual summer doesn’t really begin here until after July 4th.  but this year was particularly brutal - officially one of the top-five coldest springs the region has seen in the last century, and the most precipitation seen in 117 years of record keeping. We were starting to think we’d never again be able to put away our fleece jackets. And those “consistently above 50 degree nighttime temps”?  Not until mid-June!  So gardeners needed fortitude and to get out there and get planting, and as in many other parts of the country, that also meant a good amount of re-seeding for those who were overly optimistic back in April.
Sunshine at last, and things are taking off
Once again my habit of procrastination worked in my favor, and it was late May before I got my cool season veggies in the ground. The tomatoes and eggplant weren't set out until until mid-June, along with the warm weather seeds of squash, cukes and beans. I do cover all new plantings with row covers, making my garden look like a laundry, but thwarting the birds, slugs and roaming neighborhood cats. One lesson that has really come home this year is the importance of supplementing my otherwise good soil with organic fertilizer. Despite last fall's addition of several inches of our excellent Zoo Doo (courtesy of the the happy herbivores at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo), with all that rain the plants were looking pretty bedraggled until I gave them a good meal  (Dr. Earth Organic), and things are looking downright respectable at last.
Musica Beans, Cukes and Asian Eggplant
The fast growing Mesclun lettuces have been providing us with excellent salads for several weeks, as is my husband Bill's favorite "Asian Baby Leaf" mix, so I have made several additional sowings to assure a good supply.  Baby Pak Choi did especially well and makes a wonderful stir fry along with my Sugar Snap Peas.  I have just seeded in our Gourmet Greens Braising Mix (new for 2012- coming soon), a mix of green and red leaf beets with silver and gold leaf chards, which you can cook or eat as baby salad.
"Jewel-toned" Beets, "Circus Circus" Carrots,
Pak Choi (almost all harvested now)
 and a new sowing of  Gourmet Greens Braising Mix
My main beds are 4' by 8', and I prefer to plant in blocks rather than rows, so I broadcast my seed and then thin the seedlings to appropriate spacing - a painful but critical task that really pays off with healthy and vigorous plants.

We have been sharing this "Garden Babies" lettuce,
"Farmer's Market" MesclunArugula (interplanted with Kohlrabi)
and "Lacinato" Kale with the neighbors.
I do start my warm weather loving  veggies and flowers indoors, and this year I included "Stained Glass" Salpiglossis, one of my favorites, planted out in pots and displayed closeup on my deck.  Again, regular feeding has been critical to getting these beauties bursting with blooms.
"Stained Glass" Salpiglossis lives up to it's namesake
Now if only that bit of glorious summer would truly stick around...because it's raining out there...again...

note: you can click on the photos to enlarge for a closer look.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Seed Grow Project update

This is the second month of the Seed GROW project for 2011. Nellie is at her family''s house in the Netherlands right now and her roommates are the ones taking care of her seedGROW seeds right now.  She emailed some pictures that were taken before she left, and will do an update when she returns....

"Summer Splash" Marigold

"Garden Babies" Lettuce

"Garden Babies" Lettuce

"Italian Cameo" Basil

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pay close attention to garden relationships

-By Jay Leshinsky, NE Trial Garden Manager

Jay's interest in gardening began during childhood while eating his way through the family berry patch and vegetable garden. He’s been gardening organically since starting his first garden in 1970 in Maryland, where he sold vegetables at a farmers’ market. For the past nine years he’s split his work time between doing seed trials and sales for Renee’s Garden and advising the students at the Middlebury College Organic Garden. Jay and his wife live in Middlebury, VT
Zinnias attract pollinators
My friend and mentor, Wendy Johnson, wrote in her book, “Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate”:
 "Every spot has a voice, a particular taste, a breath of wind unique to itself, a shadow, a presence. The best gardeners I know slow way down in order to receive the tidings of the land they are bound to work.”

The particular voice I’ve listened to for the past eight summers is that of the Middlebury College Organic Garden, where I have been teaching students how to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers organically. Because of my work at that spot I’ve listened to many voices and been connected to many wonderful people. In slowing down, looking and listening closer, I have come to a new and expanded relationship with the garden, and in particular, with the insects that visit.
Blue Borage

When I started my first garden 40 years ago, the insects I knew the best were those that damaged crops. From cucumber beetles to squash bugs, I identified and battled these competitors for my crops with organic pesticides, protective row covers and hand picking. Then a series of events came together to expand my relationship with the insect world. A student doing research on companion planting at the garden observed that a row of yellow crookneck summer squash interplanted with catnip out-produced a control group of the same variety grown without catnip by two to one! We didn’t know why, but we hoped we could recruit some students to do more research the following spring.
Bees love sunflowers
Later that summer for reasons unrelated to the companion planting experiment, I asked Middlebury College Professor Helen Young to bring two of her research interns to the garden to do counts of insects coming to different flowers. What they found was that catnip was a great attractor of honeybees as well as other pollinators. Could more pollinators coming to the squash/catnip row be responsible for better pollination and higher yield? Should we be paying more attention to our insect visitors?

That fall another serendipitous connection occurred. Some Middlebury College students and I attended a seed-saving conference in Brattleboro, where we met Frank Morton, a master plant breeder from Oregon who works with open-pollinated varieties of vegetables and herbs without using pesticides of any type. Instead, he searches for traits like disease resistance, productivity and good taste. A big part of his program to improve pollination and control of destructive insects in his seed crops is to plant what he calls “insectaries.” These are groupings of plants that provide food, pollen or shelter for beneficial insects (pollinators or insects that prey on other insects that eat our food crops).
Pollinators are both beneficial and beautiful
We decided to devote one section in each of our garden beds to an “insectary.” Based on the squash experiments we included catnip and added some of Frank’s recommendations like Korean mint (anise hyssop), arugula, chervil, fennel, cilantro, sunflowers and calendula. Many of these plants reseed freely in Vermont and will be back in the next season (take heed!). As a bonus we collected some of seed for cooking (like cilantro, the seed of which is the spice coriander). The following year we included some annuals: zinnias as pollinator attractors (and because they are great cutting flowers as well), alyssum, tithonia, nicotiana, nigella, borage and clary sage. We also planted perennials: yarrow, bee balm, echinops, centurea, catmint and thyme.
Cilantro is also great for cooking
So we are looking more closely at the insects that visit our garden. We are seeing that some plants (borage, Korean mint, nigella, gaillardia and Clary sage) attract a wide range of pollinators. Other plants seem to have favorites: Our honey bees are the major visitors to raspberries while our bumble bees dominate in the blueberries. We have observed spindled soldier bugs parasitizing the larvae of Colorado potato beetles.

The relationship of the insects to our flowers is so much more complex and rich than I ever imagined. Perhaps for me the tidings of the garden are seeing connection and wholeness where I once saw unrelated parts. It is something I try to take with me as I leave the garden each day.

For a list Renee's Garden varieties that attract pollinators and beneficial insects, click here

Thursday, June 2, 2011

SeedGROW Project 2011

SeedGROW Nellie's containers
Nellie's project containers
Welcome to the second annual seedGROW blog project! Ten bloggers located across the US will all be growing three Renee’s Garden varieties from seed and writing about their experiences on their blogs, posting once a month. This year, I (Renee’s Garden marketing assistant and second-year gardener Nellie) will be growing right alongside the other seedGROW bloggers.

Renee picked 3 seed varieties for seedGROW this season:

Renee's Garden - Garden Babies Butterhead Lettuce - seedGROW 2011
Lettuce, Container, "Garden Babies"
Renee's Garden - Cameo basil - seedGROW 2011
Basil, Container, "Italian Cameo"

Renee's Garden - Summer Splash Marigolds - seedGROW 2011
Marigold, "Summer Splash" 

Notes from Nellie: I sowed my project seeds in three separate big containers according to the packet directions on Saturday, 5/28. Our Trial Garden manager Lindsay recommended FoxFarm Ocean Forest potting soil for the containers, which is a blend of earthworm castings, bat guano, and fish and crab meal. Two 1.5 cubic ft. bags easily filled three large 18-inch containers. I’m expecting to see a few seedlings pop up by this Monday. The weather has been unusually cold and rainy in Santa Cruz, so I may need to be more patient.

I chose containers as my planting venue of choice because of some serious gopher problems. The containers circle a bed of greens, and the seedlings will be protected by strawberry baskets while they're small since my backyard seems to be full of hungry birds (I removed the baskets from the first container above so you could see a decent picture of this very nice potting soil).

If you have a garden blog and would like to participate this year or be considered for another project, please email me: We did decide to keep it small this year to so we could pay extra attention to the participating blogs, but we don’t want to exclude any bloggers who are interested in joining. The seedGROW Trial Guide sheet is located here.

We’d also like to give special thank you to Mr. Brown Thumb for all his help. He will be rounding up all the bloggers’ posts each month and posting them here on the seedGROW website. I’d like to encourage everyone to check out the other seedGROW updates – we are excited to have some gardening writers on board!

See you next month,

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