First Rewards

We spent a full day in the garden today, clearing our perennial bed, planting potatoes and sifting mulch. It was a long day, resulting in more than a few fatigued muscles. But it was worth it: this morning, we had our first asparagus sighting!

I looked up my first asparagus photo from last year and it was dated April 14. So today’s shoot is more three weeks early in comparison! I only just started poking around the patch last week – I feel like I got a late start! An early spring is a lovely thing. I love asparagus for many reasons beyond the fact that it is our first edible of the season. It’s a rhizome that delivers for many years after the initial planting – and there’s nothing I like more than a solid investment. It also produces for more than a month. So we can cut a serving of asparagus one day and collect another a couple days later, from the same plant. My favorite way to eat asparagus is to wrap it in a bit of prosciutto and grill it for a couple of minutes. Salt and smoke and sugars and that slightly bitter flavor – sigh. Only a couple more days now!

Our first round of radishes has also sprouted, which is tentatively exciting. You never know if you’ll get another cold spell that freezes anything tender, but for now I’m happy. They only take 24-29 days to mature in good conditions, so I am hopeful they will make a nice addition to future salads. We planted French Breakfast radishes. They are my absolute favorite for their shape, flavor and quaint coloring. In France, I’m pretty sure they just call them, “Breakfast radishes.”

We have a whole order of seed potatoes arriving in the next month or so, but so many of our potatoes from last year had started to sprout that we decided to just plant them in the extra space in our garlic bed. We have Russet, white, red-skinned and all-red potatoes in this bed. They are so very enthusiastic about growing that it’s difficult to ignore them. I’m especially fond of the all-red variety when it starts to sprout – the shoots are bright fucsia and so very cheerful.  I’m hoping for a fairly early crop of potatoes this year!

Recommended pairing: there’s a tiki drink called a Painkiller, right? Yeah, that one.

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First day outside!

Another early start! Today, we cleared some beds and even sowed a few seeds. Our asparagus bed was overgrown with last year’s crop and a fresh batch of mugwort, the weed I consider my nemesis. I weeded the evil mugwort and then we spread a healthy layer of compost on top. One of the first signs of spring in our neighborhood is my hopeful puttering in the asparagus bed: I’m always quite sure I’ll see a shoot about a month before anything actually appears. I’m nothing if not an optimist!

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I should explain my intense hatred of mugwort. It has been in our perennial bed since before we bought the house, and may have actually been planted by someone. But it is evil. I liken it to al qaeda – it appears wherever there are weaknesses in our plantings, it sneaks into new locations underground, and there is no central housing. It is essentially a network of evil, working to infiltrate our beds. Needless to say, we are at war. I call it a mugwar.

Seedlings: Aji Colorado

Aji Colorado pepper seedling

Aji Colorado pepper seedling

Our first pepper seedling! The Aji Colorado is a hot variety from South America. The long, thin, red fruit are great for both drying and pickling. My favorite recipe is bread-and-butter pickled peppers – I use a similar recipe to bread-and-butter pickles, but with peppers and onions instead of cucumbers and onions. I use all sorts of peppers in the mix, but learned my lesson, two years ago, about adding habaneros. Even one of those puppies will make the whole jar unbearably hot. I still have about ten jars of them, and basically no use with the exception of taking out a tiny slide of pepper and adding to a big batch of salad dressing. Even then, the dressing is quite hot. Of course, we still grow habaneros along with all our other peppers.

This year, we have nine varieties: habanero, jalapeno, Aji Colorado, fish, Thai, Ho Chi Minh, cayenne and Anaheim. We probably use the jalapenos most of all (we’re big salsa fans), but it’s fun to have variety. Especially when you don’t taint your recipes with too many habaneros!

Recommend pairing: margarita with a salt/sugar/powdered pepper rim

What a Difference Two Weeks Make

Tomato seedlings

Tomato seedlings

I’m so proud of all our little tomato babies! Each pot now has at least one seedling, but most have three or more. The pineapple tomato was the last to sprout. I guess that makes sense, given that it will produce the largest fruit: it takes a lot of energy to build up that kind of momentum!

We’re starting to think about where all of these seedlings – and their many, many friends – will live in our garden. We will likely be digging a new bed or two, as it is time for part of our fenced garden to lay fallow. We’ll be planting that with a nitrogen-fixing cover crop, to help it regenerate some nutrients while ridding the soil of any pests or diseases who might lay in wait for another crop of nightshades. Our food tastes run toward tomatoes, peppers and potatoes – all part of the nightshade family – and these are notorious for both sucking the soil dry of nutrients and attracting pests/fungi that like to live in the soil, waiting for the next season. It’s why gardeners are encouraged to never plant tomatoes in the same place as they were planted the year before. The Colorado potato beetle is the worst of these pests, in my mind. They burrow into the soil for the winter and make their reappearance just as the potato plants are flourishing. One hatch of beetle grubs can clear a plant of leaves. We don’t use pesticides (and I’m not sure they would be all that effective over the years) so I become a one-woman pest control device. At their height, I spend about half an hour every morning and evening, collecting beetles, grubs and leaves in a cup of soapy water. It sounds tedious, but it’s actually incredibly satisfying to have a task that is so immediately effective. It doesn’t make me want to rid our soil of potato beetles any less, though.

We’re still waiting for the first pepper seed to sprout. Coming from such warm climates, hot peppers are a little reluctant to join our cold New England world as seedlings. They thrive in the summer, though, so I just do my best to explain to them that it will eventually be nice and warm. Yes, I talk to the seedlings. We have little relationships, me and the seedlings. I tell them how wonderful they are and how strong they will be, and they make feel hopeful about the gardening season and, ultimately, give me yummy food for the year.

Recommended pairing: Miller High Life, preferably the tiny bottles (kicking it old school today)

Seedlings: Paul Robeson

Four-egg day

Today was a four-egg day. Our first this year, and a little earlier than previous years, I believe. It’s hard to remember the exact timing of things, which is why I wanted to start this blog. I want, for once, a full journal of our plans, our accomplishments, our failures and our experiments. I seem to have lost the ability to write in a traditional journal, so a blog it is! Plus, I can post pretty pictures to see the progression.

A four-egg day is a day when all of our chickens lay an egg. We have four girls: Siouxsie Sioux, Lucinda, Lucinda and Lucinda (what? those three look alike). It means the day has lived up to its full potential, egg-wise. We’ve started using the term to describe any awesome day. Sometimes the only thing awesome about the day is the four eggs that gave it the name, but that’s still pretty cool.

Paul Robeson seedling

Also quite cool is the second full seedling of the season, this one a Paul Robeson. He was quite progressive, so it’s fitting that his tomato is an early start. Today’s seedling actually has two visible leaves, which is a lovely sight. These two leaves represent the two halves of the seed itself and will eventually wither away, as the “true” leaves start to appear. Those are the leaves that have little tomato-y serrations – they appear right around the same time as the first tiny hairs in the stem. Those tiny hairs can, eventually, become roots if you bury the tomato further up the stem when it is time to plant outside, so seeing them always makes me feel like we’re really getting somewhere. But two leaves – even if they are leaflets – aren’t bad.

Recommended pairing: Jane’s Addiction (this is a drink I made up, I think – it consists of vodka, fresh orange juice and pineapple juice – but it probably has other names)

Seedlings: Peacevine

Sprouts! Seedlings! See there? Over on the left? A tiny sprout! She’s a Peacevine tomato seedling and she is a beautiful red cherry who will start to give us fruit in late July. Peacevines are super prolific heirlooms and, usually, our earliest producers. So it’s fitting that this was my first sprout sighting – though there were actually two almost-sprouts of other varieties today. But I still think it appropriate that the Peacevine is a little earlier than others.

Peacevines are so named because their high amino acid content is supposed to have a calming effect on the body. I haven’t noticed. When we get the first tomatoes of the season, I can barely contain myself – hardly calming at all! But there’s nothing wrong with a little excitement, right? Right. Excuse me while I do a happy dance, in celebration of the first seedling.

It hasn’t all been patient waiting until now, mind you. For the past ten days, I’ve spritzed the seed starter daily, always hoping for a tiny vision of green. I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the soil, wondering if the seeds are too dry, too deep, too old, etc. Then, eventually, they all sprout and I have to take one of the most painful steps of the gardening season: thinning. You’d think I was pulling out my own babies. Actually, I kind of am. But I’ll think about that later.

Recommended pairing: Bloody Mary with a rim dusted in a mixture of salt, powdered bacon and cayenne

Waiting: Pineapple Tomato

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Seedling to be

I think my favorite tomato is the Pineapple. It isn’t a very practical favorite: unwieldy at almost a pound a fruit; prone to cracking or just plain falling off the vine due to its weight; and not particularly pretty in a marinara – our method of choice for preserving much of our excess tomato crop.

But I can’t help it. The Pineapple tomato, when harvested before it smashes to the ground, is so very beautiful. Bright yellow flesh, streaked with deep red, it is the perfect slicer. The flesh is almost solid and a slice from the middle can basically cover a healthy sandwich loaf. Add some thick-cut bacon, homemade mayo and greens and you have the sandwich I dream of all year. I start planning the first BLT of summer shortly before the Fourth of July. This is slightly unfortunate because the Pineapples don’t start to ripen until mid-August. But really: is there anything better than anticipation?

That reminds me: I should start some lettuce seeds.

Recommended pairing: mai tais

Waiting: Paul Robeson

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Paul Robeson

Now we wait. There isn’t much to do for the first 10-15 days after starting seeds, besides keep the soil most and wait. Given how early we started our seeds this year (there was a crocus!), it will likely be a while until we see our first sprouts.

I don’t mind waiting as much as you would think. I like this time of contemplating the garden and dreaming about all of the different foods we’ll make.

Tomato varieties have some of the most quirky names – I think because people invest so much time and energy into nurturing them. One of my favorite names is the Paul Robeson. Unlike the Burbank tomato (named for famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank), the Paul Robeson is not named after the person who developed it. Paul Robeson was an African American opera singer, actor, athlete and civil rights activist (among other titles), but not a botanist as far as I can tell. But he was targeted as a Soviet sympathizer during the McCarthy era and his performances were popular in Russia. The Paul Robeson tomato is a beefsteak tomato streaked with black stripes, developed in Russia by a fan. It’s a tasty slicer and we’re growing it for the second year running. I can’t wait for the first BLT of the summer – likely with a Robeson unless the pineapple tomatoes have an incredible year.

Recommended pairing: Champagne (Robeson was an opera singer, after all)

Seed Starting: Peppers and Tomatoes

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Seed packets

Today was the beginning of our tomato and pepper crops. We started 18 of each type.

Tomatoes: Paul Robeson, Green Zebra, Pineapple, Amish Paste, Orange Banana, Tiffen Mennonite, Opalka Paste, Principe Borghese and Peacevine

Peppers: Early Jalapeno, Habanero, Cayenne, Fish, Anaheim, Aji Colorado, Ho Chi Minh and Thai

Supplies:

  • Seed starter
  • Peat pots – you can use yogurt cups or nursery pots from last year
  • Seeds – we got most of ours from Fedco because they are fairly local and we trust them to sell seeds that will work in our climate
  • Labels
  • Sharpie – for writing on the labels
  • Water

Recommended pairing: mimosas

The Beginning

First crocus of 2012All you need is one little sign that it is time to start gardening. This first crocus did it for me. She’s right next to the house, and not far from the dryer vent – so she isn’t an actual sign of Spring. But I don’t care. I’m ready.

We have big plans for this year’s garden: more beds, more preserving of bounty, better documentation. I’m hoping this blog will help me document and also keep me motivated to stay on task.

I think I’m most excited about trying cantaloupe this year. We had some, last year, from a local farm and I realized I had been missing out for years! Grocery store melons have nothing on these. We’re trying Golden Gopher Muskmelon to start – these are traditionally finicky plants, so don’t be surprised if this is the last you hear of our melon goals.

For now, I will be pleased by the first crocus sighting of 2012.

Recommended pairing: Pretty Things Jack D’or (a regional treat that pops up at surprising times)