Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Musings on the Root Vegetable

This post was inspired by the recent New York Times article on root vegetables --

For as long as I can remember, carrots, potatoes, and onions have all been staples of my everyday diet. My favorite comfort food is a dish my mother called "Noodles and Onions," a plate of egg noodles topped with onions that had been sauteed in butter. The dish couldn't be simpler, but there is no greater pleasure. 

I love onions. I'll admit it. Every dish can be made better with onions. I add them to soups, stews, stir fry, tacos, meatloaf. I love vidalias, white onions, yellow onions, and red onions. Carrots, too, get incorporated into almost every roasted veggie medley I make (and I make a lot of them).

Until recently, my food life was satisfied with the typical American variety of veggies -- carrots, onion, potato, peas, green beans, lettuce, tomato, green pepper. Sometimes I forgot that this list was only the tip of the iceberg, and that the variety sustained by Mother Nature is incredibly abundant. My awakening to this reality was in no small part inspired by my husband's family. His parents tend a large vegetable garden in their back yard, complete with more exotic treats like eggplant, spaghetti squash, brussels sprouts, acorn squash, and swiss chard. When we were still dating, my husband took me to supper at his parents' house and I'll never forget the good laugh they all got when I exclaimed that the pasta tasted different and asked what type of seasoning his mother had added. That was my first experience with spaghetti squash. Until that day, I did not even know that it existed. When we planted our first garden, my husband asked me to add swiss chard, something that I had never even tasted, but that he had loved since he was a child.

As a result of these experiences, I've become so much more attuned to the variety of edibles found in the grocery store, at my local farmers' market, and in my own small garden plot. And yet, while I've had many good intentions to try new things, I've yet to attempt most of the varieties I've promised myself to try.

Well after reading about root veggies in the paper, I decided to pick up some parsnips and beets at the grocery store and give them a try.  I combined my new delights into a delicious roasted veggie mixture --

Purple Peruvian Potatoes

I sprinkled them with salt, pepper, and olive oil, then roasted them in the oven at 400 degrees for 40 min. I even remembered to poke holes in the potatoes, so none exploded this time!

Dinner that night was an enlightening experience. Guess what -- I've had parsnips before, I just didn't know it. But I would know that distinctive, sugary, taste anywhere. The minute I tasted them, I recalled that they were one of the potato chips in my favorite mixture of Terra Chips. Yum! I will totally add parsnips to the regular veggie rotation. My husband, on the other hand, was less than impressed. He called them "starchy," like a bad potato.

Beets were not quite the great experience I had hoped. They were sweet, and really not bad, but they just didn't do it for me. I think it was mainly the texture; they were a little too smooth and slippery for my liking. My husband flat out refused to even try one. Also, I purchased way too many of these veggies. Beets are apparently best eaten a few at a time, and I'm still working my way through the leftovers. Oh, plus, I think I've permanently dyed my thumb and index finger purple. Oops, guess I should have worn gloves when handling them!

Next up on my list is the turnip. I have a feeling my husband will be eating out that night.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Look Back on My 2011 Garden: Learning the Hard Way

As I begin my plans for the 2012 garden, I thought I would post some of the best mistakes of my 2011 growing season.

1. Seed Starting. When you have a long winter ahead of you and dream of nothing but spring, it's easy to go overboard with a seed catalog and credit card. For my little suburban garden, I ordered 4 different varieties of tomatoes, all of which had to be started indoors from seed. I will say that germinating tomato seeds is a fairly easy and rewarding project. That is, until they turn into young seedlings, which you baby for a month until just about a week before transplant to the garden. Then, that day, you come home from work to find them all wilted over. Yes, in less than 24 hours, my entire crop of beautiful, healthy tomato seedlings succumbed to wilting disease. I cried. And let me tell you, men totally don't get that.

2. Tilling. It may seem obvious to the seasoned gardener, but tilling the ground before putting down each new seed is essential. I planned both a spring/summer and fall garden, and my husband tilled the ground in early spring before I began to plant. My early carrots and beans were beautiful, heavy producers. And then came my fall garden. I had planned to plant lettuce, beans, carrots, and kale in places where earlier crops had already been harvested. There was no room for the large tiller among the still-producing tomatoes, peppers, and chard plants, so I thought I would just lightly till with a hoe and throw down some seeds. Well, let me tell you, that went well. What was once a beautifully tilled garden had turned back to earth-packed clay. I managed to dig my holes, add some compost, and plant my seeds, but the few that sprouted quickly became root-bound. Much to my chagrin, my husband was right. I should have created a better succession plan that cleared a large enough space for a fall tilling.

3. Chard. If you take just one lesson from this, let it be this one. You can have too much swiss chard. The stuff grows like weeds. You will barely harvest one serving of leaves before the second is ready to go. A little goes a long way -- prepared in a sautee pan with a bit of honey, it is managemable to eat the stuff a couple times a week and actually enjoy the experience. But, if you are stupid enough to plant 20 chard plants for 2 people, you will do nothing but eat chard every night for the rest of your life. Seriously, it gets old. Plus, it's impossible to give away. No one ever refused my homegrown tomatoes or peppers, but swiss chard -- I've never seen people run away so fast. I'll give my mom credit; at least she tried it once.

4. Zucchini. I was prepared for the pollination problem. In 2010, my little garden did not produce a single zucchini fruit, despite multitudes of beautiful creamsicle colored flowers. Determined to do better this year, I spent hours researching the growth cycle of the zucchini, only to find out that my problem likely stemmed from a lack of pollinators. To counter this, I interspersed flowers throughout the garden, despite my husband's gentle scolding that I was running out of room for the vegetables. I even sustained the displeasure of surface cuts all over my hands and wrists from the zucchini prickles in an ill-prepared attempt to cross-pollinate the male and female flowers myself. Yes, yes, I am a rebel against garden gloves, but I am beginning to understand that they do have their place. And then, just when I was ready to check off my first zucchini success, white spots began to appear on the leaves, and soon they turned yellow, wilted, and died. Yes, powdery mildew hit when I least expected it. I will do my best to guard against this disease in 2012, but I am beginning to realize that a new catastrophe is always around the corner. Or, maybe it's just me...

Monday, January 16, 2012

Green Heron Tools for Women Gardeners

I am really excited to see a modern company getting back into the business of making farming/gardening tools designed especially for women. I have a beautiful set of heirloom women's gardening tools, and I didn't even realize that modern gardening tools for women are almost impossible to find. (For the record, I agree that pink handled tools don't count, although I will sheepishly admit to owning my fair share of the ones with floral handles.)

I love my little heirloom gardening tools. I inherited the set from my grandparents, and word on the street is that they actually belonged to my great-grandmother, a farmer in her younger days and avid gardener in her old age. She lived next door to my grandparents, and my mother remembers her trekks from shed to garden with her spade and hoe. I also have what appears to be a miniature-sized pitchfork. When I garden with these tools, I feel connected to my past and it makes the experience that much more enjoyable. But let's face it, I am also a short, small woman and these tools are just really handy. Before I acquired them, I was constantly calling my husband out to the garden to help me with tasks that seemed monumental with the man-sized garden tools he bought from Lowes.

Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger of Green Heron Tools have taken women's garden tools a step further. They're not just manufacturing smaller tools for women; their new specially designed shovel/spade is designed to accentuate women's inherent differences, including smaller shoulder span, hand size, and grip strength. At $57.99, the HERShovel certainly won't be the cheapest garden tool in your shed, but if you can end your day in the garden free from aches and pains, it could be the best money you ever spent!

Read the article about Ann and Liz at http://www.organicgardening.com/living/womens-work
Check out the HERShovel at www.greenherontools.com