Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beans: A Native for My Kitchen Garden

An early bush bean, from Vilmorin-Andrieux, The Vegetable Garden, 1920.
Most of the vegetables that I grow in my garden are not natives of North or South America, but were transplanted from other parts of the world.  It's pretty amazing that I can grow a radish or beet in my garden that originated thousands of miles away, on a completely different continent.  That's not to say that I don't appreciate the native veggies we have here in America.  One of my favorites is the bean.
Beans have been growing in the Americas for thousands of years.  It has been surmised that beans do not come from one distinct place of origin, but that similar plants grew across North and South America.  Even though there were many varieties of pole and bush beans growing simultaneously, all of these plants (with the exception of Lima and runners) were different forms of the same species.  Eventually these plants became collectively known as beans.  
In Pre-Colonial America, Native Americans used beans much differently than we might today.  I love to pick green beans when they are young and tender, then gently steam them.  Native Americans didn't eat the pod.  They ate the seeds at what we might call the "shelly" stage, and dried a significant amount for winter use.  Often, dried beans were ground into flour.   
In the 1880s, horticulturalist Calvin Keeney began to experiment with bean plants to develop a string-less variety.  He succeeded, and in 1884 introduced the Keeney's Stringless Refugee Wax bean.  Good thing, too, because the string-less bean made it palatable to eat beans my favorite way - pod and all!
This year, I will be growing two types of beans.  The Contender (Buff) Valentine Bean is making an appearance in my garden, thanks to lots of great recommendations.  The Contender is not a particularly old heirloom.  It was first introduced in 1949 and may have been an improvement on the pre-1855 Early Valentine variety.  The taste is superb, and at only 50 days to maturity, it is a quick harvest.
I will also be growing a dry bean for the first time this year.  I ordered the Good Mother Stallard bean from Seed Savers Exchange.  I'll admit that I was drawn to it by its purple skin with specks of white.  What a beautiful bean!  Good Mother Stallard is a family heirloom, rescued from extinction by Glenn Drowns, a famed plant breeder and early supporter of SSE.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

East Meets West in This Year's Garden: Chinese Red Meat Radish

Radishes, from Vilmorin-Andrieux, The Vegetable Garden, 1920
AKA Beauty Heart, Watermelon Radish, Shinrimei
The first radishes were not red, white, cream colored, or any version close to what most Americans envision when thinking of a radish.  They were black.  Native to China, black radishes were popular edibles in the ancient world.  Over time, radishes migrated westward, where they became especially important cuisine in early Egyptian and Greek culture.  Eventually, they were cultivated in white, and later, red, forms.
England was among the last European nations to develop a taste for the radish, only beginning to cultivate it around 1548.  Despite their late embrace for this vegetable, radishes were among the early edibles cultivated by colonists in America.  By 1629, colonial gardens in Massachusetts contained these veggie delights. 
The Red Meat Radish that I am growing in this year's garden is an old Chinese heirloom variety.  There is no mention of this radish in any of the old vegetable guides, so it must have been brought to American sometime in the 20th century.  The Red Meat is a member of the Daikon family of radishes, with roots reaching up to 4 inches around, growing best in cool weather.  The outer flesh is a whitish-green, but the interior is a fascinating shade of red, resembling the flesh of a watermelon.  Supposedly these radishes are mild and sweet, with a light peppery zing.  I am anxiously awaiting my chance to find out if they live up to all the hype!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Carrots: From Antiquity to My Garden

Like many modern vegetables, carrots are native to Southwestern Asia.  A wild form of the modern carrot likely grew in the area prior to the 1st Century AD.  Early carrots were cultivated for their leaves and seeds, rather than for the root we commonly eat today.  The roots were shaded red or yellow, as opposed to the modern orange color.  
Around the 8th Century AD, carrot cultivation began in Europe.  Enthusiasts throughout the continent developed strains of varying size and shape, but it was not until the 17th Century that an individual in the Netherlands developed the first orange carrot root.  The popularity of the orange carrot spread like wildfire, and the modern carrot was born.
So here we are in 2012, and I am faced with my annual carrot dilemma.  You see, I love these little roots, but my suburban garden is a less than ideal environment for most carrot varieties.  I have compact clay soil, and although my husband tills and amends with compost every year, the soil remains heavy.  Last year's yellow carrots were so thin and brittle that many snapped in half when I tried to harvest.  This year, I've finally learned my lesson.  I went in search of an heirloom variety developed specifically for heavy soils and ended up with two seed packets. 
The Red Core Chantenay Carrot
From Vilmorin-Andrieus, The Vegetable Garden, 1920
Chantenay carrots originate from the Chantenay region of France.  They were first introduced in seed catalogs by Vilmorin-Andrieus in the late 1800s.  I could not find the exact year of introduction, but it must have been sometime after 1885.  The seed company's 1885 book, The Vegetable Garden, did not list the variety, but the 1920 edition included them.  That edition described Chantenay as follows: "this variety differs from all the others by its large volume and by being completely rounded at the end" (p. 197).  It is rumored to be quite sweet and tender, despite its broad shoulders and stocky root tip.  
According to my seed packet, the Red Core variety that I am growing this year was introduced to America in 1929.  Chantenay carrots reached the height of their popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, peaking in the 1960s.  From there, they steadily declined in popularity as a result of mechanized farming innovations.
"Parisienne" or Paris Market Carrot 
From Vilmorin-Andrieus, The Vegetable Garden, 1885
Originally known as the French Horn or Early Frame, this carrot is a short stump carrot with a globular shape.  Because of its popularity among Parisian market gardeners in the 19th century, heirloom seed companies often market it under the name "Parisienne" or "Paris Market."  According to historian William Woys Weaver, the carrot was primarily cultivated for use as a garnish.
I first found mention of the Early Frame carrot in Fearing Burr's 1866 book Garden Vegetables and How to Cultivate Them.  Burr describes the Early Frame as "especially adapted for cultivation under glass, both on account of its earliness, and the shortness and small size of its roots" (p. 18).  I assume he is referring to use of a cold frame.  Interestingly, Vilmorin-Andrieus's 1885 book specifically mentions cultivation in Paris, noting that Parisian market gardeners "grow a very glossy-skinned form of it, rather pale in colour, and broader than long" (p. 162).  By 1920, a new strain of the Early Frame carrot had been introduced under the name "Parisian Forcing Carrot." 
The Paris Market Carrot is an early season variety, ready to eat in as little as 50 days.  Although originally introduced for use in a cold frame, these carrots can be grown in rocky or heavy soils due to their shallow roots.  They also thrive in containers.
**The above blog post refers to the following sources:
Burr, Fearing.  Garden Vegetables and How to Cultivate Them.  Boston: JE Tilton & Co., 1866.
Vilmorin-Andrieus.  The Vegetable Garden.  London: John Murray, 1885.
Vilmorin-Andrieus.  The Vegetable Garden, 3rd ed.  New York: EP Dutton & Co., 1920.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Merveille Des Quatre Saisons: A French Heirloom Lettuce

Vilmorin, The Vegetable Garden (1885), p. 301
Move over, Tennis Ball lettuce.  You have competition this year.  I may not be as ambitious as Thomas Jefferson with 15 varieties of lettuce in my garden, but then my garden is far from 1,000 sq. feet.
The Merveille Des Quatre Saisons (Marvel of Four Seasons) lettuce captured my imagination with its beautiful reddish-tiipped leaves and rosette formation.  A crispy butterhead variety, Merveille matures in 60 days.  Apparently, this lettuce really is a marvel of four seasons, as it is rumored to grow any time of year.  
Lettuce is an interesting crop.  A native of the Mediterranean region, it eventually made its way to Europe, where it has been lovingly cultivated in kitchen gardens for centuries.  There is relatively little history available on the Merveille variety -- I really had a tough time digging up some good dirt!  I started with a notation on my seed packet dating the Merveille as a pre-1885 French heirloom.  After checking several sources with no luck, I eventually found that the variety was first listed in Vilmorin's 1885 The Vegetable Garden.  And there it was, picture and all, listed under the name "Red Besson."  Mystery solved.
Vilmorin classifies Merveille as a cabbage lettuce, a young plant with vigorous growth.  The notation "young plant" seems to indicate that the Merveille was a relatively new variety in 1885, a fact that is corroborated by my difficulties locating it in earlier garden references.  Vilmorin traced the lettuce to Paris, but nothing further is known regarding this remarkable variety's history.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Channeling Thomas Jefferson: Tennis Ball Lettuce

Drawing from Vilmorin-Andrieux, The Vegetable Garden (1885)
*Note: This begins my series on the origins of this year's heirloom garden.

Thomas Jefferson may not have been the only historical figure who grew Tennis Ball Lettuce, but he is the inspiration behind my decision to make space for this heirloom in my 2012 garden.  As a Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and early President of the United States, Jefferson was a prominent figure in my childhood history books.  What I never learned in school, though, was that Jefferson was also a horticulturalist and avid gardener.  Over the course of several decades, he experimented with close to 250 varieties of vegetables on his 1,000 acre garden at Monticello.  I would love to visit his restored gardens someday.
Tennis Ball lettuce can be traced to the early 17th century, although its exact origins are unknown.  It was popular in colonial American kitchen gardens, and was preserved for winter use in a salt brine.  Colonists in places like Williamsburg purchased many of their vegetables from nearby plantations, but maintained small kitchen gardens for their favorite garden delights, including lettuce and many types of herbs.   Jefferson's records indicate that he was growing Tennis Ball by 1809.  Because the variety was fairly hardy and did not require delicate handling and care, it was a favorite at Monticello.  This, despite the fact that Jefferson continued to grow close to 15 types of lettuce.  
Tennis Ball is a parent of today's Boston lettuce.  It is a black-seeded variety, with early ripening (50d), compact heads that grow in the form of small rosettes.  Its coloration is a medium green with shiny, silky leaves.  The texture is crisp and taste sweet.  Although many early colonists grew this variety, it did not reach its height of popularity until the mid-1850s, decades after Jefferson's death.  For indications of its continued cultivation well into the 1800s, one only needs to look at the popular garden books of the day, such as Fearing Burr's 1866 publication, Garden Vegetables and How to Cultivate Them.  Burr described Tennis Ball as "one of the oldest and most esteemed of the cabbage lettuces...remarkable for its extreme hardiness" (p. 202-3).
I first came across a listing for Tennis Ball lettuce in the catalog of Seed Savers Exchange last summer.  I was intrigued the minute I noticed that the variety was attributed to Jefferson, and knew almost instantly that I would try it in this year's garden.  I am truly looking forward to experimenting with an authentic early American lettuce from our nation's heritage.  Although, I have to say, I think I will be enjoying mine fresh and not pickling it in salt brine!  

Drooling Over This Year's Seeds!

In spite of the snow that has been circulating in the air for the past few days, my mind is set on Spring!  I finally placed my seed order last week and a box of seeds arrived in the mail a few days ago.  Yay seeds!
I lusted over many exotic and new varieties of my favorite vegetables, but in the end, my 2012 garden will grow...
Chantenay Carrot - A stump carrot with deep orange center; very sweet. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Parisienne Carrot - A small, round carrot from France. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Tennis Ball Lettuce - A butterhead variety grown in the gardens of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.  (Seed Savers Exchange)
Merville des Quatre Saisons Lettuce - A French heirloom lettuce with beautiful reddish-tinted leaves.  (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Rainbow Swiss Chard - With beautiful colored stalks, this chard is showy and delicious.  (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Good Mother Stallard Pole Bean - A maroon/white dry bean; described as rich and meaty. (Seed Savers Exchange)
Contender Bean - A favorite from last year's garden, these beans are crisp, tasty, and produced by the bushel full! (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Striata d'Italia Zucchini - A popular Italian heirloom.  (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Bush Slicer Cucumber - A container variety perfect for the patio.  (Renee's Garden) 
Bull's Blood Beet - A red beet with pink rings, described as sweet with delicious greens. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Chinese Red Meat Radish - With an amazing bright red interior, this radish is truly a show-stopper.  (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Bull Nose Pepper - This medium-sized sweet pepper can be picked green or red; a favorite from the 1800s.  (Seed Savers Exchange)
I will be saving some room for tomatoes, potatoes, flowers, and herbs, but those decisions are yet to come.  This year, I am opting to purchase my tomatoes as seedlings because of last year's disaster with wilting disease.  I also purchase my herbs as seedlings from a favorite vendor at my local farmer's market.
If I could pinpoint the one thing that truly makes my efforts at heirloom gardening worthwhile, I would have to say that I love their connection with the past.  Heirlooms have a rich history all their one, one that's as delicious and juicy as the harvest itself.  Over the next few weeks, I will be exploring the origins and history of each variety in this year's garden.  There's nothing better than a good story to prime those taste buds for spring planting!   

Monday, February 13, 2012

Summer Bounty on a Late Winter Night

We've been slowly eating our way through last summer's bounty, but as I took inventory of our remaining stock, I realized that we are not making much headway on certain veggies.  So this weekend, I threw together a late winter must-go veggie meal.  And you know what, it was a big hit!

The recipe below is adapted from my spinach-mushroom lasagna.

1 box lasagna noodles
1 small container ricotta cheese
1 8-oz bag mozzarella cheese
1/4 c. parmesan cheese
1 jar marinara sauce
1 large package mushrooms
1 package frozen eggplant
3 bags frozen swiss chard
1 package frozen tomatoes

1.  Start with the pasta -- boil the lasagna noodles, then drain and cool. 
2.  Coat a large baking dish with oil and add a layer of lasagna noodles. 
3.  Sprinkle noodles with half of the chard, eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms, marinara, ricotta, and mozzarella.
4.  Top with a second layer of lasagna noodles. 
5.  Sprinkle noodles with other half of chard, eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms, marinara, ricotta, and mozzarella.  Top with 1/4 cup parmesan.  
6.  Add one final layer of lasagna noodles and brush with oil.
7.  Cover and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour.  Bake uncovered for the final 20 minutes. 
8.  Remove from oven and let rest approx. 15 min. before serving.
This recipe is really simple, and can be easily adapted to the veggies you have on hand.  It goes great with a fresh salad and garlic toast.  Happy eating!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I am in love with these picture books about gardening

I was really looking for something magical. The pictures of the little girl gardening in this year's Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Catalog reminded me so much of my own niece. She will be turning 4 this spring, and I would love to inspire her to share my passion for gardening.

I began my quest for the perfect picture book a few weeks ago and sorted through hundreds of titles that lacked that perfect spark. And then, there it was. The book I had been dreaming of -- How Groundhog's Garden Grew by Lynne Cherry. There is nothing I don't love about this book. The artwork is exquisite; the text is poetic. The book is inspiring. Groundhog learns how to plant a vegetable garden and tend to it throughout the seasons. The story chronicles the garden's growth from seed to harvest.

I was only planning to purchase one book, but I also discovered the Color & Garden Vegetables coloring book by Monica Wellington. The book features darling black and white pictures of young children tending a vegetable garden, complete with a lovely story explaining how to plant and care for a garden. I love that this is not just a standard coloring book -- the addition of a cute and educational story line makes it really special.

I know these are children's books, but I am seriously contemplating buying copies for myself!