Saturday, February 23, 2013


I have to admit, until I started gardening a few years ago, I really didn't know the first thing about compost.  Growing up, I loved to help in my parents' and grandparents' gardens, but they didn't use compost.  They relied on fertilizer mixes applied to the plants throughout the growing season.

When my husband and I started our first garden, he was shocked to find out how ignorant I was to the benefits of compost.  His parents have a huge compost pile in their backyards and he has fond memories of helping to maintain the compost as it aged.  My husband wanted to start a compost pile in our yard, but for a variety of reasons it just isn't possible to maintain a compost pile in our space.  For a couple of years now, we have purchased bags of compost from the store, but that just seems wrong - especially all of that plastic packaging that ends up in the garbage.   

Well, I'm excited to say that I've finally convinced my husband to give container composting a try.  (He's skeptical.)  As a Christmas present, we got a small double barrel composter from Gardener's Supply Co.  My husband finally put it together last weekend in anticipation of warmer weather -- I can't wait to start filling it up!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Tom Thumb Lettuce

Lettuce from 2012 Garden
It still amazes me how many heirloom varieties of vegetables are available for purchase.  Lettuce, in particular, comes in so many sizes, shapes, and flavors.  Every year, I am intrigued by a different heirloom variety.  In 2012, I grew both Tennis Ball and Merveille de Quatre Saisons.  The former, I absolutely loved.  The latter was much too bitter for my taste.  This year, Tom Thumb caught my eye.  Besides having a great name, it meets my requirements in size and flavor.  I can't wait to try it!

Tom Thumb lettuce dates to the mid-1850s, when it was introduced to the English market by H. Wheeler & Sons.  The variety was named for its miniature size; the entire head of lettuce is about the size of a baseball.  The flavor is mild and buttery.  Miniature lettuce like Tom Thumb was traditionally pickled with cloves and stored for winter use.  In 1868, James Gregory of Massachusetts first imported Tom Thumb lettuce to America.  The variety never became popular in this country. 

Possibly due to its relative unpopularity in 19th century America, I was unable to find any references to Tom Thumb in Fearing Burr's classic book, The Field and Garden Vegetables of America (earlier edition published as Garden Vegetables and How to Cultivate Them).  However, I did find his general remarks on lettuce to be quite well-spoken:

Lettuce is said to be of Asiatic origin.  It is a hardy, annual plant, and, when fully developed, from two to three feet in height, with an erect, branching stem.  The flowers are compound, yellow, usually about half an inch in diameter; the seeds are oval, flattened, and either white, brown, or black, according to the variety.  Nearly thirty thousand are contained in an ounce, and their vitality is retained five years.*

Tom Thumb Spec's
AKA's: Wheeler's, Landreth's Forcing, Holmes's Forcing, Early Green Stone
Seed Type: Black Seeded
Days to Maturity: 50
Size: Miniature

*Burr, Fearing. The Field and Garden Vegetables of America. Boston: William F. Gill & Co. (1874): 344.

Other Sources:
Weaver, William Woys. Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. Henry Holt & Co. (1997): 188.
Coulter, Lynn. Gardening with Heirloom Seeds. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press (2006): 39. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The History of Chioggia Beets

Last year, I grew beets in my garden for the first time.  Pickled beets were always one of my grandmother's favorite treats, and I decided to grow beets for the purpose of canning.  I grew the Bull's Blood heirloom variety, but was not particularly happy with the taste and texture.  (See my comments on Bull's Blood.)  After studying the seed catalogs, this year I have selected the Chioggia Beet, an Italian heirloom developed prior to 1840.

Beets have a fascinating history.  Their first documented use occurred in the Mediterranean region during prehistoric times.  Early cultures harvested beet leaves for medicinal use, but beet root did not gain widespread culinary use until the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.  At this time, Roman cooks began substituting beet root in place of cabbage, and soon their use spread within the Roman empire.   In colonial America, beets became a popular winter vegetable, due to their long shelf life.*  

The Chioggia Beet is named after a coastal town in Northern Italy.  It is a fast growing variety, ready for harvest in just 55-60 days.  Its roots are marketed as mild and tender, with interior flesh of alternating rings of pink and white.  Many gardeners have remarked on its resemblance to the stripes on a candy cane, once sliced open.  The Chioggia Beet has been available in America since the late 1840s.

Here's what Fearing Burr had to say about the Chioggia Beet in 1874:

Bulb flattened; six or seven inches in diameter by three or four inches in depth; not very regular or symmetrical, but often somewhat ribbed, and terminating in a small, slender tap-root.  Skin of fine texture; brown above ground; below the surface, clear rose-red.  Flesh white, circled or zoned with bright pink; not close-grained, but very sugary and well-flavored.  Leaves numerous, erect, of a lively green color, forming many separate groups or tufts, covering the entire top, or crown of the root.  Leaf-stems short, greenish-white, washed or stained with rose.

An Italian variety, generally considered the earliest of garden-beets, being from seven to ten days earlier than the Early Blood Turnip-rooted.  The flesh, although much coarser than that of many other sorts, is tender, sweet, and of good quality.  Roots from early sowings are, however, not suited for winter use; as, when overgrown, they almost invariably become too tough, coarse, and fibrous for table use.  To have them in perfection during winter, the seed should not be sown till near the close of June. **

Beet Specs:

Early Flat Bassano
Turnip-Rooted Bassano
Extra Early
Rogue Plate de Bassano

Days to Harvest: 55-60
Diameter: 6-7 inches
Depth: 3-4 inches
Appearance: Pinkish-red exterior, with flesh of alternating rings of pink and white

*For further information on the history of beets, see:
Coulter, Lynn.  Gardening with Heirloom Seeds.  North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press (2006).
Weaver, William Woys.  Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.  Henry Holt & Co (1997). 

** Burr, Fearing.  The Field and Garden Vegetables of America. Boston: William F. Gill & Co. (1874): 6.

Image of Chioggia beet also from Burr, Fearing.  The Field and Garden Vegetables of America. Boston: William F. Gill & Co. (1874)

Horray for 2013 Seeds!

Well, I've made my final selections and placed my order for seeds.  This year, I decided to order all of my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  Knowing me, I will probably end up with a few additional seed packages from the garden center that I discover I just can't live without, but I am going to try really hard this year to keep my seed purchases under control!

Here's a sneak peek at what will be growing in my garden:

Brocade Marigold
Mother of Pearl Poppy
Button Box Zinnia

Contender Bean (Repeat from 2012)
French Garden Bean (New to my garden!)
Chioggia Beet (New to my garden!)
Danvers Half-Long Carrot (New to my garden!)
Crystal Apple Cucumber (New to my garden!)
Tom Thumb Lettuce (New to my garden!)
Lincoln Pea (New to my garden!)
Strata D'Italia Zucchini (Repeat from 2012)
Bullnose Pepper (Repeat from 2012)
Vulcan Chard (New to my garden!)

I will also be growing tomatoes (but not seed starting), potatoes, and onions.  I have not decided on those varieties yet, but I plan to purchase them from our local farm stand this spring.

Last year, I let my tennis ball lettuce go to seed, so I will be attempting to grow it from the seeds that I harvested.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Household Tips from the Indiana Farmer, January 1886

The following household tips appeared in the Ladies' section of the Indiana Farmer magazine in January 1886:

Suet added to a beef stew makes more gravy.*

Sugar should be browned in a dry pan for sauce.*

Wrap fruit jars with paper to keep out the light.*

Figs are good boiled five minutes and served hot.*

Keep preserves in a dry place; seal with flour paste.*

Egg shells burned in the oven and placed upon the pantry shelves will keep bugs away.*

If an egg is added to the butter for flour griddle cakes they will be surprisingly improved, and brown nicely.*

Milk which has turned or changed can be sweetened and made fit for use again by stirring in a little soda.*

Peach leaves pounded to a pulp and applied to a bruise or wound from a rusty nail, or simple cut, will give immediate relief.*

It's no surprise that farm households practiced thrift and endeavored not to waste precious supplies.  However, I was interested to see the types of solutions that they employed.  I did not know that households in the late-1800s had found a way to reconstitute spoiled milk.  I was also unaware that they saved peach leaves for use as a medicinal supply, or that they used egg shells to prevent infestations of bugs.  I still have so much to learn!
*Quoted from Indiana Farmer, v. 21 no. 2 (January 9, 1886): 6.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Seed Catalog Heaven

I've been spending my evenings curled up on the couch under a multitude of blankets, drinking tea and looking through seed catalogs.  Luckily, my husband doesn't seem to mind.
Last night, I finally began marking possible choices in my catalogs.  I still have a lot of cutting to do from my initial selections, but I actually managed to keep my list to a much more reasonable length than in past years (yes, there have been years when I have marked close to every offering). 

I'm especially intrigued by the new French Garden bean offered by Baker Creek.  The bush bean produces pods in 50 days that are marketed as stringless, tender, and sweet.

I've decided to try a different type of beet this year.  So far, I am leaning towards Chioggia or Detroit Dark Red.  The Chioggia has an interesting history, with Italian roots dating back to the mid-1800s.  Detroit Dark Red dates to the 1890s America, but has been a highly popular variety ever sense its debut.

So many good choices and so many decisions to make!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Snow, Snow, Snow!

We have quite a winter wonderland in our yard right now.  In the past couple of weeks, we have had several big snow storms.  The stakes mark the location of my garlic, but proved to be a fun indicator of how much snow had accumulated!