Monday, November 26, 2007

What's Growin' On 11/26/07:
The Mailbox Says It's Spring Planning Season!

Tempting, Oh So Tempting. . .

Realization Of The Day:
The seed catalogs are already piling up!

Last Thursday I, along with zillions of other Americans, consciously thought about the many things I'm thankful for. When it comes to the garden, I am of course thankful for the glorious, year-round bounty my endless toiling it provides me: all the amazingly flavorful (and beautiful!) lettuce and spinach and peppers and tomatoes and potatoes and turnips and cucumbers and beans and greens and beets and kale and Swiss chard and arugula and garlic and herbs and flowers and especially the broccoli that I only very rarely manage to successfully grow.

But I'm even more thankful for something else from the garden, and it isn't even edible: it's the annual ability to completely forget every single disaster and disappointment of the year and start excitedly planning next spring's garden before winter has even begun.

The seed companies know all too well that we gardeners come down with this strange, yet oh-so-convenient affliction. In fact they bank on it. Yes, just moments after the most pitiful tomato harvest in a decade has faded to a hazy memory, the seed catalogs quietly begin to arrive. Next year will be different, we tell ourselves as we begin casually flipping through the first one, eyes glazing over, brain whirring a million miles an hour as we mentally (and effortlessly!) expand the garden to ten times its current size and fill non-existent pantry shelves with 3,000 jars of neatly preserved bounty.

Next year there will be no squash bugs! Next year the blister beetles will spend the summer somewhere else! Next year there will be more tomatoes than I know what to do with! Next year it will be 62 degrees and partly cloudy for 199 days in a row! Next year absolutely everything in the garden will be picture perfect!

Oh, how happy the seed companies will be when they see our largest, most ambitious orders yet!

We can't help it. And really, why should we? For just a few dollars (okay, for some of us it's more than just a few), our seed orders buy us endless winter hours spent happily planting and plotting and harvesting more than we could ever possibly eat. In our dream gardens there exists nothing but pure, unbugbitten success. Sometimes I think December and January are actually the most productive months in my garden.

You may have noticed that these are 2007 seed catalogs in the photo. That's because I'd planned to write this post a year ago. I guess I got carried away drooling over poring through them all instead. I was so proud of myself when I faxed in a seed order on New Year's Eve--the earliest I'd ever placed one. I figured it was a sign of things to come--this would be the year I did everything on time, or even early! Instead I found myself frantically behind in more ways than I ever thought possible from January through September, even for me. I actually bought tomato plants.

But that's all over now. And there's nothing but a whole new gardening year ahead.

There are certain varieties of seeds I faithfully order year in and year out, and of course I save lots of my own seeds, too. But I always like to grow a certain number of new things each year as well. I'm especially drawn to old and rare heirlooms, which my beloved Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds here in Missouri specializes in. Their 2008 catalog hasn't arrived yet, but the one from my other tried and true supplier, Pinetree Garden Seeds in Maine, has.

A brief look through it already has me eyeing some new offerings, including Cosmonaut Volkov tomatoes ("It's like one of those urban legends--we've been hearing about it for years. . . attractive, crack resistant, uniform fruit provide just the right balance of both sweet and tart flavors."), Midnight Ruffles lettuce ("This new variety from an Oregon breeder is the darkest red lettuce we've seen, almost black in color."), and Welsh onions ("This perennial is used like chives but the flavor is substantially stronger.")

I hope to write about some of my favorite varieties of veggies in the upcoming weeks, along with some of the ones that won't be making second appearances in my garden. In the meantime, what are your favorites and--perhaps more importantly--your least favorites? Or are you buried under a pile of seed catalogs?

Copyright © 2007, the award-winning blog where Farmgirl Susan shares stories & photos of her crazy country life on 240 remote acres.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

What's Growin' On 10/28/07: First Frost! Plus Growing Strawberries How To Prepare Your Strawberry Bed ror Winter

Cool Cavendish Strawberry Plants

Realization Of The Day:
Even though I'm usually expecting it, the first frost of the season always comes as somewhat of a surprise.

I think it's because I get spoiled in early October. Things have cooled down (most years anyway), the majority of ravenous insects have disappeared, and autumn rainstorms mean I no longer need to don my Watering Queen hat every day. Garden duties are greatly diminished, and nothing really needs to be protected at night yet. Even the greenhouse can stay open and vented all the time.

October in the garden feels positively luxurious. Then all of a sudden the frost shows up, and I sort of start to panic.

It really isn't too much of a problem yet, though (and everything does look pretty all covered in frost), as it won't be getting this cold every night for a while. Our days should stay fairly warm, too. Next week it's even supposed to pop back up into the 70s. So at this point, protection from the occasional cold snap simply means covering the autumn crops with floating row cover, which can even be left on your plants during the day if you're feeling lazy.

All I have to remember is that this is the time of the year when we need to adjust the temperature forecasts to reflect the cooler weather down here in our little valley, technically known as a 'low lying area.' While the official report was 41° at 8:30am this morning, we were at 32°.

Meanwhile, the strawberry bed doesn't need any attention just yet. The latest issue of Progressive Farmer magazine (you never know where you'll find helpful gardening tips) offers this advice for preparing your strawberry beds for the upcoming winter:

Strawberry plants are hardy perennials, but the alternate freezing and thawing that heaves them from the ground is what you must protect against. Cover the strawberries with 4 to 6 inches of hay, which is loose enough to let them breathe. Wait until after several frosts, but not enough cold to freeze the ground. You do not need to cut the foliage back before mulching.

I've always covered my strawberry bed with a thick layer of hay each year, but I never realized it was to protect the plants from ground heaves. This is the same reason you need to cover your fall-planted garlic (which I meant to plant yesterday!).

The only problem I have is that my beagle, Robin, loves to curl up on what she has decided are hay beds built especially for her. At almost 11 years old, though, she is semi-retired and will probably be spending much of her days and nights curled up next to the living room woodstove this winter instead (where she is right now, in a plush round cat bed that is much too small for her but that she insists on squeezing into anyway).

I created a new 4' x 8' strawberry bed this year, which I filled on May 7th with 30 Cavendish plants I ordered for $9.95 from my beloved Pinetree Garden Seeds. According to their catalog, this midseason variety offers "high yields of large berries with excellent flavor that make this a good choice for home gardens or roadside stands. High resistance to red stele and intermediate resistance to verticillium wilt. Berries ripen over a long season."

So far the plants are doing great, despite having nearly the entire bed eaten down to almost nothing twice over the summer by deer. Covering it with old sheets at night helped with that problem.

As difficult as it always is, especially since my old strawberry bed was history this year, I pinched off all the blooms so the plants could focus their energy on building up a strong root system rather than producing berries. For a while I pinched all the runners off, too, but if your plants are as vigorous as these were, this is a job that can easily away from you.

At one point I left the runners that had already rooted themselves into the ground, but snipped the connecting stem from each mother plant. Basically I filled in the empty spaces for free. Then after the deer damage I just left the entire bed alone as I wasn't even sure if it would survive. But the plants came back with a vengeance and the entire bed is now completely filled in.

I already have high hopes for a bumper strawberry crop next spring. While others are busy conjuring up visions of sugarplums during the upcoming holiday season, I'll be dreaming of bowls and bowls of those sweet, jewel-like berries—and there won't be a single turtle in sight!

Other Strawberry Growing Posts:
6/5/05: Strawberries from Garden to Kitchen
5/21/06: A Beautiful Breakfast!
5/27/06: Cary, Bear, and Me vs. The Turtles
5/28/08: Successfully Growing Strawberries
7/20/08: Strawberries in the Garden & an Orange Yogurt Cake Recipe in the Kitchen
9/7/09: How To Grow Bigger Strawberries Next Year

© 2007, the crisp and cool foodie farm blog where there never seem to be enough strawberries.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What To Do With Swiss Chard: Hot Swiss Chard Artichoke Dip Recipe and Other Ways To Cook and Enjoy My Favorite Leafy Green

Chard art

November 2011 update: I share a great new way we enjoy Swiss chard in Wondering What To Do with Swiss Chard? Favorite Recipes and Ways to Use My Favorite Garden Vegetable. Hint: we love our powerful little $50 Waring juicer!

The best Swiss chard you'll ever eat is that which you grow yourself. Find out how easy it is in my post, How To Grow Your Own Swiss Chard from Seed & Why You Should.

While there are endless things you can do in the kitchen with Swiss chard, I have to admit that every year the vast majority of what I grow gets harvested very young and tossed straight into the salad bowl. But of course I eat a lot more salad than normal people.

The flavorful baby leaves are a wonderful stand-in for spinach and can be happily combined with just about any other salad green you can think of.

When I'm lucky, I have more Swiss chard in the garden than even I can eat in salad form. This happened early last spring when two dozen overwintered plants in the greenhouse came back to life with a vengeance.

One of the things I love about Swiss chard is how amazingly big the leaves can get, but when I step inside the greenhouse and feel as if I've suddenly been transported to Jurassic Park, it starts to get a little scary. That's when it's time to whack them down and hit them with some heat, because even the most enormous leaves will shrink down to practically nothing if you cook them.

It never ceases to amaze me that a bowl of bounty nearly too big to get through the door will fit inside a teacup once you cook it. The concentrated amount of nutrients that must be contained in that teacup is mind-boggling.

You'll find bunches of Swiss chard in supermarkets year-round, but freshness and quality can vary greatly. Peak season in most areas is from June through October, though in milder climates you often can find interesting varieties of just-harvested bounty at farmers' markets from early spring until late fall or even early winter. Look for crisp stalks with shiny, unblemished leaves.

Canary Yellow Swiss Chard in the homemade greenhouse last October

Wondering what to do with your Swiss chard? You can't go wrong if you sauté it with chopped fresh garlic in some nice olive oil. And by all means, don't forget the stalks. I chop them up and cook them in the oil until they're soft, then add the coarsely chopped leaves, covering the pan for the first minute or two.

You can add a smidgen of anchovy paste to the oil to coax out flavor (it won't add a fishy taste). Throw in a handful of chopped pancetta or proscuitto, and you'll probably receive a round of applause. A sprinkling of freshly grated Pecorino Romano might be considered over the top, but only by people who haven't yet tried it.

You can use Swiss chard (and many other greens) in place of spinach in virtually any recipe. Try it in lasagna, ravioli and quiche — or even your favorite stuffing. Toss it with pasta or add thin strips to stir-fried rice during the last few minutes of cooking.

Mix chopped fresh chard or kale into pizza sauce or scatter over homemade pizza before adding the cheese. Stir sliced leaves into soups, and slip steamed greens into scrambled eggs, omelets and frittatas. You can even steam Swiss chard stalks and eat them like asparagus.

Need more inspiration? You'll find all sorts of other scrumptious ideas in the comments section of this post. Many thanks to all the In My Kitchen Garden readers who responded to my request to share their favorite ways to eat Swiss chard. And you'll find links to more of my Swiss chard recipes at the bottom of this post.

Do you have a favorite Swiss chard recipe you'd like to share?

One of my favorite ways to enjoy Swiss chard is in this dip I created last spring. This addictive stuff goes well with practically anything: crackers, tortilla chips, toasted or untoasted sourdough baguette slices, fresh veggies, pita chips, even pretzels.

Don't be afraid to think beyond the dip bowl, either—try putting it on baked potatoes or using it in an omelet. I even like it cold.

Farmgirl Susan's Hot Swiss Chard Artichoke Dip Recipe
Makes about 3 cups

My version of the popular spinach artichoke dip is cooked on the stovetop instead of in the oven and uses chopped fresh Swiss chard leaves and stalks in place of frozen spinach, along with plenty of onion and garlic for extra flavor.

It tastes even better if you make it a day ahead and reheat it just before serving, either in the microwave or on the stovetop (you might need to add a splash of milk when reheating on the stove). You can use reduced-fat cream cheese and mayonnaise, as well as low-fat sour cream, if desired.

When I was creating the recipe, I used red Swiss chard for the initial batch, thinking the chopped stems would add nice bits of color. Instead I ended up with pink dip. It tasted great but looked like salmon spread, which might be confusing to eaters. If you're making it for yourself, go ahead and use whatever color chard you like.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion (about 5 ounces)
4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch Swiss chard (about 12 ounces), leaves and stalks separated and both chopped into small pieces
1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts (packed in water), drained and rinsed, chopped into small pieces
4 ounces cream cheese (half of an 8-ounce package), softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1½ cups finely grated Pecorino Romano (or parmesan) cheese (about 4 ounces)
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped scallions or chives for garnish (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add onion and chopped Swiss chard stalks and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently, 2 minutes; do not let garlic brown.

Stir Swiss chard leaves and chopped artichoke hearts into onion mixture. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until chard is tender, about 5 minutes. (Remove lid for last few minutes of cooking if there is liquid in the pot.)

Stir cream cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, Romano cheese and Worcestershire sauce into Swiss chard mixture and cook 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until dip is hot and thick. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve warm, garnished with plenty of chopped scallions or chives, if desired.

Still have some Swiss chard left? You might enjoy these recipes:
Healthy Swiss Chard Tuna Salad with Scallions & Kalamata Olives
Swiss Chard Cabbage Salad with Garbanzo Beans & Cottage Cheese
Swiss Chard & Artichoke Soup

Swiss Chard & Artichoke 'White' Pizza

Can't survive on leafy greens alone? You'll find links to all my sweet and savory Less Fuss, More Flavor recipes in the Farmgirl Fare Recipe Index.

©, the chard crazy foodie farm blog where Farmgirl Susan shares stories & photos of her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

What's Growin' On 10/2/07: Blink And It's Gone

Golden Globe Turnip & Blue Curled Scotch Kale Seedlings

Realization Of The Day:
It's October.

It's October?! What the heck happened to September?

While there isn't often a whole lot of excitement in the garden in October (unless you count my jumping for joy that the majority of damaging insects have finally disappeared), it's my favorite month on the farm. Autumn doesn't last long in southern Missouri, but when it's here it's very comfortable and very beautiful. In a good year, the colors of the turning leaves rival those in New England. No, really.

The doors and windows of The Shack still stand wide open, and it cools down pleasantly at night, though not enough to warrant having to start up the woodstove yet. That means we aren't hauling firewood into the living room half a dozen times a day, although we do need to start cutting some. This year's woodpile (which is our main source of heat throughout winter) is pretty much non-existent. Okay, there's no pretty much about it, it's non-existent. Months of sweltering heat and humidity make it incredibly easy to ignore that fact--every single year.

Since I haven't been busy dealing with firewood, I did have a chance to plant some fall crops. The seedlings you see above were direct seeded on September 15th, and I guess I was a little heavy handed with the sprinkling. They're in dire need of thinning, but too much germination is always better than not enough. And the cute baby sprouts will be tasty and nutritious additions to the salad bowl.

I planted these seeds in the taller of the two mini greenhouse beds, so once it starts freezing at night I'll cover the frame with thick clear plastic. (Note: there's construction information for the mini greenhouse beds in the comments section of that link. And for those of you who have been asking about what the layout of my garden looks like, you can see most of it in the photos, though it's been expanded since then.) Since I planted only crops that thrive in cool weather in there, I'm hoping to extend my harvest well into winter.

I've had pretty good luck growing turnips over the years. You can read more about my experiences here, including growing tips and how to harvest from your turnip plants all year long.

One of my favorite ways to use turnips is in Garlic Lover's White Bean Soup, a tasty, easy, and oh-so-comforting recipe. It also happens to be vegan and fat free, but you don't have to tell anybody those details unless you want to.

I started plenty of other seeds as well, including several types of Oriental greens, though not everything I'd hoped to. Five raised beds and not a single lettuce seed sown anywhere! I'm telling myself there's still time, but at the rate time has been speeding by, I'm going to blink and it'll be Christmas. Lettuce seeds started or not, I can only hope that my beloved October will stick around long enough for me to enjoy it.

© 2007, the award-winning blog where Farmgirl Susan shares stories & photos of her crazy country life on 240 remote acres.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How To Grow Your Own Swiss Chard From Seed & Why You Should

Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard in the homemade greenhouse last November.

Looking for Swiss chard recipes? Here are some of my favorites:
What To Do With Swiss Chard—Hot Swiss Chard Artichoke Dip Recipe & Other Ways To Cook & Enjoy My Favorite Leafy Green
Healthy Swiss Chard Tuna Salad with Scallions & Kalamata Olives
Swiss Chard Cabbage Salad with Garbanzo Beans & Cottage Cheese
Swiss Chard and Artichoke Soup

Swiss Chard and Artichoke 'White' Pizza

The year I turned 30, I had two friends who turned 60, and I took full advantage of the situation. "Save me some trouble," I said, "and tell me the most valuable thing you've learned in the last 30 years."

The first one offered up a piece of advice I've tried to abide by ever since. He said, "Be happy, not resentful or envious, when good things happen to other people." But it was seven words of wisdom from the second friend that truly changed my life: "Always plant Swiss chard in the garden."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What's Growin' On 9/22/07: Packing Back Up The Polarfleece & Putting Purple Basil To Good Use

No Worries Yet For This Cold Intolerant Purple Basil

Realization Of The Day:
Mother Nature is a tease.

Or maybe she's simply bored and figured she'd have some laughs by torturing us here in Missouri. All I know is that our recent little cold snap was a very false alarm.

Last Saturday morning it was 40 degrees. As someone who would be perfectly thrilled if the temperature never again went above 70, I celebrated by diving into a tub labled 'polarfleece,' emerging triumphantly with a cozy pullover and the lime green pajama pants decorated with sheep and stars that my mother once gave me for Christmas. (The Shack is not equipped with closets, so we live out of stacks and stacks of large plastic containers.) I flung a giant polarfleece blanket on the bed, slipped on thick fuzzy socklets, and dusted off the teakettle. While my first cup of hot tea in months sat steeping, I wondered if I had enough clear plastic sheeting to cover the several raised beds I'd just seeded with fall crops so the soil would stay warm enough for the seeds to germinate.

Then it heated back up. By mid-afternoon Sunday I'd convinced myself there was no ignoring summer's return, and that sweating to death in a cotton turtleneck out of protest wouldn't do any good. I reluctantly changed into a tank top, made some iced tea, and stuffed all the polarfleece back into their bins. Today's forecast predicted a high of 89 degrees.

The good news is that most of the seeds I planted have already sprouted. I even bothered to write down what I planted where. (I'll post a complete list in the next few days.) And, as Joe correctly pointed out, just a couple of sweltering weeks ago I would have been thrilled to hear that it was only supposed to be in the upper 80s.

As for this striking purple basil plant, it's no longer draped with a floating row cover to protect it from the cold and will probably be safe outside for at least another week or two. The green basil surrounding it was turned into my favorite pesto a few weeks ago, though I did follow my own advice and left the stripped plants in the ground. The purple basil is ready to be picked now, but, as pathetic as this sounds, I'm not sure what to do with it. I love fresh basil in all kinds of dishes, and I love the color of these leaves, especially how they're outlined in green, but the thought of blackish purple basil pesto--or blackish purple basil anything for that matter--just doesn't seem appealing.

A friend suggested I make basil vinegar with it. You fill a large jar with half white vinegar, half cider vinegar, then stuff it with purple basil and let it steep for a week. Strain it and pour the resulting gorgeous magenta vinegar into a pretty bottle with a few sprigs of fresh basil. That sounds nice, but I'm not sure what I'd do with it. I'm really not very creative when it comes to using herbs in the kitchen. I also never use white vinegar, preferring white balsamic instead, which I suppose would work, too. It would certainly be nice to look at sitting on a kitchen shelf, but she says you need to store the vinegar in a dark place in order for it to retain its color.

So help me out here. If you had a beautiul purple basil plant in your garden, or a bottle of magenta basil vinegar in your pantry, what would you do with them?

© 2007, the award-winning blog where Farmgirl Susan shares stories & photos of her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Another Less Fuss, More Flavor Recipe: The Easiest Greek Salad Ever

This beautiful summer salad is so full of flavor it doesn't even need dressing.

The way I cooked, ate, bought, and even thought about food all changed dramatically when I left urban Northern California for rural Missouri 13 years ago. Most of this was a direct result of space and availability. Moving from a 900 square-foot cottage with a postage-stamp sized yard to a couple of hundred acres meant there was space for a large kitchen garden, space for chest freezers, space for animals to graze.

Availability was a different story. Relocating from one of the undisputed gastronomic capitals of the world to the middle of nowhere in middle America meant that a lot of food purchasing options disappeared. Order Chinese take-out or have a pizza delivered? Neither. Dash to the store for proscuitto, kohlrabi, sherry wine vinegar? Forget it. Buying parsley or cilantro means 80 miles of driving. One learns to adapt.

My food philosophy these days can pretty much be summed up by the phrase Less Fuss, More Flavor. And what that simply means is this: the better your ingredients, the less you have to mess with them.

Of course some might argue that growing two dozen types of salad greens or putting up 100 pounds of tomatoes or raising your own lamb and beef constitutes a fair amount of fuss. But the nice thing is that if you start with the best, then at the end of the day when you're tired and sore and starving to death, a meal fit for even the most gourmet gourmand can be ready in a snap.

A typical late summer dinner for us might include grilled lamb chops or lamb leg steaks (I love these!), the last of the French filet beans in the garden, and some freshly dug Yukon Gold potatoes (because the best way to store your potatoes is to leave them in the ground). Now sure, you could marinate the lamb for hours with garlic and fresh herbs and all sorts of other delightful stuff, make the delicious sounding but 4-step Warm Green Bean, Pancetta & Tomato Salad with Parmesan in the issue of Fine Cooking I had sitting on the kitchen counter for months (but never actually made), and turn the potatoes into some gorgeous, creamy gratin. But the point is, you don't have to.

More often than not, the lamb gets tossed straight onto the grill, and the beans and potatoes are cooked up (steamed just until tender and boiled, respectively) and served with nothing more than a little organic butter and some nice salt and pepper. Less Fuss, More Flavor allows you to be lazy in the kitchen—without anyone ever realizing it.

A crusty loaf of homemade crusty bread (I always bake three or four loaves at a time and freeze them) and an heirloom tomato salad round things out. Except for a platter of plain sliced tomatoes, which often appears at our table, you can't get much simpler than this bare bones Greek style salad.

So what's your favorite Less Fuss, More Flavor recipe?

Farmgirl Susan's Simplest Greek Salad
Serves at least one

This pared-down version contains just five ingredients, so using the finest of each is of utmost importance. Juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes are the key, which means this is a Summer Only recipe. Stuff yourself silly on it now, and let the memories keep you satiated through the rest of the year.

Most Greek salads call for various other ingredients, some traditional and some not. Everybody seems to have their own favorite version. I used to add olive oil and vinegar but don't bother anymore. I've listed several optional additions below, though none are necessary. I didn't even put salt & pepper in the batch pictured here, though I did add a large handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley.

If you're a nibbler like me, bear in mind that the more complicated the recipe gets, the longer you'll have to fill yourself up while putting it together. Many Greek salad recipes call for cutting the vegetables into large pieces, but I like them on the small side because I'm one of those people who wants a taste of every thing in every bite.

Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) aren't traditional, but I'm addicted to them and will toss them into practically anything when I'm not snacking on them straight from the can (I do rinse them first). Flavorwise, they fit right in here, and they give the salad a fiber and protein boost as well, which can be important if this ends up being your entire meal, like it was for me tonight.

Organic garbanzo beans are a bargain and should be a staple in everyone's pantry. You can find them in many places for under a dollar a can, including at Whole Foods Market, where they'll give you an extra discount if you stock up and buy a dozen cans at a time.

One large cucumber, cut into dice
Several vine-ripened tomatoes, preferably freshly picked, organically grown heirlooms (a variety of colors is nice), cut into small chunks
A handful of kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
A generous handful of fresh basil, chopped
A hunk of the nicest feta cheese you can find, preferably made from sheep's milk
Splash of brine from the olives or feta

Optional additions:
Garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
Salt & pepper to taste
Olive oil
Your favorite vinegar
Fresh lemon juice
Fresh garlic
Fresh oregano
Flat-leaf parsley
Anchovies, laid on top or a smidge of anchovy paste mixed in
Red onion
Sweet red peppers
Green bell peppers

Place cucumber, tomatoes, olives, basil, and half the feta cheese (crumbled) in a large bowl along with any desired additional ingredients. Gently toss with a large spoon until combined. Sprinkle with remaining feta cheese just before serving. Alternatively, you can whisk together an olive-oil based dressing and then toss it with the rest of the ingredients.

This salad tastes best if you mix it up and then let it sit for an hour or two at room temperature so the flavors can mingle, but it's delicious even in the making, which is of course how I always eat it.

Tomatoes lose their flavor when refrigerated, so don't make enough for leftovers—just mix up another batch.

Still have more tomatoes left? You'll find links to all my Less Fuss, More Flavor tomato recipes at the end of this post.

©, the freshly picked foodie farm blog where Farmgirl Susan shares recipes, stories, & photos of her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres—and we never get tired of tomatoes, though each summer we try our very best.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What's Growin' On 9/11/07:
Welcoming Autumn With Open Arms

Sedum Autumn Joy Flowers Change Color As The Weeks Go By

Realization Of The Day:
And just like that summer ended.

What a change! It's like I went to bed last night and woke up in another season.

Yesterday was 84 degrees, hot and humid and still. Sweat poured down my face and biting insects attacked as I transformed one of the 4-foot by 8-foot raised garden beds from weed choked nightmare into beautiful bare ground so I can
sow seeds for fall greens. (That always feels so good, doesn't it?)

At dusk I had a sudden urge (brought on, no doubt, by the pound of leftover
pizza dough in the fridge) to harvest the bulk of my basil patch, and last night found me whizzing up two batches of my favorite pesto and swooning over freshly baked tomato pesto pizza long past the hour that will soon mark my bedtime.

This morning dawned cool and crisp and breezier than it's been in weeks. The air conditioner in my little office has been finally turned off, and the windows are wide open. Tonight it's supposed to drop down into the 40s. Autumn is blowing in, and I am welcoming her with open arms.

happy hour in the garden. Cheers!

Want to see more?
You'll find all sorts of butterflies and other pollinators here. More flower photos can be found here.

© 2007, the award-winning blog where Farmgirl Susan shares stories & photos of her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What's Growin' On 9/10/07:
Planning & Planting The Fall Garden

Golden California Wonder Pepper Ready To Pick

Realization Of The Day:
The best thing about this year's summer gardening season is that it's almost over.

Spring wasn't real great either, but it did give me my best spinach crop ever (I ate spinach salad for weeks from one 4-foot by 8-foot raised bed), as well as that
long and glorious lettuce season. I had so much lettuce I was eating it for breakfast. And of course in spring there's always the prospect of all that glorious summer bounty to come. Which mostly didn't. It's no wonder I haven't written anything here in months. (Welcome to all the new subscribers!)

I did learn a few things, though, including the fact that I really need to focus on growing more fall and winter crops. Now I just need to plant some.

I was shocked the other day when I realized I'd taken
this photo of gorgeous, freshly picked autumn greens last year on October 4th. I've been so busy watering and sweating to death over the past couple of months that I didn't start any seeds for fall. No pak choy, no Swiss chard, no lettuce, no endive or escarole, no spinach, no kale, no turnips, no beets, not even any of my beloved Nero di Toscana cat cabbage

Fortunately it shouldn't be too late to plant an autumn garden here in southern Missouri. The official frost date isn't until October 15th (though ours often arrives earlier since we're tucked down in a little valley), and the weather can be fairly mild into November. All sorts of salad greens, as well as other vegetables such as kohlrabi, cabbage, and brussels sprouts thrive in cooler weather, and many taste better if they've been subjected to a couple of frosts.

Greenhouse Permanent Arugula Bed On November 8th, 2006

Last winter as I harvested arugula leaves from the same big bug-free plants for weeks without them turning bitter or bolting, I realized that this easy to grow green actually
thrives in cold weather.

In areas such as the South and the West Coast, you should be able to plant now and continue eating from your garden straight through winter and right into spring.

We're still seeing temperatures in the mid 80s on
the farm, but yellow leaves have begun speckling some of the trees, and the nights are finally cooling down. We've even had some much needed rain. Best of all, the last chigger bite of the year is thankfully in sight.

My appetite for tending to my garden--and my garden journal--has returned. So if you'll excuse me, I have some serious weeding and seeding to do.

How did your summer grow? Successes? Failures? Lessons learned you can pass on to the rest of us?

Coming Up (and this time I really mean it):
--The Easiest Greek Salad Ever
--How to grow Swiss chard from seed, plus two of my favorite Less Fuss, More Flavor Swiss chard recipes
--What I learned this year about growing garlic
--Review of a new dandy little gardening book

Ideas & Inspiration For Your Autumn Garden:
My Review of The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, my favorite gardening book
Building My Inexpensive Greenhouse
Planting My Fall 2006 Garden Part I
Planting My Fall 2006 Garden Part II
Planting My Fall 2006 Garden Part III
How To Grown Your Own Gourmet Lettuce From Seed: It's easier than you think!
How To Go From Seed To Salad Bowl In Less Than A Month: Growing arugula, lettuce, and more, even if you don't have an actual garden
How To Grow Beets From Seed & Why You Should
How To Grow Turnips From Seed And What To Do With Them
How To Grow Endive & Escarole From Seed And What To Do With Them
How To Grow Nero di Toscana Cat Cabbage From Seed And What To Do With It
How To Make It Rain On Your Garden
Pollinators In The Garden

Enjoying The Late Summer Harvest Now:
My Less Fuss, More Flavor Fresh Pizza Sauce
Savory Tomato Pesto Pie
Tomato Pesto Pizza, My Favorite Basil Pesto Recipe, & The Simplest Tomato Salad
Three No-Cook Summer Recipes:Mexican Jumping Bean Slaw, Easy Vegetarian Tacos & High Kickin' Creamy Tomato Dressing
Baby Cream Cheese & Tomato Sandwiches On Italian Black Olive Cheeks
My Seven Second Tomato Glut Solution
Colors Of Summer Salad
Summer In A Bowl
Making & Using Arugula Pesto
My Super Simple Spinach Soup Recipe
Caramelized Beets With Garlic
Herbed Yogurt Cheese Recipe & How To Make Homemade Yogurt
Fast Farm Food: Lettuce For Breakfast? Why not!
My Basic Summer Squash Soup Recipe
My Simple Summer Harvest Soup
My Simple Summer Harvest Soup--The Autumn Version
The Easiest Broccoli Soup Ever
Apple Blueberry Crumble Bars
Just Peachy Blueberry Breakfast Bars

And Later:
Don't Cut Your Basil Season Short!
How To Freeze Sweet Peppers
How To Freeze Zucchini & My One Claim To Fame
What To Do With All Those Green Tomatoes? Make My Easy Salsa-Style Green Tomato Relish!
Quality for Keeps: A Comprehensive Guide To Freezing Vegetables from the University of Missouri Extension Center
The Ball Home Canning Basics Kit includes everything you need get started canning.
I can't imagine life without a FoodSaver and use mine to seal everything from green beans to wild venison to chainsaw chains (it keeps them from rusting). I've found it's more economical to make my own custom bags using two different sized rolls of the FoodSaver bag material.

© 2007, the award-winning blog where Farmgirl Susan shares stories & photos of her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

How To Grow Your Own Gourmet Lettuce From Seed - It's Easier Than You Think!

Jericho Lettuce In My Garden On May 8th

Looking for lettuce growing tips? You'll find even more in my post, Lettuce and Arugula in the Garden, with Step-by-Step Photos Showing How To Grow Arugula from Seed in Less than a Month. Happy growing!

I don't think about salad the same way normal people do. I've even started eating it for breakfast. You can read more about this obsession on my food and farm blog, Farmgirl Fare, in a post called On Loving Lettuce.

Lettuce was one of the few things I managed to plant on time this year, and am I glad I did. It's an iffy spring crop in southern Missouri. We usually have at least a few days in the 90s in April—which in itself can be enough to ruin your crop—and it's always a toss up as to whether May will behave itself and stay mild or jump headfirst into summer. This year it behaved, and I harvested gorgeous lettuce every day for weeks.

Today I enjoyed the last of my stash in the fridge, and my salads will now be lettuceless at least until early fall. But if you live in a place where summers are mild (oh how I envy you!), it's not too late to plant, and growing your own lettuce from seed is easier than you might think.

Merveille de Quatre Saisons Lettuce on May 8th

You can tuck a little lettuce almost anywhere, even in spots that are mostly shaded. The only pests that touch the lettuce in my organic kitchen garden are ravaging rabbits. If slugs or snails are a problem in your area, a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth on and around the plants should take care of them.

Diatomaceous earth is an all-natural pesticide made of finely ground fossils of prehistoric freshwater diatoms and can be used indoors and out to kill all kinds of creeping and crawling insects. We buy food grade diatomaceous earth in 50-pound bags and feed it to our livestock (and even the dogs) as a natural wormer.

Don’t have a 'real' garden? Lettuce will happily grow in containers, and since it doesn’t require two feet of soil depth, something short and wide is ideal, such as a plastic dish tub or one of the large plastic bus tubs restaurants use to hold dirty dishes.

For years my lettuce planting schedule went like this: start numerous little flats of seeds in mid-winter, only get around to transplanting a small fraction of the tiny seedlings into individual plugs, then only get around to transplanting a small fraction of those into the garden.

I now take a much lazier approach—and end up with a much bigger harvest.

Simply scatter your seeds onto some nice dirt (compost and manure are excellent soil amendments), then sprinkle them with a light layer of soil or compost, barely covering them. Water well, then sit back and wait, daydreaming of the beautiful bounty you are bringing to life.

You can begin harvesting after only a few weeks—just snip what you need with scissors and leave the plants to continue growing. What I've started doing is sowing the seeds very thickly (which virtually eliminates weeds), then as soon as the plants have a few bite-sized leaves I start to thin them out. And I just keep thinning.

I reach in, pluck out a few of the crowded plants from several different spots, and I swear by the next day the remaining plants have already taken over the empty spaces. You can see in this photo how big the plants with more space have already become.

Newly Planted Lettuce Bed On March 21st

One of the best things about growing lettuce from seed is that there are dozens of varieties available. While the phrase 'picture pefect' rarely applies to my garden unless I’m daydreaming, I did do some aesthetically pleasing, taste-test planting this year.

I divided a 4' x 8' raised bed into eight squares and planted a different type of heat tolerant, slow-to-bolt lettuce in each. I separated the squares with rows of French Breakfast and Easter Egg radishes, which are easy to grow and ready in under a month—just be sure to thin the young seedlings so the rest will have enough room to mature.

Apart from the Red Deer's Tongue, a loose head bib type variety believed to have originated in the mid 16th century, that was a no-show, my experiment was an eye-pleasing, tasty success. The other varieties I planted were Buttercrunch, which I adore; Gentilina, an Italian variety with bright green, frizzled, leafy heads; Jericho, a crisp, sweet cos type bred for the deserts of Israel and pictured at the top of this post; New Red Fire, which has deep red frilly leaves and is extremely slow to bolt; Merveille de Quatre Saisons, a reddish green bibb type; Tom Thumb, which produces a 6" to 7" dark green butterhead in 47 days; and Winter Density, a compact 8" Romaine with thick dark green leaves full of flavor.

Can’t make up your mind which kind of lettuce to plant? Packets of salad mixes are the way to go. I’ve been growing the Rocky Top Lettuce Blend from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds for years.

Pictured here is a 4' x 8' raised bed of Baker Creek’s European Mesclun Mix I planted in late March that went gangbusters (the closeup photo further up is of this same bed). The Baker Creek catalog says this colorful mix, which includes lettuce, radicchio, arugula, endive, orach, mizuna, kale, mustard, and corn salad, is a favorite with market growers and has flavors that range from sweet-mild to sour-hot-tangy. Talk about some truly gorgeous salads.

Another easy to grow from seed heirloom variety of lettuce I like is Freckles, which you can read more about here.

The main thing to remember when growing lettuce is that heat is its bitter enemy— literally. Even a few days in the upper 80s or 90s can have your whole crop tasting terrible. This is very, very depressing.

A partly shaded garden spot is best. The next best thing is to create some comfortable shade for your plants. If the thermometer reads 90 degrees in the shade, it'll feel a whole lot hotter than if you're standing in the sun for eight hours. You can learn more about how I create garden shade in Gardening on the Cheap: How To Quickly and Easily Shade Lettuce and Other Plants and Why You Should.

If you’re growing in containers, you can move them in and out of the sun. Put large, heavy pots on wheeled bases for effortless rearranging—a trick I learned from my friend Cookiecrumb, who successfully grows containers of tomatoes on a small condo patio by rolling them into the sun.

On the other end of the thermometer, lettuce is quite cold hardy and can survive light frosts. I’ve had uncovered lettuce subjected to 24 degrees, and it thawed out just fine once the sun hit it. Floating row cover is wonderful stuff that will give you about 5 degrees of protection, while still allowing light and rain to penetrate. If you treat it well, it can last for years. An old bedsheet draped over your plants is another easy way to protect them.

So what are you waiting for? Sow some seeds today, and you’ll be harvesting glorious green bounty in less than a month. Just make sure you plant enough—I’m sure I can’t be the only lettuce overeater out there.

More posts about some of my favorite things to grow:

Related articles & resources:

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition by Ed Smith. This has been my favorite gardening book for the past 7 11 years, and I highly recommend it for kitchen gardeners of all levels, especially beginners. It's full of wonderful tips and is always the first book I turn to when I have a garden question.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a wonderful family owned company located here in Missouri, sells over two dozen varieties of lettuce in packets of 700 seeds for $1.25 to $1.50 each. Salad blend packets contain 1,200 seeds and cost $2.50. I’ve been buying seeds from them for years. They offer over 1,000 types of non-hybrid, non-GMO, non-treated, non-patented and often very rare seeds from all over the world.

Pinetree Garden Seeds in Maine is another company I’ve been ordering from for years. They specialize in smaller packets of seeds for the backyard gardener and offer many varieties of lettuce seeds, including a few of their own special mixes. Packets of 500 seeds sell for just 65 to 95 cents each. They also sell all kinds of reasonably priced garden & kitchen tools and gadgets.

© 2007, the dirty handed foodie farm blog where Farmgirl Susan shares photos & stories of her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

What's Growin' On: 6/21/07

Flowering Radishes In The Garden

Realization Of The Day:
I need to put up something here--anything. Even if it is just a picture of a couple of little radish flowers.

I have no idea how it got to be the first day of summer already. It seems like just last week I was covering up plants in the greenhouse and fretting about that nasty hard freeze in April. Okay, maybe not last week. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the flurry of passing time--and unflurry of activity in your garden--know that you're not alone.

I started in March 2006 as a personal online gardening journal, a sort of side dish to Farmgirl Fare, my food and farm blog, that would hopefully help me keep better track of my efforts in the garden. Last year was a definite success. It's wonderful to be able to look back at all the growings-on, especially since I have to admit I've already forgotten many of the details.

I'm also a little in awe. How in the world did I have time to not only do so much in the garden, but document it all as well? Lambing Season 2007, my biggest and busiest yet, had something to do with it I know, but that excuse only lasts so long. And it ended quite a while ago.

Nearly every day I've taken photos of the garden, had all sorts of realizations, and written up dozens of blog posts in my head. But they must have been rootbound because none of them ever made it as far as my typing fingers.

I consider myself incredibly behind in the garden this year (I actually bought tomato and pepper plants for the first time since I've lived in the country!), but at the same time, a lot has been happening.

In early March I seeded an entire 4' x 8' raised bed with spinach and had my best crop ever, harvesting scrumptious baby leaves for at least a month and a half.

I spent weeks and weeks picking all sorts of gorgeous lettuces that had so much flavor I often found myself shaking my head in disbelief.

I grew two types of radishes, ate my fill sliced in salads, then waited until there was enough to use in a recipe for braised radishes a Farmgirl Fare reader had suggested, prepped the harvest, and promptly forgot about it in the refrigerator--then learned that even baby chicks will turn up their beaks at aged radishes.

I put in a new strawberry bed.

I foolishly planted seeds of my two of my favorite varieties of skinny little bush beans in late March, Straight'N'Narrow and Masai, which all sprouted (something that rarely happens for one reason or another) and then all promptly froze to death, despite my covering them with floating row covers and old bedsheets.

I just got around to re-planting both types of beans this past week.

I did, and am still doing, a lot of bizarre experimenting, mostly due to running late and laziness.

I succeeded in having Swiss chard either ready to pick or in the fridge ready to be eaten almost every single day of last fall, winter, and spring.

I totally forgot to start any basil seeds.

I stopped long enough to notice just how pretty tiny radish flowers are.

I finally put up something on my long neglected garden blog.

It should only get easier from here. Happy first day of summer. And a big hello to all the new readers and e-mail subscribers.

Coming Up:
--How to grow your own gourmet lettuce--it's easier than you might think!
--How to grow Swiss chard from seed & why you should, plus two original Swiss chard recipes I'm now addicted to.
--More regularly scheduled posts--I hope.

Monday, April 23, 2007

How To Grow Beets from Seed & Why You Should

Last spring I experimented and sowed baby beet seeds between rows of onions.

February 2012 Update: You'll find more about growing beets in this new post, Garden Journal 2/25/12: Sorting Through My Seed Stash, Beet Growing Tips, and Planting by the Moon.

I have no idea why I first started growing beets, since I had never eaten one in my life. The only time I had come face to face with any was during childhood, when scary looking, reddish-purple discs would sometimes appear on restaurant salads.

Fortunately my mother was quick to reach over and stab the offending things with her fork, always murmuring "I love beets!" as she popped them into her mouth.

Even if you don't like beets (those scary canned specimens don't count), you should still sow a few rows of beet seeds in your garden this year. Why? Well, just look at this photo of Bull's Blood beet 'greens' overwintered last year in my barely heated Zone 5 homemade greenhouse. Has there been anything so beautiful gracing your salad plate lately? I didn't think so.

Beets are not only very easy to grow but are also extremely good for you. Beets from the garden are like nothing you will find in the supermarket produce aisle. And while I have been known to devour an embarrassingly large plate of Caramelized Beets & Garlic (the only way I ever cook beets), I mainly grow beets for their greens.

Bull's Blood is one of my favorite varieties to grow. Its roots are sweet and tasty, especially when small, and they have lovely pink rings inside. But I recently learned that this popular heirloom is actually grown primarily for its baby leaves, which are ready in as little as 35 days and are, according to my Baker's Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog, "all the rage in salads."

The folks at High Mowing Organic Seeds claim that they're organic gardening pioneer "Eliot Coleman's choice for a red leaf in winter harvest salad mixes." I had no idea I was so chic.

Beets come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and even colors. Along with my beloved Bull's Blood, this year I'm growing several different other types, including three new-to-me heirlooms: Golden, Chioggia, and Flat of Egypt. Not quite ready to grow your own beets? (Why on earth not?) You can often find interesting varieties of beets at farmers' markets.

Direct seeding in the garden is the easiest way to grow beets. They can be grown in most types of soil but prefer that it be deep, well-drained, and includes plenty of organic material, such as compost or aged manure. Too much nitrogen will cause beets to produce lots of greens but little roots.

Soak beet seeds in water for 24 hours before planting to aid germination. Beets prefer cool weather. For an early summer crop, sow seeds in a sunny spot, 3 to 4 weeks before your last frost.
Plant seeds 1/2-inch deep, 2 inches apart if growing for greens, 3 to 4 inches apart if growing for the roots (but you can still harvest the greens, too).

Sow seeds again in late summer for a fall crop. In frost free areas, you can do a third planting in September for a February harvest.

If you prefer a smaller, continuous harvest instead of one big one (and if you're more organized than I am), sow some of your seeds every two weeks instead of all at once.

If you're minding the moon signs, sow beet seeds in the third quarter, under the signs of Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces, Libra, and Capricorn. I plant by the moon as best I can because I need all the help I can get. Astrological Gardening The Ancient Wisdom of Successful Planting & Harvesting by the Stars by Louise Riotte is a great book on the subject.

Good companions for beets: bush beans, the cabbage family, corn, leeks, lettuce, lima beans, onions, and radishes.

Bad companions: mustard and pole beans. Want to learn more about using the natural benefits of plants to protect and support each other? Louise Riotte's Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening is a classic guide with over 500,000 copies in print.

Cluster of beet greens, all sprouted from one seed -

Each beet 'seed' is actually a dried fruit made up of 2 to 6 individual seeds, so seedlings will sprout very close together. Everything in this photo came from one seed cluster.

If you plan to harvest the beet roots as well as the greens, thin the seedlings when they're about 2" high, choosing the best looking one in each cluster. Use scissors to snip the seedlings at soil level so as not to disturb the remaining plant. Be sure to toss the tender young leaves into salads.

Thinning beet greens in the kitchen garden with baby Cary
Thinning beets with Baby Cary back in 2006.

When growing beets for greens, you can thin the plants over time as they grow larger, as pictured above, giving you a bigger harvest.

The weedy raised beet bed supplies goodies for the chickens, me, and the compost bin.

Beets require even moisture, so don't let the soil dry out. Mulch will help keep the soil moist and the beets cool, as well as discourage weeds; I like to use grass clippings. I also sprinkle compost over the newly planted seeds and around the sprouted plants. You can sow your beets next to taller companion plants that will shade the soil, but be sure you don't end up blocking out all the sun (been there, done that).

Harvest beet roots when they're 1½ inches to 3 inches in diameter for optimum flavor, tenderness, and texture. According to The Vegetable Gardener's Bible
(my favorite gardening book for the past 12 years that still teaches me something new every time I open it), to minimize 'bleeding' when removing the greens, which can reduce moisture content in the root, avoid cutting them off. Instead, hold the root in one hand and twist the tops off with the other hand. (I read this tip after cutting the greens off the beets in the photo below.)

A tiny but tasty beet harvest.

One of the best things about homegrown beets is that even if you abuse them, they will still taste delicious. The hardy plants will put up with frosty mornings as well as hot and humid summer days. The beets you see here were planted late and thinned too late. They were also left in the ground until July 31st, so some of them ended up much too big—and looking a little strange.

I then stuffed my poor harvest in a plastic bag and stashed it in the refrigerator for two months because I wanted to save it for my mother's upcoming visit. I was sure the beets would be tough and woody (not to mention half rotten), but I should have known better—beets from the garden do not hold a grudge. They were wonderful.

More posts about some of my favorite things to grow:
Favorite Heirloom Tomatoes to Grow—Mine and Yours
Growing Onions in the Garden
Growing Short Day Onion Varieties from Purchased Plants
Harvesting Spring Onions Grown from Purchased Plants
Endive and Escarole in the Kitchen and Garden
Growing Lemon Cucumbers from Seed
Growing Miniature White Cucumbers from Seed
My Favorite Heirloom Carrots (so far) to Grow from Seed: Parisienne

How to Grow Swiss Chard from Seed
How To Grow Nero di Toscana Cabbage (also called Dinosaur Kale, Lacinato Kale, Tuscan Kale, Cavalo Nero) and What to do with It
How To Grow Your Own Gourmet Lettuce from Seed (It's easy!)
How To Grow Arugula from Seed in Less than a Month
Tips for Growing & Using Rosemary Year Round

Recommended Reading: The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Ed Smith. This has been my favorite gardening book since it was published in 2000, and I highly recommend it for kitchen gardeners of all levels.

©, the sprouting foodie farm blog where you know the beet goes on.