27 November, 2011

Gardening at Year's End

I hope all of you enjoyed Thanksgiving and resisted the temptation to go shopping instead of watching football. Looking back on your Turkey Day munch fest was there anything on the table from your garden or a guests garden. Where did your feast come from? How far did the rutabagas have to travel to each your table and were they fresh?
"Fresh rutabagas"? you might ask. Well that may be a stretch since the lowly rutabaga is often an after thought it is just something that is always on the table even though few really eat them. Then again it is one of those yellow vegetables we keep hearing we should be eating. But they just taste so................(fill in the blank expletives deleted).

Well the problem therein may not be so much the taste but the source. Grant you I do not think there is much you can do to improve on the flavor of rutabagas and their taste cousins turnips. They just taste the way they taste. I like turnips and rutabagas in small doses. My wife will not even let them be stored in the fridge. She cannot stand the aroma let alone the taste. 

But does everything just have to taste the way it tastes? There are certain inherent taste profiles that science cannot change no matter how GMOing they try to do. I think the same can be said about heirlooming our gardens to death as well. A lot has to do with in my opinion fear of change or love of old. Remember when Coke got in trouble for introducing new Coke. That was the first Occupy Movement. Downtown Atlanta was packed with protesters claiming new coke was horrible. In Actuality blind taste tests proved otherwise with new Coke winning hands down.

So could it be the same with our gardens. Do we fear Franken-beans because they were made in a laboratory by men in white coats and pocket protectors? Do we love Grandma's variety of beans because they are so familiar? Could be. There is more truth in clinging to something old than venturing into the great unknown. 

But let's get back to Thanksgiving dinner, or what is left of it. I ask again do you know where your food came from. I know the herbs used in the stuffing and in other dishes came from basement. Fresh parsley, basil, thyme and more are thriving under grow lights growing in a rich oxygenated bath of nutrient wealthy water. Some onions came from a sort of root cellar known as the unheated extra bathroom just off the kitchen. My onions are much smaller than what one buys at the market but the flavor is huge due  their being fresh from this years garden. In fact onions were one of the few crops that thrived this year in my garden.

Need some proof to my pudding? While it may not be possible to grow rutabagas indoors this winter you can grow a Simon and Garfunkel garden, Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme whether or not you've ever been to Scarborough Fair. To get a bigger crop quicker place them under grow lights where they will get 12 hours of light a day. Check out a system of hydroponics called Deep Water Culture where plants really take off and grow like crazy.

And consider where your food really comes from....................

Will rutabagas make it to your root cellar next year, how about onions and potatoes?

Whatever makes it to your table will taste better if it is local..........and nothing is more local than your backyard.

24 June, 2011

garden article: Demystifying Herbs for cooking and more

Herbs are as popular as ever despite the fact there are not many new varieties overtaking the market. Seemingly every day there is a new variety of some outrageous ornamental flower that promises to revolutionize the floriculture industry. It is very strange to see how many new flowers are coming on to the market being the economy and garden trends are for more home food gardens rather than flower gardens. There are a few new varieties of vegetables that have come to market or at least become popular such as Patio Tomato and grape tomatoes. Herbs on the other hand have seen little in the way of new varieties with claims coming anywhere near those of flowers. So what then leads to herbs continued and ever growing popularity in the home garden?
The answer is actually quite simple. Herbs continue to do this day what they have done for centuries, outperform most other crops in their ease of growth and dependability. Yes holistic and medicinal uses have helped support and spur the growth of herbs in the gardens. But the natural home remedies are not enough to keep the herbal engine running. Good old fashioned "word of mouth." I mean word of mouth in the eating sense not just the talking sense.
I have determined in my opinion that the huge increase in "foodies" and wannbe foodies has been the driving force behind the continued and growing popularity of herbs. simply put herbs taste great and add multiple dimensions to any dish no matter how few the ingredients. I love perusing cookbooks to read how recipes are derived at. What I do not like are recipes that call for huge numbers of ingredients. Yes they do add a lot of ingredients add subtle nuances to the flavor palette. But multitudes of ingredients are not necessary to improve the flavor and taste of any dish.
The best way to  take the mystery out of herbs is to group them together in a themed garden. That way a simple trip to a themed garden plot in the backyard promises instant success in the kitchen. And by themed gardens I don't just mean a cooking garden vs. tea garden. Break it down all the way to a particular cooking style or ethnic region.
Start with your favorite style of cooking. Italian, French, Mexican, Thai, Fish etc. There is even a plan for salt substitute garden. These gardens do not need to be large. The size is determined solely on how many you are cooking for or how much room you have to grow, and store dried herbs while drying and then stored for use later on. Since you can't pick basil outside in winter and fresh herbs are a hard find as well a jar of dried herbs labeled "Italian Herb Blend" makes for a wonderful and very inexpensive  spruce up to a winter meal.
Here are some themed herb garden ideas:
Italian: basil, bay, dill, fennel, garlic chives, marjoram, flat leaf parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme
French: basil, fennel, lavender summer savory thyme
Mexican: bay, cilantro, garlic, oregano, thyme, lemon or lime basil
Thai/Asian: Thai basil, coriander, garlic,lemon grass, ginger, mint
Fish: bay, fennel, lemon basil, lemon grass, lemon thyme, parsley, tarragon, savory, sage
Salt substitute: basil, bay, dill, lovage, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory (winter or summer) thyme, tarragon
Tea: chamomile, lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon verbena, mints, pineapple sage, lemon thyme and stevia for a dash of natural sweetening.
To cheat a little on a tea garden simply mix a bunch of mint varieties together harvest when needed, dry and make a pot of tea.
Of course these herbs can be used fresh right from the garden for immediate rewards. But remember to save some for drying to use over the winter months. Drying is best done by cutting new growth in the late morning tying bunches together with a rubber band. String can be used but as the stems dry they become smaller and tied bunched fall apart very easily. When dry as fallen autumn leaves strip the leaves from the stems and place in clean dark containers. Label them according to their uses of kind. Stored in a dark place at room temps they remain fresh for about a year.  

18 February, 2011

Before There Were Pharmacies

It seems one cannot watch television or read a magazine without being assaulted or, insulted, by ads for prescription drugs.  Anything that ails you been be controlled by some new wonder drug. Some of the ads do not even say what the symptoms are just ask your doctor if snake oil is right for you. Snake oil is right. The traveling salesman of your peddled mysterious liquids in clear bottles laying claim to kill all sort of ills. problem was there were not enough real doctors to ask if Barnacle Bill's Bone Elixir was right for you. And if it was not right for you too bad. The snake oil man never returned to fulfill the satisfaction guaranteed part of the deal. In fact his elixir was right for you for a little while at least. The many potions and elixirs often had a good dose of alcohol within to alleviate most any symptom until the next morning. 
Today major drug companies push their product direct to the consumer because they realize it is the best way to reach mass consumption quickly. Magazines and TV are happy to take the ads since cigarettes and liquor are often taboo if not illegal to advertise. These drugs are heavily regulated. What is not regulated are the dietary supplements that also lay claim to magic cures for whatever ails you. the problem with the supplement market is lack of regulation. This lack of regulation does a lot of damage to actual plant and herbal cures that do work or at least help somewhat.
Before there were  pharmacies and drug companies there were plants mostly herbs that cured the ills that ailed you. In fact the Bible is chock full of references to herbs and spices for various medical uses
Hyssop was often referred to as the herb used in purification: read PSALMS 51:7 It was also used to prevent blood from coagulating which may explain why the Jews in Egypt were told to use it at the time of the Passover: read EXODUS 12:22The medicinal use of Hyssop can be found in read JOHN 19:29-30 Hyssop called hyssopus officinalis- is native to southern Europe and not the bible lands. This is a perfect example of how plant names change over time. The Hyssop in the bible may have been something like sorghum or perhaps even marjoram.
Mint is considered by some Biblical scholars to be part of the "bitter herbs' mentioned in  Exodus 12:8 and Numbers 9:11. Along with mint the bitter herbs concoction included
endive, chicory, lettuce, watercress, sorrel, and dandelions all used as a form of digestive aid. Mint at first cools down hunger pangs but shortly after heightens appetite.
Frankincense, also called Olibanum was  used in Old Testament religious rites. It is mentioned often in the first five books of Moses. Frankincense was used for intern al and external ailments and to help with breathing problems. The oils were used to induce a calming affect. Modern herbalists suggest placing the oil in vaporizers to help induce deep slow breathing.
Comfrey often used to today as a compost starter due to it's high concentration of nitrogen in the leaves. In the times of the Bible comfrey was used to help alleviate the pains and bruising of sprains. An ointment was made from the crushed leaves of comfrey.
One could depend on drinking rosemary water to help soothe upset stomachs. In addition ginger root was chewed to achieve the same results. Today ginger ale is often suggested for easing stomach pain even though carbonated!
Headaches were treated with Sweet marjoram oil rubbed on the forehead. rosemary leaves and mint when crushed and rubbed on the forehead treated headaches in Moses time as well. In addition coriander has been used as a mouthwash and aid to digestion. coriander is the seed of today's very popular cilantro the smokey parsley like leaves used in Tex-Mex recipes.
The manna God sent to Moses and his  flock as they wandered around the desert for forty years tasted like coriander according to Old testament readings. Coriander is one of the oldest herbs used in medicinal form.
So there you have a short round up of herbs and spices used during Bible times to treat everyday maladies. In fact many of today's pharmaceuticals come from plants. Aspirin being made from the bark of willow is among the most important contributions of the plant world to modern medicine. While there is a lot of controversy over how and if herbs are useful in the medicinal world one cannot argue their importance in the old world. There usefulness today has been thwarted by highly questionable late night infomercials.
I suggest the way to look at herbs is not in their medicinal aspects but as part of your regular diet. If for instance carrots are known to be good for eyesight why can't the same be said for some herb in the garden? My point is that if herbs have beneficial properties such as anti-oxidants, oils, vitamins and minerals then treat them as food and not some holistic ritual from the Dark Ages.
Learn how to grow herbs for whatever use Saturday Feb 26th at Adams Kingston location. At 1PM on the 26th I will be lecturing on the topic of growing herbs. Learn about starting herbs from seeds, cuttings, and divisions. Also learn when to harvest and take cuttings for new plants as well. 

04 February, 2011

Seed Starting: Gettin to the Root of the Issue

Both famous ground hogs did not see their shadows last week.In facet nobody has seen their shadow since August! Punxatawny Phil and Staten Island Chuck failed to have the sun gods cast shadows of doubt upon the arrival of spring. And with the way the weather has been this winter the arrival of spring can be a glorious thing. There is another event that signifies the halfway point through winter. Seed packs have arrived in garden centers. In fact not just seed packs but peat pots, trays, seed starting soils, lights and more. It is a surprising fact that winter is the shortest season of the year at 93 days with Summer actually being  the longest season. trust me I read it on the Internet so it has to be true. 
While spring is still six weeks away regardless of what some hibernating animals tell us there are a few seeds that could, notice could, be started now in order to get them into bloom for our Hudson Valley growing season. The backs of seed packs describe the timing for sowing seeds indoors or outdoors. The usual verbiage is a determined number of weeks before the last frost date. For instance  a pack may say start indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost date. Well frost dates are different across the country. The South of course has an earlier last frost date than we do. A seed company however does not know you live when you pick up their seed pack. The last frost date in the Hudson Valley is on average May 15th. There has been however frost as late as Memorial Day with increasing occurrence in this region. A seed pack stating start seeds 8 weeks before last frost date would mean starting the seeds indoors on or around March 15th.
Do you rally have to wait until March 15th to start seeds? Well no you don't. In fact there are some seeds which must be started now if you hope to have any flowers by the start of summer. Geraniums must be started by Feb 15th in order to have the seedlings strong enough to withstand cool spring weather and bloom by summer. While they are called Patient Lucys in Great Britain they are misnamed here in the U.S. What are the misnamed bedding plants? Impatiens............they grow so slowly they need to be started 10 weeks, March 1st, to be ready for planting out around the middle of May.
Flowers are not the only seeds needing an early start. Jalapeno peppers take a while to get under way. Jalapeno could be started as late as March 15th however they are better off hitting the seed flats on the first of March Bell peppers on the other hand can wait until the first of April. I would suggest getting them in the same time as the hot peppers. An interesting fact is there are some hot weather vegetables that need extremely long seasons but cannot be started indoors with their other warm weather friends. Melons for example need very long growing seasons. It would seem to make sense to start them indoors and give them a head start. But since melons  and cantaloupe are vines the end result of starting them indoors would be you own version of Little Shop of Horrors. The vines grow very fast but the flowers and fruit lag well behind the growth spurts of the vines.
The vast majority of seeds need darkness in order to germinate. Seeds require a snug warm moist environment to begin the germination process. Air temperature is not critical at this point but will play a pivotal role in how sturdy seedlings are down the road. Soil temperature should be 70*-75* for seeds to germinate properly without rotting. Seed packs will list days to germination. Some seeds germinate very quickly others like olive seeds taking 10-16 months. It is very important to place some kind of label on the flats or containers seeds are growing in. The information on the label should be the variety of plant growing, date seed was planted and how many days to germination. The name of the plant is a no brainer. But putting the date of sowing and days to germination allows more detailed control over the crop and assist in timing should something go wrong. If a label says 10 days to germination and nothing has shown after 21 you know something is wrong. Days to germination and date of planting go hand in hand. Only listing days to germination is no good if you don't know when they were planted.
To keep the soil warm  a heat mat is a godsend. Heat mats fit perfectly under seed flats and gently warm the soil and nothing else. A clear plastic dome of two or more inches high helps to keep the humidity high and control temperature as well. A tall dome 5-7 inches tall with adjustable events is even better allowing for total control over seedlings and young plants. Keep the heat mat on until you see young shoots appearing from the soil. Shortly after their emergence remove the ehat mat.
Young seedlings now need bright light, even direct sunlight, to maintain growth. What they don't need however is high heat. High temps cause plants to respirate faster. Fast respiration requires more nutrition. Plants need sunlight to complete the nutritional cycle of photosynthesis. However in February and even April the sun is still very low in the sky and as well the strength of the sunlight is weak. Weak light combined with high temps cause plants to stretch towards the sun or light source in order to make photosynthesis happen. The way to combat spindly stems is cool temperatures say 55*-65*. Cooler temps slow down respiration in plants thus slowing their need for sunlight.
An additional strategy is to place grow lights just above the tops of young plants about 4-6 inches over the top set of leaves. This best done with florescent grow lights especially the newer T5 high output bulbs. T5s are 40% smaller than regular T8 styles and their light output is double. T5 light fixtures with adjustable heights are readily available in two and four foot lengths.
Any well drained soil will grow a great crop for you. I am partial to lightweight soiless blends that are peat moss based. These blends drain extremely well and contain a large percentage of air space for young roots to penetrate. However any soil can grow seeds if you are careful about watering. Adding compost or worm castings to any soil will aid in growth and provide some much needed nutrients.
Once seeds have sprouted they have no storage of food needed to grow. If our soil mix does not have any fertilizer mixed in you will need to begin a feeding program. I prefer to feed every time I water so that I can maintain an even supply of fertilizer in the soil. Erratic uneven feeding leads to plants with grow spurts followed by periods of little growth as the supply of nutrients in the soil dwindles. To use a continuous feed program simply reduce the amount of fertilizer recommended on the package to 1/8 recommended dose.
By mid April days will be warming and your seedlings will love being outdoors on 60* days. Just remember to bring them back indoors at night so they don't get cold or freeze.
Want to learn more about starting seeds in greater detail? Stop by Adams Fairacre Farms  Saturday, February 12th, at 1PM where I will be lecturing on the subject of seed starting. 

10 January, 2011

Food for Thought from Your Garden

We live in an age of information overload goes without saying. If there is still any doubt just look at your smart phone and what it can do. Or at least what it is supposed to do. There are literally thousands of "apps" for most phones. A quick look at them however reveals that most are duplications of gadgets or processes that are already on our phones or in our dashboards. For instance at least twice a week I sync my Blackberry with Outlook so all me appointments and deadlines are together. Yet several rocket scientists decided to create appointment calendars for Blackberries. Yet they are not compatible with Outlook. There are GPS apps for phones that already have GPS capabilities built in.
There are even apps now for gardening. Apps that you can use for information on plants you may see at a botanical garden. Do you see the same disconnect to the outside world here that I do? How strange would it be to walk through a botanical garden or garden center come across a cool flower and then immediately search for information on your smart phone?
This brings me to my point of the day, simplicity. Every management and time expert guru pushes the acronym KISS for Keep It Simple Stupid. Few however end up practicing what they preach. For example an activity as sublime as barbecue it is very easy to get all knotted up determining which recipe to use for ribs. There is one book on BBQ with more than 500 recipes for ribs alone. A closer look reveals that despite there being 500 recipes, rubs, and sauces it comes down to four basic needs each time. They are ribs, rubs, sauces and smoking chips (or chunks). Further study of the 500 rip recipes reveals that the ingredients in almost all the rubs are based on this system of four. Same for BBQ sauce, marinades, etc.
Just for the record the four ingredients I see the most are garlic, oregano, tomato and, salt. There are many others that could be grouped into fours as well but the topic here is four not eight or twelve!
Could it be that ancient cave dwellers knew something we did not? Is there something more to four ingredients and say the four directions of the wind. I would say compass but I do not believe Ogg and Orga had such luxuries. If you adhere to Darwinian Theory it would make since that Ogg and Orga were the first BBQ pit masters since they were the first to cook with live fire for sure.
I fell Simon and Garfunkel put it best in their hit song Scarborough Fair when the melody went: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Move them around, change an ingredient or two and you get the message, simplicity. If you are panning an herb garden this summer consider what you cook the most, what aromas you enjoy the most or what colors you enjoy the most. Pick four and see how far that gets you. See how far that gets you this winter! I would love to have access to my herb garden right now but it is buried under snow. I do have however four pots of herbs in the dining room window.
It just so happens that I only have room for four pots of herbs in that window. I hope my cousins Ogg and Orga are somehow aware of this fact and quite pleased with their influence upon me several millennia since their clubbing food to death. These four inhabitants denying themselves hibernation are rosemary, thyme, chives and oregano.
Simon and Garfunkel cannot get me on copyright charges since I have only half of their suggested mix. But I will give them a footnote just in case. These four are the superstars in my herbal potions. Basil is a glaring missing in action here I know. However basil does not perform well indoors over the winter. Plus basil, extra virgin olive oil, garlic and balsamic vinegar are everywhere anyway. Again you can see the power of four!
Four can suffice just about any garden need as well. For example a salad garden need not bee an entire back yard production.
The four salad stars are, greens, tomato, cucumber and………… (add your own fourth part here)
Root crops for the cellar: Onions, potatoes, beets, carrots.  Does anyone see these four doing double duty as soup?
Tomatoes: plum, pear, slicing, and salad
Vines: cucumber, melon, winter squash, summer squash
And just in case you haven't noticed there are four groups of four here. Four gardens with four crops. Not a potager per se' for the gourmet but a solid base from which to start.
Now it would be easy to add to the list of four but it may be getting picky.