Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I Am What I Am

Kind of makes your little heart go pitty-pat, don't it.
OK. So spinach isn't exactly the most exciting vegetable in your book, but it is coming in by the bucketful in my garden this spring. This is the best spinach harvest I have ever had.
The two 10-foot rows producing my current spinach harvest were planted in early September last year. We got a little spinach to supplement our much larger lettuce harvest, but the spinach picking was modest.
One row of spinach spent the winter under a plastic tunnel, which was changed to a "frost blanket" (a heavy row cover) about late February. The other row simply had a little hay thrown over it.
Winter spinach in February.
In early March the spinach picking began and it just keeps going. Five times I've cut spinach -- two and a half pounds of it last week -- and it looks like it is ready to cut again.
Spinach is notorious for its short harvests because it wants to bolt, send up flower stalks and set seed, every time you look at it. But this has been an almost perfect spinach spring, a little on the cool side, except for a few days when it almost hit 90. (It's Kansas. Spring is always fickle.)
Heat causes spinach to bolt. So do long days. Once the length of daylight exceeds 14 hours, you can pretty much kiss your spinach goodbye. Once it begins to bolt, there's not much you can do but cut the whole plant and use what you've got. However, the few spinach plants that started bolting because of those hot days seem to have been slowed by the cool cloudy weather that has followed.
Other things you can do to slow the bolting of spinach:
-- Feed it. Spinach is a hungry plant, prefering high doses of nitrogen. Side dressing it every two weeks with compost and or manure, or use a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer, such as manure tea or fish emulsion, especially after a heavy harvest. One gardening book proposes that it is "almost impossible to overfeed" spinach.
-- Don't crowd it. Crowding puts stress on the spinach plants as they compete for light and nutrients. Who isn't stressed when it's overcrowded. Common wisdom notes that spinach plants should be thinned 4-6 inches apart. Others say that 8-10 inches is an even better spacing. I am notoriously lax in the thinning department. The rule of thumb is that the leaves of mature plants should barely overlap. Leaving extra space between plants is particularly important for winter crops, when sunlight is already at a premium.
-- Keep it moist. You don't want soggy soil, but keeping your spinach well watered will slow its bolting by reducing stress on the plant. Stress reduction is a good thing.
-- Use a variety tagged as "long-standing," such as the ubiquitous Bloomsdale Long-Standing. These have been selected and bred to resist bolting longer than others.

Another view of my current spinach crop, alongside the
spring-planted kale.
Most people plant their spinach in rows, but block planting works well with spinach and other leafy vegetables, as well as some root vegetables. Some say that block planting is a more efficient use of space than rows. Simple scatter you spinach seed over a "block" of garden, say 6x6 feet, then thin the young plants so they stand 9 inches apart.
Don't worry that you are wasting the little plants you've thinned out. Impress you friends by serving the thinnings as gourmet "microgreens." You can do that with thinnings of lettuce and other leaf vegetables, as well as radishes and beets.

Since the spinach is ready to cut again while I still have three large bags of it in the fridge, I will need to start having spinach salad for lunch, too, as well as in my lettuce/spinach salads in the evenings. Unlike Popeye, I prefer my spinach fresh, unless it is in an Indian curry, such as saag paneer. So freezing the spinach is out of the question.

March-planted spinach not too far from harvest.
My favorite way to do spinach salad is tossed with bits of orange and raisins, and a few toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds -- maybe drizzled with a raspberry vinagrette. But I don't have raspberries, so I will try making a rhubarb vinagrette. I still have rhubarb puree in the freezer from last year, and it's almost time to start harvesting it again. When the puree thaws, I will add freshly squeezed lemon juice and a little honey (heat the puree to mix the honey in). This is excellent on toast. As a salad dressing, I will thin it with a little cider or wine vinegar and/or water.
April-planted spinach has a long way to go.
In a few more weeks I will start harvesting spinach planted in early March, along with lettuce planted at the same time. I can't even hope to get as much spinach from this spring-planted crop as from the fall-planted spinach, since the heat and length of days will send it into bolting frenzy. But the Bloomsdale should stand up well, especially if I give it some shade. I just hope all this spinach doesn't give me Popeye's forearms.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Waiting For Asparagus

The beginning of asparagus season is torture.
When the spring days are cool and cloudy, as they have been this spring, the torture is prolonged.
During the first week of April, I start checking the asparagus bed every time I walk by it (which could be several times a day), looking for the first asparagus tips poking through the soil.
The first tips usually don't appear until about the second week of April, so I torture myself longer than necessary by checking early.
Finally, the first pale tip appears and my trips by the asparagus bed come even more frequently. That first spear grows slowly, but finally, one day I have it. One asparagus spear goes in the refrigerator to await companions.
When the weather is warm and sunny, a few more spears may appear rather quickly. On a really warm day, they can go from barely poking through in the morning to ready to pick by evening.
On Saturday, I discovered a couple of dozen asparagus tips coming through the soil. It has been rainy and cool since, though, so they are growing slowly. Yet, this morning I picked three more spears, making my total harvest 13 spears so far. Finally, enough to do something with.
According to an old Organic Gardening article, just 25 plants have the capability of producing 20 pounds of spears a year. When well cared for, plants can produce for up to 20 years, or longer. Many old rural homesteads can be located by ancient stands of asparagus.
It takes about three years for asparagus to get into full production. My first planting is just three years old and I will always know how old those first dozen plants are. They were planted the day my son’s daughter was born.
After staying up all night to meet my granddaughter, I drove an hour to get home and on the way stopped to buy asparagus crowns. I planted them as soon as I got home. Another dozen or so were planted the following year.
Asparagus prefers light, well-drained, rich soil. I give them a healthy helping of compost each year, adding some well-composted horse manure this year. To keep them out of the tight clay soil that predominates our hilltop, the asparagus is planted in a raised bed.
Asparagus is relatively easy to grow. Just keep it weeded and feed it once or twice a year, then cut back the tall fronds at the end of the growing season. Asparagus beetles are the main pest of this crop, but cutting the dead plants back each fall decreases the problem. I have seen asparagus beetles in my stands, but experience little damage.
I hope to have an abundant harvest this year. I would like to freeze and pickle some. My mother-in-law also has been asking how our asparagus is doing. She is probably waiting for us to offer her some, which I will gladly do when the harvest is coming in strong.
Although it grows all summer, don’t harvest asparagus all summer or you will weaken the roots. Stop harvesting once the spears are no bigger around than a pencil and let them develop into frilly fronds. A bed full of mature asparagus fronds is quite lovely, especially when covered with a late fall frost or heavy dew.
Mature asparagus, 3 years old or more, can be harvested for 6 to 10 weeks. Younger plants should not be harvested for more than 4 weeks. One horticulturist recommends letting two or three of the early spears mature into photosynthesizing fronds, which should allow you to continue your harvest for at least two weeks longer.
I grow a variety called “Purple Passion,” mostly because I prefer the red or purple varieties of usually green vegetables. However, this variety also is quite tender, with a milder, sweeter flavor than some other varieties. It also contains less of the compounds that produce a strong odor in the urine of people who eat it.
Asparagus is rich in a number of important minerals, B vitamins and folic acid. It has a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac, as well. Just look at an asparagus spear, what does it remind you of?
By the end of the week, the temperature is suppose to reach the 70s, but then fall back to 60. I hope those temperatures are warm enough to end the torture.
Mature asparagus on a frosty autumn morning.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Tulips and a new granddaughter.
It's April.
But it felt like June today.
And with all the heat and "breezy" conditions, things are drying out.
We had frequent rains for a while, but they did not amount to much actual precipitation.
Now I wonder if we will fill our two catchment tanks (1,500 gallons each), although they are now cleaned and hooked to the gutters. I wish we would have done that a month ago.
Oh well, it is still April, which tends to be on the rainy side (let's hope, for the sake of my pea seedlings and the buffalo grass we had planted this past week).
The tulips are just now blooming, so it must only be April.
The chance for thunderstorms tonight has been greatly reduced and taken out of Sunday's forecast altogether.
So my hopes are riding on the 50 percent chance forecast for Wednesday.
Unless I hear thunder tonight, I will need to unroll the garden hose to make sure the kale and brocolli plants, as well as the 250 onion seedlins I set out three weeks ago survive.
It's only April.
And the tulips are blooming and we have a new granddaughter.