Sunday, October 1, 2023

Bonus Abundance

 I always try to scatter my kale seeds (and others) thinly so they don't require too much thinning. I am too impatient to dry a single seed at a time at appropriate distances, so I just scatter lightly. Yet, some spots (or even a whole row) always wind up looking like this (above), lots of little plants growing tightly together. 

This makes them more difficult to thin, but that's my karma. Of course, even if I'd scattered them at more appropriate distances, they would need to be thinned. You don't sow kale seed one every eight or 12 inches (recommended growing distance) because you must account for some seeds not germinating. 

Thinning plants is rather tedious, and I've often avoided it. However, the thing that gets me out there thinning is thinking of it as a bonus harvest. Clip off the tiny plants just above the soil and you have baby greens -- a free gourmet offering! They can be used in salads, steamed, or stir-fried.

I also harvest the baby winter radish greens, although they grow so fast that they were pretty much toddlers by the time I got to them. I've been using the as my main salad green. Not everybody likes them (they're too much spice and bitter for my husband), but they feel so nourishing to me. Last year I couldn't get enough of the winter radishes themselves, especially the purple daikons, so I'm hoping for a good crop this year. I'm not sure I'll make it through all the radish greens before they get too old if I only use them in salads, so I will try them in stir fry or soup, or just mixed into other veggie dishes.

I also planted collard greens -- a day later than I planted the kale and they are so much bigger than the kale. I've also planted brussels sprouts, for greens only. I haven't ever been able to grow satisfactory "sprouts," but the greens are tasty, especially after a frost. Because they grow more slowly than the other greens, they're still waiting to be thinned... I mean harvested as baby greens. They should make a tasty stir fry.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Don't Overlook These Gems

Welcome to my garden.

My husband built this archway a couple of years ago out of hedge wood harvested from our place. He built it to replace a makeshift archway that I had thrown together with concrete reinforcing wire and t-posts. On that first cobbled together archway I had planted these lush, tropical vines. When freezing weather killed them, my husband cleaned up the dead vines and took down my archway.

When I objected, because I wanted to leave it in place for the next season, he promised to build a better one for me.

Which he did.

And each year I plant these outrageous vines, luffa (loofa or louffa) gourds. I also plant Malabar spinach, but it gets overgrown by the luffa vines. I plant these two vines because they stay good looking through the whole season, until frost. None of the local insects (except bees and other pollen and nectar gathering insects) recognize them as food, so they don't get eaten up.

Immature luffa gourds being prepared to get roasted.
Paring knife for size comparison. 

Both of these vines also provide food for us. Malabar spinach leaves are edible, and not bad tasting. And the vines, with their red stems, pink flower, and nearly black berries, are beautiful. So are the luffa vines. The mature luffa gourds can be as large as my lower leg. Inside those are a network of fibers that, when stripped of skin and seeds, make the familiar luffa "sponge."

Very immature gourds, however are edible... and tasty. I toss them in oil and seasonings, then roast them at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until tender (20 to 30 minutes). Delicious! This is how I cook summer squash, as well. Between the squash bugs, cucumber beetles and extra summer heat, however, my summer squash pooped out early. So I turned to the luffa. We don't always harvest the luffas because usually the summer squash floods us. Perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to overlook these tasty treats.                                                                                            I typically plant the luffa seeds in mid-May, or so, at about the same time I make the first planting of cucumbers and summer squash. If I wanted to make sure I got fully mature luffa gourds to make "sponges," I would need to start them indoors in late March or early April, because they have a long growing season. I don't care if I get mature gourds, though. I want the tender, young ones. When frost threatens next month, I will harvest all of the tiny ones, even though they might be too small for roasting, and make a gourmet stir-fry.      
Luffa gourd (Luffa aegyptiaca) is in the cucurbit family, along with all squashes, pumpkins, other gourds, and cucumbers. It is as tropical as it looks, and so is sensitive to frost, as are the other cucurbits. The vines grow rapidly. I don't know how long they can eventually get. I must frequently prune them, or they would make my garden entrance impassable, and overwhelm anything growing nearby.

Because I've always had plenty of summer squash, I've only harvest immature gourds when they readily presented themselves. Now I go searching for them, which requires diligence, as they often are hidden among the large leaves. One day I counted maybe half a dozen little gourds that I thought would be ready soon, and when I went out a couple of days later to harvest, I actually gathered more than a dozen. They do hide. 
It's a treasure hunt.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023


 Cucumbers, cucumbers, cucumbers.

This photo is the beginning stage of brine-fermented cucumber pickles. Onions, garlic, dill and black peppercorns. Oh, and cucumbers. For crispier pickles I added grape leaves, which provide tannin that helps crisp them. The final ingredient is time. I let them sit for about a week, but more or less time is fine. Whatever gives you the flavor you want.

To make brine, dissolve three tablespoons of salt (canning/pickling salt, not table salt which has anti-caking agents added) to one quart (four cups) of water. Weight a plate with a jar full of water so that everything stays submerged.

I grow Miniature White cucumbers, and have grown other small, white varieties. I think they are pretty and make beautiful pickles and cucumber salads. The Miniature Whites stay relatively small, even when mature. They get fat, but not long. They're dense and juicy, and remain sweet. They don't get bitter in hot weather, not when the plant becomes mature.

I do lots of things with cucumbers besides pickles. Cucumber salad has onion, dill, cider vinegar and olive oil. Or just chop them into salads. Raw cucumber slices can be dipped in hummus, baba ganoush or other dips. I make "chips" by slicing cucumbers very thinly, sprinkling on salt and pepper (or other seasonings, if desired), and then dehydrating until crunchy. Stored in an airtight container (canning jars are best) they remain crisp for a long time. Pull out the juicer and juice the cucumbers. Cold cucumber juice is quite refreshing after a hot sweaty day in the garden.

My favorite way to use cucumbers is gazpacho. Gazpacho is a cold soup made with raw, pureed vegetables. Most recipes use tomatoes, but I use only cucumbers. The recipe I use follows:

2 1/4 pounds of cucumbers

1 teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup of your balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice (freshly squeezed is best, but bottled works fine)

Put all in a blender and blend until smooth. Chill well and enjoy. You will need to stir or shake it before serving, as the solids tend to float a bit.

We like to serve it in small wine glasses. For fun, pull out the spiralizer (what? you don't have a spiralizer? get one. They're fun.) and make "noodles" to put in a bowl of gazpacho. Float edible flowers on it as garnish. 

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Flittering Fluttering


No Monarch butterflies have visited my small stand of common milkweed, as far as I know. I've seen none supping at the flowers, and the leaves have not been chewed by their caterpillars.

But this crowd of Great Spangled Fritillaries have had a grand party at the fragrant flowers for the past several days. It is a joy seeing the fritillaries fritillarying about. While one source discussing the Great Spangleds says their flight pattern is in a near straight line, I usually see them dancing around each other in a small crowd.

It's no wonder that we have these lovely butterflies fluttering around, as their host plant (the plant which feeds their caterpillars) is viola. We have many wild violets growing here and there and everywhere. Their pretty purple, sometimes white, flowers are often scattered on our daily salads. Their eggs are little greenish balls, and their caterpillars are spikey. 

The Great Spangled is the most common of the many fritillary (Speyeria) species. I was quite enamored when I discovered that there is an Aphrodite Fritillary. They are very similar to the Great Spangleds, with only minor differences in appearance, one being the Great Spangleds are a bit larger. Violas also host their caterpillars. But these are probably Great Spangleds, although I can pretend they're Aphrodites.

Butterfly season in general is heating up. I've seen a few specimens of some different species. Earlier, in May I saw one or two tiger swallowtails and zebra swallowtails. Paw paw trees host the larvae of the zebras. I know of at least one wild paw paw tree in the woods, and there are the paw paws I've planted.

The most numerous butterfly at this moment is the Hackberry Emperor. Their markings are lovely, but the colors are rather dull. The impressive thing about the Hackberry Emperor is in its numbers. Hundreds and hundreds of them congregate, once they emerge from their chrysalises. Our driveway is covered in them. They like to gather anywhere they find dampness, which includes the pile of poop some critter recently left in the middle of the driveway. 

We find it humorous that they often hitch rides as we drive. At first it feels like a magical experience to step outside the door, or walk down the driveway and have clouds of butterflies rise up around me -- here I am, the Faerie Queen. After a bit it does become a little annoying. I try to relax and enjoy it, though, as the season lasts only a couple of weeks. 

The Gauntlet

However, hundreds gather outside our front and back doors, fluttering and swirling about whenever we emerge. We must exit and enter quickly, or find ourselves chasing them down indoors. No matter how hard we try, we always let a few in.

Their larvae feed on the leaves of hackberry trees (and a couple of relatives). A hackberry tree grows behind our sauna, and last month a number of the horned hackberry caterpillars attached themselves to the sauna wall in order to create a chrysalis and pupate. The top branches of that particular tree are bare of leaves. While the caterpillars are feeding, a gentle rain of caterpillar poop falls beneath the trees.


Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Who Needs Lettuce?


So, yeah. Lettuce. Who needs it?

For the past month or so I haven't... much, anyway.

My daily salads have overflowed my bowl, made largely with foraged greens. The salad pictured here does have a little lettuce in it, but on many days, I've used none.

The forage has included lambs quarters (lots), cleavers, chickweed, dandelion leaves, radicchio sprouting back from last fall's planting, violet leaves (young) and flowers, bronze fennel, second-year parsley, chives and/or garlic chives (especially chive flowers popping open now), sometimes herb leaves like monarda, mint and lemon balm, and even a little henbit. I've noticed some wood sorrel/sour grass/oxalis, so I'll start including that, too. Plus this has carrots (not homegrown... yet), freshly picked asparagus, arugula microgreens, apple, nuts of some kind, and I don't remember what else.

These salads not only are tastier than store-bought lettuce, but far more nutritious. However, the season is getting late. The cleavers already is too mature for salads, and the chickweed won't last much into the heat. The herbs will hang around and be available all summer, though.

Never fear, the earliest planted lettuce has now reached a nice size, so I'll include some of that in future salads. Also, the garden-grown arugula is ready to pick.

I love my salads!

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Rad Radicchio

Rossa de Verona Radicchio

Last fall, while showing off my end-of-the-season harvest, I bragged about my lovely radicchio. Then a friend asked, "What is radicchio?"
Regardless of what this photo looks like, it is not a cabbage. In fact, it is much more closely related to sunflowers, lettuce and other members of the Aster family (Asteraceae). 
Radicchio is a form of chicory (Cichorium intybus), an inconspicuous roadside weed that suddenly becomes conspicuous in late summer when it sends up a stalk bearing bright blue flowers along it. Roasted chicory root can be brewed like tea, or even coffee, to make a lovely dark, rich coffee-like drink. Chicory has often been added to coffee, and is considered a caffeine-free coffee substitute. Although, while the flavor might be similar to coffee, don't expect it to taste just like coffee. 
Start with leeks and carrots.
Endive and escarole are other forms of chicory that you might find in the grocery store or at the farmers market. To grow radicchio, start transplants about six weeks before planting in the garden, or direct sow once danger of frost is past. I have had the best luck in getting my radicchio to head when I plant it as a fall crop, putting in transplants at about the same time as I plant my fall cabbages, as it heads best in cooler weather. When I've planted it in spring, I got no heads, but it did flower in late summer.
This isn't supposed to be a post about planting radicchio, however, but about using it as food. I had thought that one way to keep the blog posts coming during the winter was to switch to sort of a cooking blog -- just how do I use these veggies I grow? Well, it's late March and I've done one... you remember... the apple one?
So here goes.
Like chicory leaves and its relative the dandelion, radicchio is a bitter vegetable. Americans, as a rule do not eat enough bitters, which are good for your digestion. People once ate lots of bitters, recognizing their benefits in aiding digestion, especially of fats and meats. While most people aren't used to the flavor of bitter in their vegetables, one can grow to love it. I have.
Add radicchio.
You certainly can buy bitter herbal tinctures, but those are best left to when a stronger medicine is needed. In general, using bitters (and other herbal things) as a daily food is better for encouraging health than using strong concoctions. Eat bitters, then, like dandelion greens and radicchio. Even lettuce can be a mild bitter, especially when left in the garden a little too long.
The way I use radicchio and other bitter greens most is in salad. A small amount of bitter greens mixed in with sweeter lettuces cuts the bitter flavor a lot. Dressing it with vinegar and oil also dampens the bitterness. You get the benefit of the bitterness (because you are still tasting it, even when you're not tasting it) and the crunch and color of the raw plant.
Another way to tone down the bitterness of radicchio is to cook it with a bit of oil. My first introduction to radicchio was as a plain, roasted vegetable served before the rest of the meal (which is when you should have your bitters). The bitterness was somewhat of a shock, but one that I later sought.
Last fall's radicchio was abundant enough that it lasted into December. It was more than I could use in salads, so I brought out the pots and pans, and grew quite attached to the concoction I made.
It's been a few months, so I will try to remember what I used. Fortunately, it was a pretty simple recipe. 
And I use the term "recipe" loosely. I can give you ingredients, but... What? Me measure? Leeks and carrots were harvested at the same time as the radicchio, so they were the other main ingredients.

Radicchio and Leek Stir Fry
Fennel seed
Oil -- preferably avocado oil or extra virgin olive oil

Thinly slice carrots and leeks. Chop or shred radicchio. Pour oil into heavy skillet (I like cast iron for any kind of sauteeing) and start heating. Toss in a tablespoon or two of fennel seed -- I really like fennel seed, and it's also good for digestion. Add the carrots and cook for five minutes or so, stirring frequently. Add leeks and continue cooking. Leeks are drier than onions, so will burn more readily. Stir frequently. When the carrots and leeks are getting tender, add the radicchio and cook until all vegetables are done.
Serve with some chicken, or sweet potatoes, or potatoes. It might also be a good accompaniment to a game meat. I don't know. I haven't tried it. 

Now you know a little bit about radicchio and how to use it. I'm sure the online gang can provide a wealth of ways to use radicchio. One more tip about radicchio. It's expensive to buy. The last I looked, one head of organic radicchio was nearly $6. So if you want to try it, it's much cheaper to grow.
Get radical with radicchio.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Goings On


Look at this!

The sweet potatoes I set out a couple of weeks ago are producing sprouts! It's particularly exciting because this is the first time I've grown my own slips.

I've cut free five already and stuck them in soil to root. The first to produce sprouts were two of the all purple ones (top of image). A third all purple (lower center) is being pokey about sprouting, but I think I saw a tiny little sprout on it yesterday. 

The next to sprout was one of the Jerseys (lower right), a white variety that is very sweet. Its sprouts are not yet big enough to cut and root, but it's getting close. A second one (lower left) has tiny buds on it, and a third (in a different container) is being stubborn. Three of the six Japanese sweet potatoes (purple skin, white flesh) are just beginning to sprout.

These won't provide all of the sweet potato slips I want to plant. Soon I will order a few Murasaki (like the Japanese ones) and Bonita (white) from K-State through a local hardware store, and in May I'll buy all of my orange variety from a local nursery that gets in huge slips that are already rooted. We are going to be laden with sweet potatoes come fall.

I thought we'd have plenty of sweet potatoes from the 160 slips I planted last year, but we've had to start buying them. 

It's also time to start "hardening off" the baby cabbage and broccoli plants. In two to three weeks, depending on the weather forecast, they will go out into the garden soil. A two- to three-week hardening off period helps them adjust to the great outdoors. 

Tiny eggplants are reaching toward the lights, and bell pepper seeds are just beginning to germinate.

Bees visit the crocus blooms and purple rock iris outdoors, the winter aconite is beginning to fade, and little green shoots are popping up all over.

I've already planted some snap peas and lettuce, and will plant more next week. It's an exciting time of
anticipation. The rosemary plants have been moved from the "plant room" onto the front porch, and the fig and Kentucky coffee tree seedling have been moved from the garage to the porch. 

Lastly, indoors, the walking iris has finally bloomed. Last year it bloomed in late January. I'm not sure why it's so late this year. It probably needs to be divided into two or three pots. It doesn't look crowded, but maybe the plants feel crowded. 

Can't wait to see what's next.