Vegetable Gardening 101

Ohhhhhh, the things I wish I’d known as an overly optimistic twenty-three year old when starting my first backyard garden. The soil I painstakingly turned, shovelful by shovelful, breaking up every clump into a fine powder with my hands (later wondering why the water seemed to just sit on top of the soil, eventually creating a hard, nearly impenetrable crust). Those poor, yellowed lettuces. RIP.

Even though I’ve had some sort of a vegetable garden most summers for 10 years or more, I still consider myself a beginner. And it’s a good thing, because each day that I attend my gardening class, my mind is blown by another instructor stating something that completely contradicts my gardening beliefs.

Here are some of the best (and most shocking) tips I’ve garnered over the first 9 weeks of instruction in the super-wonderful Portland Metro Master Gardener class.

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1. Don’t dig with a shovel.

I know, right? I feel like such an asshole. A shovel is good at so many things, but preparing your soil is not really one of them. I mean, it’s okay at it, but a broadfork or a flatfork (sometimes called a spading fork) are much, much better. Unless you have an enormous garden, borrowing one of these tools for a day is all you need to do. You’re looking at an hour of work *tops* in an average city dweller-sized vegetable garden, which reminds me of another thing that makes the broad or flat fork superior to a shovel: it’s *so* much easier on your body.

Fork your garden beds about every 6 inches, rocking the tool back and forth lightly to loosen the soil just a bit. If your soil is hard and compacted, rock the tool more vigorously and throw a big handful of compost down into each crack that you create as you move along. Top your garden area with 3 or 4 inches of compost if it’s a new planting area or just 1-2 inches if you’ve used this area for gardening before. Viola! All you have to do now is remember not to step into this area and undo all of your soil-loosening work. Now let the rain come down for a few weeks and the worms and other critters will start to move towards your delicious compost and loosen the soil even further.

2. Don’t start your vegetables from seed.

If you’re like me, this was another mind-blower. Seeds are one of the first things available at gardening stores, and that makes them so tempting as winter is winding down. “I’ll just start some seeds in my sunny Portland windowsill!”, you say (now re-read that sentence and tell we what is wrong with it).

Even though your house may be technically warm enough, we just don’t have enough light to get seeds off to a good start here in the northern latitudes. I know what you’re thinking – “I’ve done this before!”, or, “I’m doing this right now – don’t rain on my parade!” I have done this before, too. Many, many times. And while you can definitely get seeds to germinate in a bright window, the starts will end up far weaker than those started under ideal conditions. Think of the newly germinated seeds as infants and the sun and warmth as nutrition – those that get the ideal amount of nutrition in the earliest part of their lives will surpass the others in terms of size and strength. I saw this first-hand in my own garden last year. I started kale from seed in February, transplanted it in April, and it was still runty and weak-stemmed in May (3 months later!). I finally planted some greenhouse-grown kale starts alongside. Three weeks later I was trimming leaves from the new kale, and it was still another month before my seed-grown kale was at a harvestable size. Nearly five months for some kale = does not compute. Long story short: Buy starts from your local nursery – you’ll save time and energy and end up with a bigger and better harvest.

*Of course you have the option of using grow lights or fluorescent bar lights and heating mats (which will definitely work!) for starting seeds, but the vast majority of us don’t have gardens large enough to support systems like this.

**Some vegetables do grow well from seeds – peas, cutting lettuce, and carrots come to mind – but those should be started outside directly in the soil rather than inside. Here is a slick veggie calendar for Portland.

3. Fertilizer is not optional.

Another doozy! I had literally *never* used fertilizer until a few years ago. For some reason I thought of it as cheating and as terribly environmentally-unfriendly. While I now consider it a necessity, it can be an environmental issue, so you need to know some basics.

Firstly, fertilizers come in both organic and synthetic forms. Synthetic fertilizers are stronger, but they have a higher environmental cost, both in their manufacturing and by the results of their overuse. Organic fertilizers are weaker, but longer lasting. So how do you tell the difference? In terms of organics, look for things that sound natural: bat guano, fish meal, blood meal, composted manure (all good choices, by the way) *versus* chemical: sulfur-coated urea, diammonium phosphate, ammonium sulfate, etc.

Next, fertilizers are labeled with a three-number system that denotes how much nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) they contain, and the amounts are always listed in that order (N-P-K). The most important thing to know about nitrogen: plants need more of it than any other nutrient. The most important thing to know about phosphorous and potassium: They tend to be found in more than adequate amounts in most Pacific Northwest soils. I had my soil tested this year and found this to be true in my yard, so… I am using blood meal this year, an organic option with a ratio if 13:0:0. That means high nitrogen and no phosphorous or potassium. This way I get the plants the nitrogen they demand for good growth, but I don’t add unnecessary P or K to the soil that will just be washed away into the rivers.

One last thing about fertilizer: more is not better. Always follow the instructions on the package and even consider using the fertilizer at half-strength. You can always add more later.

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Were you as shocked by any of this information as I was? I hope you learned something useful and that you’ll get outside and start digging!

 

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Creamy Cauliflower Soup with Turmeric, Garlic, and Dill

I’ve been creating this soup in my mind for months – turning around different ingredients in my head over and over to try and imagine the perfect combination. It all started when I picked up a nasty cold back in October. All I wanted to eat was basic, homemade chicken broth seasoned simply with garlic and sea salt, but I couldn’t find chicken backs (my most prized broth-making unit) to save my life!! I asked at farmer’s markets and meat counters all over town and all they could do was shrug and offer me drumsticks. Being grumpy and finicky (as one often is when their head is pounding and full of snot), I would hear none of it. No drumsticks for me, thank you! I’d prefer to wallow in self-pity, continuing to subsist on croissants and Thera Flu and wondering aloud why I feel so terrible.

By the time my cold finally left my body weeks later, I had envisioned what I imagine to be the most perfect, healing soup – a cold’s worst enemy. This soup is cauliflower-based, so it’s full of cruciferous vegetable-y goodness. It also uses generous quantities of onion, garlic, and turmeric, which are not only delicious, but full of potentially healing and anti-inflammatory compounds. Ideally this soup would be made with homemade chicken bone broth, but good boxed broth will do in a pinch. Finish this soup with brightly flavored fresh dill for even more healing power.

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Creamy Cauliflower Soup with Turmeric, Garlic, and Dill
*serves 8*

3 Tbsp. ghee or butter
1 large sweet onion, chopped
2 large heads cauliflower, broken into florets (about 8 C. total)
3 large cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 Tbsp. PLUS 2 tsp. ground turmeric
2 tsp. ground mustard powder
1 bay leaf
6 C. chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade
½ C. heavy cream
3 Tbsp. fresh dill, chopped
S & P to taste

Heat the butter in a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Once the butter is hot, add the onion and all but three cups of the cauliflower and sauté until the onion is translucent and the cauliflower is softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes more until very fragrant. Lastly, add the tomato paste, turmeric, and ground mustard, allowing the spices to toast and the tomato to caramelize for about 2 – 3 minutes, stirring often.

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Once your spices are nicely toasted, add the bay leaf and all of the broth to the pot and stir to pick up any bits that have accumulated on the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat and bring the soup to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the soup until the cauliflower is very tender, 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the soup to cool slightly (stirring often will help).

Once the soup has cooled for 15-20 minutes, puree it in a blender in 2 or 3 batches until smooth. I recommend filling the blender no more than 2/3 of the way, holding a dishtowel tightly over the lid of the blender, and starting on the lowest speed when you puree anything hot.

Once all of the soup has been pureed, return it to the same pot and place it over low heat. Break or chop your remaining 3 cups of cauliflower into small, bite-sized pieces and return to the pot. Cover the pot and cook the soup over low heat until the added cauliflower is soft, about 15-20 minutes.

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Once the cauliflower is cooked to your liking, remove the soup from the heat, and stir in the cream and fresh dill. Season the soup to taste with plenty of salt and pepper and serve immediately.

 

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Pear, Fennel, Red Onion, and Butternut Squash Gratin

WOW, it has been a long time since my last recipe for the blog. This summer, life took a quick turn and decided to roll along at a pace a lot closer to whitewater than my preferred speed, lollygaggin’. Mr. Tummyrumblr and I started looking at houses to buy out here in Portland, assuming that it would take us a year or more to find a spot (that seems to be how it works around these parts), however, fate intervened, and six weeks later we were signing loan documents and renting a moving truck. Long story short, I’m back (and you’re back – thank you), and I’m looking forward to posting with much more frequency.

In addition to the move, another summer highlight was an offer from USA Pears to write several recipes to help bring excitement to the 2013 pear harvest. I was thrilled with the opportunity, not only because pears are such an integral part of Pacific Northwest cuisine, but because I’ve been wanting to get into professional recipe writing outside of my own blog. Creating delicious recipes with a new and exciting combinations of ingredients is one of the most fulfilling things about my line of work.

So without further ado, here is my latest pear-related recipe: A gorgeous, multicolor, fall-inspired gratin that will make a perfect side dish for any holiday gathering.

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Pear, Fennel, Red Onion, and Butternut Squash Gratin
*serves 8-10*

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced into ¼” rings
2 medium fennel bulbs (green tops removed), sliced into ¼” slices right through the core
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper
1 Tablespoon butter
1 medium butternut squash with a long neck
2 large, red USA Pears, such as Red Bartlett or Starkrimson
1 ⅔ cups. heavy cream
2 pinches ground nutmeg
4 ounces vintage white cheddar, grated

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lay the onion and fennel slices out onto a sheet pan in a single layer. Drizzle with the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper, turning the slices over to coat both sides. Bake at 375 for 25 minutes or until the vegetables are just tender, and then set them aside to cool. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

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Grease a glass or ceramic 12 inch pie dish or 9 x 13 baking dish with the butter and set aside. Peel the skin from the neck of the butternut squash. Starting from the stem end, slice the squash into ⅛” slices until you have 20-24 slices. Reserve the base of the squash for use in a soup or stew. Slice the pear into slightly thicker ¼” slices, cutting around the core. Set both the squash and pear slices aside.

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Place the cream, nutmeg, a generous pinch of salt, and several more turns of pepper into a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and warm until just simmering. In the meantime, begin layering your squash and pear slices in your baking dish. Alternate the disks of squash with the largest pear slices. Use the smaller pear pieces to fill in any gaps, and cut down some of the squash slices if necessary. Next, top the pear and squash with the fennel, spreading it around evenly. Top the fennel with the red onion in an attractive pattern. Lastly, pour the hot cream mixture over the top of the layered vegetables, being sure to get it into every nook and cranny. The cream mixture will only come up the sides of the vegetables about half way.

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Cover the gratin tightly with foil and place onto a baking sheet to prevent spillage. Slide into the 400 degree oven and bake for 60-75 minutes, or until the squash slices are fork tender. Once they are soft, remove the foil and sprinkle the grated cheese over the top of the gratin. Return it to the oven for 15 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown.

Allow the gratin to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.

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Braised Red Cabbage

This sweet and tangy braised cabbage has become a favorite recipe at our house. I don’t think I would have ever thought to make cooked cabbage if it wasn’t for my dear friend Katrina. Her mother was German and Katrina learned to love this dish growing up. She came to visit me when I lived in Chicago one year at Thanksgiving and made this for a side dish. I was so impressed with it – it really is a perfect side dish for a rich dinner of roasted meat. It’s got some sweetness from the caramelization of the onions and the cabbage, and it has this wonderful tartness from the vinegar. These days we often use it as a side dish when we eat our weekly dose of beef liver. It really cuts the sometimes too-rich flavor of the liver (at least for me – my husband could eat the stuff with just a little salt and pepper).

Katrina makes her version with an apple, and it’s perfect.  Today I made mine with cherries just because they happen to be in season. I think it would also be great with dried fruit – apricots or figs in particular.

Braised Red Cabbage

Braised Red Cabbage
*makes 6-8 servings*

3 Tbsp. ghee, butter, or lard
1 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 small head red cabbage, quartered, cored, and cut into large chunks
1/2 C. dry white wine
12 cherries, halved and pitted, or 1 medium tart apple, diced
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1-2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
S & P

Warm a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat (cast iron is great). Melt the fat in the pot and add the onions, seasoning them with plenty of salt and pepper. Sauté the onions, stirring often, until just starting to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add the chopped cabbage, breaking apart as you go, along with the apple or cherries. Stir well to coat the cabbage with the fat.

Lastly, add the thyme sprigs, wine, and vinegar. Cover and reduce the heat to medium low. Allow the cabbage to cook for 50-60 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so to prevent sticking. You will likely have to reduce the heat further once most of the liquid evaporates.

The cabbage will be a deep, rich color and meltingly tender when it is ready. Add more vinegar and salt to taste if necessary and remove the thyme stems before serving.

 

 

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Dinner on a Stick

Our short-term summer weather has been put on hold here in Portland in favor of more seasonal 60 degrees days (with a light drizzle, of course). But it hasn’t stopped me from continuing to use the grill. Today I’m offering two simple recipes for the BBQ that make for a complete meal together and won’t require turning on the oven: Grilled Caprese Salad and Chicken and Salami Skewers.

The idea for putting salami on a skewer came from my brother, who ingeniously thought it up while we were skewering up vegetables while snacking on salami slices the other night. I love the way the edges of the salami crisp up on the BBQ. Dare I say grilled salami gives bacon a run for its money?

The grilled caprese idea was born out of my extreme excitement for tomato season.  Unfortunately, the tomatoes one can get their hands on this time of year bear little resemblance to late summer tomatoes, so I thought I’d give these bland little cherries a boost by lightly caramelizing them on the grill. The heat makes them pop open and creates its own lovely roasted tomato vinaigrette dressing for the salad (with a little help from some good salt and olive oil).

I haven’t listed amounts for these recipes because it’s a little difficult for skewers. As usual, I suggest you just go with your gut based on the number you’re feeding and your preferences. We had several chicken and salami skewers left over and they were delicious cold. I’m betting any leftover caprese would be nice the next day as well.

Salami Skewers

Grilled Caprese Salad:

Small Zucchini, sliced into 1/2″ discs
Cherry Tomatoes, any color or shape
Fresh Basil Leaves
Ciliegine (bite-sized fresh mozzerella balls)
Olive Oil
Sea Salt

Preheat your grill to a moderate heat. Skewer up the zucchini pieces and the cherry tomatoes – assume two 12″ skewers per person. Drizzle the vegetables lightly with olive oil and season with sea salt. Grill for 3 or 4 minutes per side, or until the tomatoes are just starting to brown and blister. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Once slightly cooled, gently slide the zucchini and tomatoes from their skewers and into an appropriately-sized bowl. Add the well drained mozzarella balls along with plenty of basil leaves. Drizzle with more olive oil and a good sprinkling of salt. Toss gently to combine and serve immediately.

Grilled Caprese Salad

Chicken and Salami Skewers:

Chicken Breast, cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated in 2 parts lemon, 1 part olive oil, and plenty of sea salt
Thinly Sliced Salami, folded into quarters
Mushrooms
Red Bell Peppers, cut into bite-sized pieces
Fennel, cut into bite-sized pieces
Anything else that sounds good to you

Marinate the chicken breast at least an hour in advance or up to one day (see ratios above).

When you’re ready to make the skewers, preheat the grill to medium heat. Assemble the skewers with your desired quantities of vegetables, meat, and salami. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with a little sea salt. Grill for approximately 5 minutes per side (assuming 2 sides) and then test for doneness. The salami should be crispy on the edges and the chicken pieces should be just cooked through. Serve the skewers immediately alongside the caprese salad.

Salami Skewers

 

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Anxious Gardening

It’s April 25th in the Pacific Northwest. The trees have all leafed out, the azaleas are blooming like fireworks in impossible colors, and every grocery store, garden shop, and nursery is offering summer vegetable and herb starts.

Tomatoes, peppers, and basil seem to be the most common, sitting provocatively outside of your local organic grocer, promising perfect salads and sauces. But not so fast! These summer favorites are not ready to go into the ground unprotected until the night temperatures are consistently above 46 degrees. The earliest accepted date here in the Portland metro area is May 15th, but some gardeners recommend waiting until June.

I know, I know, waiting is hard! If you’re anything like me, the first sighting of tomato starts sends you into a frenzy. No matter how scrawny the plant or unreasonable cold the night temps, you are unable to resist. You’ll keep that scrub in the kitchen windowsill, slowly coming to the realization that it is *still* March in Portland and there are *still* potentially 12 more weeks of cold rain. A month later, the plant won’t have grown an inch and will bear no resemblance the the bumper-crop champion you had envisioned. Diagnosis: failure to thrive.

As I’ve learned many years and molded cucumbers later, the gardening enthusiasm that beautiful early spring weather brings to the Pacific Northwest can be a bit misleading. While lots of beautiful and delicious plants thrive in this weather (peas, arugula, broccoli, lettuce, and chard come to mind), warm weather plants need some coddling to come out as garden darlings.

If you insist on getting your plants early like I do, here are several suggestions for getting your summer garden off on its very best foot.

1. Start from seed early.
If you want to save money by growing your summer veggies from seed, you have got to start early. Mid-February is the time to seed tomatoes, basil, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and the like indoors. Of course, all of these plants can be seeded through mid-April, but as long as you have a sunny window or two, go for February- you want all of the help you can get. This means the seeding window has already passed this year, but put it on your calendar for next year.

2. Buy huge plants, and buy the right plants.
If you’ve passed the seeding window or you prefer to buy starts, go big. The bigger your plants start out, the more prolific they will be. Shop around for your starts – I recommend buying from a nursery if possible. Generally, a nursery will keep warm weather plants in their greenhouse until at least May, which you can take as a sign that they are not fooling around. I found Sungold cherry tomato plants in March that were already 18 inches tall (!!) at Portland Nursery, which should definitely be on your list of you live nearby.

Additionally, a local nursery is also far more likely to sell plants that are well-adapted to your local climate. Oregon has a relatively cool summer, which isn’t ideal for tomatoes, so be sure to ask someone you can trust about which varieties are the best producers for your area. Otherwise you may end up with 30 pints of green tomato jam.

3. Bury ‘em deep.
If you buy your tomatoes early like I do, you can start building stronger roots right away by getting the plants out of their ridiculously tiny pots. When it comes to tomatoes, the more of the stem you bury, the better. If your plant has drooping branches with oversized leaves near its base, as many tomatoes do, it’s best to just get rid of these – they won’t do you any favors anyway! Trim the bottom grouping of branches (usually two) and move the plant to a larger, deeper pot. Then bury the plant all the way up to the next set of branches, covering all of the lower stem along with the nodes from the branches you trimmed away.

I know it can be hard to cut away the leaves for fear you will lose fruit, but it will ensure a better result. I’ve found that one cutting for the re-pot (be sure your pot is deep enough), and one cutting when planting outdoors is very helpful. Your plant will be shorter to start out, but much more hardy. All the more reason to buy a monster to begin with!

4. Nurse your plant indoors and outdoors
If it’s too early to plant outside and you need to nurse your plants indoors, do what I do: cheat. Your summer plants desire warm soil and they sure as heck aren’t getting it outside in most parts of the U.S. right now.

The most basic trick is to move your plants around to sunny or bright windows whenever possible, being sure that the container gets sun and not just the leaves. And of course on warm, sunny days (above 60 degrees), take your plants outside to a sunny spot!

Watering with warm water can be very helpful to increase soil temps as well. Be sure to water your plants thoroughly at least every other day. Morning watering is generally thought to be best, and using warm water (or at the very least *not* cold water) for summer plants helps to keep them productive and happy.

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If you want to get a little snazzier, try my heating pad trick – after a thorough watering and draining, place your plants onto a heating pad covered with a few layers of newspaper or a dishtowel to absorb any excess moisture and let ‘er rip. I think this is safest done using a heating pad with an automatic off timer. Mine goes off after 2 hours and I’ll click it back on 2 or 3 times a day when it’s especially cold and dreary. I think I added 3 or 4 inches to my tomatoes this way throughout the month of April.

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Lastly, and perhaps most ingenious, is the automobile hotbox. On sunny but too-cool-to-put-plants-outside days, park your car in a bright spot and put your plants inside of it for a mini-greenhouse effect. This is best with smaller starts that can fit on your sunny dashboard.  I have found it particularly useful for basil this year, which I started from seed so I can grow tons and tons and build a mountain of pesto. Be sure to water your starts thoroughly before placing into the warm car.

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My final piece of advice is to plant things that will benefit you! I chose my main plants this year based on what I use the most of and what would save me the most money overall. My favorite herbs are oregano, dill, and basil, so I made those the focus of my herb garden. Some of my day-to-day basics that can be somewhat expensive at Farmer’s Markets are broccoli, tomatoes, peas, organic potatoes, lettuce, and kale, so I have lots and lots of those going. Then I filled in with other things I like but in more limited quantities: carrots and beets, arugula, cucumbers, shallots, chives, and a few specialty herbs for fun.

This is my biggest garden yet, so wish me luck!

 

 

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