Installing New Landscaping, Part 1: Planning Your Bed

My house’s northern exposure is  a barren wasteland.

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Except GRRM’s Wall has more plants.

North: the land of shade, cold and damp. North, the land of the Great White Wall with No Windows, nor trees to break the evil winds. My power company loves my north wall.

This year, enough was enough. Time to take action. Time to install a new flower/perennial/shrub bed.

This is the first of several parts, since one epic blog post on putting in a garden bed would lose you faster than this weird Belgian Jared Leto movie called “Mr. Nobody” lost me the other night.

This is the kind of flowerbed where small trees, shrubs and perennials can live and liven up your home over the long term.  There are many approaches–this is just mine.

Planning

Anytime you’re thinking of doing some landscaping, keep in mind that this is a renovation for your yard. It’s like putting an addition on the house–the placement of the bed and how you build it is utterly critical to its look, feel and success.

Though it ended up only taking me two days to actually install the bed, I’ve been thinking about this for many, many months. In total, I’ve watched the space for about three years now, but mainly because I’m poor and couldn’t do anything about it. It shouldn’t take you three years, but if you have a spot you want to renovate, take the time to carefully observe it. Try to visualize the space in all four seasons.

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This is the shade cast in the new north-facing bed, in mid-afternoon, in the middle of the summer. Imagine how far out the shade will extend in the winter months with the sun so much lower in the sky.

Some questions to ask:

  • What are your soil conditions like? Moist or well-drained? Sandy or clayey or somewhere in between?
  • What are the light conditions? Does the area get full sun, part sun or shade (see this related blog post.)
  • How is the light different in winter from summer? Where do the shadows fall?
  • What is the spot like in each season? Are there high winds? Are there competing tree roots nearby?

Plant Research & Selection

Landscaping from scratch is a considerable challenge for anyone, experienced gardener or no. Challenges for me, on top of it being a north-facing wall, included the Native  Handicap (trying to stick with mid-Atlantic natives) and the husband’s request that there be lots of evergreens so it “looks good in winter.” I had myself a doozy of a job.

When you tire of staring at the blank spot in your yard trying to imagine what it might eventually look like, it’s time to think about the plants you want to put there. Two big questions:

  • What kind of feel or effect do you want to create? (Hint: the Lowe’s Bargain Cart can only take you so far.)
  • How will the finished product look as you walk past? From far away?
  • Do you want to invite people in, or keep them out?

Weeks Months of searching for things that tolerate/thrive in shade, but that are also evergreen and native turned up a very short list of plants. This is one I’m really happy to have:

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Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) awaiting transplant.

But I know where to look. Where can a novice find reliable, easy-to-understand information on what to plant in the landscape?

A few places to start:

  • Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center — searchable database of recommended native plants for the home landscape
  • Fine Gardening’s searchable Plants and Inspiration feature
  • Gardening magazines. Flip through things at the bookstore and make lists of things that appeal to you.
  • Your library. Do what I did: earn subdued looks from the librarians as they watch you waddle away with two reusable grocery bags screaming at the seams, stuffed with landscaping and gardening books.

Okay, enough for one day.

Your homework: Go outside. Look at your space. Browse some of these links. Make a short list of things that appeal to you, in a variety of heights and sizes.

Next, we’ll talk about what to do when the hard thinking is done: finding good plants, drawing lines in your yard and digging out that new bed.

Onion Harvest: Pulling & Storing Alliums

After months of admiring their lovely blue-green foliage–and cooking with them–my onions finally declared they were ready to be harvested. Like my garlic and shallots had a few weeks prior:

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Looking ratty, guys.

And look what was just under all that mess!

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Freshly harvested garlic.

I pulled these guys when they started looking all crazy, and popped them in the garage to dry.

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Ten days later and the garlic cured to storage-quality dryness.

But the onions? No, they needed more time. Some were laying down, some were leaning, some were still standing straight up.

Finally when my husband commented that they were mostly looking pretty hurt, I went out to finish them off.

How and When To Prepare Onions for Harvest: Once most (70% or so) tops have fallen over, push the rest of them over. This process concludes bulbing and begins the period of curing that’s necessary if you want to store your onions for any length of time. Try to time this for a period of dry, rain-free weather.

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Onions laying out for a bit after pulling.

It’s the first time I’ve grown onions where they actually made a bulb that I’d be proud to compare to something store-bought. In the past, the bulbs of onions I tried to grow were pretty puny, more like the cute little pearl onions you see swimming in the bottom of a martini glass.

Last year's onion "harvest."

Last year’s onion “harvest.”

I’m not really sure what was different this year, possibly better sunlight and better soil, but of the 100 or so onion seedlings I planted out this spring, I got 70 decent-sized onions. And yeah, some of them just wanted to be a drink garnish; you can’t win all the time.

Rather than use traditional rows, I loosely followed square foot gardening spacing guidelines, where crops are planted in closely spaced blocks to save room. My onions took up about 20 square feet; though it looked like a big blank spot for a long time while the seedlings were still barely more than a strand of hair, by July they made a pretty little onion patch.

By mid-July, most of the tops had started to act like drunkards.  So after about 10 days of laying down, I pulled them up.

How to Harvest Onions: Dig them up gently by grabbing the neck close to the bulb, and wedging them loose with a trowel. They should pop easily out of the ground. Undamaged roots and necks are necessary for proper curing.

Curing is Critical: After harvest, onions need to be cured, or dried to the point where the necks are papery and dry and no longer green. This also allows their outer skins to dry, which helps protect them in storage.  My onions have been curing on an improvised drying rack for the last two weeks. The best place is a cool, shady spot with a good breeze–not in full sun. Try under a deck or in a covered breezeway. Mine are under a maple tree — not the best, but it’s what I’ve got.

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One day I’ll have a nice onion-drying rack, but till then, wire baskets and oven racks under a shady tree are doing the job.

Despite being rained on once or twice, the necks are drying up nicely.

Storage Tips

Like most other vegetables you can grow yourself, there are a lot of different types of onions. Variety matters for how long onions keep in storage. For my garden this year, I got Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s Yellow of Parma, a medium-sized yellow onion rated as a good keeper. Generally speaking, mild-flavored onions (big, fat, soft and sweet) don’t keep as long as strong-flavored, mustard-gas varieties (small, hard, crisp and mean.)

  • Cure in single layers. While curing and in pre-winter storage, keep onions in a single layer on a rack or in a well-ventilated box. After onions have dried sufficiently, bring them indoors into an air-conditioned basement area or root cellar to keep them cool (not cold–no refrigerators!) and dry.
  • Proper winter storage. Once cold weather moves in outside, onions should go into a cooler storage area, too. An unheated garage or shed should work well, as long as the temperatures reliably stay around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Hanging. Braiding onions into strands is the traditional way of storing them; some people also like to stick them one by one into a nylon stocking, tying a knot between each onion and just cutting off a knot as needed. Here’s a link to a photo that shows how it could look. Mesh bags work well, too, but don’t overload them.
  • Inspect! Stored onions should be firm and free from damage. Don’t keep any that are soft or look suspicious–they can infect their neighbors with germies that will make a mush out of your precious crop long before you can eat them. Look onions over carefully before storing them.

Keeping all these things in mind, I hope we’ll be eating our own onions well into winter.

Some fun onion facts:

Onions have been cultivated for so long that its origins are almost completely obscured.

The word “onion” is thought to come to English through French oignon from the Latin unionem, meaning a string of pearls or the unified nature of the bulb’s concentric rings.

Ancients must have been stinky people. To wit:

  • Egyptians fed them to the pyramid builders (aka slaves);
  • Traces of onion were found in the eye sockets of Ramses IV’s mummy, buried in 1160 B.C. Onions were considered a symbol of the afterlife because of its concentric nested layers, but I know the truth: it’s just payback for a lifetime of forced onion eating (here’s an onion in YOUR eye, pal!)
  • Romans rubbed their gladiators with onions and fed them to their soldiers despite being generally disliked for their strong odor and flavor. The ruling class made their subordinates eat and anoint themselves with onion juice!
  • Onions even make regular appearances in some of the world’s most ancient texts, such as this one from Sumeria, circa 2400 B.C.:

“As for the temple and its property, the ishakku (governor) took it over as his own. To quote our ancient narrator literally: ‘The oxen of the gods plowed the ishakku’s onion patches; the onion and cucumber patches of the ishakku were located in the god’s best fields.'”

–Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer (1956), p. 48

  • Medieval peasants would sometimes pay their rent in onions.

 

Getting Your Vegetable Garden Ready for Fall: Mid-Summer Planting

It’s mid-summer. Already. We’re full-swing in the middle of eating season, and the annual crop of pictures of Louisville Slugger-sized zucchinis and bird-pecked tomatoes are making their rounds on the Internet:

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Photo Source: The Good Gravy blog

Some of you are still only just celebrating your sweet corn reaching eye height:

But the crickets are already chirping, and the year is sliding towards fall. That means it’s already time to think about planting fall vegetables — yep, in the dead of July.

I like fall, I do–I love the crisp air and the bright colors. I even kind of love the exasperation I feel seeing “pumpkin spiced” everything, everywhere.

But I love summer more. I dislike the mournful feeling I get knowing that the dead of winter is peeking just around the corner. Keeping things growing or a having a hidden stash of harvestable things makes winter a tiny bit more manageable. One day, maybe, I’ll have a greenhouse where I can bask in humid warmth, surrounded by lemons and gardenias even when it’s cold as Hades outside, but until then, I’ve got to settle for what I can get. And that’s a prolonged harvest of things to eat.

Here’s a quick list of things you can plant now that should be ready before first frost:

You can also get totally wild and try some of these unusual vegetables:

Of course, when your garden looks like this, it’s hard to tell yourself that you already need to be planting for the last of the growing year:

summer garden

Tuscan (lacinato) kale rules the kitchen these days.

Hot tip: try putting a sowing of any of the above listed veggies into a blank spot in your garden where you just yanked something out. My onions are about ready to come out, so I’ll be popping some broccoli in there here in a few days.

Take This To A Picnic: Red Rainbow Slaw

We have a salad with dinner virtually every night, especially lately now that our garden is filled to overflowing with leafy things to eat.

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Tuscan, or lacinato kale.

Though I don’t have formal recipes for my salads, I generally don’t deviate very much from the basic elements: lettuce, seasonal vegetables, and a simple vinaigrette dressing. I might add raw garlic to the dressing if I’m feeling like warding off friends and strangers. The bottom line is, whatever is in the garden or fridge goes into the salad.

My husband and I are also suckers for a good magazine deal, so among others, we subscribe to Food & Wine Magazine. It’s absolutely crammed with gorgeous, mouth-watering recipes. Flipping through the latest issue, my husband held up a page and said, “How about we do something different for our salad tonight?”

The recipe was for a cabbage salad, which in my book, essentially translates to “coleslaw.” I’m not overly fond of raw cabbage; unless it’s been softened by cooking or a nice soak in vinegar, it’s just a chore to eat. Also, Food & Wine can be a bit lofty (dang, fresh out of sea urchin roe) so we typically use it as a source of inspiration and adapt recipes to use ingredients already in our pantry. We might lower the bar, but we always enjoy what we come up with.

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The basic ingredients. Look what you can grow! (Minus the olive oil, honey and lemons.)

Like an earlier post where we discussed how beets are the misunderstood step-child of the vegetable world, cabbage is much the same way. Boiled, the way people mysteriously insist on serving it for “authentic” St. Patrick’s Day meals, it is truly something frightful. But sauteed gently, or shredded thinly and allowed to marinate in vinegar for several hours before serving, cabbage transcends its supposed awfulness with a toothsome texture and sweetness.

Red cabbage, beets and Tuscan kale are booming right now in the garden, so they were a natural addition to the slaw. The dark green of the kale contrasts so beautifully with the purple of the cabbage, and sliced baby beets, apples, radishes and toasted pumpkin seeds add sweet, nutty punctuation marks. It’s all dressed in a gentle cloak of paprika vinaigrette, made with German mustard and diced shallots, that tinges the entire affair a lovely dusky red.

If you don’t grow your own red cabbage, select one from the grocery produce department with tightly wrapped leaves and feels heavy and dense for its size. Avoid heads that are cracked, look dry or feel light, or have a hollow or soft base. It is normal for cabbage be covered in a pale, tacky dust, called the “bloom,” which rubs away easily when handled. Red cabbage in particular should have a deep purple color with a blue-tinged bloom.

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Baby beets might be available at farmers’ markets right now, but if you grow your own, you’ll be drowning in thinnings! Flavor-wise, they’re milder and more tender than mature beets. If you can’t find or don’t have baby beets, select the smallest beets you can find, or just quarter regular-sized beets and then slice them. Scrub them well before slicing to remove some of the skins, but otherwise, don’t process them. If they come with greens, don’t toss them! Chop those up and cook like spinach.

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You can find pumpkin seeds for a decent price in stores like Trader Joe’s, where they are often labeled as “pepitas.” Roasting them in the oven is easy to do but can heat up the whole house in summer, so I prefer to just toast them in a dry pan over medium heat until they are crackling, crispy and almost smoking. Be sure and keep the seeds moving in the pan to prevent scorching them.

A final note on German mustard: I grew up with this stuff, and it comes in many different variations, from nose-meltingly spicy to smooth and sweet. For this recipe, I used a mild, sweet variety. For those of you without access to a store that carries imports, use your favorite Dijon mustard instead.

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Red Rainbow Slaw

For the slaw:

  • One small head of red cabbage, halved, cored and shredded
  • 1 pound Tuscan (lacinato) kale, chopped
  • 4 or 5 baby beets or one medium beet, sliced
  • 4 radishes, sliced
  • 2 green onions, diced
  • 1 cup each chopped cilantro and parsley
  • 1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
  • 1 large apple, cored and diced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

For the marinade/dressing:

  • 1 small shallot, finely diced
  • 2 Tbsp German or finely milled Dijon mustard
  • Juice of 1 whole lemon
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1 or 2 Tbsp honey
  • 1 to 2 tsp soy sauce or liquid aminos
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp sweet paprika
  • 2 to 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. Combine all the ingredients for the slaw into a large serving bowl and toss well to mix.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the lemon, vinegars, honey, soy sauce or aminos and mustard, and whisk to blend.

3. While continuing to whisk vigorously, pour the oil in a thin stream into the vinegar mixture. Keep beating the vinaigrette until the oil is well emulsified into the mixture.

4. Add the shallots and paprika and stir quickly to blend.

5. Pour the entire mixture over the vegetables and toss to coat.

6. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 to 5 hours to overnight. Toss the slaw again before serving.

Serves oodles of people.

    Make it a true full-spectrum dish with a garnish of sky-blue borage flowers.

Make it a true full-spectrum dish with a garnish of sky-blue borage flowers.

Vegan variation: Coconut (palm) or maple sugar can be substituted in place of the honey for the dressing.

Gluten Free: Use gluten-free tamari soy sauce; liquid aminos are also gluten-free and soy free. EDIT: Bragg’s Liquid Aminos are NOT soy-free; however, Coconut Secret’s aminos are.

No, They Don’t Taste Like Socks: Why You Should Grow (and Eat!) Beets

I was one of those weird kids. You know: the kind who enjoyed classical music, read at an early age, and liked pickled beets from a jar.

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You read that right—I like beets. Canned, jarred, dried, roasted, sliced raw and even the greens chopped up for sautés and salads. My mom let me eat raw vegetables straight from the garden at a very young age, plus I spent many formative years in Germany, where the beet is practically a national vegetable (the potato being another). Hence, I’ve always had a healthy appreciation for oft-maligned vegetables, though it took me until I was an adult to appreciate grilled squash.

I wish beets didn’t have such a bad reputation. It’s totally undeserved. I do think it’s gotten better, thanks in part to cooking shows and ridiculous chef competitions. Beets are super simple to grow in the garden, so lovely, and believe it or not, is one of the sweetest vegetables you can eat.

The Beauty of Beets

A freshly sliced beet is a surprise. Slivered widthwise from shoulders to root, many beets have incredible concentric circles—the Chioggia beet is well known for its contrasting pink and white circles—which add so much to a dish that you almost need not do anything else to make a plate look gorgeous.

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Few other vegetables have such deep, rich color, a good clue to their status as a nutritional heavyweight. I will not deny that they have a deeply earthy flavor. To a naïve tongue, they may initially taste like straight-up dirt, but roasting brings out their incredible sweetness. I know I said in an earlier post that goat cheese was made for a particular herb I like, but what I really meant was that goat cheese is intended to go with beets.

Get All the Vitamins

If you still doubt, here are a few more reasons why you should at least try adding beets to your culinary repertoire:

  • Low in calories and carbs. A cup of beets is 59 calories and 13 grams of carbs. You’ll feel fat and happy after a meal that includes beets. They’re also a rich source of vitamin C, iron (the leaves contain more iron than spinach), potassium, magnesium and vitamin B-6.
  • Helps lower blood pressure. Beets are a rich source of nitrates, which the body metabolizes into nitric oxide, which in turn relaxes your blood vessels. Weight lifters know that nitric oxide also helps boost short-term muscle function and performance.
  • Fights inflammation. A compound called betaine found in beets is known to improve and support liver function and cellular regeneration, which also protects cells from other environmental damage.
  • Detox. This is a biggie, and no scientific literature could make me more of a believer. Alert! Eat beets, and you’ll see it in the bathroom a day or so later, either as pink urine and/or as a very satisfying #2. I regard this as a plus. Okay. Potty time over.

Beets are Easy to Grow!

My experience with beets has been this: I stick some seeds in the ground in a sunny spot as soon as the ground has thawed in late March. A week or so later there are some leaves, a few weeks later there are lots of leaves, and about a month or two after planting, I am up to my ears in beets.

You can plant beets in both spring and late summer for a fall crop, and as long as they get sun and water, they really do take care of themselves. But you have to make sure the spot is ready for them. Yeah, there’s almost always a catch.

Beets love a nice soft bed. Don’t we all?

Root vegetables like carrots and beets need fairly fluffy, rock-free soil to avoid becoming warped, ugly things. I add compost to the entire garden several times a year, which not only builds the soil but helps with drainage, fertility and soil texture.

Decide how you want to plant them: If you go with traditional rows, literature recommends 1 inch apart in rows 12 inches apart. I have a small garden, so I prefer to plant in closely spaced grids (about 3 inches apart in every direction) in the same space I will eventually put my tomato transplants; I just leave a little gap wherever I plan on putting a tomato.

The beginning of beet harvest.

The beginning of the impending beet avalanche.

While the tomatoes are getting taller, the beet greens below do this nifty trick of shading the ground with their leafy greens, tag-teaming as both mulch and weed suppressant. The beets are ready to pull just as the tomatoes start to shade them out.

Keep beets well-watered or risk having leathery roots. That would be a crime, and also perpetuate the myth of beet-as-gross-vegetable.

Growing In Containers

If you have the smallest of all gardening spaces like a patio or balcony, you CAN have beets! The nature of well-drained, fluffy potting soil you must use in a container or pot makes for excellent beet-growing conditions. Plus the greens are so beautiful, dark green with red stems (or yellow stems, if you’re growing golden beets), that you’ll have a nice ornamental to look at while you’re awaiting harvest. Container growing requires extra attention to watering, since they dry out faster.

'Cylindra' is an unusual carrot-shaped beet that I grow.

‘Cylindra’ is an unusual carrot-shaped beet that I grow.

Tip to Tail Eating: Cooking With Beets and Greens

The standard thing I do with beets is to roast them, peel them, and toss them with goat cheese and a balsamic vinegar reduction. The goat cheese melts and cloaks the warm beets in creamy tartness, and the balsamic’s acidity and zing perfectly counterbalances the deep sweetness of roasted beets.

Quarter or halve the beets with the skin on and roast in the oven at 425 F for 50 minutes to an hour, or whenever the beets can be easily pierced with a fork. Allow them to cool slightly and then peel them (for a prettier look) or leave the skins on (not as pretty and adds more of that earthy flavor to a dish).

In a bowl, toss the warm beet pieces with a half cup or so of crumbled goat cheese, then drizzle with balsamic reduction. (Learn how to make a balsamic reduction here. A warning: the kitchen will get pretty peppery with vinegar vapor, so be prepared. Maybe wear goggles or a mask. I’m only kinda joking. But really, it’s totally worth it.)

Unlike all those nice photos you see on Pinterest, the goat cheese will melt; it won’t keep its pretty white and fluffy shape. Grate a bit of orange zest over, garnish with parsley, and voila. Bring it to a party and impress.

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Yes, the ruby juice can stain like cheap red wine. But there is so much more you can do with beets than popping them into a jar with pickling solution, though as I’ve already admitted, I think they’re awfully good that way.

There is a plethora—a plethora!—of wonderful beet recipes out there. Here are several I found that I like and will be trying soon:

Dark Chocolate Beet Brownies (from The Way to My Family’s Heart)

Grilled Beets with Dilled Cucumbers (from Martha Stewart)

Kale and Roasted Beet Salad with Maple Balsamic Dressing (from Tori Avey)

 

Come back soon for my next post, which will be dedicated to how to make an amazing Eastern European-inspired slaw with sliced baby beets, fresh red cabbage and Tuscan kale.