Ready, Set, Grow: Planning Your 2010 Edible Garden

Whether you’ll be growing food in a big backyard, a community garden plot, or in a small windowbox, now is the time to plan  what you’ll grow this year.The goal is to transform this

into this.

But whether you’re an experienced gardener or a novice, there are certain “laws of the land” that you just can’t mess with. So before you decide what seeds to order, i.e. what you’d like to grow, let’s take a look at what you can grow. You need to think in terms of edible sunlight.

Plants turn sunlight into the sugars and starches through photosynthesis. If you try to grow a full-sun crop like tomatoes in a shady spot, it will be starved for those sugars and starches, and you’ll be disappointed in your harvest no matter how carefully you water and compost. Other plants are more efficient photosynthesizers, and can withstand a little shade.

If you have a full-sun (6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight every day) garden, you can grow pretty much anything. For those plants that actually prefer a little shade, you can use tall crops such as corn to provide it.

If your garden gets only a few hours of direct sunlight, don’t despair. Some crops that would prefer full sun actually can do quite well with less light. These include all of the leafy greens and most root crops. Your yield won’t be as big as if the plants were getting more light, but still worthwhile.

If your garden is really shade-challenged, look to woodland crops such as ramps and fiddlehead ferns. These evolved under forest trees, and so are perfectly adapted for dappled light and shady conditions.

The next thing you need to think about is timing, and what kind of growing space you do (or don’t) have indoors to start plants from seed. Read the fine print in the catalog descriptions. If you live in a region where winter temperatures regularly drop below freezing, then anything that takes longer than 60-70 days to maturity needs to be started indoors and transplanted outside once nighttime temperatures are warm.

That bit about “nighttime temperatures” is important. Too often novice gardeners get energized on the first warm April day and think it’s a good time to start planting outdoors. But those pansies blooming in your neighbor’s windowbox are cold-hardy, and your tomato plants are not. How warm it gets during the afternoon is not important; how cold it gets at night is. Many plants, including tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, basil, eggplant, and peppers cannot survive outdoors until the night temperatures are reliably above freezing.

If you have lots of sunny (8 hours of direct light or more) windows, or plant lights, you can start your frost-tender plants indoors from seed. If you don’t, you’ll need to buy starter plants later in the spring and skip the seed planting.

Okay, so now you’ve narrowed down your list from what you wanted to grow to what you actually can grow, and decided whether you’re starting your plants from seed or seedling. Before you send in that plant and/or seed order, let’s make your edible garden list even more efficient (and ultimately more gratifying).

What can’t you get via your farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture (CSA) share? Or what is costly there?

If you’re a CSA member who gets tons of leafy greens in her share, then there’s no point in planting kale in your garden. I grow asparagus, rhubarb, and raspberries in my shared apartment garden because we get little if any of those from my CSA and they are pricey at the farmers’ markets. I also grow chervil, ramps, and red currants because either they don’t turn up from other sources or are too costly for my budget when they do. Shallots, heirloom tomatoes, pinkie-finger sized cucumbers (for pickling) are also in my garden for the same reasons.

Then there are the herbs you only need a little of at a time. The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of fresh sage leaves, but the smallest bunch for sale at the market is many times that. Well, you could dry the extra, or you could grow a sage plant and just pick what you need (and dry some for winter, at a fraction of the cost).

While light, temperature, and indoor seed-starting constraints may seem restrictive, if you pay attention to them they will be the difference between a disappointing edible garden and a harvest worth celebrating. Here’s a toast to the latter: may our 2010 gardens be worth bragging about!

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Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith

Road Trip: Hope in an American Food Desert

Before I left for this trip I did a little research. I looked up the official tourism web site for the town I’d be staying in. Under “many fine dining opportunities” the site listed Applebee’s and Arby’s. Ouch.

I packed lots of tasty, healthy, homemade snacks for the eight-hour bus ride and resigned myself to mediocre, environmentally disreputable road food for the rest of the trip.

I’m in Erie, PA for the Northeast American College Dance Festival. I’m here because A) I’m the official faculty chaperon for fourteen students from Adelphi University and B) because the university chose to present a piece I choreographed at this year’s festival. If you’re wondering what a locavore, writer, gardening and foraging teacher is doing choreographing for a dance festival, check out my other life.

disposable

Anyway, my first meals of the trip reminded me that it wasn’t just the food I had to worry about, but the trash. The only milk or cream for coffee option at the hotel restaurant came in those miniature plastic cups I’d hoped had become obsolete. I was pleasantly surprised to see what appeared to be simple vegetables and legumes at the all-you-can-eat buffet, but everything tasted like the same jar of Liquid Smoke had been shaken over it, and everything came in disposable containers.

And then there was the popcorn the nice guy at the front desk microwaved for me, after taking it out of its cellophane wrapper. I ate it while watching a movie, and noticed a not-quite-right aftertaste. A look at the bag revealed that it boasted “94% fat-free butter.” Fat-free butter? What does that mean? No, never mind. I don’t want to know.

popcorn

On the way to the college where the festival is being held, I saw a sign that read:

“Big Woodie’s Fireworks: Peppergas, Stunguns, & Sugar-Free Fudge”

(I am not making that up. I wish I had. It would be truly funny writing, but sadly the authors’ comic genius appears to have been only semi-intentional.)

When we got to the campus, one of the first things I saw was a bunch of french fries lying on the ground.

fries-in-the-snow

Clearly my food horizon was bleak for the next few days, and I should just focus on the students and their dancing and forget about anything else. They are having a good time on this trip, and I don’t want to spoil it for them (by the way, they brought LOTS of their own food with them. I think the point was more to save money than anything else, but whatever the reason, in this case it seems like a good impulse).

elevator

Today I went into the Mercyhurst cafeteria for lunch. The first thing that greeted me was a poster celebrating the fact that the college gets as much of its food as possible from within 125 miles, serves milk from local cows, and has renounced styrofoam and reintroduced dish washing as a job.

mercyhurst-local-sign

Wow.

Alas, by comparison, the school I am here to represent has a long way to go when it comes to the food choices it offers the students, not to mention the environmental impact of its disposable serving containers. Partly because of that, many of my students still cheerfully do things like toss their paper coffee cups into the trash without a second thought (yeah, even though they have me as a teacher. I’m working on it).

But Mercyhurst surprised me with its example of a school that has already taken the initiative and made significant changes that support local farms, reduce environmental impact, and through educating by example teach students to value things such as “local” and reject “disposable.” There is hope.

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Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith

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Helping a Small Farm & Dreams of Spring

This past Wednesday’s storm found me dreaming about spring. Here is what the stairs leading down to my garden looked like this week.

winter

And, for inspiration’s sake, here is what they looked like from the garden’s eye view last summer.

summer-steps

While I was daydreaming and making garden plans, I got an email with the subject line “Small Farmer Needs Help.” It was from Mihail Kossev, a young farmer in the Hudson Valley asking me to spread the word about Collect Seed Farm. The farm offers a CSA, and also sells mail order open-pollinated seeds. They are offering a 50% rebate and free shipping on seeds until March 1st. I looked at their online catalog, and they have some excellent varieties. I’ll be placing an order, and hope some of you will, too.

Meanwhile, I’m living mainly from my “pantry” of preserved foods. I put “pantry” in quotes because if you’d ever been to my apartment you’d know that I don’t have enough space for a dedicated pantry. My preserved food is stashed wherever I can make room for it, including under my bed.

I  recently wrote a piece for Farm to Table about how food preservation is a crucial part of the locavore life (at least if you live in a cold winter climate). It includes suggestions for using winter storage fruit such as apples that are past their crunchy prime. You may have already tried the chutney recipe, which I posted here first, but I also include instructions for oven-drying in case you don’t have a dehydrator. You can read the full article here.

Hope you’re staying warm, making garden plans (even if all you’ve got is a window box), and keeping it local.

Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith

A Local & Wild Foods Feast

Last night I had six friends over for a local foods dinner that included a lot of wild edibles.

There were many reasons to celebrate. Two friends had recent birthdays and for a third it was his actual birthday. I was also showing off last month’s apartment renovations and saying thanks to Bill, who did a lot of them.

bill-shelves

I was also introducing several people to my cat Ella, who moved in with me last fall. And it was Imbolc, give or take a day.

Imbolc is the pagan holiday halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is that time when the first promise of spring shows even though there are many weeks of winter ahead: the witch hazel is blooming, the leaf buds on trees are swelling, and the lengthening of the days is tangible (no more heading to the subway in the dark on my early teaching mornings!).

We started out with some pickles–carrots, cherries, bread ‘n’ butter cukes, as well as watermelon radishes, and hickory nuts. Then we moved on to a roasted butternut squash and apple soup with field garlic and Old Chatham blue cheese, served with acorn bread. The main course was freekah (sometimes spelled freekeh) grain from Cayuga Pure Organics with wild mushrooms I foraged last fall and lamb’s quarters (a wild green, Chenopodium album), and crepinettes. We finished up with strawberry sorbet made with local strawberries I’d stashed in the freezer and cookies made with wild ginger and spicebush. All washed down with plenty of wine, including a homemade pyment that Ellen brought.

Here are Ellen and Jenny catching up after not having seen each other since, well, I think the last time I threw an Imbolc bash:

ellen-jenny1

You may be wondering what a crepinette is.

A crepinette is a sausage patty wrapped in caul fat. For the sausage part, I used a mix of ground pork and ground turkey seasoned with minced onions (cooked in oil until translucent), garlic, sage, nutmeg, cumin, salt and cayenne.

I got the caul fat from my CSA “extra product” order. It was cheap, and I was curious, and I had a crepinette recipe that called for it, so I bought some. I have to say, this is one of the weirdest (and, it turns out, tastiest) ingredients I’ve ever worked with.

Caul fat looks like a block of lard when you get it.

crepinettes

Then you soak it in water for ten to fifteen minutes and it falls apart into lacy layers of fat and membrane.

crepinettes2

You wrap your meat mixture in those lacy layers, which act like sausage skins to hold the ground meat and other ingredients together, but also infuse the final dish with, well, pork fat.

crepinettes3

Which, once cooked, is really, really tasty.

Here’s a pic of me, Jenny’s husband Sean, & Ellen at the party.

3-on-imbolc1

Good company and good food. Happy Imbolc, everyone!

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Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith