Articles in Gardening

Six tips that will help your kids have fun with gardening this summer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Spring has finally come to our neck of the woods, and we’re beginning to take the tiny shoots from our mini-greenhouse in our basement out into the world. I want my daughters to know where their food comes from, but growing a kid-friendly garden means more than just planting kid-friendly plants.


If you want to get kids to actually eat their veggies, it helps if you get them invested in the process and care of the garden. If your kids see the backyard vegetable garden as “theirs,” they are far more likely to embrace the products: happily eating radishes and arugula that they’ve grown on their own. Here are six tips — tested in our home — to get your kids to embrace gardening and become active agents in creating their own food.

1. Get dirty

Susan Lutz - 6 Quick Garden Tips for Kids

Kids need to dig into the earth and get their hands dirty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Forget the image of white-frocked children basking in a pristine flower bed; that image gets in the way of real gardening. Get your kids dirty as fast as possible. Ask them to dig with hand trowels, sticks or bare fingers, and they will leap at the opportunity. When watering, “accidentally” drench them with a good hosing. They’ll squeal, then beg for more — and watering is no longer a chore but a family frolic. Make mud and get them in it. Over-plant in anticipation of grubby little fingers pulling out the extraneous shoots. A garden shouldn’t be too precious. Good gardening demands some filth, and when kids realize this, they embrace it.

2. Get gross

If your garden doesn't have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love gross, and a garden has it in spades. Ask your kids to find worms, then take the opportunity to discuss their impact on the soil. If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, go buy them and let the kids play with their new “pets” while you’re putting them into the garden. If you want to step it up a notch, create a vermiculture bin and let your kids be in charge of the worm farm. Look for beneficial insects such as ladybug larvae and lacewings. Explain that the reason you wash food that comes from the garden comes down to two words: bird poop. Some kids may react negatively to grossness, but that’s part of the charm. Gross things are both attractive and repulsive to young ones, and finding that fine line where attraction and repulsion equal each other out keeps the kids coming back to the garden.

3. Get creative

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Encourage your kids to rename the plants in the garden. Our girls have dubbed our sage bush as “Hairy Bigfoot Plant.” That name has made the humble herb extremely attractive to our girls and to the neighbor kids — especially after we cut out pieces from a milk jug and made markers for our newly named plants. In fact, our two girls and the neighbor boy run to this plant every morning as they walk to school and actually eat a leaf of Hairy Bigfoot Plant. Without that name, I suspect elementary school kids would not be eating raw sage leaves every morning on the way to school. Have your kids play The Name Game, and they are suddenly personally invested in growing and eating mummy peas (snap peas) and bloody spice balls (radishes).

4. Get a kit

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love kits, so create an easily portable garden set for each child. You can buy them ready-made at the nursery or dollar store … but where’s the fun in that? Ask your kids to choose cheap tools for themselves, or gather the tools you already have and put them in specific kits. We turned milk jugs into garden kits, but a tote bag or plastic bucket works just as well. Add more than just a trowel rake and gloves. Put in a magnifying glass, eyedroppers, specimen jars and other “scientific” tools to deploy in the garden. When it’s time to do some weeding, tell your kids to grab their kits and you suddenly have an eager workforce.

5. Get experimental

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Make your garden a laboratory, not a display. Ask your kids to experiment with the dirt, the compost, the layout and the results of your planting. Turn gardening into a science experiment. When the plants are coming up, try taste experiments — is this bitter? Sour? Sweet? This type of hands-on discovery helps kids understand that “good” doesn’t always mean “familiar” — so that when your crop is ready for the kitchen, your kids will beg to try to results. This may require you to set aside a part of your garden to be devoted to the kids’ experiments (so that you don’t ruin your entire crop) but their creative/destructive explorations will personalize your garden… and its results.

6. Get dramatic

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Learn a lesson from molecular gastronomy: Presentation and entertainment are part of the full experience of food. When it was time to thin the new shoots of butter crunch lettuce and arugula, we had our girls wash the tiny shoots and arrange them attractively on a platter with small chunks of string cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. A garden chore suddenly becomes an art project, then a dish of Farm-To-Table Micro-Greens. In the garden itself, use the “experimental” area for play as well as work: Set up scenes, fairy gardens or Lego cities beneath the plants. The “forest” of carrots grows more lush around the tiny family that lives beneath it … then Godzilla descends at harvest time, pulling the trees by the roots as the dolls run and scream in horror. The garden becomes a playground, and the plate becomes a stage, turning the concept of “playing with your food” into a deeper understanding of the earth, growing plants and the process of creating and eating food.

Main photo: Keep the fun factor high when enticing children to do gardening this summer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter

Flowers have crept into our diets almost unnoticed, and now it seems they are blooming everywhere: nasturtiums in salads; courgette (zucchini) flowers, stuffed and fried; elderflower cordial; and violet creams. Many more flowers than you might imagine can be used to add flavor and color to sweet and savory dishes.

Many of the flowers we now grow as ornamentals were originally valued as herbs. In addition, all the flowers of the herbs we use are edible, along with roses, fuchsias and day lilies, to name but a few. Now is the perfect time to plant many of them. Edible flowers don’t need much room and even if you only have a couple of window boxes, you will still get a good, long harvest.

Edible annuals such as cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), sunflowers (Helianthus annus), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and pot or English marigolds (Calendula) can be sown now. Only some Tagetes marigolds are edible, in particular T. patula, T. lucida and T. tenuifolium. If in any doubt, stick to calendulas. Simply sow the seeds in trays, pots or in situ, and you will be rewarded with a summerlong harvest. All these plants are “cut-and-come-again,” which means that the more flowers you pick, the more the plant will produce, usually right up to the first frosts.

The petals of cornflowers, which have little flavor, are a wonderful blue and look particularly good on creamy or yellow dishes such as custards, cheese and egg dishes and cakes; and with yellow and orange peppers. Even plain old macaroni cheese looks spectacular with a garnish of blue petals.

Marigolds have a subtle peppery taste and give food a rich yellow color, earning them the name of “poor man’s saffron.” Cut away the bitter ends of the petals and cook in oil to bring out the best flavor; fish, rice, pasta, eggs, potatoes, cream and butter are all good companions. Dried petals are a great addition to winter soups.

Tasty nasturtiums

Peppery-sweet nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed and are great to grow up sunflowers. Just wait till the sunflower is about 30 centimeters (11 inches) tall and then plant two to three nasturtium seeds around the base of the plant. Tie them in as they grow up and you will have two crops in the space of one. Nasturtiums are good in salads, but they also go well with fish, chicken, cream cheese, goat’s cheese, risotto or pasta and make great fritters. The young leaves are also tasty.

Sunflower petals have a slightly nutty taste. You can eat the young stems and flower buds, but this seems a bit of a waste as you lose the flowers. Better to enjoy the flowers, use the petals and leave the seeds to ripen on the plants. Sunflower bread is wonderful, using the seeds and petals. You can add the petals to pastas and soups; they go especially well with any onion-based dishes.

Plants you can buy now include hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). They are biennials, so they take two years to grow. But if you collect seeds and plant them toward the end of the summer, you will have a continuous supply of the plants and their beautiful flowers, which make perfect garnishes.

Pansies, Johnny jump-ups or violets (Viola) are also good plants to buy. As well as livening up green salads they go well with fish, potatoes, carrots and fruit salads. Violets are daintier and have a sweeter taste; perfect for cakes and scones. Do not be tempted to use African violets (Saintpaulia) as they are not edible.

All Dianthus (carnations, pinks and sweet Williams) have edible petals. They have a sweet clove-like flavor, which is strongest in the most fragrant flowers. They are one of the many ingredients in chartreuse, and complement egg- or cream-based puddings, salmon and cakes and biscuits.

Tulips make spectacular containers for ice cream. Simply prepare them as described below, prop them upright in a small glass or egg cup and add a scoop of ice cream. The petals taste mildly of cucumber; the paler flowers have a better flavor, but the more flamboyant ones make more striking containers.

Preparing edible flowers

While using flowers in your cooking is a wonderful thing, there are one or two cautions. Just because a flower smells good it follows that it will be good to eat — a vast number of flowers are highly poisonous. The Latin name enables you to tell exactly what you are growing and eating. Local names of flowers vary widely and can even refer to different plants.

Day lilies look like lilies and are delicious to eat, but they are Hemerocallis, not really lilies at all. Most true lilies (Lilium) are not edible. All marigolds belonging to the Calendula genus are great to eat, but only some of the Tagetes marigolds (see above) can be eaten safely. Secondly, if you suffer from pollen allergies you should introduce any flowers into your diet very gradually.

As well as knowing exactly which flower you are eating, it is important that they have not been treated with chemicals. The best way to ensure this is to pick them from your own garden. Most flowers are best picked early, on a dry day, once any dew has dried, but before the sun dries their oils. Pick unblemished, freshly opened flowers, give them a shake to remove any lurking bugs or dust, and then wash carefully in a bowl of cold water. Pat dry or spin gently in a salad spinner and place on paper towels to dry completely.

Nasturtiums, day lilies and fuchsias can be eaten whole, but with most other flowers it is best to remove the pistils and stamens (the bits in the middle). Flowers such as roses, marigolds and dianthus have a white heel at the bottom of their petals. This can be bitter, so snip it away if necessary. Make sure all the pollen is removed, especially from flowers such as hollyhocks, which have a lot. This is easiest done with a paintbrush.

If you aren’t going to use them within a few hours, store the prepared flowers on paper towels in an airtight container in the bottom of the fridge. Flowers can also be stored in sugar (violet-, pink- and rose-infused sugars are particularly good), crystallized, added to oils and vinegars, or mixed in butter (primrose or pot marigold butters are pretty and delicious).

Feel free to experiment, and you will find your dishes prettier and more flavorful.

Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter

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Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of

Gardening in winter hardly seems ideal to those of us in cold climates, but for Craig LeHoullier, the season of snow brings the first opportunity to plan his summer tomato crop. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of the recently published book “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.

Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.

LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.

I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.

Winter gardening: prime time for research

LeHoullier says he gets about a monthlong break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.

Craig LeHoullier, author of "Epic Tomatoes," holds a Cherokee Purple tomato.  Credit: Susan Lutz

Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes,” holds a Cherokee Purple tomato. Credit: Susan Lutz

Determine your gardening goals

LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.

LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.

Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.

Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat

Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.

Get to know your gardening climate

Epic Tomatoes

Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.

Seeds vs. seedlings

LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.

Hybrids vs. heirlooms

Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”

Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)

After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.

Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.

One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”

Disappointment is an opportunity for learning

A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”

The bottom line

LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”

Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”

Main photo: Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz

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Seed swap in Orange County. Credit: Nicole Gregory

When I lived in New York City, I could not keep a single plant alive in my overheated apartment. So imagine my surprise when my husband and I moved to the warm Los Angeles climate and I discovered how easy it is to grow plants — including luscious vegetables — year-round.

Just put them into the ground, water them regularly and watch them grow.

But even as my expertise as backyard gardener grew over the years, I continued to depend on seedlings purchased from my local nursery. Growing vegetables from seeds, I’d heard, could yield good results. But, really, why bother?

Then I got the chance to find out at a seed swap that was taking place in Orange County.

“The idea is to grow vegetables and fruit that are perfectly suited to the local environment,” Sharael Kolberg told me. She is the community liaison for SEEDS Arts and Education, the nonprofit that organized the seed swap in Laguna Beach under the tall shady trees at the Anneliese School.

A new seed library is born

The group of about 100 gardening enthusiasts was also there to celebrate the inauguration of a seed library at the school, with food and Champagne, and a few words from local experts.

Small white boxes that looked like traditional library card drawers were set out on tables and visitors avidly perused the donated seed packets of squash, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and more — all organic and non-GMO.

Seed swap in Orange County

Sharael Kolberg, community liaison for SEEDS Arts and Education. Credit: Nicole Gregory

The primary reason to grow food from seeds? “It tastes good!” was Linda Elbert’s answer. A member of Slow Food Orange County, Elbert added that the food is local, fresh and picked when it’s ripe.

“Having seeds could be the difference between living and dying,” said Chris Prelitz of Transition Laguna Beach.

Prelitz, a local environmentalist, said that seed swapping is one way to create sustainable food habits and strengthen community bonds.

In the past, he said, immigrant farmers who had to flee their village for any reason would sew seeds into the lining of their clothing for safe keeping. It was that vital to keep their food supply going.

But as I soon learned, this live-or-die urgency about saving seeds is felt by many people today — though for a different reason.

Protect and save non-GMO seeds

Big agricultural businesses have been promoting and patenting — and forcing farmers to buy — their genetically modified seeds, and this has galvanized environmental activists around the world to protect and save heirloom, organic, non-GMO seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange for example, which began in 1975, offers an online seed swap that “saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations.”

The San Francisco Seed Library, opened in 2011, allows visitors to check out and donate seeds.

Seed swap in Orange County

Urban gardeners come to celebrate the opening of  a seed swap in Laguna Beach, Calif. Credit: Nicole Gregory

Though most preserve vegetable and fruit seeds, Kew Royal Botanical Gardens near London is dedicated to saving seeds from plants around the world that are under threat of extinction. And the Chicago Botanic Garden has a tall grass prairie seed bank to preserve native species.

The Indian group called Navdana, begun by feminist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, has organized more than 100 community seed banks across India to protect biodiversity and to support small farmers.

Concern about the spread of genetically modified seeds caused the Council for Responsible Genetics to create the Safe Seed Pledge. Seed sellers who sign it declare they do not buy or sell genetically engineered seeds.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has signed this pledge, as have more than 100 commercial seed sellers. This is important because in 2005 Monsanto, the primary developer of genetically modified crops, bought the vegetable seed company Seminis, which sells seeds under many brand names.

So it is gardeners and cooks in communities around the country who are actively preserving the health and diversity of organic, non-GMO seeds — and thus our good food.

In some parts of the world, swapping seeds is a tradition that has never stopped.

“When you travel through Italy, you see that each community grows its own produce, and makes its own cheeses, olive oils and meats,” Elbert said. “They all have slightly different soils and climate — there is tremendous diversity. Trading seeds is common among farmers.”

Since I had not brought any seeds to donate for the Orange County seed swap, it didn’t feel right for me to take any from the white drawers set out on the tables, but I was sorely tempted.

Luckily Meg Heisinger, from the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, was on hand to demonstrate how to save seeds of  winter squash. It looked so simple that I now know that I am ready and willing to join the seed swapping movement.

How to save winter squash seeds

  1. Let the squash grow a bit past the ripened stage.
  2. Cut the squash in half and scoop out seeds.
  3. Put the seeds in a strainer and, under running water, gently rub them with a spoon to separate the pulp from the seeds.
  4. Place the seeds on a plate or cookie sheet in a dry, but not-too-sunny area.
  5. Once the seeds have dried, put them into a paper bag or envelope — they can last for about a year.
  6. That’s it. They’ll be ready to plant in the spring for a new crop.

Other seeds that are great for beginners to save include: basil, beans, beets, carrots, chard, eggplant, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsley, peas, peppers, spinach, sunflowers and tomatoes.

For more information, contact:

SEEDS Library of Laguna Beach (by appointment)
Anneliese School, Willowbrook Campus
20062 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 322-9597

Main photo: Seed swap in Laguna Beach, Calif. Credit: Nicole Gregory

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Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

If you ask me, perfection is overrated. I give it an 8.2. You can obsess and compulse until you’re just the right shade of blue in the face, but to create an artful eyeful that requires little primping, preening or pruning? That’s a 10.

Store-bought flowers in a vase are fine — I love the blooming things as much as the next hibiscus hugger. But when you make the meal with your own two hands, shouldn’t your centerpiece complement your handiwork? You don’t have to Martha-size it and grow your own tulips, turnips and twine. But why not throw together something quick and fresh that says “I am an eco-chic entertainer.”

Farm-to-table centerpieces that you can eat the next day are creatively fulfilling and less landfilling. Seasonal root vegetables, fruits, herbs, pumpkins and squashes will do all the heavy lifting for you. Well, most of it, anyway. You need at least one good eye. But don’t let it stray into OCD territory. Think fashionista farmer, not perfectionista mogul. Remember, Martha’s not invited.

Believe it or not, Martha’s not the originator of ornamental fuss. Holiday centerpieces go way back before the decline of carbon civilization.

Centerpieces through the ages

The Romans used decorative leaves, branches and foliage in elaborately designed containers often made of ceramics and rock crystal.

Aristocratic tables in the Middle Ages were said to be so crammed with food, there wasn’t room for centerpieces, although at Christmas, centerpieces may have included pastry and marzipan shaped like people, animals, scenes or decorative objects.

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tables from the 17th-century featured silver or gold platters that showed off the host’s wealth and status with whole animal heads or a cooked peacock with its colorful feathers adorning the platter.

Whereas the 18th century introduced silk and porcelain flowers, the 19th century donned fresh flowers, foliage, fruit, candelabras and molded puddings and jellies. Throughout both centuries, centerpieces were often vertically constructed using pyramids of food on tiered dishes called epergnes.

By World War I, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage, but during the 1960s and ’70s, flowers and grasses made a comeback.

Today, in the era of climate change and environmental consciousness, I proclaim it the age of the sustainable table with the eco-chic, farm-to-table centerpiece.

Seldon_SlideShow_Carrots

Seldon_SlideShow_Carrots
Picture 1 of 5

Carrot centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

10 tips for creating a farm-to-table centerpiece

1. Don’t buy food for a centerpiece that you won’t eat afterward. Wasting food is not eco chic! (Note: make sure to add water to a vase if you’re using leafy greens.)

2. Celebrate the season with local, seasonal produce. Don’t even think about buying fruit from Chile!

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

3. Don’t make the arrangements so tall that you can’t see your guests (except for the uninvited ones, so keep some long fennel or chard in the fridge, just in case).

4. You can line up multiple small (and short) arrangements along the center of the table. Who says a large, dominant one is always the best choice? I think Maria Shriver would agree.

5. Use glasses, jars, vases and vessels you have around. They don’t have to match.

6. Don’t spend money on crap you don’t need (or won’t eat)! Remember those landfills!

7. If you’re going to add store-bought flowers, buy them at the farmers market and make sure they were grown without pesticides. Cut flowers full of pesticides at the table may spur someone’s allergy. Just sayin’.

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

8. Don’t do doilies. You might as well wear an Elizabethan collar. Trust me. Neither are the eco-chic look you’re going for.

9. No stacked cookies with twine around them. Can you lay off the Pinterest for one lousy day?

10. If someone admires an arrangement, be generous and gift it. Less pressure to use up all those rutabagas (see tip No. 1).

When you create your own farm-to-table centerpiece, you’ll be an eco-chic badass. And that’s a good thing.

Main photo: Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

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Quinces on a tree. Credit: iStock

Now is the season of quinces: Fruit that is delicious in both sweet and savory dishes, is easily preserved, and one that enhances a room with an unmistakable yet delicate fragrance. Just two years ago, quinces seemed to be the forgotten fruit: They were difficult to buy, considered hard to cook, and few people grew the trees. Happily, at least in Britain, this seems to be changing.

Although still not common, quinces are now reasonably easy to buy in season and nurseries are seeing increased interest in the trees. For many hundreds of years in Britain, quinces were more popular than apples because cooked fruit, in general, was regarded as safer to eat. This was because the glut at harvest time led people to overindulge and become ill.

Quinces may never recover their place at the top of the table, but they do deserve to be more widely used. (This piece’s co-author, Jane McMorland Hunter, co-wrote “Quinces, Growing and Cooking,”  just published by Prospect Books.)

The best way to ensure a supply of quinces is to grow your own. The trees are attractive, with beautiful blossoms in spring, and compact enough to fit in most gardens. Failing that, the fruit can be bought from greengrocers, farmers’ markets and even the better supermarkets. Quinces’ appearance can vary wildly, from huge immaculate fruits from the Middle East to small, misshapen and blemished specimens. The latter may not look so appealing, but they will probably have come from a local grower and the flavor could be even better. You should avoid fruit that is obviously bruised, but a few blemishes on the skin rarely matter.

A secret weapon for stewed meats

Quinces usually need to be cooked before they are eaten. The raw fruits tend to be rock solid and sharp tasting, but cooking softens the flesh and gives it a pinkish hue. The natural acidity is easily tempered and is actually an advantage in many dishes.

Quinces and a bottle of homemade ratafia.  Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Quinces and a bottle of homemade ratafia. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

It counteracts the greasiness found in fatty meats, game in particular; quinces can be served in slices with the meat or as an accompanying sauce. In Britain, quinces were traditionally served with partridge, and in Germany and South Africa, quince sauce is served with pork and mutton instead of apple or mint. The fruit complements Middle Eastern tagines and stews and also goes well with cheese — not just as the well-known combination with Manchego, but blue cheeses and the sharper goat’s cheeses too. Membrillo, or quince paste, is the most widespread preserve, but quince jam, jelly and even curd is delicious.

In puddings or cakes, they can be used to replace or supplement apples or pears in almost any recipe, bringing a deliciously different taste. Equally, if you don’t have enough quinces for a recipe you can always make up the difference with apples. The quince’s sharpness means you can make wonderfully rich desserts with no danger of the sweetness becoming cloying.

There is a surprising amount of juice in the fruits, and drinks made from quinces range from delicious cordials to potent liqueurs and even wine. You can round off any meal with quince confections. They can be made into delicate, subtle chocolates or rich, gooey sweets.

Finally, a word of warning before you start cooking. Quince seeds, like apple seeds, are poisonous, containing tiny amounts of cyanide. You would need to eat an awful lot to actually do yourself any harm, but you should remove them at some stage in cooking.

Ratafia

Look in almost any reference book and you will find a different definition of ratafia: a spirit infused with almonds or fruit used to toast a deal or bargain, a 19th century English biscuit or a French aperitif made from grape juice and brandy. It frequently appears in Georgette Heyer’s original Regency romance novels, where it is a drink enjoyed by the ladies, but scorned by the gentlemen of the time.

Even the origins of the word are obscure, attributed variously to French Creole or Latin. The definition we like best is that it was the liqueur drunk at the ceremonies ratifying European treaties from the 15th century onward. The name could come from the Latin rata fiat (let the deal be settled). The liqueur usually consisted of fruit juices, kernels or nuts soaked in a sweetened brandy base, with almond flavoring being particularly popular. The recipe below is based on one in “The Modern Cook,” written by Vincent la Chapelle in 1733.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes, plus cooling and steeping time

Yield: 750 milliliters

Ingredients

2 large, ripe quinces (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/4 cup caster sugar

Pinch of cinnamon

1 whole clove

1 whole white or black peppercorn

1 1/2 cups brandy

1/2 cup almonds, blanched for 2 minutes and skinned

Directions

1. Cut the quinces into quarters or eighths lengthwise, depending on their size, and put through a juicer. The original recipe suggests that you grate the fruit, put it in a cloth and “squeese it with all your Might,” but this is extremely hard work. If you end up with much less, or much more, than 1 1/2 cups of juice, simply adjust the other ingredients in proportion.

2. Put the juice in a pan, bring to the boil and then remove from the heat and allow to cool.

3. Put the sugar, cinnamon, clove and peppercorn into a pan with ¼ cup water and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

4. Pour the juice, brandy and sugar solution into a bowl and stir so that the three combine. Add the almonds, if using. Pour into a jar, seal and leave in a cool, dark place for two to three months.

5. Strain the liquid through a muslin cloth. Do not squeeze the cloth, as you want the liqueur to be as clear as possible. Finally, decant into a bottle and seal; as Vincent la Chapelle puts it, “bottles stopped very close” will keep almost indefinitely.

Main photo: Quinces on a tree. Credit: iStock

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A sign posted by Quivira’s guru Jim Barauski writes the tenets of Biodynamic farming for all to see. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Travel through Northern California and signs of the severe drought are everywhere. In suburban Healdsburg, front lawns are dead, flowers faded, home vegetable gardens finished weeks early. The same can be seen in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. The Russian River above Redwood Valley is dry.

An article in “The Press Democrat” in Santa Rosa reported a high school sophomore’s unique water fence concept, a fence that stores rainwater. Ingenious. But there’s been no rain to store for at least three months.

California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy, declining for many years at rates never seen before.

“Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. About half of the fruits and vegetables are grown in California. Without an improved management of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable,” says Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.

How are wineries faring in drought?

If the drought is endangering fruits and vegetables, what are its effects on the region’s vineyards?

Quivira and DaVero, two vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, have incorporated the practices of biodynamic farming.

Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It stresses a holistic understanding of agriculture, treating all aspects of a farm, from soil fertility to the livestock, as interrelated. The principles, that agriculture seeks to heal the earth, were introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

People tending biodynamic vineyards have spent years conditioning their soils with preparations made of fermented manure, minerals and herbs, and understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles in creating a healthy farm.

Biodynamic farmers also pioneered some of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures. CSAs began taking root in Europe and Japan in the 1960s, and the movement had come to the United States by the mid-1980s.

Biodynamic guru

Quivira Vineyards and Winery specializes in small-lot wines from varietals specifically matched to the effects of hot summer days and cool coastal nights on its soil.

Jim Barauski, the biodynamic guru for Quivira says, “Going biodynamic was a decision made with a conscience toward moving away from cultivation and building better soils. Anthroposophy is the spiritual science behind biodynamics. If we take something out of the soil, we put something better back in. We feed the microbiotic life with natural, time-tested techniques.”

The winery’s large demonstration garden is a real awakening. The herbs and berries are neatly arranged in beds, the signage hand-printed and not a weed in sight. The beehives — a design called Golden Hives — were designed for the health and development of the colony and to minimize the impact from human interaction (more frequent opening of hives weakens their health).

Vineyard manager Ned Horton says he quietly works with the bees and rarely, if ever, gets stung.

“The health of the bees has been challenged on many levels, and the difference in bien (one-being, or oneness, that describes a bee colony) has to be understood within the context of the global landscape and the current one-dimensional human world view. The challenges for the well-being of the bees reflect our own struggle in our striving for health and happiness. The bees are intended to support the gardens and herbs, and the gardens of course, support the wines,” Horton says.

Each year, Quivira also plants a substantial amount of cover crops, which helps conserve water use. These plants also decompose, fortifying the soil, and open pathways for worms that aerate the soil, eventually creating a balance or a homeostasis.

Winemaker Hugh Chappelle says, “The light from the environment falls into matter so there is some quality of light in the wine. The entire vineyard is, in a way, like a human being, so complex and so individual. But as much as possible, each living thing on the farm supports the other.”

Winery started with olives

DaVero Farms and Winery, started by Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn in 1982, is a 30-acre farm on which the couple had planted one olive tree. In 1990 they began to import olive trees from Tuscany. Through the years, their olive oil has been acknowledged as some of the best in the world.

In 2000, the couple planted their first small vineyard in Sangiovese and then the rare Sagrantino, Italian varietals because the Dry Creek Valley’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region, characterized by hot, dry summer days and cool nights.

In 2007 Evers and McGlynn began the process of converting DaVero to biodynamic. Mary Foley, the original soil manager, transformed the soil into a vibrant, healthy farm. Foley, however, moved to the Sierra and advises from afar; Michael Presley now has the job.

As the tour finished with a lunch and wine tasting, the temperature at the vineyard had hit 95 degrees.

Presley promised it would begin to rain on Sept. 22. “It always does,” he claims.

Having seen a series of seemingly magical transformations through biodynamic gardening at the wineries, anything seemed possible.

It rained on Sept. 18.

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Roasted Cauliflower salad by Colleen McGlynn, who started DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., in 1982. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower

Prep time: 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1 garlic glove
3 pieces of anchovy
1 wedge preserved lemon
Fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons salted capers
Chili flakes, to taste
Handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Kosher salt and pepper
Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Separate cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with a film of mild olive oil, salt to taste, spread on a sheet pan and put into 350 F oven for 10-15 minutes, or until browned.
3. Make a vinaigrette by mashing together the garlic, anchovy and lemon wedge into a paste. (If you don’t have preserved lemon, you can substitute the zest and juice of one lemon.) Put into a bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice and a “good glug” of fruity olive oil.  Stir together.
4. Combine the warm cauliflower with the raisins, capers, a pinch of chili flakes and chopped parsley, add to the vinaigrette.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.

I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of  The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.

Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.

“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.

That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.

Seed Exchange impact

For Wallace, that’s the point.

“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”

Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.

LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”

This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.

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Ira Wallace, founder of Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival. Credit: Susan Lutz

Grain diversity

Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.

Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”

There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.

My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.

Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.

“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”

Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

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