Articles in Gardening
One of the things I love best about living in deepest southern Alsace, France, is that we have proper seasons. Each season brings its own special treat: In fall we get gorgeous ceps and chanterelles, freshly foraged or sourced at the farmers market. During winter it’s the turn of a whole range of seasonal sausages, recalling a time when by tradition the family pig was slaughtered and sausages were freshly made.
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Early spring brings lamb’s lettuce (aka mâche), which grows wild throughout the vineyards, and wild garlic (ramps or ramsons) from damp corners of the forest. Morels, those delectable, sponge-like mushrooms that point their wrinkled noses up through the newly green pastures (or, if you’re lucky, among the wood chippings in your newly planted rose bed), are another seasonal delicacy. A little later comes rhubarb, which finds its way into sublime, meringue-topped tarts. Right now, as spring gets fully into its stride, asparagus is having a moment.
For anyone who has never visited Alsace in May or June, it’s difficult to convey the almost religious fervor associated with this wonderful vegetable. During its brief but intense season, some restaurants give themselves over entirely to serving nothing but great, steaming mounds of asparagus. (The standard portion is about 2 pounds per person.) Huge trestle tables and long wooden benches are the order of the day; napkins are tucked into collars in time-honored French fashion and the feast gets underway. The mighty white spears are served naked and unadorned save for thin slices of ham (cooked, cured and smoked) and a choice of mayonnaise, Hollandaise or vinaigrette sauces.
Here are three recipes that make much of both the green and white kinds.
Salad With Asparagus, Ham and Soft-Boiled Eggs
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
8 ounces green asparagus (about 10 spears)
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the dressing:
1 teaspoon mild mustard
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons vinegar
A pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs in season (parsley, tarragon, mint, chives, lovage
Salt and pepper to taste
For the salad:
2 good handfuls mixed salad leaves (iceberg, Little Gem, lamb’s lettuce, arugula, etc.)
4 slices cooked or cured ham, cut in thin strips
Thinly sliced radishes (optional)
1. Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and lay the trimmed spears in a small roasting pan. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and roast in a hot oven (400 F, 200 C) for 10 to 15 minutes until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife (timing will depend on thickness). Shake the pan once or twice so they roll around and cook evenly. Alternately, cook in a ridged grill pan over high heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife, shaking once or twice. Set asparagus aside.
2. Put two eggs in a small pan of cold water, bring to a boil and count 3 minutes from when the water starts to boil. Drain the eggs, place them in cold water until cool, then peel. Leave them whole.
3. For the dressing, place the mustard, olive oil, vinegar, sugar, chopped herbs and salt and pepper in a jam jar, cover with a lid and shake vigorously until emulsified.
4. To assemble the salads, place a selection of salad leaves on plates, arrange asparagus spears on top, scatter with ham strips and optional radishes and place an egg on top of each one. Drizzle with some dressing.
Green and White Asparagus Stacks With Herby Vinaigrette and Prosciutto or Smoked Salmon
Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 10 minutes to assemble the stacks
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 pound each of white and green asparagus
A sprinkling of sea salt, plus a pinch more for boiling water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
A good handful of mixed tender herbs (flat-leaf parsley, lovage, chives, tarragon)
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar (use sherry, white wine or cider vinegar)
Salt and pepper to taste
10 ounces soft fresh goat’s cheese
6 thin slices prosciutto or smoked salmon
Flat-leaf parsley to garnish
1. Peel the white asparagus, making sure not to leave any tough strips of peel, and trim the green asparagus.
2. Put all peelings and trimmings in a saucepan with the stalks from the herbs, cover with 2 cups water and a pinch of salt and simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Strain this herby stock, put it back into the pan, bring to a boil and reduce to about a cup by fast boiling.
4. Lay both sorts of asparagus in one layer in a roasting pan, sprinkle with a little olive oil and coarse salt and roast for 10-15 minutes in a 425 F (220 C) oven or until a knife inserted in the thickest part feels tender. You can also boil or steam the asparagus 10 to 15 minutes if you prefer.
5. For the herby vinaigrette, place the chopped shallot, herbs, reduced stock, oil and vinegar in the blender and blend until smooth — seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
6. To assemble the dish, cut the soft fresh goat’s cheese in very thin slices and arrange on each plate to make a base on which to set the asparagus stacks.
7. Cut each asparagus spear in three pieces — if fat, slice in half lengthwise as well.
8. Arrange a layer of white asparagus on top of the goat’s cheese, then green (laid at right angles to them), then white (at right angles) and finally green (at right angles again).
9. Cut the prosciutto or smoked salmon in thin strips, then arrange over the asparagus stacks and drizzle herby vinaigrette around. Garnish with parsley.
Stir-fried Asparagus and Mushrooms With Toasted Sesame Seeds
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 pounds green asparagus
8 ounces mushrooms
3 teaspoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 garlic clove, chopped
A walnut-sized piece of ginger, peeled, grated
1. Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and cut the spears on a slant in 2-inch (5-centimeter) pieces. Trim the mushrooms and slice or quarter them.
2. Put the sesame seeds in a small frying pan and heat till nicely toasted and fragrant — don’t let them burn! Tip them onto a plate to cool.
3. Mix together the soy sauce and sugar and reserve.
4. When you’re ready to start the stir-fry (it takes barely 10 minutes), warm some soup plates in a lightly warmed oven.
5. Heat 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil in a wok or paella pan and fry the garlic and ginger very briefly till golden — keep tossing and turning it so it doesn’t burn.
6. Add the trimmed asparagus and mushrooms and fry briskly, lifting and turning with two wooden spoons for about 10 minutes or until asparagus is just tender but with a bit of bite — keep the vegetables on the move and keep tasting until done to your liking. Stir in the reserved soy sauce and sugar and cook another 1 to 2 minutes.
7. Serve the vegetables over rice and scatter toasted sesame seeds on top.
Main photo: Freshly cut asparagus. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style
The garden is bursting just now with unopened blooms, with thousands of peonies, irises and poppies, all swelling in their bloom buds on the eve of spring’s main riot. And the gardener’s mind is teeming with thoughts of what needs to be done in the vegetable garden to get ready for the explosive growth of spring. So this is the perfect moment to think what we can do to help the great helpers of the garden: birds and bees, toads and bats.
In our rambling old house with its maze of attics, we have a strong colony of bees that live with us. Every spring, a huge swarm emerges and forms on the north eaves at the top of the house outside the kids’ playroom, before flying off to begin a new colony. It is much larger than a basketball and very dense, with great gobs of honey dripping all over the patio. It is quite a mess but we love the free honey, which doesn’t get any more organic and local than that.
Be kind to bees
Global crops pollinated by bees are worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. But all over the world, bee colonies are under stress and many are suffering from the devastating phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees disappear and leave behind only the queen, some food and a few nurse bees.
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CCD has doubled the normal rate of colony loss in recent years and is causing drastic agricultural impacts. Imagine a world without bees or merely where they are rare — it’s unthinkable, really. Experts are not sure what is causing CCD, but heavily implicated are a class of powerful insecticides called neonicotinoids.
What can we do to help? Well, a great place to start would be with the American Beekeeping Federation. For people willing to explore beekeeping, you can learn there how to go about it. Short of becoming a beekeeper, there are many things you can do to help. If you have space in your garden, you can let a local beekeeper install and care for a beehive; you get all the benefits of the busy bees in the garden, and the beekeeper gets a place for his hive. It’s also very simple to build or buy habitats for orchard mason bees that require no attention from the gardener, and you can get them from sources like Gardener’s Supply Company.
Going to bat for creatures of the night
Bats are also a great help to the gardener, both as pollinators and as voracious insectivores, though many people are squeamish about them. They also live in some of our attic spaces and we benignly look the other way, for all the good they do in the garden; what a joy it is to see them swooping through the evening garden, ridding us of all manner of nuisance bugs. Each bat eats a third of its body weight in insects every night, and several hundred insects in just a few hours. If bats were ever to become extinct, our planet would be overrun with insect pests and we would live in a nightmare world.
It is easy and interesting to have bats live in your garden, and you do not have to have them in your attic as we do. All you need to do is hang a handsome cedar bat shelter in a quiet part of the garden and let these helpful creatures do the rest. A good source is BestNest.com, and there are many others.
Make your garden toad-friendly
"The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty"
By David Jensen
Morgan James Publishing, 2016, 282 pages
Have you seen any toads in your garden lately? Toads do not have many friends, though it is hard to see why, but for an unreasoning prejudice against their appearance and thousands of years of superstition against them. Just one ordinary toad can devour thousands and thousands of garden pests in a single summer. If you are plagued by slugs and cutworms, as so many gardeners are, this is the helpmate for you.
They should be part of every healthy garden, and if you do not have friendly toads around the place, you can also provide a habitat that will attract them. Any sort of covered shelter will do, and you can certainly improvise your own but there are also good commercial providers, like Gardener’s Supply Company, and the National Wildlife Federation is a good source for general information about these great helpers and how to make your garden toad-friendly.
And we all like birds, right? They will strip your garden of insect pests faster than anything. What all these helpers have in common is that they will come to you if your garden is free or nearly free of insecticides and other chemicals. This spring, consider ending or at least curbing your reliance on chemicals in the garden. Let your garden heal, and enjoy the delightful, diverse company of these healthy garden helpers.
Main photo: This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen
Right now, farmers market corn is as sweet as it gets. Soaked in the husk for a few hours and then thrown onto the grill to steam until tender, the corn is salted and a bit of heaven is revealed. It’s summer, and fresh corn on the cob is what everyone wants to eat.
We’ve pulled together 14 fresh dishes that will surprise and delight your family. This is the beginning of your corn adventure. Buy a bushel and let the fun begin!
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Main photo: Jerk Lamb Corn and Fruit Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tami Weiser
Farmers markets are everywhere. Thanks to a rapid expansion in recent years, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S., making it possible for almost everyone to buy fresh food directly from farmers. But with so many stalls and so many different foods, farmers markets can feel overwhelming. How do you find the best produce? Who’s who? And what’s what?
Follow our slideshow to learn the tricks to getting the most out of shopping at your local farmers market. In no time, you will be addicted to the super fresh fruits and vegetables and the seemingly endless variety. Shopping for produce and the other delicacies you can find at a farmers market will become a joy instead of a chore.
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Main photo: A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media
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.
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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.
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
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.
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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.
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
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
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?
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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.
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.
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
- Let the squash grow a bit past the ripened stage.
- Cut the squash in half and scoop out seeds.
- Put the seeds in a strainer and, under running water, gently rub them with a spoon to separate the pulp from the seeds.
- Place the seeds on a plate or cookie sheet in a dry, but not-too-sunny area.
- Once the seeds have dried, put them into a paper bag or envelope — they can last for about a year.
- 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
Main photo: Seed swap in Laguna Beach, Calif. Credit: Nicole Gregory