Articles in Gardening
Across the lane from Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant lies a 3-acre farm that produces many of the fresh vegetables that have helped give the three-star restaurant its reputation as one of the best in the world.
Presiding over the rows of tomatoes, beets, melons, cucumbers and microgreens is culinary gardener Aaron Keefer. “We’re right across the street from the restaurant,” Keefer says, “and there’s this beautiful space that people are allowed to walk around. You can come up to the garden and see the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s funny how detached people are from what food actually is. People say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a potato grow before.’ ”
Keefer will preside over a different garden for a day when he gives the keynote address at the eighth annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Keefer has become a fan of the president who has been called “The Founding Foodie,” and whose revitalized Revolutionary Garden at Monticello continues Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables. Keefer says his garden at The French Laundry mirrors Jefferson’s 2-acre garden at Monticello in many ways.
Keefer is always experimenting with new vegetable varieties in the garden and believes that vegetables — and the farmers who raise them — have become an exciting new resource for chefs. He explains, “I think that it’s coming around now and vegetables are really becoming the star of the flavor profiles on a plate. Every single starred restaurant out there — and really even other people — are using their relationships with farmers to get new inspiration and to create these new dishes for themselves.”
At home in the kitchen and the garden
Keefer is not only a resource for chefs, but also a liaison between the garden and the kitchen at The French Laundry. As a former chef, Keefer is uniquely qualified for his job as culinary gardener. As Keefer puts it, “I think it definitely helped me to be in the kitchen, even though it’s a completely different animal, but I think the thing to take home from having both careers is the communication. I know what’s going on on both sides of the equation, and I’m able to meld them together a little better.”
Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, believes that The French Laundry “captures Jefferson’s spirit of innovation and experimentation.” The focus for both gardens is curiosity and passion.
Jefferson felt strongly about gardening. He grew 330 herb and vegetable varieties in his 1,000-foot-long garden terrace at Monticello and raised 170 varieties of fruit on his property. He encouraged others to garden with similar passion by hosting an annual contest with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first peas each spring. To further fuel his neighbors’ passion for gardening, he made sure one of them won the contest — even if his peas were the early champions of the season.
Keefer also shares Jefferson’s passion for the soil itself. In 1792 while serving as secretary of state in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Martha who was caring for Monticello’s garden in his absence. Jefferson told Martha that the only way to rid his garden of insect-infested plants was to cover it with a heavy coating of manure. When I mentioned Jefferson’s obsession with soil to Keefer, he echoed Jefferson’s sentiments, saying, “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the soil. You can give your plants chemical-based fertilizers and they will grow. Just like if you give your muscles steroids, they will grow. But it’s not the same.”
Keefer believes that the flavor in vegetables comes from the cycle of life in the soil. “When you take a handful or two of really truly rich organic soil, there will be millions of microorganisms and fungi in there. And those are the things that create the nutrition for the plant. They need the life in the soil to break it down for them so they can uptake it and somehow that creates a completely different flavor profile.”
The lesson of Jefferson
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Jefferson didn’t have access to chemical-based nutrients — and chances are he wouldn’t have wanted them. Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contends that what made Jefferson a truly revolutionary gardener was his belief that everyone should eat a diversified diet — a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. Now, America has begun to catch up with the founding farmer. Rausse says, “Today I look at the market and I think of what Jefferson had. I compare it to when I came to America 40 years ago, and I think finally they are listening to Jefferson. There are artichokes and chicory at the market now. People are starting to figure it out, but it took 200 years.”
Keefer’s revolutionary approach to gardening mixes the great traditions of heirloom farming techniques with the innovations of West Coast cuisine. Jefferson would have approved.
Main photo: A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn
As a gardener who looks forward each year to eating my homegrown tomatoes, I have been bitterly disappointed when squirrels and other small animals either pick all of the tomatoes while still green and toss them around the yard, or snatch and eat ripening ones just before I get to them.
This has been going on year after year, but each spring, ever hopeful, I plant yet another tomato garden. My usual line of defense has been to use Havahart traps that sometimes catch the thieving culprits, but this method has become tiresome and creepy. It involves picking up a heavy trap loaded with an angry animal, getting it into the trunk of my car, and then driving for at least 10 miles to a wooded area where I release the animal, hoping it will not find its way back to my house.
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But this year, I have found a different solution for protecting my tomato patch. I bought a Bell & Howell Solar Animal Off, a device that comes with a built-in stake that I have positioned in the garden in front of the tomato plants. When approached, the device emits both an eerie high-pitched sound that only animals can hear along with a strobe light that shoots off a blinding glare when anything comes near. Each morning I run out of my house to check on ripening fruit and have been amazed and relieved to find every plant intact.
Tomatoes are just the start
This got me thinking that humans too could be well served by a protective device that could repel danger or be helpful in other ways that would make life easier. I could see wearing such a gadget into a supermarket where it would blink and beep if a food I was thinking of buying contained trans fats or, in my case, cilantro. The machine I envision could be customized so that people with allergies would be warned about peanuts and such, and the gluten sensitive protected from that substance. Most important, the device would be programmed to alert us to the existence of dangerous microbes in food that could lead to illness.
In a more positive way, my machine could function somewhere between a personal assistant and a doting grandmother by picking out just the right produce in the market. I never can tell which cantaloupe in a pile will be exactly as I like it — barely ripe and sweet but not over-the-hill and mushy. Picking out pineapples is also a challenge. They too can be overripe and unappetizing, and I never can tell which one to buy. When my favorite store offers four kinds of peaches, I am at a loss as to which will be sweet and juicy and not hard and bland, but my gadget would know. I would also use it to select cheese that is at its height of flavor.
When medium rare means medium rare
The machine’s help in restaurants would be another huge service. It would do a calorie count of the dishes I contemplate and report on the existence of ingredients it knew I disliked. Again, cilantro detection would be especially appreciated, for then I might venture forth into Thai or Mexican restaurants without fear of being assaulted by that herb I cannot tolerate. The device would know whether the steak or chop I ordered was cooked as I requested before I cut into it, thus taking the edge off any disappointment. And I hope that it would be helpful in checking bills and figuring out tips, freeing me from dealing with arithmetic, my worst subject in grade school.
The cone’s the thing
I would like to think that my machine could protect people from all sorts of danger. I am reminded of the time when a good friend’s dog — a huge Malamute named Buddha — used to position himself outside the door of a Brigham’s ice cream shop in my town, waiting for people with ice cream cones to come out. Small children and little old ladies were particularly vulnerable. Buddha’s nudges would knock the cones out of their hands, allowing him to scarf down the scoops of ice cream lying on the ground. If only these victims could have been warned, these messy scenes could have been avoided.
A dairy dose of wisdom
I can think of other helpful tasks for my machine. I would ask it to keep track of all of the foods stored in my freezers to remind me which ones to use first. And I would like it to warn me when the milk in my refrigerator has gone bad, which usually happens before the date stamped on the box. I find out only when I pour it into my morning coffee, watch it curdle, and then have to toss the whole thing down the drain.
These days, when we are surrounded by a glut of information about food, often with conflicting advice, we could use a defender that could cut through the yammering and lead us on the path that’s right for us. I am grateful to have found a device that protects my tomato plants from marauders and only wish I too could have a guardian that protects me from all of the food-related issues I face each day. And, for that, no computer programmer’s algorithm will do.
Main photo: The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber’s garden. Credit: Barbara Haber
With the world’s largest collection of living plants, and its scientists working around the globe to preserve biodiversity, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London is internationally renowned for its conservation work. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that its 300-acre grounds harbor the ingredients for some darn good cocktails.
“Sweet cicely, or garden myrrh, is very fragrant, but it also has a natural sweetness so it’s good to pair with rhubarb,” says Jo Farish, founder of the Gin Garden, as she hands over a Strawberry Cup. The beguiling early summer concoction of strawberry-infused gin, homemade rhubarb-and-sweet-cicely cordial, and lemon juice is garnished with fresh strawberries, cucumber and edible flowers.
Summertime gin garden
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The Gin Garden’s summer residence at Kew Gardens, where Farish and her team have turned a small greenhouse into a jungle-like bar serving up gin cocktails and tonics on weekends (Friday through Sunday) and British bank holidays, offers plenty of inspiration for mixologists.
“We’re taste-testing new ingredients as they come into season — we’ve been infusing cherry gin, with more fruits and berries coming up, and the lavender and Roman chamomile growing over there will be used in drinks when they’re ready,” Farish says.
The cocktail menu, which changes weekly, “uses bits and pieces from the Kew Gardens, but we can’t use too much,” she says. “The ingredients are all things that are grown here, but these plants have to be preserved.”
Serving drinks based on what’s growing nearby is the focus of the Gin Garden, which Farish started in fall 2012 after a successful trial run making apple martinis for an event at a historic house and garden run by the U.K.’s National Trust from the apples, lavender and honey on the property’s grounds.
Her company, which has taken its traveling botanical bar to museums, flower shows, design fairs and other locations in and around London, melds Farish’s background in event planning and garden design — and, she says, some very British sensibilities.
“British people are real gardeners and lots of people make their own gin. The two go hand in hand,” Farish says. “People are used to preserving (food) and having something to get through the winter.” She assures urban dwellers with more limited space that plenty of cocktail ingredients are easy to cultivate in a window box.
In addition to its pop-up bars, the Gin Garden also offers workshops on growing botanical ingredients at home and making infusions and syrups.
To make the infused gin that forms the base of its refreshing Kew-cumber cocktail, for example, Farish recommends slicing up cucumbers like you would for a sandwich, filling up a Mason jar halfway with the vegetables and topping it off with gin.
“Sip it the next morning and see how it tastes,” Farish says. “If the flavor isn’t strong enough, just close the jar up and try it again the next morning.”
A Gooseberry & Fennel cocktail is made from gin infused with the fennel that grows wild along the coast of Norfolk, in the east of England. The drink has a subtly acidic bite — and plenty of health benefits. “Gooseberries have vitamins A, B, C and antioxidants; they were actually used to ward off scurvy before citrus fruit was available in the U.K.,” Farish says.
The temporary Gin & Tonics Garden at Kew is part of the botanic garden’s summertime “Plantasia” festival, which includes a variety of activities, from a healing plants tour to a barefoot walk. The activities are aimed at introducing visitors to plants’ benefits “for body, mind, and soul.”
Benefit of plants
The passiflora tincture in the Rose Garden cocktail, for example, is said to be good for anxiety, while the namesake ingredient in the Elderflower Fizz is said to improve resistance to allergens. Angelica root, one of the six botanicals in the No. 3 London Dry Gin used to make the Kew cocktails, has long been employed in traditional medicine as a treatment for digestive issues.
“Nearly all plants have some kind of health benefit,” says Farish, who prefers to use a masticating or cold-press juicer for serious cocktail-making because it preserves more of the nutrients in fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Some of the Gin Garden’s drinks get an extra boost from a spritz of aromatic water before serving. The water is applied over the top of the glass with an old-fashioned perfume atomizer. Made by the London-based company The Herball, these aromatic waters are distilled using the same method as gin itself, retaining the complete essence of herbs and flowers like the chamomile spritzed over the Strawberry Cup or the geranium, rose and lavender that add a floral twist to the otherwise classic G&T.
“There are so many botanicals you can use with gin. It’s pretty limitless,” Farish says, mentioning her recent discovery of a small distillery in Cornwall that makes a violet leaf gin. “You really have free reign with ingredients compared to other drinks.”
Though gin is often thought of as a summertime tipple, Farish is already thinking ahead to the chillier seasons to come after the Kew pop-up bar closes its doors Sept. 7. “I’d like to do a winter gin garden,” she says. “Gin makes a great hot toddy with warming winter herbs and spices like ginger, sage and thyme.”
- 7 parts (35 milliliters) cucumber-infused No. 3 London Dry Gin (infuse your gin with sliced cucumbers for 48 hours)
- 1 part (5 milliliters) lime juice
- 1 part (5 milliliters) basil and mint syrup (simmer water and sugar to form a simple syrup then add herbs, keep on heat for 5 minutes, strain and bottle)
- Top with freshly pressed (juiced) cumber juice that has been diluted with sparkling water -- 1 part cucumber juice to 10 parts sparkling water
- Fill a highball glass with ice and add the ingredients above, stir, garnish with a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint.
* Recipe courtesy Jo Farish. Find more recipes at The Gin Garden.
Main photo: The pop-up Gin & Tonics Garden at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
A little lavender goes a long way in the kitchen. But use too much and that floral essence you love from one of the world’s most versatile culinary herbs might turn a dish to something as welcome as a perfume-soaked Chatty Cathy on a long-haul flight.
Below are seven ways to use lavender in a manner that will enhance, not overpower.
Preparing the flowers
A member of the mint family, lavender grows in upright, evergreen shrubs that might reach as tall as 3 feet and as wide as 4 feet. The bushes are fragrant on their own, but summer is when lavender stems shoot up, blossoming in tight, brilliantly purple flowers. These flowers will produce the most pungent and aromatic additions to your experiments in the kitchen, lending a perfume that mingles well with the flavors of the season.
Now is the time to let your dreams of cottage life in Provence come to life, no matter where you live. If you have access to one of the many wonderful lavender farms popping up in the United States, such as Hill Country Lavender in Blanco, Texas, Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm near Albuquerque, N.M., or the English Lavender Farm in Applegate, Ore., you can pick your own. Better yet, you might be growing it in your backyard. Note: If you buy lavender from a farm for culinary use, be sure to ask whether it was grown with pesticides. You don’t want to eat it if it was grown using pesticides.
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If you grow lavender, here’s the steps to preparing the flowers:
- Harvest the lavender. The blossoms are ready when the brilliant purple flowers have emerged and have not yet begun to wilt. If you are cutting lavender yourself, cut the stalks a few inches above the plant’s woody growth and gather the lavender into a bunch. Tie it together.
- Dry the lavender. At this point, you can use it fresh, or you can hang it up or lay it flat to dry it. Note: If you are cooking with fresh lavender, use three times the number of flowers as in a dried lavender recipe.
- De-stem the lavender. You can use the whole stalk in cooking, but many people prefer to remove the flowers from the stalk and store them separately.
- Store it well. Store lavender in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. A Mason jar is a good choice.
7 ideas for eating and drinking your lavender
Lavender works a lot like rosemary — a little can create a great perfume. But just as with all scents, too much can overpower. Use it sparingly, and adjust the amount of lavender according to your specific palate.
Take a stick (½ pound) of room-temperature butter and top it with a tablespoon of dried, ground (if desired) lavender. Mix the lavender and butter together in a bowl. Chill it for a few days to let the lavender flavor develop. Use it with honey atop your favorite biscuit, scone or other baked good.
Use about 1 tablespoon dried lavender for every 2 cups of sugar. Grind the lavender in a food processor for about 15 seconds to develop the lavender flavor. Add a cup of granulated sugar to the process and blend well, about three or four quick presses on a Cuisinart. Store the lavender sugar in an airtight container such as a Mason jar and use it in all of your favorite sweet baking recipes that call for sugar.
Using a funnel, drop about a ¼ cup lavender flowers into a bottle of your favorite vodka. Take out the funnel and close the bottle. Shake, so the flowers mix throughout. Store in the freezer for three days. Strain the vodka into a separate container, using a fine-mesh sieve, a cheesecloth or a paper towel. Squeeze the bundle with the flowers in it to extract as much lavender flavor as possible. Pour the vodka back in the bottle and store in your freezer for use in a lavender vodka tonic with a splash of lime.
Lavender balsamic vinaigrette
Lavender can add a quick, floral kick to any basic vinaigrette recipe. In vinaigrette recipes calling for a combination of balsamic vinegar, oil, honey and ground pepper, add 1 tablespoon of fresh lavender (or a third of that of dried) for every 1½ cups of vinaigrette.
Create a rub for roasted chicken using about a tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1½ tablespoons dried lavender, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and 1 tablespoon honey.
Lavender and blueberry anything
Lavender and blueberry are fast friends, and in many parts of the country appear at the same time. Try putting lavender sugar into your favorite blueberry cobbler at the height of the season, bake some lavender directly into blueberry lavender scones, or infuse some milk with lavender and pour it atop fresh blueberries. About half a teaspoon of lavender is usually a good fit with a pint of fruit.
Salmon and lavender
Create a rub of lime zest and lime juice from two limes, ½ teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon dried lavender, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Rub the seasoning mix on salmon fillets and bake as you would in your favorite salmon recipe.
Main photo: Lavender is ready for harvest when most of its brilliant purple flowers have emerged. Credit: Emily Grosvenor
I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.
The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.
As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.
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Five reasons to love fennel
- It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
- Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
- Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
- Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
- Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer. Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.
Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”
Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings as a side dish
6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered
2 tablespoons butter
freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese
1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.
2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.
3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.
4. Sprinkle on the cheese.
5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.
You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 0 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline
Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional
Juice of one lemon
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.
2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.
3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.
4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.
Main photo: Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman
To a certain extent, all gardens are “unnatural.” We take a plot of land and bend it to our will, whether that is growing fruit and vegetables, flowers, lawns or even making a barbecue. Over the centuries, our gardens have changed beyond recognition from their natural state. So don’t worry too much about tampering with nature as you try to grow fruits and vegetables. The important thing to remember is that while it is perfectly possible to adapt the natural landscape, it is never worth going to battle against nature; in the long run, you will certainly lose.
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There are a few ways you can make your kitchen garden both easier to maintain and more productive. When choosing which fruits and vegetables to grow, it obviously makes sense to plant things you want to eat — in particular, crops that are hard to buy or do not travel well. It also pays to take the conditions in your garden into consideration. Is the soil damp or prone to drying out in hot weather? You will need a sunny spot for most fruits and vegetables, but how sheltered is it? Are there pockets that are particularly warm, or others that are at risk from late frosts? All these factors will influence what you will be able to grow successfully.
Much is often made of growing “native” plants, but it is frequently hard to tell exactly which crops are native. Many that seem firmly established were invaders years ago. Rather, chose crops that are suited to your environment. There is a reason why weeds always seem to thrive; the particular weeds in your garden have chosen to grow there. Whatever conditions you have, they are exactly what those particular weeds need. Choose your crops carefully, picking the ones that will like the conditions in your garden, and they will grow just as well, or even better than, the weeds.
The case against spraying aphids and other pests
If you are going to grow your own crops, it seems illogical to cover them with sprays and chemicals. Left to its own devices, nature will establish a balance of predators that will keep your garden healthy. If you spray plants at the first sight of, say, aphids, you will succeed in killing the pests, but you may also kill the good ladybirds and hoverflies in the garden. Even if they escape the spray, you will have killed their supply of food and, by the time the next batch of aphids emerges, there will be no good predators to eat them.
Remove the pests you see by hand and let the natural predators do the rest. Birds get bad press for eating fruits, but many do a vital job, eating slugs and snails. Surely for that help, and the beautiful birdsong, it is worth sharing a bit of your harvest? Your productive garden will soon develop a system of its own, and while you may not have complete control, you will have a healthy balance of beneficial predators that will protect your crops.
Plant breeding advances in the last 50 years mean that we now have a huge range of varieties to choose from. You can get blight-resistant potatoes, mildew-resistant gooseberries and wilt-resistant strawberries. If you know your garden is at risk, choose varieties that will not be vulnerable.
Making your own compost is one of the most important ways to harness the benefits of nature in your garden. It is easy, need not take up much space and will give you wonderful, nutritious organic matter with which to enrich your soil. It is not, or should not be, slimy or smelly. To see just how easy it is to make, watch this video.
In between your crops, set companion plants. Pollen-rich flowers such as Verbena bonariensis will attract the bees and other pollinating insects that are so vital in any productive garden. Other flowers such as nasturtiums, alliums and tansy (Tanecetum vulgare) can be used to deter woolly aphids and other pests in search of food. Sweet-smelling herbs such as rosemary, sage and lavender will disorient many pests and so protect your crops.
All gardening is about some level of control, but your plot will be a better place if you don’t turn it into a battle with nature. You will still be able to harvest fruits and vegetables, the garden will look lovely and you will get to relax, using nature’s resources rather than fighting them.
Main photo: A bee feeds on the blossom of a Meech’s Prolific quince. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter
Asparagus is one of the quintessential harbingers of spring and, as the piles of it in markets can attest, the season is in full swing right now. After you’ve had your fill of this charming, green vegetable served steamed with a pat of butter, branch out with these quick and simple preparations.
Cooking the spears in a hot oven brings out the juicy sweetness of this versatile vegetable. First, break off the tough woody ends at the bottom, then toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees until crisp tender, about 7 to 10 minutes depending on the thickness of the spears. Serve as is or garnish with a shaving of Dry Jack cheese; a sprinkle of pine nuts or roasted almonds; or a drizzle of best-quality balsamic vinegar.
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Enjoy it raw
For the freshest, young, sweet asparagus, try cutting the spears into ribbons. Using a vegetable peeler, shave each spear into long strips or use a sharp knife and cut on the diagonal into thin slices. Raw asparagus is delicious in a salad with lemon vinaigrette (see recipe below); tossed with spring onions, garlic and olive oil and used as a topping for cheese pizza; or mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers and olives for a new spin on Greek salad.
Probably the most traditional and versatile technique for cooking asparagus is steaming. After you’ve trimmed the woody ends, spread the spears in a 10-inch or 12-inch frying pan. Add just enough water to cover a quarter-inch of the asparagus. Put a lid on the pan, turn the heat to high and bring the water to a boil. Watch carefully to be sure water doesn’t boil dry or the asparagus doesn’t get mushy. Cook until the spears are tender with a little bite when pierced with a sharp knife. Plunge into an ice bath to stop the cooking.
Use roasted, grilled or steamed asparagus spears as dippers for spicy peanut sauce, tzatziki, roasted red pepper dip or ranch dressing. Spread hummus onto thin slices of prosciutto then wrap the meat around cooked spears for salty, herbaceous bites.
Cut 1 pound of trimmed asparagus on the diagonal into bite-sized pieces. Steam until just tender. Make a dressing with sesame oil, lemon juice, soy sauce and sugar. Toss the warm asparagus with the dressing and chill. Sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving.
Steam a mixture of 1 cup trimmed asparagus cut in 1-inch pieces, a ½ cup thinly sliced or shredded carrots and 1 cup de-strung, halved sugar snap peas. Mix into cooked quinoa along with sautéed leeks, Parmesan cheese and olive oil or toss with cooked pasta, torn fresh basil leaves and grated Asiago. Add the vegetable mixture to risotto just before it’s done along with some sautéed mushrooms and snipped chives; top with a drizzle of truffle oil. Use whole, cooked asparagus spears as a bed for a fillet of grilled salmon, poached eggs or roasted, boneless chicken breasts. Stir-fry asparagus with strips of red pepper, garlic, ginger and shrimp, add a splash of soy sauce and finish with sesame oil.
How to buy
When shopping for asparagus, look for tips that are firm with tight buds and stems that are freshly cut and not woody. In the past, pencil-thin asparagus was valued, but now fat spears are gaining in popularity. Choose a size depending on what you will be using it for — thinner works well in pasta and rice dishes, while fat is best for grilling and appetizers. Trim the spears by holding the end between your thumb and forefinger and bending it until it breaks. Asparagus comes in green, purple and white varieties. Purple is beautiful raw, but it turns green when cooked. White is created when the plant is buried in dirt, therefore depriving it of light, and is more popular in Europe than the United States. Although fresh asparagus will be around for another month or so, now is the time when tender young spears are in abundance. Lucky for us that there are so many ways to use this versatile vegetable.
Springtime Asparagus Salad
For the salad:
6 or 7 asparagus spears trimmed of woody ends and cut on the diagonal into very thin ribbons, equaling 1 cup of ribbons
1 cup upland cress leaves or baby arugula
½ cup radishes, julienned
¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons best-quality olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh chives, finely chopped
½ teaspoon lemon zest Salt and pepper to taste
1. Mix all the salad ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl.
2. For the dressing, place lemon juice into a small bowl. Gradually add the olive oil, whisking constantly, until a cohesive dressing forms.
3. Whisk in the chives and zest; add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Toss dressing with salad, coating all pieces.
5. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Purple asparagus. Credit: Brooke Jackson
Our family loves working in the garden, but it wasn’t easy to convince our daughters that planting vegetable seeds was a great family adventure. In fact, the combination of “work” and “vegetables” seemed guaranteed to provoke horror in our children. What did the trick was a simple question: “Do you want some pizza?”
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My husband and I have gardened with our two daughters from the day they were old enough to hold their tiny trowels. Every year we plant a garden with a theme that they choose – usually a food they are eager to eat. They each get to plant, water, and weed their very own corner of the garden. And when harvest time rolls around, they pick their edible treasures and eat them with delight, often while still standing in the garden bed. My kids know that if they put in the hard work that gardening entails, they’ll get to eat a lot more of their favorite foods when summer comes.
I usually know exactly when to start our spring crops, but this year is different because we live in new and unfamiliar gardening territory. My family and I relocated from sunny Los Angeles to Virginia — a place with real winters and plenty of snow (at least this year.) Once spring finally arrived, weren’t sure how to start gardening in this new foodshed, but we had a plan.
These top 10 tips for planting a family-friendly garden have made our gardens more productive and our kids more excited about growing their own food.
1. Ask yourself, “What do my kids like to eat?” Then name your garden after your child’s favorite food.
There’s no point in having a bumper crop of squash if your kids hate squash. My daughters love pizza, so we started a pizza garden this year, but a salsa garden or a spaghetti garden will work just as well. Don’t worry if your garden’s name isn’t entirely accurate. If you start a spaghetti garden, you will think, “tomatoes, basil, onions.” Your kids will think, “SPAGHETTI!!!” It’s a win-win.
2. Do your homework.
Unless you’re already an experienced gardener, taking a family-friendly class or doing a bit of online research can make your gardening project go much more smoothly. Nothing ruins a kid’s budding enthusiasm for gardening like a patch of brown dead plants. Local plant nurseries and Master Gardeners often teach free classes on vegetable gardening. If looking online, check out University of Illinois Extension’s fun introduction to gardening with kids.
3. Find the right spot for your garden.
Choose a location that gets sunlight throughout the day. If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of land available for planting, check the location for good drainage and accessibility to water. If you’re planting a container garden, consider using a self-watering container, which you can buy or make yourself.
4. Get to know your soil.
Whether you plant your garden in a container or in the ground, good soil quality and proper drainage can make or break a garden. Adding a soil conditioner like manure, compost, or peat moss to your resident dirt can help drainage and give your vegetable plants much-needed nutrients.
5. Start now — or as soon as the last danger of frost has passed in your area.
It’s easy to put off starting a garden, but if you want the best plant selection, you need to start early in the growing season. Many nurseries and small-scale growers have a limited amount of the most popular plant varieties, especially herbs and tomatoes.
6. Pick plants thoughtfully.
Select plants best suited to your environment and garden space. Areas with hard frosts need hearty specimens that will survive lower temperatures. Choose drought-tolerant plants in Mediterranean climates. There are even vegetable varieties made specifically for container gardens. Planting the right varieties can mean the difference between a disappointing family project and a huge harvest.
7. Visit your local farmers market.
Farmers markets have already started for the season in most parts of the country and there is usually at least one vendor selling herbs and vegetable seedlings at every market. Local farmers are an underused (and often under-valued) resource for helping you choose varieties of plants that will be heartiest — and tastiest — in your climate. Farmers and growers can also help you solve problems related to pesky bugs and plant diseases prevalent in your area.
8. Keep a gardening journal.
I’ve followed my grandfather’s tradition of keeping an old yearly diary as a lifelong gardening journal (Thomas Jefferson did the same thing). I write the date I plant and harvest each crop, noting which varieties of plants did best. I look back on this journal each spring to see when it’s time to plant. My kids enjoy comparing our plant journal with this year’s crops.
9. Water your garden regularly.
Sporadic or inadequate watering stresses plants. If you want beautiful produce, you must water plants regularly, especially during hot weather. Create a watering chart to help your kids remember to water their garden. Consider hiring a garden-sitter to water your garden if you’re away from home for more than a few days in hot summer months. (We asked a friend to water our garden for a week last summer in exchange for all the produce she could eat.)
10. Get ready to work, but take time to enjoy your garden.
Raising a garden is like raising kids in many ways. It’s a lot of work, it’s more expensive than you think it will be, and it almost never turns out the way you expect. But it will be rewarding in ways you never considered. As rewarding as seeing your vegetable-hating daughter gobble handfuls of homegrown sugar snap peas.
Main photo: Planting a pizza garden in the backyard. Credit: Susan Lutz