Articles in Gardening

The Lutz family garden. Credit: Susan Lutz

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?”

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.

Even young kids can help water a vegetable garden. Credit: Susan Lutz

Even young kids can help water a vegetable garden. Credit: Susan Lutz

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

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Lavender. Credit: Terra Brockman

Herbs look good, smell good and do you good. They also instantly elevate any meal from quotidian to sensational, transforming the simplest sandwich or salad into a gourmet occasion. Best of all, anyone can grow them. No green thumb or backyard required.

Because most herbs are not far removed from their wild ancestors, they don’t need to be coddled and will do just fine in a pot on a windowsill or porch, as long as you give them a well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine.

Five Easy Tips For Growing Your Own

What herbs should I plant? Choose the ones you like and will indulge in often. Many people go for parsley, basil and thyme, but you may also want oregano for your tomato salads, mint for your mojitos and lemon verbena just to brush your fingers against for a hit of aromatherapy. Whatever you decide to plant, you’ll soon find that your homegrown herbs are better than any store-bought ones because there’s no time for the volatile oils to disappear between the time you pick the herbs and the time you eat them.

Seeds or starts? Seeds are very economical, particularly if you’re going to grow and use a lot of herbs. But seeds can take a couple of weeks just to germinate, so you may have to wait a few months from the time you plant to the time you begin to harvest. If you need only a few herb plants, and want to start enjoying them sooner than later, it’s best to buy starts.

Where should I get my starts? Although home and garden centers often carry herb starts, you generally don’t know much about them, including whether the variety will do well in your area, whether the plants were hardened off or what chemicals may have been used on them.

When you buy your starts from local farmers, you can ask about their practices and about the specific varieties. A local farmer tends to choose varieties that are hardy, tasty and suited to your soils and climate, and can help you choose what you want. Summer or winter savory? Lemon or Thai basil? Chocolate or mojito mint? They also can give you tips about how to plant, nurture and harvest what you buy.

Speaking of harvesting, too many websites tell you to pluck individual leaves of basil or snip chives a few inches above the ground. Any farmer will tell you that if you want fresh basil leaves all summer long, you should cut a whole branch, leaving a few leaves at the base where new branches will come out. Chives should be cut just under the surface of the soil, so that tender new leaves will emerge. When treated right, the more you take from herb plants, the more they give back.

Where should I plant my herbs? Most herbs will do well indoors, but they tend to be more productive when grown outdoors, either in a pot or in the ground. Whether you choose indoors or outdoors, be sure they have lots of sunshine and a well-drained soil, and plant them close to your kitchen so you’ll get into the habit of using them every day.

What if I have more than I can use? Rejoice! Dry any extra and put it in a tight-lidded jar to use all winter long or to give as gifts. Or make a fresh herb bouquet for yourself or your friends and neighbors. Herbs will last longer than flowers, give off wonderful aromas and you can graze the bouquet every time you walk by.


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Britton shiso. Credit: Terra Brockman

An herb a day

Most people naturally think about the kitchen uses for herbs, but long before they were culinary, herbs were medicinal and their healing properties are what people have valued throughout most of human history. Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicines had been used and passed down orally for thousands of years before they were finally written down.

In Western cultures, herbal medicine can be traced back to Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, whose gentle treatments were based on the healing power of nature. Famous herbalists who followed Hippocrates’ famous dictum, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” include Avicenna from Persia, Galen from Rome, Paracelsus from Germany and Culpepper from England. Most of the first modern pharmaceuticals came from herbs, and even today about a quarter of our drugs have botanical origins.

When you grow your own herbs, you get all the medicinal and culinary properties for mere pennies. So forget the poor substitute of dried basil, forgo the last-minute dash to the supermarket for overpriced basil and reach over to snip a stem from your very own plant. It’ll be good for your body, your budget and your taste buds.

Quick and Easy Herb Vinaigrette

This flexible dressing can be used on a lettuce or spinach salad, potatoes, green beans, pasta or as a dip for bread. Feel free to substitute whatever herbs you have on hand, in any amount you like.


2 tablespoons white wine or sherry vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs of your choice (favorites include thyme, tarragon, chervil, chives and/or parsley)


Whisk the vinegar and salt, then slowly whisk in the oil. Stir in the herbs and use immediately.

Main photo: Lavender. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Flowers in a vegetable garden

For many people, the idea of a vegetable garden conjures up an uninspiring image of regimented rows of plants with bare soil in between and functional supports where necessary. But this is not the only way to grow produce. Imagine going out onto a flower-filled terrace and cutting some lettuce for lunch, or, in the same space, collecting herbs for soup and unearthing fresh new potatoes. All this is perfectly possible, even in the tiniest of gardens.

A quick look at history shows that gardens that were both attractive and productive were far more common than one might think. The Romans had beautiful fruit and vegetable gardens, and monks living in monasteries across Medieval Europe were usually self-sufficient and grew everything they needed in charming walled gardens that were used for quiet contemplation as well as produce. The designers of large country house gardens often tucked the vegetables out of sight in a walled garden, but even here there was frequently an emphasis on beauty as well as productivity. Saint Ignatius, a priest in 15th-century Spain, said, “It is not enough to cultivate vegetables with care. You have a duty to arrange them according to their colours, and to frame them with flowers, so they appear like a well-laid table.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most famous ornamental vegetable gardens was created at the Chateau of Villandry, on the River Loire in France. When owner Joachim Carvallo purchased the estate, its original Renaissance garden had been replaced with an 18th-century landscape park. He wanted to restore the garden, but none of the plans for the original had survived. So Carvallo looked to the ornate gardens of the Renaissance and combined them with the kitchen gardens of the Benedictine abbeys in the area. The resulting plan gave vegetables pride of place next to the chateau, laying them out in intricate patterns.

Whether you have a large kitchen garden or simply a couple of containers, the theory behind growing vegetables beautifully is the same. First, consider what you would like to eat and what you are able to grow; there is no point growing chard, however pretty it may be, if you don’t enjoy eating it. Equally, there is no point trying to grow tender plants, such as chilies, if your garden is prone to frost.

Hanging tomatoes

A hanging basket of tomatoes makes use of vertical space. Credit: J.M. Hunter

Having chosen the vegetables you would like, consider what they look like as they grow. Many vegetables are available in ornamental varieties such as red Brussels sprouts, purple broccoli or rainbow chard. Lettuces can be any colour, from the palest green to deep crimson and many have the advantage of astonishingly frilly, or handsomely sharp, leaves. If you have room, a block of sweet corn looks striking (for pollination purposes you need to grow a block of it), but in a smaller space, peas, beans and tomatoes will give your garden height. Consider colour and shape, remembering that different shades of green with a few white flowers can look as spectacular as rainbow of colours. Think laterally, using parsley or lavender as edging and put tomatoes and herbs into hanging baskets.

How to fill the spaces

Of course, harvesting will affect the aesthetics of your garden. Sow a succession of seeds, rather than planting them all at once, and you will have new plants ready to fill any spaces. You also never will get a glut of anything, as the harvesting will be staggered. “Cut-and-come-again” crops can be harvested without removing the whole plant. Many salad leaves fall into this group and will regrow four or five times during the season. The other way to avoid gaps is to plant crops that grow at different speeds. Radishes mature in about 25 days and are invaluable gap-fillers while slower plants get going.

Having chosen the vegetables you want to grow, you can then add the flowers; annuals and bulbs and even perennials and shrubs, if your garden is large enough. Most vegetables are annuals, completing their harvest cycle within a year. Annual flowers make good companions, and each year you can vary the plants that you grow. Growing vegetables in different areas of the garden or even in different containers from year to year helps prevent soil depletion and disease. You can also vary your plants, for taste in the kitchen and looks in the garden.

Flower power helps vegetables

Flowers can also improve the health of your vegetables, with French marigolds or Tagetes attracting hoverflies, which will gobble up aphids and blackfly. Many of the prettiest flowers are edible; and pansies, nasturtiums, borage, lavender and many others will find a place in your kitchen as well your garden.

Whatever style of garden you have and whatever size it is, you can grow wonderful vegetables and enjoy a truly beautiful harvest.

Main photo: Vegetables and flowers mingle in a garden. Credit: J.M. Hunter

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Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh from the Farm.

In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”

The author of two previous cookbooks, “Fast, Fresh & Green” and “The Fresh & Green Table,” Middleton chronicled her island experiences on her blog

It blossomed into her newest book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” which includes stories and photos of farm life and 121 recipes. Middleton added diagrams for building raised beds, a farm stand and chicken coop. You might call it a complete recipe book for the good life.

What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?

I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.

What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?

I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.

Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.

It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.

You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?

If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.

From “Fresh from the Farm” by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, 2014). Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.

I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.

With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?

Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.

How did your first two books lead toward this one?

I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.

Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?

I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.

Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press

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Baskets of greens for sale at a market in Camucia, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I’ve been reading with fascination Michael Moss’ often hilarious and deeply thoughtful article in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine. Moss — his book “Salt Sugar Fat” is a must-read for anyone who wonders how the American diet got to its present parlous state — approached a top ad agency, Victors & Spoils. (I thought it was a joke at first, but no, that really is an agency, renowned for provocative crowd-sourcing campaigns.)

What would happen, Moss proposed, if you created an ad campaign for, let’s say, broccoli, probably one of America’s most hated vegetables. The Times article follows Moss through his research on how a Coca-Cola type of campaign might approach the problem of vegetable dislike. (On the way, he looks at another key link in the chain — how American farmers could produce more vegetables and why they don’t.)

Because the fact is, if you look at statistics, we hate vegetables. Oh, I know, someone is going to respond by saying, “No, no, we love all vegetables, we eat nothing else.” But you, dear reader, are a sadly diminishing minority. Moss cites a 2010 study by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services that concluded only 5% of Americans younger than 50 are getting the recommended five servings a day. Most Americans consume daily only half as many vegetables and less than half the fruit they ought to be eating. (And most of that fruit is in the form of juice — the least healthful way to get it.)

That five servings a day, recommended by no less an authority than the World Health Organization, is itself a bit of wish fulfillment.

Lacinato kale growing in a garden. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Lacinato kale growing in a garden. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

No one in fact knows for sure whether fruits and vegetables on their own will have an effect on chronic disease rates. (There is some skepticism about cancer protection, as noted in this BBC report.) But it’s very clear anecdotally at least that a diet high in a variety of fruits and vegetables has a positive impact on health.

So why don’t we eat more?

Probably because it’s too easy not to. Junk food, fast food and the like are all around us, mostly at arm’s reach. If you’re going to eat more vegetables, you have to prepare them — wash ’em, trim ’em, look ’em over for slugs or bugs or worse and then … cook ’em. (Unless you prefer to live on salad.)

What’s a busy guy to do? Reach for the microwavables. Maybe Healthy Choice’s Chicken & Potatoes with Peach BBQ Sauce, which has a whopping 24 grams of sugar and just 5 grams of dietary fiber, plus about a third of the total daily sodium intake recommended for people older than 50. Maybe not such a healthy choice after all?

Kale, leafy greens are worthy additions to your menu

Nonetheless, the selection of greens in most produce markets, even in the most ordinary supermarkets, grows greater every year, and somebody has to be buying, cooking and eating them. Along with the usual spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, we find such offerings as broccoli rabe (aka rapini), collards, turnip greens, kale in many varieties, mustard greens, bok choy, beet greens and dandelion greens. The list goes on and on.

Nutritional powerhouses, these are often, sad to say, the most detested items on any menu, especially for children. But here’s the secret: It’s all in the cooking. No one could possibly love greens if they’re steamed to a limp, gray mash, then dumped on a plate with a blob of cold butter stuck on top. But done the Mediterranean way, they reveal, first of all, flavor. Then texture. Then an overpowering deliciousness. Garlic, oil, a little chili pepper, a scrap of citrus juice — they make all the difference in the world.

Lacinato kale braised in oil, garlic and a little chili pepper. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Lacinato kale braised in oil, garlic and a little chili pepper. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I just made the following utterly simple recipe using Tuscan kale, aka lacinato or dinosaur kale, the kind with long, dark green, slightly blistered leaves that is a growing presence in supermarket produce sections. You could do the same with spinach (much more cleaning, much less cooking time), chard, turnip greens (cutting away tough stems, otherwise leaving whole), ordinary kale (de-stemmed), broccoli rabe (trimmed of tough stems) and many other greens you find.

Braised Kale With Oil, Garlic and Chili Pepper

Makes 6 servings


3 pounds fresh Tuscan kale, lacinato kale or dinosaur kale

Sea salt to taste

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more for garnish

1 small dried hot red chili pepper or a pinch of chili flakes

1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice or aged red wine vinegar (not balsamic)


1. Prepare the kale by stripping the leaves away from the stems. (Hold the stem in your right hand; grasp the leafy part in your left hand and simply slide down the stem, releasing the leaves.) Rinse thoroughly in a couple of changes of water.

2. Transfer the rinsed greens to a pot large enough to hold them all. Add a sprinkle of salt and a couple of tablespoons of boiling water. Set over medium heat and cook, covered, until the greens are wilted.

3. Remove and drain, then transfer to a chopping board and chop the greens coarsely in several directions.

4. Set a skillet large enough to hold all the cooked greens over medium heat and add the garlic and olive oil. Cook, stirring, until the garlic starts to soften, then add the chopped greens, stirring and turning them in the aromatic oil until they have completely absorbed it.

5. As soon as the greens start to sizzle in the pan, remove from the heat and taste, adding more salt if necessary. Stir in the chili pepper and lemon juice.

6. Pile the greens on a heated platter and garnish with a dribble more of oil. Or serve the greens atop crostini, toasted slices of Tuscan country-style bread rubbed lightly with a cut clove of garlic and dribbled with a small amount of oil.

Top photo: Baskets of greens for sale at a market in Camucia, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Grinding fresh horseradish in my grandmother's meat grinder. Credit: Susan Lutz

Horseradish barely registered on my food radar. My only real use for the stuff came once a year when I added heaping tablespoons of horseradish into the spicy sauce served with our shrimp cocktail on Christmas Day.

But horseradish has recently come back into my life, and now I’m a fan.

My mother called me recently and told me that my father has started growing his own patch of horseradish behind his garden shed. She said that the next time I came to visit their home in Virginia, I needed to “record Dad grinding horseradish for posterity.” When my mom uses this phrase, it’s usually code for something she finds funny and often slightly ridiculous. Naturally, I agreed that this was just the thing to do and thanked her for the hot tip.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Virginia, and my mother was absolutely right. The process of grinding fresh horseradish is fascinating. Funny and ridiculous too. But mostly fascinating.

Horseradish plants will grow pretty much anywhere, at least anywhere with a decent amount of moisture and somewhat loose soil. It’s the ultimate survivor. My dad grows it in a patch behind his garden shed because it is a spot he didn’t need for anything else. He has a friend who grows it in a greenhouse and gave him the starts for his current patch.

Easy to grow

The great thing about horseradish is that you can keep it going year round. It’s best planted in the spring and can be harvested in fall, but you can really grow it, and eat it, any time.

You can harvest horseradish throughout the year, but the roots will be larger and have a stronger flavor the longer you wait. My dad dug up roots that were about eight months old and they were relatively small and mild in flavor. I thought it was delicious and suggested that eight months seemed like an ideal time to harvest. My father reminded me that he was growing his horseradish in poor soil and partial shade. Back on the family farm, my dad’s family grew a large plot of horseradish in their sunny garden bed. Grown in rich soil with plenty of sun, horseradish will grow large and strongly-flavored roots in eight months.


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My dad digs up horseradish in a patch behind his garden shed. Credit: Susan Lutz

When my father harvested his crop, he cut the root about a half-inch from the green stem. Then he stuck the stem and partial root back in the ground to wait another six months for the next harvest.

He also cut off most of the leaves before replanting because, he says, the leaves will “suck up a lot of energy from the plant.”

After replanting the horseradish stubs, my father and I headed up to the house to clean and grind the roots. My dad washed the dirt off the roots, peeled them with a pocketknife and gave them a second cleaning.

Then he pulled out my grandmother’s old meat grinder and began to turn the fresh roots into the delicious condiment. While cranking the old metal handle, he told me to be careful not to grind it too fine or it will end up as mush.

As my father ground the horseradish he said, “Don’t poke your nose in there” and warned me that a deep breath of freshly ground horseradish would send me reeling. I didn’t risk it, especially because I was holding a camera. From 2 feet away I still got the point.

Beware the volatile oils

It turns out the fibrous roots of horseradish, once ground, immediately emit a volatile oil that irritates the membranes of the eyes and mouth. It’s powerful stuff when fresh — the same compound that gives mustard and wasabi their bite.

Those oils soon dissipate from the root, so traditionally the flavor is fixed in place (and toned down) by the addition of vinegar. My father put the ground root into a half-pint Mason jar and poured just enough white vinegar over it to cover it completely.

My father says the mixture will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month. I couldn’t wait that long. My father and I ate our freshly ground horseradish on steak,  which he cooked specifically for this occasion. The steak was rare and the horseradish was sharp and hot — the perfect combination of flavors and texture.

I could now see why the pungent burn of horseradish has been relished since ancient Egypt, why it’s one of the bitter herbs of the Passover Seder, or why a guy named Heinz first made his fortune by bottling the stuff.

I’m now going to find a small patch in my garden, and get a couple of my father’s cut roots. And I hope he’s going to have more roots ready to harvest when it comes time to spike the bottled cocktail sauce on Christmas Day.

 Top photo: Grinding fresh horseradish in my grandmother’s meat grinder. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Loquat butter ready to eat. Credit: Susan Lutz

My transition from urban-dweller to backyard farmer began with a pickle.

I’d lived in Los Angeles for 10 years before I began to miss the traditional foods I’d left behind in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. So I forced my mother to ship me homemade sweet pickles, grape jelly and the country ham that my dad cured in his basement. And that was more than enough. For a while. After giving birth to two daughters it dawned on me that I couldn’t FedEx the foods of my childhood to California forever. I wanted to discover and share the knowledge, skill and experience of making these beloved foods with my family and friends.

So I shopped for cucumbers at the local farmers market and persuaded my mother to teach me how to make sweet pickles when she came to visit that summer. It would have been far cheaper to buy a jar of pickles from the grocery store. But that wasn’t really the point. I didn’t want pickles. I wanted my mother’s pickles.

My homesteading campaign continued, as I coaxed my mother to teach me how to make Granny Willie’s grape jelly and Betty Sheetz’s apple butter. My urban farming campaign continued as I earned a Master Food Preserver certificate. But as I studied and cooked and preserved, I realized that the recipes I loved so dearly came from a very specific time and place: the “foodshed” of the Shenandoah Valley.

But my family and I live in a different foodshed. So I turned to the natural resources growing in our own backyard.

Home preservation traditions

Our suburban Southern California house has trees that produce loquats, oranges, grapefruit, lemons and plums. My husband and I carved out a tiny plot of sunshine amid the trees to plant tomatoes, Swiss chard and a variety of herbs. In spring we make loquat butter and loquat leather, which my youngest daughter eats as fast as I can make it. During the summer months, we can tomato sauce and tomato preserves. When winter rolls around, we make marmalade, my husband’s favorite toast-topper.

All of these treats use the natural resources of our environment, but they aren’t the basis of our day-to-day diet. In fact, my grandparents might think the entire urban homesteading concept is simply silly. They were farmers. Real farmers. They grew most of their food on 80 acres, and they had a lot of kids to feed. Growing food and preserving it at home was the cheapest way to maintain a consistent food supply for a large family throughout the year.


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My mother picks lettuce with my daughters in her winter garden. Credit: Susan Lutz

My parents grew up on farms but moved into a small town. Yet they continued to grow their own food. When I was in high school, my parents bought an empty lot down the street and still plant a massive garden on it every year. My father plants most of the vegetables they eat all year long. My mother cans dozens of quarts of green beans and tomatoes each summer. She fills up several freezers with endless pint containers of peas, corn and lima beans that she cleans, shells and blanches with help from my father. My parents do this work by choice. They know they’d still eat if their crops failed and there’s a world of comfort in that thought.

Discovering your foodshed

I don’t have the time, space, or inclination for that type of garden. Our backyard simply isn’t large enough for food production on such a grand scale and luckily for us, it doesn’t need to be. But with the wealth of food options in Los Angeles, I still want to keep a connection to my family’s farm heritage, tenuous as it may be.

Our foodshed is radically different from the one I grew up with, but it is resilient and satisfying in its own way. I’ve connected with folks who see food in similar ways by joining the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and the Master Food Preserver Program of Los Angeles County. My children have their own set of special treats from the garden, like picking ripe strawberries from our tiny strawberry patch and eating sweet cherry tomatoes still warm from the sun. When my husband finds an abandoned grape vine in a hidden corner of a parking lot near his office, we make grape jelly. And if the cucumber patch fails, I’ll grab some from the farmers market and start a batch of vinegar syrup. Because I still love sweet pickles.

I don’t have an urban farm by any stretch of the imagination. And I certainly don’t have the wealth of information and tradition that my parents and grandparents grew up with on their family farms in Virginia. I do have fresh, healthy food and preserves made by hand (and sweat) that reflect the foodshed I find myself in. And that’s a tradition I’m proud to pass on.

Loquat Butter

The Shenandoah Valley creates some of the world’s best apple butter. Here is a twist from the Southern California foodshed: loquat butter. This recipe is adapted from one I received from Ernest Miller, a talented chef and fellow Master Food Preserver in Los Angeles County.

Yields approximately 6 half-pints


4 pounds ripe loquats (approximately 12 cups)

¾ cup bottled lemon juice

1 cup water

1 organic lemon, cut in half

2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped into three sections

3 cups sugar


1. Wash loquats and cut in half. Remove ends, seeds and white interior membrane from each half. Do not bother to peel the loquats.

2. Place cleaned loquat halves in a heavy, non-reactive saucepan with the lemon juice, cup of water, lemon halves and ginger. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and cook over medium heat for approximately 30 minutes. Remove lemon pieces and ginger after 30 minutes and continue cooking until the loquats are very soft.

3. Purée in a food processor or food mill. (Using a food processor will increase the yield, but will result in a more textured, opaque loquat butter. I prefer using a food mill to achieve a more transparent end product, although the yield will be smaller.)

4. Add loquat purée back into the pan. Add sugar and stir to combine. Cook loquat purée and sugar mixture for 15 to 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally until mixture reaches desired consistency. To test for doneness, remove a spoonful and see if it mounds slightly on the spoon. You can also put a small spoonful of loquat butter onto a plate that has been chilled in the freezer. Watch to see whether a rim of liquid forms around the mound. If it does, continue cooking until a spoonful of loquat butter mounds on the plate without creating a puddle of liquid around it.

5. While loquat butter is cooking, sterilize half-pint jars.

6. When loquat butter is done, pour it into hot half-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars and put on lids and screw rings. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath following USDA recommendations.

Top photo: Loquat butter ready to eat. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison

At a reading a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., I finally blurted it out for the first time: “I hate the word veggies!” There was a stirring in the audience. I expected trouble, but instead, there was a solid murmur of agreement. One chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, said she couldn’t stand the word either, but was sometimes horrified to hear herself using it on occasion because it’s just around so much. Like using “like.” Can we make it go away?

And why would I bother to have and squander any emotion at all about the word veggies? I’ve wondered myself about why I don’t like it and won’t use it. I think it’s this: The word veggie is infantile. Like puppies. Or Cuties. It reduces vegetables to something fluffy and insubstantial. Think about it: We don’t say “fruities,” or “meaties” “or “wheaties” — unless it’s the cereal. We don’t say “eggies” or “beefies.” We don’t have a Thanksgiving birdy; we have the bird. But we don’t seem to be able to say vegetable.  Certainly it’s no longer than saying “Grass-fed beef” or “I’ll have a latte.”

Veggie turns vegetables into something kind of sweet but dumb, and in turn, one who eats a lot of vegetables might be construed as something of a lightweight, but one who can somehow excused. “It’s just veggies, after all. They’ll snap out of it.”

‘Vegetables’ speaks to their many strong traits

But the word isn’t used just by errant omnivores. Vegetarians are very fond of the word too, and they use it all the time. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are the backbone of vegetarian magazines, yet even there they’re reduced to veggies. I think vegetable is a more dignifying name by far. Just think of what plants do and what they’ve gone through to be on our plates.

They’ve been moved all around the world and gone rather willingly to where we humans have wanted them.

They’ve been altered to be pleasing to human palates.

They have adapted to all kinds of circumstances and survive against all odds and at extremes ranges of heat and cold, wetness and aridity.

The tiniest sprouts can move concrete. Eventually.

They can be dangerous and deadly, or they can be tender and sweet. And some come close to being both in the same plant. Like potatoes and tomatoes.

They can cure ills, for example, aspirin comes from willow; liver remedies are derived from members of the aster family, which include artichokes, burdock, chicories, milk thistle and lettuce among others; brassicas may prevent cancer. There’s the whole pharmaceutical stance one can take regarding vegetables given the truly amazing nutrition they offer.

Radicchio. Credit: Deborah Madison

Radicchio. Credit: Deborah Madison

Vegetables have serious means of protecting themselves — with spines and thorns, or by emitting subtle odors or substances. They can keep other plants at a distance so they alone can make use of limited amounts of water and nutrients; they can find ways to use other plants to climb on. Seed pods are cleverly designed to attach a ride to a jacket, a hat, a dog’s fur to be carried elsewhere to grow. (The burdock burr was the model for Velcro.) And they can defend themselves against predators; pinions discharge a sap that keeps bark beetles from boring in. (The food part is the pine nut).

Plants also keep other forms of life going by attracting bees and hummingbirds, moths and insects, which they feed.  They can sometimes cajole birds into carrying away their seeds to plant elsewhere. Plus they give us flowers and fruits in abundance. We love honey of all varietals — especially that derived from thyme, a member of the mint family, and flowers, too. We even use flowers in the kitchen.

Their seeds can sometimes last for hundreds of years or more. Some sprout only in fires, which is one reason burned forests can recover some kind of growth soon after a fire.

Angelica. Credit: Deborah Madison

Angelica. Credit: Deborah Madison

They don’t complain when we waste them by using only the most tender parts and ignoring rough-looking leaves and stems and cores. Chickens are grateful of them.

In short, plants are generally quite amazing, strong and clever beings that evolve with time. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegetarian (or a chicken), we all benefit by eating plants. Plant foods. Vegetables. Fruits. Seeds. Stalks. Heads. Crowns. Skins. Cores.

I hadn’t thought about it when I was working on “Vegetable Literacy,” but I think — I hope — that the book, among other things, offers a way to go beyond the “veggie” concept of vegetables by introducing them as the eccentric and powerful personalities they are.

Top photo: Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison

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