Thursday, February 14, 2008

It is I, Captain Vegetable

In mid-February it seems like there's all the time in the world before I need to worry about setting plants into the ground, since everything is covered in a blanket of snow right now. So I've been procrastinating a little on actually finalizing what I want to grow. But last night I was reading Square Foot Gardening and I took a look at the schedule for starting seeds indoors, and realized I'm almost behind already.

So it's time to get down to business and decide what I actually want to grow. The time for idly perusing the seed catalogs has come and gone; I need to sort out my budget and my desires and get my hands on the beginnings of this summer's food supply. Especially the onions; I somehow didn't think about the fact that they are extraordinarily slow to grow from seed. I don't want to jump in half-cocked, either, so I need to figure out what I'm going to do about providing light for the seedlings I start indoors. My husband has a special lamp he uses for painting miniatures, and I'm considering appropriating it. I'm also wondering if compact fluorescent bulbs work. That's gone onto the research list for tomorrow.

It's exciting to decide what I want to grow. Today I'm not making a final decision on any specific varieties or sources, so it's not stressful at all, just fun. I have a pretty good idea of what vegetables and herbs I actually use and which tend to sit in the vegetable bin until they move along to the compost pile, so I'm basing my decisions largely on that knowledge. And so, below, my notes to myself (and to you) about what will be living in my backyard vegetable square this year. I've got some more basic information in a spreadsheet I'll probably post at a later point, once I get the kinks ironed out, since I think it might be helpful to other folks too.

Tomatoes: At the top of the list, and out of alphabetical order, because having easy access to good tomatoes is - if I'm being honest - my primary motivation for growing any kind of edible garden at all. I'd like to grow three varieties. One paste type, for canning and freezing to use in salsa, chili and tomato sauces; one good slicing variety to sit around and eat with some salt until I feel sick, to be repeated again the next day; and another spot reserved for whatever type catches my eye. I'm not actually a huge fan of baby (cherry, grape, etc.) tomatoes so this will probably be a medium-sized type that's not as great for eating plain but which will be good for salads and fresh cooking purposes. I can never quite bring myself to use a beefsteak tomato for anything besides near-immediate slicing and chowing. It's probably unreasonable to grow more than three types both because of space limitations and because Zack doesn't actually like tomatoes, so I need to exercise some restraint, here. I plan to start these from seed indoors, so I can grow more exciting varieties than what's available at the local garden centers (oh, wow, more Sweet 100s, never seen those before!) - I hope it actually works. My dad always had great success starting his own plants from seed, so maybe I'll call him and pester him with a lot of questions.

The rest, vegetables first, then herbs:
Beans: I mean to grow beans to eat fresh as well as some to leave on the vines to dry. I love dried beans. They're beautiful to look at (if I ever get around to posting pictures, you'll notice I tend to use my food as home decor as well), amazing to feel, and also delicious. And good for you. I've never dried my own beans before so I admit to having some hesitation here but really, how hard can it be? I'm looking for a variety that can fill both roles but will probably end up with two types. These will be started from seed outdoors.

Beets: I love roasted beets. I am not in love with stained fingers and cutting boards, but beet pickled eggs just don't look right if they're not violently purple-pink. Just one kind, I think, to be sown directly in the garden on a continuous basis throughout the season.

Carrots: Carrots are good. Carrots are vital for stock making, and also carrot cake. Plus braised carrots are kind of like delicious candy. Again, just one type here (for this year), planted from seed outdoors for continuous harvest.

Cucumbers: I've always loved cucumbers (or, as I called them when I was little, "cuke unders" - my mom adopted that and always called them that). They taste like melons to me, just not as sweet. One of my favorite uses for fresh cucumbers is thinly sliced and soaked overnight in heavily salted water. I may have a salt addiction, you'll notice. Anyway, two varieties of these; one for pickling (about which I am so excited I can't find words right now) and one for fresh eating. I believe these will be started indoors for transplant.

Lettuce: What else would I use for our daily salads? My favorite lettuces are Kos type (like romaine); I plan to grow one of those, some butterhead, and a looseleaf. I may just order a sampler so I can try more varieties, especially since lettuce is easy to grow from seed and I'll be doing many plantings throughout the season.

Onions: I'm going to try to grow some type of globe onion from seed, preferably one that's good for storage. I always keep onions on hand in my kitchen and go into a panic state when I find I've run out. I don't know how many I'll actually be able to plant, though, so I probably won't be able to supply all the onions I'd use this year; I'm considering this more of a starting experiment, to see how well it works. It's unfortunate but I've found that the onions available at the store lately are nasty pungent and they seem to rot very quickly, so I'm hoping for a better solution. I'll start these indoors from seed and move them outdoors; if I have a spare spot in the garden I'm going to try to grow a few sets later in the season to use next year.

Peas: Amazing little sugar packs, aren't they? You can't really get good peas if you're more than five minutes from the plant itself. Snap peas are my favorites, and due to limited vertical growing space I'll probably just grow one variety of these. I believe they will be direct sown outdoors.

Peppers: When I start thinking about peppers, I wish I had a lot more space. In the square foot garden proper I'm going to put at least one kind of sweet pepper, probably an Italian (long, pointy) type to use for stuffing and in salads. But I love chile peppers, and there are so many kinds. I've got one spot reserved in the square foot garden for a hot pepper plant, and will probably put a relatively mild, fruity type in there. But how can I say no to all the others, the poblanos and the habaneros and etc. etc.? I've had really good luck growing these in containers in the past, and the concrete driveway next to the kitchen door needs some serious adornment, so I think I'll try three or four kinds this year. All will be started indoors and transplanted outside later.

Radishes: I really like radish, butter and sea salt sandwiches on nice, fine-crumbed white bread. The problem is that it only takes about, oh, one radish to make a week's worth of sandwiches. So I'm just going to grow one type, no matter how gorgeous they all look in the catalogs, and not very many at a time. I did a radishes Anna-style dish a couple years ago that led me to the discovery that they're really, really good sauteed in butter, so I can do that with any that won't fit on a sandwich. These are another one of the seeds to sow several times throughout the summer (ooh, alliteration).

Squash: As much as I love zucchini, I probably won't be growing any this year, simply because I tend to end up getting them from other sources anyway and my vertical growing space is so limited. I would like to grow one variety of winter squash, since it's nice to get something fresh from the garden after most everything has frozen and gone away. It will be started directly in the garden, perhaps in the same space occupied by the fresh beans, since their harvest will finish in time to allow the squash to grow. Ah, logistics. Still, I know I want to grow them, and I'm likely to have one spot in which to do so, hence they go on the list to be bought and sorted out a little bit later.

Swiss Chard: Greens are good for you. I need to eat more of them. At one point, I was actually told to limit my intake of dark, leafy greens because they inhibit blood clotting, which I guess is a bad thing post-foot surgery. This is no longer the case, so I'm hoping to use the chard in omelets and dips and just, ooh, greens with ham hocks and vinegar. Zack is not a huge fan of greens just yet so I have to be careful not to plant too many (especially since we'll have beet tops as well). I think this will be started directly outdoors, too.

Basil: Pesto! Tomato and mozzarella sandwiches! I'm probably going to stick with just the Genovese type this year and expand in subsequent years to Thai basil and other varieties.

Borage: You can tell we're into herbs now, since this starts with a B, right? I've never actually had borage but it's described as having a cucumber-like flavor, and the flowers are really attractive to bees. I like bees (though I hate wasps), so this is a bonus.

Chives: Chives make almost anything better. Plus I got really, really good at chopping them finely when I worked in a restaurant kitchen - it was almost like a little Zen meditation every day. At home, I just snip them with kitchen shears. Oh well.

Dill: I love dill; Zack doesn't like it much. (I think oregano is poison so I can't really say anything.) I plan to grow enough to use for making pickles, as well as some to dry for use throughout the year.

Mint: Lemonade with mint is so refreshing in the summer. Plus, mint goes so well with so many things; I could also use it to garnish desserts if I wanted them to look like every other dessert ever made. I tried to grow some last year and, unbelievably, it died. It will be in a container for sure, since I've had it take over before. Weedy little thing, hm?

Parsley: It's just such a basic culinary herb. I prefer the flat leaf types just for the sake of appearance.

Sage: Smells like Thanksgiving and is essential to roast poultry, tuna and bean salads, and just generally being yummy. It also looks very pretty.

Shiso: I'm not at all convinced I'll have any success in growing this, but it's one of my favorite flavors, and difficult to find here in Southeast Michigan. I feel like I have to at least try it.

That's it. There are other things I'd like to grow, but I don't want to overreach (yet again) and wind up being frustrated. In particular, I really want to grow my own potatoes, but I think I'm going to hold off on that and add them in next year. Nearly everything will be started from seed; I'm not terribly worried about messing up, since, if the transplants don't grow well enough to go out, I can replace them with plants from the garden center and at least feel I gave it a go.

Now that I've decided what I want, it's time to finalize which varieties I'm going to try and get some orders in to the seed companies. I hope to have seeds and supplies ordered by the end of this weekend (Sunday's the 17th of February - later than I'd like, but time goes so quickly anymore).

And now that I've got all that typed up, I'm going to head outside to hang a new bird feeder in the tree, and perhaps take a picture of the snow-covered spot where the vegetable garden will go.


K said...

what is Shiso? must do some research of my own, it seems, as I've never heard of such a thing.

Being in Arid Arizona, and in a rental house to boot, I've been contemplating doing my own growing, but in an Earth Box. (though I'd probably make a homemade one) Suggestions welcome, as you seem to know a lot on the subject of green-thumbness!

Jen said...

Shiso is also called perilla, I think - it's kind of a spade-shaped leaf with a really unique taste. I guess I'd describe it as sour, but that isn't quite right. I always think it tastes fuzzy (in a good way!).

I'll have to look at the Earth Box. I know I've heard of them but I can't dredge up the details right now!