“Need a trellising cucumber that doesn’t get a waist in the middle and peas that harvest all at once,” is on our wish-list this year as we thumb through the colorful seed catalogues that start to fill the mailbox as early as December.
December? Who is even ready to think about seeds yet! But now that late February brings noticeably lengthened daylight, birds flit actively and sing, and the snow clumps tumble off the edge of the roof and land in wet plops below, it’s hard not to think of the oncoming spring.
Now, granted, spring also brings with it a multitude of baby animals, a million projects needing attention all at once, plenty of mud and barn mucking…but the thought of eager little plants in the basement, popping their optimistic first leaves through the starting soil is as close to a visual of hope as any I can imagine at this moment. Nature is reborn through a promise of summer glory and a delicious and bountiful harvest.
“Check out the heirloom tomatoes; any new cherry types? Low acid strains are preferable.”
By the time February comes, even the store of home-canned tomatoes is dwindling. The hard, pink rocks in the story are hardly worth the mention, and so we dream of the succulent, dripping red orbs that seem so tantalizingly far away. The seed catalogue images of tomatoes seem especially glossy and succulent—almost unreal in this land of white and gray and barren branches. Will summer really be as green as the photos I took last July? Each winter I wonder, as if I am not yet ready to trust the truth of the images.
There is something irreplaceable about a homegrown tomato. It might be lumpy, with a little sun scorch on the top or a little scab on the bottom, but inside is a treasure of juicy flavor ready to burst forth. Oh, for some heirloom tomato bruschetta…
But tomatoes come with their own trials. They have to be started very early and transplanted many times. They need compost tea, lots of sun, and a long hardening-off process. Sometimes we spend months in the spring hauling teenaged tomato plants out to the high tunnel during the day and back into the house in the evening because we just can’t quite trust that it will stay warm enough out there. The house can become so full of plants just before early summer’s transplanting that every surface (floor and table) throughout most of the house is turned into a virtual greenhouse of little cucumbers, squashes, and eggplants. One farm visitor managed to find a vacant chair and looked around a bit bewildered, laughing, “Guess I’m sitting in the garden.”
Invariably, it’s safe to transplant the tomatoes once they absolutely cannot wait any longer in their pots, and we’re out at 11:00 in the evening, desperate to save them, with headlamps and hand trowels and watering cans and… To see a performance of a song by Stephanie Davis that is a perfect example of how the love of tomatoes can take over your life, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-JCpoyNpJQ (or search “Veggie Serenade”).
“Peppers that turn colors (red, yellow, orange) without rotting in the field.”
Perhaps it’s our soil or our luck, but we have had a dickens of a time getting peppers to mature beyond the green phase without them turning into a mass of gooey slime. A small darkened patch grows limp on the side of the pepper and soon the whole fruit is lost. Not fair! Every year, we try a new variety, hoping for better success. Green peppers are delicious, yes, but most of our restaurant clients really want red (or preferably orange!) ones, so the challenge is on.
We have had some success with small round ones, long skinny ones, or ones that end up with a curl at the tip, but getting that big, blocky fruit this far north is tricky. Each year, we scour through the new offerings for hopes of a short-season colorful-ripening pepper with great flavor that looks promising. But dark purple peppers? We haven’t had a request for that yet…maybe leave that for an experiment another year.
“Stock up on onions—seeds, sets, or plants?”
Back in the days when we first started gardening, the bag of onion sets was an integral part of the stocking-up for planting season process. That’s how Grandma put in her garden. But an onion set is actually a year-old plant, and at this point in its life cycle what the onion really wants to accomplish is making a seed head. For an onion whose focus is making a large, delicious bulb, starting from seed is best.
But trying to convince onions from seed to have a hearty start has been an adventure unto itself. We tried started them inside. We tried starting them in the high tunnel. Sometimes they grew, sometimes they withered, and sometimes they just simply gave up and died. Starting onions from seed is tricky! Perhaps it works best in warmer climates, which is where the baby onion plants we buy now get their start.
Wrapped up in bundles of 60 or so, these little intrepid members of the lily family come by the boxful, ready to plant. Our onions get a great start and someone else has the joy of getting those impertinent seeds to grow! Get out your trusty dibble, get down on your knees, and in they go. This works well for leeks too.
“Find an eggplant that isn’t so darn self-satisfied.”
I didn’t always like eggplants. One of my strong food memories as a kid was the days Mom would make eggplant parmesan. Now, I knew that Mom was a busy professional and couldn’t always take time to cook for us, so this was a special treat…or at least it was supposed to be. It didn’t help that the eggplant had come from the store and had sat on the shelf for who knows how long. Perhaps the eggplant had forgotten what sunshine looked like or rain or wind at that point…those moments might have been a long time ago. This might be why the eggplant in the dish was far from even a vegetable-loving child’s idea of food—it was gray, slimy, and not very tasty. The cheese and the tomatoes were, by far, the best part of the dish, and that slab of eggplant stayed on the plate the longest…staring me in the face. I knew I had to eat it; Mom had worked so hard to make dinner, but…
Today, I like eggplant. That is, the eggplant I grow. But the plants that produce those lovely, round, pendulous, purple orbs of the Italian variety have a bit of an attitude. To be honest, we’ve been lucky to get two per plant in a good season. After that, they sit on their laurels and smirk at you. That’s hardly enough for the eggplant to earn its keep! So we went looking for something new.
There are strains now through the Asian varieties (which grow longer, slender eggplants) that are much more prolific and will produce right until they freeze. Delicious sautéed or breaded, these eggplants come with purple, white, or speckled skins for a variety of gourmet tastes. They’re not easy to stuff, but they do slice up into uniform disks, which work great for even cooking. So, sometimes being brave and trying something new in the catalogue can be rewarding. No more fear of eggplant parmesan!
“Try growing a new fresh herb—Lemon Basil?”
There’s nothing quite like exchanging the convenience of a bottle of dried herbs for the adventuresome and flavorful journey of learning to cook with fresh herbs right out of the garden. Sometimes, in the summer months, I’ll just grab an assortment of vegetables (yellow zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, green beans) and throw them into a sauté pan with olive oil, garlic, and a handful of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, thyme). It’s easy and delicious, especially when augmented with a little cheese or tortellini.
This year, as you page through the glossy seed catalogue, try something new. It might be a bean that ends up growing higher than your trellis and waves around wondering what to do next, or it might be a new pepper with a unique shape and flavor from Hungary, but having a garden is always an adventure. You just might surprise yourself with something you never knew you liked. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com