Grow Local: How Does Your Garden Grow? — Part Deux

July 7, 2014 § 5 Comments

Time for the monthly progress report on my little edible garden! (Actually this post should have appeared last week, but the 4th of July holiday delayed things a bit.) We’re about 9 weeks along at this point, for those of you playing the home game. Lots of sunshine and more than a few hot days in June really got the tomatoes and peppers going, but put an end the Little Gem and Burgundy Mix lettuces. Herbs — both sweet and savory — are thriving, which means it’s time for harvest! Read on for more details and photos.

First up, the peppers and tomato plant are definitely rockin’ — check out this photo:

Pepper and tomato plants

L to R: Purple jalapeño peppers, Indigo Apple tomatoes, green jalapeño peppers, and ancho chili peppers

Remember, these babies were about 4 inches tall when they went into the planting boxes. Today, they range from 30-48″ tall, with no signs of slowing down.

Purple Jalapeño Peppers
Honestly,  I bought this plant for the novelty, figuring if it grew, “fine.” If not, oh well. What a wonderful surprise it’s turned out to be! Healthy and hearty since planting, it’s now about 30 inches tall. The delicate purple flowers are so lovely, and the resulting black-purple fruit is really striking against the green foliage.

Flower on purple jalapeno plant

Flowers on my purple jalapeño plant

Purple jalapeño plant with unripe peppers

Purple jalapeños and a few that have turned red

A few of the older peppers have matured during the past week, transitioning through a range of intense colors from black-purple to purple-red to magenta, and finally to a deep scarlet. (The fruit actually starts out green with purple shading when small, and then turns completely dark purple as it grows.) I’m thinking about using them for an infused tequila or syrup for cocktails. Gotta plan ahead: National Tequila Day is coming up on July 24!

Purple jalapeños, red at maturity

Mature red jalapeno in the foreground; deep-purple peppers will be ready in a few weeks

Green Jalapeños
Unfortunately, the regular green jalapeños haven’t done as well. The plant is growing and spreading — it’s now about 36″ tall — but during the first and second flowerings, most of the blossoms died off. There are a couple of 3-inch peppers near the base of the plant from the first flowering, which are probably ready for harvest. Otherwise, I’ve seen some new baby-thumb-sized green nubbins appearing in the past couple of weeks, but there’s not much to photograph. Hopefully I’ll be able to report a bounty of green jalapeños in a few weeks.

Ancho Chili Peppers
Like the purple jalapeños, the anchos are going gangbusters! This baby really blossoms in heat — literally. After the first round of hot days in early June, the plant was full of creamy white blossoms, and most of those have turned into peppers! I lost one pepper to a bit of mold/rot, but the rest are a luscious, shiny green. The peppers on the lower part of the plant are from the first flowering, and should be ready for harvest later this month. I’m looking forward to an August filled with chiles rellenos!

Ancho pepper plant with half a dozen or so peppers

Ancho peppers

Sweet Red Peppers
This plant has been slow to start, and like the ancho, really thrives in the hotter temperatures. Oddly enough, the plant itself hasn’t grown much; it’s only about 18 inches tall. Right now it’s filled to capacity with peppers that have just blown up in the past two weeks. With a long maturity time (90 days), I don’t expect to see any red peppers until late August.

Nope, those aren't green bell peppers -- they're unripe red, sweet peppers. Just another 30 days to go (more or less)

Nope, those aren’t green bell peppers — they’re unripe red, sweet peppers. Just another 30 days to go (more or less)

Tomatoes
Tomato plants can be touchy — my neighbor has already lost a couple this year, despite all of his experience and attention. Fortunately, my friend Jill had some helpful advice that I took to heart for my Indigo Apple plant: lots of water and remember to fertilize. The tallest and widest of my nightshades, that little 4-inch start is now about 4 feet tall!

Indigo Apple tomato plant

Indigo Apple tomato plant

Like the purple jalapeño, the Indigo Apple tomato starts out green, turns purple (more violet than indigo so far), then red at maturity. Maturity is about 75 days, so the fruit from the first flowering should be ready in August — maybe the end of July, if we have another round of hot days.

Closeup of unripe Indigo Apple tomatoes

Unripe Indigo Apple tomatoes

Lettuces
Oh, my poor lettuces! Unfortunately, I let the Little Gem and Burgundy Mix stay in the ground too long, and they bolted during the 90-degree days. What’s “bolting”? It’s when the lettuce throws up center stalk, preparing to go to seed. It’s the lettuce’s way of saying: I’m done, outtie, see ya. The leaves become bitter, and all you can do is pull the head and replant.

It was a newbie mistake not to harvest entire heads sooner, but the great thing about lettuce is that the maturity is only about 28 days, so there’s plenty of time for a do-over. I planted three new varieties a couple of weeks ago.

New baby lettuces

New baby lettuces: Black Seeded Simpson, Lettuce Manoa, and Wildfire Mix

I’m planning to try an early harvest this time around, taking more baby leaves than I did with the Little Gems.

Closeup of new baby lettuces

Closeup of Lettuce Manoa (left) and  Wildfire Mix

Herbs
The herbs are doing really well, but admittedly, they’re low maintenance. Water, sunshine, the occasional cutting, and they’re good. The spearmint and lemon verbena are flowering, which means that it’s time to cut some back so that I can get another harvest or two this season. It’s also time to start planning for preserving them for use in the fall and winter.

Spearmint

Spearmint, starting to flower

The flowers are pretty, but it’s time for harvest. (Hello, mojitos. How you doin’?)

Peppermint

Peppermint, overflowing the container

Hmmm, might be time to make mint-chocolate ganache…

Sage

Sage

The sage has reached critical mass; time to harvest and preserve

Chives

Chives

Chives: my go-to herb. They’re going into every savory dish I make.

Lavender

Flowering lavender

Flowering lavender: so pretty, and it’s bringing pollinators to my yard!

Lemon Verbena

Flowering lemon verbena

Flowering lemon verbena

So, that’s the latest here in the 650! How is your garden growing? Are you preserving yet, or just enjoying the experience of eating garden-to-table?

Want to see how my garden has grown up? Flash back to the post in which I commit to creating my own edible garden and get all the nitty-gritty details of how I did it. Follow the progress of the first month and find out how my 4-inch plant starts fared — plant porn included, of course.

Grow Local: How Does Your Garden Grow?

May 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

As we’re heading into the last weekend of May, it’s time for the first update on my attempt to grow food. After just about a month, my little garden is flourishing! To date everything I planted is thriving, and much to my surprise, the lettuce is overflowing the planting boxes.

Burgundy mix and little gem lettuces

Lettuce explosion: burgundy mix in the front, little gems behind

As a comparison, here’s what they looked like when I planted them four weeks ago. Amazing what good organic soil, sunshine, water, and a little TLC can do!

Left to right: Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno

Awww, they were just babies then…

Just this week I’ve started harvesting the outer leaves for small salads, pulling only what I need from the garden. I hope I can keep this going through the summer — continuing to harvest leaves as I need them, without having to harvest entire heads of lettuce that might go to waste.

Garden-to-table: fresh lettuce

Garden-to-table: fresh lettuce

I’ve also (cautiously) started snipping the tops of the chives, for the occasional garnish. If they continue to thrive, I might get a bit more aggressive and really give them a haircut. The sage is popping, too, so it might be time to pull some leaves and fry them up. (No, it doesn’t matter what you put them on — fried sage leaves are delicious! Ideas? Try them with sausage and pasta or grilled swordfish with olive oil or roasted veggies with brown rice…)

Herb box: Sage and chives

Sage and chives, little gems to the right

The peppers and tomato plants are taking their own sweet time, but they do have a longer growth time (75-90 days) compared to the lettuces and herbs (30-60 days). The anchos are the frontrunners right now, with three peppers, while the purple jalapenos are a close second.

Yep, there are three ancho chili peppers in there!

Yep, there are three ancho chili peppers in there!

If you’re thinking about starting a garden, it’s not too late! Lettuces are much easier to grow than I ever imagined, and they give an abundant return for your time and effort. Peppers are sturdy and do well in containers — but you need some patience because they do take up to three months to really produce. Tomatoes do amazingly well in the 650 — my plant start was four inches tall with no flowers a month ago, and now it’s almost 24″ tall with lots of flowers (which means, if all goes well, fruit will follow!).

Tomato plant

Tomato plant

You can check out how I put my little garden together here. The post also includes resources for more gardening info.

So what’s this all leading to? Hopefully a summer of creative, simple meals made of local ingredients. Just to give you an idea of how you can “eat local,” at home, here’s a simple meal of locally sourced, seasonal ingredients:

Eat local: West coast halibut with Nut 'n Bean Cashew Jalapeno Cheese. Salad of homegrown lettuces, CSA-box beets and carrots and Marin feta.

Eat local: West-coast halibut with Nut ‘n Bean Cashew Jalapeno Cheese and chives from my garden. Salad of homegrown lettuces, CSA-box beets and carrots, and feta.

The run-on, menu-style description: Baked west-coast halibut, topped with Nut ‘n Bean Jalapeno Cilantro Cashew Cheese “sauce,” and chives, served with late-spring rainbow salad. The salad brings together lettuces from my garden, carrots and beets from my CSA delivery, a sprinkling of feta from Marin, and a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice (yes, from local lemons). With the exception of the fish and the olive oil, every ingredient on this plate comes from within 85 miles of where I live. How cool is that?!

Of course, you can vary the protein based on your budget and diet (chicken or tofu could work, too), and the salad fixin’s based on what’s available in your garden or market. The point here is that it’s so easy it is to create a good, fresh dish from local ingredients. I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t have time to cook something like that.” Au contraire! Halibut takes 13-14 minutes to bake; other fish or proteins might time a little more or less time. During that time, you can wash, chop, and assemble the salad ingredients. Overall, figure about 30 minutes to prep and assemble a meal like this.

The best way to enjoy a meal like this in the 650? Grab a chilled bottle of wine (or some homemade sangria), your favorite people, and head to the back yard for some nice al fresco dining. What more could you ask for this weekend?

 

 

 

Grow Local: In Which I Walk the Talk

May 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

650Food is six months old today! If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been writing about food — eating, cooking, buying, and growing — in the 650, aka San Francisco’s peninsula neighborhoods. A few weeks ago I wrote, admittedly with a smidge of garden envy, about neighborhood gardens. Well, today my garden envy is gone…over…pfffffttt! While I’ve been encouraging people to “grow local” here (and on Twitter, if you follow me there), I want to tell you that I’m walking the talk. For the first time in many years, I’ve planted a small, edible garden. Hell yeah, I’m excited — I’m growing food! Well, right now they’re just baby plants, but by mid-summer, if all goes well, I’ll have food.Left to right: Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno

There’s a lot to be said for growing your own food — reconnecting with the outdoors, teaching kids about where food comes from, eating simple, fresh meals — just to name a few reasons. You don’t have to plant an entire farm’s worth of produce, but you can easily get a small kitchen garden going to supplement what you buy weekly at the market. Wondering where to start? Think about the herbs, fruits, and vegetables that you love to eat or can’t find on a regular basis. For me, it started with peppermint and lemon verbena.

While this is not my first edible garden, I’m also not a gardening expert by any means. I definitely did some researching and organizing before I got started. First, I had to figure out where the “full sun” areas are in my yard — those spots that get 6-8 hours of direct sun. Most edibles love full sun — and it’s definitely necessary for fruit, which needs that light and heat to fully develop its sugars. Turns out I don’t have many full-sun spots in my yard, so that limited the garden size and location, right off the bat. (Good thing, too. Because once I got to the nursery to start buying plants, I wanted everything.)

Next I had to decide what I really wanted to grow. Sweet herbs — lavender, lemon verbena, and mint — were at the top of my list. After that I started thinking savory — sage (mmmm, fried sage leaves!) — and spicy, which meant peppers! I love summer salad greens, so if there was room, maybe I would give those a go. And finally, if I could squeeze out one more spot, I wanted just one tomato plant. My neighbor with the tomatoes was already making deals as soon as I mentioned my plans: he’d happily trade his tomatoes and basil for my peppers and mint.

Having picked my spot, I decided that a combination of pots and raised beds would take less time to set up and give me some flexibility in placing what I want to grow. I’m not exactly what you’d call “handy,” so getting pre-made raised beds sounded like a lot more fun than making beds. Fortunately Home Depot had these cedar boxes that just slide together (no tools involved, yay!).

Raised garden boxes

Cedar boxes 16″ x 16″ x 4″

I’d already decided that I wanted my garden to include as many organic components as possible, so here’s where the research really kicked in. I’d waited too long to start plants from seed, so that meant finding a reliable source of quality organic plant starts (baby plants). While the big-box home improvement stores stock a small selection of certified organic plants, you’ll do better to go to a local, independently owned nursery. Typically you’ll find better quality plants and better customer service. (Not to dis the big stores, but sometimes the folks working the garden section don’t know much about gardening. Or they usually work in lumber, or electrical, or plumbing. You get the idea.) A nursery can provide advice on planting, fertilizing, and managing your garden. Two mid-peninsula nurseries that stock organic plants: Wegman’s Nursery in Redwood City and Common Ground in Palo Alto.

Pots and plants at Wegmans Nursery

The first load of pots and plants

Finally, I had to source the soil and fertilizer. This was a tough one, and probably where I spent most of my research time and energy. The large home-improvement stores and small nurseries carry “organic” soil, but you have to read the labels to see what’s really in it. The challenge was finding a brand of organic soil that didn’t contain chicken manure, blood meal, or GMO’s. Unfortunately, most of the companies that use these components can’t or won’t disclose their source, so you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. For example, is the chicken poop in your soil happy, free-range chicken poop, or over-crowded, full-of-antibiotics, just-ate-the-dead-guy-next-to-me chicken poop? I mean, if I’m growing food in it, I want to know.

I ended up choosing Dr. Earth brand, which you can get from Orchard Supply. Dr. Earth is all about no GMO’s, chicken manure, or sewage sludge (who knew that was even an option in soil mixes??). Keeping it in the family, I also went with the Dr. Earth fertilizers.

Dr. Earth Pot o'Gold soil and fertilizers

Dr. Earth Pot o’Gold soil and fertilizers

So, I had my raised beds, pots, plants, soil, and fertilizer. All I had to do was wait for a not-too-hot, not-too-cold, not-too-windy day, and I could put it all together. Fortunately Mother Nature cooperated this past weekend, and I was finally able to plant everything (well, almost). Ta-dah! The big reveal…

Full view of containers and raised beds

From bottom to top: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno, Indigo Apple tomato, jalapeno, Ancho chili

And a few closeups…

Left to right: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce

Left to right: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce

Little Gem and Red Burgundy Mix lettuces

Little Gem and Red Burgundy Mix lettuces

Purple jalapeno

Purple jalapeno — just because, well, it’s a purple jalapeno!

Lavender and lemon verbena ended up in pots on the other side of the yard, where they’ll also benefit from full sun.

Lemon verbena

Lemon verbena

Finally, yes, with the lime shortage in mind, I picked up a 5-gallon lime bush (no idea how I’m going to plant this thing). It will go in the sunniest corner of the yard, near the lemon tree.

Baby lime bush next to the lemon tree

Baby lime bush next to the lemon tree

There you have it: my attempt at a kitchen garden! I’ll try to post updates throughout the season, assuming the squirrels and raccoons behave themselves and stay the f— out. In the meantime, I’m pretty excited about the possibilities of what I might harvest later this summer!

Need help figuring out how to plant an edible garden? Check out this article from Houzz on growing edibles in 16 square feet. My go-to source for figuring out what plants will and won’t thrive in my area is the Sunset Western Garden Guide. (I received my first copy as a gift 20 years ago, and just finally bought the updated version this year.) For more garden and landscaping ideas and growing info specific to the Bay Area, Sunset.com is a helpful resource.

Have you planted a garden? What are you growing this year?

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