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Pull Up a Chair: Ready or Not, Spring Is Coming

4:55 am in Food by TobyWollin

Life gets in the way sometimes, even for gardeners, so here I am with no seeds started (oh, the horror!), and scrambling around at the last minute (didn’t follow my own advice last fall, but what the heck) trying to figure out what we’re going to do. We’re still snow-covered here, but unless we get some major snow (sorry people in New England who are still digging out from the last snow; in Upstate NY, we didn’t get very much and have since had warm weather and some rain), not for long.

And without snow cover, we know what is going to happen: the soil is going to warm up. What to do…oh, what to do?

OK – if I want to speed things along, I can scrape off the snow off one of the beds and put to work our ‘old window over some lumber’ trick, which warms up the soil PDQ. And I can either order or go through our local seed racks (at this point, the seeds will still be pretty good) for what I can use right away and get started.

So, what can I use ‘right away’ (or what passes for that here)? Well, if I can get the soil temperatures up to 50+ degrees F, I can plant:

  • Anything from the CABBAGE family: broccoli, kale, cabbage, Chinese cabbages and mustards, cauliflower, kohlrabi.
  • Anything from the BEET family: beets, Swiss and other chards
  • Various sorts of lettuces and other greens
  • Spinach

And frankly, I have had just as good (if not better, actually) experience just putting the seeds into the ground rather than starting them and setting out the plants.

This year, for the first time, I am doing the research in terms of ‘who owns/controls/has agreements with who’ in terms of seed suppliers. There is part of me that is considering very seriously going with Seed Savers Exchange or another heritage seed group, just to make sure that the sticky GM fingers of Monsanto, Bayer, Dow et al. are not on there. I might even save seeds at the end of the summer (which is actually not all that hard to do; I’ll be happy to go over that if anyone is interested). Here’s an amazing factoid about ‘germ plasm ownership’: The number 5 organization in terms of who owns/controls seed germ plasm in…the…world… is……. Land o’ Lakes. The butter people. I kid you not. Look it up.

I’m also thinking seriously about trying, for the first time, to grow parsnips, strictly from having a plate with a whack-load of parsnip/apple puree on it. Yummy. Anyone with experience growing parsnips? I figure that since we’ve had some success with carrots, I will be able to grow parsnips (long pointy veggies under the ground? All the same? Or am I wrong?). We’re also going strictly production tomatoes this year: grow what we use, which is plum tomatoes. I might sacrifice some space to one slicing tomato (so that the DH will be able to make his beloved ‘mayo/black pepper/sliced tomatoes on horrible commercial white bread’ sandwiches), plus one cherry tomato, but other than that, I’ve decided not to bother. If I can find a plum tomato that comes from Eastern Europe or Russia, I’m sold.

The big work this spring will be on a bed we started last year with compost from the county landfill, which was compost in the same way that some Democrats in the House are Democrats. I don’t think I’ve seen as high a ‘wood chip to actual organic material’ ratio in anything other than saw dust in a long time. So that bed was as close to a dead loss as you can get. We’ll dump all the real compost out of the bins into there in the spring. I might even do nothing with that area but grow buckwheat 3 or 4 times (if nothing else, it will feed the bees really well) in the summer to put some more stuff into it. Anyone else have any ideas for cover crops that would do improvement there?

So, where is everyone else in their gardening? Any of you folks in southwest or southeast started? Or is it too dry? I’m not feeling all that good up here about that either – we’re having another dry winter like last winter, which does not predict good things.

You know the drill – fill up the coffee cups, pull the scones out of the oven and let’s talk.

Pull Up a Chair: Spring Has Sprung!

3:54 am in Food by TobyWollin

Spring has sprung here at Chez Siberia and I do mean sprung as in “if you stopped to tie your shoes, you missed the transition.’

Usually, we have a good month of 50 degree F. temperatures, give or take 5 degrees and I can take some time to warm up the soil with plastic or an old window lying on one of the old frames we saved from when we tore down the old greenhouse, but literally we went in 10 days time from 40 odd degrees to over 50 degrees F.

Whiplash, I tell you. Whiplash.

Last weekend, I put in seeds for broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage, spinach, chard, lettuces of various colors and kinds, and beets, watering the bed thoroughly before I did so. The winter was so dry and it’s been so warm that the soil was very dry, which makes it definitely tough on a seed to break through that outer coating and germinate. You definitely need a certain level of warmth for seeds (and 50 degrees F Is my minimum for putting in the seeds above), but you also need a certain level of moisture. Since it’s been so warm, I just covered the bed with a double layer of spun polyester to hold in a bit of warmth and moisture (I really had to do that because we’ve used that particular chunk of fabric so many times, there are, shall we say, a lot of rather large perforations). And several days after I’d put in the seeds, I watered it thoroughly again.

This afternoon, I went out and the magic has definitely started to happen – seeds UP! This is an activity which I started to do when I was in elementary school and it has never lost its charm. It’s like buried treasure every time. I always try to grow one new thing, just for the novelty. I’m not sure what that will be this year, since we have a ‘small person’ wandering around the place now and I intend to allow him to pull up whatever he wants on a daily basis for his lunch. A little dirt on the veggies never hurt anyone, I think, and there is nothing for a kid like pulling up a beet, radish or carrot.

When I was little I actually was never impressed with tomatoes or peppers; the plants were too big and the flowers were too small. But beans and there were pretty flowers that turned into something I loved to eat. And we won’t go into the whole ‘zucchini so big you could put a saddle on it and ride it away’.

Now, it’s not that I’m not interested in novelty items, seriously, but we only have 5 beds, 3 feet wide by 15 feet long, to grow in (the only spot we have to garden near the house unfortunately was where the contractor dumped all the basement fill, so these were literally carved out of the landscape by the DH with pick, shovel, leaves, compost, wood chips and manure), so we tend to grow a lot of things that work and that we like to eat. Sometimes they don’t work well – we haven’t had any luck to speak of with Brussels sprouts, though other members of the cabbage family grow really well for us. And the only method of growing peppers that works for us is to put them into grow bags or two-gallon water jugs on the black asphalt driveway in the sun. Certain things I will not bother with whatsoever, no matter how much whining gets applied, corn is one of them. And sometimes I just throw in the towel and go to our local farmers market and order up a bushel of tomatoes just in case.

What are you guys doing in the garden this year? (Oh, and btw, between the mild winter and the horrible acorn crop which crashed the populations of white footed mice in the Northeast, we’ve got one heck of a deer tick issue this spring.)

Food Sunday: Ruminations on an Easter Sunday

8:54 am in Food by TobyWollin

Hey – anyone in the mood for food-borne diseases this morning? Nope. Me neither. So today we get ruminations (you knew I’d get farming in here someplace, right?) on this day. To wit:

No matter what glorious spiritual tradition you follow, it’s spring and we’re really happy for it. Whether you follow the return of the Son…or the return of the Sun, it’s still spring, which this year especially is a very good thing (do I have to trade mark that? I think Martha Stewart owns ‘good thing™’ or something like that), considering that for folks in the Deep South, this has been the Winter With No End™. The return of longer days and warmer weather is something we can all celebrate (where the rabbits came from is beyond me; fertility or something like that, I think – just pick up Watership Down).

Another thing that has returned are the farmers markets to a large part of the country. Our big local one basically went on a winter schedule, with two markets a month from November on in the basement of our local County Cooperative Extension building, Over the past month, consumers have been offered not only potatoes, onions and garlic as veggies, but also several different types of salad greens and spinach, courtesy of a grant that one of the growers got last year to buy and erect a ‘high tunnel’ (sort of like a semi-permanent plastic covered greenhouse) at her place. She started greens in it last fall and they have come back mightily over the past several weeks (even in our horrific weather here in Upstate NY) and in accordance with the grant, will be growing the same sorts of things inside the high tunnel and outside it in beds. I hear she is working on tomatoes and peppers which, given the long term weather prognostications, might be a very good idea, indeed.
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Food Sunday: Food News You Can Use

9:30 am in Uncategorized by TobyWollin

And another great day! Now that we’ve all gotten over the Clinton Wedding (review: Yes, for all of everything, it really WAS all about Bill and Chelsea – why Vera Wang? I mean, now REALLY?), time to get back on the horse or the bike or whatever to talk about food:

Mushrooms are your friends: “Scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University… suggest that white button mushrooms may promote immune function by increasing production of antiviral and other proteins that are released by cells while seeking to protect and repair tissue. Wu and co-investigators are with the HNRCA Nutritional Immunology Laboratory in Boston, Mass. The study’s cell-culture phase showed that white button mushrooms enhanced the maturity of immune system cells called "dendritic cells," from bone marrow. Dendritic cells can make T cells-important white blood cells that can recognize and eventually deactivate or destroy antigens on invading microbes. “ Mushroom Study

And Corn…is NOT: “In the past forty years, there has been a steady rise in obesity over the generations in Western societies. During the same period, the diet in industrialized countries has seen a quantitative increase in the calories ingested (lipids account for 35 to 40% of food intake), high levels of linoleic acid (omega 6 – generally from corn) and low levels of alpha-linoleic acid (omega 3). Indeed, the amount of omega 6 consumed during the past forty years has rocketed (+250%) while that of omega 3 has fallen by 40%, thus destabilizing the omega 6/omega 3 ratio when compared with the recommended intakes. While the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) recommends an omega 6/omega 3 ratio of 5/1, actual consumption is 15 omega 6 for 1 omega 3. In the USA, this ratio can even reach 40 omega 6 for 1 omega 3.” Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratios out of whack

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Food Sunday: Food News You Can Use

10:30 am in Uncategorized by TobyWollin

Aunt Toby is nothing if not eclectic in her interests (which is why you love me so), and it is only fitting and proper (and efficient as well) that I collect some of the more interesting food-related news items that insinuate themselves into my email box and pass them on to everyone else (because Aunt Toby also seems to be on every electronic mailing list out there). So, therefore, the Food News of the Week in Review (in no particular order of preference, importance, or interest on my part):

FDA Decides that BPA IS dangerous, damnit: FDA: We Think We Are Concerned

The Food and Drug Administration in a shocking display of alarm announced that they have” raised its level of concern over the safety of bisphenol-A, or BPA, an industrial chemical found in baby bottles and the linings of canned goods and other consumer products.” Two years ago, in 2008, in the Bush administration, they claimed in a draft report that small amounts of BPA that leached out of packaging were ‘not dangerous’. This was followed by a statement a month later by the National Toxicology Program expressing “some concern” — midway between “negligible concern” and “serious concern” — about the potential effects on the brain, behavior and prostate in fetuses, infants and children”. So, now, they feel that they, too, can express ‘some concern’ about possible effects. Canada banned the chemical in baby bottles in 2008. The chemical industry is still claiming ‘no proof’ (always their position to play for time) and the government will be doing studies over the next 18-24 months. So, the good news is that the FDA is finally ‘concerned’; the bad news is that with all the other studies available on the danger of this chemical not only to children but also to adults, there is still this notion that more studies have to be performed. By the way, Sen. Chuck Schumer was the point guy in 2008 trying to get this stuff banned in all packaging.
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Second Chances: Not Dead Yet in the Garden

5:30 pm in Uncategorized by TobyWollin

3955631695_44777ec2db.jpgThis morning, while the rest of the world (at least the part west of my time zone…) slept, your Aunt Toby was outdoors, miserably slumped on top of a too-small plastic bag, taking photographs of the frost.

We had a BIG frost last night, though not what is called around here, a ‘killing’ frost, which is the one that causes all the moisture in the cells of the not hardy plants to freeze, expand (which is what moisture does when it freezes), explode the rigid cellular walls – and kill the plants. Last night’s frost was heavy for sure but not a killer frost. But that is coming. It’s coming.

But for the moment, we have some things left live and harvestable in the garden – the chard, the beets, the carrots, the onions, the cabbages. All of those (which are all pretty hardy) are still out there and your Aunt Toby is in her yearly battle between leaving the things in the garden as long as absolutely possible…and the deer. So far the score is Deer: 1, Chard leaves: 0. So, I’m going to harvest the rest of the chard ribs, cut off the deerly-beloved parts at the top, clean, blanch and freeze the chard for the winter.

Everyone knows I like chard, right?

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Cabbage Family Nutritional Smack-Down

11:16 am in Uncategorized by TobyWollin

315179491_cf3ec41619.jpgAll veggies are good. The more colorful the better. The less cooked, the better (steamed rather than boiled to death). The only problem with veggies, and this happens no matter where you live, is that everything is not available all the time. Nature of the beast.

What is coming into season now and will be available from now and through to early spring (thanks to refrigerated storage and the process of freezing) is everything from the cabbage family: cabbage(in all its permutations, combinations and theoretical geographic origins: Dutch, German, Chinese, Napa), broccoli, kale, cauliflower, various mustards, and Brussels sprouts.

As Aunt Toby’s readers are definitely aware, I hold a special place in my heart (and digestive system) for members of the cabbage family. I come from an area of the country where cabbage growing (and sauerkraut making) are major activities and I recall many car trips where we saw field upon field of cabbages growing and being harvested. And I also recall my father explaining to me what a great thing it is to have a vegetable that could be grown in a place with such a short growing season and which was sooo good. I swear stuffed cabbage (or, as he called it, halupshis) ran in his veins.3916568396_1749d204d0.jpg

But, back to reality. In 2007, Cornell University researchers issued a report dealing with vegetable growing and consumption in New York State and the rest of the US and the potential for producing more veggies in New York.
Cornell 2007 Veggies Report

This is a fascinating report on a lot of different levels, but what I focused in on was their chart of the top 10 veggies on a consumption base(and this is the same whether you are looking at New York, the Northeast or the rest of the US, in order of rank):
#1: Potatoes
#2: Tomatoes
#3: Head Lettuce
#4: Onions
#5: Carrots
#6: Sweet Corn
#7: Snap Beans
#8: Broccoli
#9: Cucumbers
#10: Green peas

Now, I think all of us can look at this chart and come to some assumptions as to where these figures are coming from:
Potatoes: No matter who, what, when, where, or how – you can find potatoes on the menu everywhere, whether it is home fries for breakfast, French fries at fast food places or potatoes on the menu at dinner. Potatoes are actually a great source of a lot of B vitamins and Vitamin C and fiber, but unfortunately, the way we cook and dress them up tends to put potatoes into a category where people avoid them.

Tomatoes, head lettuce, cucumbers: This, unfortunately, is the basic makeup of almost every salad that people eat, in or out of the home. Perhaps it gets dressed with a bit of grated carrot, but in general, this is a commercial salad.

Carrots, snap beans, peas and sweet corn: Open any freezer compartment in any home and you will pull out bags of this, either singly or in combination (can we say ‘mixed vegetables?’).

Onions: this is one of those basics that, like potatoes, is in every home and is used generally as an ingredient rather than a vegetable on its own. I think the last time ‘creamed baby onions’ was a popular home dinner dish was probably WWII. And that is really too bad because onions have a huge amount going for them in terms of nutritional value, as do all members of the onion family (see garlic).

Broccoli – Why is this vegetable #8???

We are obviously NOT eating enough dark leafy green vegetables, that is for sure. If people think eating head lettuce and cucumbers is the way to go, they are missing something. A little comparison is due on this, I think:

Iceberg Lettuce……………………..Cucumbers………………………..Broccoli
Protein 1.56 grams ………………….2.47 gr……………………………..4.66 gr.
Fiber 0.7 grams …………………….83 gr……….…………………………4.68 gr.
Calcium 51 mg. ……………………………………………………………74.72 mg.
Phosphorus 41 mg. ………………………………………………………140.78 mg.
Iron 1.5 mg. ……………………………………………………………………1.37 mg.
Vitamin A 0.1 mg. ……………………223.6 mg………………………….2280.72 mg.
Vitamin C 14 mg………………………..5.58 mg…………………………123.4 mg.

Plus Broccoli and all other members of the cabbage family are rated ‘excellent’ sources of vitamins and minerals such as:
vitamin B6
vitamin B2
omega 3 fatty acids
vitamin B5
vitamin B1 (thiamin)
vitamin B3 (niacin)
vitamin E

Research over the past ten years into inflammation and cancer has shown conclusively that vegetables from the cabbage family (especially Brussels sprouts and broccoli) contain substances that do three things: dampen inflammatory response in the body, increase the body’s ability to kill tumor cells, and depress the ability of tumor cells to multiply. Brussels Sprouts Nutritional and Health Info

Why are we providing ‘stomach share’ to head lettuce and cucumbers?

I know there are people who hold the same opinion as a former president with regard to broccoli. I am not one of them. So, for those folks who want some great ways to serve the cabbage family to YOUR family:
Cabbage Recipes
More Cabbage Recipes

Tyler Florence Cabbage Rolls (he does his sauce ‘sweet and sour’ using sugar – in my father’s family, you use vinegar and raisins)
More Stuffed Cabbage

Here’s a tip on how to get the cabbage leave to soften up the way you want them:
–Take your cabbage and cut off the bottom and remove a good couple of inches of the core – you don’t need that anyway. Remove the outer couple of leaves.
— Take a BIG pot – a dutch oven, big soup pot, etc. Put the cabbage in the bottom of that and cover with water. Put the lid on the pot.
— Bring to a boil and turn down to simmer. Simmer for 10 min. The outer leaves should be soft enough to take off. You want them LIMP. If they aren’t, cover the pot and simmer some more until they are.
— Put filling in and wrap as you go and put into your pan with sauce to finish cooking the rolls. If you try to cook the cabbage long enough so that the inner most leaves are limp, the outer leaves will be mush. So, unravel the first couple of soft leaves; when you get to firmer leaves, cover the pot and simmer some more. This is really a process.

Broccoli – although I do not hold with handing kids a dish of ranch dressing and washed flowerets to try to get them to eat the vegetable, I do have to admit that doing our own version of Wendy’s ™ baked potato with broccoli and cheese sauce got my kids to eat cooked broccoli, like it, and it’s also a good cheap meal.

Baked potatoes – however you do yours.
Milk – whatever you have in the fridge – 1-2 cups
2-3 table spoons of flour
2-3 table spoons of butter
Block of hard cheese – cheddar, swiss, whatever you have..combinations work too – the amount will be a block about 2 inches x 2 inches x 1 inch, chopped, grated, etc.

Put butter into a shallow pan and heat until melted.
Put in flour and stir around until it has taken up all the butter AND starts to give off a nice, sort of nutty smell. Don’t burn it.
Slowly, in little dribbles, add milk AND stir it around – use a fork or a whisk or something. Spoons will not work for this part. Keep adding until all the milk is used. You are looking for a thickish white sauce.
Add grated cheese and stir around until all melted into the sauce – if it is too thick, add a little bit more milk to thin it a bit. Cover the pan and put at the back of the stove on NO heat.

Broccoli – after you have made the sauce and the potatoes, THEN make the broccoli. I put ½ inch of water in the bottom of a shallow pan and steam mine. Don’t boil it – it should still be nice and a little bit crunchy.

Split the potatoes, put on the broccoli and cover with cheese sauce. Kids LOVE this and it’s a great fast Sunday ‘just got back from skiing/skating/snow forts etc.” sort of meal. Warm, filling, has all the protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals anyone needs.

Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts – there are a lot of different recipes for this.3916568748_0ca36405f4.jpg

Food Network Emeril Recipe (this recipe uses butter and calls for the Brussels sprouts to be boiled first)

My recipe (and my son eats these with no complaints, so it must be pretty decent):
Fresh Brussels sprouts (you could probably do this with frozen ones too, but I have never tried it)
Olive oil for sautéing
Walnuts, coarsely chopped – 1/3 cup
Liquid (whatever you have in the fridge: red or white wine, a little lemon or orange juice, left over veggie cooking liquid, etc.)
A large frying pan with a lid

Figure on 5 sprouts for each person. Make sure they are not too big or woody, wash well, and trim off the bottom. Slice vertically in half.
In the bottom of a large frying pan, put enough olive oil so that when you tip it, you have enough to coat the bottom but not enough to really ‘fry’ anything. This will be at least 2-3 tablespoons. Put pan on a medium heat and place the sprouts, cut side down, in the pan. Cover and cook for five minutes. Check and see if they are starting to brown – if so, turn the heat down.
Once the sprouts have started to brown, put in a little liquid – ¼ cup should be enough – and recover for five more minutes.
If there is still liquid, let that boil off.
Add walnuts, cover so that they are warmed through and serve.

As the Sainted Julia always said, "Bon Appetit!"
And, the usual self-serving reminder that this post can also be found at You know..the other place…

(brussels sprouts on stalks photo courtesy of h-bomb)

Forget Wall Street: Invest in Potatoes

3:17 am in Uncategorized by TobyWollin

(Caution: Image Heavy) We all know what’s happened to the stock market over the past year. No news there. A whole lot of people lost a whole lot of their retirement and goodness knows what else over the past year. A whole lot of people are going to have to work long past their ‘sell by’ dates just to get through.

What Aunt Toby is here to tell you is that there are other ‘investments’ that sometimes do a whole lot better than fancy financial instruments, ‘regular’ and ‘preferred’ and Class A, B or C.

I’m talking about…potatoes(and yes, I realize that there has been a whole lot of coverage about this ‘early blight’ stuff that is basically turning tomatoes into the vegetable equivalent of cavier this summer – and is the same thing that killed a million Irish through starvation between 1845 and 1852 – and brought another million to our shores in the same time). And we have had a summer the likes of which I do not care to discuss (needless to say that if there are any leather shoes underneath Aunt Toby’s bed – they have already sprouted some rather exotic molds because it’s been one rainy summer Chez Siberia.

But remember these?

I’ve been watching that bed for a while because once potatoes flower, it’s time to keep a watch for the plants dying back. That means (drum roll, please) that it is time to dig them up.

I love digging up potatoes. It’s like Treasure Island and we are the pirate crew. The other part is that no matter how clever we think we are about getting every last one, we always miss a few. These turn into volunteers and usually, since they have had a head start from the fall before, we get even bigger Read the rest of this entry →

WMD: Zucchini Time

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by TobyWollin

When Aunt Toby and the DH first set up housekeeping in a real house (versus their first year of marriage as students, AKA “Annus Horribilus”), we lucked upon a landlord who not only allowed us to rip up a good bit of the lawn, but also encouraged us to do so. One of our ‘challenges” was a humungous maple tree which dominated the backyard and only allowed sun to hit the prime gardening spots for a limited number of hours during the day. And being beginning gardeners, we chose things that we thought would be easy to grow: green beans, broccoli, tomatoes and zucchini.

Unfortunately, the DH’s method of making sure that we would get some zucchini, even if the only space left for the seeds was at the deepest, darkest end of the garden, hovering right underneath the maple, was to plant – six hills of the stuff. So, needless to say, by the end of the summer, we were looking for more ways to enjoy it.

I know zucchini has become sort of this gardening joke punchline – ‘the vegetable that wouldn’t die’ and ‘the vegetable that took over the garden’ and ‘I woke up one morning and we had zucchini big enough to throw a saddle on and ride off..” Actually, zucchini is just the victim of its ability to mimic the Eveready Bunny ™ in the garden. The trick really is to keep ahead of it and go out every single day and pick it. Even if you end up throwing it on the compost heap for that day, you need to keep the plants producing and keep the squashes you get on the small side. That’s when the skin is tender, the flesh tastes at its best and you can do more things with it in Read the rest of this entry →

I’ll Have Some Mustard With My Slugs, Please

7:02 pm in Uncategorized by TobyWollin

This spring at Chez Siberia has been almost enough to have us change the name to Chez Seattle or Chez Portland Oregon in terms of the amount of rain we’ve been getting. So far this month, we are 1.5 inches above the average for precipitation.

Lots o’ rain. That means that we get Lots o’ Slugs too.

Grey ones, big honkin’ orange ones (grrrr). And snails, too (snails are only slugs with real estate pretensions..remember that when you think of escargot). And short of ‘slug death’ or some such other chemical horror, we have tried every ‘get rid of slugs’ method known. And your dear Aunty has had zip luck. Until this year, and this was not even written up; I just stumbled upon it.

See the picture at the top? Oh, the slugs are having a field day there. It’s as if there were a sign just out of sight that reads “Slug All Night Buffet”. I’ve been out there early in the morning when I’ve counted (quick and dirty, mind you; it’s not like I got down on my hands and knees to do this) 6 slugs on every could almost hear the rasping of their tiny jaws. And Read the rest of this entry →