So we did get a bit of snow this week, but safe and warm inside of our dining room, I am starting a veritable greenhouse: fruit trees and vegetables galore! It gives me hope that spring really is just around the corner.
This is by far the most extensive and ambitious gardening project I have ever taken on: 18 cherry trees and over 300 seedlings. The cherry trees I have growing on the counter I started from seed this past fall. I saved and washed the cherry pits, and then encouraged them to sprout by simulating “winter” followed by “spring.” I wrapped the pits in a moist paper towel, placed them in a plastic bag, and then let them sit in our refrigerator for about three months (this was their mild “winter”) and then removed them. A few of the eager ones were already sprouting, and many others began sprouting after just a few days at room temperature. In November I planted them in individual egg-carton-sized peat moss pots, watered regularly, and watched them grow. By Christmas they had already outgrown their containers and I transplanted them into larger pots, and lately they have been sitting on our counter soaking up whatever winter sun they can get. As the weather gets a bit warmer I will begin “hardening” them, or placing them outside during the day so that they can be used to the outside environment, and hopefully get a bit more sun. This important step of hardening plants for about two weeks before transplanting them in the ground leads to a hardier, more successful, and more prolific garden.
I have also been hard at work on the vegetable garden, which I hope to transplant outside (into a very fertile patch of land enriched with lots of chicken manure) in about one month, weather permitting. I feel that the most important part of planning a garden and picking your seeds is deciding what types of vegetables (and how many of them) you will be able to use. I do not want to be the gardening lady with massive quantities of zucchini and nothing to do with them, trying to pawn them off on my neighbors. So Nick and I sat down together and planned out what we both wanted to eat, and how much we thought we would be able to consume. Our garden this year is going to contain a great quantity of root vegetables (beets and turnips are our favorites) because we both enjoy eating them, they are easily added to many of my favorite recipes, and they will keep long into the winter if stored properly. (We will be building a makeshift miniature root cellar in our basement come harvest time.) We will also have a great variety of squash, as they also keep very well. We are growing acorn, giant pink banana (a totally new variety for us!), giant blue Hubbard, and Cushaw green striped winter squash. We also have a decent quantity of kohlrabi (another favorite of ours) and Brussels sprouts. The sprouts are wonderful because you do not have to harvest them as soon as they appear ready, but rather can leave them on the plant even until after the first frost; the longer the sprouts stay on the plant, the sweeter and more flavorful they are. And if we are unable to consume the entire harvest, Nick has an awesome idea for preserving them: Brussels kraut. I am game to try. We can put that crock right next to the sauerkraut crock (which is how we will preserve our cabbage for the winter).
Our most popular vegetable by far, however, is the tomato. We have multiple heirloom varieties in all shapes, colors, and sizes that should produce a veritable tomato forest. I love harvesting tomatoes because they are endlessly versatile and simple to preserve by canning. I have a multitude of recipes that include tomatoes, and I love the taste of a fresh tomato right off the vine: slice it up, or even grill it up with some salt, pepper, and a little bit of cheese on top. Nick loves to eat my lacto-fermented salsa, and lacto-fermentation is a great way to preserve vegetables, and also get some healthy probiotics into your diet. Last year he was eating lacto-fermented salsa well into the fall. Tomatoes, because of their high acid content, are also ideal candidates for canning. I have a delicious recipe for canned tomato soup that is hot, and nourishing on cold winter days (we still have some left from last year’s harvest), and I also love to can salsa. Nick and I enjoy some salsa and avocado with our morning eggs, and my peach pepper salsa recipe cannot be beat (although, unfortunately, we finished the last jar a few weeks ago). I will probably be sharing that recipe somewhere in August, when I have plenty of tomatoes to make a large batch for winter. In the picture above I have my tomato soup, curried butternut squash soup, kosher dill pickles, and Italian-style zucchini in tomato sauce.
And now to the how of starting vegetables. I had never thought too much about the intricacies of starting vegetables from seed, it had seemed like a simple and natural process to me, but Nick, whose father is an agronomist and whose brother is a permaculturist, was still new to the process, and surprised to learn about my methods. I purchased what Nick refers to as “hockey pucks” from the garden store, which are basically condensed little discs of soil that expand when you add water to them. I expanded all of my pucks, and then placed them into trays (also available at the garden store) that are fitted with clear plastic covers. These “mini-greenhouses” keep the new sprouts at a higher temperature while still allowing them plenty of light. Then I simply keep the soil moist and watch them sprout. After only four days, the beets, turnips, and kohlrabi were going gangbusters.
With such a large gardening project begun, I can now see that I have lots of plants, but not lots of sunny spaces in the house to put them. To solve this conundrum, Nick and I have ordered an artificial grow light with timer, so that all of the sprouts can have enough “sun” to grow to their potential. We will have the light set to a timer so that the sprouts get just enough light, but not so much that they would burn or dry out. And then in about three weeks I will begin hardening the plants during the days, and then one to two weeks after that I will begin planting them in the ground. With the summer will come weeding, and then harvesting, good eating, canning, and lots of lacto-fermenting.
With a garden as large as we have, and my time input of preserving food in the fall, our own homegrown vegetables will form a very large portion of our produce consumption over the winter. While we are blessed to have a large plot of land for gardening, even those in urban areas can start a smaller-scale gardening operation. Small plots and raised gardens can support a surprising number of plants, and even those living in apartments might be able to grow tomatoes by hanging some topsy-turvy planters on their balconies or out their windows, or even by building small raised gardens on those balconies. I find gardening to be enjoyable, relaxing, and rewarding (I get to watch these plants from from seeds into trees, and i literally get to taste the fruits of my labor!) and even a balcony garden is a step towards real, natural, chemical-free food, and a move in the direction of self-sufficiency.