From Edible Columbus magazine, Issue No. 9 Spring 2012
A Gardener’s Journal
Story and Illustration by Susan Weber
A look at my small Clintonville back yard in late winter does not reveal a magazine-spread vision of loveliness. A huge, lusty dark-green clump of invasive bamboo dusted with yesterday’s light snowfall bears mute evidence of garden battles fought and lost, yet to be fought again. Mother Nature’s windy spring gusts downed a beautiful pink flowering dogwood last year, leaving an unpleasant new exposure to my neighbor’s garage security light. Two wrought-iron lawn chairs left to fend for themselves show signs of impending rust. The deck still needs to be refinished…
And yet, a closer look reveals unseen treasures. A peek under a row cover hastily thrown over a bed after Thanksgiving reveals a bounty of herbs and greens miraculously ready for harvest. A great boon to busy gardeners (like me!), row covers are inexpensive lengths of opaque material available at most garden centers that allow light to penetrate while providing some protection from brisk winter temperatures. I love using them as a last-minute strategy in the fall to extend the growing season of cold-tolerant crops by weeks and even months, providing a fresh dash of flavor and nutritional value to winter meals.
Menu ideas for a family ‘comfort food’ dinner this weekend are now inspired by my garden treasures: chicken roasted with fresh rosemary, mushroom risotto garnished with chopped chives, ‘Lacinato’ kale sautéed in a bit of olive oil, and a simple salad of greens tossed with walnuts, dried cranberries, goat cheese, and a homemade parsley vinaigrette dressing. The garden sage, still amazingly fresh under its row cover blanket, tempts me to try a new recipe for a rustic sage-scented butter cake.
A motley crew of empty pots, urns, and tubs in the potting shed encourages a cozy sit by the fire with a mug of mint tea and a stack of seed catalogs to dream up new edible plant combinations for containers. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, an old favorite for its diverse selection and wonderfully detailed cultural information, provides great ideas for my large vintage galvanized tub. I’ll start with a few plants of ‘De Cicco’, an Italian heirloom broccoli that produces small top and side heads over a long harvest time. It’s an open-pollinated variety, meaning the seeds can be saved at the end of the season, and they will ‘come true,’ or produce the same variety when planted next year. This practice is not only cost-saving, but helps to maintain valuable heirloom seed strains for future generations.
Both people and plants prosper when given optimum growing conditions and friendly, supportive neighbors. Companion planting is the practice of selecting plants that support each other’s good health. I’ll add friendly rosemary and dill to the broccoli in my tub. ‘Fernleaf’ is a good dill selection for containers, as it is slower to ‘bolt’, or go to seed. At about 2’ tall, it’s shorter than most dill varieties, but it will still add a nice vertical element. I’m also going to put in a peppermint plant, a notorious garden thug that rapidly overtakes garden beds but plays well with others when confined in pots. The addition of a handful of onion starts, small bulbs seen in stores in the spring that quickly produce flavorful green onions, and a thyme plant to repel cabbage butterfly, a common broccoli pest, should give me an attractive, pest-free, flavorful showing in my vintage tub this summer.
I like the idea of planting a brigade of my old buckets and garage-sale vintage French flower tins with single plants of some of the more space-hogging vegetables. Butternut squash and cucumbers are easily planted by seed directly in containers after late spring frosts. I want to try ‘Butterbush’, a space-saving variety of butternut squash offered by another old favorite, W. Atlee Burpee and Co. Butternut squash’s hard rind and dense stems give its fruits a long shelf life and a natural resistance to the devastating squash borer pest. ‘Spacemaster’, another Burpee offering, looks like a good candidate for growing cukes in containers. It bears full-sized fruit on extremely compact, disease-resistant plants. I’m planning on adding a few pots planted with showy ‘Alaska Mix’ nasturtiums to the grouping as well. Nasturtiums repel squash bugs, and I love the peppery flavor of both their leaves and flowers. ‘Alaska Mix’ has attractive green and white variegated foliage highlighted by brilliant yellow, crimson, and orange tubular flowers.
I’m going to take the time and resources to select good-quality organic potting mixes for my container plantings this year. Organic potting mixes are a good ‘green’ choice: they contain microbiotic agents derived from recycled natural materials that help to contribute to overall plant health. This makes them slower to lose their fertility, so they can be reused for several seasons. ‘Ultralight’ soil mixes (often labeled for use in hanging baskets) don’t work well in containers, as they dry out too quickly to satisfy the moisture needs of most edibles. I don’t often use regular garden soil for my containers, as it may harbor harmful insects or diseases or lack needed fertility for heavy-feeding food crops.
A new member of my edible garden family is a 3-tiered ‘Liberty’ espaliered apple tree planted on the west wall of my garage. A real beauty purchased from River Road Farms in Tennessee, it makes a great architectural focal point in my garden. Espaliering is an ancient space-saving technique used to train fruiting plants into a flat, upright form. They’re often planted next to a wall to take advantage of early-season reflected heat. I selected the variety ‘Liberty’ not only for its crisp, flavorful red fruit but for its high disease resistance, allowing me to enjoy a good crop of its mid-fall fruits without using harmful chemicals. I’m toying with the idea of a border planting of chives under the tree; a fine companion plant for fruit trees, chives’ mild onion-flavored leaves are a key culinary herb, and its lavender globe-shaped blooms make a showy garnish.
I spotted two pricey wrought-iron tuteurs at a local garden store last spring, and was delighted to see them still available when the store had its end-of-season fall sale. Tuteurs are upright trellis structures designed to train climbing plants, and are usually seen as tall four-sided pyramids or obelisks. I love the four-season architectural interest they add to my edible garden. I’m going to plant my tuteurs with ‘Painted Lady’ runner beans, a spectacular English heirloom climber that produces large quantities of red and white flowers and beans useable at the fresh snap stage, shelled, or dried for later use. I’m tempted to plant a few seeds of Red Malabar Spinach with the beans. Not a true spinach, Malabar Spinach has lovely red vining stems and mild-flavored leaves that can be steamed or eaten fresh. Like the beans, it loves summer heat, and can sometimes survive mild winters. A few ‘Gem’ marigold plants around the base will provide brightly-colored edible flowers and natural resistance to Mexican bean beetles. I’ll plant summer savory nearby, an annual culinary herb that also deters bean beetles and is a wonderful herbal seasoning for cooked green beans.
Perhaps the family dinner, redolent with the rich scents and seasonings of last summer, will elicit an ambitious work plan to finally tame the bamboo, paint the wrought iron chairs, and refinish the deck. Or perhaps we’ll just enjoy our meal, free of work and worry for a few quiet moments together. Regardless, I’ll find my way back to the fire and that stack of seed catalogs to dream just a few more dreams of spring…
–Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 955 Benton Avenue, Winslow, ME 04901. www.johnnyseeds.com
–W. Atlee Burpee & Company, 300 Park Avenue, Warminster, PA 18974. www.burpee.com
–Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 2278 Baker Creek Road, Mansfield, MO 65704. www.rareseeds.com
Espaliered fruit trees:
–River Road Farms, 2700 Goodfield Road, Decatur, IL 37322. www.espaliertrees.com
Tuteurs, garden architecture:
–Kinsman Garden Company, P.O. Box 428, Pipersville, PA 18947. www.kinsmangarden.com