Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mesclun, a short word for lots of leaves

Grow Journey seeds of the month in the blue light of a cold winter afternoons, above. We had a two day spring scare but are back to more appropriate temperatures, and I don't think they will last. I have been gardening. Seed trays are sprouting (8 artichokes, so far), and in the vegetable plot seeds have been sown after one more oyster shell powder application. As fast as I prep beds, the damn squirrel trio has been excavating. I must figure something out.

When you log into your personal Grow Journey account you now have access to an expanded My Seeds description, which covers the seeds you have received, past and present. The information here goes far beyond anything any other seed company is doing in terms of providing specific background and cultivation instructions for those seeds, edible landscaping advise, and other useful growing tips. So instead of Googling madly and deciding what online sources to trust, you have everything in one place. The information is equally helpful for new gardeners and experienced gardeners. This component comes from Grow Journey's Education Director, Eliza Holcombe Lord, who is a permaculture teacher, master naturalist, and master gardener. "She knows more about plants, soil, insects, and the natural world than anyone we know," writes Aaron von Frank, Grow Journey's co-founder.

Bear with me for a copy and paste, to give you a taste of what I see when I log into my account. This is two thirds of the info for just one of my February seed packets, a mesclun mix. Every seed gets the same treatment (the photos are of my mescluns past, as the current batch is still germinating).

"...this [Spicy Spring Salad Mix] is our exclusive robust mix which we’ve curated to contain varieties that are unique and grow well together. We’ve put together a blend of traditional arugula, ‘Winter Red’ kale, ‘Bellesque’ endive, ‘Paris Island’ romaine (cos), ‘Brussels Winter’ chervil, ‘Pokey Joe’ cilantro, garden chives, ‘Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled’ cress, ‘Tatsoi’ spoon mustard, ‘Golden Frills’ mustard, and ‘Vivid’ choi. These are all fast-growing varieties that will mature at roughly the same rate to produce a colorful and richly flavored braising or raw mix. If you prefer your salads on the milder side, just mix it with the amount of lettuce you prefer to dilute the strength. TIP: If you don’t like cilantro, their seeds are easy to recognize and pick out since they are large and round (cilantro seeds are also known as coriander – the spice). In case you aren’t familiar with the appearance of whole coriander spice, we’ve included a photo to help you identify them below. The arugula and mustards will be sweet and mild after frosts and spicier once they age or the weather warms up.

"All of these varieties are tolerant of light frosts and grow best in cool fall, spring, or winter-covered weather (season extension supplies). In warm weather they become bitter, spicier, and bolt (flower and set seed). Mesclun is usually sown densely, like pepper sprinkled over soup. To make sure your seeds spread evenly, you can thoroughly mix the packet of seeds with around a pint of sand or potting soil before sprinkling it in your desired planting location (only mix in the seeds you plan to plant that day). If your soil is kept moist and fertile, you can start harvesting in as little as 3 weeks! Make sure to use scissors and trim the plants approximately 1-2 inches above the soil level so their crowns can resprout additional flushes of leaves. Harvest at any size (even sprouts, though 4-6 inches tall is ideal). You also have the option to space the seeds further apart if you prefer mature “heads” of leaves instead of giving a haircut to a “chia pet” patch of baby-leafed varieties. Mesclun is grown a little differently than regular greens, even though it is often the same species and varieties of seeds. Make sure you check out our instructions to get the best results.

"Mesclun mixes are one of the easiest and most aesthetic vegetables to mix into an edible ornamental landscape. They automatically include a rich palette of colors and textures, provide almost instant gratification with their short maturity, can be adjusted in size to fit almost anywhere, and they even have attractive flowers later in the season. You can squeeze a square foot patch of mesclun seeds between young transplants to make the bed look full while the transplants plod along to full size (by the time the summer veggies need the space, your mesclun can be removed) or you can get even more creative.

"For a really whimsical approach, take a long piece of yarn or other string and loop it in shapes and twists on the soil surface between the other vegetables in your bed until you like how it looks. Next, take your mesclun seeds and sow a 3 inch strip of them all along your piece of yarn. When the mesclun begins to grow, it will look like a ribbon elegantly woven between your other plants. If you prefer something less time consuming, try creating a stencil by cutting a shape out of a piece of posterboard or an old cardboard box panel. Lay it on the ground and sprinkle your seeds inside the shape. The larger the shape, or the more often you repeat it in the landscape, the more visual impact your mesclun plantings will have. Even just a simple circle could look great—if you use your circle stencil every 2 weeks when you succession sow your greens, your garden will have an eye-catching, uniform case of the polka dots in no time!

"Planted in a Container – Just like using mesclun in the landscape, there are few edibles as easy to turn into a pretty patio or front door accent as mesclun mixes in pots. If there were ever a “just add water” option for ornamental container gardening, mesclun would fit the bill. Since you know your mesclun greens will look great all by themselves, your biggest task is selecting a pot you enjoy. There aren’t many restrictions for colors or patterns either, since this mesclun comes in an array of pretty greens, blue-silver, chartreuse, and purple. It’s also got nicely textured spiky, feathery, rounded, and compound leaf shapes to prevent monotony. As long as your pot is at least 8 inches deep and has a diameter wide enough that you can plant your seeds approximately ½ inch apart from each other, you’re good to go.

"If you’d like to do something else to spice up your spicy mesclun, consider tucking other fully edible plants in a large container and then sowing your ring of mesclun around them. Pansies are a great option since they prefer the same cool growing conditions and their leaves and flowers have a faint wintergreen flavor. Pea shoots or podding peas are another perfect partner, perhaps with an attractive trellis or topiary ball to climb on. Another choice is to use larger specimens of greens in the center of your mesclun for size contrast (such as colorful kale or chard) or a plant that will eventually take over the pot when the mesclun fizzles out (just make sure to choose a plant that tolerates cool soil and has no toxic parts in case you accidentally clip its leaves when doing your salad haircuts). Some fully non-toxic options are strawberries, most culinary herbs, nasturtiums, borage, calendula, celery, fennel, or onions."

...they're not messing around.

Also new on the Grow Journey website is the Organic Gardening Supply Store, a curated Amazon store and effectively a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to garden organically. Want great organic, heirloom seeds, organic gardening learning resources, organic gardening products? All there, from live ladybugs to seed starting supplies to  gardening books.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Throw out the anchors

When  I sort through my photos every few days I find ones that make me smile. I love the daylight in this kitchen.

The spicebush orange loaf sinking, like the Titanic...

Bad, bad stuff happening in the world. Immeasurable suffering. These small pictures and what they represent keep me from floating away.


Monday, February 20, 2017

The days off

Weekend. We drove out to Fort Tilden. If you climb a hill on the barrier island you can see Manhattan.

And the bridge that hums like angry bees when vehicles drive over it. The weather was warm, but the world still said winter.

We stayed for a picnic. An elderly man skinny dipped nearby. He was tanned all over.

Then I came home to the soaking peas and fava beans. 

On the public holiday (Not My President's Day) I dug the overwintered greens back into the soil of the vegetable plot and added more oyster shell, for good luck. Then I planted two kinds of peas, the fava beans, some baby broccoli, 'Bel Fiore' chicory, Asian greens, 'Wasabi' arugula and watercress. I re-arranged some pots, moved a volunteer elderflower, planted some cinnamon ferns and Eremurus, was disgusted with some very poor quality Lowe's iris rhizomes (I know, what was I thinking?) and watered it all in with a kelp emulsion.

I found some forgotten carrots, too. Quick pickled with just salt and sugar they were very good.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The snow, the garden, the seeds, the life

Our snow blanket from late last week. It is melting, now, slowly, but while it lasted it was evenly beautiful.

Taken from our neighbors (two floors up). 

Last year's arugula crop is very happy in the snow, preferring it to dry, icy blasts. I posted these two pictures to Instagram (@66squarefeet), which is where you can find me every day, when I am not here. With a new book on the horizon I will have less time than ever for blogging, unfortunately, but Instagram serves as a mini blog and a very positive space, compared with Facebook's comparative whininess. And you can get a sneak peak a some of the recipes I am testing for Forage and Harvest.

The garlic! Last October I planted two rows of bone fide seed garlic from Botanical Interests, two rows of organic bulbs as well as elephant garlic from Whole Foods, and two rows from the local farmers market. Last year's garlic crop was very rewarding, despite the relative shade,* so I got a little carried away.

* Shade recap: Full shade from fall through April. Right now, at 10am, the first sliver of sun is touching a small space at the very back fence. Daily, as the sun rises higher in the sky, it creeps bigger. So the crops that need the most sun are planted from the back, forwards, towards the house. And, as I learned last year, right up against the house in 100% shade, I can grow ginger (and Thai basil). This year they will be joined by turmeric.

Boxes of seed have been arriving and soon the fun will begin. First in will be fava beans and peas. Then there is some crazy stuff. Like annual artichokes. And celtuce. A new 'Wasabi' arugula. Pink-spotted chicory. I'm going to try spy beans. And 'Magenta Spreen' lambs quarters. And a few other things, too.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Forage and Harvest Book

The end of 2016 brought some happy negotiations with a publishing company I have long admired. When a senior editor there asked me over the phone, Vermont to Cape Town, "Why Chelsea Green?" my answer was simple: "Integrity."

Because it matters more than ever. 

Chelsea Green has a reputation for producing books on subjects ahead of the curve, and are firmly on the appropriate side of important environmental and political issues.

Back home in Brooklyn recently, a contract arrived. I celebrated by sprinkling it with agathosma* salt and dried mugwort. For luck, of course. 

* Agathosma from my mom's Cape Town garden - very aromatic.

Forage and Harvest is a book for cooks, gardeners, and foragers. It represents years of research: foraging, reading, cooking, eating. And gardening. It will cover over 40 wild foods and contain over 400 recipes. There will be techniques for making simple essentials and kitchen basics like field garlic oil (above).

Wild salad recipes will contain feral and domestic ingredients. In some cases I will make horticultural arguments (with cultivation tips) for taming wild ingredients: they are excellent vegetables and fruits, and sometimes borderline in terms of sustainability. And not everyone can get out and forage. We should be growing them, both for our own consumption, and for market.

There will be many one-pot wonders, it's how I often cook at home, like this pokeweed ribolitta, above. There will also be soups and side dishes and stews, risottos and roasts, and lots of ideas for breakfast. I like breakfast.

Breads and syrups and jams and muffins will march through the pages, like this spicebush bread with black cherry syrup.

There will be cake. With foraged mahlab, from black cherries.

There will be meaty and hearty main courses, like these bayberry meatballs with sumac.

There will be fire.

And there will be esoteric and fragrant vinegars and ferments made with highly seasonal edible flowers, like black locust.

...and the ever popular and wildly fizzy elderflower cordial.

With just a few weeks before spring arrives, I am furiously transcribing recipes from a small mountain of Moleskine notebooks so that I can be ready to gather, photograph and test when foraging season begins. Friends have offered help from their own tracts of wild land, while many of my edible weeds will be sourced locally from community farms and forgotten wild places.

Forage and Harvest will be published in spring of 2018.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Cake days

It may be February but it is not too early to begin testing recipes for Forage and Harvest. With more than 400 on the cards, it's going to be interesting! And I need to rally neighborhood friends as potential guinea pigs. We will not be able to eat everything.

It has been the week of coughs, here at Chez Possum (yes, the possums are still around). First I went down with Trump Flu, then the poor Frenchman was felled, despite all precautions taken. In all the time I have known him he has never taken a sick day from work. Now he has taken two. Even as he coughs and sweats he works. Yes, I tried. Nothing I can do except drown him in thyme tea.

Above, a spicebush and apple cake, dense, moist, good food for cold days. And we have been promised some snow! At last.

Friday, February 3, 2017

And a happy Rooster to you, too

Lunar New Year in Chinatown. We joined the throng, even though we were really on a mission for tropical fruit to take to dinner that night. It was incredible to stand in that friendly crowd and to think about Donald Trump's lunatic proclamations. This epitome of an immigrant's celebration made the airport detentions and immigrant bans all the more absurd.

Stone faced NYPD escorted every dragon dancing troop. 

Children perched high. 

As we moved from the main processions' heart the streets thinned a little. We considered dumplings at our favourite Dim Sum Go Go but did not feel like waiting and moved on to shop under the Manhattan Bridge, where I bought longans and rambutans and dragon fruit.

Everywhere confetti and ribbons popped and showered.

Supper was with good friends, one who entered the United States as a refugee, only one American-born, most US citizens, some green card holders. Harvard (the former refugee) and Cambridge in the house (and me, of course, to tone things down).

In South Africa there are many refugees and immigrants, too, many from war torn and failing states. There is also xenophobia. Immigrants are resilient. They are determined. They have endured physical and psychological deprivation. They have left everything behind. They have survived. You want them in your gene pool. Because they are strong. And perhaps that is the problem. Do not fear strength. Embrace it. Make it part of you.

Yes, there is a lot of sweeping up after the Chinatown celebration. Click on this Ram Year post from 2015 to see.

This year of the Rooster is a challenge to us all. May we rescue something good from the flames.