Downtown Dirt

Heat waves and cold snaps


This summer has been something else, hasn't it? My tomatoes are fruiting happily, my zucchini are starting to flower, and even my very-late-started cucumbers look like they might provide me with a few crisp slicers before the frost hits them. It's glorious. However, there's always a price to pay for nice weather. My spring-sown greens - spinach, rapini, arugula and the like - all bolted to high heaven when the hot weather hit. So I missed out on my rapini - one of my very favourite vegetables - again. I've sown some more arugula, and I'll try the rapini and spinach again later this summer for a fall crop. But still, my repeated failure on the rapini front is getting more than a little discouraging. Fall had better be good to me.

I may have had success with my garlic, but of course I can't tell until I dig it up. If it has formed decent-sized bulbs I'll be super impressed, since I don't think I got it in the ground until after Christmas (the recommended time for planting garlic being, oh, around October). Here's the thing, though: if my garlic is ready to come up within the next few weeks, as it looks like it will be, then what am I going to plant in my newly-emptied garlic bed? On one hand, it's exciting to have a bunch of garden space come available., especially now  that almost every corner of my garden is full to capacity. On the other, filling a bed in part shade with something that will be up and out of the ground by the time I have to plant next year's garlic (some time before Christmas this year, fingers crossed) is a lot of pressure. What grows that fast? Radishes and lettuce, I suppose. Nothing wrong with radishes and lettuce.

Just across the yard from my speedy garlic is my very confused broccoli. Actually, it's called purple sprouting broccoli. It's very common in British home gardens, where it is known as one of the few vegetables that grows through the winter to provide fresh eats in the early spring; normally, transplants are planted out in the spring so the plant can grow over the summer. Then the plant stands through the winter and produces lovely purple florets in March and April. Well, I planted mine out in spring, just like it said to on the package. Then the weather got really hot. Then it got really cold. Then it got really hot again, and now my purple sprouting broccoli is sprouting, about eight months ahead of schedule. Did the frost in June convince my purple sprouting broccoli that it had survived a winter? Will my broccoli keep on sprouting into the fall and winter, or will it bolt and fizzle out? And what am I going to eat in March?

Finally, my broad beans (fava beans) are attempting to live again. They flowered spectacularly in the spring, delighting the eye and perfuming the evenings with the most divine scent. I pinched out the young growing tips of each plant and ate them as luscious salad greens. Then it got hot out and almost all the flowers fell off before setting fruit. So for all those lush red blossoms, I'm going to get a handful of beans. Sigh. All hope is not lost, though; pinching out the growing tips has made the bean plants send out side shoots, which means more flowers.  Maybe these ones will have cooler weather when it comes time to set fruit, and I'll have... two handfuls of beans.

Oh, my garden. Confused, off-schedule, and in too deep. But would I have it any other way?

Someone, please think of the children!


If you ask any food gardener who is also a parent why they grow veggies, chances are they'll answer, "I want my children to know where their food comes from." We all love teaching our kids the joy of planting and picking and eating their own food. It's a science project, an artistic endeavour, an exercise in patience, a lesson in nurturing, and a way to burn off crazy kid energy (plus, having them help you hand-pollinate squashes could just form the basis for that big where-do-babies-come-from talk when the time comes). But behind every parent's wish to empower their children with horticultural knowledge is another simple desire: that our kids just eat their freakin' vegetables!

My eldest child, who is now 8 1/2, has always been what you would call a "good eater." She has her taste preferences - she doesn't like peppers or mushrooms, but overall, she's cool with veggies. Brussels sprouts, sunflower shoots, sorrel leaves, beets, she'll eat the lot of it. If I had never had another child, I would probably be insufferably smug, thinking that it was my superior parenting, my attention to foodie detail, and my excellent role modelling that made her this way.

There's nothing like a second child to teach you a little humility. My 3 1/2 year old is that kid, the one who only likes food in the beige-to-faux-cheddar-orange colour range. He will eat corn on the cob in season, but he's very picky about quality. He'll eat strawberries on occasion, but only if they're "fixed," which means "not cut up." Sometimes he'll nibble the tops off some steamed broccoli, if he's being an elephant and the broccoli is a tree, but he has to get down on the floor to do it. Frozen peas (while still frozen), tinned peaches, applesauce, maybe half a banana at a time... and that's about it.

The littlest guy, who just turned 2, is happy to eat nothing but raw fruit, and I'm happy to let him do it, so long as I can sneak a little protein into him in the form of yogurt or peanut butter. Cooked vegetables are pretty much always rejected, and he's still too young for most crunchy raw veggies to not pose a choking hazard. So... more frozen peas. Yeah.

I can't blame them for being fussy. Most of the imported produce we get here throughout the year tastes like wet cardboard. We grownups have the strength of will to force down any old food if someone can convince us it's good for us. Kids are more elemental than that. They want their food to taste good, and aren't about to waste time on anything that doesn't meet their standards.

So thank goodness for garden-fresh summer produce, which my kids, no matter how picky, will scarf down happily and proudly.

Not all of it, of course. They aren't impressed by my bronze fennel or my garlic scapes. They don't care whether I'm attempting to grow eggplants this year, or about my seven varieties of basil. Lovage and lemon balm? Pffft.

But there are veggies that always go over super well. Here are my kids' favourites in the garden:

  • Peas and beans. I'm growing a ridiculous number of beans this year, because I know they'll get eaten, either right away, or over the winter if I blanch and freeze then. The peas don't even make it into the house most of the time, being devoured straight off the vine. Both crops grow quickly, and the seeds are big, which makes planting them gratifying for little, impatient people. Also, my kids like pea shoots, which grow fine indoors or in a shady spot in the garden.
  • Tiny tomatoes. I'm trying "Hundreds and Thousands" and "Hahms Gelbe Topftomate" at my house this year. Miniature veggies seem to go over extra well with miniature humans. My youngest can easily polish off a pint of grocery-store cherry tomatoes if I turn my back, so I'm going to put these up on a shelf, and I'm hoping that the extra sweetness and cuteness of homegrown tomatoes will encourage my middle guy to eat them, too.
  • Edible flowers. I'm not sure whether edible flowers have much of a nutritional profile, but they're fresh and they grow, so I figure they must be good. Weirdly, it's my middle guy who loves these the most. I let the edible wildflower Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) grow wherever it springs up in the back yard. I also grow violas and violets, calendula, nasturtium, mallows, and tuberous begonias for munching on. Herb flowers like chives and oregano are tasty in salads, as are flowers from arugula, Chinese broccoli, and anything else in the cabbage family. These flowers are all excellent for attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects, so they're educational as well as delicious.
  • Radishes. My eldest likes the roots, my middle guy enjoys the young thinnings, and I like the seed pods. The little guy is indifferent, but he may come around.
  • Fancy lettuce. I'm hoping that freckled leaves and curly red ones will encourage the consumption of salad. Fingers crossed. My kids all like raw spinach from the garden, too, so I'm growing some regular spinach and some with red stems.

What my kids like and what anyone else's kids like may be totally different. My guys don't get excited about growing carrots; the tiny seeds, the slow germination, and the summer-long wait make carrots less of a thrill than I would have thought (I still grow a few, though). My kids like planting zucchini, with its big, easy-to-handle seeds, but they're not all that interested in eating it. I'm not holding my breath for them to go crazy over the parsnips and kale. More for me, I figure. Who knows, though? Perhaps this will be the year that my children and I sit down to a big plate of steamed rapini together. Or maybe they'll at least try it.

(If you're looking for a great book about growing veggies with kids, I've found The Family Kitchen Garden really useful. It's a British publication, so the planting and harvesting dates are a little different from ours, but it is very well-written, funny, and realistic.)

Lazy in the fall, happy in the spring


Last weekend, I had the extreme good pleasure to attend a workshop on extending your growing season. The workshop facilitator was Dan Rubin, a home vegetable gardener who, through tactical use of raised beds, glass panes, and plastic row covers, has grown a whole lot of impressive eats in a location which is, essentially, a salt-lashed, wind-beaten, topsoil-less bit of rock (and I say that with love - I was born there and I adore the place). As the workshop participants wandered Dan's garden, and the garden at Points East Bed and Breakfast next door, we identified the plants which, despite having been left outside for the harsh coastal winter, were doing just fine: kale, huge leeks, sorrel, thyme, Egyptian onions... perhaps not looking quite as lush as they had been in October, but still mighty impressive.

Now, my own garden is also bursting with vegetables that survived the winter, however, in my case, most of the veggies are still there because I did such a miserable job of tidying the garden last year. Because really, aside from putting in a new batch of garlic, I didn't do a thing. Even the garlic I managed to mess up - I don't think I got around to planting it until January some time, so if I get decent heads it will be against all odds (and purely down to my excessive application of compost and prayer... and I'm an atheist, so it's really about the compost...).

I've been picking at the sorrel and the chives for a little bit now, and I ate what was left of the droopy kale. The oregano popped up, and my husband and I were compelled to fire up the grill for our inaugural spring "souvlaki plate" dinner.

And then I found something I hadn't anticipated. In the very messy bed in the front yard, there was this weedy-looking thing that had remained green under all the snow (and under the Christmas tree that we had stylishly discarded on top of it). I didn't give the weedy thing much thought, because I couldn't remember what I had planted there. But then it struck me: arugula! Survivor arugula! Survivorugula!

Sure enough, the weedy-looking stuff was the arugula that I had planted last year and which, in the terrible weather we had, didn't make much of an appearance at all. Here it had been, silently waiting out the cold, and then bursting into leaf as soon as the snow melted. It was tender, sweet, and possibly the most delicious arugula I have ever eaten.

I harvested a bunch of it, along with some sorrel, chives, Egyptian onions, and some lemon thyme (a little leggy from spending the winter in the kitchen window, but still tasty). Then I boiled some new potatoes until they were tender, while sauteeing my harvest with some of the last summer garlic. When the potatoes were done and the greens just wilted, I tossed it all together.

A meal fit for royalty, I tell you!

Since then, I have picked at the arugula a little more - I used some for greens in our burgers last night (along with some fresh herb mayo that I whipped together using some more of the chives and lemon thyme, with a generous grinding of black pepper). It won't last long, I'm sure; apparently overwintered arugula bolts at the slightest provocation. That's okay, though, because I have more arugula coming up in the cold frame to take the place of this stuff. I don't think it could possibly be as lovely, though.

This fall, I will definitely make sure I have some arugula overwintering somewhere in the garden. And I'll write down where I put it, too, so I don't end up wasting precious days asking, "What the heck kind of weedy thing is that?"

Tasty, tasty tubers!


Some of you may remember my tale from a couple weeks back about how my one-year-challenge to eat something I had grown or foraged every day for a full year was a total failure, due to my having been hijacked by hormones through the fall and winter. Since then I've been back on track, eating delicious sprouts and microgreens, which I have been tending lovingly in their jars and recycled containers that deck my windowsills. I've sown some seeds for spring and summer vegetables. I've been snipping and clipping from my potted rosemary, lemon thyme, and sage plants, and in no time at all I'll be gathering teapots of mint and lemon balm from the weedy recesses of the back yard. One other plant has emerged to help me get through a few days of homegrown eats, too: the knobbly, delicious Jerusalem artichoke.

If you've never eaten a Jerusalem artichoke, you're certainly not alone. I've never seen them in a grocery store in Newfoundland, and only a handful of local farms grow them. I first ate them in Montreal when I lived there, and only in restaurants, so I had never cooked them myself until this week, when I dug them up from the frosty dirt where they had been hiding out since last fall.

Jerusalem artichokes aren't really artichokes: they're sunflowers, native to the eastern part of North America, where they were a staple food long before the Europeans showed up and took them back with them as novel delicacies. There is a lot of lore around the name, and the accepted explanation is that the "Jerusalem" bit comes from the Italian girasole, which means "sunflower," and that the "artichoke" bit comes from French explorer Samuel de Champlain's description of the tuber's flavour as being like an artichoke, although, frankly, I don't get the similarity.

So what do they taste like? Sweet, nutty, crunchy when raw (really crunchy, like, water chestnut crunchy), potato-y when cooked (although they tend to go mushy very quickly when boiled, so steaming, roasting, and pan-frying are recommended). They're really very yummy.

There are two caveats to growing Jerusalem artichokes. The first is that they are notoriously invasive, so you might not want to plant them directly in the ground. Apparently, even the smallest bit of tuber left behind will sprout again, which is all fine and good if you have the time and energy and wherewithal to dig them up year after year until the end of time, but if you move, the next people to inhabit your garden might be less than impressed. The second is that Jerusalem artichokes are sunflowers, and sunflowers can suck a lot of lead out of your soil, so if you live in an area with dodgy dirt, you might want to grow them in a container. I tried to come up with some kind of cool planter option last year, but as the spring crept on I ran out of time, and just flung a bag of soil on the ground, cut a big hole in the top and some drainage holes around the bottom, and stuck my seed tubers down in it. The yield wasn't huge, but since I had them in close quarters, in a shady spot, during the most miserable summer in recent memory, I'm impressed they did anything at all, really. This year, my husband and I are going to dig a trench for them and line it with something they can't get out of, in an area of the yard where they'll get more sunlight, and where they'll have a bit more space to spread their roots.

Oh, there's a caveat to eating them, too: apparently some people have a hard time digesting them, and thus the tubers have earned the nickname "fartichokes." Ahem. Now, I can report that I have had no such reaction, and I am very happy about that. British garden writer Alys Fowler solves the wind problem by cooking her Jerusalem artichokes with winter savory. I may have escaped a gassy fate through my negligence: I've read that leaving them in the ground for a hard frost or two helps them convert the troubling carbs, making digestion easier. A full winter of freeze and thaw seems to have sorted them out nicely.

Jerusalem artichokes can grow quite tall - over 20 feet in warmer climes, but easily six or eight feet here. Mine didn't flower last year (no sun, no sunflowers), but the flowers are cheerful and yellow when they do appear. They attract all kinds of helpful insect friends. They're so pretty, actually, that Monet painted them. The variety I grew is called Passamaquoddy Potatoes from Hope Seeds, but unfortunately they're not available this year. If you can get your hands on some Jerusalem artichokes from a local grower, I suggest you toss a few in some good soil and see what happens. Come springtime, you may well be thanking yourself.