An Unexpected Vegetable: Hops Shoots

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When I first started gardening at my current property, I was an enthusiastic brewer and it seemed natural to plant hops vines where they could climb on my fences. Now I have been low-carb for three years and no longer brew beer, but this winter I learned from a British cookbook that hops shoots could be cooked and eaten like asparagus. They don’t taste like asparagus, of course, but they have their own wild, slightly bitter taste that I thoroughly enjoy. I wouldn’t start picking at them until the vines are about three years old. Then start watching for the shoots to emerge from the ground in the spring and, when they are about a foot high, snap off the top six inches. Rinse, sauté in some good butter, and enjoy.

By the way, if you are a brewer you will still be able to harvest hops for your brewing, because as long as you leave about six inches of each shoot intact, they will branch within a few weeks and continue growing.

A Succession of Lettuce

Gardeners tend to love the first salads of spring, and many of us long for greenhouses so that we can harvest all winter. But until I get the greenhouse of my dreams, I scheme about ways to have lettuce and salad fixings as early as possible.

This year I bought a roll of frost-blanket fabric from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and on a bright day in early February I dug up my lettuce beds and pots, composted them heavily, and planted them with various lettuces, planting broadcast-style rather than in rows. Half of the garden bed of lettuce I covered with a double layer of frost-blanket, secured with stones as weights. The other half was left open to the elements, and some was planted in big black pots about 2 feet high but wasn’t protected in any other way.

I supplied them with water (no need to remove the frost-blanket to sprinkle that bed) and otherwise left them alone.

On March 28th, about 6 weeks later, here’s what the beds look like:
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This bed was under the frost-blanket. The little lettuces are over 4 inches high, and harvesting can begin.
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This one is in one of the large pots. The lettuce is about 2 inches high, and won’t be ready to harvest for a few weeks.
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These are planted in the open ground. They have survived hard freezes and an 8″ snowfall and are very small, but undaunted.

From one afternoon of planting, I will be able to harvest lettuce from late March through May, with minimal effort. I will be doing this again next year, and will also plant a bed in October and try to hold it under frost blanket through the winter, to get a jump-started bed in the spring. We urban yard-farmers have day jobs and minimal free time, and this is one way to make the most of it.

Filling the Hunger Gap

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Our recent sunny warm days have brought the happy little Crysanthus crocuses up, and when they bloom I know that I’ve survived another winter and we are well on toward spring. But we are still in the time of year called the “hunger gap,” when in leaner times you would have eaten most of your preserved and stored food and fresh food would be a distant memory. In those days, just about the time that scurvy threatened, there would be a precious few fresh foods that would come through for you. I am no longer that interested in eating preserved foods, so the fresh greens of the hunger gap are increasingly important to me.
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Stinging nettles are not just a fresh green in earliest spring, they are a nutritional powerhouse. Vitality and well-being seem to course through your body as you eat them. Also, they’re delicious. They don’t occur naturally in Albuquerque, and I had to buy plants in order to have them, but I have two nice patches now. They need some water and mulch in our desert area, but given those they spread rapidly, so be ready to control them by digging out excess roots when they spread too far. They sting fiercely at any age, so don’t plant them near paths and have good heavy leather gloves (they sting right through fabric) ready for harvesting. Pick any time after they reach about 5-6 inches high, harvesting the top 2 or 3 inches. You will have about a month to harvest before they get tough, gritty, and nasty. Keep your gloves on while you wash them and drop them into boiling water. Once blanched for 1-2 minutes, their spines are softened and their venom is broken down, and you can treat them like spinach or any other mild green. I love them in omelets or just blanched and chopped with some butter and cream. Be aware that the raw nettles can sting animals as well as people, and severe allergic reactions to the sting are possible, so please do site them responsibly.
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Bladder campion is another weed that doesn’t occur naturally in central New Mexico. I bought seeds from an herb supplier. Sprinkle them in a place that you can keep watered in late winter. In hot sunny areas they will appreciate a little shade. They will be scant and spindly the first year, and there won’t be anything to harvest. The second year you can pinch off the tips when they are 6-8 inches tall to add to salads, and by the third year you should get enough to cook. They are among the tenderest and mildest of wild greens, and I prefer them in salads, but a quick sauté in a little good butter is nice too.
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Tronchuda is not a weed, but a Portuguese kale with a cabbagey but mild flavor and enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to make you crow. I bought my seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery a couple of years ago, and am selecting the ones that live through the winter for my Hunger Gap crop. You plant them in the spring, harvest the huge leaves for greens in summer and fall ( my chickens appreciate them too), and then leave the stem and the tuft of leaves at the top over the winter. They won’t survive if you don’t leave some leaves on. Those that survive will begin to leaf out again in February and provide you with thick, substantial leaves for stir-fries and cooking by early March. They are biennial and begin to shoot to flower by late March, and you can harvest the buds as a broccoli-like vegetable. Do bear in mind that if you want to save seed, you have to leave plenty of clusters to go to flower. Bees love the flowers and they are a nice early source of nectar. Collect the seed, dry them, and start the cycle over again.

Admitting What Didn’t Work

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As a gardener/ farmer with a city lot, my rate-limiting step is space, and things that don’t work need to be given up and the space given to something else. This time of year, I’m often busy dealing with things that didn’t work and freeing up their real estate for other purposes.

Take my effort to create an asparagus bed with minimal work. The spot where I wanted to establish this long-lived perennial was awful, not to put too fine a point on it. The workers who built the house parked their trucks on it and used it as a dumping spot for leftover cement and other choice debris. The ground was packed hard as concrete, weeds wouldn’t grow there, and it promised hours of backbreaking work.

I decided to use less laborious methods to heal that area, and I planned to take two years to do it. In year 1, I built a long, low compost heap on my future asparagus bed. I used straw and chicken manure, layered it up about two feet high, and it heated well. I ended up with about four inches of pure finished compost over the entire bed, which I left to cool off completely over the winter.

Year 2, I stirred the surface of the compost and planted daikon and oats. The idea was that the oats would provide organic matter and the daikon would pierce and break up the hard pan beneath and make drainage channels through it for the plantings to follow. I supplied water, and the mixture grew well and looked healthy. Again, I left it over the winter to break down.

This year, year 3, I ordered my asparagus starts. On the first warm day in early February, I went out to the bed-to-be with my spading fork, to gloat over the results of my strategy.

What I found was a thin mat of organic matter, bound together by roots, over impenetrable hard stuff. The oats had made a thick mat of roots a few inches thick, and the daikon had turned at right angles when they encountered the hardened mess beneath and grown sideways
along the bottom of the compost.

So, finally, I did what I had to do and double-dug the bed, using a pick to break up the hard conglomerate and incorporating organic matter 18 inches deep. It took an entire back-breaking weekend. Now my bed is mellowing, ready for the asparagus roots to be planted in March.

Does this mean that labor-saving methods of gardening don’t work? No, it just means that everything depends on the situation. Study your situation, and be aware that some areas can’t be repaired without putting in a lot of sweat equity. Is it worth it? If you want fresh food and want to leave a piece of land better than you found it, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”

The Seeds You Need

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Here in the high-desert Southwest, our cold-weather vegetables need to be planted by mid-March, and so late February is my last good chance to review my seed box and order what I need. This resulted in my sending off a frantic order for sugar snap peas. My attachment to them is strong, largely because I love English (shelling) peas but never find time to shell them. My favorite snap pea is the original Sugar Snap. This variety has some disadvantages: it climbs 5-6 feet and has to be provided with support, the pods have strings and need to be de-stringed before cooking, and it doesn’t have much in the way of disease resistance (although I have had no problems with disease.) It has a single incomparable advantage: flavor that none of the newer, neater varietals can live up to. For best flavor, the peas inside the pod have to be allowed to develop. Don’t pick them in the flat snow-pea stage. Then rinse and string the pods, which is a very quick job, and steam them to eat with butter, stir-fry with some scallion and ginger, or cook them in your own favorite way. Yum.

In my opinion they develop a soapy taste when frozen, so I don’t recommend “putting them by.” Eat mountains of the fresh article and give any extra to people you really like.
The important thing is, order those seeds now.

And don’t forget to plant extra so that you can cut pea shoots. Cut when they are 6-8 inches high, pea shoots are delicious in salads and stir-fries.

Joyous Imbolc! Notes on spring planting

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When I had a sheep farm, the old Celtic holiday Imbolc was very literal for me. Starting in early February, ewes’ milk flowed and life was everywhere. Today I have a different life in a new place, but this is still the time of year when life begins to flow. Out in the garden, there are warm days when the soil can be dug and manured. The garlic that you planted in the fall pops up at this time of year, and seems to sail through the cold weather to come. The earliest spinach, lettuce, and arugula can be planted as soon as spaces are ready for them. I put frost blankets over some of the patches and don’t cover others, so that they germinate at two different times and provide succession crops.

This is also the time to make sure that all your seed and nursery orders are in. In my last post, I talked a little bit about some vegetables that do very well here. Today I want to talk about nursery stock, and encourage you to try some things that you haven’t tried before. Since I eat a low carbohydrate diet, standard fruits are of very little interest to me, and my interest is in obtaining maximum antioxidants for minimum carbohydrates. Therefore, I concentrate on berries.

I have a few thornless blackberries plants, and last year I planted a lot of goumis. They may fruit this year, but more likely the following year, and I will report back. Three years ago I put in a lot of Crandall black currents, and they fruited heavily last year. They are an American blackcurrant variety native to the west, and do extremely well in central New Mexico. They require some water, but not a lot.The fruits have a nice flavor but are not very sweet, and benefit from a bit of sweetener added. I enjoy a handful of them as a tart treat when I am weeding. I do encourage you to try them. So far I have failed miserably with the English black currents that I love, and I think that in our area they would need a fair amount of shade to do well.

Another success has been the goji berry, or wolfberry. These are fairly drought tolerant, although they require a fair amount of water to get established. The berries taste like a tiny rather sweet tomato, and have large amounts of lycopene. The plants sucker a bit but don’t get out of hand, and do provide you with some offshoots for planting elsewhere.

The western elderberry that I planted a few years ago has flourished mightily, and I will be planting some black elderberries this year. Elders do well in our area if mulched heavily to shade and cool their roots, and they do need watering.

Raintree Nursery has a lot of uncommon fruits, as well as more conventional ones, and the stock that I’ve gotten from them has been very strong. Their catalog is fascinating, full of heirloom varieties, and great for fireside daydreaming.

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What seeds to order?

There is no doubt in my mind that seed catalogs are the most wonderful pornography in the world. Even people who generally enjoy the regular kind of pornography know that they don’t really want the depicted persons in their lives. But the pictures in seed catalogs? Ah, that’s a different story. Those tempting, enticing, dewy vegetables are impossible not to want. Even beets, which I don’t particularly like, look improbably appealing in the catalog photos. They look so good, in fact, that I begin convincing myself that I will find some way to cook them that I really, really like. As Ambrose Bierce said about second marriages, it’s the triumph of optimism over experience.

But what I want to talk about today is not how seed catalogs can lead you down the primrose path (they can, and they will,) but what things grow really well and should be ordered.
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Let’s start with arugula. It is this simple: you need arugula. It grows beautifully, resists drought and pests, is highly nutritious, and utterly delicious. Yes, you will have to supply it with some water. In our area of the Southwest, you have to supply anything with some water. But arugula takes less than most of the choice greens. Furthermore, you can plant it as soon as you get the seeds and get that chore out of the way. Have an area of bed well prepared, broadcast the seeds and rake them in or cover them, and keep the area watered a bit until they germinate later in the spring. Then, step up the water somewhat. They will grow pretty cleanly because they are planted close together and help hold each other up. Harvest by a sort of clear-cutting technique. Wash (repeatedly) and eat. They are deliciously flavorful unless you let them get too old in the spring (they get hot then,) and they make a very good bedding for roasted meats etc. on the plate. You will probably want to plant a few successive small beds of them, because they are a great resource to have in the salad crisper in your fridge.I like the Astro variety, which has flat tender leaves that are a little milder than average, but not much.
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You are going to want broccoli if you have the space to grow it, and it is a wonderfully productive vegetable, giving you a large central head in early summer and side shoots until fall if tended well. Variety is key. For our hot dry area I recommend Packman or Green Magic. Plan to start your own plants if you want these varieties. Both withstand our summers as long as you keep the water coming. If you are growing to grow it at all, plan to give it the room that it needs, a minimum of 18 inches each way between plants, and 24 inches is better. I give it 24 inches, and top up the soil between plants with fresh compost as it grows. It is one of the most nutritious things in your garden, so plan to feed it will so that it can feed you well.

If you can make room for pole beans to climb, they are very space-efficient, and the variety called Rattlesnake does especially well in the Southwest. Tastes delicious, too.

Lettuce is a must for your own lovely light crisp spring salads, and I suggest carefully perusing the varieties at Wild Garden Seeds. They grow in a hot dry area, and have many lettuces that are especially suited to the kind of conditions that we can offer them. Again, you’re going to have to fertilize their area well and water as they grow, but you will get incomparably fresh lettuce in return. Pay attention to their notes about flavor, which are reliable.

Other seed companies that I can recommend wholeheartedly are Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Territorial Seeds, and Bountiful Gardens. I have ordered repeatedly from them as well as from Wild Garden Seeds, and have never had a bad experience. I strongly advise against Ceedareck seeds, and when choosing a company to order from, try to find one that sells in commercial grower quantities as well as home garden quantities. Commercial growers know what works, and they do not tolerate bad seeds.

Naturally, when you are curled up by the woodstove on a cold windy evening, you will order a lot more varieties than you really need. This is not just about survival, it is about pleasure and joy and abundance. Go for it.

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