Cover Crops Boost Soil Power

To Build Soil And Foil Weeds, Sow Fall Cover Crops

Though summer is fading, the still-warm days of fall are an excellent  time to do all sorts of garden chores, from planting trees and shrubs to prepping new beds and lawns. If you’re making new beds, refreshing old ones, harvesting crops and renovating vegetables bed, or planning to install a new lawn, you may find yourself with a goodly expanse of undeveloped soil right about now.

Rather than spending the winter fending off weeds, why not try a cover crop? Cover crops are temporary plantings, useful but doomed to die. They serve several functions, from erosion control and weed suppression to building the tilth and nutritional value of your soil. Cover crops can be tailored for many purposes, and there are all sorts of recipes for cover crops that can help or hinder almost any condition you can think of.

Rolling Over In The Clover

Some blends get pretty fancy, but even a single-ingredient cover crop can work wonders on depleted soils. For instance, nutrient-poor earth can be juiced up fast with a planting of
crimson clover. This handy creeper thrives in clay or sandy soil and takes drought in stride (it’s less vigorous in wet spots, however). Simply by growing, clovers can boost soil nitrogen levels measurably. That’s because the clovers are nitrogen fixers, plants that can draw nitrogen from the air and store it in the plump nodules in their roots. When we turn under or till in red clover next spring, the stored nitrogen will be released into the soil.

Other classic cover crops for lawn areas include a blend of winter rye and vetch. Rye offers strong roots that hold soil in place during winter rains, tall stems that shade out weeds, and plenty of green manure to recycle come spring. Like clover, vetch is a nitrogen fixer that will leave your soil in much better condition once it’s tilled in. This is a pretty crop combo, swaying gently in winter winds, and birds love it for the cover it offers (I often see quail strolling through the rye).

Oats Peas Beans And Barley Grow

Both Austrian field peas or fava beans are terrific soil builders for vegetable beds. Field peas are coarse, mealy legumes used to feed pigs, so don’t try to add these to your dinner menus. They grow best in decent soil with good drainage. Fava beans are also rather coarse plants with broad, flat beans. In Italy, cooked fava beans are served with olive oil and plenty of garlic. Those accustomed to the flavor love it, but if you didn’t acquire it in childhood, you are unlikely to find favas delectable (perhaps I am biased but I think they’re icky). Better to consider them as fodder for soil building, a role they fill brilliantly. Favas grow well in clay soils and are more tolerant than field peas of soggy spots.

Any of these cover crops can be sown now and left to grow all winter. Next spring, you can turn or till them under before they have a chance to complete their growing cycle. The idea is to chop them before they set seed, so you don’t fight volunteer cover crop plants all summer. When you are ready to grow your real crop, whether it’s a lawn, vegetables, or ornamentals, simply turn or till the cover crop under. Wait a week or so for the cover crop to break down, then you can rake out your beds and plant right over it.

Sow Now And Whack Often

In the vegetable garden, you can turn under or till what’s left of your summer crops right in place. Wait a week or so, then sow a cover crop while the ground is still warm. Rake out the soil, then sow your cover crop like grass seed. To be sure you get even coverage, make two passes over each piece of ground (moving in opposite directions each time). Next, rake the seed in a bit (most seed sprouts best when covered to its own depth, usually about 1/4 inch.) Water it well and keep it moist. Most seed will sprout in a week or so, giving you decent coverage in a month. Naturally, growth is slow during the cooler months, but you’ll be impressed with how much happens even in winter. In fact, you may need to weed whack every month or so to keep legume cover crops at the optimum height of about 18 inches. (Otherwise they can turn into a tangled mess.)

When you are ready to turn or till your cover crops in spring, reduce them to stubble with a weed whacker or machete first. When I gardened on a recently reclaimed field, we used an old fashioned scythe to cut the rye and wheat cover crop. This has a long curving blade (just like the grim reaper’s) attached to an even longer and more curving handle called a snathe. It’s quite scenic to watch somebody else use a scythe–the action looks soothing and utterly medieval. However, the repetitive, swinging motion required is harder than it looks. The real trick is to cut the wheat or rye blades so the stalks fall in neat bundles instead of messy tangles. That way, they can be gathered into the classic sheaves to dry. Lacking a scythe, you just whack the tall stems and till or turn under the roots. In a warm year, we can sow any of these winter cover crops through October, but the sooner we get them in the ground, the better they will grow.

Posted in fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Weed Control, Winterizing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Restocking The Kitchen Garden

Feeding The Garden & You

The rains are back, and though the days are still beautifully warm, night temperatures are dropping once again. As summer gently fades away, the garden soil is still warm enough to make a lovely nursery bed for young vegetables. If you enjoy cooking with fall and winter crops, this is the time to tuck in new starts of greens and other cool season vegetables.

Greens are the backbone of my winter garden, since we eat them daily in salads, soups, and stir fries. I love all kinds of kale, especially an Italian kind called Lacinato. Its ruggose, crinkled leaves have a lovely, almost sweet flavor and taste terrific in salads as well as all manner of cooked dishes. Redbor is another favorite kale with frilly red foliage. Strip the little leaflets off the main stems and toss them in salads, sandwich fillings, or stir fries for a tender treat. The offspring of these two is called Lacinato Rainbow, and it has crunchy, lacy foliage that runs from rose and purple to soft blue-green.

Summer’s End Salads

Raw kale has a bit of a bite that is pleasantly mellowed by sweet, earthy, golden beets. This raw salad combines them with creamy white beans or chick peas (garbanzo beans) and a lively mint, lime and ginger dressing. Grate the ginger root with a microplane grater and watch your fingers!

Snappy Raw Beet and Kale Salad

1/4 cup avocado oil
1 organic lime juiced, zest grated
2 tablespoons minced mint leaves
1-2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger root
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cooked white beans or chick peas
1 golden beet, peeled and coarsely grated
(about 2 cups)
4 cups finely ribbon-sliced Black Magic kale
1/4 cup chopped Walla Walla Sweet onion

In a serving bowl, combine oil, 1 teaspoon lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon lime zest, mint, 1 teaspoon grated ginger, and 1/8 teaspoon sea salt, adjusting lime juice and zest, ginger, and salt to taste. Add grated beet, kale, and onion, toss gently and let stand for 15-20 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

An Even Crunchier Kale Salad

This crunchy, savory salad is a perfect complement to grains and roasted vegetables. For a deeper, bolder flavor, crumble in some soy bacon (we like the Morningstar kind) or a little nutritional yeast (1-2 teaspoons). Avocado oil has a clean flavor and rich quality that lets other flavors shine without being overwhelmed.

Crisp Tomato Kale Salad

1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 shallot, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups little kale leaflets, stripped from main stem
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup basil, stemmed and sliced into ribbons
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2-3 strips soy bacon, cooked (optional)
1-2 teaspoons nutritional yeast (optional)

In a serving bowl, combine oil, shallot, sea salt, kale and kale, toss gently and let stand for 10 minutes. Add basil and tomatoes and bacon or nutritional yeast if using, toss to combine and serve. Serves 4.

Renew and Refresh

Before planting, replenish weary soil with a blanket of compost mulch. Wherever beds were emptied by recent harvest, spread 4-6 inches of mature (aged) compost. Anywhere you want to sow seeds of fast growers like spinach, lettuce, kale and arugula, blend the refreshing compost in with the top few inches of soil, then top dress with an extra inch or two to keep weeds from sprouting.

Give the rows plenty of room, sowing your seeds and placing starts of lettuce, leeks and radishes at least a foot apart (18 inches for most greens, 2 feet for kale and Brussels sprouts) to allow for rapid growth in the warm autumn air. Until fall rains arrive for good, you’ll need to keep the seedlings and starts evenly moist. Plan on watering on hot days, at least three times a week through the month (or longer).

Onward With Onions

This is also a good time to set out onions sets. Look for Walla Walla Sweet onions as well as yellow and white onions. Both garlic and shallots make good fall crops as well. Leeks are a classic fall and winter crop, improving in flavor after frosty nights. These slow growers take at least three months to size up, so seedlings set out  now won’t find their way to your kitchen until late winter or early spring. However, you can set out sturdy starts now and expect to harvest them around Thanksgiving.

It’s too late to start Brussels sprouts from seed, but starts should size up nicely. If your Brussels sprouts tend to get aphids, try growing any of the splendidly handsome Italian versions like Rubine and Red Ball, with red stems and sprouts. As tasty as they are lovely, these sprouts hardly ever suffer pest damage.

A Gaggle of Greens

If you missed the window for sowing lettuce, arugula, and other greens, you should be able to find starts now at your local nursery. These are never available until the summer heat starts to dissipate, since they prefer growing in cooler conditions. Set your starts in now and you’ll be enjoying fresh salads through fall and into winter.

Spinach loves the cooling nights and warm days of fall and you can often get several crops in if you sow short rows every two weeks for the next month or so. You can also get in a few short rows of arugula, corn salad, and radicchio if you sow them right away. Otherwise, look for starts and set them a foot or more apart for fall and early winter harvest.

Quicker From Starts

Many of the Oriental greens like Chinese mustard, joi choy, and pak choi will size up quickly from a late summer planting and be ready to eat within about 40 days.  Tender Florence fennel bulbs take about 60 days to fatten up from starts, but can be left in the ground  to harvest all winter.

One of the most beautiful winter crops is chard, of which there are many lovely forms. Some of the prettiest Swiss chard strains include Aurora, Bright Lights, and Celebration Mix, all of which boast gorgeous stems and leaf veins in glowing ruby, hot yellow, sizzling pink, and sunset orange, contrasting with deep and softer green foliage. The young leaves retain their color well and are delicious sliced into fine ribbons for raw salads or used to garnish soups and stews.

Posted in composting, fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Recipes, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Perfection Of Peaches

Roasted Fruits And Roots

When it’s peach pickin’ time in Washington, west-siders drive across the Cascade mountains to score crates of plump, perfect peaches from east-side growers. Several of my friends bought over 100 pounds each, happily sharing the bounty with single folks like me. Of course, though I am technically “single” I am surrounded by people much of the time. I really don’t think of myself as a poor, lonely widow, and was amazed and rather touched when I was gifted a big bag of fruit by a kind friend who said he just knew I wouldn’t buy a box “anymore”.

Well, indeed, I would not buy a 44 pound crate of anything these days (except maybe yarn), but I’m delighted to have about 10 pounds of succulent, peachy culinary challenge. Some I blanched, peeled, sliced and froze in single layers on parchment paper, then packaged in freezer wrap for winter pies and crumbles. After making few pots of jam and peach/mango chutney, there were just three left. Here’s what happened:

Roasted Fruits And Roots

This combo may sound unlikely, but the result is scrumptious. Slightly chewy on the outside, creamy on the inside, each piece retains its own flavor yet also melds with the others. If you want to nudge it further toward the savory, dust the roasted bits with smoked paprika or chili powder. To make it frankly sweeter, gently toss with a little honey or maple syrup and a tad of vanilla. Serve warm or at room temperature, offering the savory version with cooked grains and leafy greens, or drizzle the sweeter version with a bit of Fra Angelico and chopped hazelnuts and call it dessert.

Roasted Fruits And Roots

2 tablespoons avocado oil
4 cups coarsely chopped ripe peaches
4 cups coarsely chopped Rainbow carrots
2 cups coarsely chopped sweet potatoes
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (option 1)
1 tablespoon maple syrup (option 2)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (option 2)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine first four ingredients on a rimmed baking sheet and gently toss to coat with oil. Spread in a single layer, sprinkle with salt and bake until slightly caramelized (20-25 minutes), stirring once or twice. Season to taste with either option or serve as is. Makes about 4 cups.

Peach Oatmeal Breakfast Crunch

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups coarsely chopped ripe peaches with their juice
1/4 cup coarse coconut meal (unsweetened)
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 cups rolled oats (old fashioned oatmeal)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Put 1 tablespoon butter into an 8 x 8 inch baking pan and set in oven to melt. When melted, spoon peaches and juice into pan, set aside. Blend remaining butter with coconut meal and brown sugar, then blend in oatmeal, making a coarse meal. Spread evenly over peaches and bake until crisp (30-40 minutes). Serves at least one.

A Peachy Chutney

Mangoes and peaches are usually available during the same period, but if ripe mangoes are scarce, I use dried mango “cheeks” instead. Soak the brittle slices in a little hot water until they plump up, then chop them into bite-sized bits before stirring them into the chutney. Add them at the same time as you would fresh or a bit later if you want the mango flavor to stand out more. Skip the ginger if you don’t like it (!?!) or add more if you do.

Peach Mango Ginger Chutney

1 tablespoon avocado oil
2 large onions, halved and thickly sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried, ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups chopped firm peaches
2 cups peeled, chopped fresh or dried mango
2-3 inches fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
1 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup minced candied ginger (optional)
1 cup apple cider vinegar

In a deep saucepan, heat oil with onions, garlic, cayenne pepper and sea salt over medium high heat until barely soft (3-5 minutes). Add remaining ingredients, bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low and cook, stirring often, until soft and thick (45-60 minutes). Bottle and seal as for jam or use fresh, refrigerating leftovers for up to 2 weeks. Makes about 3 cups.

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Adorable Gherkins

Making The Most of Mexican Sour Gherkins

This year, all kinds of edibles enjoyed the extra warmth, rewarding us with bumper crops. Perhaps the most fun are the tiny, super cute little melons called Mexican sour gherkins. For most of my culinary life, gherkins have meant baby cukes that were brined into crispy little pickles. They might turn up on an appetizer plate or be served with cheese and crackers, but never made the foodie hit parade.

Mexican sour gherkins are not really cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), but rather bitty little melons (Melothria scabra) that hail from South and Central America. They exactly look like tiny, doll-sized watermelons, but have that distinctive cucumber crispness along with a sweet-tart, citrusy flavor that makes them the new darling of the fancy drinks world. Amy Stewart notes in her Drunken Botanist book and blog, that they meld well with gin in cool, summery concoctions.

Decorative Danglers

The fine textured foliage and skinny, twining stems make Mexican sour gherkin seem like a natural climber, but in my garden, it’s more of a tumbler. In the past, that’s led to some sorrow since slugs  clearly love these little guys. However, many gardeners have succeeded in getting this rambler to scramble up a trellis covered with chicken wire, so perhaps I’ve just not been persistent enough with the coaxing.

This year, I was given the hint to grow them in hanging baskets, so they can be both slug free and prolific. I saw amazingly productive plants grown this way in a large greenhouse, where the plants cascaded almost eight feet from the planters to picking height. Next season, I’ll try growing them on my upper deck and picking them from below, perhaps over a hanging sheet of chicken wire….

Easy To Please

In any case, when they are happy, Mexican sour gherkins grow with ease, with few pests (apart from those slugs). They do fine in any good garden soil, and though, like all melons, they prefer warm summers, they are more tolerant of cool temperatures than the big guy watermelons. If you can grow other melons, you can grow these cute little puppies.

Salads Galore

That cucumberish, lemony flavor makes Mexican Sour Gherkins a natural fit for salads of many kinds, from fruity to leafy. Here are a few especially tasty combinations to try:

Crunchy Summer Salad

2 cups chopped cucumber
2 cups peeled, cubed watermelon
1 cup Mexican sour gherkins
1 cup blueberries
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup stemmed Italian parsley
2 tablespoons minced mint
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Gently toss all ingredients and let stand for 20 minutes before serving. Serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 4-6.

Spunky Summer Salad

1 cup Greek plain yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 head Butter lettuce, torn in pieces
2 cups chopped cucumber
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 cup halved Mexican sour gherkins
4 green onions, thinly sliced

Combine yogurt, garlic, basil, and sea salt, set aside for at least 10 minutes. In a serving bowl, combine remaining ingredients, toss with yogurt dressing and serve. Serves 4-6.

Perfect Poaching

If you find salmon hard to cook, try low-liquid poaching. This gentle technique is fast and foolproof, resulting in velvety, flavorful fish that’s never dry.

Perfect Poached Salmon

With Mexican Sour Gherkin Salsa

For the fish:

1 pound wild salmon fillet, cut in four pieces
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice or dry white wine
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Rinse fish well and place skin side down in a wide, shallow pan. Add lemon juice to a depth of about 1/8 inch, splashing some on the fish. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper. Bring liquid to a simmer over medium heat. Cover pan, reduce heat to low an simmer for 8-10 minutes, to interior temperature of 136 degrees F. (usually 10 minutes for inch-thick fillets). Add a little water if need be (usually not). Remove from heat, uncover pan and let stand for 10 minutes. Serve with salsa (see below). Serve four.

For the salsa:

Mexican Sour Gherkin Salsa

1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1 ear fresh sweet corn, kernels trimmed
1 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
1 cup chopped Mexican sour gherkins
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
1/4 cup stemmed fresh cilantro
2-3 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped (use gloves)

Combine first 6 ingredients, then add lime juice, sea salt, and jalapeno to taste. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving. Makes about 2 cups. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days.

Posted in Gardening With Children, Pets & Pests In The Garden, Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments