SEATTLE — If you can't get to the grocery store to buy fresh produce, try growing your own at home! Gardening guru Ciscoe Morris shows us how to do it from his own garden.
Grow your own salad greens.
Nothing tastes better than a salad containing greens picked fresh from your home garden, and in spring while soil temperatures are cool, is the perfect time to sow the seeds of salad greens directly into the garden. They’re easy to grow as long as you have a sunny location and get them started before temperatures begin to rise.
You can’t have a green salad without lettuce, but unlike the pale, barely nutritious, bland tasting iceberg lettuce many of us grew up with, these days’ seed racks and catalogs offer extensive selections of lettuce varieties that are high in vitamin C, potassium, minerals and fiber. Plant a mix of varieties for a blend of color, texture and flavors. Butterhead lettuce forms a loose head of tender, succulent leaves. My favorite variety (probably because of its name) is ‘Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed’. Very slow to bolt (flower and go to seed) and sweetly flavored, the thick, fringed mint green leaves tinged in red are definitely frizzy looking, but the 8 inch head it forms doesn’t look like any drunken woman I’ve ever seen. Leaf lettuce, never forms a head and comes in a wide variety of colors including green, purple and red. ‘Red Sails’ is an outstanding variety with frilly dark burgundy leaves that are gorgeous in a salad, and have sweet and crisp flavor. Of course if you’re into Caesar salads, or simply want to add crunchy texture and mildly sweet favor to your salads, you’ll definitely want to sow a few varieties of romaine lettuce as well. ‘Devils Tongue’ is a real beauty with leaves that are dark red on top and yellowish green at the base.
While you’re at it, sow a few rows of spinach as well. Raw spinach leaves are delicious in salads, and are loaded with protein, minerals and vitamins. ‘Imperial Green’ is a sweet tasting, slow to bolt Asian variety with dark green arrow shaped leaves held upright, keeping them cleaner and easier to cut for harvest.
Finally make sure to sow plenty of Mediterranean and Asian greens, in your lettuce patch. Europeans have been adding Mediterranean greens to add zest and nutrients to their salads for centuries. A few favorites include Arugula (also known as roquette) sporting a spicy, peppery flavor; chicory with deep purple to red leaves and an earthy, mildly bitter taste; and endive (sometimes referred to as frisée) with attractive frilly green leaves and mildly tart flavor. Asian mustards are listed among the world’s healthiest foods, and the raw leaves add a touch of spicy mustard flavor to a salad. Three colorful varieties are ‘Red Giant’ with thick purplish red leaves, ‘Dragon tongue’ with crinkled green leaves, purple veins and ivory white midribs, and ‘Ruby Streaks & Golden Streaks’ with upright, narrow, wildly frilly leaves that are ruby red on top, and golden yellow on the bottom. Ed Hume Seeds (www.humeseeds.com) and Territorial Seed (www.territorialseed.com) both offer a number of delicious gourmet mesclun blends with varying combinations of lettuce, Mediterranean and Asian greens.
Leafy greens prefer moderately fertile soil and do best when temperatures remain under 75 degrees. Before sowing, work in one cup of an organic fertilizer with equal parts nitrogen, potassium and phosphate for every ten-foot row feet, or into a whiskey barrel sized container. Keep the soil moderately moist at all times. Sow seed every two weeks until about mid-April to prolong the harvest. Hand pick individual leaves as needed on a daily basis, but bear in mind that in about 3 weeks after leafy greens reach their prime, flavor usually begins to turn bitter, so harvest the entire plant at some point while the leaves are still sweet.
Early May is a great time to plant cabbage family vegetables such as kohlrabi, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts and most nurseries have a great selection of starts ready for planting.
A favorite of mine is Kohlrabi. The German name literally means cabbage-turnip and it forms an edible above ground bulb with delicate flavor and crunchy texture that is equally delicious raw on salads or cooked up in stir-fries. Plant starts about 6 inches apart and as is true of all cabbage family plants, Kohlrabi performs best in rich, well-fertilized soils with a pH of 6.5 to 7 (slightly acidic but almost neutral). if you didn’t apply lime in the fall, work a handful of organic bone meal and a half-cup of organic vegetable food into each planting hole. For tender, sweet flavor, harvest Kohlrabi when the bulbs are less than 2 inches in diameter. Allowed to grow bigger the texture can become woody. The record for the biggest kohlrabi bulb grown in Washington State is 29 pounds, but I recommend checking with your dentist before biting in to a honker like that!
Broccoli is an Italian word meaning ‘little arms’, but this delicious vegetable should have been named ‘big muscles’ because it is filled with nutrients and is high in vitamin A and D. It's also one of the easiest veggies to grow. Plant starts about 18 inches apart, and. make sure to keep the soil evenly moist. Drought stressed broccoli produces rough textured, less appetizing heads. Harvest when the florets are still tight, cutting the stem at a 45-degree angle. As long as you keep harvesting the side shoots regularly, your broccoli plant will keep pumping out delicious florets for weeks afterward. Eat lots of it, and whenever possible wear muscle shirts to show off your bulging biceps in public.
Mark Twain once wrote: “A cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.” This descendant of wild cabbage definitely graduated with top honors. It’s highly nutritious, low in calories, and loaded to the brim with antioxidants. Best of all, it’s delicious, and easy to grow. Plant starts as soon as possible. Cauliflower prefers cool, moist growing conditions. If stressed by unseasonably hot weather, it will form small heads, or bolt and go to seed. Be prepared to water and even shade the plants if unseasonably warm temperatures occur. Sun can discolor cauliflower heads, so either grow self-blanching varieties, or if the leaves aren’t sheltering the head by the time it’s the size of an egg, gather up the longest leaves, wrap them over the head and secure them with a rubber band. Harvest when the heads are good sized, before the florets begin to separate.
Finally, why is it that in almost every couple, one person loves Brussels sprouts, while the other detests them? I suspect many boomers are turned off by memories of growing up with moms like mine, who for some unknown reason, believed you had to boil the living tweetle out of them to make sure they were safe to eat. Unfortunately, over boiling Brussels sprouts brings out the stinky odor of glucosinolate sinigrinan, an organic compound in Brussels sprouts that contains sulfur. You'll gain a new appreciation of these little love nibbles if you wait to harvest until temperatures turn cold. The sprouts can easily withstand light frosts and cold snaps trigger changes that make them taste sweet as sugar. Then rather than boiling them, cut the sprouts in half, drizzle with melted butter, sprinkle with garlic, pepper and salt, and roast on the grill. Plant starts 24 inches apart and get them into the ground as soon as possible. Brussels sprouts don't tend to set sprouts well once the weather turns hot and dry. The worst thing about growing Brussels sprouts is that huge populations of aphids often find their way into the sprouts. Prevent this by washing the aphids off with a daily blast of water from the hose nozzle during the period when sprouts are forming. Take it from one who knows, accidentally serving ‘extra high protein’ Brussels sprouts to your sprout challenged spouse will not create a convert!
Tomatoes are the most popular home grown vegetable in the United States, but did you know that until the mid-1800's they were thought to be poisonous? Evidently a periodical put out by a New York women's club finally put the matter to rest when it reported that you could eat tomatoes; you just had to boil them for 2 hours first. Pasta sauce is invented!
When you buy tomato starts, the stocky ones do better than the tall, leggy ones. Choose a sunny location in well-drained soil, and mix a handful of organic tomato food and a half-handful of fish bone meal into the planting hole. Don’t be in too much of a rush to get them into the garden. Although the traditional time to plant tomatoes is around Mother’s Day, unseasonably cold weather can do permanent harm preventing tomatoes from performing well for most of the summer. If you're not going to protect newly planted starts with a cloche or other covering, acclimate them by putting them out in a sunny location during the day and bringing them back inside the unheated garage at night. Each evening, leave the plants out a bit longer before bringing them in. After a week of this process the starts should be acclimated and ready to be planted out and if we get a warm summer you’ll be harvesting by mid-June. Then be a risk taker and eat them raw!
By the way, if you have trouble getting your kids to eat salads, just tell them that they need to eat them if they want to grow up to be as intelligent, good looking and buff as me!