Plant of the week: Cilantro/Coriander

Cilantro and coriander are the same plant; the leafy green cilantro is an herb, and the coriander seed is a spice.  Cilantro leaves contain antioxidants, essential oils, vitamins, and dietary fiber.  It is a great source of vitamin K and potassium.

 

 

Ideal growing conditions

Direct sow cilantro seeds 6-8 inches apart in well-drained soil that receives full sun, or partial sun if you live in a hot climate.  Cilantro bolts easily and quickly, and does not do well in the heat of the summer, but if you let it bloom and produce seeds, it will reseed itself during the season (and in the spring).  If you do not let it go to seed, re-seed it every few weeks to maintain a steady crop.

Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate; don’t overwater them once they are established.  You may want to pinch back young plants to encourage their growth.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

To harvest cilantro, pick the taller leaves, and leave the shorter leaves to mature.  Or, you may pull the entire plant.  To freeze the leaves, place them in a Ziploc bag, or encase them in ice cubes or cubes of oil.  To dry cilantro, hang the plant upside down in a paper bag in a warm, dry place, then store the dried leaves in a container.

Cilantro is best eaten fresh, though.  To maximize flavour, add it to dishes at the last minute.  It is delicious when added to Mexican or Indian dishes, and soups.  Try adding it to guacamole or hummus.

To harvest coriander, hang the entire plant, seeds and all, upside down in a paper bag in a dry, warm place.  Once the plant is dry, shake it to remove the seeds if they do not fall off.  Place the dry seeds in a container.  You can also store fresh coriander seeds in the refrigerator.

Friends

Cilantro attracts beneficial insects to the garden and discourages pests such as aphids and potato beetles.  To use it for pest control, let it develop blossoms.

It’s also a good companion for:

  • Asparagus
  • Basil
  • Beans
  • Mint
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes

 

Foes

  • Fennel

Fun facts

  • Cilantro has been used for centuries in many cuisines across the world, though it is thought to originate from North Africa or the Middle East.
  • It is used as a sleep and digestion aid.

Garlic scapes

Although we have to wait until fall to harvest garlic bulbs, in spring, garlic plants produce another delight that we can use–scapes.  These tender, mild-flavoured loops emerge from the central, tough stalk of hardneck varieties of garlic.  When you remove them, the plants direct their energy into the bulbs rather than into producing bulbils from the end of the scapes.  Bulbils can be planted to grow new garlic, but this process takes a few years.

When to pick them?

Pick scapes before they circle onto their second loop.  If left too long, they become tough and wooden.  You can cut them or snap them off where they break naturally.

How to use them

  • Chop them and add them to salads.
  • Sauté them and add them to stir-fries, or any dish that calls for garlic.
  • Toss them with oil, salt, and pepper, and grill them.
  • Pickle them.
  • Make scape pesto.
  • Add them to soup.
  • Be creative!

 

Strawberry shortcake

It’s strawberry season, and the berries have been loving this cool and wet spring; they’re big and sweet.  So–it’s time to make strawberry shortcake.

There are a few ways to make strawberry shortcake.  Some people use biscuits, and others use sponge cake.  I follow my mom’s recipe; this delicious cake has a texture that is somewhere between a sponge cake and a pound cake.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • strawberries
  • extra sugar to juice the strawberries
  • whipping cream

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Grease and flour two 8 x 8 cake pans. If you only have one pan, you can bake the entire cake in one pan, then slice it in half height wise.
  3. Sift flour, backing powder, and salt together in a small bowl.
  4. Heat milk with butter until it is just scalding, then let it cool slightly.
  5. In a bowl, use an electric mixer to beat eggs until they are foaming.  Gradually add the 1 cup of sugar until the mixture is thick and fluffy, then add the vanilla.
  6. Sprinkle flour mixture, a third at a time, over eggs, alternating with the warmed milk and butter mixture, until all three mixtures are combined.
  7. Equally distribute the mixture into the two pans.
  8. Bake for 25 minutes or more, until cake tests as done.
  9. Slice some strawberries and place them in a bowl.  Add a bit of sugar, if desired, to make them juicy.
  10. Whip the cream.
  11. Assemble cake:
    • Start with one cake.
    • Add a layer of sliced strawberries, followed by whipping cream.
    • Add the second cake.
    • Top with more whipping cream and some whole strawberries.
    • Try not to eat the whole cake yourself.

Anyone else have any great strawberry recipes?

 

Plant of the week: Honeyberries

If you haven’t yet heard of honeyberries (also known as haskaps), you’re not alone.  These members of the honeysuckle family are native to Russia and parts of Asia, and have only recently begun to become common in Canada.  They look like elongated blueberries, but they taste like a cross between blueberries and… well, you decide!  They have higher level of antioxidants than blueberries, and can be eaten raw or used in recipes that call for blueberries.

Honeyberries will grow just about anywhere, and for a long time–a plant may live for 50 or more years!  They can survive temperatures of -48C.  They’re disease and pest resistant and they yield a lot of berries.  They’re also the first berries of spring.

 

Ideal growing conditions

Honeyberries can be grown in the sun or partial shade.  Most varieties require that you plant a second unrelated specimen for pollination.  Purchase plants from a reputable nursery and plant them in spring or fall–5 of 6 feet apart, in rows that are separated by 8-10 feet.  The plants may grow up to 8 feet in height, so they will need a lot of space.

Water them heavily for the first few years, until the plants are established.  Once they are settled, you probably don’t have to tend to them much unless you want to prune them.

Honeyberries can be grown in containers too.  Ensure that the container is large enough to accommodate the plant as it grows, and enables proper drainage.  The soil should be allowed to dry out between waterings.

 

Harvesting, using, and preserving

When the berries are a dark blue colour all of the way through, they are ready to be picked.  This usually happens three weeks after they turn blue on the outside.  You can pick them individually, or place a large container or tarp under the plant and gently shake it to drop the ripened berries.

Use them as you would use blueberries.  Freeze them raw in Ziploc bags.

 

Friends and foes

  • Honeyberries, like most fruit shrubs, get along with everything.
  • Birds like to eat the fruit, and deer and rabbits like to nibble on the leaves.

 

Weeding tips

Oh, the dreaded weeds, which often seem to fare better than the plants you’ve lovingly sown.  Weed seeds are buried in the soil; the act of digging brings them up to the surface where they germinate, and, if not removed, compete with your plants for nutrients, water, and sunlight.  Here are a few tips on how to keep them under control:

  • If possible, weed after a rainfall, or after you’ve watered the garden.  Weeds are easier to remove when the soil is damp.  Walking on damp soil, though, compacts it, so be careful where you step.  A sunny, windy day after a heavy rainfall is perfect if you also want to avoid mosquitoes and the like.
  • Weed frequently.  It’s easier to remove small, immature plants than larger plants with extensive root systems.
  • Remove the entire plant.  If the plant breaks off above the root, it will likely regrow.  You may need to dig out stubborn weeds or cut their roots with a sharp hoe.
  • If you can’t remove a weed, at least cut off its seed head so that it won’t spread.
  • On hot days, you can leave the weeds you’ve removed on the bare garden earth as mulch, so long as they do not contain seeds.  They’ll break down and release nutrients back into the soil.
  • Sow plants as closely together as is recommended for each type.  The less bare space between them, the less room for weeds to take over.  If possible, use mulch on these bare spaces to shield weeds from the sunlight that they need.
  • Be careful of what you plant next to your garden beds.  Seeds from adjacent plots will drift into your garden.  Having said that, consider leaving some dandelions in your lawn because they’re the first food for some types of bees.
  • To kill weeds that are growing in-between cracks in cement, bricks, and the like, pour boiling water onto them.
  • Consider planting cover crops in the fall.  A bare garden is an invitation for invading seeds to take root.  Cover crops protect the soil from weeds and erosion, and improve its composition once they are tilled under.

As your plants mature, they’ll begin to shade out the weeds, and so the time you spend weeding will decrease.  The time you spend eating delicious produce will increase!

 

Plant of the week: Spinach

Popeye was right; spinach makes you strong.  It is high in phytochemicals and vitamin A.  It’s also a good source of vitamins C, B2, and B6, as well as folic acid, iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and protein.  Spinach may hinder the absorption of iron, though, so it’s suggested that you eat it with citrus (good thing spinach and orange salad is so delicious).

Unfortunately, spinach is one of twelve most contaminated vegetables and fruits on the market, and bagged spinach is often irradiated.  Good thing it is fairly easy to grow.

Ideal growing conditions

Spinach is a cold weather vegetable; it does not like excessive heat or days that are longer than 14 hours (it will likely bolt).  It tolerates various types of soils, but prefers well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter.  Direct sow it into the ground or containers as soon as the soil can be worked; replant it every few weeks to keep a constant supply from spring to fall.  In the summer, you can try planting it in partial shade to spare it from the heat of the sun.

Sow seeds 2 inches apart and 1/2 inch deep, and ensure that it is well-watered.  Spinach grows quickly, so you may want to thin it out as it matures.

Types

Savoy spinach has very crinkled leaves.  This is the type that you often see sold “fresh” in the grocery store.  It’s productive and it’s more cold tolerant than the other varieties, but it’s a chore to clean.

Semi-savoy spinach are more upright and less crinkly than savoy spinach.  It also has better disease and bolt resistance.

Smooth-leafed spinach has smooth, flat leaves.  It’s easier to clean, so that’s why it’s used for processed spinach.

For something totally different, try strawberry spinach!  It’s not spinach per se, but it’s a relative.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Spinach is one of few greens that taste as good fresh as cooked.  You can make salads with it, add it to smoothies, or integrate it into dishes and sauces.  You can even make spinach bread!  Cooking spinach makes it more nutritious, because your body can’t break down all of its nutrients when it is raw.

Spinach can be harvested when it is young or old; the younger leaves are tender, and older, tougher leaves may be better for freezing and other types of processing.  Either pick the entire plant, or harvest the outer larger leaves first.

To freeze it, blanch it for a minute or two, then freeze it in the desired quantities.  You can then add it to lasagnas or other dishes–just thaw and squeeze out the extra juice.

Friends

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cilantro
  • Lettuce
  • Leeks
  • Peas
  • Strawberries

Foes

  • Spinach gets along with pretty much everything!

Fun facts

  • Spinach was reputed to be the favourite vegetable of Catherine de’ Medici, who was born in Florence, hence why dishes served on a bed of spinach are known as “Florentine”.
  • In the 1930s, Popeye led to a 33% increase in spinach consumption, or so claimed American spinach producers!

 

Bolting isn’t just for horses

Bolting is the process by which plants suddenly stop filling out, and shoot upwards, producing blooms and ultimately going to seed.  Their leaves become tough and bitter and generally inedible.  Bolting is common amongst lettuces and other greens (such as the kale pictured above), cilantro, some members of the cabbage family, beets and other root vegetables.

Bolting is a response to the hours of daylight; plants ‘count’ the hours, then flower when a certain threshold is reached.   It can also occur due to stress–too much heat, not enough water, soil that is too dry or not nutritious enough, fluctuating weather, cold nights and hot days, prolonged cold spells, and any unfavourable growing conditions that encourage plants to bail out and go to seed rather than continue to struggle.

Preventing bolting

  • Choose bolt-resistant or slow-bolt varieties of seeds.
  • Plant lettuces and other greens in successive small batches, pick their outer leaves first, and harvest them when they are young.
  • Sow brassicas and other cold-weather vegetables in mid-summer so that they mature in the cooler fall weather.  Sow them in partial shade, or use shade cloth to protect them from excess sun and heat.
  • Ensure that your soil is nutritionally complete.  Add compost and other supplements as required to provide the nutrients that your plants need.
  • Ensure that your plants get sufficient water, especially in times of extreme dryness.  Mulch plants to help retain moisture.

Anyone else have any other tips?