Plant of the week: Parsley

Parsley is more than just a garnish; it’s an excellent source of icon, folate, and vitamins A and K, and it contains more vitamin C than oranges.  Parsley is biennial; the first year it produces its tasty leaves, and the second year it goes to seed and further grows its taproot, which is actually tastier than its leaves.  Yes, you can eat the entire plant!

Parsley is great for small spaces.  You can grow it in a pot outside all spring, summer, and fall, and then bring it inside and continue to enjoy it until it goes to seed, at which point you can start all over again.  Or, you can keep it inside year round.

 

Ideal growing conditions

Parsley likes full sun or partial shade, and soil that is rich in compost.  The soil pH should be between 5.5 and 6.7.  If you are planting your parsley indoors, place it near a sunny window.

Sow seeds 6-8 inches apart, or sow them closer and thin the plants as they mature.  Parsley is notoriously slow to germinate.  It may take 4-6 weeks, even after soaking the seeds in warm water for a few hours.  Make sure to keep the site watered at all times.

Types

  • Curly-leaf varieties of parsley are primarily used as garnishes.
  • Flat-leaf varieties of parsley (pictured above) are more flavourful and nutritious than curly-leaf varieties; they are typically used in cooking.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Parsley is ready for picking when it has grown a few stems.  Cut off one stem at a time and let the plant recover, or thin entire plants.

You can freeze or dry parsley.  It also keeps well on the counter in a glass of water.  The stems are more nutritious and tasty than the leaves–so don’t discard them.  Use parsley in sauces, soups, salads, and yes, as a garnish.  It freshens breath after a garlicy meal!

Friends

  • Asparagus
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Corn
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes

Foes

  • Lettuce
  • Mint

When parsley blooms, it attracts beneficial insects such as hoverflies and predatory wasps.

Fun facts

  • Sprinkling parsley leaves around rose bushes is said to improve their scent and the overall health of the plant.
  • To reduce the pain and swelling of a bruise, apply chopped fresh parsley to it.

Pickling cucumbers

Most pickle recipes call for a large number of small pickling cucumbers, which contain less water that slicing (English) cucumbers.  If you have an excess of slicing cucumbers, though, they’re suitable for pickle recipes in which the cucumbers are sliced rather than left whole.  I’ve prepared the following recipe using a mixture of pickling cucumbers that grew too big, and Straight Eight or Marketmore cumbers, and they’re always a hit.

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Dill sandwich slices

  • 3 tbsp. pickling spice, placed in a piece of cheesecloth and tied off to make a bag
  • 4 cups cider vinegar
  • 4 cups water
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup coarse salt
  • 5 large bay leaves, or 10 small
  • 5 cloves garlic, or 10 small
  • 2 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 5 heads (flowers) fresh dill
  • 13 cups cucumbers

Trim the ends off the cucumbers, as well as the peel on two opposite sides.  Cut them into 1/4 inch thick slices, so that each slice has peel on its thin, long sides.  If the cucumbers are quite long, you may need to cut them again lengthwise so they’ll fit in your jars (and on a sandwich).  Place in bowl of cold water to keep them crisp.

Prepare 5 canning jars and lids according to the instructions for your specific canning system.

In a large saucepan, mix vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and spice bag.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar.  Boil gently for 15 minutes.

In the bottom of each hot jar, place 1 large or 2 small bay leaves, 1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, and 1 head of dill.  Pack cucumber slices in jars to within 1/2 inch of top.  Ladle hot pickle juice into jars.  Use a table knife or similar implement to remove air bubbles; add more liquid if needed to reach 1/2 inch of top.  Clean rim, centre lid on jar, and screw band on to fingertip tight.

Place the jars in the canner and process, covered, in boiling water for 15 minutes, then uncover the pot and let the jars sit in the water for another 5 minutes.  Remove jars to cool on the countertop.  After you have verified that they’ve sealed (listen for the pop!), store them in a cool, dark location.  Let the pickles sit for a few weeks before you try the, so the flavour has time to develop.

Harvesting and storing garlic

When the tops of your garlic plants begin to die back, it’s time to think about harvest!  Stop watering your plants so that they will get a chance to dry out (Mother Nature may make this difficult).  When about half of the leaves have died, your garlic should be ready.  If you want to be certain before you dig it all up, you can carefully feel around in the ground to get a sense of how developed the bulbs are, or dig a couple up to inspect them and ensure that the cloves have filled out.

Use a spade or fork–inserted well away from the garlic–the loosen the soil so that you can remove plants without damaging them.  Gently brush off the dirt that clings to the plants, but don’t wash them or remove their leaves or roots.  Hang the plants in bunches of 6 or so in a dark, dry location with good air circulation.  Leave it there for at least a month, until the leaves, roots, and husks have dried.  At that point you can cut off the roots and leaves (leave the latter on if you plan to braid them).

Store garlic in a dark, cool area.  I keep mine in a basket, but you can use a mesh bag, or continue to hang it.

Softneck types of garlic can be stored for 6-8 months; hardneck varieties may begin to sprout within half of the time.  Check your stores every now and then to ensure that your garlic is not sprouting or drying out.  Remember to save some garlic for planting in the fall.

Cool beans

Beans are one of the easiest vegetables to grow.  Here are a few varieties I’ve had success with.

Pole snap beans

If you are limited for space, or want to maximize your garden’s output, you can’t go wrong with pole beans.

Blue lake stringless beans and Rattlesnake pole beans are seriously prolific.  I planted perhaps four plants of each this year, and have been getting a couple of handfuls of beans from them every night for a couple of weeks.  Both are tender and delicious; the rattlesnake beans can be eaten young or left to mature into shelling beans.

 

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Rattlesnake pole beans
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Orca beans (black and white), Rattlesnake beans (brown and white spotted), Kidney beans

 

Bush snap beans

Bush beans are great if you don’t want to deal with vines climbing everywhere.

If you like colourful beans, Royal burgundy beans (purple), Kinghorn wax beans (yellow), or Red swan beans (pink) are all good producers, though they can’t beat the pole bean varieties mentioned above.

Dried / shell beans

Here, for me, is where the fun starts–lots of colourful little beans that you can add to soups, chilis, veggie burgers–you name it.

  • Black turtle beans are adorable, tiny black beans.  You can see them in the photo at the top of the page.  Each plant produces many beans; each bean contains around 6-10 seeds.
  • Orca beans look like the name suggests they would–like little orcas.
  • Ojo de Tigre beans are the orangish beans in the top photo with the pink whorls on them.  They are perfect for refried beans and the like.
  • Rattlesnake beans, as mentioned above, also produce delicious brown and white spotted beans.
  • I planted kidney beans from a bag of dried beans that I bought at the grocery store.  A few generations later, they’re still going strong (though that may not be the case with all store-bought seeds).

Anyone else have some favourite bean varieties to share?

Plant of the week: Cantaloupe

Cantaloupes, also known as muskmelons, are high in fibre, and a great source of Vitamins A and C, and folic acid.  They contain, on average, only 100 calories–and they are a refreshing summer treat.

Ideal growing conditions

Cantaloupes need warm soil, and they thrive in hot and humid weather.  Here in eastern Canada, that means starting them indoors and then transplanting them a couple of weeks after the last frost date, once the soil is warm.

Cantaloupes are heavy feeders.  One way to provide them with the nutrients they need is to dig a hole about a foot wide and a foot deep, then refill the hole with a mixture of the original soil and well-rotted manure and/or compost, forming a mound that will stay warmer than the surrounding soil.  Mounds should be 3-4 feet apart.  If you are limited for space, you can grow cantaloupes on trellises.

Cantaloupe plants need to be well watered, but if they receive too much water, especially as the fruit ripens, it may taste bland.  If the plants get too cold they might not bear fruit.  You can use floating row covers to help retain warmth, but ensure that you remove them while they are flowering (at least for a few hours a day) to allow for pollination.  Each plant has male and female flowers.  Fruits develop on the sideshoots where the female flowers grow.  If you are lucky enough to have more than three fruits on a plant, pinch the excess small ones off so that the plant will concentrate on developing the first three large fruits.

Types

The different types of cantaloupes have slight variances in colour, size, texture, and taste.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

When a cantaloupe is ripe, its rind changes from grayish green to yellowish beige, and its netting pattern becomes more pronounced.  The most obvious signs, however, is the crack that appears around the base of the stem, and the musky smell of the fruit.  You should be able to easily cut it from the vine.

You can store an uncut, ripe cantaloupe for about five days.  Cut cantaloupe can be frozen or dried.

Friends

  • Corn
  • Nasturtiums
  • Radishes
  • Squash
  • Sunflowers

Foes

  • None

Fun facts

  • Cantaloupe gets its name from the town of Cantalupo, Italy.
  • Some varieties of cantaloupes are grown for their seeds, which are used to make oil.

Cover crops

Cover crops, also known as green manures, are crops that are grown and then intentionally tilled into the earth.  Though they’re not harvested, they benefit gardens in multiple ways:

  • They improve the soil by drawing nutrients up to the surface, where they become accessible to later crops through the compost that results after they’re tilled.  Mowing the plants and letting the cuttings dry for a couple of days before tilling them under lengthens the time it takes for the vegetation to rot, therefore making their nutrients available longer.
  • They protect the soil when vegetable crops aren’t being grown–they limit the spread of weeds, and prevent the soil from drying out in the hot sun or eroding away nutrients in the rain.
  • Their deep roots aerate the heavy soil and make it easier for future crops to also grow deep roots and access the nutrients they need.
  • Legume crops convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a soluble form that future crops can absorb.
  • They increase the amount of microorganisms in the soil.  These help decompose the organic material and make nutrients available to future plants.

Fall cover crops are generally sown about a month before the last frost date.  Here are a few options for cover crops to plant that do well in the cool fall weather that is on its way:

  • Alfalfa
  • Barley
  • Fava, broad, or pinto beans
  • Clover
  • Cowpeas
  • Fenugreek
  • Oats
  • Rapeseed
  • Soybeans
  • Vetches
  • Winter rye
  • Winter wheat

Ensure that you turn your cover crops under when they flower, but before they go to seed, so that the crops will not reseed themselves in the spring.

Freezing beans

One of the delights of having a garden is being able to enjoy the fruits of your labour in the winter.  String or snap beans are easy to preserve; all you need to do is blanch them  and then into the freezer they go.

Blanching is the process of partially cooking vegetables, then putting them in  ice-water to stop the cooking process.  Not only does blanching help vegetables retain their vibrant colours, but it helps preserve nutrients and flavour, more of which would be destroyed when frozen “as is”.

 

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Before blanching

 

 

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After blanching: the pink beans lost their pink and the variegated beans lost their stripes!

 

To blanch snap beans

  1. Wash the beans, and remove the ends (I like to leave the tails on).
  2. Cut or snap them to the desired size.
  3. Fill a bowl with cold water, and add a tray of ice cubes to it.
  4. Boil a pot of water.  Some people add salt to the water; I do not.
  5. Add the beans directly to the water, or place them in a colander over the boiling water and steam them.
  6. If you placed the beans directly into the water, let them cook for about 2 minutes.  If you steamed them, let them cook for about 5 minutes.  You’ll know they’re done when the colour of the beans has brightened, and they are tender, but not cooked through.
  7. Drain the hot water, and place the beans in the ice water until they are cold.
  8. Drain the cold water, and set the beans on a paper or cloth towel to dry.
  9. Place the beans in a ziploc bag, and throw them into the freezer.

Frozen beans should be good for at least a year.

 

Plant of the week: Dill

It’s pickling season, and we can’t have pickles without dill!

Dill is grown both for its seed (dill seed) and greens (dill weed).  Although it’s most commonly associated with pickling (dill seed is included in most pickling spice mixtures), it is also used to flavour a variety of dishes, including soups, stews, and fish dishes.  It’s even used in herbal tea.  It’s a great source of dietary fibre, iron, calcium, and vitamins C, B9, and B2.

Dill is a great asset to your garden, even if you don’t plan to use a lot of it.  It attracts predatory insects, including wasps, green lacewings, and syrphid flies, all of which feed on aphids.  And it has pretty white or yellow flowers that look lovely in a flower garden.

 

Ideal growing conditions

Dill will grow in most soils, inside and outside, and within containers or in a garden.  It take a fair bit of vertical space, though, as it can grow up to two feet tall (although dwarf varieties are available).  It likes full sun for at least 6 hours per day.

Direct sow it outside after the chance of frost has passed.  Sow seeds 4 inches apart, about a 1/4 an inch deep.  You can thin the plants as they grow.

Dill does not need to be watered too much after it has established; water only during periods of hot, dry weather.

You can plant it repeatedly during the summer to ensure that you have a steady supply.  If you let it go to seed, it will reseed itself–so be careful where you plant it, or be sure to harvest it before it goes to seed.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

You can harvest dill weed at any time once the plant has developed half a dozen leaves–simply trim off a few a couple of leaves at a time, being careful not to overpick.

To harvest dill seed, it’s best not to harvest the greens lest you trim away the stem that would develop flowers.  When the seeds produced by the flowers turn brown, they are ready to be harvested.

Dill is best used fresh, though dill weed can be frozen; dill weed and seed can be dried.  For the latter, hang the plant upside down in a paper bag in a warm, dry place.  The seeds will fall into the bag, and the greens will stay on the stem.

Friends

  • Cabbage
  • Cucumbers
  • Broccoli
  • Onions

Foes

  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes

Fun facts

  • Many cultures have grown dill for medicinal use.  Its medicinal use is even mentioned in 5,000 year old Egyptian texts.
  • Dill seed is an age-old remedy for hiccups; the modern version–drink dill pickle juice!

Nasturtiums

Nasturtiums are more than just pretty flowers.  They are friendly forces in the garden.

Nasturtiums repel squash bugs, borers, striped pumpkin beetles, cabbage moths, potato beetles, and whiteflies, and they attract aphids, which eat them and then die.  They also attract aphid predators, which finish off the aphids on the nasturtiums as well as your neighbouring plants.  Plant them around your tomatoes, cucumbers, asparagus, brassicas, lettuce, pumpkins, radishes, squash, fruit trees, and any other plants that are vulnerable to these pests (except for cauliflower).  You can also use them to make an aphid spray.

There are tall (8 to 10 feet high) vining varieties, and dwarf varieties of nasturtiums, and variations in-between.  They’re easy to grow in a sunny spot in your garden or in containers.  They produce almost pea-sized seeds which are easy to collect for the next year.  All parts of this plant are edible (they have a peppery flavour).  The blooms and greens are commonly eaten in salads, as garnishes, or as a replacement for capers, and the seeds may be pickled.

 

Curing and storing onions

It’s midsummer now, and the onions planted in spring have begun to flop over at the neck and lose their bright green colour, signalling that they’ve stopped growing.

If you planted onions that are suitable for storage, you’ll need to ensure that they’re suitably dry before storing them.  This process is called curing.

To cure and store onions

  1. Stop watering your onions once they flop over, and wait for a dry day to harvest them.
  2. Use a garden fork to lift them from the soil, or grasp the greens and gently pull them out.  You don’t want to bruise or damage any part of the onion, as this may lead to rot.
  3. Set them out in the sun for a day or two to dry the roots.  Choose a location that maximizes airflow.  For example, you could place them on a sheet of mesh over an umbrella clothesline, or drape them over a fence.
  4. Carefully remove any clods of dirt clinging to the bulbs or roots.
  5. Bring the onions inside to a warm, dry room in your house or garage.  Spread the onions out on newspaper, in a single layer, making sure they don’t touch each other.
  6. Check them every few days, and remove any rotting or damaged onions right away.
  7. Once the necks of the onions are completely dry, and contain no moisture, cut the roots off the bulb, and trim the stems to about an inch long.  The bulbs should now have a nice papery coating that will protect the moist layers within.  This curing process may take up to a month.
  8. Store onions in baskets, mesh bags, or cardboard boxes with holes in them.  Place them in a cool, dark place.

Enjoy!  Properly cured onions can be kept in storage for well over a year.