Plant of the week: Buttercup squash

Buttercup squash is rather plain on the outside, but cut it open and you are greeted with rich, sunny flesh that is delicious as is or in a variety of dishes.  Buttercup squash is a good source of phytochemicals, potassium, fibre, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, B and C.

Ideal growing conditions

Like most squashes, it needs full sun, and a lot of space to sprawl.  Dig holes about a foot wide and a few feet apart.  Fill each hole with compost and dirt until it forms a mound.

Start your seedlings inside, and move them outside only after the threat of frost has passed and the soil has warmed.  Be careful not to disturb the roots, as that may kill the plants.  Sow 2-3 plants in each mound.

(To increase germination rates, you can try soaking the seeds in water for a few hours before planting them, or growing them in-between sheets of wet paper towels and placing these towels in baggies over a warm heat vent).

Water the plants regularly, and ensure that the vines do not grow into the lawn where they are susceptible to damage by squash borers.  You may choose to train the vines to grow up trellises or fences.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Buttercup squash are ready when the skin is hard.  You may choose to cut away the vines near the fruit to help them ripen.

Harvest the squash before the frost.  Cut the stem about an inch away from the fruit.  The stub of the stem will help to prevent the fruit from drying out.  Let the fruit cure in the sunlight for up to a week, then move it to a cooler location to store.  It may keep for up to six months; check it frequently and use it before it begins to soften.

This squash may roasted, made into soups, added to casseroles, baked in breads, and more.  It can be used in many recipes as a substitute for pumpkin.  To bake it, I cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, then put both halves (cut side up) on a baking sheet and bake it at 350C until it’s soft.  To eat it as a side, scoop the flesh off the rind, mash it in a bowl, then add a bit of butter and nutmeg.

 

Friends

  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Melons
  • Peas

Foes

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Avoid planting alongside other winter squash if you intend to save your seeds.  Pollinators may cross-pollinate the plants, resulting in strange hybrids growing from your seeds.

Fun facts

  • The first buttercup squash plant was discovered in 1925, as a chance cross between two other squash varieties.  It was selectively bred until 1931, when it was first released under the buttercup name

Plant of the week: Kale

Kale gets a bad rap.  It’s often pureed into smoothies or roasted into chips–the belief being that it’s too bitter and tough to eat raw.  Many varieties of kale, though, are delicious and tender when picked when the leaves are small.  Kale is easy to grow, especially if you let it go to seed–your garden will be filled with a forest of baby kale plants in no time!

Kale is a good source of phytochemicals, calcium, copper, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and K.  Avoid kale if you are taking blood thinners like Warfarin–the vitamin K can interfere with its effectiveness.

Ideal growing conditions

Kale does best in well-drained soil that is not too rich, so do not mix too much compost in the soil, and use only aged compost.  Kale prefers full sun but will grow in partial shade.

Kale is a cool weather crop, like other brassica crops.  It can survive temperatures of -15C.  It can be grown in the spring and fall; it may bolt and get tough and bitter if the weather gets too hot.  The leaves are sweetest after they’ve been hit by frost.

Start seedlings indoors, 6 weeks before the final frost, or direct sow it outdoors as soon as the soil can be worked.  Set plants about a foot and a half apart.  They take up a lot of room!  You can also grow regular or dwarf varieties of kale in large pots.

Types

  • Curly kale, as the name indicates, has curly leaves and is usually cooked, as it has a bitter or peppery flavour when fully grown.
  • Dinosaur/Lacianto kale has a slightly wrinkled texture.  It is more tender than curly kale, and retains its sweeter flavour when cooked.
  • Red Russian kale (pictured above) has flat leaves that resemble oak leaves.  Its leaves are tender and sweet, which make it suitable for eating raw.  Just make sure to remove the tough stems first

Harvesting, using, and preserving

You can start harvesting kale once it is about 8 inches tall.  Pick the outer leaves when young for use in salads, or wait until they get larger, then pick them for use in cooking.  Leave the centre of the plant untouched so that it can continue to grow.

Kale is usually harvested in the spring and fall, but it’s sweeter in the fall, especially after a light frost.

Use young greens fresh.  Steam, stir-fry, or add mature leaves to sauces and dishes that call for spinach or other cooking greens like chard.

To freeze kale, blanch it as you would spinach, then place in freezer bags.  After you thaw it, you can gently squeeze it to remove excess water (feed the juice to your houseplants!)

To make kale chips: Preheat oven to 400F.  Remove stems, tear kale into bite-sized pieces, arrange on a cookie sheet, then drizzle the pieces with olive oil and a dash of salt.  Bake 10 to 15 minutes.

Friends

  • Beets
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers
  • Dill
  • Garlic
  • Lettuce and other greens
  • Mint
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Rosemary
  • Sage

Foes

  • Parsley

Fun facts

  • One cup of chopped raw kale contains more than 100% of the recommended daily dose of vitamins A and K, and more calcium than a small carton of milk.
  • Although kale seems like a new fad, it’s been eaten for over 2000 years.  So much for a fad diet food!

 

Plant of the week: Cherries

Nothing beats cherries fresh from the tree–except maybe the sight of their beautiful blossoms in the spring.  Cherries thrive in warm, dry climates, but they need to go through a cold weather in order to bear fruit.  Sour cherries do better in cooler climates, and so are more commonplace here in eastern Ontario, although some varieties of sweet cherries also do well.  For best results, purchase trees from a reputable local nursery.

Cherries are a good source of vitamins C, A, and B2, as well as fibre, iron, and calcium.

Ideal growing conditions

Plant cherry trees in the late fall or early spring.  They need a lot of water, so select or build a site with soil that retains water, yet drains well, and is rich in nutrients.  Space plants 20-40 feet apart, depending on the variety, and well away from structures or other sources of shade.  The method of planting depends on the type of plants you procured–refer to the instructions provided by the nursery.

Cherry trees take four years to produce fruit (most dwarf varieties produce fruit a year earlier).  If you can, ensure that your cherry trees receive consistent moisture in the weeks leading up to harvest.  If they don’t get enough water, the fruits may shrivel; too much water may cause the fruits to split.  And, most importantly–cover the trees or use bird scaring devices, as birds know exactly when the berries are ready for picking.

In the spring, weed and mulch around the base of the tree.  In the spring or fall, prune dead, diseased, or excess branches.  Ensure that there is enough space between the main branches to encourage the growth of the small branches that will bear fruit.  Generally, the less branches on the tree (within reason), the bigger the fruit and the smaller the yield.

Types

  • Sweet cherries are eaten fresh.  They are not self-fertile, which means you need two varieties in order to produce fruit.
  • Sour cherries are smaller than sweet cherries, but they are self-fertile.  They are not usually eaten raw, but rather sweetened and cooked.

Cherry trees may be full-sized or dwarf, and their berries may ripen to a variety of colours, such as red or yellow.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

When the berries have reached their expected colour, they are ready to be picked.  Pluck the stalks off the branches.  Eat or use them right away, as they spoil quickly.

Cherries are commonly used in baking and a variety of preserves.  They can also be dried or frozen.  If you wish to freeze them, pick them when they are firm.

Friends

Planting garlic, garlic chives, dill, nasturtiums, marigolds, or strawberries near the base of the tree may deter harmful insects.

Fun and frightening facts

  • Cherry seeds, leaves, and branches are poisonous–don’t eat them or let your pets chew on them!
  • It is believed that cherries were discovered by the Romans around 70 BC.
  • Cherries are related to peaches, pears, and almonds.

Plant of the week: Lentils

Lentils are a good source of fiber, iron, and complex carbohydrates, and they have the second highest level of protein per calorie for a vegetable, next to soybeans.  Like their legume cousins, peas and beans, they grow in pods, each of which contains only one or two lentil seeds!

Ideal growing conditions

As lentils are commonly grown in dry areas, they don’t tolerate soggy ground.  They prefer well-drained soil that has a pH of around 7.0, and cooler temperatures.  They will produce less in humid and/or hot conditions.  Add aged compost to the soil before planting.

Lentils tolerate light frost, and can recover from damage caused by early spring frosts.  Direct sow them two weeks before the average last frost date.  Plant the seeds 1/2 to 1 inch deep, about five inches apart (or plant them an inch apart, and then thin them later on).  Rows should be around 2 feet apart.

Keep the plants evenly moist, until the pods have begun to dry, at which point they should not be watered.  As lentils may grow a couple of feet tall, they benefit from the support that a low trellis will provide

Types

Lentils are generally classified by their size–large or small–and their colour–which includes yellow, red, green, brown, and black.  There are many varieties of each.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Although lentils are usually dried, they can be used when green and young, like snap beans.

To harvest them dry, leave the pods on the plants until they’ve turned yellow, then remove the entire plant, and set it on a rack to dry for a couple of weeks.  Once it is completely dry, remove the pods, and lay them out between two tea towels.  Carefully roll a rolling pin over the top towel to break the pods but not damage the seeds, then remove the seeds from the pods.  Place them in an airtight jar and store them in a dry place for up to a year.

Lentils are used for dishes such as dhal and koshari, and included in casseroles, veggie burgers, soups, and salads.  They can be used to make flour, and sprouts can be grown from the seeds.

Friends

  • Cucumbers
  • Potatoes
  • Summer savoury

Foes

  • Garlic
  • Onions

Fun facts

  • Lentils have been found in Egyptian tombs dating from 2400 BC.
  • Although around a quarter of the lentils produced worldwide are grown in India, Canada is the largest export producer.  99% of Canadian lentils are grown in Saskatchewan.

Plant of the week: Eggplants

Eggplants (also known as aubergines) belong to the nightshade family, along with peppers and tomatoes.  Although they’re not that flavourful by themselves, they are great when added to spicy dishes, or marinated and grilled.  Eggplants are a good source of vitamin C, iron, potassium, and fiber.

Ideal growing conditions

Start seedlings inside 6-10 weeks before the last frost date.  Ensure that the seeds are only lightly covered with soil.  After the final frost, begin to harden off the plants, then transplant them into your garden or large pots, spacing plants at least two feet apart.  Eggplants like warm, sunny, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. Adding composted manure to the soil will make your plants happy.

Water the plants regularly, but don’t drench them or let them sit in water.  Some varieties of eggplants may require supports, such as tomato cages or stakes.

Types

Eggplants come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colours.  As a general rule, light-coloured varieties are less bitter than dark purple varieties.

  • American (aka Globe) eggplants are the largest variety.  Their large size and meaty texture makes them ideal for grilling.
  • Italian eggplants are smaller, thinner, and sweeter than Italian eggplants, but otherwise they’re quite similar in appearance.  Both American and Italian varieties are usually deep purple.
  • Chinese and Japanese eggplants are smaller and thinner, which makes them ideal for stir-fries.  They’re also a lighter purple than their American and Italian cousins.
  • Indian eggplants are shaped more like tomatoes.  They are often cubed and stewed, cooked whole, or used to make sauces.
  • Thai eggplants are quite tiny compared to their counterparts, and quite a lot more bitter.  They come in a variety of colours, although they are often green.  They’re commonly used in curries.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Eggplants are ready to pick when they stop growing, and their skin becomes glossy.  You’ll know for sure that they’re ripe when you cut them open and their seeds are mature and light-coloured (rather than hard and dark).  Harvest them by cutting their stems with pruners.  There’s no easy way to break them off without damaging the plant.  Regular picking will encourage more fruits to grow.

Like avocados, eggplants begin to discolour as soon as they’re cut, but lemon juice, vinegar, or salt can prevent them from darkening too much.

Eggplants generally are eaten cooked rather than fresh.  Try them grilled, in baba ghanoush, veggie burgers, stir fries, ratatouille, moussaka, and more.

To freeze eggplants, peel and slice them, then blanch or roast the slices and place them in ice water to cool.  After the slices have cooled, drain the water off and place them in freezer bags.  Eggplants can also be dehydrated or canned, or chopped and placed in a mason jar of oil and refrigerated.

Friends

  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes

Foes

  • Corn

Fun facts

  • Eggplant contains the highest amount of nicotine found in any vegetable! Yuck!  You’d have to have eat about 20 lbs them to get as much nicotine as what’s found in a cigarette, though, so don’t worry.
  • Not all eggplants are purple–some white varieties resemble goose eggs–hence the name.

Plant of the week: Broccoli

Got milk?  How about broccoli instead?  Broccoli has as much calcium in it as the equivalent weight in milk, plus it contains phytochemicals, folic acid, phosphorous, fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B2, B6, and C.  Plus, it’s delicious.

Ideal growing conditions

Broccoli is a cold weather plant, which means it is generally grown in the spring and/or fall, and timed so that it matures when the weather is cool.  If exposed to too much heat, it will bolt and produce a showy array of pretty yellow flowers.

Start broccoli indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost date, then transplant the seedlings into rich, slightly acidic soil that retains water and gets at least 6 hours of sun.  Space the seedlings at least a foot apart.

Broccoli is prone to several pests such as cabbage worms and aphids; place floating row covers over your plants to protect them.  It can also be grown in very large containers — 5 gallons or larger is best.

Broccoli tolerates frost and can live in temperatures as cold as -12 Celsius.  Its growth is accelerated after a frost.

Types

  • Calabrese broccoli is the kind of broccoli you see in the store.  It’s named after the Italian province of Calabria, where it was first grown.  Its stalks are topped by a compact head containing clusters of green florets.
  • Sprouting broccoli has multiple small green or purple heads that branch of its main stalks.
  • Chinese broccoli, or gai-lon, is smaller and darker than western broccoli.  It doesn’t produce heads; the whole plant is eaten, including the flowers.  The flavour is stronger and may be bitter.
  • Broccoli rabe, or rapini, is actually a separate species.

 

 

 

 

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Cut broccoli heads before the flowers have opened, when the individual buds are the size of pin-heads, dark green or purple-tinged, and tightly closed.  Cut them in the morning before it is hot.

After the main head has been harvested, the plant may grow more heads on side-shoots.

Broccoli can be refrigerated for up to a week, or blanched and frozen.  It’s delicious when lightly steamed, eaten raw, or added to soups and dishes.

 

Friends

  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Chives
  • Cucumber
  • Dill
  • Garlic
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach

Foes

  • Beans
  • Peppers
  • Squash
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes

Fun facts

  • Thomas Jefferson brought broccoli to America; he imported broccoli seeds from Italy to America and planted them in his own garden in 1767.

Plant of the week: Tomatillos

Although tomatillos (aka Mexican husk tomatoes) are commonly prepared with tomatoes, they’re quite different from their cousins.  The tomatillo is a tart, firm fruit that is covered in a papery husk that it gradually fills as it matures.  It more closely resembles a cape gooseberry than a tomato.

Tomatillos are a good source of fiber, potassium, niacin, manganese, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and vitamins A, C and K.  Furthermore, they’re easy to grow, fairly resistant to pests, and bees love them.  Look at the beautiful flowers on them, too!

Ideal growing conditions

You will need to grow at least two tomatillo plants in order to ensure proper pollination.  If you only have one plant, most of the husks will be empty or underdeveloped.

Start plants indoors about six weeks before the average final frost date, then harden them off and transplant them outside when the temperature will remain at least 10 degrees Celsius.  Sow the transplants deep into the soil, as you would tomatoes.  I find the seedlings are often unavoidably leggy, so don’t be afraid to bury 2/3 of each plant when you transplant it.

Tomatillos need full sun and soil that is well-drained and rich in compost.  They require a lot of support, as they can grow several feet tall.  If left to sprawl, the fruit may rot on the ground.  In my experience, tomato cages are insufficient.  Before transplanting your plants, pound some four foot high, thick metal stakes into the ground where you intend for them to grow.  Space these 2-3 feet apart; each plant will grow many branches and yield hundreds of fruits.  As the plants develop, loosely tie them to the stakes, using soft twine or tomato ties, avoiding tying areas where flowers are developing.

Tomatillos are native to all areas of the Americas except for the north; they are accustomed to heat.  They do not need much maintenance or watering, but they do tolerate drought.

Types

  • Green tomatillos turn apple-green or yellow when ripe, and stay tart.  They are used for sauces and main course dishes.
  • Purple tomatillos start off green before turning purple.  They are less tart than the green varieties, and as such as used in jams.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Tomatillos are ready to be picked when they fill out the husk.  If left to split the husk, they are not as good for cooking, because their flesh becomes softer and sweeter.

If they do not ripen before the frost, you can hang the entire plant upside down inside until the fruits ripen.

Tomatillos are most commonly associated with salsa verde, but they are a staple ingredient of other sauces and many Mexican dishes, such as enchiladas, burritos, and tacos.  They can be eaten raw, or in stews, sandwiches, and salads.

Fresh tomatillos (with husks) can be stored in the fridge for two weeks, in a paper bag.  Remove their husks and place them in a sealed plastic bag, and they can be stored an extra week.  You can also freeze them as is, with husks removed, of course.  The husk is never eaten.

 

Friends

  • Asparagus
  • Basil
  • Brassicas
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Sage

Foes

  • Corn
  • Dill
  • Eggplant
  • Fennel
  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Earlier this year, scientists found a 52 million year old tomatillo fossil in the Patagonian region of Argentina.

 

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.

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.

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!