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!

Plant of the week: Rutabaga

Rutabagas–also known as swedes, yellow turnips, Russian turnips, or Canadian turnips–are a cross between turnips and cabbages.  They are a good source of vitamin C and potassium, and they’re easy to grow.  Due to their large size, you only have to grow a few to get a lot of return on your time and effort!

 

Ideal growing conditions

Rutabagas are cool season plants; that is, you’ll want to time them so that their roots mature during the cool season, for the best flavour.  They like light, well-drained soil that is rich in compost and manure and has a pH of 5.5 to 7.0.  They do not grow well in heavy soil, or soil that is deficit in boron.

Direct sow the seeds in spring, as soon as the ground can be worked.  Place seeds 1/2 inch deep, and about 3 inches apart.  As the plants grow, thin them so that they are about a foot apart.  If the roots that you thin out aren’t big enough to eat, you can still eat the greens.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

You can harvest the greens throughout the growing season, but just remove a couple of leaves at a time, and let the plant recover between pickings.  Use the greens as you would kale.

You can begin to harvest the roots when they reach the size of a grapefruit, and continue to harvest them throughout the season.  They can stay in the ground after a killing frost (frost sweetens their taste).  To harvest them, pull them by the tops, or use a gardening fork to ease them out of the ground.

Rutabaga is delicious in soups and stews, or mashed.  My personal favourite is to mash them with carrots and a bit of butter (chop and cook carrots separately from cubed rutabaga; rutabaga takes much longer to cook than carrots).

Rutabaga can be cubed, blanched, and frozen, although it’s more commonly stored in a root cellar or a similar location that is around 0 degrees with some humidity.  Chop or twist the top off to about an inch long before storing.

You can keep your rutabagas in the ground for as long as your climate permits, although overwintering them makes them tough and woody.  In the grocery store, rutabagas are sold coated in paraffin wax.

Friends

  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Turnips

Foes

  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Turnips and rutabagas were the first jack o’lanterns.
  • Those delicious candied fruits that are used in fruitcakes and other festive cakes and cookies are actually candied rutabaga!

 

 

Plant of the week: Basil

Basil adds delicious flavour to any dish, and is easy to grow on your balcony, deck, or windowsill.  If you keep it pruned, you can enjoy a bountiful crop from just a few plants.

Ideal growing conditions

Basil is like a lot of us; it loves warmth, and hates the cold.  You can start it inside or sow it directly outside, but don’t set your seeds or plants outside until the soil has warmed to at least 10 degrees Celsius.  You can also grow it on a sunny windowsill in your home.

Sow basil seeds 1/4 inch deep, in well-drained, fertile soil, in a location in which the plants will receive at leave 6-8 hours of sun.  If transplanting, space them at least 4 inches apart.  If direct sowing, thin the plants out as they mature.  Ensure that the soil is kept moist but not soaked, as they are susceptible to root rot.

Basil plants may mature to 6-24 inches tall, if you allow them to, but the secret in growing a lot of basil is to prune your plants.  Once they develop 6 leaves, pinch a couple off.  This will encourage the plant to grow outwards instead of upwards.  Continue to prune the plant each time it reaches 6-8 inches, and pinch off any blossoms that form.

You can also plant basil by taking a 4 inch cutting from an established plant that has not flowered, and placing it in water.  After it has developed roots, it is ready to be transferred into soil.

Types

There are many interesting and beautiful varieties of basil.  The most common types are sweet basil and purple basil.  You may also wish to try lemon basil, Thai basil (which has a licorice flavour), cinnamon basil, Greek basil, or other varieties.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

As you prune your plants, or after you harvest the whole plant, you can freeze or dry the leaves or sprigs.

  • To freeze basil, chop the leaves up and add them to oil or water, and freeze this mixture in an ice cube tray, or simply freeze whole sprigs in freezer bags.
  • To dry basil, place the leaves in a well-ventilated area out of the sun and let them dry naturally over the course of a few days, frequently turning them over.  Or, you can put them in the oven on the lowest setting, keeping the door open so they won’t overheat.  Drying diminishes the flavour.

Add basil to salads, soups, and sauces, or make pesto.  When adding basil to cooked dishes, add it last, as cooking diminishes the flavour.

 

Friends

  • Asparagus
  • Herbs
  • Lettuce
  • Peppers
  • Tomatoes

Foes

  • Thyme

Fun facts

  • Basil is said to deter mosquitoes.  Plant it near places you spend the most time outdoors.
  • Basil has been cultivated for around 5000 years.

Plant of the week: Raspberries

Raspberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and phytochemicals, as well as calcium, iron, and potassium.  They contain more fibre than any other fresh fruit; their seeds contain vitamin E.

Ideal growing conditions

Raspberries are robust plants that tolerate a wide range of climates and soil, however, they prefer soil that is neutral or slightly acidic, rich in compost, and that drains well.  They do not like to get their feet wet.

Raspberries are extremely prolific.  They produce underground runners that will shoot  up new plants all around your original plants (which is why it is important to carefully plan their location).  In the first year, the plants will grow vegetation only; in the second year they produce fruit on canes that may reach four feet in height.

Do not plant them in areas in which potatoes, tomatoes, or peppers recently grew.   You can purchase raspberry plants as potted plants, or dormant, bare-root plants.  Better yet, get some runners from a friend.  Plant bare-root transplants in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Potted transplants and runners can go in any time after all threat of frost has passed.

In the spring, weed and mulch your plants.  In the fall, cut back the dry, dead canes.  They’re easy to distinguish from new green canes.

You may wish to train your plants to grow on trellises or other forms of support to make it easier for you to pick the berries when they are ripe.  They also do well in raised beds, and some varieties can be potted.

Types

Raspberries may be red, yellow, or black.

Summer-bearing raspberries produce fruit in the summer, on two year old canes.  You should remove canes that are three or more years old.

Everbearing or primocane-fruiting raspberries produce fruit in the spring, on two year old canes.  In the fall, they produce berries on the tips of the new canes that grew over the summer.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Raspberries are easy to pick; if the fruit does not come off easily, it’s not ready.  They will not continue to ripen after they have been picked.

Raspberries spoil easily, so don’t pick them if it is wet or too hot.  Use them immediately, or put them in the fridge or freezer.  They are best when eaten right away.

Raspberries can be used in salads, desserts, and all manner of preserves.  Throw them in a freezer bag and enjoy them in the winter in fruit crisps, smoothies, fruit salads, and more!

Friends

  • Chives
  • Garlic
  • Legumes
  • Turnips

Foes

  • Blackberries
  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Each raspberry is made up 100-120 tiny fruits called drupelets, which are clustered around the core. Each drupelet contains one seed.
  • When you pick a raspberry, the stem of the raspberry remains with the plant. When you pick a blackberry, the core comes away from the plant (it stays in the centre of the berry).  This is an easy way to distinguish a black raspberry from a blackberry.
  • Raspberries have been used to create new types of berries.  For example, a theloganberry is a cross between raspberries and a blackberries, and a boysenberry is a mix of red raspberries, blackberries, and loganberries.