Garden report: Part 1

Tilling the vegetable garden.

Over the past two weeks, I planted my cold weather crops.
First, I had to harvest the last of last season’s parsnips, which we enjoyed tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted alongside some carrots.
On April 14, David rented a tiller from a local shop and, I say without hyperbole, it was the best $20 we ever spent. In two hours, he had tilled the entire garden, incorporating some of the decomposing leaves we applied in the fall into the soil (the rest went into the compost heap) and leaving lovely, loose dirt at least 30 centimetres deep, ready for planting.
I sowed seeds the next day: two rows of harris model parsnips, three rows of organic scarlet nantes carrots, two rows of organic rainbow swiss chard (with a bit of leftover standard green mixed in), a row of pak choi and a row of baby leaf blend organic lettuce. The greens are already sprouting.

Red and green lettuce is beginning to sprout.

In my herb garden, I sowed some curly parsley seeds I harvested off a second year plant (parsley is biennial) last fall.
I also dug trenches in anticipation of the giant jersey asparagus roots I ordered from Vesey’s. Growing this vegetable is an exercise in patience; I’m not expecting a real harvest until 2014. But I could not resist the appeal of a perennial edible that is ready to eat in May.

Young leeks.

April 21, during at an impromptu stop at Joe’s Market for some local honey, I bought three small pots of leeks and a large rosemary plant. This year, I may keep the rosemary in a pot and bring it in during the winter. But a row of leeks was planted in a shallow trench the next day. (The whites of leeks are created by covering the bottoms with soil as they grow.) I love leeks in soups, grain dishes and pastas (including David’s favourite mac ‘n’ cheese, which also features pancetta, gruyere and blue cheese). After reading in Lois Hole’s Favourite Vegetables that you can dig them up whole (with a shovel or two of soil) and store them in a box somewhere cool like the garage to eat all winter, I knew I had to give growing them a try.
Yesterday (April 24), the asparagus crowns arrived in the mail. I planted them in my pre-dug trenches this evening.

This year’s harvest has already begun, albeit very slowly, with herbs: A few chives in a lemon chive mayo for a piece of grilled pickerel; several sprigs of thyme in a potato onion soup; lots of cilantro (self-seeded) to balance the pickled onions in fish tacos.
To my surprise, a lone kale plant survived the winter and should soon have sprouted enough leaves to add to a vegetable soup.

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Vegetable garden top five

March is an important month for my vegetable garden.
I gather my thoughts and the notes I’ve written in the margins of my agenda and scraps of paper, consult my books and magazines for folded corners and marked pages, go over last year’s plantings with an eye to crop rotation, make a few rough sketches and order my seeds.

My vegetable garden after the final plantings last May.

I buy organic whenever I can. Veseys is a reliable source of quality plants and seeds, and is continually expanding its organic selection. I’ve also had good luck with Hawthorn in Palmerston, Ontario and am trying Cubits’ dinosaur kale for the first time this season.
I try something new almost every year and will share my final selections for 2012 in a later post. But first, here are my top picks for any Ontario vegetable garden.

Tomatoes
When it comes to taste, there is nothing on your grocery store shelf at any time of the year that can compare to a sun-warmed tomato fresh from your own garden.
At a minimum, plant one beefsteak variety – for tomato sandwiches, caprese salads and just plain eating with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. If you have space and the inclination, add a couple more beefsteaks (for variation in taste, size and harvest time), a cherry/grape or two for salads and snacking and a paste tomato for sauce.

Bush beans
As I’ve noted before, one package of bush beans seeds can provide bountiful harvests for as long as you care to garden. I don’t bother with soaking, just poke the dried beans into the soil, water and wait for them to grow. Bush beans don’t require staking. The more you pick, the more beans your plants will produce. Leave a few pods to dry on the plants for next year’s harvest.

Swiss chard
Rainbow is my go-to variety — as much for the colour as the taste. The stems vary in hue from deep red to white, with shades of pink, orange and yellow in between. In a good season (like 2011), you can begin harvesting within six or eight weeks of planting (cut leaves, leaving about 2 cm of stem) and continue right up until the first hard frost.

Carrots
If you’ve only ever eaten the grown-for-shipping-not-for-flavour carrots from the grocery store, you’re probably not in a rush to plant your own. But I would urge you to give scarlet nantes a try. Cylindrical roots that grow 15 to 20 cm long, with a bright orange colour, smooth, thin skin and a sweet crunch. I plant them fairly thickly and lazily, thin to 4 cm, then again by harvesting some as baby carrots and allowing the rest to grow to full maturity.

Parsnips
The promise of digging vegetables out of the garden in January or March makes these a regular in my garden. Harvest after a good frost or two for a sweeter flavour. Fresh seeds are a must for success with this root vegetable, so choose a reputable supplier.

Stranded parsnips

Stranded parsnips, just waiting to be harvested and eaten.

Whenever talk turns to vegetable gardening (more often than you might think), I am always quick to praise the parsnip. It’s easy to grow (as long as your seeds are fresh), it’s much cheaper than buying it at the grocery store, it tastes great (particularly roasted) and you can harvest it all winter long.
Name one other vegetable that offers all that.
Parsnips are a favourite in our garden and on our table. Their taste sweetens with a frost or two and there is something so uplifting about being able to dig a vegetable out of the garden in mid-January, cook and eat it.
The strange weather – little snow, balmy stretches with rain followed by cold snaps – in southern Ontario has foiled our plans this year.
I went out yesterday afternoon to dig a few parsnips to roast with some carrots and turnips (the latter harvested from our garden in the summer and frozen) and serve alongside the garlic-crusted sirloin tip roast I had planned for dinner.
The ground, with its skim coat of snow, was as hard as cement.
I couldn’t even pull out the fork we keep to mark the rows (although David did later). A shovel just chipped away little bits of dirt.
I guess we’ll have to wait (and not too long if the weather forecasters are to be believed) for a warm spell before we can rescue our poor stranded parsnips and enjoy them for dinner.

The last stalk

I picked the last of your Swiss chard on Sunday afternoon. I sautéed it simply with olive oil and a couple cloves of sliced garlic for dinner. It was a perfect accompaniment to roast pork loin with a mustard-peppercorn crust and apple cider sauce and puree of butternut squash and apple.
I also cut the kale and froze the leaves for a future soup.
And I dug up our first parsnips of the season for a thick turkey stew on Monday.
With a pitchfork stuck at the end of parsnip rows (we’ll need the visual reminder once the snow arrives) and brown leaves covering the now bare soil, the garden is ready for winter.

The last of the Swiss chard, ready for the saute pan.