50 Shade of Green

Reason #6: 50 Shades of PESTICIDE-FREE Leafy Greens

Leafy greens – kale, spinach, swiss chard, lettuces and arugula – are one of the best things to grow in any garden. For one thing, most green varieties are frost hardy and so are one of the first crops you can plant. They are also fast growing, so are one of the first crops to harvest in the spring. The root systems of greens are fairly small and shallow, so you can plant a lot of it in a small space; the Square Foot Gardener recommends 4 lettuce, chard or kale plants per square foot. Finally, with succession planting, because they are frost hardy, greens are one of the latest crops going in the garden. Kale and swiss chard are often still green when the snow starts to fly.

Lettuce, kale, arugula, chard, spinach... It's so easy being green.

Lettuce, kale, arugula, chard, spinach… It’s so easy being green.

Anyone who is reading this blog most likely does not need to be told how amazingly healthy leafy greens are, especially the dark varieties such as kale, chard, spinach and collards. However, buying non-organic greens from the Superstore could be doing us more harm than good. Spinach, lettuce, kale and other leafy greens are included in the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen – a list of produce containing the highest levels of pesticide residue. Seriously scary stuff.

Sure you can buy organic greens at markets like Herb and Spice. But at $3.99/bunch for organic kale, I’d say it’s worthwhile to see what you can grow yourself!

Say “Seeeeeeeds!”… Time for Seed Harvesting

Call it the “after thought harvest”… seed harvesting is not something that you might do or even think about if you are a newbie (or even seasoned) veggie grower. But if you don’t like forking out $3.50 a pack for organic seeds, then I suggest you give some thought, and a tiny bit of energy, to harvesting some seeds from your own crops to plant next year.

Dried arugula seeds and pods (2012 harvest)

Dried arugula seeds and pods (2012 harvest)

Of course each crop variety has a slightly different method for harvesting its seeds. In the case of “fruiting” crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and pumpkins, the seeds are inside of the fruit, so must therefore be harvested from a picked fruit. I will leave those to a separate blog post later in the season… for now, let’s consider legumes and leafy crops, since that is what we’re harvesting right now.

Legumes (i.e. beans and peas) are the absolute simplest seed to harvest. Just allow a few of your pea and bean pods to fully mature and dry out on the vine. Harvest only after the pods are fully dried. A word of caution – don’t allow too many beans to fully mature off the bat or you will reduce the output of your plants. In the case of beans and peas, the more you pick, the more they produce! So wait until the plants are getting close to the end of their productive life before allowing pods to fully mature for seed harvesting. We have had excellent results with all peas and beans to date!

Dried pea pod on the vine.

Dried pea pod on the vine.

Harvested dried peas (2013 harvest)

Harvested dried peas (2013 harvest)

In the case of leafy crops the concept is simple – allow some of each crop to bolt, flower and go to seed, then allow the seeds to dry on the live plant before harvesting. I really cannot stress enough the importance of allowing the seed pods to dry fully on the plant before harvesting. If harvested too soon, the seeds may not be viable, or they may be difficult to store without rotting. This takes patience! For the last month we have been annoyingly stepping around a tangle of bolted cilantro to water our swiss chard, biding our time til the seeds are fully dried and ready to harvest… all for the love of sweet, sweet crushed coriander seed. (In the case of coriander, we save a few seeds for planting, but we use it religiously in all sorts of cooking.)

Cilantro (coriander) seeds... almost dry!

Cilantro (coriander) seeds… almost dry!

Over the last few years, we have had really good results harvesting seeds from the following leafy crops: all lettuces (… and did you know that lettuce plants have beautiful yellow flowers when they bolt?); spinach; arugula; dill; cilantro; and basil.

Once you have harvested the dried seed pods from the plant, release the individual seeds by rolling the pods between your thumb and fingers, gently crushing the dried pod. Place your harvested seeds in paper envelopes; I would advice against plastic since trapped humidity can make your seeds rot. Label, and store for next year in a cool, dry place. If you’re feeling particularly crafty, make yourself a cute seed box to keep them all in …

Say Seeeeds!

Say Seeeeds!

FYI, to date, we have not had any success harvesting seeds from kale, although recently I started chatting with a man on an airplane who turned out to run a small cooperative farm. He said that you can totally harvest kale seeds, and that they are good for eating as a nutrient-packed sprouted seed! We are definitely going to try this in the fall… will keep you posted on that one.

 

In-Season Recipe (early August): Barbequed Kale Chips

I can’t believe I haven’t posted this recipe earlier, because I literally make kale chips at least 3 times a week. We can’t get enough of it here. Even our 10-month old daughter loves crispy kale chips!

Sophia loves kale chips!

Sophia loves kale chips!

We have three varieties of kale in the garden this year:

The Vates Blue Curled has proven to be a wonderful, robust variety for cooking with. The curly leaves hold their integrity much better than the other two when cooking. The Red Russian has produced very well; with its flat broad-leaves, this one is nice to harvest young to add to salads.

Early August kale harvest

Early August kale harvest

Kale is so wonderfully good for you – high in B vitamins, antioxidants, iron, calcium, fibre, omega 3s. just to name a few of the many benefits of eating this “queen of greens.” It is delicious sauteed with a little garlic to go with your morning eggs, blended into smoothies, cooked into omelettes, chopped into salads and baked with other veggies. But in my opinion, there is no better way to eat it than to turn it onto crispy kale chips… on the BBQ!

Yep, you read correctly, I make these on the que. In the hot summer months, who wants to turn their oven on?

Here’s what you need to make the basic version of BBQed kale chips:

  • A few nice mitt-fulls of fresh kale (curled variety preferred)
  • A couple table spoons Olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • A few tablespoons of Nutritional yeast.(Nutritional yeast is high in B vitamins, protein and iron! It is low sodium and gives things a nutty delicious flavour… amazing addition to salad dressings! I buy it at Herb and Spice.)
  • Handful of pine nuts, if desired.

    Nutritional yeast adds a yummy nutty flavour and is high in B vitamins.

    Nutritional yeast adds a yummy nutty flavour and is high in B vitamins.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Wash your kale if necessary (and dry thoroughly!) and tear into large pieces (I usually just tear leaves in 2 or 3)
  • Toss kale in olive oil, coating well.
  • Toss in the nutritional yeast and sea salt (and pine nuts, if using.) I never measure this stuff… it’s all about experimenting with quantities o see what you like.
  • Spread out the kale on a baking sheet.
  • Place on a BBQ on low heat.
  • “Bake” 5-10 minutes, turning frequently! Kale will burn VERY quickly if you don’t keep a close eye on it.
  • Chips are done when kale is crispy but not dried out or overly browned.
  • Serve immediately, as an appetizer or snack. I find these are perfect to serve as a nibbly when you’re barbequing other things.

    kale on BBQ

    Kale on the barbie.

Try experimenting with all sorts of seasonings. Another blend we really like uses sesame oil, sesame seeds and a dash of tamari… go nuts! There really is no wrong way to do kale chips. Drooool.

Barbequed kale chips with pine nuts.

Barbequed kale chips with pine nuts.

 

 

In-Season Recipe (early July): Garlic Scape, Basil & Kale Pesto

Fresh batch of scape, kale and basil pesto. Does it get any more delicious?

Fresh batch of scape, kale and basil pesto. Does it get any more delicious?

It’s scape season! Well, the tail end of it anyway. We have been loving using garlic scapes in place of garlic bulb for the last few weeks. FYI, for those who don’t know, the scape is a long curly stalk at the end of which grows the garlic flower. Scapes are harvested before the garlic actually flowers to encourage the garlic to direct energy to the bulb. And they are delicious. We’ve been putting them in curries, omelettes, stir fries, roasted veg, salads, marinades… you name it!

Curly garlic scapes, ripe for the picking (early July.)

Curly garlic scapes, ripe for the picking (early July.)

But the pièce de résistance has got to be the pesto. We harvested all of the remaining scapes in one big bundle to be sacrificed to the food processor gods to become a few precious jars of garlicy, basily, nutty goodness.

Pesto is a cinch to make. Here’s how I did this batch. (Note that all measurements are approximate… it’s all up to your tastes.)

Put the following in a food processor and blend until smooth:

- 2 cups garlic scapes (chop off the little seed pods first)

- 1 cup chopped kale

- 1 cup chopped basil

- 1 cup lightly roasted pine nuts

- 1 cup lightly roasted walnuts

- 1.5 -2 cups grated parmesan cheese

- 1 generous cup olive oil

- juice of at least 1 lemon (more if you love a lemon zing in your pesto)

- Lots of cracked pepper and dash of sea salt, to taste

This recipe yielded about 6 small jars, but it was so good that Benny insisted on snacking on it immediately with some tortilla chips (as pictured above.) You will too. Freeze what you aren’t using immediately. These small jars make awesome leave-behind gifts if you’re going to a friend’s for dinner or visiting a friend with a new baby.

While pesto is typically made with basil, I used a combination of garden kale and basil in this batch and it worked out famously. We are growing three varieties of kale:

Red Russian and Blue Curled kale (early July.)

Red Russian and Blue Curled kale (early July.)

We have four varieties of basil growing this year, although I must admit that I did buy some basil transplants at the Parkdale Market to supplement the rather meager number of basil seedlings that germinated indoors (from seeds harvested in 2012.) I think we have a Thai, an Italian, a purple leaf and a Greek basil.

Early Season Planting… Hurry Up and Wait!

Getting the garden going in the spring is always an exercise in patience. The snow melts, then it comes back. The temperature jumps up to 20+ degrees for a few days but then is back down to near freezing. It can be hard to know what should be planted and when, and how to plan for a garden that doesn’t all get planted at the same time.

Several crops can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked, and actually prefer to germinate in cool soil, including spinach, radishes, beets, greens, kale and peas.

Sprouted Giant Winter spinach, Jericho romaine lettuce and Early Wonder beets, early May

Sprouted Giant Winter spinach, Jericho romaine lettuce and Early Wonder beets, early May

Here is a list of everything that we planted outdoors in the month of April and the source of the seeds. The items that are in bold are things that we’ve done before that we’ve loved and would recommend:

  • Romaine lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Red Oak leaf lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Curly green leaf lettuce (seeds harvested from 2012 season, originally plant given by friend)
  • Astro Arugula (seeds harvested from 2012 season, Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Black Seeded Simpson lettuce (Page Seed Co)
  • Giant Winter spinach (Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Rainbow Dinosaur kale (Urban Harvest)
  • Vates Blues Curled kale (Urban Harvest)
  • Red Russian kale (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Plum Purple radish (The Cottage Gardener)
  • Raxe radish (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Atomic Red carrot (Urban Harvest)
  • Scarlett Nantes carrot (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Jerusalem artichoke (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Detroit Dark Red beet (Ferme Tourne-Sol)
  • Early Wonder beet (Greta’s Organic Garden)
  • Sugar Snap pea (Ferme Tourne Sol)
  • Fordhook Giant swiss chard (Urban Harvest)
  • Sweet Peas flowers (Aimers – bought at Lee Valley)
Plum Purple radish and Sugar Snap peas, early May

Plum Purple radish and Sugar Snap peas, early May

This year we really had our shit together and got our early planting started as soon as the ground was thawed enough to turn over the top 12 inches of soil. But we didn’t just bury the seeds any-old-where in the garden. We planned the early planting with a few things in mind this year – succession planting, crop rotation and interplanting with later season crops.

Succession planting -  Some crops mature quickly, which means that you can/should plant several “batches” of them throughout the growing season to maintain a constant supply of your favourite salad fixin’s! These include lettuce, arugula, spinach, beets and radishes (and carrots to a lesser degree.) Successive rounds of planting can be done every 2-4 weeks for these crops.

This has implications for your first round of planting in the early season; it means that you don’t need to plant all the beets you can eat in one go! Plant some now and more later…  We planted our sunniest garden plot with a small assortment of salad greens, beets and radishes. 2 weeks later, we planted another plot in the garden with radishes and beets. Another round of lettuces will be planted in the coming week. It should be noted, however, that certain crops don’t do well when it gets hot, hot, hot. Spinach and beets will likely not do well when planted into July and August; best to do a couple of plantings in spring and wait for later summer to plant again for fall harvest.

(Tip: The book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew has some extremely helpful and simple planting charts to help plan succession planting. Highly recommended for urban gardening newbies!)

 Crop rotation - Each crop in the garden needs a different balance of mineral nutrients (namely nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) from the soil. As a result, the soil can become depleted of one or more nutrients when the same crop is planted in the same place year after year. To avoid this, we are doing our best to switch up the location of crops in the garden. For example, cucumbers are nitrogen-suckers! We will be putting cucumbers in a different spot this year and planting beans – a nitrogen-replenisher – in their place. This is an important consideration in the early season as you plan out the location of your crops in the yard and put in some of the longer-growing early season crops such as kale, chard and peas.

Interplanting – This year we are going to dabble much more with interplanting – the art of planting more than one type of crop together in a harmonious and beneficial way. As noted above, we did our first spring planting in the sunniest garden plot, which is also occupied by our garlic, planted last fall. (See previous post Why yes I do have garlic breath.) This sunny spot is primo tomato growing location, so our plan is to interplant tomato seedlings with the early season greens, radishes and beets. As the tomatoes grow and require more space we will be eating the radishes and beets and will thin out the lettuce. In the heat of the summer the few heads of lettuce that remain will enjoy partial shade from the towering tomatoes and (in theory) will not bolt as quickly as lettuce that is exposed to the direct blazing sun… stay tuned to see how that works out!

If you haven’t planted anything yet and are reading this thinking “Aww man, I’ve missed the boat and now it’s too late!” then please stop worrying. You can plant now. Or next week. Just please do plant this spring!