Here’s hoping your home kitchen garden is producing stuff you can eat. By now, many northern hemisphere kitchen gardeners are eating young lettuce, spinach, and other greens from their yards. I recently explained that I plant lettuce close so the plants are very crowded, and that I harvest whole plants through the season as a means of thinning down to the few plants that grow to maturity.
Because of comments from my friend at Inch By Inch, Row By Row, It occurred to me that if you’re new to kitchen gardening, you might never have dealt with fresh-picked produce. While most produce from your home kitchen garden will taste better than any you buy in a store, it will also pose challenges that store-bought produce doesn’t.
Store bought greens are usually free of soil, insects, and dried plant matter. Growers, packagers, and produce associates rinse produce and selectively remove damaged leaves. When you get it home, it’s nearly table-ready, though there may be a few leaves you want to remove… and you probably rinse to reduce your chances of eating pesticides.
It’s hard to avoid dirt when you’re dealing with home-grown produce. Especially growing lettuce the way I do, you’re going to get soil on your plants when you thin/harvest. As well: there are likely to be insects, and possibly slugs and snails, on your lettuce plants. They aren’t necessarily there to eat your plants; insects hang out just about everywhere in your garden.
So, for most gardeners there’s a greater time commitment to serve home-grown lettuce than there is for serving store-bought greens. Here’s how I prepare lettuce from my garden:
Picking—Through most of the season, I thin my lettuce beds by pulling clusters of plants. I immediately snap off the roots of the plants and toss them aside, but not all the soil goes with the roots. I try to brush off any large deposits of soil. And, before I put the leaves in a bowl to take inside, I inspect for slugs and remove any I find.
In the spring, if there are slugs, they’re usually slug babies. These are smaller than pencil erasers, and they especially like my densely-packed lettuce beds; plants pressed together hold in moisture, and I’m pretty sure lettuce tastes good to slug babies.
Cleaning—No, what I do in the garden to freshly-picked lettuce isn’t cleaning. Cleaning happens in my kitchen. There, I fill a large bowl with cold water and I float all the lettuce leaves in it. Leaves float, but soil on them quickly loosens and sinks. As well, pieces of mulch, weed seeds, and other random organic matter I may not want to eat may float free from the lettuce leaves. This isn’t a big deal, because I’m a bit obsessive about eating only clean lettuce.
So, I gently stir the lettuce with my hand and then, one-by-one I remove and inspect the leaves. I look for dirt that didn’t wash off in the bowl, and I look for slugs and eggs. Slugs are easy, but eggs? Depending on who lives in your garden, you may find spots on your lettuce that don’t rinse off easily. Usually, these will wipe off with a swipe of a finger or thumb across the wet leaf. I’m not a biologist, but I guess these spots are eggs (alternatively, I guess they could be bug or slug poop)… and while I’m sure they won’t harm me, I’m a tad squeamish about eating them (I’d lose the “eat something disgusting” challenge on Survivor without even looking at the disgusting thing I was supposed to eat.)
Finally, if something about a leaf strikes me as odd, I’ll tear it off and preserve the part that looks tasty. The thoroughly-inspected lettuce goes into a salad spinner, and once spun, to the table (it stays in the spinner’s basket unless we have guests; then it goes in a wooden salad serving bowl).
As laborious as all this sounds, it’s not that big a job. Once floating in water, the lettuce leaves are easy to pick through. I can walk away repeatedly to work on other aspects of a meal, and the lettuce doesn’t complain. In fact, very tender, floppy lettuce often crisps up while floating in my cleaning bowl.
The awesome flavor and money-savings easily pay for this little extra work. Besides, I’ve already worked the soil, cut a furrow, added compost, planted seeds, watered, and harvested. Obsessively inspecting and cleaning my lettuce is a minor additional bump.
Unless you have a home kitchen garden, you probably aren’t familiar with rhubarb. Heck, plenty of kitchen gardeners miss out on this spring treat. If you have space to grow it, but you’ve never tasted rhubarb, I suggest restraint: don’t plant rhubarb until you know you’re going to use it. I can tell you it’s delicious, but you should decide for yourself; most rhubarb enthusiasts grew up eating it, and I can’t think of a familiar flavor to which I can compare it.
There must be thousands of people who acquired rhubarb by buying a house with rhubarb plants in the yard. If you’re one of those people, you may wonder how to prepare the stuff… at least so you can try it once and decide whether to maintain your rhubarb patch. On the other hand, if you have a home kitchen garden without rhubarb plants, and the idea of harvesting your first significant crop in early-to-mid spring is compelling, you should sample some rhubarb and decide whether to add some to your landscape.
In case you’ve never seen it done, here’s how to harvest rhubarb and cook it into a delicious sauce to serve as a side dish, or as a topping for cottage cheese, yogurt, cereal, or whatever else you eat with a fruity topping:
1. Harvest rhubarb stalks. To pick a stalk, pull it directly away from the rest of the plant in the direction the stalk is growing. It should come free as though popping out of a socket. The bottom of the stalk should end in a pink, fan-shaped scoop. Try not to break the stalk off when you pull it.
2. Cut off the leaf, and pull off any dry, leaf-like material near the base of the stalk.
3. Rinse off soil, insects, and any other foreign materials you’d rather not eat.
4. If there are ugly blemishes or dried out spots, incise them from the rhubarb stalks.
5. Cut the stalks into ¾- or 1-inch sections and put the sections in a sauce pot.
6. Add an eighth of an inch of water or less to the pot; just enough to cover the bottom.
7. Cover the pot and set it on very low heat; it will need to cook for 45 minutes to an hour at that setting.
8. While the sauce is hot, add sugar to taste and stir till it dissolves. Rhubarb is very sour; I add about one cup of sugar to every quart of sauce.
9. Refrigerate the rhubarb sauce and serve it cold.
Please visit my blog post Small Kitchen Garden Rhubarb for a discussion about planting and growing your own rhubarb.
Most of the leaves in this photo belong to young, volunteer cilantro plants in my home kitchen garden. These sprouted about where last year’s main cilantro patch stood, but there are cilantro volunteers scattered through about two-thirds of my vegetable bed.
My home kitchen garden likes to give me surprise gifts. Most of those, I’d rather not receive; my garden isn’t very imaginative and it tends to give me the same presents year-after-year: dandelions, thistle, and a host of other plants I can’t name and I don’t want. I call them weeds.
But other surprise gifts my garden gives me provide a lot of pleasure. These are plants that grow from seeds left behind by last year’s vegetable crop: volunteers. There is only one significant difference between a volunteer and a weed: You would never intentionally try to grow a plant you think of as a weed in your garden. A volunteer is a plant you would grow intentionally, but it’s growing in a place of its own choosing rather than where you planted it.
I’ve spotted dozens of volunteer tomato plants in my home kitchen garden. While they’re likely to produce mediocre tomatoes at best, I’ll let them grow as long as they don’t interfere with the goodies I planted this season.
In past years, I’ve had decorative gourds and pumpkins grow as volunteers in my home kitchen garden. I’ve also had tomatoes, peas, beans, cilantro, and dill weed start unexpectedly from seeds left by the previous seasons’ plants. In fact, I planted cherry tomatoes one year, and harvested little red gems three years in a row—the last two years from volunteer plants.
Volunteers start where seeds fall, or where they end up after spring tilling. For me, these locations are rarely convenient. On the other hand, volunteers amuse me enough that I try to work around them. If I weed my garden, I avoid the volunteers. And, if they don’t overshadow or crowd this year’s crops, I let them grow to maturity.
So far this year, I’ve identified volunteer cilantro, dill weed, and tomatoes scattered among my peas, lettuce, spinach, and onions. The dill weed and some cilantro are in particularly convenient places. The tomatoes aren’t so convenient.
I’ll let most volunteers grow, but I don’t have much enthusiasm for the tomatoes. Last year, I planted from flats bought at a garden store. All the varieties were hybrids meaning they’re crosses between two other varieties of plants.
This is not a stand of volunteer dill weed plants. However, I harvested seeds from a volunteer dill plant two seasons ago and planted them last season. The resulting plants were dramatically more robust than the original dill I’d grown from commercial seeds four seasons earier. This year’s volunteer dill sprouts represent a fourth season of dill grown entirely from descendants of those commercial seeds.
Seeds from hybrid plants may not grow at all. When they do grow, they may not produce fruit. If they do produce fruit, it most certainly won’t be the same quality as the hybrid fruit from which the seeds came. But you never know until you try. So, I’ll let the volunteer tomatoes grow and, unless they become a major inconvenience, I’ll see whether they produce decent fruit.
If volunteers in my garden’s planting bed don’t provide enough entertainment, I have a convenient fallback: my compost heap. Through the growing season, it receives damaged and rotting tomatoes, dead and drying herbs and pea plants, and a gallon or so of pumpkin guts. Usually, some of the seeds in all of that take root and I work around the plants. One season, the heap disappeared under the leaves of some large pumpkin vines and I eventually harvested several carving pumpkins.
Garden and compost volunteers are amusing, and sometimes rewarding. I look forward to seeing what pops up in my garden; it’s a little bit like having Christmas morning in mid-spring.
These pepper plants started from seeds some six weeks ago. However, for nearly three weeks they’ve lived outdoors where cool spring days have slowed their growth.
In the 14 years I’ve grown my own home kitchen garden, I had never started seeds indoors. It’s so convenient to buy plants that someone else has started from seeds and set them in the garden the day the frost stops. For most kitchen gardeners, this is an excellent approach. Who has the time, space, and appropriate gear to plant seeds and maintain them for four-to-six weeks before finally setting them in a garden bed?
The down-side of buying flats (packages of four or six seedlings) is that you have a very limited selection. Most local garden stores offer excellent plants but of no more than five to ten varieties. When it comes to tomatoes, you’re likely to find several of the beefsteak plants. Things labeled Big Boy, Better Boy, Bigger Better Boy (I made up that one), Better Girl, Early Girl, Beefsteak, Beefsteak Hybrid, and Big Steak are common. You might find Roma, and some type of cherry tomato… and maybe one uncommon heirloom variety such as Dwarf Grandma Black Vein Pall-Bearer (I made that up as well).
For broccoli and cauliflower, good luck finding more than one variety of each. And, if you want winter squash other than butternut and acorn, you’re simply out of luck.
So… if you want to choose what you plant from a broad selection of varieties, you need to buy seeds and start them yourself. For many plants in many hardiness zones, it’s best to start indoors four-to-six weeks before your last frost. This head start extends the growing season so you can harvest a bigger crop from your home kitchen garden.
I decided to start my own seeds this year. For me it’s not about variety. We’re broke. OK, we’re not broke, but we’re trying to be financially conservative and seeds cost way less than flats of growing plants. There’s that, and I started writing lots of how-to articles about gardening; I coudn’t write about starting seeds without providing at least one example. No wait. There’s one more reason: a neighbor gave me tomatoes of a variety I’ve never seen anywhere else; I wanted to grow them, and that meant starting the seeds myself.
These pepper plants started indoors six weeks ago, but remained there until yesterday. They are many times the size of the outdoor plants, and already have flower buds about to open. The plants that remained inside are weeks ahead of their wilderness survival counterparts. Don’t rush to get your seedlings planted in the garden.
So, I set up low-hanging lights, bought peat pellets and planting soil, and bought seeds months earlier than ever before. I’ve had reasonable success, though some seeds started way faster than I expected while other seeds have taken as many as twenty days to send sprouts above the soil. The most interesting of these (to me) have been the pepper seeds.
I hate that subthitle; please forgive me for it. I filled a windowsill planter and two sawed-off gallon milk jugs with potting soil. I planted bell pepper seeds in both containers indoors under lights. After sprouts emerged, I moved the milk jugs outside to get the plants used to wind and changes in temperature. The window planter stayed inside under lights because some seeds in it didn’t sprout and I wanted to start more (peppers sprout best when the temperature is above 70F degrees).
For the three weeks I’ve had the milk jug peppers outdoors, it has been cold and rainy. The peppers have acclimated, but they’ve nearly stopped growing. In contrast the windowsill planter peppers have charged ahead. There are multiple branches on these plants, and flower buds have formed.
This brings me back to an observation I’ve offered repeatedly: Don’t hurry your garden in the spring. You can plant cold weather crops when the soil thaws, but if the temperature remains low, seeds you plant three weeks later may catch up quickly. Also, no matter how warm it gets in March and April, you could still have frost in mid May. Don’t risk your plant babies by getting started too early.
I built a sandbox when my oldest child was three-and-a-half years old. He’s now 16, and no one has played in the sandbox for at least five years. While it’s close to the playset, it gets plenty of sunlight and will make a terrific planting bed for tomatoes.
When I was young, my dad managed our family’s home kitchen garden. It consisted of four rhubarb plants in the back corner of the yard, a small stand of chives near the outside stairway to the basement, and a bed of strawberries along the driveway. Everything else my parents gardened was ornamental: perennial tulips, peonies, roses, and lilacs, and annual marigolds, pansies, and whatever struck my mother’s fancy.
Then my brothers and I outgrew the sandbox and we discovered my dad’s passion for tomatoes. He carted garbage cans full of horse manure to the sandbox, mixed the manure with the sand, and planted tomatoes. High on horse manure, the plants grew tall, tomatoes grew large, and I staged many rebellions against the disgusting fruits my father harvested. (I genuinely despised tomatoes.)
Fourteen years after leaving home, I settled in central Pennsylvania. Being on the road nearly constantly, I knew I wouldn’t have time to tend a garden, but regardless, I bought a flat of tomato plants and set them in the existing garden bed. I’ve grown tomatoes every season since. In those years, I doubled the size of the garden, and squeezed many vegetables in around the obligatory tomato plants.
I also built a sandbox. For years, my kids made towers and tunnels in the sand, but eventually they abandoned it for other pursuits. Soon, weeds grew and the box itself rotted and collapsed. Now it sits next to the play set, gradually evolving into a climax community forest.
It’s my turn to repurpose a sandbox, echoing my dad’s project of some 40 years ago. I had hoped to do this last weekend, but the weather didn’t cooperate. So, at my first opportunity, I’ll take on the job. Here’s what I’m planning to do:
These tomato plant babies started about three weeks ago from seeds in my basement. They’ll soon be residents of the sandbox.
If you have an old sandbox that you want to incorporate into your home kitchen garden, there are a few things you should keep in mind: