Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The A List

Here's what we're ordering this year, where we're getting it from, and why we like it. Feel free to post your own favorites in the comments. We're always looking for new ideas.

Seed Savers Exchange

Baker Creek

  • Amarillo Carrot- Lemon yellow and very sweet and juicy.
  • Muscade Carrot- We're planting this one because it's unusual and intriguing, from North Africa.
  • Bouquet Dill- Tiny umbelliferous flower heads are ideal at attracting & sheltering parasitic wasps and nematodes (say what?)
  • Di Firenze Fennel- Small, sweet bulbs. Can't wait to roast these for a veggie pot pie.
  • Siamese Dragon Asian Greens- A unique mix of greens for stir-frying.
  • Bleu Of Solaise Leek- Hopefully this cold-hardy leek will get bigger than the American Flags did last year. Also it's French, so Kate couldn't resist.
  • Val D'Orges Lettuce- French butterhead. 'Nuff said.
  • King Of The North Pepper- Red bell pepper for short-seasoners like us.
  • Chinese Red Meat Radish- Look like adorable mini watermelons.
  • Bee Balm- Good herb for tea, but we're using mostly for bees.
  • Borage- Attracts beneficial bugs, also good for salads.
  • Chives- We're putting little patches of chives all over the yard. You can never have to many of these. They're also perennial.


  • Garden Of Eden Pole Bean- Tender, broad green beans we'll be training over a trellis spanning the walkways between our raised beds.
  • Blue Wind Broccoli- Even after last year's broccoli disaster, we are not deterred! This is an early version, a full 26-50 days earlier than last year's Romanesco. We also have some tricks up our collective sleeve for defeating cutworms: tuna cans.
  • Walla Walla Onion- Even though we feel like it's a copout to grow these from seedlings instead of seeds, these sweet onions are so worth it (we couldn't find the seeds for sale).
  • Evergreen Hardy White Scallion- Lots of these, since we use scallions almost every day in one form or another.
  • Ambition Shallot- A successful crop of these would be a huge victory, since shallots are expensive and sometimes the pickings are slim.
  • Calendula- Pink, orange, and yellow blooms to bring color and bees to the yard.
  • Nasturtium- The petals on these red flowers add spicy zest to salads.
  • Zinnia- A Persian carpet of flowers in autumn tones.


  • Genovese Basil- A must-have, the best variety for pesto and summer dishes.
  • Vietnamese Coriander (Rau Ram)- A spicy substitute for cilantro. Heat resistant and also makes a good houseplant.
  • Tansy- Great indigenous perennial and beneficial insect attractant. Leaves can be used for tea.
  • Rosemary- Well known culinary herb of much esteem. We'd like to find a hardy version that can overwinter here if possible.
  • Yarrow- Small, low-growing flower. Member of the aster family (asteraceae).
  • Angelica- Perrenial flowering herb that can reach 6 ft in height. Tolerates some shade, which we have plenty of.
  • Lovage- A tall, leafy green plant that can be used as a celery substitute.
  • Lavender- Fragrant, flowering evergreen. Zone 6-hardy perennials exist.
  • Oregano- No description needed here.
  • Thyme- Staggeringly diverse family of perennials with tiny, delicate flowers. Perfect dual-purpose, ground-covering herb.

Monday, January 26, 2009


We managed to save a few seeds from our plants last year. Saving seed is a priority for us because locally grown plants can pass down positive evolutionary traits to future plant generations. In other words, plants can inherit genetic improvements adopted by their predecessors, like cold tolerance, disease resistance, improved production in a new climate, etc. Besides, seeds aren't cheap, especially when you are as maniacal as we are. We try to cut costs where we can. It's also rewarding to be the tiniest bit more self-reliant this year than last. Baby steps, right? Here is a list of seeds we have kept from last year, some bought and some saved. Not too shabby!
  • Holy Basil (Leftover)
  • Queenette Basil (Leftover)
  • Lao Green Stripe Eggplant (Leftover)
  • Arugula (Leftover)
  • Early Hanover Melon (Leftover)
  • Burmese Okra (Saved)
  • Ancho Pepper (Leftover)
  • Lemon Pepper (Saved)
  • Black Beauty Zucchini (Leftover)
  • Nyagous Tomato (Leftover)
  • Isis Candy Tomato (Leftover)
  • San Marzano Tomato (Saved)
  • Monnopa Spinach (Leftover)
  • Harlequin Marigold (Leftover)
  • Perilla (Saved)
  • Lemongrass (Saved)
  • Cilantro (Leftover)

Thursday, January 22, 2009


January always seems like an interminable month. I’ve been thinking about gardening a lot lately since the frigid weather has forced all of us indoors. At the peril of becoming crazed with premature enthusiasm, I’ve begun laying out initial garden plans for the upcoming season.

Kate and I want to learn as much as possible from last year’s experiences. Our biggest tasks this year will be to improve our organizational skills and to not overcomplicate things. I’ve been using a fantastic online gardening tool called Plangarden to layout our vegetable plots (see screenshot below). In addition to arrangement capabilities, Plangarden allows the user to maintain a database of seed starting, transplanting, and harvesting information. So far, it has made our planning simpler and will hopefully help us accurately track our harvest later on. Now I need to place these seed orders before I lose my mind.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Food Matters

Food guru Mark Bittman talks sensibly and accessibly about why our food choices are important. His argument boils down to this: Eat less meat, more vegetables, and make as many of your own meals as possible. I'd go one step farther and say that growing your own food--whether it's a few pots of tomatoes and herbs on your balcony or even belonging to a CSA--will make your diet even healthier, for yourself and for the planet.

If you're intrigued, Bittman's new book Food Matters will tell you more. I also can't gush enough about his recipes, which never steer me wrong. How To Cook Everything Vegetarian is exactly what the title claims, and it's like a bible for me. So many of his dishes have become a regular part of our rotation, like roasted quinoa with potatoes and cheese and banana bread. In fact, I've got some of that bread kicking around in my bread drawer right now, and I could use a snack.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gettin' Down with the Hoes

Hot diggity dog! Turns out there's more than one kind of hoe that can help a guy out with his sexual needs. We couldn't let this one slip by without mention.

We've got to sign off now to attend to some business. Planning the garden, of course! Get your mind out of the gutter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cheese, Please

Love affairs may wax and wane, but none of you who know me will ever doubt my passion for cheese. I have been known to embark on expeditions to find the most delicious and obscure cheeses on several continents. I can completely empathize with my favorite local cheesemaker, who painstakingly carved a cave out of Appalachian rock to recreate the conditions in which cheese is aged in the Pyrenees.

But let’s not forget fresh, warm, comforting cheese that can be whipped up in your own kitchen anytime you have 20 minutes to spare. Although I have had mishaps making mozzarella, my favorite cheese recipe is easy and foolproof and so delicious. It’s forgiving, adaptable, and doesn’t require any fancy equipment.

Many Indian restaurants call paneer “cottage cheese,” a term that gives me the willies, probably because I'm not a fan of cottage cheese. The paneer we make at home has the mild, slightly tangy flavor of mozzarella and a moist, crumbly texture, kind of like feta, but it bears no resemblance to that stuff you can buy in a tub at the supermarket.

Basic Paneer

½ gallon milk (whole or lowfat, but not skim)
2 tablespoons salt
2 cups plain nonfat yogurt, whisked until smooth
a fine sieve or cheesecloth

Boil the milk and salt over high heat, constantly stirring. As soon as the milk starts to boil, add the yogurt and stir until combined. Be careful that the milk doesn’t boil over, which can happen very quickly if you’re not paying attention.

Continue to stir over high heat until the mixture starts to separate into curds and whey, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and drain the curds using the sieve or cheesecloth folded over into 4 layers. Some people save the whey, which is rich in protein, and use it to make soups and bread, but that’s beyond my current level of resourcefulness.

Let the cheese drain for about 5 minutes. If using cheesecloth, bring the corners together to form a bag and gently twist to get out as much moisture as possible. I use a sieve, putting a small plate and a can of beans on top of the cheese to weigh it down and extract the extra whey. Let the cheese drain further for 10 to 12 minutes—less time if you like a softer cheese, and more time if you like a firmer texture.

When the paneer is cool enough to handle, cut into desired shapes and either use immediately or refrigerate. I like it gently crumbled, myself. It can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 4 to 5 days.

Makes 8 ounces.

Variation: To curdle the milk, you could replace the yogurt with ¼ cup lemon or lime juice, 3-4 tablespoon white vinegar, or 1 quart buttermilk. Keep in mind that the vinegar and lemon/lime juices will lower your yield to about 6 ounces. Plus the yogurt version tastes better, in my opinion.

You don’t have to restrict paneer to eating with Indian food. It’s a good substitute for queso fresco on Mexican dishes, and it tastes great with any kind of beans. Tonight I’m boiling up some French lentils and basmati rice and topping with paneer and caramelized onions.

Feel free to add your favorite combination of spices. For starters:

  • ½ tsp dried oregano and 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp minced garlic and 1tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil, 1T soy sauce, 1 tsp minced fresh ginger, 1 ½ tsp sesame seeds, ¼ cup rice wine vinegar

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On the Boil

This week our local produce market had these gorgeous and completely out-of-season borlotti beans in the pod for a very reasonable price. Of course I bought them and we ate them with fried sliced garlic and olive oil, and they were delicious.

We frequent this market because they consistently have delicious, fresh, cheap produce, but most of it isn't organic, and we choose to ignore the fact that much of it comes from distant lands. Thus, an aspiring locavore's dilemma: Support the small business owner even though they don't share our ethics, or spend a fortune at big-box Whole Foods? This is something of a false choice, though, since the third, most reasonable (and most unamerican) option would be not to buy fancy beans at all, subsisting on the root vegetables we get from the farm and splurging on a few organic greens. Dammit, this is so difficult during the winter! How will we survive until spring?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Subversive Elements

Mowing the lawn is an inescapable part of the American dream, right? We thought so when we diligently cut our half-acre of grass every other week at our first house in Maryland. But Michael Pollan, one of our favorite garden and food writers, takes a different tack. In his book Second Nature, he talks about carrying on his father’s legacy of refusing to care for the lawn in the traditional way.

Pollan posits the lawn as part of the social contract. Pollan is a guy who was nominated only half in jest to be the next Secretary of Agriculture by his peers, so he knows something about something. Every god-fearing, red-blooded American McMansioneer strives endlessly to attain that elusive, glittering grail: the perfect manicured lawn. Or as Pollan puts it, “The front lawn symbolizes the collective face of suburbia.” We strove to participate and failed miserably.

We never felt the need to battle it out with the dandelions and wildflowers, or as Mark puts it, to eradicate all invasive plant species from our property in favor of a single nitrogen-hoarding alien monoculture. We’ll get to that mouthful of 25-cent words another time, but we also started realizing that lawns aren’t very good for the environment, not least because people devote so much water and so many toxic chemicals, as well as the gasoline and exhaust from the lawnmower, to maintain the traditional, neon-green buzzcut.

People who don’t mow their lawns—or heaven forbid, replace them with something else—are breaking the contract. Some people realize this and use it to their advantage; hence the trend of guerrilla gardening. Others try to turn their front yards into gardens and are stymied by local laws that actually mandate a lawn or harassed by horrified neighbors who want everyone to mow in lockstep.

If you learned anything from being forced to read Jack London’s agonizing story “To Build a Fire” in junior high, it’s that humans are ultimately on the losing side when we attempt to enslave nature. A war against unwanted plant intruders is a lot like a certain War on Terror we’ve been hearing a lot about lately. Nature has time on her side, not to mention limitless resources. I dare you to lay down the Roundup and mothball your John Deere tractor for a year, and then see if you can even recognize your own property.

In a sense, we came around to permaculture when we started thinking, If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. We’re not revolutionaries by any stretch, but every year we turn a little more grass into usable garden space, which gives us more veggies, fruits, herbs, and pretty flowers, and every year we get a little more of our food locally and organically. This year the big change was Genesis Farm, which now provides most of our vegetables, eggs, milk, and a wealth of knowledge.

We’re still novices, but with the enthusiasm of new converts, we think we can actually produce some vegetables by recruiting nature as an ally instead of trying to tame it. (Get it? PRODUCE!)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Permaculture Vulture

Kate took a food politics course at Genesis Farm last fall and really loved it. We consider ourselves pretty savvy consumers and gardeners, but we learned about some new concepts like deep vs. shallow organic farming and permaculture, among other things.

Have you ever been suspicious of a corporate behemoth like Land o Lakes labeling their products “organic?” You may have good reason to be, since some companies use “shallow organic” methods that follow the letter of the law when it comes to organics, but not the spirit. “Deep organic” farmers try to mimic the patterns of nature to control pests, fight disease, and maximize harvests.

Permaculture takes the concept one step further. The word is a mash-up of “permanent agriculture” and “culture,” and the idea is that in order for humans to achieve a fully sustainable existence on this planet, we have to understand our place in nature. At first, this sounds hokey and woefully unscientific, both of which are an anathema to Mark’s finely tuned rational mind. But if you think about it, permaculture is really just the science of ecology applied specifically to humans and what we do.

Okay, now we’re veering dangerously into didactic territory. But there are folks out there doing some creative and controversial things with permaculture, and later this week we're going to let you in on how these practices can be subversive and downright revolutionary.

In case you're interested, we'll point you in the direction we're headed. Right now we’re really into Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, which is an excellent primer on permaculture, as well as Sally Jean Cunningham’s Great Garden Companions, which uses similar organic gardening solutions that dovetail beautifully with the permaculture philosophy. Be warned that this is the Coltivi’s Playhouse Not-So-Secret Word of the Year.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fresh Start

Our New Year’s resolution is to make this blog less pedantic and boring. Sure, these notes are mostly for ourselves and not our legions (ha!) of readers. Gardening might not be the most exhilarating topic to some, but it sure gets us fired up. We want to be informative and serve as a record of our trials and errors, but is it too much to ask that the content be readable and ideally spark discussion with our friends and visitors? We think not.

Mark is using terms like “paradigm shift” (*yawn*) to indicate that he’s vowing to be less obsessive and nitpicky about the garden this year. While Kate loves his charts and thirst for information, that approach can be frustrating for all of us. Or, as Mark so cringingly says, “I can’t see the garden for the seedlings.” I can’t believe I just typed that. What he’s trying to say is that we’ll be focusing on the big picture this year.

We also noticed that the number of posts declined as the growing season got busy and we got distracted, which undoubtedly disappointed our ravenous fans. Part of the reason was our disappointment with our mediocre results, especially after the huge success in 2006. But we’re always learning from our mistakes, and last year was the year of too many interventions. We’re starting to think about this gardening as a year-round activity. We’re looking at ways to make our space sustainable using techniques like permaculture and companion planting—two thrilling ideas that you’ll be hearing more about. Basically, our goal this year is to achieve fantastic results with natural ecology rather than trying to control nature with interventions. It’s not easy for a couple of Gen-X instant-gratification junkies (and an engineer, to boot) to embrace holistic methods, but it’s a critical step in our horticultural education.