Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Garden Redux

In memory of warmer days, a post about this year's garden.  Real foodies grow their own... and nothing tastes better!  Our west-side Ann Arbor apartment has a tiny and heavily shaded backyard with gravel instead of soil.  However, the landlord said we could do whatever we like with it, so I went to town on it (much to Jen's chagrin).  I made a few frames out of 2x8s, and double dug raised beds with lots of compost.  Added some rebar posts to secure hoops made out of irrigation tubing, so that the beds could be turned into hoop-houses or covered with protective netting. 
Made the first planting in late March.  Since the yard is so shaded, we are restricted to veggies with low light requirements.  Bottom-most bed in the photo has an assortment of Asian greens (tatsoi, yu choy, and bok choy).  Upper right bed has mizuna, radishes, tangy mesclun mix (red sails and mottistone lettuces, arugula, broadleaf batavian endive, chives, and joi choi), mild mesclun mix (dwarf siberian kale, slobolt and red sails lettuces, vit, mizuna and tatsoi), and peas (dakota).  Upper left bed is kale (dwarf blue curled), assorted mustard greens (indian, san ho, and bau sin), and rapini (variety unknown).  The potted Rhubard plants look very sad because they were just divided and transplanted that afternoon.  They came from the Konopnicki family farm (Coleman, MI), owned by my great uncle Steve who was the last surviving member of his generation of the family.  Upon his death, we learned that his will specified that his estate be liquidated and the proceeds divided amongst the heirs.  We made one last trip to visit the family farm before it's sale, and I dug up the rhubarb plants to take as a memento.  I learned from my mother that these plants were at least 60 years old...
First harvest, mid-May (clockwise from upper right): mild mesclun mix, tatsoi, bok choy, rapini, and yu choy.  All were delicious, but the rapini was exceptional (sauteed with pancetta, olive oil, garlic, and lemon zest).  Rapini is tastiest when it is picked very young, but farmers usually let it get fairly large (to the point where it resembles a baby broccoli) before harvesting to boost their yields.  Overgrown rapini is excessively bitter and I think it tastes terrible at that point, but sadly this is usually all you can find even at farmer's markets and fine Italian restaurants.  In contrast, my properly harvested rapini was rich and pungent, with only a slight pleasant bitterness.  I wish it could be grown throughout the season, but unfortunately it doesn't do well once temperatures reach the 70s...

Got several more harvests out of this planting, providing us with many tasty meals and salads.  Note the bug holes in the mesclun mix.  I'm a 100% organic grower - partly due to ideology, but mostly because I'm too lazy to actually go out and apply pesticides.  So a small amount of insect damage is inevitable, however healthy plants generally aren't harmed by it.
I was very slow about planting summer crops - my thesis advisor decreed that I must publish a paper (her tenure review is fast approaching), so I was preoccupied with work.  I managed to plant some pole beans (goldmarie, a yellow romano variety) on twine trellises, along with vegetable amaranth (edible red leaf) and swiss chard (bright lights).  The amaranth dominated the chard, didn't realize it would grow so quickly.  The pole beans were very tasty, but I wasn't too fond of the vegetable amaranth, though the foliage is attractive and resembles coleus.  Baby amaranth leaves are OK (taste sort of like spinach), but leaves from plants >6 inches tall are tough and chewy. 
Despite being very busy, I managed some fall plantings mid-September.  I totally neglected everything thereafter - no watering, never put up the plastic covers for the cold frames, etc.  Amazingly, the garden grew very well.  I harvested everything on December 20th, in advance of a predicted winter storm.  The final haul: kale, radishes, swiss chard, mild and tangy mesclun mix, and bok choy (all same varieties as above plantings).  Out of all the harvests, this was by far the most memorable (what could be more fun than picking greens in near-freezing heavy rain) and definitely the best tasting.  Time for some biochemistry.  Plant metabolism is highly responsive to temperature.  Cold temperatures induce production of sugars, which serve as cryoprotectants (protect plant tissues from freeze damage, basically like antifreeze).  Additionally many secondary metabolic pathways are differentially regulated by temperature... The end result is that veggies grown under cold conditions are usually much sweeter and have a noticeably different flavor than those grown in warmer weather.  The old timers call this "cold-sweetening".  The effect was noticeable for all of the veggies in this final harvest, but it was particularly dramatic for arugula (main component of tangy mesclun mix).  Spring and summer grown arugula (which comprises most of what you get in stores and restaurants) is in-your-face peppery and bitter, which I like in it's own right.  However, winter arugula is totally different, the peppery-bitterness is still there but subdued, and the flavor develops a complex sweet and nutty overtone.  Jen and I both agreed that our homegrown winter arugula was absolutely delicious (especially with poppyseed dressing) and made some of the best salads we have ever had.

Alas, due to the fence our yard gets no light in the winter, otherwise I would continuing gardening in hoop-houses. Stay tuned for my attempts at indoor gardening....

No comments:

Post a Comment