Down to earth – Start a windowsill farm with microgreens

(Originally published January 22, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life. The article ran with a pretty picture of a productive windowsill microgreenery that people thought was mine. I wish. My windowsill farmlet is pictured below.)

Either winter makes me hungry for fresh vegetables or the seed catalogs do. Either way, every year around this time I decide this is the year I will grow vegetables in the garden. For real — not just what comes up in the compost pile. I’m forgetting that I did plant kale, cabbage, lettuce, and basil last year and the woodchuck ate it all down to nubs. Which is the same thing he/she did the year before that. And the year before that. And so on. Or else it was the bunnies.

Every year I think I (meaning my carpenter) should build a raised bed tall enough to keep critters out of the veg. And every year so far I have not decided before spring planting where to put it. Nor have I bothered to buy the lumber or stockpile enough soil to fill it.

I’m guessing that once I decide where it goes (in full sun somewhere near the kitchen door) it will need to stand a good 18” high. The other option I have is to surround my vegetables with fencing. Eight feet high is about right to keep deer out (it’s probably only a matter of time before they wander every Bristol street as freely as gulls do), but bunnies and woodchucks are tricksters. To deter them, a much shorter fence will do as long as it’s made of an unchewable metal mesh and is set deep in the ground. And if I really want to give those guys a challenge, the bottom of the fence should probably even curve outwards a little. I am a lazy McGregor, though, and that’s much more digging than I’m usually inclined to do. Are fresh homegrown vegetables worth it?

Probably. Everyone says so.

To find out, I’m going to start by growing microgreens. (I’ve said this before…) All of my favorite seed companies, like Renee’s Garden, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden, Botanical Interests, and Johnny’s, just to name a few, have done the hard work of combining seeds that sprout at the same time into blends with flavor profiles ranging from mild to spicy. Botanical Interest’s 17 green “Sassy Salad,” which includes arugula, nine lettuces, two mustards, Swiss chard, endive, spinach and bok choy, falls somewhere in the middle. Sounds delicious.

My microgreenery shares its windowsill with cuttings and a sorry begonia.

If I supply enough water to keep the seeds and starter soil moist but not boggy, and put them in a windowsill-full of daylight, I should have at least one meal’s worth of tiny bite-sized but intensely flavorful and nutrient-rich salad garnish within two weeks. Maybe two or three meals’ worth depending on the size of the container (ironically, a store-bought salad mix box would be perfect with a few holes punched in the bottom for drainage) and my dinner party. Set inside a cachepot, a mesclun mix might even look as handsome as a houseplant as soon as it gets going and before I eat it up. The seedlings only need to be grown as far as their first set or two of true leaves before becoming supper so the trick is to have several packs growing at once but staggered in an endless succession. (My last packet of old seeds went into that box. Making a mental note right now to order another batch.)

This will be a good test for me. I figure if I become a successful windowsill microgreen farmer, it will be a slippery slope to wanting some of the same vegetables to grow to maturity outside. Maybe it’s time I finally find a place for that raised bed.

What’s growing on your windowsills? 

Down to earth – hope springs

Originally published in East Bay/South Coast Life on March 13, 2013, a good week and a half after my first day back in the garden. Not that I have gotten much done yet. If only it would stop snowing. Another freaking “wintery mix” is forecast for this week. I’ve done all the damage (i.e. spent all the money) I can possibly do inside. 

I am desperate to get back out in the garden. This time last year I lamented about not getting a proper winter break. This year, the opposite. Maybe gardeners are never content. But I’m pretty sure that nothing would make me happier right now than to spend one non-rainy, non-snowy, calm-wind weekend day outside. I can’t wait for the pleasure of composting fallen stems, digging out more lawn, laying flagstone paths, whacking the butterfly bush back down (almost) to the ground, and worrying over exactly how much to prune from my gangly Black Lace elderberry. If I can’t get out to do that stuff soon, I might go mad. Or to the mall, which in my book is a little bit the same thing.

I have tried very hard over the last few weeks to use my gotta-garden energy productively indoors. Reorganizing the kitchen cupboards felt something like weeding. Browsing pillows and picture frames was not unlike plant shopping (though less gratifying because once they’re planted on couches and walls they don’t grow anything but dusty.) And a drab room repainted a vivid shade of raspberry fills my eyes like a hot August dahlia up close.

So I’m very glad that it’s finally March because regardless of the vagaries of weekend weather, a New Year has (re)turned and I’m confident that it won’t be long now before I’ll be losing track of time in the garden again. Hope springs and everything starts this month. The birds at my feeder are already singing love songs. Are the redwing blackbirds back yet? If not, they will be soon, along with osprey, killdeer, and the robins (who have been here all along). And sometime, usually towards the end of the month, the spring peepers, tiny frogs about the size of a quarter, will come out of hibernation from under logs and behind loose tree bark along marshes and ponds to trill their little throats out from evening into night. Noting these signs of spring in a perpetual calendar or notebook—and competing with friends and family for first sighting/hearing every year—will keep you vigilant, if not patient.

arugula seedlings germinated in 4 days.And this month, whenever the weather forces us back inside, there is some actual indoor gardening to do. Usually I’m delighted enough by the thousands of seeds sown by some of my favorite volunteers in the Blithewold greenhouse that I don’t feel compelled to fill my own windowsills with starts. But this year I’m looking forward to watching my own plants, destined for my own garden, spring like hope itself from tiny packages of dormant DNA.

I’m determined to grow more vegetables, so the first seeds I’ll sow will be artichokes. Some gardeners are surprised to see them producing outside of California, but the only requirement that sets these tender perennials apart from other veg is two or more weeks of chill temperatures (40s-50s) after germination to trick them into thinking they’ve overwintered. (Like biennials, they usually wait to bloom until their second year. And of course, the bloom—in bud—is the delicacy.)  But check the seed package: some promise to flower the first year without cold-temperature trickery.

Along with artichokes I intend to sow packs of lettuces, arugula, beets, kale, and radishes because they’re cool season crops and delicious as seedlings. The name “microgreens” doesn’t do them justice… By the time they germinate and I pluck them for a dinner salad, it will be high time (mid-April-ish) to sow seeds for plants that will actually make it into the ground. But of course by then we should all be spending whole glorious, soft, and sunshiny days outside in the garden. Hope springs. Happy New Year!

The fruits of my labor…

thornless blackberry in the frontgarden border…never taste as good to me as the fruits of someone else’s labor. I think there’s something sort of perverse about that. I have dutifully eaten a couple of my own tomatoes in the last week but am much more excited about the tomatoes we chose from the growers’ market. I also have an abundant crop of blackberries in the frontyard garden but remember the wild ones we picked at the cemetery last year tasting sweeter. Perhaps in the case of the blackberries, the wild ones in a dry year really were sweeter than my cultivated thornless variety in a wet year but with the tomatoes I think it has something to do with respect and pride. I have very little of either when it comes to the edibles under my jurisdiction and I’m working on figuring out why.

Everyone on the planet it seems is taking great pride in knowing exactly where their food comes from and is growing their own. According to the experts, nothing tastes better than something you’ve grown yourself. I suspect one of my issues might be that I know for certain that all I did was plunk a little something in the ground and move onto the next thing. Even the vegetables we grow at work are more appealing than my own because I at least witness the effort and love that goes into maintaining those plants. And professional local growers’ vegetables seem somehow miraculous and perfect too. My own seem like afterthoughts, wannabes and lucky guesses at best.

Rosa mutabilisThe professionals have obviously taken some trouble with their tomatoes to grow them (particularly this year), harvest them and bring them to market. I don’t take any trouble at all. It takes me all of 20 seconds to walk out the door and pluck a ripe tom from my surviving plant. I respect the market growers’ efforts but have no reason whatsoever to respect mine. On the other hand I take tremendous and overblown pride in some of my ornamental plants. These roses that I rescued from the compost heap at work haven’t ceased to amaze me and just like my tomatoes, I didn’t do anything more than plant them either. Ironically some of the ornamental plants I’m proud of are, in fact, vegetables…

Last night we ate Z’s mother’s soaked tomato salad (fresh tomato(es) cut into rounds and laid in a single layer in a shallow dish and drizzled with with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, chopped raw garlic, basil – fresh or dried, oregano and Adobo seasoning and allowed to steep for a bit) and I was halfway through loving it as usual when Z mentioned that the tomato was from our garden. He seemed to take some pride in that and ate his share with gusto. I always think that food tastes better when it’s prepared with thought, love and care – by someone else – and I enjoyed the salad because Z made it. But maybe that’s just it with growing food too. I’ve always been willing and able to create something to look at (hell, I even have a degree or two in that) and take great pride in my successful efforts in visual loveliness even if I’m the only one that ever sees it. But food for me was never Art – and never particularly tasty – unless someone else made it. hmmmmmm… Food for thought! With my very own delicious blackberries for dessert.

blackberry perfection

Are you proud of the food you’ve grown? Is it the very tastiest? Or, like me, would you rather just look at it?

This little piggy went to market

me buying cheez, yoThe farmers market is one of the best ways to get fresh veg and support local farmers, stimulate the local economy and basically save the world with a radish and a zucchini. So where in SamHell am I supposta get tasty greens in the winter? I could go to the box chain supper-market and get some nice GMO’s shipped thousands of miles, yeah – or not, so it’s off to the winter farmers market.  local vegOn a balmy winter Saturday, I think it topped out at 30° in the sun, really nice – no seriously, it was a beautiful day – K and I headed out to Providence (Pawtucket actually, but let’s not split hairs) for some nice indoor farm fresh. The place was packed, how cool was that? – all kinds of vendors, fish, cheese, veg, live music, and yes, pigs…in the form of tasty sausage. And so many people shopping:  Old hippies with gray hair, young punk rockers in red doc martens, hipsters in tight jeans, art students in paint splatters, yuppies with babies in fancy strollers – all saving the world, or more importantly helping to ensure that I can get fresh food locally. So back at home, with week’s worth of veg, a martini in my paw and creme brule cooling on the counter, and snow predicted to start any second now, it’s been a very good day.  -Quick note, crème brûlée impresses the hell out of company and is wicked easy to make.

ring it up, sonyuppies and hippies and hipsters - oh my!

Z’s crème brulée

4 egg yokes

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/3 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla

(all organic ingredients if possible, obviously.)

Wisk yokes and sugar until smooth (pale).  Add vanilla and wisk in cream.  Strain into 4 4oz ramekins.  Bake at 300°for 45 minutues in a water bath (ramekins in a glass dish filled half full of boiling water) or until jello-like in center.  Cool to room temp. then refridgerate for at least an hour.  Before serving, dust a thin coat of sugar on top and get out the blow torch.  Bon appetit!  Z-

Gardener’s choice

The only time I really like to work in the kitchen is during a party when I’m throes of social anxiety disorder and would rather look busy washing very important forks than make small talk.  But last night Zeke decided to steam up some Brussels sprouts and I found myself wanting to work in the kitchen.  (Don’t get me wrong, I love to be in the kitchen, I’d just rather sit on my stool and chat with the cook.)

Z presented me with a question that I suspect only a gardener would spend any time thinking about.  “What do you want to do about the aphids?”, he asked.  In my mind there were two clear options:  Eat Them or Drown Them.  (Either way it didn’t look good for the aphids).  The Eat Them option had a certain self-righteous appeal – “What? It’s extra protein and I ‘m not afraid of a little bug – It’s cool, I eat them all the time.”  Plus the lazy gardener in me thinks a quick rinse of anything is really all that’s necessary.  On the other hand, the Drown Them choice played to my OCD and aphidicidal urge.  Sometimes there’s nothing more relaxing than a little bug killing session.

So I chose death by drowning and after a long Zen meditation at the kitchen sink, we enjoyed sweet, delicious mostly protein-free sprouts.

What I wonder is if other people – you know those other people, if they actually exist, who maybe don’t spend at least 25% of their waking moments either touching plants or thinking about them – would have gotten as much enjoyment as I did out of the aphid question?  Would they have been too skeeved out by the presence of critters to even eat the sprouts at all?  Would they have rinsed them well, end of story?  I guess what it comes down to for me – and maybe this is because it’s the day before Thanksgiving – is that I’m grateful to find enjoyment in certain dirty and simple pleasures of life (gardening) even when it means some stuff must die.

Z calls it The Great Aphid Massacre

Happy Thanksgiving!