What inspires this gardener most when days are endlessly gray or bitterly cold? An array of colorful seed catalogues helps but even better is the smell of fresh potting soil and holding a handful of seeds.
Each January as the days begin to get longer, I’ll dig out a couple of wide-mouthed terra cotta pots, give them a scrub, and fill them with a good germination potting mix. I always have left over vegetable seeds from the previous season and make it a point to set aside peas, arugula, cress, and mache.
I’ll poke 1/2 inch holes two inches apart around the top of one soil-filled pot and pop in peas. Placed in a south facing window, with luck they will sprout in a week and as they grow I’ll snip off the twinning pea tendrils, I don’t expect to actually grow pea pods – just the tender shoots – good in a stir fry, mixed in a salad, or gracing the top of a ham and cheese sandwich.
I’ll also pot up cress – Vermont’s own High Mowing Seeds, has one called Persian Broadleaf Cress, a specialty green. They describe it as “2-6 inch long, dark-green leaves with tiny teeth around the margin and a mild cressy flavor…a delicious and nutritious green.” I’ve planted cress the past couple of winters and snip it long before it reaches six inches and add it as a final touch to salads or sprinkle it as a nourishing garnish on a bowlful of creamy cooked homegrown cannelloni beans.
Seeds of Italy is a favorite seed company for their endless variety of greens and chicories (not to mention eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and the most wonderful beans). They also sell packets of garden cress – in Italian “Crescione Comune”. Seeds of Italy is my constant source for arugula, another easy to grow green that will brighten up the seemingly never ending days of winter and my need for freshly grown greens.
I’m going to experiment and try my hand at English Watercress I got from Renee’s Garden. Renee says “watercress is a cool weather crop”. Rooms away from our wood burning stove are cool (maybe too cool). I’ve filled an old bowl with garden gravel chips (you can get at Agway or any other gardening center) and will put potting soil on top. Watercress likes moist soil and I hope, with careful watering, to keep a mini reservoir within the gravel at the base of the soil.
Tip: If you don’t have any terra cotta pots stored away for the winter, not to worry. I’ve planted up a mini garden in used plastic containers — whether they once held yogurt, salad mixes, olives, etc. Save the tops to cover your newly planted seed to aid in germination. As soon as the seeds sprout, remove the top. Poke a couple of drainage holes in the bottom of the plastic containers to keep your seedlings from getting soggy — and place your mini gardens on top of an old cookie sheet with sides, or a foil or plastic lined cardboard box – the idea is to keep moisture from overwatering from destroying the windowsill or table beneath.
The Goods: Seed catalogues can be an endless source of entertainment when you have the winter doldrums. Yes, you can look at them online, but I find it more exciting when they arrive in the mail and have something to hold in my hand and savor with my eyes.
Seeds from Italy
My all time favorite company. They supply packets of seed illustrated with a detailed photo of the product. I want everything from this catalogue and over order every year wishing I could clone myself to plant all the yumminess they supply. They have many varieties of salad greens; bitter chicories (delicious with lots of olive oil, garlic, and sprinkled with hot pepper flakes); endless varieties of beans — pole, bush, snap, fresh shelling beans, and drying beans; tomatoes, cabbage, kale, the list goes on.
A new company with a mission to grow the best organic seeds for our northern climes. I’ve bought a few packet of seeds from them and passed them on to Chance for the school’s salad garden. Fruition would love feedback and how their seeds grow in our hills and valleys.
Seed Savers Exchange
A catalogue I source from readily and is filled with mouth-watering eye candy. The company is a non-profit with deep roots in seed heritage.
High Mowing Seeds
Vermont’s own. Their catalogue is loaded not only with goodness but multiple tips on growing.
My good friend, Newbury neighbor, and fellow gardener, Mary Durfee, swears by Fedco, not just your ordinary seed company. An old New England company they not only sell an endless assortment of veg, flower, and herbs but you will also find Moose Tubers (aka potatoes), soil amendments, fertilizers, tools, books, and through http://www.Fedcoseeds.com/trees fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, perennials, bulbs, and ornamentals
Renee’s offers many varieties of vegetable, herb, and flower seed for the garden. I like their seeds as they come with detailed growing tips printed right on the packet of seed.
A tiny catalogue for onion sets and sweet potatoes. I have been ordering from them for years and have gotten a kick watching the progress of the Brown’s three girls grow as they are featured on the cover of the catalogue each year.
Happy Winter Gardening!
We’ve been making forays into Vermont’s pastoral countryside and have been thrilled to find wild “organic” apple trees growing along many a roadside.
In less than four miles from our home we have collected a sampling of very edible fruit in colors ranging from red to green to yellow or a mix of all three. The most beautiful apple we have found so far is a tiny and fawn-colored with a lipstick-pink blush.
In the past before we sampled apples from the wild, we would wipe off fly speck, tiny black dots – and no, the dots do not arise from flies but are the result of fungal disease especially prevalent in Vermont’s apple orchards as our summers and falls become more humid and wet.
Most orchards spray fungicide multiple times to prevent things like fly speck and sooty blotch – but we don’t have to worry about eating chemicals with our wild finds in hand and we don’t even bother to wipe off the spots and dots, instead biting into the apples to determine if they are tart, sweet, spicy, or too sour to eat.
One of the tastiest apples we have discovered so far is in a meadow adjoining ours. The apples are gnarly from the pecks and bites of piercing, sucking insects but all they need is a trim around the insect-damaged flesh and they are a delight to eat. We wonder if they are possibly an heirloom apple variety as they have many attributes for home use – the flesh is sweet, tart – firm but juicy. They are yellow overlaid with crimson stripes and were ripe some weeks ago.
The “meadow” apples have held up well in cooking and have found their way into a rabbit stew made rich by the addition of butter, good olive oil, a cider reduction we made and put up last year, lots of vermouth, good white wine, carrots and tomatoes picked from our garden and roasted before being added to the stew. There was an ample amount of the excellent fragrant sauce left over from the rabbit and it was reincarnated as a base for a veal stew.
The organically-grown veal came from Winsome Farm in Haverhill, NH just across the Connecticut River from our Newbury, VT home. The tender bits of newly-harvested meat were caramelized in a super hot oven and were added to the sauce as were more “meadow” apples, our own heirloom tomatoes and slowly sauteed onions, little red potatoes from one of our favorite local farms, Peaked Moon in Piermont, NH, and as more liquid was needed to keep everything moist the last half of a bottle of red wine.
As the stew was put to a simmer and the aroma filled our home, I wondered what else I could cook with wild apples and rummaged about in the freezer pulling to the front items of goodness needing to be cooked before the freezer put the burn to them. A goodly-sized package marked “stew” put a smile on my face as I silently thanked our friend Tom Kuralt who generously shared venison he had taken during a hunt last year. After thawing the rich, wild meat it was browned, like the veal, in a hot, hot oven then added to a base of homegrown tomatoes, onions, lovage, peppers, and garlic with the addition of carrots from Newbury’s own 4 Corners Farm and cut up chunks of wild apple. Cumin and dried chiles from Oaxaca — Pasilla and Chilcosle — added heat and hints of clove, anise, cinnamon and smoke. Homemade corn tortillas completed the meal!
All of this yumminess has us giving thanks to the early settlers of Vermont and New Hampshire – the apple trees they planted years ago produced a mixed blessing of progeny to inherit the wild.