Archive for ‘Chicago area gardening’

April 30, 2015

Grow Rhubarb!

Rhubarb is an easy to grow perennial that grows the best where the weather is cool for part of the year. It is one of the first crops that come up in the spring and is commonly baked into pies and other sweet dishes that need some tartness, such as muffins. Rhubarb has also been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times and the name “rhubarb” comes from the Latin rha barbarum, “Rha” being the ancient name for the VolgaRiver in Russia where the plant was native, and “Barbarum” denoting the people of the area whom the Romans considered barbarians.

 

Rhubarb Plant  Photo: Purdue University

Rhubarb Plant
Photo: Purdue University

 

Rhubarb is generally used as a fruit in dessert dishes but rhubarb has a savory side and can be used in sauces for meats and in braising. In fact, in 1947 a New York court stated that since rhubarb is used primarily in the way a fruit is used, it is therefore a fruit. Obviously the part of the rhubarb plant in question, the part used for culinary purposes, the leaf stalk, is within the bounds of the vegetative part of the plant. The fruit of the rhubarb is a sort of winged seed that grows on a stalk after the plant flowers. There are in many ways to cook rhubarb though and its versatility should be explored.

Rhubarb  Photo: Purdue University

Rhubarb
Photo: Purdue University

The cultivation of rhubarb involves planting the roots that have been divided from a parent plant. You can find rhubarb roots at most garden centers or you could just plant roots that a friend dug up for you from their own stock. The rootstock should be dug so that there are plenty of roots on the plant to help it get started. Rhubarb seeds will grow if planted but this is not a great way to start the plants as the seeds will probably not come back true to the parent plant. Seed propagation of rhubarb will more than likely result in stunted plants or plants with stalks that are stringy and flavorless.

 

The plants should be planted in a hole approximately the size of a five gallon bucket and the hole should be filled with a good mix of compost, soil and organic matter. The plants should be spaced 24 to 48 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart. The beds that the rhubarb is grown in should be slightly raised to provide for good drainage. Mulching the plants with compost or straw will keep weeds down and will ultimately feed the plants as well.

It will take a few years for the rhubarb plants to mature enough for any significant harvesting. Rhubarb will produce for years after it is established but it should be dug around every 5 years or so to trim the number of buds. This will help keep the plants vigorous and you can also separate the plants at this time to produce more rhubarb plants. One thing to keep in mind about rhubarb is that only the stalks are edible. The leaves contain large amounts of oxalic acid that can damage the kidneys and are toxic.

Rhubarb Stalks Photo: University of Minnesota Extension

Rhubarb Stalks
Photo: University of Minnesota Extension

Rhubarb is also somewhat decorative and can be used to border a garden or can be grown in other spots in the yard to fill in a blank space. Rhubarb has many uses beyond the traditional dessert and will produce for years. It is a great addition to any garden.

 

http://www.rhubarbinfo.com/growing

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhubarb

http://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/downloads/5597.pdf

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March 17, 2015

Long day or short day onions?

There have been more than a few people I know that, when starting a garden, opt for the bag of onion sets one finds at most garden centers or big box stores. Later in the season the tops die down, a usual sign that your onions are ready for harvest. When the onions are dug the gardener gets the disappointment of having small onion bulbs or even no bulbs at all. What happened? The gardener did all the right things, used compost, watered well, planted the onion set per the instructions on the package, so why no onions? There may be a variety of reasons behind this, but what the gardener may have not taken into account is the difference between “short day” and “long day” onions.

Onion Photo: Wikipedia

Onion
Photo: Wikipedia

Onions are one of the first crops that are set out by gardeners as they are pretty cold tolerant. Onion sets and plants are the most popular way of growing onions by home gardeners as the plants are already started, thereby cutting out the work of starting the seeds, however, seeds would obviously be the way to go for those wishing to save heirloom varieties. Seeds are also available from most stores and seed catalogs and should be started in flats before setting out. Onion sets and plants arrive in the stores usually in early spring and you may be tempted to grab what catches your eye, although if you live in the northern part of the country you should be on the outlook for long day onions.

Onions form their bulbs in conjunction with the length of the day. In the summer as the days get longer, onions start to store the energy of the sun in their bulbs. Long day onions need about 14 or so hours of daylight to bulb. This happens normally in early June. Short day onions need about 10 hours of daylight. You would think that the short day onions would then do better in northern areas, but that is not the case. Once an onion starts to bulb, top growth slows. Since the day length in the north is already 10 hours a few weeks into the growing season, the plant has not grown large enough to glean enough energy from the sun needed to form a full bulb. The result is small bulbs at the time the plant goes dormant.

Onion Planting Zones http://www.groworganic.com/

Onion Planting Zones http://www.groworganic.com/

Short day onions, grown in the south, are planted during the cooler months when the day is shorter. As the day lengthens in the southern latitudes, the onion bulbs out. This is normally during a different time of the year than it would be happening in the north. Unfortunately, many stores in the northern part of the country stock onion sets and plants started in the south. Many times these are actually short day onions and will not do so well for the northern gardener.

There are also varieties that are day neutral. Day neutral onions form bulbs regardless of daylight hours and produce well in most of the country. A good seed catalog or garden center will label different varieties of onions with the appropriate day length label. Note that some may refer to the latitude range that the onion variety does best in.

Onions fresh from the field Photo: Spurgeon Veggies

Onions fresh from the field
Photo: Spurgeon Veggies

One more thing about onions and day length varieties: many people are aware of this distinction but still get confused as to which variety is grown in which parts of the country. They assume that since the southern parts of the country are generally warmer, that means that the days are longer. This may be true in a way during the winter months, nevertheless not true in the summer. The further north you are in the summer, the longer the day is. For example, on June 21st, the day length north of the Arctic Circle is 24 hours!

Onions Photo: Wikipedia

Onions
Photo: Wikipedia

September 23, 2013

Saving Tomato Seed is Easy

It’s the end of the garden season and, in taking stock of what you produced this year, you may have some standouts in taste and quality among the tomatoes included in the bounty of your garden. You may have received a really great heirloom tomato from a friend and wish you could get some of those seeds for yourself.

Or you may have a true heirloom, one tomato that has been passed down from generation to generation. There are many reasons to save seeds from year-to-year. Some other reasons that I did not mention above are that saved seeds are free and it is a lot of fun to do-it-yourself. To show you how to save seeds from every vegetable grown is nearly impossible in one article, so since tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown, I will demonstrate saving tomato seeds.

One word of warning, saving tomato seeds can be kind of gross, but the following is the way it is done by commercial seed companies. It is also the way it is done for other kinds of produce with interiors that can be described as gloppy or gooey, such as cucumbers and cantaloupes. In fact, in nature these types of vegetables take advantage of the fact that an animal will carry its fruit away, but not eat the gooey part. Nature uses bacteria then to separate the seed from the glop.

An  heirloom variety that I am saving

An heirloom variety that I am saving

 

Another variety I am saving that started as a volunteer

Another variety I am saving that started as a volunteer

To save tomato seed the first step is to pick out specimens that have qualities that you want to keep. Whether this is size or taste, choose what you want to see growing next year. Tomatoes are self fertile so what you save will more than likely breed true. That is to say, you will get the same variety when you grow the seeds again. This is not necessarily true of hybrids though. They may revert back to one of the breeding stock that they were derived from rather than their current form, but there is also a chance that you will get the same hybrid. This is called hybrid stabilization. Also, pick fully ripe fruit from healthy, disease free plants.

 

 

"Goop" in a clear jar with a little water added

“Goop” in a clear jar with a little water added

The seed from the tomato will be fermented to release it from the goop in the tomato. To start this process, cut the tomato across the “equator” of the fruit. Scoop out or squeeze out the “goop” with the seed that is encased within it into a clear container, such as a jar. (Cutting across the “equator” of the fruit makes it easier to squeeze out the seed). Add a little water to the jar to help suspend the seed; it does not need to be full. Too much water will slow down the action of the bacteria that are fermenting the fruit.

Mold forming on the surface of the seed-water mixture

Mold forming on the surface of the seed-water mixture

 

 

After a couple of days you will see mold forming on the top of the water. When you see this appear, gently stir the seed and water. If you do not stir, the mold may affect the viability of the seed. In a few days the viable seed will sink to the bottom. Skim off all of the material that floats, including any floating seeds. Dump the remaining seed into a strainer or colander that has holes that will not allow the seed to pass through.

 

Viable seeds have sunk to bottom

Viable seeds have sunk to bottom

Using a garden hose (preferable) or a kitchen faucet, spray the seed to wash away the remaining glop. The seed may stink at this point and you may want to do this outside. Once the seed is clean, you will want to place the seed on a coffee filter or on a wooden surface so it can dry. If you use a paper towel or a piece of office paper the seed may stick. Plastic surfaces may cause the seed to rot before it is dry. Put the seed in a warm dry place and let them dry until they break readily, instead of just bending. Store the seed in a cool dry place in an envelope or in a dry mason jar. Some people freeze seed but you really need to know the moisture content to do this as the seed may rupture if the moisture content is too high.

Fermented seed before cleaning

Fermented seed before cleaning

Cleaning seed with a hose

Cleaning seed with a hose

 

Seeds after  cleaning

Seeds after cleaning

If you save only the best seed year after year you will have a true heirloom, totally acclimated to the climate of your garden location and you will have varieties of tomatoes you can call your own. As I said, the process above can be used for cucumber and cantaloupe seeds. You will have to let the fruit of these become very yellow and ripe and save seed from fruit after the vine has died. There are many publications and websites that show how to saves seeds from all possible vegetables grown.

The Seed Savers Exchange has a tutorial on saving tomato seeds here:

http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Webinar-Archive/#tomato

The author, Nancy Bubel, has written several books on seed starting and saving:

http://www.amazon.com/The-New-Seed-Starters-Handbook/dp/0878577521

Another good book on saving seeds was written by Robert E. Gough:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Complete-Guide-Saving-Seeds/dp/1603425748/ref=pd_sim_b_6

September 17, 2013

Save Eggplant Seeds the Seed Savers Exchange Way

Saving seeds from heirloom varieties is one of the greatest ways to be local and sustainable. For those who are interested The Seed Savers exchange will be hosting a free webinar on eggplant seed saving. From the SSE website:

“Eggplant is a wonderfully diverse crop-type that can be addictive for chefs and seed savers alike. Though its spongy flesh makes seed removal a bit more complicated, saving seeds from this self-pollinating Solanum is fairly straightforward. Join us to learn how you can grow and maintain many different varieties in your own backyard.”

The webinar will be on September 23, 2013 7:00 p.m., Central Time

If you wish to attend this free webinar please register here.

August 21, 2013

The Local Beet

I would like to thank all who visit this site and tell everybody about another site that I blog at, The Local Beet. It is a Chicago Area site that has a lot of great info for those who live in the Chicago Region. http://www.thelocalbeet.com/

April 29, 2013

Move 200 miles west and take a little of Chicago with you…

Dahinda, IL: A pack of cucumber seeds, which had an ad for a local insurance agent as part of the label, and summers spent on several cousins’ Wisconsin dairy farms sprouted an interest in growing food that has not diminished. The seeds were sent to my Dad as junk mail. He gave them to me and showed me how to plant them. I was about 10 at the time and was growing up in Franklin Park, out near O’Hare. The garden that I started that year, 1975, grew in size over the years to encompass most of our back yard. My interest in growing food was bolstered by the many gardening and back-to-the-land books that were popular back then and by TV shows like Crockett’s Victory Garden.

Crockett2
Photos courtesy of Amazon.com

I wasn’t alone in Franklin Park in my gardening interests. Many of the homes in town were owned by Italians, Mexicans and members of other immigrant groups who also had huge gardens and each of whom had their own tastes and varieties of vegetables they liked to grow. Grown in the dark rich soil of Franklin Park were many varieties of peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, chard, cultivated types of dandelion, and believe it or not, figs that were certainly not available at the local Kmart garden department. As my gardening experience grew I got to know many of these gardeners and they shared both their expertise and, more importantly, seeds for these vegetables that helped expand my world view.

I later started a career, met my wife Julie, moved to Northbrook, and still gardened growing the varieties and the knowledge gleaned from all of the like-minded people that I met in Franklin Park. Later my wife and I moved to a 22-acre farm in Dahinda, Illinois near Galesburg. The current local food movement was ramping up and wanting to be involved, we started farming and selling our produce locally. Although we love living in Dahinda, I felt a connection to the Chicago Area and wanted a way to bring a part of it out here with me. What better way than to grow the old vegetable varieties that I grew way back in the day Franklin Park!

Among these old varieties that I still grow is the Italian cucumber/melon. Extremely popular among the Italian gardeners of Franklin Park the cucumber/melon is commonly known as an “Italian cucumber.” It comes in many shapes from round to long but the most popular seems to be one that is about 4 inches long. It is covered with downy fuzz that comes off when washed. It has a mild cucumber taste and can be used in salads or can be pickled. Plant the seeds as you would any other cucumber, but I wouldn’t plant them until the soil has warmed and the temperature has been above 80 for several days. The people I knew who grew this carried the seeds over from Italy and saved them from year-to-year, however, they are available from several seed companies including Seeds from Italy.

Ital Cuke
Italian Cucumber/Melon
Photo courtesy of Seeds from Italy

Another hometown gardening memory is tomatillos. There are many varieties and this is a commonly found item in many gardens these days. A variety highly touted by many Mexican friends in Franklin Park, is a type known as the “Mexican Strain.” This larger, heavy yielding variety is not as tart as others and makes a great salsa verde. It can also be used in other dishes like authentic chili con carne. The seed should be started indoors, 8 or so weeks before the last frost. The plants are grown similar to tomatoes but are more delicate than tomato plants. Again, my friend’s seeds were brought from Mexico and saved from year-to-year, but they are also available from Territorial Seed Company.

I would be remiss in my boyhood gardening memories if I did not mention two, very Chicago, varieties of pepper. These are the Melrose And the Chicago Sport pepper. Before the O’Hare area was built up it was one of the greatest vegetable growing regions in the country. Around the turn of the 20th century, many Italian immigrants were buying farms in the Near Western Suburbs of Chicago from the German families that had originally settled the land.

These new farmers began many of the truck farms that supplied South Water Market back in the day and include people like Tom Naples, who’s farm stand for many years was a fixture on North Avenue, westof Chicago. One of the peppers grown in the area was the Melrose, named after Melrose Park. It is an Italian thin-skinned type frying pepper that is great on sandwiches, in stir fries, and stuffed. I grow this variety in Dahinda from seed received from a man from Melrose Park. His grandfather bred a larger- than-normal strain and his family has saved the seed ever since. The seeds for the Melrose are available from many seed companies such as Baker Creek and the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and the plants can be found in many Chicago area garden centers. They should be started indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost and set out when the danger of frost is past.

Melrose
Melrose Pepper
Photo courtesy of Southern Exposure

The Chicago Sport pepper is famous as the pepper used on Chicago style hot dogs. They are easily grown from plants started 6 to 8 weeks, indoors, before the last frost. The raw peppers are somewhat hot and great used in any dish where one would like to pump up the heat. Left to ripen, they can be dried and used that way for their heat-enhancing properties. Dried sport peppers can also be ground to make pepper flakes. These can be used on pizzas and other dishes that call for dried pepper flakes. But to use them on Chicago style hot dogs they should be pickled. Once I gave some sport peppers to a neighbor who promptly put them on a hot dog, not realizing that they are much hotter when raw. She was not pleased with the results! The seeds for the sport pepper can be found through many seed companies and the plants can be found at many Chicago area garden centers.

Although the seeds and plants for the vegetable varieties I mentioned above are available from many commercial sources, the best source of course, is to find a person who grows a variety handed down and saved from year-to-year. They will create a connection to the past, the community, and to the world.

Seeds from Italy: http://www.growitalian.com/
Territorial Seed Company: http://www.territorialseed.com/
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed: http://www.rareseeds.com/
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: http://www.southernexposure.com/

This was also posted at The Local Beet: Chicago http://www.thelocalbeet.com/

June 12, 2012

Chicago’s Melrose Pepper

Of the many varieties of pepper plants that you may see at garden centers, and even some big box retailers, in the Chicago Area, there is one with a local connection. Many people may not know that before the suburban area of Chicago was paved over, it had been one of the top fruit and vegetable growing regions of the United States. What the farmers of Chicagoland grew in those days included peppers. One of the varieties of peppers commonly grown was the Melrose pepper.

The ancestor of the Melrose pepper arrived in the Chicago Area possibly in the late 19th or very early 20th century. It was around this time that many Italian immigrants were buying farms in the Near Western Suburbs of Chicago from the German families that had originally settled the land. These new farmers began many of the truck farms that supplied South Water Market back in the day and include people like Tom Naples, who’s farm stand was for many years was a fixture on North Avenue, west of Chicago. These Italian farmers brought the seeds of their homeland and some became popular varieties, such as the Melrose pepper.

The original name of the Melrose pepper is obscure but its current name is derived from Melrose Park, a Chicago suburb with a historically large Italian population. As is the case with many things that are named after one’s hometown the Melrose gained, because of its name, notoriety and a following first in Melrose Park and surrounding area, then in the Chicago Area in general. Because of this pepper’s superior sweet taste its popularity in the Chicago Area has not ebbed and it now has a national following. The Chicago diaspora in places like Arizona, Florida, Texas, and California has also helped spread the popularity of this pepper far and wide.

Melrose peppers are about 4 to 6 inches in length and are tapered at the end like most frying peppers. These are sweet peppers that can be fried, roasted, or used in stir fries. They can also be stuffed with fresh Italian sausage or any other pepper stuffing.

This pepper is very easy to grow from seed and plants are available in some Chicago Area garden centers. In areas below zone 6, start the seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. They should sprout in about a week or so. Transplant to a well drained area that has been amended with compost and you should have peppers in about 60 days.

I have been growing Melrose peppers for many years and plan to grow a variety this year from seed sent to me by a man whose grandfather grew them in Melrose Park. Getting saved seed for what I grow in my garden gives me a feeling of being attached to history. If you cannot locate anybody with saved seed there are several sources such as: Baker Creek rareseeds.com, and Sunrise Seeds http://www.sunriseseeds.com.