Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Garden Update 6/7/11: Lettuce, Chives, and other Early Season Stars

Delicious Early Greens
Many gardeners are disappointed to find that their first season has not produced much by June.  This year, with April and May being cold and wet, things are off to an even later start than normal.  Even our use of Wall O' Waters to extend our tomatoes and peppers into the early season to get a jump has not resulted in anything remotely edible.  And, with temperatures still struggling to stay above 70 after the first week of June (we have one day in our upcoming forecast that is a high of 69!), we have left the Wall O' Waters on many of our smaller tomatoes - particularly after my Pepper Disaster.

In past years, we've definitely become used to waiting until July and August for the majority of our garden bounty.  And, it's often September for many things to truly peak.  But this doesn't mean we aren't getting anything at all - it's just that you have to tailor your expectations to meet the timing of the plants that thrive at this time of the year.

So, what's ready to eat in our garden?

First up is Lettuce and Spinach.  We actually got off to a late start this year, planting in early May.  We often try to plant in April, which would give us fresh greens in even Mid-May, but the forecast just kept predicting quite cold temperatures, so we would put it off week after week.  By the first week in May, however, our secondary fear starts to take over - early bolting.   When the hot temperatures arrive in June, Lettuce and Spinach can start their process of producing seeds, which makes their leaves taste bitter.

Add to this yet a third concern - once soil temperatures are consistently are above 70 degrees, it's difficult to get them to germinate at all.  This is called thermal dormancy, and it results in the seeds going into standby mode until lower temperatures persist.

One way to overcome this is to plant the seeds indoors, and then transplant.  This is something we've never done with lettuce, but I may try this season to see what we can get going in late June and early July.  One thing we've never had is garden lettuce in August, and I'm not entirely sure if it's possible or not, given the heat we experience at that time of the year.

Chives are huge this year, with abundant flowers
What we have done in the past is plant seeds in late July, and by using things like protective UV fabric to cool down the soil, we have been able to get lettuce that harvests in September.  That is definitely a treat we hope to replicate this year.

Second in our early season harvest schedule is Chives.  Once a Chives garden is established, it's really quite difficult to stop it from taking over.  The raised planters we use help contain the chives to one section, but we regularly find sprouts coming up in adjacent planters.  We are weak in the "thinning" department, mostly because we have a hard time killing something that can still produce, so often we allow the early chives that come up in the wrong place to grow for the early season, and then just harvest them completely in April, May, and June.

One of the things about Chives that many people don't know is that the flowers are not only edible, they are quite tasty.  Using a Chives flower as a garnish for dishes at this time of the year is a great way to make a dinner plate, or even a soup or salad bright and vibrant - just for putting a little flower on it!

But, here is a little-known fact (at least to me, before Deb pointed it out at dinner last night): The stem that has the flower is NOT good for eating.  It's quite stiff, and while having some of the flavor you'd expect from Chives, the texture is not pleasant at all.  When harvesting, do NOT cut off the flowers, and then cut out swaths of your chives, as you will then have to pick out these stiffer stems later on!

Glowing Green Cilantro
Next up in our early garden tour is Cilantro.  While we are still looking at plants in early June this year that are just a few weeks beyond sprouting, you can still harvest plenty of greens from these plants for any sized dish.  We only have a section that is about 18" x 24", but it produces dozens of plants that give us far more than we could eat.  This is just another reason why our visitors love stopping by at this time of the year - bonus produce that they get handed when they leave.

Cilantro is another plant that you only have a few weeks to harvest before they bolt.  We tend to harvest about half of our crop, letting the rest become Coriander.  Does the plant morph into yet something else?

Nope - it's just a fancy word for the seeds produced by this plant.  When dried, the seeds can be ground into a powder that is more familiar to the average home cook.  We did this in 2009, and the seeds from that season were still germinating quite well (as evidenced by the photo).  If this continues, I'd estimate we produced enough seeds to last us 5 years.

Last on our tour is Broccoli.  Yes, you guessed it, this too is an early-bolter, and you have to watch it carefully.  When planted early enough, heads can get very large in May if you plant in late March and have a lucky spring.  For the rest of us, getting planted in late April or early May is more likely, and that June heat is the threat.

When you are eating Brocolli, did you know that you are actually eating the flowers?

Well, since the flowers eventually produce seeds, it's important to harvest before the flowers open up, as they no longer resemble tight clusters that we call heads.  Instead, they stretch out, become stringy, and lose their flavor.  To ensure that you are getting them at their peak, it's important to judge where they are in this process vs. waiting for them to get to a specific size - as you can often miss harvesting in time by just 2-3 days.

Our Broccoli is off to a good start, but I am frankly hoping that June cools off a bit (our 10-day forecast is favoring this) so that they can mature enough to produce big heads.

Once the plants create their main central head, it's pretty much over for them for the season.  We did have one crop back in 2001 that kept producing decent sized heads after the main center one was done, but that was a fall crop that benefited from a late frost that didn't come till Thanksgiving.  In most cases, once you harvest the center head, you might as well cut down the whole plant.  We generally do this by July, and then replant either Broccoli or another fall crop for the 2nd half of the gardening season.

In the coming weeks, we should see many more veggies (and BERRIES!) mature and become edible.  I hope to hear from some of you about how your gardens are going so far, and what you've been able to eat!

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