Sow Delicious! Tips for Starting Seeds

The days are getting brighter out here in the Pacific Northwest and that means it’s time to spring ahead. Even though we are still in the depths of winter, I use this month to start many of the plants and vegetables I want in my summer garden. Tomatoes, sweet peas, kales, lettuces, and cabbages being just a few.

Sweet Pea Flowers at P Patch
Sweet Peas, Nasturtiums and Poppies at my Certified Organic P-Patch in Seattle!

I, obviously, can’t plant them outside at this time of year, but I can sow them in my little home and indeed I do! This task, aside from satiating my green thumb, also allows me to grow a wide array of varieties and it saves me a ton of money, as flower and vegetable starts get pricier every year at the nurseries.

So, with this in mind, I thought I’d share some of my favorite tools and tips for getting your seeds off to a strong start.

Seedling Mat
Hyrdofarm Heat Mat with Jiffy Pellets Lined Up and Nestled in Lettuce Boxes!
  1. Get a Seedling Heat Mat! Seeds need heat to sprout and electric seedling heat mats are the perfect tool for the task. They come in a variety of sizes, which is very convenient for smaller households. I purchased my Hydrofarm mat years ago and it still works great, maintaining a gentle and low even heat. I’ve also used windowsill heat mats to maximize space. That worked well too!
  2. Simplify with Jiffy Pellets. Over the years I’ve experimented with seeds, pots and seedling potting mix but to be honest, I’ve found that to be messy and time consuming. So, now I simply order Jiffy Peat Soil Pellets in bulk from Amazon. The pellets rehydrate with hot water in a flash and make it super easy for me to sow some seeds in a matter of seconds. Furthermore, when it’s time to plant the seedlings, the whole plug can go right in the ground, minimizing transplant shock.
  3. Save those plastic salad and takeout boxes. When sowing seeds indoors, it’s important to create a warm somewhat moist environment for the seeds to sprout and grow. I have discovered that the large salad boxes are perfect mini greenhouses! I put the Jiffy Soil Pellets in the box, rehydrate the pellets, sow the seeds, cover with the lid, and set on the heat mat. Boom! The seeds sprout often in a few days.
  4. Get a spray bottle. Seedlings need moisture daily and the only tool for these gentle little sprouts is a spray bottle. Mist the seedlings gently daily and they’ll flourish!
  5. Let there be light! If you are lucky enough to have a sunny window with southern exposure, you might not need supplemental light. However, here in Seattle, even with some southern exposure, my seedlings still need supplemental light in order to flourish and avoid getting leggy. My favorite tools come from the Hydrofarm Jumpstart system purchased years ago at a local nursery and now available from Amazon.

    P Patch Zucchini
    Sow Delicious: My organic P Patch last summer with zucchini, flowers, and tomatoes sown from seed at home!
  6. Be Inspired…sow…what are you waiting for? Growing your own seedlings is fun, creative, thrifty and healthy. Give it a try!

January in the Garden: Organize and Order

It’s almost the end of January. Not sure how THAT happened so quickly, but I’ll take it! January can be a rough month out here in Seattle. Cold. Dark. Rainy. Yep, that’s what it’s been aside from the side order of snow we got early on in the month.

That said, this is always the the month when I start dreaming about tomatoes, zinnias, and petunias and ultimately start springing ahead to well….Spring ! My kitchen garden is pretty much dormant but I do have a crop of hardy kale that has been producing nicely so that’s a bonus. But this is the month when I really try to get organized. I take a seed inventory, gather my seed starting supplies, order some seeds, think about what I want to grow, and start planning as such.

So, for green thumbs itching to get started, I’m  sharing a few things to do during this month or in the early days of February. It will get you psyched and ready to launch for the season.

Organize!

Seed Briefcase

Pull out the seed box and ditch any packets that are more than a few years old. Determine what needs to be replenished this year and find a way to organize them so you can quickly and easily pull what you want at seed sowing time! For really nifty results, try a photo storage box like the one shown here and which I purchased at Hobby Lobby last week. It’s incredibly compact and well made and seed packets fit perfectly in each little 4 by 6 inch box. Label each box with the vegetable variety at hand and your seed system is streamlined. Plus, rely on the nifty handle to cart your “seed briefcase” to convenient locations when planting and planning!

Order!

Seeds Catalogs 2020

Once your seeds are organized, grab the seed catalogs and read up. My favorite purveyors are Territorial Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Burpee, and Botanical Interests. Over the years, I’ve had the best results from these folks. I find that their selections really help me bring a lot of diversity into my little kitchen garden and ultimately to my dinner table.

Plan Ahead

Ed Hume Almanac 2020

Planning anything can sound ridiculously boring but planning when it comes to gardening can definitely create a make or break situation. One of my favorite tools? The Ed Hume Garden Almanac. In my opinion, this pocket side resource, which sells for $1.79, flies under the radar for sure. Ed Hume Seeds, located in Puyallup WA, has been updating and printing this little gem for over 55 years and it’s a true gold mine. The booklet gives tips and action advice for every day of the year and those tidbits are offered based on the  cycles and phases of the moon. I know it sounds crazy, but I definitely have better results when I plant certain seeds during certain phases of the month. Check it out and keep it handy. I am now keeping mine in my Seed Briefcase!

So, that’s a quick set of tips for now. Enjoy and count the days til Spring!

Three Secret Gardens in New York City

Gardens in New York City? Can they really offer a respite from the urban jungle and the endless horn honking?

These were the questions I posed to myself when I was in New York City for four days last month. I was attending the Annual Conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and was also visiting my daughter who just moved to Manhattan.

With a little advance planning and a razor-focused gameplan, we managed to visit three gorgeous gardens–The Gardens at the Met Cloisters, the Heather Garden in nearby Fort Tryon Park, and the Conservatory Garden in Central Park.  All of the gardens were magnificent, inspiring and restorative. Here’s the recap:

The Gardens at the Met Cloisters

The Cloister Herb Garden 2018

Located in Washington Heights in Fort Tryon Park, The Met Cloisters is the ultimate respite. Sitting high on a hill overlooking the Hudson, the historic Romanesque and Gothic cloisters are naturally inspiring in and of themselves, but for me, it was the medieval courtyard gardens that hit home. My daughter and I went early on a Sunday morning and the four gardens–the Judy Black  Garden, the Herb Garden, the Trie Cloister Garden and the Orchard, were in full swing.  There are garden tours at 11 am each day but unfortunately when we got there the couple in front of us snagged the last two spots for the day so we had to explore on our own.

Of the four gardens, the Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden was my favorite…for obvious reasons. As an avid cook, food writer and gardener, I love growing edibles and the Herb Garden was deliciously inspiring. Boasting scenic views of the river below,  the garden was segmented into quadrants of culinary herbs, medicinal herbs,  and vegetables. Fruit trees were situated throughout the plantings. Large terracotta pots were planted with olive trees, rosemary and other tender plants. Church bells rang from above and sparrows flittered about amongst the plantings. The plants were all carefully labeled and insights as to how they were used in the Middle Ages were noted.

The Heather Garden at Fort Tryon Park

Heather Garden May 2018

After the Cloisters, we decided to hunt down another Secret Garden. I had read something that alluded to a beautiful garden near The Cloisters but I couldn’t remember where it was so I started asking the staff at the Cloisters. No one seemed to know so I eventually had to go to the museum’s information booth and ask about “that nice garden nearby.” One informed gentleman in a back office heard my query, came forth, and then went off to another office to pull out a little brochure called The Heather Garden. He handed it to me and said, just go left down that way into the park. Ummm. Okay.

So, we trekked along, asked for a few more directions, trotted past the New Leaf Restaurant and eventually stumbled upon our secret destination!

Well, what a treasure! Fort Tryon Park was gifted to the City in 1935 by John D. Rockefeller Jr who then engaged the Olmsted Brothers, whose father designed Central Park, to design the park and the heather gardens. Over the decades the garden has had its ups and downs but in 2009 the Fort Tryon Park Trust reinvigorated the garden to what it is today…a multiacre all season garden boasting nearly 500 varieties of plants that attract flora and fauna such as birds, bees, and beneficial wildlife. When we were there, the garden was alive with blooms of bluebells, azaleas, iris, rhododendrons, peonies,  salvia and more. Aside from enticing Crayola color scheme at hand, the city air was also perfumed with heady aromas from the flowers at hand.

The Central Park Conservatory Garden

Central Park Garden Sculpture May 2018

The last garden on our list was the Central Park Conservatory Garden located in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue and 105th. An officially designated Quiet Zone, this six-acre formal garden was delightfully QUIET when we visited early on a sunny Monday morning. The main entrance is on Fifth Avenue and features the Vanderbilt Gate, a massive wrought iron structure made in Paris and originally from the Vanderbilt Mansion on 5th. The garden itself features three smaller gardens each with an Italianate, French and English influence.  When we were there we had just missed some of the best blooms, such as the wisteria and the gorgeous tulips. That being said, the fountains and European sculptures made us feel as if we had landed in a beautiful garden somewhere in Europe.

 

 

 

Edible Flowers are Trending for 2018

Flowers. They are gorgeous in the garden…and on the dinner plate.

According to a December 2017 article from Forbes, edible flowers are a predicted culinary trend for 2018. Indeed, why not?

If you have a garden, they are easy to grow and they add a delicious splash of color both in the yard and on the table.  Some easy options? Calendula,  chive blossoms, lemon gem marigolds, and nasturtiums are at the top of the list.

I’ve grown these annuals for years. The packets of seeds or starter plants are inexpensive and the plants don’t require a lot of fussy upkeep.  Many of them even attract bees and ward off those sticky pests known as aphids. Admittedly, however, I haven’t really bothered to sprinkle them on my dinner lately. That might change this year.

Looking for some direction on how to get started in your own backyard or on your balcony? Check out this Edible Flower Collection Seed Packet from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine.   And, while considering this trend, be prudent and educate yourself before chomping.

For additional information and resources read “A Consumer’s Guide to Edible Flowers” published by Penn State Extension.

 

Sow the Seeds of Dinner

Gardening. It’s the ultimate added-value pastime.

Not only do you get fresh air, exercise and Vitamin D when you weed, plant and prattle around in the soil but you also get hyperlocal produce for dinner! Afterall, it was plucked from your garden, patio or even windowsill.

It doesn’t get much more regional than that, folks!

I’ve been an avid gardener for probably thirty years now and I continue to be amazed at how a simple little seed can ultimately work its way through the soil and onto my dinner plate a few months later.

Even if you think you don’t have a green thumb or a sprawling yard,  seriously consider growing something.  Think about what vegetables you enjoy,  do a little planning and give it a shot.

Chives or parsley can be “planted” on a sunny windowsill.  Mini lettuces can be sown in patio planters or in small spaces in the garden. Even tomatoes, such as Tom Thumb and Stupice, which are great for small gardens, can produce prolifically in a pot and taste great in a salad.

Need some inspiration? Here are a couple of my favorite resources for sowing the seeds of dinner!

Seed Racks at the Garden Center or Grocery Store

Don’t snarf at the seed racks in the big box stores. The seeds are well priced and the displays have a great variety. You can also score a deal by using coupons and the varieties featured are usually pretty easy to grow. Read the sowing instructions and give it a shot.  I regularly buy Burpee and Ed Hume from the racks at my Fred Meyer. What do I purchase? Zinnias, lettuces, chards, herbs, cosmos, sunflowers and more. Want a small space variety? Look for the little container icon on the Burpee packets. It’s a great indicator of which ones will work well in a mini-plot.

Mail Order 

Order some seed catalogs and read them on a rainy day. They make great wish books. I circle and mark mine up and then order. I have found some great small space varieties at both Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine and at Territorial Seed Catalog in Oregon. My insider tip? When in doubt, call the customer service folks at these companies. They are incredibly knowledgeable and have steered me in the right direction many times.

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Defrost at the 2018 Northwest Flower & Garden Festival!

Spring fever in January is never a good thing, especially out here in Seattle where it is still a bleak, cold, dark, sometimes frosty, and always rainy.

For me, the best medicine has been a hefty dose of garden therapy. Of course, it’s too early to start digging and planting in my urban backyard or P-Patch, but one thing I look forward to every year is the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival. Held at the Washington State Convention Center from February 7-11, this annual garden show has always defrosted my green thumb.

This year the show, which is the second largest in the nation, celebrates a legacy of 30 years. The theme will be “Garden Party.”   Trends in organic and urban gardening, sustainability, and variety of culinary experiences will be embraced and the twenty magnificent and elaborate Show Gardens will reflect the theme. The show will also have a spectacular lineup of seminars led by experts in the field as well as daily DIY competitions with experts.  As usual, the massive shopping Marketplace will be chock full of vendors and will offer a great opportunity for gardeners, both experienced and beginner, to get answers, explore new varieties, ask growers specific questions, and stock up on favorites for the season ahead.

So, if you are itching for spring, check your calendar and plan accordingly.  If you need a little inspiration, check out these photos taken last year:

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2017 Northwest Flower and Garden Festival Show Garden

Lemony Dill Halibut Salad: A Scandinavian Refresh

I created this halibut salad this weekend after we had some friends over for dinner. My husband had cooked about three huge pieces of halibut from our June trip to Alaska and we had about a pound of cooked halibut leftover. While cleaning up on Saturday, I put it in the fridge. On Sunday I decided to do something with it to avoid waste.

My taste buds steered me towards a lemony Scandinavian flavor profile that day…I had attended the Nordic Culinary Conference here in Seattle back in May and I think it was those thrifty creative chefs—Claus Meyer, Sasu Laukonnen, and Titti Qvanstrom—  who inspired my path that afternoon.  At the conference, the chefs discussed how they avoid waste, use local ingredients, and employ simple techniques to ramp up inherent flavors and achieve impressive dishes.

So…while staring at a Pyrex dish full of flaky white fish,  I challenged myself to make a fresh and appealing salad with the leftover. Rather than just mix it up with some mayo which is the  traditional route to go for those who do employ leftover fish in their kitchens…I decided to ramp up the flavors.

Leftover fish can be a tough sell.  I wanted a “refresh”.

So, I looked in the fridge and the garden and pulled my Cuisinart forth on the counter. My food processor is crucial for challenges like this. It speeds the process and makes fish tidier to work with.  From the garden, I gathered a handful of dill, and a rummage through the fridge yielded some decent celery and a big voluptuous lemon.  With that, I had a game plan!

The key to my Halibut Refresh? I added lemon juice BUT I added it at a critical point.

I didn’t want to dilute that burst of sunshine.  I wanted to make sure it played a key role so I sprinkled the juice directly on the halibut and processed the halibut, celery and lemon BEFORE I added the mayonnaise.  I am convinced that this simple sequence in steps made an enormous difference in my end result because the lemon got mixed into the fish and the fish absorbed it, becoming light, sunny, and citrusy in the process. I then added the dill and the mayonnaise.

Here’s the recipe. A ridiculously appealing Alaska Halibut salad with definite Scandinavian tilt. I enjoyed it on piece of Larsen’s Bakery Light Finnish Rye. A match made in heaven.

Lemon and Dill Halibut Salad

3 celery stalks, cut into big chunks

8 to 10 ounces cooked halibut (poached, grilled or baked is fine), broken up into chunks

1 large lemon, rolled on the counter and then juiced*

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh dill

2 to 3 tablespoons low fat mayonnaise,  or to taste

Salt to taste

To Serve:

For serving: slices of lightly toasted rye bread and fresh Bibb lettuce leaves

For garnish: citrus zest, thinly sliced red onion, extra dill

 

Put the metal blade in the food processor, add the celery chunks and process the celery with three or four pulses to chop it. Put the halibut in the food processor, drizzle the lemon juice directly over the cooked halibut. Pulse once or twice to mix and incorporate the lemon juice. Add the fresh dill and the mayonnaise and pulse three or four times just to mix. Taste for seasoning and add salt to taste.

To create an open faced sandwich: Serve the salad on lightly toasted rye with a piece of lettuce and garnished with zest, extra dill, and thinly sliced onion if desired.

*Lemon Tip: To extract the most juice from a lemon, roll it on a counter before you juice it. You can also prick a couple holes the lemon, zap it in the microwave for twenty seconds, roll it on the counter and then juice it. These little techniques go a long way towards extracting all that sunshine from a lemon!

 

 

 

Tomato Season 2017: Digging Those Eastern European Heirlooms

Well, I admit it. I start thinking about the upcoming tomato season in December. Seattle is ridiculously dark and rainy during the last month of the year, but without fail that’s when my tomato and garden catalogs trickle in and that’s when I leave the holiday hubbub at the door and start to plan for the spring.

This year, we are having a ridiculously cold and rainy spring and everyone is wondering when the dreary weather will hit the road. No one has any answers and the media even salts the communal wound by publishing articles saying this is the rainiest season EVER for the Emerald City.

That being said, I am still marching forth on my tomato planning but I am also preparing for what will most likely be a late and truncated tomato season. When I moved to Seattle from New York over twenty years ago, I got turned on to the Eastern European heirloom tomatoes. I was told that these varieties are naturally conducive to Seattle’s maritime climate and that they produced flavorful unique tomatoes that defy the odds. Indeed, varieties such as Black Krim, Moskvich, Gregori’s Altai, Cosmonaut Volkov, Stupice and Siberia have been the backbone of my tomato beds for year.  These varieties sit alongside the classic heirlooms such as Carmello, San Marzano, Mortgage Lifter and Brandywine.

I often push the envelope and plant my tomatoes around April 15th but NOT this year because nighttime temperatures are still dipping to 40, which is way too cold. Hence, I’m coddling my plants at the kitchen table and at locations throughout my little house until the days get warmer and brighter.

If you haven’t gotten your tomato game plan in order yet, fear not because there’s still lots of time to reach for some of the Eastern Europeans. I grow some by seed but I also rely on the plants grown by Langley Fine Gardens on Vashon Island. You can find them at  Sky Nursery in Shoreline, at Swanson’s Nursery in NW Seattle and at select farmer’s markets during spring.  Or, you can simply order live plants directly from Territorial Seed in Oregon.

 

 

The Year in Review: My P-Patch Garden

Well, it’s official. I am wrapping up a full year as a Seattle P-Patch gardener. The P-Patches here in Seattle are a network of 88 organic community gardens dotted throughout the city. Operated by the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, the gardens have a legacy that dates back to about 1973 when the first one was started at Picardo Farm.

My little one-hundred square foot garden is located at the Haller Lake P-Patch, which is in North Seattle and only  stone’s throw from I-5. Located in a quiet corner of a church parking lots, it’s been a delightful oasis and experiment for me this last year.

I’ve messed around with inter planting, growing small garden varieties, companion planting, succession planting and a whole lot more.  Inspired by some vintage  U.S. Government Victory Garden booklets that I found at an estate sale, I inter planted aggressively, pulled plants once they were totally spent, and replanted something new shortly thereafter in order to keep the produce coming. The rewards and yields were  massive considering the tight quarters.

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Some of the items, such as beets, peas, kales, chards and carrots were planted directly in the beds. Other things like Savoy cabbages, yellow pear tomatoes, and Red Iceberg lettuce were put in as starter plants purchased at the nursery.  In mid June some items like winter kale and Brussels sprouts were started by seed at home and when transplanted to my P-Patch, simply tucked under the tomato plants. I figured the loftier tomato plants would protect the little starts from harsh summer sun and heat.

The garden organizers at my P-Patch keep telling us that we have til October 31 to plant our beds for the winter or simply clean them up, mulch them and let them take a snooze til spring. This year, I’ve opted to plant mine with cold weather varieties such as elephant garlic, kales, chards, rutabagas, purple kale, Nordic Brussel sprouts, and winter carrots.  I wasn’t able to have a winter garden in  my plot last year simply because I got my plot too late in the season. I’ve had a winter garden at home every year for about two decades now but I am really excited to push the proverbial limit and see what I can get in a SMALL space winter garden! Now, that’s a victory!

Stay tuned…and stay warm!

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February in the Garden: Organizing a Big Hot Mess of Seeds

Things are getting brighter here in Seattle. We are scheduled for a full week of sun this week and by next Monday, which is President’s Day, we should be gearing up to plant our first round of spring peas.

Compost 2016This weekend we had a “family work party” in the garden. This involved wrangling teenage boys out of the house and into the garden. One of those teenagers picked up and hauled home two cubic yards of steamy Cedar Grove compost which was spread on my raised beds. We also had a family lesson in mechanics because my youngest son learned how to fix the wheel on the secondhand wheelbarrow. Family dynamics took a turn for the worse when it came time to deal with the big messy compost heap in the corner of the yard. I feed that heap with leaves, clippings, and coffee grounds through the winter.  No one likes that arduous and sloppy task but the worms, those quiet garden workhorses, needed a little attention.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli February 2016Last night, I finally got around to seriously perusing the seed catalogs. I have been poking through them intermittently but last night I sat down with pen and paper to craft my list. I must say I was surprised to see how much seeds prices have skyrocketed this year. One of my favorite purveyors wants $5 for ten tomato seeds. This reality check sent me on a housecleaning mission this morning….it was time to inventory my unruly collection of seed packets. I have packets stashed in Ziploc bags in a box. Not the best system admittedly but it has worked pretty well…until now.

This morning I spent a few minutes sorting those packets by variety. I then took note of the date on each packet and how much was left in each packet. Even after that I realized my sorting wouldn’t be very useful while placing mail orders or buying off the seed rack at the garden store. I really wanted to have a quick way to survey my stock and decide if I need to risk using older seeds or if it would be better to buy new.

So, I decided to take an inventory and create an Excel spreadsheet, categorizing each type of vegetable and then noting the variety, date on the packet and how much is left in each pack. Now, some of you might be masters of the Excel spreadsheet…I must admit, however, that I’ve never done one for this type of project but it came out great and I can now easily sort and peruse exactly what I have and what I need. (I just Googled an inventory spreadsheet template, downloaded it and it worked great.)  I’ve even stored the list in my Dropbox so I can access it from my phone while shopping.

I suspect I will still buy a few more packets than I technically need but I think my little seed inventory sheet will be very helpful when buying, planning, and planting for 2016.