Vegetable Seeds for the Spring Garden

November isn’t quite over as I write this, but already the seed and fruit catalogs have started to arrive. They will increase in frequency through December and into January and then peter out in February. No doubt they arrive at the most convenient time from the perspective of the seed production business and for the convenience of spring seed starting, but by coincidence it is also a master stroke of marketing. They just happen to arrive when gardeners are first starting to experience garden withdrawal symptoms. We may have been confined inside by inclement weather for weeks and are starting to pine to be outside doing garden things (we have already oiled the wooden handled tools with linseed oil and sharpened everything that needs sharpening).

Perusing seed catalogs has long been a treasured ritual among avid gardeners. We curl up with them by the fireside on cold winter nights (hot cocoa and fuzzy slippers are optional but recommended accessories).  Our catalogs allow us to dream about vegetables and gardening even if our gardens are actually frozen solid beneath three feet of snow (not very likely in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, but that’s part of the mystique). We get to read and reread those descriptions of plump, sweet, tangy, succulent tomatoes and crisp, green, frilly lettuce and admire the glorious color photographs until our imaginations start to run wild, especially if there’s brandy in the cocoa.

Of course we Bay Area gardeners are blessed in that we can actually get out and garden on any day of the year, weather permitting. So we can’t get as intense a seed catalog experience as gardeners in Vermont. Nor would I say that receiving the catalogs is one of the highlights of the gardening year (they don’t actually involve any gardening), but they certainly help to keep the gardening portion of my brain busy during the gap between Christmas and seed starting time.

Receiving seed catalogs predates the electronic age, but just because you love looking at them doesn’t mean you can’t use the Internet to do your buying. One of the great benefits of Smart Gardener is that you can not only plan out your vegetable beds for the next season and get immediate feedback on what you need to do to prepare and plant your garden, but you can also buy the seeds and starts you need all in one place.

If I get all the planning work done in early December, I can look forward to receiving a fat padded yellow envelope in the mail in time for Christmas. I get a little buzz of excitement as I open it, exactly like I used to feel as a child opening my presents. These days, new seeds and the anticipation of getting back into the garden is gift enough for me.



When the weather gets cold, the leek takes the spotlight as one of the stars of the winter garden. You can pick them fresh from the garden to add great flavoring to any recipes that normally use onions or enjoy them as the featured vegetable of your meal.

Though nowadays the leek is considered one of the more refined members of the onion family, for most of its history it was an everyday staple of the common people. This was partly due to the fact it was easy to grow and could be left in the ground all winter, even at -10 F. But it was surely also appreciated for its sweet and delicate flavor. It is milder and easier to digest than other onions and was very important for enhancing the bland staple foods that made up the European peasant diet for centuries.

Perhaps the leek’s most common use was in making soup, no doubt because when cooked it has a slightly mucilaginous quality, which make soups smooth and creamy. Notable leek soups have been prepared in Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. The ingredients in Scottish Cock-a-leekie soup hint at its humble peasant origins. You don’t get much more basic than leeks, chicken stock (the bird was boiled in the soup for a couple of hours and then eaten separately) and barley (later potatoes were added). The more refined vichysoisse, involving lots of cream, is a 20th century transmutation of a French leek soup and was invented by a French chef at the Ritz Carlton in New York (not exactly a peasant hangout).

From the gardeners viewpoint the best thing about leeks is that they are so easy to grow. Unlike the related onions and garlic, you don’t have to worry about day length and its effect on bulb development. Leeks are a biennial and so, unlike many annual vegetables, they have little inclination to bolt or turn bitter in their first year. They just keep getting bigger. In mild climates like we have in California, they will continue to grow right through the winter and still be good to eat in early spring. In colder climates they won’t grow much in the winter, but they can be left in the ground for months, even at below freezing temperatures. The outermost leaves might get a little slimy, but the interior will be perfectly fine (mulch can help to protect them and keep the ground from freezing). They will eventually bolt in spring when the days lengthen and the weather warms, but you will probably have run out of Leeks to harvest before this happens.

If any leeks do get around to bolting you can admire the spectacular flowers and then save their black seeds for planting next year (they are cross-pollinated, but there are unlikely to be too many leeks flowering around about). The flowering plants also produce offsets, which can be used to grow new plants (these are known as leek pearls).

To grow a winter Leek crop you must choose a winter variety (these are hardier than summer varieties) and start the seeds in mid-summer (they are fairly slow growing). This gives them plenty of time to grow so they are close to maturity by the time cold weather arrives and the day length drops below 10 hours. The plants will then stay in good condition for eating all winter and will even continue to grow slowly. The Leeks you grow for summer use can simply be left in the ground into the winter, to be harvested as needed for the kitchen. These varieties don’t tend to be as hardy as the preferred winter types, so eat them first.



Escarole cc again

Kitchen Tip: Escarole

If you desire delicious young tender leaves, you can constantly thin the outer leaves. This helps to extend the life of the plant and provides you with tender greens for saute or salads.

Caramelized Squash wedges with sage and pomegranate V3

Caramelized Winter Squash with Sage and Pomegranate

This is the time of the year when we can still enjoy the winter squash we’ve stored from our fall harvest. Even though squash will keep for months, I like to use them within two months of harvest because they tend to maintain an even texture. I find the combination of fall squash and fresh pomegranate creates a seasonal flavored dish. I grew white acorn squash this year and  wanted to try it in this recipe.  However both butternut and kabocha have a deep rich texture that make them ideal for this recipe as well.

Squash and Pomegranate seem like a natural pairing since the the slightly sweet and sour note of acidic tannins in the juice of the  Pomegranate compliment the sweetness of the squash. The pomegranate makes an excellent sauce for caramelizing and adds a colorful and fresh touch to the overall presentation.

(Serves 4)

1 large white acorn squash ( about 3 lbs)
3 tablespoons of olive oil
6 dried sage leaves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon of maple sugar
8 tablespoons of pomegranate juice
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
2 leaves of mint

1) Preheat the oven to 375 and place rack in the middle of the oven.

2) Peel the squash, cut in 3/4″ round slices and place in a mixing bowl.

3) Mix olive oil, sage, pepper, maple sugar, and 4 tablespoons of the pomegranate juice. (You can substitute pomegranate molasses if fresh isn’t available, using half the amount called for in the recipe) Toss the squash in the mixture.

4) Place the squash in a shallow baking dish and roast for 20 minutes. Remove pan from oven, flip the squash over and baste with half the remaining pomegranate juice. Move the squash pieces around to ensure even roasting. Cook for another 20 minutes, then baste with the remaining pomegranate juice and let cook until squash has completely caramelized. The squash should be tender throughout.

5) To serve place the squash on a serving dish. Finely chop the mint and sprinkle over the squash along with the pomegranate seeds. Best served while hot.