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Join us at the National Heirloom Expo!

Smart Gardener was very fortunate to be part of the first Heirloom Exposition in 2011. Even with Baker Creek‘s history of putting on events like this back in Missouri, I could tell by the materials, the ads, the vendors and the speaker list, this was not going to be a regular “trade show” or even “county fair”. This was going to be something very different.

The night before the show opened, after we had finished setting up our booth, we walked over to the large space reserved for displaying produce. As we entered the hall we found ourselves gasping as we stood in front of a towering pyramid made up of every kind of  squash you can imagine — big, little, crooked, round, yellow, orange, white, green and blue. Many pictures have been taken of this amazing collection, and throughout the three days it came to represent the bounty, creativity and delight the Exposition stood for in its first year.

For us, the three days were a wonderful mixture of meeting new people, talking vegetable gardening, running off to get a freshly scooped ice cream cone or finding time to sit for a while to hear a speaker or listen to some music. What stood out the most and consistently over those three days was this overwhelming sense of pride, happiness and hope we all had and shared as a community coming together to collaborate and celebrate. We had come from around the country (and around the world) to celebrate life and the affirmation of it through our foodshed – unique seeds, fruits, animals and foods that are all part of the cycle. I was struck by how empowering it felt to be around this many truly happy people, and for three whole days no less.

I had an aha moment while talking with an older couple. They told me their children had recently moved out of the house but they were still going to grow as big a vegetable garden as they ever had. I asked why. Oh, they said, so we can give most of it away to our local senior center! It made such perfect sense on so many levels – our gardens are about who we are and sharing food from that garden is a joyful gift.

Our team from Smart Gardener will be there again this year, soaking it all up and becoming even more committed to our goal of helping people to simply grow their own food. I’m pretty sure this year will be a bit more crowded and even a bit more wondrous. I am also pleased to announce I will be speaking this year. If you’re attending the expo, I hope you will come hear my talk about using technology to support and build local foodshed.

It’s not hard to envision a time when it will be a necessity to return to being our own food producers. How can we use technologyintelligently to get there faster and make it easier? How can we integrate home food production into our busy lives? What are some of the new ways technology can support our participation with others in our local foodshed?

We have a lot of work right ahead of us fighting the good anti-GMO fight.  This Heirloom Exposition is the perfect venue to engage and energize ourselves. Many thanks to Baker Creek for giving us such a glorious, unified opportunity.

 

We’re excited about attending the 2012 National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, CA, September 11 – 13!  Our founder Kristee Rosendahl will be speaking about the benefits of using digital tools in support of local foodsheds. And to help our fans get excited, we’re giving away loads of goodies over on our Facebook page! In addition to our daily giveaways of Smart Add Ons and Smart Gardener market bags, on September 10, two lucky gardeners will win a three-day pass to the expo!

Tomatoes - National Heirloom Expo

We love heirlooms!

What are heirlooms?
It’s a question we get a lot. Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company has a perfect explanation:

“Basically, an Heirloom seed is one that has been passed down through families and is usually considered to be over 50 years old. Some varieties even date back to Thomas Jefferson’s garden and beyond.”

Unlike hybrid and GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, which often have problems reproducing true to type, Heirloom seeds can be saved and replanted, year after year. Which is how they have been handed down over the generations.

Prior to the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plants were grown by farmers and gardeners. Regional differences developed over decades, in response to varying climate, soil, and cultural preferences. Unfortunately, many modern crops come from mega-farms, where they are grown in large, monocultures — hundreds of acres of the same plant. Where heirloom gardeners choose varieties to meet personal preference, industrial farmers choose varieties based on the ability to be mechanically harvested, shipped across country, and remain unblemished.

Why grow heirlooms?
There are several reasons to grown heirloom seeds. Not the least of which is protecting biodiversity. Remember the Irish potato famine in the 1840s? That’s a prime example of the dangers of relying too heavily on a single plant species. Since the Irish farmers were growing one particular variety of potato, which turned out to be susceptible to a type of potato blight that wound up wiping out their crops for years. If the farmers had grown several different types of potatoes, they likely would have had several varieties that were resistant to the blight that they could have used.

In addition to biodiversity, though, heirlooms vegetables and fruits are often more flavorful than hybrid and GMO plants. Think of a supermarket tomato compared with a tomato from your grandma’s garden. There’s no comparison! In fact, heirloom tomatoes are probably the single crop that has done the most for bringing awareness to the benefits of saving heirloom plants in the first place. Once they started showing up in restaurants and at farmers markets, word got out about how much better they were. Now you can get heirloom seeds for every plant imaginable, from asparagus to zucchini, and everything in between.

 

We’re excited about attending the 2012 National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, CA, September 11 – 13!  Our founder Kristee Rosendahl will be speaking about the benefits of using digital tools in support of local foodsheds. And to help our fans get excited, we’re giving away loads of goodies over on our Facebook page! In addition to our daily giveaways of Smart Add Ons and Smart Gardener market bags, on September 10, two lucky gardeners will win a three-day pass to the expo!

strawberry-spinach

Strawberry Spinach

If you think that strawberry spinach (Chenopodium capitatum) is going to be a vegetable your kids will love, you are probably in for a disappointment. The name is somewhat unfortunate as it really has no connection to strawberries at all (unless you include the rather tenuous one that it produces red berries). Another name for it is Beetberry, which is somewhat more logical as it’s in the beet family and produces berries. It’s also known as Strawberry Blite, Strawberry Goosefoot, and Indian Ink.

When approaching this plant it’s best to ignore the strawberry and concentrate on the spinach, as the young leaves are a good substitute for that plant (it is actually a relative), either cooked or raw. You can eat the sweetish berries in salads, but I find they add more visual appeal than taste. Native Americans used them to dye skin, clothes and basket material and apparently they can also be used as red food coloring, though I haven’t tried this. Like spinach it contains oxalic acid and so should be eaten in moderation, or it can interfere with the absorption of calcium.

Strawberry spinach is native to North America and grows wild across all of the northern part of the continent. The cultivated plant is essentially the same as the wild one and so needs little care (it often self-sows and grows itself). It is more heat tolerant than spinach, but it is an annual and will eventually bolt. Unlike with spinach this isn’t a bad thing, as it then produces the edible red berries.

This plant has been cultivated at various times, but has never been very widely grown. It’s now enjoying something of a resurgence, as it is easy to grow and quite ornamental when in full growth (but becomes less so when you’re eating it). It grows best in moist soil with full sun and reaches a height of 1 to 3 feet. In mild winter areas you will get a longer harvest season by planting it in fall — it will grow right through the winter. If you try it be aware that some people complain that it self-sows too freely and becomes a serious pest.

Summer Squash on dirt small

Ask a Gardener: summer squash

This is the first post in a series we’re calling Ask a Gardener,
where you get to ask our resident experts your gardening questions.
Feel free to send questions to gardener@smartgardener.com.

 

Renee B. asks, “This is my first year growing summer squash. Any tips?”

Sue L. asks, “My zucchini plant isn’t making fruit. It has lots of flowers, but they just drop off. Help!”

The basics
Summer squash is justly famous as one of the easiest and most productive vegetables to grow and is ideal for the new gardener. Just put the large seeds in the ground and in a few weeks you will have plants that are a foot wide and producing big, beautiful yellow flowers. Most people know the Summer Early Crookneck and Summer Dark Green zucchini varieties, but there are also quite a few unique varieties, like the beautifully striped Cocozelle, the squat Yellow Scallop, the ball-shaped Ronde de Nice, and the stunning Climbing Trombetta.

Did you know summer squash and winter squash (including pumpkins) are all in the same family, and can easily cross-pollinate each other? And more interestingly, all squash plants are monoecious, which means there are separate male and female flowers on the same plant. It is easy to tell which is which. The first flowers are usually male and won’t produce any fruit. These have pollen producing stamens clustered together in a column (these shrivel without producing fruit). They will soon be followed by the productive female flowers, which have what looks like a tiny fruit behind the petals (this is the ovary). It quickly becomes obvious when a female flower has been pollinated because it starts to swell into the familiar looking fruit (if it isn’t pollinated it simply shrivels up).

Hand pollinating
If your plants aren’t producing fruit, it may not be attracting enough pollinators, and you may need to hand pollinate your flowers. Don’t worry, it’s quite easy. Find a male flower and a female flower (ideally, from different plants). Remove the petals from the male and brush the pollen-laden anthers on to the pistil lobes of the female. This procedure should work about 50 to 75% of the time, especially if you use two males flowers to pollinate each female.

Saving seeds
If you are only interested in obtaining fruit it doesn’t matter where the pollen comes from, but if you wish to save seed it is significant. Plants cross-pollinate readily and to keep a variety pure you have to ensure it is pollinated by another plant of the same variety. The easiest way to do this is to grow only one variety at a time, and have no others within a half mile. If you grow more than one variety you should hand pollinate the flowers. Since you want to control the pollination, you will need to go out in the evening and find some male and female flowers that are about to open the following day and tape them shut with ¾” masking tape. The next morning, use the steps above to hand pollinate the female flowers, and then tape it closed again (to prevent further pollination). This will ensure they aren’t accidentally pollinated by a different plant. It’s a good idea to mark the pollinated fruit so it isn’t accidentally harvested. And then you wait. The fruit must be left to mature fully on the vine. The fully ripe fruit will be big and woody like a Winter Squash. It can take at least 60 days for the fruit to ripen properly, so you need to allow plenty of time before frost.

Enjoy the flowers
To ensure there is always plenty of pollen available, the plants produce many more male flowers than females. These excess males don’t have to go to waste though, as they are edible and can be used to provide a variety of exotic dishes (just make sure there are no insects inside them). They can be eaten raw, fried, baked, made into soup, filled with cheese (they have been called natures ravioli) or placed inside a quesadilla. The pollen producing stamens are usually removed because they can be somewhat bitter. While they are becoming increasingly common at farmers markets, these flowers only last for a day or two, and are mostly a special treat for the gardener.

If you have made the common mistake of planting too many squash plants, you can reduce the volume of fruit you are harvesting by eating some of the female flowers too. These can be used in the same ways as the male flowers but are slightly more substantial.

 

Musica beans_small

Grilled Green Beans

Green beans are one of the many vegetable I prefer to eat fresh rather than canned or otherwise preserved. Which isn’t to say there aren’t great ways to put up any extra beans you have coming from your garden. Just that given a choice, I’d rather eat them today than in December.

Keeping with our tendency to do as much outside cooking as possible while enjoying the cool evenings here in Sonoma County, CA, the latest batch of Spanish Musica beans to come from our CSA were grilled up alongside some very sweet corn on the cob and delicious locally-produced sausage.

Wrapped in foil, you can grill pretty much anything. Just add seasoning, a little butter or oil, and fold it up.

Grilled Green Beans with Bacon and Garlic
1/2 pound green beans
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 slices of bacon, cooked and chopped
2 tbsp oil

1. Rinse and trim the beans. Cook the bacon, drain and chop, reserving 2 tbsp on the grease.

2. In foil packet, mix beans with the garlic and chopped bacon. Drizzle with the oil. You can use olive oil or even butter, if you wish.

3. Seal foil packet, making sure all sides are double rolled so none of the oil drips out. Place on the grill over medium heat and cook for about 20 minutes, turning once.

4. Open packet and serve!

Stevia-rebaudiana-plant

Stevia

The herb garden is a place where tradition rules — the same plants having been grown for hundreds of years — so it is surprising how rapidly Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) has earned a place there. When I first started gardening, it was unheard of and only a few years ago I had to buy a plant by mail order. Now it is commonly available in garden centers, where it is sometimes sold under the name Sweet Leaf. This meteoric rise (by the standards of the herb garden) has come about because it has a unique and intensely sweet flavor unlike any other common plant. This sweetness is due to several chemicals (mainly stevioside and rebaudioside) which are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, but don’t contain any calories.

This South American herb is a tender perennial and my garden in zone 9 is close to its limit for cold hardiness. Plants usually survive the winter here, though a particularly cold winter would probably kill it off. In colder climates it can be brought inside for the winter and will survive as a houseplant if kept in a sunny place. You might also leave it outside until it dies back and then put it in a cool garage where it will stay dormant for the winter.

Stevia can be grown from seed and is sometimes grown as an annual, but superior strains must be propagated vegetatively. It can be grown from cuttings fairly easily, but I find it is best to divide the plants in spring when they first start to emerge. These break up into separate plants very easily and grow quite rapidly.

This is a tropical plant and requires short days to flower, so in northern areas it only flowers late in the year. It often produces seed abundantly, but it is only worth saving seed that is black or dark brown, as lighter colored seed isn’t usually viable.

A Stevia leaf is 300 times sweeter than sugar and can be used as a sweetener in a variety of ways. To use in baking you simply dry the leaves and crush them to a powder. A large tablespoon of powder is equal to a cup of sugar.

Stevia is most often used to sweeten herbal tea. You can add a couple of leaves to a cup, but the sweetness doesn’t seem to come out very well. A better way is to steep a quarter cup of powder in a cup of water for 24 hours. Keep the liquid in the fridge and use as much as needed for tea.

My children roll up a leaf of stevia in a couple of leaves of spearmint to make a natural candy and I have started doing the same thing.

There was once some controversy about the safety of Stevia, with some claiming that various constituents were toxic. As a result it was banned from use as a food additive in the USA and Europe for a long time (though it could be bought as a food supplement). These concerns have now been largely dispelled and it is undoubtedly less toxic than approved artificial sweeteners. It has been suggested that previous bans were promoted by manufacturers of more toxic artificial sweeteners (hard to believe, I know). Now that Coca Cola/Cargill and Pepsi have developed Stevia sweeteners, it has been approved for use. If you Google “Why was Stevia banned” you can read the whole sorry story.

Stevia is now available to add to your garden. You can find it by browsing under Herbs: