Monday, May 2, 2011

May 2011: Warm-Weather Crops

Garden To Be’s famous Sun Gold sweet cherry tomato starter plants will be available for purchase at the May 22nd Eagle Heights Plant Sale in addition to Roma, yellow, heirloom, and slicing tomatoes. Pepper plants available at the sale include sweet bell, Anaheim, Italian frying, and jalapeños. Other plants available are eggplant, basil, cucumber, gourd, melon, pumpkin, and squash. Prices range from $1.75 to about $4.

You can also find Garden To Be at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. More information about the vendor and specific plants available for purchase can be found on the Garden To Be Facebook page and at,, or by email:

As cold crops are ushered out to make room for new warm-weather ones, so must Eagle Heights Garden staff and volunteers occasionally go through a period of rotation. This time it’s my turn. As a result of a job opportunity elsewhere, I’ll be leaving the gardens and retiring my duties as columnist and blogger by the end of the summer. If you are interested in writing for the gardens, please send a paragraph describing your interest and writing experience and writing sample (500 – 1,000 words) to Depending on your level of commitment, it could even count toward workday credit for the 2012 season!

The end of May and June are the perfect time to start putting in your warm-weather crops like beans, cucumbers, eggplants, herbs, flowers, melons, peppers, pumpkins, summer and winter squash, and tomatoes. You can also continue to plant fast-growing multi-season vegetables like carrots and radishes. Bear in mind that it’s too late to plant seeds for peppers and tomatoes at this point. For these plants, go with trusted local organic seedlings that are well-established, like those you may have started indoors in March or those available from Mt. Horeb vendor Garden To Be.

While you are waiting to put in your warm-weather plants, be sure to devote some time to deterring weeds and pests. Dig out any weeds you spot all the way down to the roots. After a rain is an excellent time to do this. If weeds are allowed to mature and flower, they will produce more weeds and invade your plot. Take care to haul all weeds to the designated community weed pile instead of composting them in your plot. Composting weeds in-plot is tricky and you could end up with a healthy weed crop in and around your compost pile. A good way to reduce the number of weeds in your plot is too keep any unplanted areas well-mulched and to grow plants with shade-producing foliage throughout your plot.   

In addition to weeds, pests and diseases can also pose a problem in any garden. Flea beetles have been known to completely ravage the foliage on eggplant and arugula crops. To deter these tiny beetles, plant eggplant and arugula seeds in raised mounds of dirt. Consider using floating row cover with the arugula and cover your dirt mound with black plastic for the eggplant. You can also purchase or make an organic spray to keep insects like them away. Mice have been another major pest in the gardens. Last year, mice ate all of my pea and pepper seedlings, most of my beets, and a number of other things. Unfortunately, since we are technically gardening on the mice’s turf, we must learn to share with them. Companion planting, scaring devices, and pest-resistant varieties of certified seed and seedlings are other recommended ways to deal with the various pests you may encounter in your plot.

Late potato blight, which afflicts both potatoes and tomatoes, is another thing that can affect the productivity of your garden. The blight is a soil-borne white mold that develops under the leaves of potato and tomato plants. It can also surface in the fruit of the plants in the form of a dry, leathery skin and rotten inside. To prevent late potato blight, purchase potato and tomato seedlings only from trusted local vendors, don’t water your plants in the evening (cooling temperatures foster mold-producing conditions), and don’t plant your tomatoes and potatoes in the same spot from year-to-year. Also, be sure to remove and moldy leaves immediately (do not compost) and thoroughly clean any tools used on sick plants.

Crop rotation, as mentioned for preventing late potato blight, is also a great general practice to get into with gardening. Moving the sites you choose for specific plants from season to season promotes soil health and helps combat weeds, pests, and diseases. Perennials can occupy the same location for a few years before the soil they are in becomes exhausted. Annuals, however, should be planted in new spots each year and should include a few bean varieties or other nitrogen-enriching crops. Also, strive to cut down on the time your soil is left unplanted and be sure to put in some plants with foliage that helps shade weeds out. Some annuals that can help fill any empty spaces you may have in your plot are Chinese artichoke, corn salad (mâche), summer and winter purslane, and sweet corn. Consider sketching out plans of where and what you want to plant for spring, summer, and fall and bring them with you when you’re ready to put seeds and seedlings in the ground. Keep expected harvest times in mind and be ready to replace plants when production dwindles. Rotating the spot you use for an in-plot compost pile from one season to the next is also a great habit.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Interview with Garden To Be

Gardener Steve Laubach inspects some of Garden To Be's cold-weather seedlings.
Photo courtesy of Matt Goupell

As announced in this month's garden column, Garden To Be sold cold-weather seedlings in the Eagle Heights Gardens this past Sunday, April 17th from 10am - 1pm. If you missed the opportunity to stock up on some of this Mt. Horeb vendor's great plants, be sure to check them out at the Dane County Farmer's Market and mark your calendars for the warm-weather sale. Garden To Be will be back selling warm-weather plants Sunday, May 22nd. More details will be posted in the May garden column.

Eagle Heights Garden staff recently asked Garden To Be co-owners Scott Williams and April Yancer a few questions about their favorite vegetables. Read on for their insider knowledge on some of the plants Garden To Be offers.

1. What is your favorite kind of tomato?
We can't pick just one.  Sun Golds for cherry; Pruden's Purple, Golden Sunray for fresh (salads, sandwich); San Marzano for sauce and salsa.

2. Why do you prefer the Diva Cucumber over other varieties?
It is quite simply the best cucumber on the planet.  It has very thin skin, incredible flavor, and is highly productive.

3. What do you recommend growing for greens?
We like the rainbow chard for fun and attractiveness.  You only need to plant it once, early in the season. Pick and eat greens June through October.  It's really hard to beat.

4. What's your favorite variety of pepper?
Italia frying peppers. They are thick-walled, early peppers and have a really amazing sweet flavor when ripe red.  They're also excellent for roasting whole on the grill.

5. What recipes highlight some of your cold-weather crops?
We love cooking with our red cabbage. Early planting gets you fresh red cabbage slaw for the summer. Does anyone remember the Taqueria Gila Monster on King St.?  We loved their cilantro, citrus, red cabbage slaw - I think there is a recipe in From Asparagus to Zucchini.

Monday, April 4, 2011

April 2011 - Organizational Notes

Accepted Eagle Heights and University Houses gardeners received their plot assignments in March. Applications received from now on will go on a waiting list. The Eagle Heights Gardens will hold its 2nd Annual Plant Sale on two dates this spring. Cool-weather seedlings will be sold from 10am – 1pm on April 17th and warm-weather seedlings will be offered on May 22nd (hours TBA – check the garden website). Mark your calendars! The same vendors, Scott Williams and April Yancer of Garden To Be, will be selling the local organic plants by the Eagle Heights Gardens main tool shed.

Garden To Be is based in Mt. Horeb, WI and sells certified organic specialty vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Owners Scott and April believe strongly in providing local seasonal produce while maintaining ecological stewardship. They swear that eating fresh, sun-warmed cherry tomatoes is part of the human experience. Their famous Sun Gold sweet cherry tomato starter plants will be available for purchase at the May 22nd Eagle Heights Plant Sale. Plants available at the earlier April 17th sale include Bright Lights Rainbow Swiss Chard, cabbage, parsley, thyme, sage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, pac choi, tatsoi, kale, mustard, leeks, lettuce, and onions. Prices range from $1.75 to about $4.

You can also find Garden To Be at the Dane County Farmer’s Market and on Facebook. More information about the vendor and specific plants available for purchase can be found at,, or by email:

Now that you’ve received your plot assignment (please use the map and plot markers; ask for help if you’re not sure) and started preparing the soil and clearing weeds, it’s time to start planting! April is the time to plant peas, potatoes, carrots, onions, leeks, cabbage, broccoli, beets, radishes, and greens like lettuce and spinach. If frost is still a possibility, consider placing a clean milk jug with the bottom removed over your seed sites. Weigh the jugs down with flat rocks or other heavy objects. Also, remember that you will need to carry your own water into the gardens until mid-April, when the garden taps are turned on.

April 2011 - Growing Spring Greens

As the weather has been getting warmer, my thoughts have been turning to fresh spring greens in particular. Lately, I have been paying close attention to the non-lettuce greens that have been appearing in the salad mixes I’ve seen at the store or in restaurants. Many less-common greens tend to hold up better than lettuce and add a variety of additional nutrients. All of the following types of greens should be suitable for growing in our Wisconsin climate as early as April. As a general rule, thin the plants out to 4-6 inches between other plants, water well, and keep in partial shade during the hottest part of summer. Greens can also be planted between other taller plants to save space in your plot and can be harvested for many weeks if pruned regularly.

The first such green to catch my attention is corn salad, also known as mâche, field salad, or lamb’s lettuce. Corn salad grows in a low rosette. It is green and hardy, but tender and mild to eat. Originally corn salad was a foraged food, and it still grows wild on cultivated land in some areas. Corn salad has three times the amount of Vitamin C as lettuce and also contains beta-carotene, B vitamins, Vitamin E, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Harvest the leaves when they are about the size of a quarter or smaller and before the plant grows flowers. Corn salad will re-seed itself if left to flower.

The next green I’d like to try growing is upland cress. Cress has the peppery, tangy flavor of watercress but does not need to grow in water as watercress does. Cress does well in well-watered, fertile soil and should be kept in partial shade during the hottest months. Begin harvesting the leaves when they are “baby greens” size.

Members of the endive family would also be fun to grow. Endives can be cooked or eaten raw, have a slightly bitter flavor, and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Endives are high in folate, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, and fiber. They are also frost-resistant. One main type of endive is friseé, which has long narrow leaves that are green and curly. Friseé is a great addition to any salad. The other main type of endive is escarole, which has wide leaves that are pale green. Escarole is often sautéed or added to salads or soups. Endives are easy to grow from spring through fall. They can be eaten as seedlings, more mature leaves, or as larger heads that have been forced (deprived of light and kept in a confined space). Endives grow more easily than lettuce in low-light conditions

Radicchio and Belgian endives are also members of the endive family. Radicchio is often found in packaged salad mixes. It has a firmer texture than lettuce and has variegated white-and-red or green-and-red leaves. Radicchio has a bitter, spicy taste, which can be mellowed if grilled or roasted.

Belgian endives, on the other hand, are grown completely underground or indoors to prevent the leaves from sun exposure. Sun causes the leaves to turn green and open, which gives them an unpleasant bitterness. Belgian endives should be cream colored, tightly packed heads. The whiter the leaf, the less bitter the taste. Leaves can be stuffed, baked, boiled, and eaten raw or in salads. They are particularly good with cheese. Discard the hard inner part of the stem before consuming. To harvest, cut the leaves from the living plant and keep the living stem and root in soil in a dark place.

Winter purslane, also known as miner’s lettuce or claytonia, is another green worth cultivating. Purslane is another hardy green with a mild flavor. Purslane has attractive bright green leaves that are fleshy and triangular, and grows decorative white flowers. The entire plant is edible.

Last on the list are the more common lettuces, arugula, and spinach. Varieties of lettuce include butterhead, crisphead, romaine or cos, looseleaf, leaf lettuce, and salad bowl. They generally are mild tasting and produce larger leaves. They should be spaced 6-15 inches apart, depending on the variety. Arugula is fast-growing and has a spicy flavor. Arugula can be harvested as early as three weeks after planting. The flowers are also edible. Space plants about 6 inches apart and consider placing floating row cover over them to help deter flea beetles. Spinach is a wonderful green to grow in large quantities. Whatever you can’t consume can be briefly boiled and frozen. Place spinach plants about 6 inches apart and start picking the leaves when they are about 2 inches. Pull the whole plant when leaves are 6-8 inches large to prevent bolting (plant gets tall and tough-textured).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Come spring, perennials can be a great motivator to get a new gardening season underway. These low-maintenance plants make a freshly thawed plot look less like a barren wasteland. Some also produce edible components, which can provide a much needed sense of accomplishment early on. One such plant close to my heart is rhubarb.

Rhubarb, which is also known as “pieplant”, originated in Central Asia and is technically classified as a vegetable. It thrives in the Wisconsin climate and soil and makes delicious pies, sauces, and preserves, especially when paired with berries and other fruits. Tart and tangy, its flavor is somewhat reminiscent of kiwi and is best enhanced with a little bit of sugar or other sweetener. Rhubarb is high in vitamin C and calcium and has been said to protect teeth against erosion from acidic beverages like cola or coffee.

There are two main varieties of rhubarb plants: those with green stalks and those with red ones. The green varieties tend to be larger and more robust and include the Victoria, German Wine, and Sutton’s Seedless cultivars. The red varieties include Ruby, McDonald, Valentine, Canada Red, and Crimson Wine.  

If you’d like to add a rhubarb plant to your plot, growing one from a set or crown is easiest. Choose a planting site in full sun or light shade and thoroughly aerate and amend the soil with compost or fertilizer. Plant the set or crown about 1-2 inches deep (so the bud is just below the soil surface) before the ground freezes in October or November. Pack soil around the set or crown, but leave the soil loose around and above the bud. Rhubarb can also be grown in containers and transplanted anytime when the ground is thawed.

It is also possible to propagate an existing rhubarb plant (or a neighbor’s – with permission) by dividing the crown. To do this, dig up the crown in early spring (you will need to mark where it is in your plot during the previous season). Next, break the crown into pieces containing one large bud to each section of crown and root. Remove broken roots and trim any long thin roots. Keep roots moist until pieces are planted. Follow planting instructions for sets and crowns in the previous paragraph. A healthy existing crown will produce 5-10 pieces to form new plants. Older crowns may produce fewer.

To care for rhubarb, water regularly (but do not allow to sit in standing water) and remove any flower stems as soon as they appear. The productivity of a rhubarb plant is based on a stored supply of food from the previous year. If flower stalks are allowed to grow, edible stalk productivity for the following growing season is hindered. Rhubarb can be fully harvested from a new plant three years after it is sown. A light harvest can be reaped during the second year.

Choose the hardiest thickest stalks to harvest and never remove more than 2/3 of the developed stalks at any one time. Do not cut the stalks; grab a stalk firmly near its base and pull to jiggle it free. Trim off the leaves, which are poisonous to eat but can be used for compost. A healthy rhubarb plant produces 4-12 lbs. of edible stalks each season. Trimmed stalks can be wrapped tightly in plastic and stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks. Apply a covering of compost or fertilizer over the plant at the end of its growing season each fall to enhance food storage for the next season.

For pie recipes that use rhubarb,

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Carrots and Parsnips

Carrots and parsnips are two of winter’s most readily available vegetables. They are relatively easy to grow and store well through the cold months. Last year, I even kept established carrots in my garden plot through winter and dug them up during the first thaw in March. Many argue that frost improves their flavor, and I can attest that they were a fresh and tasty treat when little else was available in my garden. If you decide to try leaving carrots in the ground over the winter, be sure to mark where they are buried and bring a shovel and gloves when it’s time to dig them out. Unfortunately for apartment dwellers, carrots are best stored through winter in a cold cellar in a wooden box filled with sandy soil. Alternatively, thoroughly wash and place carrots in an airtight plastic bag or container in your refrigerator’s vegetable bin for easy apartment storage. Carrots should last at least a couple of weeks in this condition.

While parsnips are only white, carrots can be orange, red, purple, or white. The edible underground bulk of the vegetables can be small, round, skinny, wide, short, or long. Carrot and parsnip roots don’t tolerate transplantation well, so use the direct-sow method. A light (consider adding sand to the area), well-tilled soil is preferred. If soil is too heavy and dense, carrot roots may not be able to spread and grow adequately. Sow seeds shallowly, about ¼” deep, in a sunny area free of rocks. Consider simply sprinkling the seeds over freshly tilled dirt and then covering over with another sprinkling of dirt. However, be advised that if heavy rains come shortly after planting, there’s a good chance the seeds will wash out of your desired row and you will need to replant. Space rows about 6” apart. Weed and water the plants well. Carrots and parsnips make a great second planting after early spring greens are harvested and outdoor temperatures do not dip below 45°F (late April – June) or soar above 63°F for parsnips (late April – May).

Parsnips take a bit longer too sprout. While carrot seedlings will emerge in as little as a few days, parsnips take about three weeks. Consider interspersing your parsnip seeds with radishes to help mark your row and to pass the time as you wait for the parsnips to come up. When the radishes are ready for harvest, the parsnip seedlings should begin to emerge. Carrots take approximately 9-20 weeks to grow, while parsnips take about 16 weeks and are generally harvested in late fall or winter. Both should be thinned out to about 3” between plants when seedlings are established. Thinned plants can be eaten as “baby” varieties. Carrots and parsnips sprout unevenly, so expect to harvest intermittently as vegetables become full-size.

Last year seemed to be a bad year for carrots, so I’d like to take a moment to discuss how carrots can go wrong. First is the previously mentioned problem of seeds washing away in heavy rain. Second, carrots do not thrive in dry conditions. Insufficient watering or bouts of extreme heat will not yield healthy carrots.  Third, environmental stresses (like periods of wildly fluctuating temperatures) can take their toll. Many of the above problems could be why my carrot crop bolted last year. Bolting occurs when carrot tops flower prematurely, often also resulting in a woody or tough vegetable that is inedible. Woody toughness can also result from simply leaving the carrots in the ground too long.  

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


If you have never eaten kale, you are missing out on one of the most robust and nutrient-dense vegetables that thrives in the Wisconsin climate. Kale is a member of the “cole” or cabbage family and can be grown as a summer or fall crop. Kale, which looks most like its wild cabbage ancestor, comes in many varieties. Popular types include pale green, purple (red), dinosaur/lacinato, and ornamental (often referred to as “ornamental cabbage”). Leaves can be curly, plain, or ragged. All are edible. Kale has a cabbage-like taste and is a bit chewier/tougher than spinach or lettuce.

Kale’s real appeal, though, emerges through the array of vitamins and minerals it contains. Consider this: one cup of chopped raw kale contains about 684% DV of Vitamin K, 134% DV of Vitamin C, 206% DV of Vitamin A, 9% DV of Calcium, and 6% DV of Iron. Kale is also rich in magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese and is believed to boost DNA repair and prevent the formation of cancer cells.

Kale withstands cold and frost extremely well and has traditionally been a key fresh food eaten during the “hunger gap,” the period in winter when there is a scarcity of fresh produce. In fact, I harvested some frozen kale from my garden plot in early December 2010. If anything the cold and frost improved the flavor. Kale can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of dishes. My most popular cooking uses include: 1) sliced into ribbons and served in a slaw-type salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, radishes, and feta or goat cheese; 2) chopped and served in a salad with apple slices, raisins, edamame, and a citrus-soy dressing; 3) sliced into strips and used as “lettuce” on tacos; 4) sautéed with minced garlic and olive oil and served as a side with potatoes or meat; and 5) added to soups in place of spinach. To find more culinary uses for kale, visit or

Kale seedlings can be planted 1-2’ apart in late March or early April. To grow kale from seeds, plant seeds in the cold of early spring for a summer harvest and/or mid-summer for a fall harvest. Kale makes a great second planting after an early crop of beans or peas is harvested. Seeds can be planted ¼-½” deep and about ½” apart in soil that has good drainage. Some shade is tolerable. Keep plants well-watered and thin out when plants are 6” tall. Thinned out plants can also be eaten and are a tasty and nutritious addition to a salad of baby greens. I find that pests generally avoid kale in favor of other items in my garden. However, if flea beetles or other pests become a problem, consider placing floating row cover over them until the plants are 1’ tall. Begin harvesting the larger lower leaves when the plants are about 1’ tall and before the leaves become too large and tough.

To store kale, wrap unwashed leaves in a moist towel and place in a plastic bag. Kale can be kept in the refrigerator in this condition for about a week. Before eating kale, it is generally preferable to wash it and remove the center stems from the larger leaves. To keep kale’s nutritional benefits intact, avoid boiling it and opt instead for steaming, stir frying, or sautéing it.