Gathering the 2013 Harvest
It was a good year for vegetables near our front stoop, in pots on our balcony and driveway, in the backyard and in the alley.
I know that climate change is screwing up the moisture and the temperature all over the place. Chicago is no exception. The mild summer we just enjoyed and the timely rainfall were particularly good for some of us who grow our own food. And because we planted (intentionally or not) more than 20 edible crops this season, we were able to take advantage of the strange swings in the weather to harvest our biggest bounty ever. By my unscientific calculation, I could have fed my family of four (and a puppy who loves vegetables) for nearly a month of meals. In real life, my teenage boys disdained fresh produce from the garden and much of what I grew I gave away to friends, family and neighbors or cooked and served at dinners where our guests shared the bounties of their own gardens and trees.
Peas, Beans and the Growing Puppy
Instead of enjoying peapods in the spring, our vines came to fruit in early summer and kept producing sweetly through August! While picking them early gave us the sweetest peas, leaving them on the vine longer let them grow more meaty. But by late summer, we had adopted a 3-month old puppy (link to Kim’s blog on Tesla) who LOVES peas. We often picked them fresh and ripe to use as training treats in the backyard. I’m proud to say that through the diligent use of peas, Tesla learned to “Stay” and “Come” largely based on peapods as his reward. As the season cooled down, we trained him to jump hurdles and navigate through tunnels using broccoli leaves and Brussels sprout leaves as rewards. After showing good agility, we would offer him the leaves and he would grab them in his jaws and greedily run off to gnaw them like bones. This backfired once he figured out where the leaves came from and found his way into the garden beds to source his own treats. He would callously trampling any beets that got in his way as he sniffed around for leaves that had fallen to the ground. He did not, however, tear fresh leaves off the plants, preferring to scavenge.
Beans were good fetching food. Tesla happily retrieved balls, sticks and Frisbees in exchange for bits of pole bean. Ironically, we also taught him “Out” and “Off” to keep him out of the garden by rewarding him with beans that we picked for him. Soon, he learned to stick his muzzle into the bean patch knowing it would provoke an “Out” command from a human who would (after he stood back from the garden) rip a purple, green or white-and-orange bean and feed it to him.
Other local gardeners told me this was a horrible year for tomatoes. We planted them in pots all over the driveway as well as in a garden bed and the result was more tomatoes than we knew what to do with. Our neighbors kept trying to push their excess of on us but we couldn’t keep up with our own harvest. Instead, they loaded us down with their extra cucumbers and, in exchange, we gave them as many eggplant as they could tolerate. They remained disease free and grew strong among the basil I planted nearby. The only problem we had was that hot sunshine following a rainfall would often crack the skin, which left an unattractive scar but otherwise had no effect on the taste or consistency.
I’m happy to say that the bees kept visiting my garden repeatedly through September and even into early October, and the eggplants obliged by spawning more purple flowers every few weeks. The three plants produced more than a dozen fruits in total, most of which I traded to my neighbor, as my family quickly tired of my eggplant-and-basil omelets.
Turns out that the serranos I thought would be delicious were meant to be ornamental. Although they had a bit of a kick to them, they were better as colorful decorations and had a slightly unpleasant flavor that made me stop harvesting them early in the season. Later, I noticed the same exact serranos in raised beds on the sidewalks of Jackson Boulevard in the Loop. And I didn’t see anybody happily devouring those either.
As a companion to the tomatoes, these little green forests grew tall and stalky, but provided aromatic herbs right up until the first frost. Happily growing in the sunny spots between the tomato leaves above them, the basil helped keep other weeds to a minimum and encouraged the tomatoes to thrive.
A few scrawny and misshapen cukes appeared on the vines but not enough to justify a really good gazpacho. My mistake may have been to plant them too close to the tomatoes, which the cukes then attempted to climb. Perhaps the tomatoes chemically fought with the cukes. Next year, we will train the cucumber vines to reach for the fence, which will expose them to more sunlight anyway.
When shopping for seeds in early spring, somebody accidentally threw a packet of kohlrabi in the cart. Willing to give it a try, I tossed some in the ground among the broccoli and beets, and ended up with bulbous vegetables that tasted like a mix of cabbage and radish. These hearty plants survived cabbage worm and poor soil. But since nobody but I enjoyed eating them (even the neighbors declined), I’ll inspect the shopping cart more carefully next spring to keep them out.
Beets were a disappointment. In previous years, I had such an easy time growing them that I probably got a bit lazy this year, shielding them from the sun, not improving the soil and planting them in low ground where they became waterlogged. We had maybe one decent meal of roasted beets, but the leaves were so scrawny that they barely filled the sauce pan.
I planted carrots in the center of the asparagus bed, far enough away from the perennial stalks so that the roots would not compete.
As of this writing, we are STILL harvesting the little cabbage heads, which have grown considerably since the cold weather set in. The experts say that frost makes the vegetables taste better, but I can’t tell. I did notice that some of the plants produced heads with regions of smut between the leaves that must be cut away during preparation. Whether these are dead insect bodies, rot or dirt is unclear, but the sheer quantity of sprouts that we’ve harvested more than makes up for the bits we’ve had to discard. I cook up my Brussels sprouts by steaming them and then preparing them the same way I do the collards, except with a little extra oil to help carmelize and crisp them. Even guests who profess to dislike them enjoy eating sprouts prepared this way. Or at least they tell me this to be polite.
Had tons of this stuff, but half an ounce at a time. All in all, I probably cooked two dozen broccoli omelets from the four plants. Most of the heads, though, turned into bitter but attractive yellow flowers, which helped keep the bees returning to my garden until nearly the first frost. After that, the plants continued to produce green heads that could still be eaten.
Cabbage grew well, but like eggplant, nobody else in my family was interested and I gave it away to neighbors.
Last years’ lettuce crop partially went to seed (bolted), and as a result, we had a few volunteers come up. These were generally tasty leaf lettuce varieties. But the lettuce seeds that I intentionally planted this year did poorly in the backyard. However, I also planted rows of lettuce in the shaded north side of the house near the front yard. These did fantastically well and produced many salads. I let these plants bolt and they competed with the weed forests that grow on either side of our front stoop. We’ll see what comes up on its own next year, although a plant biologist friend of mine tells me that these sorts of naturally pollenated lettuces rarely taste like their parents.
I can’t kill these things without literally ripping them out by their roots. Collards are a hardy vegetable and, unfortunately, a co-worker who was happy to take as much as I could give him resigned last month, and I’m scrambling to get rid of the rest. I blanched and froze some, but even then, it’s unclear whether I’ll put them to good use. I’ve cooked my sautéed collard recipe (with honey, sesame seed, balsamic vinegar and garlic salt) for many guests, but I get the sense they’re taking “no thank you” portions out of courtesy and really don’t tuck into the dish was I’d hoped. Most collard recipes include ham or bacon, and while I’m sure it’s much more flavorful, I’m taking the vegan high road, even if it means I’m the only one left eating the leaves.
The green onions and chives keep coming back on the border of one of the raised beds. No need for replanting.
These sensitive brassicas suffered from an early attack by cabbage moths and never really recovered. The 3-inch heads that ultimately grew were tough and off-flavored. I ended up throwing all four plants into compost.
An amazingly quick-growing plant. At night, a tiny shoot pokes its head above the soil. By morning, it can be two-feet high and delicious, snapped off and eaten raw in the garden. We ended up with about 15 edible stalks this year, and when the remaining ones “ferned out,” they make a very attractive perimeter to the raised beds, swaying delicately in the breeze.
We planted these the previous year and they came back as volunteers on the lawn around the garden bed. We never found a use for dill, but I let them grow out their natural life until they became woody. If nothing else, visiting children enjoyed rubbing their hands on the plant and smelling dill pickle flavor on their fingers.
Same with the dill, these volunteers (probably planted by squirrels stealing seeds from last year’s flowers) grew tall and tough. We now have sunflowers growing down the alley behind the house. I think that Tesla has helped scare squirrels and birds from our backyard and, as a result, the flower in the backyard was protected so that I could harvest a number of seeds to eat. However, there wasn’t much meat in each shell and I soon tired of the effort.
The dog pretty much ruined this plant. Chewing on the ends of branches at first and voiding himself all over the rest of the plant later on. Oh the indignity of it all!
And one more thing . . .
The village of Morton Grove is considering whether to allow residents to own chickens. The Environmental Health task force okayed it, and now it is up to the mayor to bring it up for discussion and ultimately vote on it. I personally would rather my neighbors had chickens so I could enjoy them from a distance without having the responsibility to care for them, but passions are running high for and against the idea. I’ll keep LocalBeet readers posted and maybe some dedicated hen enthusiasts might even be able to add their voices to the debate at a village meeting in the near future.