De-Mystifying Seed Catalogs and Seed Packets...

For some enthusiastic gardeners, the seed catalog is a giant wish list, with nearly every seed variety circled, regardless of the size of the vegetable garden they’ll be planted in! But for others, the array of tomato varieties, mysterious codes and symbols next to plant names, and figuring out how much space everything will take up can be dizzying. The best place to start is to think about what you like to eat, and -if you had a garden last year- what grew well and what didn’t. Plant way too many radishes? Did zucchini take over half the bed, stunting your cauliflower? Turns out your kids couldn’t get enough swiss chard? Once you’ve created a list of what you like to eat, think about the time and space invested in growing – this information will be on your seed packet or in the catalog description. Although most tomato varieties can take 2-3 months to mature after transplanting, many agree that there’s nothing better than the taste of a home-grown tomato and it’s a must-have for their vegetable garden. Are you enchanted by the different colors of eggplant but only eat it twice a year, when your partner makes his famous eggplant parmesan? That might be better purchased at a farmers’ market, leaving the space and time in the garden for your daily salad greens. When you have an idea of what you want to grow, think about your seed-starting setup (parts 1 and 2 here) and the time you have available. Do your pepper seeds rarely germinate at home? For seeds like peppers that require quite a bit of heat to germinate, it might be time to invest in a seedling heating mat or moving the seed-starting area to a warmer spot in your home. Or, decide that...

Harvesting Scallions, Garlic and Onions...

Scallions Depending on the species, scallions may be simply young onions harvested before the bulb begins to form or they may be bunching onions, which are closely related to onions, but do not go on to form a bulb when mature. Although when to harvest depends on the farmer’s or gardener’s preference, this is typically 2 to 2 1/2 months after planting, when the white base of the scallion is about the thickness of a permanent marker. While green and white parts of the scallion may be eaten, they will keep longer if the roots and tops are trimmed. Be sure to wash off all soil and store in the refrigerator, wrapped in a damp towel or plastic bag to keep fresh before eating.       Garlic Timing garlic harvest can be tricky. Although hardneck garlic begins to form a bulb in the spring and can be harvested just a few weeks after trimming the scape, it will keep best for long-term storage if harvested after some of the leaves have begun to die back, but before all of the leaves have died. Softneck garlic does not form a scape, but typically begins to form a bulb with separate cloves around the time of the summer solstice, and again- can be harvested when some, but not all of the leaves have died back. When garlic is harvested before some of the leaves have died back, the bulb is compact but there is not enough of a papery covering over each clove, resulting in a shorter storage life. When garlic is harvested after all of the leaves have died back, the head is less compact as the cloves begin to separate, once again resulting in a shorter storage life. If you’re planning to store garlic, it is best harvested on a dry day. One gently...

Tomato POW(d)ER!

Tomato Preservation: Easy Homemade Tomato Powder Running out of ways to preserve your tomatoes? Canning and freezing are good options, but can take up space in your cabinet or freezer that you may not have this late in the season. Another easy way to bottle the fresh garden flavor your tomatoes is by dehydrating them in your oven, and grinding them into a powder. This method is very easy, and does not require a fancy dehydrator (unless you have one, then by all means use it!). Tomato powder can be used to flavor just about anything; sprinkle it on popcorn, knead it into bread dough, toss with a little olive oil and herbs on pasta, or even mix with water to reconstitute for a quick pizza sauce. It will add a burst of zesty tomato flavor to any dish whenever you want to be reminded of those warm summer days. Tomato Powder   What You’ll Need: Serrated Knife & Cutting Board Baking Sheet Parchment Paper or Silicon Mat Oven Spice Grinder Step 1: Wash your fresh tomatoes (If you are using store bought tomatoes, make sure they are in season, for the best flavor). Paste or Cherry tomatoes work best, but any delicious tomatoes will do! Step 2. Slice tomatoes in 1/4 ” slices with a serrated knife, and scrape out the seeds and gelatinous inside part (you can choose to save the seeds at this point!) Step 3. Arrange tomato slices on a baking sheet lined with a silicon mat or parchment paper. You can place them close together, just make sure they are not touching. Step 4. Set your oven to the LOWEST possible temperature (200 degrees is the ideal temperature). If your oven only goes down to 250 degrees, then simply prop the door open with a wooden spoon to decrease the temperature while dehydrating. Step 5. Place the baking...

About Eggplant

Eggplant is a heat-loving crop native to India, and comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Some 18th-century European varieties were yellow or white and resembled goose or hen’s eggs, hence the name “eggplant”. Eggplant is widely used in cooking, most notably as an important ingredient in Mediterranean dishes such as moussaka and ratatouille. How do you know when it is ready to harvest?  Eggplant is another one of those vegetables that is easy to answer with “When it looks like what you see at the grocery store.” However, size is not always an indication of maturity, so it is best to feel the eggplant to be sure. Hold it in your palm and gently press it with your thumb. If the flesh presses in but bounces back, it is ready to harvest. If the flesh is hard and does not give, it is still too young to pick. If the thumb indentation remains, the eggplant is over-ripe and may be completely brown inside and bitter, with large tough seeds. Pick it and discard if this is the case. You can also tell if an eggplant is ripe when it is shiny. Below, the glossiest dark purple eggplant on the left is ready to pick. The light purple eggplant on the right is dull and needs several more days to ripen. The darker purple and white eggplant at the bottom is just starting to “shine up” and will be ready in a day or two. How do you pick it it? Eggplant stems are often thorny and do not separate from the plant easily. To pick eggplant, cut the stem with a pair of snips. How do you store it? Eggplant is best when eaten fresh, unrefrigerated. You can store it for up to one week on the...

Squash those bugs!

Squash bugs are here, and if you haven’t seen the damage the adult’s toxic saliva can do to your squash and zucchini plants yet, you may have noticed their brown jewel-like eggs under the leaves. The best thing to do now to prevent widespread damage is to search for and destroy the eggs daily for the next few weeks. The underside of every leaf should be inspected, which will take about 3-5 minutes per mature plant (they usually go for larger plants, not small seedlings). If you find the eggs, remove them by flicking them off with your fingernail. Don’t worry too much about scraping that small portion of the leaf – your plant can handle it. Once the eggs hatch, you’ll see the five nymphal instar stages the bugs go through before becoming adults. These should be squished as well. Squash bugs are very difficult to kill with most pesticides, and physically removing them is the safest and most effective way to save your plants. No eggs yet? Put a kale leaf or small piece of cardboard on the soil in your garden. Adult squash bugs will seek shelter there during the day, and you’ll be able to easily find and remove them....

A Second Chance for Broccoli...

If you were disappointed by your broccoli, cauliflower, or romanesco harvests this spring, good news – you have a second chance this year with a fall crop! While we saw prizewinning heads of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage during a wet and cool 2015, 2016’s dry and hot spring hasn’t been so conducive to big Brassica harvests (though we hear many gardeners are having their best tomato year!). Although we are just getting into what many consider the “taste” of summer with our first tomato, ground cherry, and zucchini harvests, July is the time to start planting fall crops. While it may be difficult to think about fall crops before Labor Day, Chicagoland doesn’t have quite enough long, warm days between Labor Day and the first frost to put off starting most fall crops after summer has nearly ended. This is also a good time to familiarize yourself with the information on your seed packet to best calculate seed starting dates for fall crops: Days to germination – this is the average number of days it takes for the seed to germinate. Sometimes a temperature range will accompany this information. Generally, seeds germinating at warmer temperatures will germinate faster than seeds at cooler temperatures, until a point. When temperatures are higher than 90 degrees, many plants will lie dormant until it cools off, and vice versa for temperatures below about 60 degrees. Weeks to transplant – this is the average number of weeks after germination it is recommended to grow indoors until the seedling can be transplanted outside. In the spring, this is typically sometime around the last frost date in late April/early May to avoid frost damage on tender plants and to give them a head start on growth before summer’s heat kicks in. In the summer, this is to give the gardener time to get a...

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