Where do your fruits and vegetables come from? This week, my refrigerator is stocked with spinach and blueberries from Florida, raspberries and strawberries from California, grapes from Chile, hothouse tomatoes from Canada, and peppers from Mexico — all courtesy of a recent shopping trip to my local Costco. In Iowa, where cold weather often lingers into April, I welcome the year-round availability of such delicious diversity. But fresh produce is a luxury that many of us take for granted. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 23.5 million Americans live in “food deserts,” areas with little or no access to grocery stores that provide fresh, nutritious, affordable foods. Imagine having to feed your kids only what the corner convenience store sells.
As I see it, we’re becoming increasingly dependent on food from far-flung places. And the further we are from where our food is grown, the greater disconnect with healthy eating. The solution? Planting a vegetable garden is a good start. In raised beds. In containers. In urban areas. In schoolyards. Anywhere there’s a strip of soil and sunshine.
For Ron Finley of South Central Los Angeles, the only spot available for growing veggies was along the curb in front of his house. When the city tried to stop him, Ron — a self-described “guerilla gardener” — took his fresh-food crusade to the streets, literally. He started an organization called L.A. Green Grounds, which help people turn hell strips (the wasted land between sidewalks and streets) into what Ron calls “food forests” that provide “nourishment, empowerment, education — and healthy, hopeful futures — one urban garden at a time,” according to Ron’s TED profile. I encourage you to listen to Ron’s TED Talk. I did, and now he’s one of my garden heroes.
Plant a garden. And then spread the word.
A blend of lettuces dressed with crumbled blue cheese and croutons is a springtime dinner treat.
Salad season has arrived. I devoured the first salad from the garden last night for dinner. This first batch of salad greens came from various lettuces, spinach, and corn salad that overwintered in the garden with no protection, a first-time occurrence in my Des Moines garden.
I could have harvested them earlier, but I’ve been traveling so much lately that I’ve not had the opportunity to do so. The outlook for more springtime salads from the garden looks rosy. The early-March planting of lettuce and spinach is almost ready to reap as well. I should thin them and use the rejects as gourmet baby greens.
Radishes from the garden are also ready to pick. These first red orbs are sweet and mild because they have matured quickly in the pleasant spring weather. Now if my tomatoes would just ripen in the next two weeks…….!
Fingernail-sized radishes will add color to spring salads.
Recently seeded rows of lettuce and spinach are ready to thin and use in salads.
It’s finally happened. I succeeded in getting ripe tomatoes to add to summer salads before the spring-sown lettuce, spinach, and snap peas melted out in summer’s heat. (After two successive days with 100-degree F plus heat indices, that may soon change!)
The successful tomato variety? It’s ‘Lizzano’, an All-America Selections winner for this year. It certainly gets my vote as a keeper. Never mind that it’s “just” a cherry tomato. I don’t care about the size of the fruits as long as they’re flavorful and productive. So far, ‘Lizzano’ fits the bill. It’s certainly earliest of the 20 varieties of tomatoes that I’m growing this year. And unlike some cherry tomatoes, the plant is staying compact (less than 2 feet tall). It also reportedly has excellent disease resistance.
I’m especially celebrating the early harvest because not only has the tomato harvest coincided with the bounty of salad fixings, I have ripe peppers to add to the blend! ‘Sweet Heat’ pepper, from Ball Seed Company grows a compact 12 inches tall, and is bearing 1- to 2-inch long red fruits with a nice blend of sweetness and mild heat–somewhere between the flavor of a bell pepper and a hot pepper. Last year I grew it in a container with some herbs, but this year it’s growing in the ground. It has done well in both locations.
Local growers tell us that because of cool spring weather we won’t have ripe Iowa sweet corn this July 4th, but I can gloat a little and say that I have ripe peppers and tomatoes to enjoy. Summer has arrived!
Pea tendrils curling around a twig trellis
I planted my garden peas this week, along with beets, spinach, lettuce, onions, mesclun salad mixes, corn salad, and kohlrabi. I was out of town all last week, or I would have planted these cool-season veggies then. It’s important to get them into the ground early so they’ll mature before hot weather hits.
I grow only edible podded peas in my garden. I like the idea of less waste and less labor in shelling out peas. (I leave the shelling to commercial canners and freezers.) This year I’m growing Sugar Ann, a dwarf type that needs little staking and Sugar Daddy, a stringless variety. (Everyone could use a Sugar Daddy, right?) I also usually grow Super Sugar Snap or Sugar Snap, the variety that started the snap pea craze when it was introduced back in 1979.
It will take a week to 10 days for the peas to germinate. That gives me a little time to prepare the trellis the taller types need. I like to use a twig trellis for the peas. This time of year I cut back to the ground my butterfly bushes, chaste tree, and beautyberry, which provide plenty of brushy twigs for the peas to climb. To make the trellis, I insert the base end of branches that are about 3 to 4 feet long 6 to 8 inches into the ground so they’ll stand firmly upright. The peas are planted in two rows spaced about 6 inches apart so the twigs are stuck between the two rows, and make a framework for pea plants from both rows to climb on.
The twig trellis holds up well for the entire season, and is easily removed when I pull the pea vines in midsummer. The brush gets recycled into mulch at the end of the year when it’s run through the chipper/shredder.
I’ll have to wait until June to reap the harvest from the peas, but I’m looking forward to the fresh taste of snap peas in salads and stir fries. I always freeze some for use the following winter, too.