Friday, January 25, 2013

Gardening in Winter

"Why don’t we have baby carrots?” This is the question Chef Robert is asking me, in late January. Baby carrots are a staple of the beautifully designed gourmet plates that Robert sends out from the kitchen and in to the elegant dining room night after night. This is serious.

I would have carrots, I tell him, if it weren’t for the cats. And the nasturtiums. 

Robert looks at me sideways, with annoyance.
Two cats: double trouble

I had a whole bed of carrots in the top greenhouse—Rainbow, Nelson, Yellow Sun—but the kittens chose that bed for their playground. They trampled the greens and, just for fun (you know how kittens like to have fun) pulled out the roots, leaving little tiny premature carrots lying all over the ground. But you’ve seen my beautiful baby turnips, haven’t you?

“Yeah I’ve seen them. They’re white.”
Hakurei turnips, in January!

I had another two beds of carrots in the second greenhouse – you know, the one we keep warm. But the nasturtiums self-seeded and I let them climb the tables and now they’re draped all over the screened tabletops in a gorgeous jumble. You should see them! Gary says it reminds him of the Caribbean! I’ve been harvesting about 3 dozen flowers a week for garnish … and they’re orange and coral colored.

“And that has what to do with the carrots?” he asks. Impatiently. 
Acrobatic nasturtiums
 Well, the nasturtiums became infested with whiteflies. I can still harvest the flowers, and even the leaves are clean—at least the small ones are. But the whiteflies spread to the carrots and they sucked all the life out of the green tops. So the tops stopped growing and the roots stopped growing and … well … the carrots are not really worth harvesting.

“So,” (voice clipped) “ … when will we have carrots?” 
Cat atop the carrot seedlings.

I planted more carrots – two beds more, in fact – in the top greenhouse about a month ago, but the days are so short that they took forever to germinate. And the kittens keep scratching in the beds. I have chicken wire and plant trays all over the carrot rows but the cats get under the wire and toss the trays around. They make a game of it, hiding and chasing each other out and up and over the chicken wire. And so my seedlings are still tiny, and most of them aren’t doing too well. 

Are we carrots yet?
Robert sighs. “Ok so no carrots. What happened to the parsley?”

Well, I was picking bunches of it until a week ago … remember? But parsley is related to carrots so when the whiteflies got into the carrots they ruined the parsley too, and I figure that you can order parsley pretty cheaply this time of year, so …
At least somebody's enjoying the parsley.


I stand up and head for the door. Just as I’m about to make a clean exit, I hear,

“And kale?” He looks up at me. Grimly.

Oh. Kale. 

Remember the hurricane, I ask?

“That was 3 months ago.” Robert’s voice is flat. Irritated. 

Yes, well, I planted the kale in the top garden because of the groundhogs—they’re not quite as bad up there. But when the hoophouse blew down and the sheep got out and ate every head of cauliflower they ate the kale too. My plan was to harvest the kale growing outside through December and then start harvesting what I planted in the upper greenhouse. But I had to start harvesting the greenhouse kale early so it’s pretty picked over. Plus the gray aphids that jumped onto the kale from the savoy cabbage are getting a little out of hand. I tried to start some more kale in the fall but the week I transplanted them we had no sun, no sun at all!  So all but five of them rotted. But the five are growing well! In another three weeks or so …

Robert rolls his eyes. 
Too beautiful to eat?

But the collards are looking great, don’t you think? I can bring you at least three big bunches a week. And the chard is beautiful too.

“Kale is trendy right now; collards are not cool. And I hate chard.”

Case closed.

What I’d like to say, and what Robert would not like to hear, is this. 

So here’s the thing: January, in Pennsylvania, is a challenge. It’s not one of those other J-months when fat heads of broccoli and tight, red-ribbed rounds of radicchio make heroes out of farmers, when exponentially growing tomato plants are laden with plump green promise, when the grasshoppers and stink bugs are still too tiny to do damage. In those other J-months, plants want to grow. In January, the greenhouse is the only place in town for aphids and whiteflies to suck plant juices and for kittens to dig holes and deposit their doodoo. It’s not fair to judge me by January’s skinny roots. And, by the way, who else do you know that’s producing beautiful heads of lettuce in January?!
Photo taken January 25th. No lie!
But the truth is, I’m equally disappointed with the carrots, the kale, and the parsley … not to mention the arugula.

This week, I planted three rows of red-ribbed chicory. It’s colorful, and it’s trendy. It likes cool weather and it’s not related to carrots. I have high hopes for red-ribbed chicory. It’s Italian. It will remind Robert of Tuscany, or Venice.

Ladybugs to the rescue.
But it is still January. I’ve released 1500 ladybugs and a vial of lacewing eggs. I’ve cut an entire roll of chickenwire into garden-bed-sized pieces and introduced the cats to a litterbox filled with nice, loose kitty litter. Every day I wet down the beds so that they will be a little less diggable—for cats, that is. I stick dandelion diggers and trowels and wooden stakes in the beds—anything that might serve as a kitty impediment. And yet, one thing I know is true: I might solve the problems of now, but something else, something unpredictable, is bound to happen. Last year, rabbits created fur-lined birthing beds in the carrot greens, and mice eviscerated the beet seeds before they had a chance to germinate. Maria, the rambunctious Great Pyrenees pup trampled the lettuce. The outdoor wood furnace malfunctioned causing the ceiling-mounted heating elements to drip icicles and the chard to freeze. We brought in kerosene heaters, which spewed a coating of black dust over every, and I mean every, green leaf. Superstorms, deep freezes, equipment malfunctions, and animal invasions are facts of life. Especially in January.

On the bright side, there are no groundhogs in January. They are, it seems, smarter than us. They know better than to look for baby carrots when the ground is frozen.   

True Confession 1: Robert’s name is not really Robert.
True Confession 2: The real chef (whose name is not Robert) is nicer than Robert and would never say those things. 

But I know he thinks them.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Spinach: the gritty truth

You may remember when supermarket spinach was a recognizable plant, with leaves attached to stems. You dunked and swished it in a basin of water and the grit would fall from the crinkled leaves. You would separate the leaves from the stems, tossing the tough, fibrous stalks into the garbage and chopping the not-so-tough stems for cooking. A second dunking and swishing followed and maybe even a third. But still, a grain or two of grit would sometimes spoil the sensory feel of eating the soft green leaves, steamed for only the number of seconds it took for them to wilt.  

I always supposed that spinach was grown in sandy soil, and that the grit that clung tenaciously to the savoyed leaves was sand that resisted my dunking and swishing. But now, as I harvest spinach leaf by leaf throughout the winter months, I have reason to doubt that assumption. The first leaves of fall are rounded and tender—the same as the baby greens pre-washed and packed in 5-ounce bags and shipped from California (but they hold their freshness for days longer … without irradiation). As the weeks pass the leaves change their shape; they acquire waves and ridges, and develop a more substantial feel. At some point in their maturation, I begin to feel a grittiness on the backs of the leaves, even though my soil is not at all sandy. When I examine the leaves very closely I see constellations of crystals concentrated on the leaf veins, and spreading outward. Spontaneous eruptions of salt.
Do you see the crystals?

I now suspect that some of that grit I was unable to wash off came from the spinach leaves themselves.

Spinach is renowned for its health benefits—its vitamin A content is through the roof, and B9, C, and K amounts are more than respectable. But there’s one nutrient spinach does not offer us, even though it has plenty of it, and that is calcium. The calcium robber—otherwise known as the antinutrient—is oxalate, an organic acid contained in fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, chocolate, and even in our own bodies. 

(Our cells produce it and it’s in chocolate. How bad can it be?)

In the spinach plant, and in many other plants as well, the oxalate binds with the calcium to make crystals, effectively seizing the calcium for the plants’ own functions. These crystals are the salt-like particles I feel on the backs of the leaves. Nobody’s exactly sure what good the calcium-oxalate crystals do for the plant. After all, we don’t know everything. But one theory is that they deter chewing insects. 
Now you see them!

Even though, as I mentioned, our bodies always contain oxalates (our cells routinely convert Vitamin C to oxalates) this antinutrient has gotten a bad reputation in some circles. It is blamed for kidney stones, though this has not been proven. In one recent study of about 250,000 men and women the researchers concluded that “data do not support the contention that dietary oxalate is a major risk factor for incident kidney stones.”(1) Instead, other complex factors are at work, which I cannot pretend to understand. The Harvard Health letter recommends drinking plenty of fluids to keep mineral concentrations lower, eating calcium-rich foods to bind oxalates that might otherwise cause trouble, and avoiding calcium supplements. Calcium in food and calcium in pills apparently act differently, proving that we have a lot to learn about calcium and our bodies. And spinach, no doubt.

There is one more twist—if you’re still with me. Here is the plot so far: A green plant chemically holds back its calcium from animals for reasons of its own. We (humans, that is) would like the calcium to benefit our bones and teeth, and are a little leery of the plant’s materials and methods. We don’t trust oxalate. At all. We fear that it will cause us pain, and whether or not the plant is at fault is not all that important. The plant contains the antinutrient, the calcium robber.

So what do we do?

We take back the calcium!  
That’s right. Researchers are looking into genetically manipulating the oxalate levels in plants. Natural mutants that lack crystals, they say, grow just as well. And if we eliminate the oxalates, our teeth and bones will get the calcium.

Here is my message for those researchers:
I humbly submit that there’s a better idea. We should recognize that we’re not that smart. We should remember that we don’t know everything. Maybe, just maybe, spinach has a good reason for making calcium oxalate crystals. And, the truth is, we can have our spinach (and its vitamins A, B9, C, and K) and our calcium too if we just eat more kale, and carrots, and bok choy, and turnip greens. And drink more milk.   

And, by the way, don’t even think about messing with chocolate.

(1)Taylor, E., Curhan, G. 2007. Oxalate Intake and the Risk for Nephrolithiasis. JASN 18:7