The other night, a friend said his mother’s garden in Florida was not a landscape but a “plant zoo.” She collects plants, single specimens of many different things, and sticks them willy-nilly in the yard.
I resemble that remark, when it comes to my flower beds and shrub borders and even my infant orchard. My name is Cindy and I’m a plant hoarder.
But in the vegetable garden, I’m moving in the opposite direction. I’m not putting together a Noah’s Ark of flavor, but an all-star squad of the best, most consistent performers.
My object is not to see how many different pretty and tasty things I can pick and upload to Instagram (and there is nothing wrong with that). I’m trying to grow enough vegetables and fruit to get me through the winter.
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It’s not about money, although the amount saved is significant. It’s about taste. It’s about not being disappointed by mealy tomatoes, flabby green beans and starchy corn in winter. It’s also about knowing my food wasn’t sprayed with chemicals and that it was picked and preserved without additives at peak freshness.
Because my garden space is limited to an area roughly 50-by-15 feet, I don’t grow space-intensive crops such as corn. Instead, I buy large quantities to freeze from local growers. (If you don’t have a garden, you can get all your crops that way.)
Canning and freezing are easiest when you grow large amounts of a single variety of each of your favorite crops, rather than small amounts of many different varieties. Even if you don’t preserve food for winter, there are rewards to planting that one tomato or one cantaloupe that you know you can rely on year after year.
In the third year of my straw bale garden, these are the all-stars I will be growing again next year. All are available at Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Heirloom Seeds and other online sources and/or Planters Seed & Spice Co. near the City Market:
▪ Rattlesnake pole bean: My MVP by a landslide, this gorgeous purple-mottled bean is an heirloom thought to have originated in Arkansas that flourishes in the heat when other beans poop out. It grows to more than 10 feet tall and produces oodles of fat, meaty 6- to 8-inch pods. They have a rich flavor and hold up exceptionally well in the freezer.
To freeze them, pinch the tops off and snap each bean into two or three pieces, blanch for two minutes in boiling water, shock for two minutes in ice water, dry on linen towels, flash freeze in a single layer on a cookie sheet, pack in quart-size freezer bags and freeze for up to a year. (For more instructions on freezing, I highly recommend the terrific 1982 reference “Will it Freeze?” by Joan Hood.)
▪ A & C Pickling cucumber: This 1928 introduction from Philadelphia is the ultimate switch hitter. It grows uniformly straight, instead of inflating from one end like a circus clown’s balloon, so you can use them as tiny cornichons, finger-length dills or full-size slicers for salad. Inside they are moist, crisp and have small seed cavities even at full size.
I use them to make Aunt Celia’s dill pickles, a recipe I learned to make in Perfect Scents’ owner Nancy Pell’s kitchen a few years back.
▪ Brandywine tomato: In a difficult year that stunted my last year’s favorite tomato, Dester, this Ohio-bred classic from 1889 flourished. The pink-skinned giants (a slice will hang out the sides of your BLT) weighing up to two pounds each have small seed sacks, making them exceptional for sauce as well.
I don’t like canning whole tomatoes: Peeling them is too much work and you have to pressure can them. Instead I make tomato sauce, based on a recipe from Mary Taylor Simeti’s epic Sicilian cookbook, “Pomp and Sustenance”: Core enough tomatoes to fill a large spaghetti pot 2/3 full. Add 24 cloves of peeled garlic and 2 cups of basil leaves torn in half. Cook over medium heat for two hours, stirring and mashing the tomatoes occasionally. Put the mixture in batches through a food mill with a fine disc to remove skins and seeds. Return the sauce to the pan and cook down to the desired thickness. Ladle into pint-size canning jars and process in a water bath according to instructions at Ball’s website, FreshPreserving.com. You can also freeze tomato sauce in plastic containers.
▪ Petit Gris de Rennes cantaloupe: This 17th-century melon from France was softball-sized when I used to buy them at the market in Rennes, France, while studying at the university there. But in my straw bale garden in the Kansas Flint Hills, they grow to volleyball size, which was not my intent, but the velvety texture and perfume-y flavor are undiminished. Most online blogs say they are finicky and only produce one or two melons per vine, but I get four or more per vine. My only complaint is that it is difficult to tell when they are ripe. If you wait until they “slip off the vine” — the standard advice for American cantaloupes — they will be overripe. Pick them when the green and gray exterior shows the first hint of a yellow blush.
Planting more of what does very well and leaving the rest to the market farmers optimizes the reward-to-exertion ratio in my garden and keeps me better fed in the depths of winter.