growingtipsChocolate Cake and Frost-ing in My Garden?

by Denise A. Szarek

This is my favorite time in the garden is early spring when all my hopes for the coming season start to unfold. The sight of garden beds topped off with rich soil, the consistency of crumbly chocolate cake, free of weeds and ready to plant, full of promise and a blank canvas awaiting my garden vision. When garden beds are well prepared the hardest part of gardening is done. The better prepared the soil is, the less work there is during the growing season and more likely my garden vision will come to fruition.

TIP: Don’t step where you will be planting. Soil should be as light and airy as possible. When you pick up a clump of soil and squeeze, if it stays together like a soggy ball, it’s too wet. Soil should have the consistency of moist crumbly chocolate cake, and not a squishy mud pie! If the soil is worked when it’s wet, you risk losing all its natural air pockets and you could suffocate your seeds or seedlings and cause them to rot. If the soil in garden beds seems to be compacted, some peat or compost may be needed to fluff it up. Every spring, you want to test your soil with an inexpensive pH test kit, available at your local garden center. Soil pH is ideal at 6.5 – 6.8.

Once your base soil is in place, it’s feeding time! The preferred method is to till in compost. If using aged manure it is best applied two weeks before seeding. Never, apply fresh manure to the garden or plants will get a terrible burn.

If planning to grow tomatoes, peas or pole beans they need support and early May is the time to get trellis and supports installed in the garden. Waiting until plants are established, risks disturbing the roots of young plants and possibly stunting their growth.

For tomatoes, I recommend building a simple, overhead structure similar to a hoop house using PVC tubing and clear 6 mil plastic sheeting. The purpose is to keep rain off the tomato plant, which will help with the elimination of late blight. The sides should be installed with the ability to roll up and the ends left open. This will allow for good air circulation on warm sunny days. During the growing season hand watering or soaker hoses are used, taking care to never get the foliage wet and only water the roots. My husband and I have been growing tomatoes in a similar (but much larger hoop house) since 2005, with no late blight in the greenhouse, but did have it last year in unprotected tomatoes experimented with in the field. Late Blight is nothing new in our area, it comes up from the South on the winds every year, it becomes a problem when plants are wet, damp and cold.

growingtips2Wait until the soil is warm enough for planting. Avoid the temptation to start planting on that first warm sunny day. A general rule is to wait until the soil is 60 degrees F. before sowing seeds, 65-80 degrees F. is optimum for germination. Crops like peas do best when soil is about 75 degrees F. Because of the unique topographical area of the Mohawk Valley our last Frost-ing Dates range from May 1st all the way to May 31st . Most of the Mohawk Valley is in USDA Hardiness Zones 4b and 5a. In our area we can see Frost-ing until the end of May. For beginner and novice we suggest waiting until May 5th to plant crops like, peas, cabbage, broccoli etc., but be mindful of the evening temps and be prepared to cover those crops if the temperature to dip near freezing. When you cover those crops against frost, make sure that the covering is not touching the tender plants, frost can penetrate that covering and frost burn the plants. Warm crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash and eggplant should not be planted until late May. Memorial Day weekend is a good time for this planting.

At The Market: May is always a great time at the local Farmers Markets. It marks the ushering out of rubbery storage carrots, spongy onions and potatoes and welcomes the bright greens of lettuce, chard, pea shoots, kale, spinach and other greens. You will start to see radishes of all shapes, sizes and colors.  Ramps also known as wild garlic and foraged wild mushrooms, nettles and fiddleheads arrive and then mid-month asparagus. Garlic scapes, green garlic and rhubarb start to appear mid to end of the month.  Farmers with hoop and green houses will start to bring baby beets, spring parsnips, carrots, new potatoes, scallions, spring onions and herbs.

In May everyone seems to be waiting for asparagus to arrive on the market.  So here are two of my favorite ways to prepare in season asparagus:

Grilled Asparagus

  • 1 pound Asparagus spears
  • Bacon strips
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Wash and trim the ends of your asparagus spears. Take spears, place them on a cookie sheet and coat them, with a drizzle of olive oil, when well coated, gather up 4-5 spears in a bundle and wrap with the bacon, season with salt and pepper. Grill the bundles for 5-10 minutes until nicely charred and just fork tender, turning then every few minutes so that they brown relatively even.  For a vegetarian option skip the bacon and grill the spears on their own.

Quick Asparagus Fridge Pickles

  • 1 lb of asparagus washed & dried
  • 1 C water
  • ½ C sugar
  • 1 ½ C white wine vinegar
  • 2 T sea salt
  • 6 large cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 2 T mustard seeds
  • 2 T fennel seeds

Wash and dry the asparagus spears, cut off the tough fibrous ends, and arrange them vertically in a large jar. In a pot mix together the water, vinegar, sugar salt, garlic mustard, and fennel seeds, bring the mixture to a boil. The hot liquid is poured over the fresh asparagus spears in the jar. The entire jar is then left to cool to room temperature, then refrigerated, with the lid on, for at least 48 hours (but best to wait 3 days). The result is a delicious, pickled asparagus, oh so crunchy, and a beautiful vibrant green. Will keep in your fridge for up to 3 weeks, but they never last that long in our house!

Storage: Freezing is the best way to preserve Asparagus. For best results use locally grown asparagus, in season in your area.  Blanch the asparagus in a pot of boiling water (I gal of water per pound of asparagus) for 2-4 minutes depending on thickness of spears, Drop them immediately into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Cold dry the spears on parchment paper and then pack in air tight freezer containers or freezer bags. Will keep in your freezer for up to a year.