2017 gardening report card: lettuce, at last

With last Thursday’s hard frost, another year of backyard gardening has come to an end and it’s time once again to assess the results of a hobby that may not make much financial sense on an opportunity-cost basis–but which does allow a regular analog respite from all of my screen time.

(For reference: my 20162015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Herbs: A+

Planting basil seeds in a different, sunnier spot paid off with weeks of abundant leaves that I could toss into pesto sauces. The sage did even better and has kept on going into winter, although the relative lack of recipes for it means I’ve left most of the crop outside (any ideas to change that?). The parsley, meanwhile, rebounded from its subpar 2016 showing and once again led me to make multiple batches of tabbouleh in the spring. Mint, oregano, and rosemary were their usual prolific selves, and chives and dill did well in the fall. But cilantro only showed up in trace quantities.

Arugula: A

I got a terrific spring crop of this versatile green that lasted into July, then had another several weeks’ worth in the fall. If you’re thinking of starting a kitchen garden, this should be first plant you aspire to after parsley or basil.

Lettuce: A

Planting this in a sunnier spot paid off spectacularly well in the spring and summer, yielding an outstanding return on my investment in a couple of seed packets. If only I’d bought more: I couldn’t try for a fall crop because I forgot to purchase extras in the spring and then couldn’t find any after August.

Spinach: B

Last year’s plants held on through last winter–the day I got back from SXSW, one day after the season’s one notable snowfall, I brushed off some of the accumulation to pluck some leaves to use in a pasta sauce. It flourished throughout the spring but did not reward me with a fall crop.

Green beans: B-

These did great through the spring, but then some of our neighborhood’s many rabbits got into the raised bed and devoured the plants. Having enjoyed the Peter Rabbit books as a toddler, I can only laugh at the thought that I’ve become Mr. McGregor.

Tomatoes: C

Modest, incremental improvements at cultivating tomatoes did not yield a huge difference in this gardening paradox: I have no trouble getting tomato plants to sprout, but coaxing any to bear fruit is much less of a sure thing.

Cucumbers: F

Just to show that there’s no year-over-year logic to gardening, a comparable level of effort this year yielded 100 percent less than last year. Fortunately, cucumbers cost almost nothing at farmers’ markets.

Bell peppers: F

For yet another year, I got nowhere trying to grow these.

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Recipe: farmers’ market gazpacho

About this time of year, farmers’ markets are all about the tomatoes. And the more cost-effective ones are all about tomatoes with issues. Sold as “seconds tomatoes,” “sauce tomatoes” or maybe just “scratch and dent,” these specimens have enough cracks, blemishes or other surface imperfections to require them to be sold at a substantial discount–think $1.50 a pound instead of $3.

GazpachoThese tomatoes also fall right into one of my favorite summer recipes: gazpacho. A soup that barely requires you to turn on a burner is easy to cook even if it’s 98 degrees; paired with a baguette, it makes for an ideal dinner on the front porch or maybe at an outdoor indie-rock concert.

My usual recipe mashes up the directions from two stories that ran in the Post in an earlier millennium (from July and August in 1998). It was an insane amount of work when I had to chop all the ingredients by hand; with a food processor, everything’s done in under an hour.

Farmers’ market gazpacho

Makes about 6 cups, or 4-6 servings

  • 1/4 pound sweet onion, cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound cucumbers, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound bell peppers of any color, seeded and cut into quarters
  • 1 rib celery, chopped (optional)
  • About 2 1/4 pounds seconds tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and then smashed into paste with the flat side of a knife
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1/2 cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 dashes Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun or other spicy seasoning (optional)

Cut an x pattern across the bottom of each tomato. Fill a pot with enough water to cover them, bring it to a boil, drop in the tomatoes, and cook for two minutes. Dump the tomatoes into a strainer (pour ice over them if you’re in a hurry) and let them sit.

Throw the onion, cucumbers, peppers and (if using) celery into a food processor and finely chop until barely chunky. Pour the resulting mix into a 6-cup container. Pull the skin off the tomatoes, cut out any blemishes or cracks, cut them into quarters, and push out their seeds. Process about 3/4 of them and pour into the container.

Process the last quarter of the tomatoes with the garlic, tomato juice, olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and (if using) sauce and seasonings. Pour into the container and stir to combine; eat the next day, preferably with a locally-baked baguette (current favorites near me: Leonora in Arlington, Bread Furst in northwest D.C.) and outdoors.

 

 

My 2012 gardening report card

You’d think that success at growing a particular vegetable one year would be easily repeated the next. You would be wrong–at least in my case, considering how this year’s harvest from two raised beds and a couple of large pots departed from last year’s.

ArugulaArugula: A

I was sure last year’s plants would reseed themselves, so I foolishly neglected planting seeds until the absence of new growth was obvious. But then I had a good crop in the spring and a fantastic one in the fall. The latter allowed me to go two or three months straight without buying lettuce, and the plants have yet to conk out–that photo is from today.

Herbs: B+

The cilantro, on the other hand, did reseed itself–in massive numbers. I had more of that I knew what to do with for most of this spring. The parsley and oregano were even more invasive aggressive, the sage exceeded expectations, and the mint was its usual reliable self. But the basil struggled to get going, I had two rosemary plants die on me, the thyme didn’t make it through the summer, and it took two tries before dill established itself.

Strawberries: C+

I did a better job of keeping this pot watered, but I also lost a few berries because I didn’t harvest them in time. I may need to rethink my squirrel-defense strategy, now that these plants have grown enough to poke through the netting draped over the pot. I may build a cheap enclosure of some scrap wood, if the results don’t look completely hanky.

Green beans: C

I guess I’m not planting enough of these, because I rarely was able to collect enough beans to make sides for two people. Also, the drought in June hit them pretty hard.

TomatoesTomatoes: C-

The plants that were last year’s biggest disappointment made a late-season comeback after we took down a large, dying tree that kept them in shade for part of each morning. (Having this black locust removed also deprived Hurricane Sandy of a chance to toss its upper canopy onto, and maybe into, our house.) Now that I’ve established that I can grow tomatoes in this spot–I even picked a few small green specimens last week–I need to space them more widely next year. And to remember that these things reseed like crazy.

Lettuce: D

I barely got enough to accessorize a few sandwiches.

Bell peppers: F

The seeds I planted didn’t do anything, and the plants that grew from the seeds left by last year’s crop–two of which somehow materialized in the other raised bed–didn’t yield anything edible.

Cucumbers: F

I don’t know how last year’s glut of cucumbers could have been followed by this year’s complete absence of cucumber plants, let alone fruit–nothing reseeded itself, and the seeds I planted after that failure was obvious vanished into the dirt.

The 2011 gardening report card

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to garden, and not just for show. Growing my own vegetables provides food that I know is fresh and offers the prospect of saving money. And this year, those efforts took off in a major way, thanks to the effort I sank into building two large raised beds during last summer’s paternity leave.

My growing season isn’t quite over–I picked some arugula earlier today–but it’s time to assess how things went.

Arugula: A+ 

Meet my new favorite crop. I didn’t have to buy lettuce for two months straight in the spring–and I had enough left over to be throwing arugula into risotto and tomato-sauce recipes. I was a little slow to seed a second crop, but as I just wrote, it’s apparently outlasted the first frost here. I’m hoping this reseeded itself, but even if that doesn’t happen I can’t think of a more profitable expenditure of $2 and change on a packet of seeds.

Cucumbers: A

A new crop for me, these were almost as prolific as arugula. The only reason I didn’t wind up pickling a bunch was because I have three or four different cucumber-salad recipes and at least two for cucumber soup. And as I learned from the cuisine at a rest stop on a bike tour, you can make a tremendous sandwich out of cucumbers and tomatoes.

Bell peppers: B+

Another first-time crop, these had a slow start but took off in August and September. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how many of my pepper plants were of the “OMG hot!” variety; there’s only so much you can do with them.

Herbs: B

This is a collective grade, covering basil, parsley, mint, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary and cilantro. Mint and parsley were the most consistent; although I had to reseed the latter halfway through the summer, those plants still look great. Basil got going slower than in prior years, delaying pesto-sauce season until late August. The sage did a little better than I’m used to; oregano and thyme, a lot better. Part of the rosemary plant died off, but the rest did fine. And for once, I got cilantro to grow in both the spring and fall.

Lettuce: B-

This was good in the spring–especially compared to prior years, which speaks to the benefits of amending dirt with peat moss and compost–but the fall crop has barely yielded enough for two sandwiches.

Green beans: C-

For the amount I planted, you’d think I would have been able to collect more than a single handful of beans each time. But they did taste good, and I know I neglected to pick some once the tomato, pepper and cucumber plants got in the way. In the bargain, my lame legumes fixed nitrogen in the soil for next year’s vegetables… or so I hope.

Strawberries: D

The plants I stuck in a large clay pot (and shielded with plastic netting to avoid providing a banquet for the squirrels) would have done better had I watered them more consistently and checked for new fruit more often. Too bad, since strawberries can be bland at the supermarket and rarely last long from the farmer’s market.

Tomatoes: D-

This pains me: I’m from New Jersey, where we named a whole family of tomatoes after the state, and as an American of Italian ancestry I take great pride in my ability to cook tomato sauce from scratch (not to mention gazpacho). But this is the fourth year in a row of woeful results. Once again, I had far more foliage than fruit. And although I planned to prevent the local squirrels from snacking on half-green tomatoes (they always seem to do this the day before I plan on picking them) by draping plastic netting over the entire bed and anchoring it to its walls, I left enough of a gap for one or two of these varmints to eat half of the single most promising tomato. A dry May and June, followed by a thoroughly soaked August, don’t seem to have helped matters. And by the time these plants mounted a comeback in the fall, they weren’t getting enough sunlight to yield anything bigger than the sad specimen you see at right. Can somebody please tell me what I’m doing wrong here?