As summer heats up, I’ve fallen behind on my food blogging; so I thought I would share with you why… the garden. Bryan, the kids, the dog, and I occupy a small, but what I like to think of as quaint, home on a postage stamp sized lot in a suburban community of Detroit Michigan which I often refer to as “Mayberry.” We’ve worked hard to try to transform what was once a somewhat barren (other than being ridden with lemon balm and mint) yard. When I moved to the house (pre-Bryan), the back porch was enclosed with aluminum walls and outdated windows. The floor was painted an obnoxious bright blue (they missed the mark if they were going for the U. of M. look). At first I thought it would be a good game room for the kids and me, but as summer approached, it occurred to me that the space would better serve as an outdoor living room. I had the walls and windows torn down, painted the floor black (which we recently stripped, as we are getting ready to tile it), added a rug, patio furniture and LOTS of planters. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with a home renovation decision. I sewed some side curtains to make the covered area seem more enclosed and room-like, and I hung a bamboo curtain over the expansive brick wall which, unfortunately, had been painted white. The key to the charm of the patio, however, was the potted flowers. Annually I make the trek to my favorite greenhouse http://www.tellys.com/ and fill two full sized carts with a random assortment of flowers. I start with no plan, but just start trying to mix and match colors, shapes, and growth patterns.
Over the years, I have come to rely on a couple of favorites which include any combination of blue with orange, pink with yellow and deep purple, a variety of coleus, trailers in a variety of colors ranging from grey to chartreuse, and I always buy a decorative clover (sometimes purple, sometimes green) for good luck. For my window boxes (both in front and a few in the back), I try to be a little more symmetrical and balanced, but I love the whimsical feel of the potters on the back porch.
As a cook, and daughter of a past regional president of the Herb Society of America, it was imperative that I have an herb garden. After pulling most of the invasive lemon balm and mint (I will never grow either except in a pot), I tore up a patch of grass right in the center of my tiny yard and started an herb garden. I have quite a few perennials including sage, oregano, two varieties of creeping thyme, tarragon, lavender, chives, and my beloved sorrel. Every year I add such standard annuals as parsley (flat and curly), dill, cilantro, rosemary (for a few years my rosemary survived the winter), fennel, and, of course, basil. So, it’s the basil where things started to get a little out of control. This year, we “cut back” a bit on the number of basil plants and varieties. We currently have 9 basil plants which include six varieties.
Quite honestly, the only reason we cut back is that we couldn’t find our lemon and lime basil varieties – but the season is young, so we very well may end up with even more. Because we have such limited ground space, we grow most of our basil in pots, and it does just fine. This year’s basil varieties include:
- Genovese Basil (Sweet Basil) – sweet, peppery flavor; excellent for pesto, Caprese salad and with almost any type of pasta.
- Thai Basil (Holy Basil) – peppery, licorice type flavor; excellent in any Thai or Vietnamese dish – it just smells like Thai food.
- Opal Basil (Purple Basil) – a strong basil flavor, excellent if you want color or used in flavored oils or in homemade vinagrettes.
- Lettuce Leaf Basil – smells and tastes like sweet basil, it just looks a little different, which I think is cool
- Pesto Basil – varigated small leafed basil, smells and tastes like pesto, as if the garlic is built right into the basil. I use it in place of pesto.
- Spicy, Spray Globe Basil – small leafed, globe shaped plant with a spicy flavor. Excellent just added as a flavorful garnish to any dish which contains or beckons for basil flavor.
Here are a couple of links for websites which have more information about basil varieties:
If you are going to have a basil obsession, why not have a tomato obsession – after all, what pairs better than tomatoes and basil? Bryan is really the tomato guy in the family. The first year that we planted multiple varieties of tomatoes, mostly heirlooms, he did a ton of research on caring for tomatoes. What he learned…tomatoes like to be touched and (I think this was just his own addition), talked to. After a long day managing laborers on commercial construction sites, Bryan enjoys time bonding with his tomatoes. I don’t complain because it means that he handles most of the evening watering. We grow a few tomatoes in the herb plot, but we grow the majority in pots which we scatter around the patio and other parts of the yard. This year we pulled out the day lillies which grew along the patio to make room for more tomatoes.
This year’s tomato varieties include:
- Black Krim (Heirloom) – cherry style, deep purple in color, sweet in flavor
- Juliet- mini Roma style tomatoes, excellent flavor cooked or raw
- New Yorker- one of the earliest emerging varieties, very hardy
- Sunsugar – medium sized cherry style, orange in color, very sweet
- Ponderosa Pink- Huge (up to 2 lbs) meaty tomato, excellent for eating or canning
- Black Prince- described as rich and juicy. Excellent served raw
- Bloody Butcher – early producing, 5-9 medium sized tomatoes per cluster
- Green Zebra- chartreuse and green striped, sweet flavor with a bit of a bite
- Rutgers-originally grown commercially, well known for smooth skin that doesn’t crack – reliable traditional tomato flavor
- Watermelon Beefsteak – slightly scalloped shape, excellent flavor with just the right amount on acidity
- Chocolate Cherry – sweet delicious complex flavor, can be picked and ripened indoors
- Sugar Snacks – bite size super sweet tomatoes, grows in clusters
We purchase our heirlooms at our local farmer’s market, but there are plenty of companies which sell seeds on-line. Because our growing season is short here in Michigan, and I don’t have a good indoor starter space, we always buy plants.
I’ve always loved fresh cut greens (lettuce varieties), but they require quite a bit of room and are always susceptible to be raided by critters. In fact, since my cat (the world’s greatest hunter) died, my parsley and beans have been ravaged by a bold little bunny who I’m soon to introduce to my bunny hunting hound dog Humphrey. So, I decided I would try to grow lettuce in pots, more specifically, window boxes. Bryan built me a shelf along the fence between the neighbor’s yard, and we line it with window boxes filled with lettuce. It is pretty much bunny resistant, and, since lettuce needs constant harvesting, it allows us to share the bounty with our neighbors. Whether making a salad or just topping a burger or sandwich with lettuce, I just go out to the fence and cut the lettuce.
We grow several varieties of lettuce including:
- Arugula (my favorite)- peppery flavor excellent in salads, pasta and with beef carpaccio
- Red Boston Lettuce
- Boston Lettuce
- Green Leaf Lettuce
- Red Leaf Lettuce
- Bibb- Butterhead
- Bibb- varigated
A couple of tricks to keeping your lettuce going throughout the season: clip it often (you can store it in the fridge in a damp paper towel in a baggie), don’t let it flower – if it does, remove all flowers (seeds), and don’t overwater it.