Sunday, February 26, 2012

Really, really local food

One of the best ways you can go local and 'get in touch' with where your food comes from is to grow it yourself. Almost everyone at some point or another has brought home a little pot of herbs as an impulse buy from the supermarket, tried to nurse a Christmas rosemary through the winter, or been seduced by the seedling tomato plants at their local garden center. All get snapped up for the promise of helping make a tasty meal even tastier and the satisfaction of having grown it oneself.

Some of us like to take that promise of food nirvana and turn into a hobby. WARNING: this hobby may turn into a slight obsession, primarily after sampling your first heirloom tomato, still warm from the sun. Or opening your coldframe in January or February and harvesting mixed greens for a sublime salad, the produce so fresh and tender, it needs little more than a sprinkle of sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of your favorite oil.

Mesclun mix is a lovely combination of greens, lettuces and herbs that originated in Provence, France, according to Wiki. Originally the composition included chervil ( a wonderful slightly anise-y fernlike herb), arugula, leafy lettuce and endive. Our modern definition of mesclun typically includes any mix of baby lettuces, herbs and greens. If you've never grown your own food, here is the place I'd recommend you begin. Mesclun. Cheaper to grow than a box o'greens snagged in the produce section.

To begin, you need something to contain the dirt. A cheap plastic flower box fits perfectly on a sunny windowsill or tucked in a sunny corner of your yard, find them in your local big box store, the one with the blue logo beginning with W. Purchase enough potting mix to fill. And then pick out a package of seeds. If you're like me, this will be difficult as all the pretty packages only serve to distract you from your mission. "Oooo, calendulas! That marigold is a new and interesting shade...those violas are a lovely shade of lemon and violet....and nasturtiums with white splashed leaves.....well, we must have some of those as well!" (All edible and colorful additions to your salad, btw)

If you'd like to bypass the potential seed plethora, order online. There are some very good seed companies out there, each with excellent descriptions of their own mixes, and when to plant them. Most lettuces and greens that you'll want in a salad are Spring and Fall crops, not so happy in the full sun of Summer. Order now! My favorites are: The Cook's Garden, Johnny's, Southern Exposure and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. All have a nice mesclun blend for growing and dining pleasure.

Sidenote: If you can find chervil seeds, and you will online but probably not locally south of the Mason-Dixon, snap them up. They prefer a shady spot that is nice and cool with a little moisture. Simply sprinkle on the ground, add a little topdressing of compost or leaf mold, water lightly and walk away. A ferny little plant emerges that is incredibly beautiful, in addition to tasty and prolific, as long as its requirements for shade and temperate climes is met. In Northern Virginia, my chervil generally sets seed and disappears in late May, only to reappear again as seedlings in November, which will overwinter, if I can keep my paws off of it around Thanksgiving.

If you're interesting in hunting bigger game, consider investing in a cold frame. Our latest Juwel coldframe is from A.M. Leonard's and is situated on the southeast side of our home, snugged up against it for additional insulation. Gardener's Edge and the Garden Supply Company also have good models to choose from - if you have a spot for it. Once the chance of frost disappears here, I dismantle ours and store it behind the shed. Leaving it in place through the season is also an option.

Our coldframe rebuild is typically the first weekend in November, leaving just
enough time to get some seeds in the ground that may be ready for Thanksgiving dinner garnish. This year half the frame was filled with a mesclun mix, Bright Lights swiss chard, Red Cardinal spinach, purple top turnips and watermelon radish. We've been enjoying the bounty since the end of December, which is when the first baby greens were ready for a hair cut. The biggest leaves get snipped off for consumption, allowing the smallest to grow up and replace them, ensuring a never ending supply. The picture to the right was taken the week of Thanksgiving, about 3 weeks after planting.

Now all this may seem like a lot of work for a salad. I won't lie, it is much easier (and faster!) to grab the cellpak of greens at the grocer or plop the tongfull of mesclun from the bin into the plastic bag. But neither of those activities do a thing for my soul. But planting, growing and eating my own produce certainly does. It's my meditation and Moment of Zen. Om.

From bottom to top, two leaves of Red Cardinal spinach, chervil, next three on left are Bright Lights swiss chard, balance is a few choice leaves from a mesclun mix of seeds.

1 comment:

  1. Wish I had more room in my back patio. It would be worthwhile just to watch the squirrels try to get in! (and my squirrels are pretty persistent -- they'd likely figure it out)


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