Talk to me for more than 5 minutes, and you’ll probably find out pretty quick that I love gardening. Garden planning, picking out seeds, starting seeds, nurturing little plant babies before they are ready to be set out in the world to grow and thrive… Then over the course of the summer you get to watch all those bad boys take over earth. Soon it will be time to harvest, cook, and eat, as well as preserve the bounty for the winter months.
Every year in January/February, when I sense the days are starting to get longer, I start to get the gardener’s itch. And by itch I mean a constant tickle on my brain asking me: so, what is growing this year? Not only do I consider this part of my year-round meal planning, it also serves to make my soul happy in the dark, cold months of a Canadian winter. Gardening is often seen as therapeutic. Not only is it humbling and human to get your hands dirty, it also can make us feel like we have purpose and responsibility.
Having grown up in the country, I spent a fair share of my childhood summer days in the garden. But even then, it wasn’t until the last few years that I started experimenting with gardening a little more on my own (with a lot of help from my lovely family I must add!). As I started learning about different plants and seeds, I have been developing in my head a list of different plant foods I like to grow, based on certain criteria (which evolves and changes over time). So, in this post I wanted to share some things that I have learned along the way, including the vegetables I like to grow, why I grow them, what I do with them to enjoy over the growing season or preserve them, as well as what I look for when choosing varieties based on my needs and growing season (which is basically southern Manitoba, Canada).
- I try not to pick tomatoes with too long of a growing season (not more than 70 or 80 days from transplant) this year I am trying a variety with a short growing season of 55 days, this way I (hopefully) won’t have all my tomatoes ripening at the same time which will spread out the growing season a little.
- Mix of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes (this site has a basic explanation of what the difference is)
- For preservation I can them (whole, or in a sauce, or in salsa), freeze them (I usually blanch and peel them… but sometimes I just don’t have the time and I have frozen them whole after only washing and cutting off the ends), dehydrate (I always intend on adding my dried tomatoes to dishes I make over the winter… but really I end up eating them like chips because they are just soooo good dipped in hummus!)
- Add them to soups, dahl, stews, and curries, you can rehydrate dried tomatoes and add to pizza or pasta.
- Personally, I’ve been trying to find varieties that don’t grow too big so they are easier for me to carry and deal with (I like “Delicata” for this).
- I usually pick 3-5 varieties, preferably from different squash families (this is something I won’t get into here, but if you are planning on saving the seeds it’s worth investing the time to do a little research on squash families), so I can save the seeds without needing to worry too much about spacing them far enough apart to prevent cross breeding.
- Make soups, add to curries, bake or roast them (enjoy as a part of a meal or add to a salad), or you can even cook and puree them for adding to muffins, quick breads, pancakes, porridge, or whatever you like!
Kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, beet greens
- Blanch and freeze to use later. For kale I pile it on a baking sheet, freeze it, and then scoop it all into freezer bags so I can just take out what I need when I am ready to cook with it. For Swiss card and beet greens, I have found that making little “piles” (around the size of my fist) on a baking sheet and freezing works well, that way you can just take out the number of servings that you need. You can add this to stir fries, steam them or sauté with in a little water for a quick veggie to complete a meal.
- With kale, you can also make kale chips – there are lots of recipes online, in depends what your tastes are as well as what you have on hand. You can even dehydrate kale and grind into a powder to add to smoothies (you will lose some nutrients this way, but still a way to preserve it).
- (I actually have not preserved collard greens yet, since I wasn’t able to successfully grow it last year when I tried).
- Freeze them, pickle them, or can them (if you have a pressure canner).
- Add to soups, stir fries, stews, get creative and play around with them in different recipes. You can even just enjoy them as a side dish (maybe with a little oil and your favourite herbs and spices).
- Pick, wash, blanch and freeze. Soy beans… I will not lie, they are a lot of work (but so worth it)! I have found it useful to clean them in my back yard in plastic tubs. Cleaning them uses quite a bit of water (they get dirty when it rains, so I would avoid picking them right after a rain fall), but when I clean them in my backyard I can use the grey water to hydrate whatever is still growing in the garden.
- Freeze them loosely in freezer bags. When you are ready to enjoy some, take out a portion and let thaw in the fridge or microwave it for a quick, delicious protein. Even though they are a lot of work to get ready initially, they are super convenient to have on hand over the winter, so think of the time put in as an investment. They are a healthy protein that you can get on the table within minutes!
- I grow an heirloom soy bean called “Envy”, and always leave some pods on the plants (around ¼ to 1/3 of them) until they are dry. These will be the seeds that I will plant the following year.
Carrots and beets
- My favourite carrot to grow is Scarlet Nantes – they are a nice size and shape. I also have grown Purple Dragon, and they add some great colour to salads
- Once you grow and harvest them, keep them in the fridge (I find small storage containers work well). Some people wash their carrots before storing them in the fridge; I don’t because I have found they don’t last as long that way. You can also try keeping your carrots in sand if you have a cooler space in the basement or garage.
- Don’t have much room in the fridge, but lots of room in the freezer? Wash, peel, chop, blanch and freeze those carrots and beets!
- Add them to salads, soups, stews, and stir fries, or roast/bake them.
- Add grated carrots to muffins or quick breads.
- Some people do beet humus, personally I don’t love it… but it’s fun to try.
Sugar snap peas
- I like to eat them as they grow mainly, either raw on their own, with hummus or plain as a snack while I work in the garden… sometimes I blanch and freeze them if I have a lot, but I have found that they don’t keep a great texture this way.
- I just eat them as they grow, enjoying them in salads, on a sandwich, or just on their own.
- Can also use them to make pickles or relish.
- Basil, oregano, rosemary, parsley, savoury – dry and use in your cooking year round. I also pick them fresh over the summer and add to whatever salad I am enjoying that day.
- Peppermint – dry the leaves, use for making tea, or add to scented bath salts.
- Lavender, eucalyptus – crush up the leaves, add to scented bath salts.
- Lemon balm – dry the leaves, use for making tea.
- Chives – I have only used them fresh in dishes that I make over the summer, but it would be totally possible to freeze them or dry them as a way of preserving.
- Keep in the basement over the winter, where it is cool and dark.
- I will add them to soups, stir fries, or roasted vegetables. I also love doing caramelized onions for adding to humus (so good!).
- I have found that they can keep in the fridge for a few of months, just keep an eye on them and make sure they are not going soft.
- Over the summer I will peel, slice and enjoy with some dip or humus. Over the fall/winter I am more likely to peel, slice and roast them with a bunch of other vegetables.
- I have grown regular ol’ green zucchini and Benning’s Summer Squash.
- Over the summer while they grow (and they grow like crazy!) I will blanch and freeze them. The larger ones can keep for maybe a couple months in a cooler place, but keep an eye on them and make sure that they don’t go soft.
- I will also make pureed soups and freeze it for the winter months
- Here are the types that I have tried: Doe Hill, Purple Beauty and Jalepeno (all from seed, as well as Banana (purchased from a greenhouse). The Doe Hill Peppers are great; they are small and compact, which can lower food waste, and have a good flavour. I was never able to get the Purple Beauty to fully ripen, but they were still pretty tasty. I did not have great success with Jalapeno peppers, but I will try again.
- With hot peppers I have made my own spice by dehydrating them in my food dehydrator and grinding into a fine powder. I have been adding this to whatever I make when I need a little spicy kick. In the fall friend of mine gifted me a huge bag of beautiful, frozen cayenne peppers, which I have been experimenting with in the kitchen. I like to chop them up pretty fine when still frozen and add to stir fries or sauces (like a homemade peanut sauce for example).
- For regular (non-spicy) peppers, you can freeze them or can them (see this link on canning peppers safely) as well as use in salsa or tomato sauce.
- I really haven’t done much with them yet, other than save the dried beans and plan to use them the following year for seed.
- I haven’t had too much success with getting to harvest them at a good time. I have found that there is a fine balance with growing dried beans. Get to them too early and they are not dry enough for storage. Or, in my case, wait too long and they have had too much moisture which has compromised the seed integrity.
I also have some new things I am looking forward to trying this year:
- Different squash varieties- Worcester Pumpkin, Arikara Squash, Long Island Cheese Pumpkin
- Different tomato varieties - Eva Purple Ball, Farthest North, Hungarian Italian, Sophie’s Choice
- Mustard greens
- Deacon Dan Beets
- Lacinato Kale
Criteria that I use to decide what I am going to plant:
- Length of growing season – do a little research and find out how long the growing season is where you live. Specifically look up the predicted first frost free date and the last day of frost, as this will tell you how early you can get into the garden and when you will need to harvest your veggies by.
- Space needed to grow the plant – how much space do you have in the garden? For me, I grow my plants requiring minimal space at my yard in town in raised bed gardens. As for the plants that need more room to grow (squash, un-staked tomatoes), I plant in the gardens at my parents’ house and share the garden goodies with the whole family.
- Size of produce at harvest – how much space do you have to store your produce? Also, keep in mind that some squash varieties can get really big, and harvesting those from the garden and bringing them all indoors in the autumn can turn into quite a workout!
- Whether or not you want to save the seed – if you are planning on saving seed for next year (peppers, tomato and squash seeds are the easiest to start with), you will want to make sure you are select heirloom varieties so the next generation of plants and their fruit will be true to type. This book is a great resource on seed saving
- Rarity of plant variety – I like to try and select a few plant varieties that are rare, partly because I like all things unique and different, but also because I want to do my part to maintain some biodiversity in our environment.
- What I can do with it – why would I plan on growing a lot of a veggie that I can’t keep or preserve to enjoy over the winter? Ask yourself how much of this food you will actually use, be able to give away, or preserve. It can feel like such a shame to have an overabundance of hard earned produce going to waste.
What are some of your favourite things to grow in your part of the world and why?