This spring garden guide is complete with tips and adventures from the staff at Sunset Magazine. Read along as they prepare a spring feast from their one-block garden, brew beer, treat broody hens, hand milk their Jersey cow and navigate honeybee swarm season.
Based on the James-Beard-Award-winning One-Block Diet, The One-Block Feast (Ten Speed Press, 2011) is the ultimate guide to eating local. Complete with seasonal garden plans, menus, 100 recipes and 15 food projects, this guide explains how to raise and produce everything needed for totally made-from-scratch meals, all from your own backyard. The following excerpt is taken from “The Spring Garden.”
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The One-Block Feast.
Spring starts early in the San Francisco Bay Area. In February, stone-fruit trees puff out in popcorn-like balls of pink and white. With every passing week, new flowers open on trees and from bushes and beds: mock orange and rose and lilac vine, sending out a sweet blended perfume.
Around the beginning of the month, our bees began pouring from the hives. We saw them everywhere, dancing over the flowers and herbs, their golden bodies glinting in the sun. Despite the pleasure of watching them and anticipating the honey to come, Team Bee braced itself. Spring is swarm season.
Swarming typically happens because the hive is overcrowded. The crammed-in bees will raise a new queen (or several), and then she and up to half of the colony will fly away. It can seriously deplete the hive, and beekeepers try to prevent this by stacking on another box to give their bees more room.
We had added boxes to both hives a few weeks earlier, but it wasn’t enough to keep Betty from swarming. One morning, we spotted a big, buzzing clump of bees up in a nearby tree—and more bees cascading thickly down the front of Betty. Luckily, bees are gentle when swarming; their goal is to protect the queen (hidden in the buzzing ball) and find a new home, not attack, so even though we had rushed out without suits or veils, we had little to worry about. But we were helpless to intervene.
Two days later, Betty (now ex-Betty, most likely) swarmed again. An “afterswarm” is rare, but does happen when the bees raise more than one queen. The air was thick with darting, roaring bees, and Kimberley and Margaret stood in the middle of it, engulfed by the tornado. “It felt like being encompassed by the Other,” said Margaret later. “You could feel their weird, humming, crackling energy.” Even for those of us standing at the edge, it was an awesome sight. We watched for half an hour, and the bees kept flying crazily back and forth. By the end of day, they still hadn’t managed to locate a new place to live and were pooled forlornly under the hive.
The next morning, Brianne found the swarm clustered on some empty clay pots nearby. She had just been to a lecture on swarm catching, and without hesitation gently slid an empty box under the bees while brushing them in with a bee brush (kind of like a duster). We gave the swarm to the head of our local beekeeper’s guild. And we left the twice-swarmed hive alone for a while to settle down with, we hoped, a new resident queen.
• Radishes, Fresh Homemade Butter, and Salt
• Favas and Ricotta on Buttermilk Crackers
• Mesclun Salad with Spring Beets and Dill
• Grilled Carrot Salad
• Fava Leaf and Parsley Quiche
• Strawberries with Fromage Blanc and Lemon Honey
• Chardonnay, Belgian Abbey Ale
• Strawberry Lemonade
We had been excited about all of our menus. But spring seemed especially wonderful, because the contrast between the dense, minerally, sulfurous vegetables of winter—kales, cabbages, cauliflowers—and the light, fresh crops of spring—strawberries, peas, carrots—was so dramatic. With the sun came sunny, sweet-tasting food.
After our now-customary Food and Garden meeting to figure out what we would like to grow versus what we actually could grow, Johanna began the planting. She started the more tender herbs—like dill (even though it’s more of a summer herb, it would still grow in our spring), tarragon, and feathery chervil—in the greenhouse, since the ground wasn’t quite warm enough yet. She planted carrots, strawberries, and soft mixed lettuces that we would be able to snip when barely formed and toss into salads. Green onions went in, and radishes, and three kinds of beets. We craved peas, preferably English peas or sugar snaps, but if planted now, in March, they wouldn’t be ready for a feast in May.
This was terribly disappointing. What is a spring menu without peas? Then we spotted some distinctly legume-like plants climbing up the side of the greenhouse.
Johanna reluctantly revealed that they were fava beans, which she had planted specifically as a cover crop back in October to deliver nitrogen to a spot that needed it. Ah! Fava beans could be just as good, if not better, in our spring menu. Maybe the test garden could spare a few? “Please let us eat some. They’re so delicious,” I wheedled. “And we have no peas.” Johanna graciously gave in. Team Kitchen lucked out, and next year, we will plan ahead for peas.
Chickens are tamer than bees, but they care less about the good of the collective. Honey—the henpecked chicken for whom we had built her own separate protective enclosure the year before—was again being tormented by the rest of the flock: more bleeding comb, more hiding in the nest box, serious wasting away of plump chicken body. We fretted. This could not go on.
Finally, we realized that Honey was just being broody. This is common among chickens, and we felt a bit silly that it had taken so long for us to recognize it. Poor Honey was trying to hatch eggs; that was why she refused to leave the box, not because she was avoiding the sorority from hell down in the yard. However, non-brooding hens, we learned, do typically attack a brooder whenever she’s off the nest. It’s as though they’re telling her to get back on the job.
Our tactic was to haul Honey out of the nest box, plop her down next to the food, and stand guard long enough so she could eat and drink. She would puff up her feathers until she looked like a big yellow dandelion, and she’d make wet, squelchy clucks that sounded as though she were babbling. This completely enraged the other chickens.
We’d fend them off with menacing foot thrusts while Honey chowed down. Within several days, she was back to her usual sleek self, and Team Chicken was able to relax.
At last, Team Beer attempted its most ambitious brew, using our own hops and our own agonizingly threshed and winnowed wheat and barley. Now we had to malt the grains—that is, make them sprout, which naturally converts their starches to sugars. Malted grain, once ground up and soaked in warm water, produces wort, the sweet liquid that yeast feed on and convert to beer.
Team Beer’s leader, Rick LaFrentz, is also Sunset’s head gardener and has a knack for making seeds sprout. He soaked our wheat and barley for hours and then enclosed the seeds in plastic bags to keep them moist. Within days, fine little root hairs and shoots appeared. A bit of drying and rubbing off of roots and shoots, and the malted grain was ready.
For help on brewing day, we enlisted a friend with lots of experience in home brewing from grain: Chuck Schwalbach, husband of Diane, who works in manufacturing at Sunset. Chuck brought in some very useful tools, including a plate chiller, which cools the hot wort almost instantly. As the ripe smell of wort filled the kitchen, we hoped that the grains had fully converted their starches to sugars. Without sugars, our beer would bomb. So it was a big relief when, at the end of the day, Chuck measured the new brew’s density and found that it had plenty of sugar: enough, he predicted, to give our beer 7 percent alcohol. We toasted our success with mugs of the grainy, sweet wort, tinged with bitterness from the hops.
Beer wasn’t the only thing we planned to brew for the spring feast. Months earlier, Chris Ryan, our executive editor and a dedicated tea drinker, had observed that our project lacked caffeine. We had assumed that growing coffee and tea would be impossible, that the plants needed to be shrouded in tropical mists. But no! Tea could survive our climate, apparently, if coddled. Back in the fall, Chris had tracked down some plants at a South Carolina nursery that were mature enough to yield leaves in spring, and sent away for three of them.
They survived the winter, and as soon as the weather warmed up, they began to unfurl small, shiny green leaves. It only took about a week and a half to wither, roll, ferment, and dry our minuscule harvest. To celebrate, it seemed fitting to have a tea party. We summoned up our inner Britons and made dainty tea sandwiches—and, not having the ingredients for scones, little tarts filled with clotted cream and preserves.
Team Cow was celebrating, too. We’d finally found a new cow. It had taken months of calling all over the area and beyond—to 4-H clubs, farms and ranches, even backyard cow owners. Our cow lived about one hundred miles to the south, at Claravale Farm, a raw-milk dairy near Pinnacles National Monument. It was a beautiful place set in a remote, grassy valley framed by mountains, with chickens clucking in the bushes, a pistachio orchard, several century-old buildings from the town that once stood there, and a milking herd of fifty-five Jersey cows.
Ron Garthwaite and his partner, Collette Cassidy, let us pick out a young, good-looking, chocolate brown Jersey, No. 64. We named her Holly, after Hollister, the nearest big town, and arranged to buy her (she would continue to live at Claravale, though.). We got to milk her by hand, which is much harder than you might think: milk shoots sideways, down your sleeve, or refuses to come out at all. It is, however, extremely relaxing to put your shoulder against a big warm animal and (once you get the hang of it) rhythmically squirt milk from soft, stretchy teats into a bucket. Mainly, though, we used an individual milking machine, with tubes that attach to each teat and pipe the milk straight into an enclosed container. This is more efficient (the cow is milked in ten minutes, versus up to forty-five), more comfortable for the cow, and more sanitary, since the milk is never exposed to the air, flies, or whatever might happen to fall into an open bucket.
And Holly’s milk was a revelation. It tasted sweet and pure, with an indescribable lightness of texture and the slightest hint of grass. “It hasn’t been homogenized, pasteurized, standardized, or fortified,” said Ron. He’d just described the milk we’d all taken for granted as the real thing—until now.
After each visit, we took Holly’s milk home in one-gallon canning jars that we buried in a giant cooler full of ice. At Sunset, we drank it as it was, from the jars. If we felt we hadn’t kept the milk cold enough, or if anyone at Sunset requested it, we gently pasteurized some. So far, we’ve used the milk to make rich, delicious, sweet-tasting ricotta with a much higher yield than from store-bought milk—doubtless because Jersey milk has more butterfat and proteins than the milk of any other breed. We’ll be trying out all kinds of other cheeses, too, in the months ahead—and yogurt, butter, and ice cream.
By March, our spring garden had sprouted in a neat rectangle of green leaves of various hues and textures. Johanna had broadcast the herb seeds—meaning she scattered them the way nature would—and sowed the other crops in rows, so we had a combination of soft masses and orderly lines. The carrots had been heavily seeded in case some refused to germinate, but most of them had sprouted, forming a dense patch. Johanna carefully pulled out more than half to make some growing space for the rest. The thinnings were delicious in salad.
While out in the garden one day, we noticed that Alana, layer of pretty green eggs, was not her perky self. Her tail was drooping and she had a sad, lethargic look in her eyes, as though something very bad were going on internally. Elizabeth read up on droopiness and lethargy. She concluded that it was most likely egg binding, which is when an egg gets stuck in the oviduct; it can be fatal if not fixed.
The home remedy involves helping the chicken relax. So, following the standard advice, we massaged Alana’s vent with mineral oil (not as bad as it sounds) and gave her a warm bath. We also massaged her stomach in the direction of the vent to coax the egg out, but felt nothing.
Alana got worse and worse. After about five days, she was nearly unable to stand, and kept her eyes closed most of the time. By this point in our chicken keeping, we had decided we would limit veterinary care. We didn’t want to be cruel to our chickens, but they were, after all, farm animals, and if they were in pain we would give them a quick, merciful end. Also, their diseases were often not treatable. That said, we did want to know whether Alana had something that could harm the rest of the flock.
So Elizabeth took Alana to an avian vet in nearby Mountain View. He was stumped, too, but he came up with many untreatable possibilities, from Marek’s disease (a deadly contagious virus) to botulism to heavy-metal poisoning. “Her prognosis doesn’t look good,” he told her. The choice was pretty clear. We decided to put her out of her misery and send her body to the state lab, to understand what had happened to her.
This was the first death in our one-block project. Okay, it was the first warm-blooded death—we’d had hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bees. After investing a lot of time and concern in one chicken, Elizabeth found the death difficult, not only because she was present for it but also because she had made a real effort not to get attached to any of the hens. Plus, she had always tried to keep in mind that she (like the rest of us on Team Chicken) enjoyed a good chicken curry and that our own chickens were perfectly edible. So her sadness took her by surprise.
We each ended up feeling differently about Alana’s end. Jim, an animal lover to his core, sensed even more acutely the innocence and vulnerability of animals that come under the care of humans. “It lays superiority and responsibility at your feet, even when you don’t want them,” he said. Elizabeth said it gave her some insight into empathy and how it should be directed. “The chickens are not pets. They’re animals that have a job to do. I had to ask myself, how sad do I feel about this? And I had to control my empathy, which was an eye-opening experience. I might not give them human names next time.”
Other people on staff (not on Team Chicken, however) had no qualms about killing one of our flock, whether to end suffering or to put meat on the table. As for me and where I stood on the detachment scale, well, probably near Elizabeth. Mostly, I felt gratitude for that chicken and her beautiful, delicious eggs, which she had so generously produced day after day.
Several weeks after Alana’s body went off to the lab, we got the results back. She didn’t die of anything infectious, but of kidney failure, and she had some inflammation around the heart. Also, a lot of internal fat. We were probably overfeeding the chickens. No more enchiladas, girls! We cut back on kitchen scraps and started giving them only greens, with a few other fruit and vegetable bits. And Johanna put together a movable garden enclosure for them out of chicken wire and rebar, so they could run around a little more and scarf up slugs at the same time. Unfortunately, we couldn’t give them free rein of the garden because they would also eat our vegetables, which we were coaxing toward maturity for our spring feast.
We had had phenomenal luck getting our winter garden to ripen all at once. That was not going to happen with this one. The favas were ready now, in April (right on schedule for favas), and so were the radishes, but everything else needed a few more weeks of grow time. We weren’t worried: Favas keep well layered between damp paper towels or newspaper, and we quickly replanted the radishes (they grow fast). We harvested twenty-five pounds of big, meaty pods from those fava vines in about half an hour and packed them away, along with their entirely edible greens, in the fridge.
Beverage-wise, we were moving right on schedule. Our beer had taken a couple of days for fermentation to kick in, but when it did, it blew the airlock clean off the carboy. Now, after six weeks of racking it and letting it percolate, Team Beer filled and capped a grand total of fifty-one bottles. We tasted it expectantly. Even though it wasn’t yet carbonated, it seemed balanced, with a nice graininess and fragrant hops. After all that work, we had probably made some decent beer.
Three weeks later, when carbonation was complete, we popped a few caps for a group taste. Maybe we hadn’t cleaned our bottles quite well enough, or maybe something had crept into the brew while we were bottling, but the beer was undeniably funky. At first we tried to deny it, saying things like, “It has a zingy, citrusy edge,” and “Boy, is that blond.” The more honest among us noticed flavors of plastic jug and bathroom cleanser, and then we all did. Team Beer drew on its inner Buddhist and tried to think about the journey, not the end.
Nothing we seemed to do could keep the mites from swarming all over our bees. At best, we kept them at bay. Our newest tactic was to bring in an alternative hive called a top-bar. So far, we’d been using traditional Langstroth hives, which have stacked boxes and frames with preexisting foundation on which the bees build honeycomb and brood cells. The top-bar is a long single-story box you build yourself, with strips of wood (the bars) running across the top. The bees build their own comb, as they do in the wild, and anchor it to the bars. The topbar was reputed to reduce disease and pests, and we were willing to try anything.
For this hive, we installed bees for the first time. We had purchased our first two hives as nucs (new colonies complete with queens). We built this one from scratch. The bees had arrived by mail, in a very buzzy shoebox-size box, with the queen in a small, separate capsule inside. During the trip, she had been emitting the powerful pheromones that were gradually bonding the other bees to her, but without her own traveling compartment, they might have killed her first. We named her Califia, after the queen of the mythical island of California. She was a beautiful bee, the color of a ripe apricot.
We removed the cork from the bottom of the queen’s capsule and stuffed in a marshmallow instead, which the other bees would chew through in a few days, giving the queen time to fully cast her scent-spell over her subjects before they released her. We hung the little cage inside the hive. Kimberley shook the box of bees over the open hive, and they fell in with the sound of rice pouring from a box. After a couple of hours, they were already out on scouting flights. Three weeks later, fourteen of the fifteen bars had comb descending from them in snowy white lobes. Our new bees were busy and capable. Now we hoped they would stay healthy, too.
A couple of days before our spring dinner, we checked out the favas. The pods were fine, and enough of the greens had lasted to give us a filling for two big quiches, which together formed the centerpiece of our menu. Then we went into the garden with Johanna and harvested our crops, pulling up golden and red beets and dusty pink ones—the amazing ‘Chioggias’ that, when sliced crosswise, looked like swirly peppermint lollipops. The carrots were just a matter of pulling, too, and all the herbs were easy—we just snipped. Pull on a green onion, though, and it snaps off. You have to dig around each one and then tug to get the whole thing.
In the kitchen, we tasted our vegetables so we would know how best to cook them. With a bowl of water for swishing and a knife for root trimming, we chomped straight from the basket. Everything was sweet and juicy, especially the radishes, which were as crisp and mild as apples, and the green onions, which had only a hint of heat sneaking in toward the end of the chew. The frilly little chervil had a clean, good flavor. French tarragon numbed our tongues with a hit of potent licorice, like it was supposed to. The strawberries were best of all—dead ripe and supersweet. We were glad our plan for them was simple: We wouldn’t get in their way.
A breeze kicked up on the day of our feast, so we ate inside, next to sliding doors open to the garden. The beer was there for the curious, and we still had plenty of Chardonnay to sip as we stood around eating freshly baked buttermilk crackers with sweet ricotta, mint, and fava beans. We had a platter of radishes, too, with fresh butter and salt—it was all they needed. We covered the table with pink roses that Johanna had picked, and bottles of wine and pitchers of strawberry lemonade. Everything was served on platters: mesclun salad with paper-thin circles of red, golden, and lollipop-swirled beets; tall, custardy quiches laced with sautéed fava leaves; and a warm salad of grilled carrots with tarragon. Elaine was in charge of dessert, and she had been experimenting with our strawberries for several days. In the end, she turned away from strawberry fromage blanc cheesecake (because we already had a crusty dish, the quiche) and strawberries simmered in wine syrup (it tasted wintry). Instead, she spooned homemade fromage blanc into bowls, added the strawberries, and drizzled warm lemon-infused honey on top. It was so simple, and it was just right.
The dinner looked like a garden in full bloom, and it tasted wonderful, too. And yet the real triumph—as with each of the feasts that preceded it—happened on the way to the table.
We had coaxed food from pure nature, and that had required forming a relationship with it. We’d been moved to tears and totally frustrated; we’d been overjoyed and awestruck. We’d seen into the microscopic heart of cheese, beer, and wine; worked with bees, chickens, and a cow; and made gardens that grew like green symphonies, each little plant playing its part, contributing its flavor and beauty to the whole. Our project had taken place, more or less, on one block, but what we learned from it went far beyond.
Tender greens, crisp green onions, and plump radishes are cool-season crops, meaning they grow best in cooler temperatures. Long periods of hot weather can cause them to turn bitter and to bolt (set seed) before they produce edible parts. In mild-winter climates, plant them in very early spring so they will mature before summer heat settles in, or in late summer for a fall or winter crop. Because growing conditions vary by region (and even within neighborhoods), check the planting times for your area. Many of the crops we planted thrive in full sun in cooler areas, which means the planting location needs at least 6 hours of sun per day. In hot climates, give them part shade. Some crops, such as mesclun and radishes, are easy to grow from seeds. Others on our spring menu, including strawberries, are easier if you start with bare-root plants or nursery seedlings. Use our spring garden plan as a tool to help you lay out your vegetables this spring.
See the Winter Garden.
Best known for their edible roots, beets also send up leaves that are tasty in soups and salads if picked when they are young and tender. The plump, heart-shaped bulbs come in various colors, from red and deep plum to golden. We chose three heirlooms: ‘Bull’s Blood’, with blood red foliage that adds color to salads; golden, which forms sweet, mild-tasting globes; and supersweet ‘Chioggia’, whose roots reveal alternating rings of white and pink when sliced.
Best Site: Full sun and fertile, well-drained soil enriched with compost.
Days to Harvest: 40 to 52 days for ‘Bull’s Blood’, 55 days for golden, and 54 days for ‘Chioggia’ from seed.
Planting and Care: In mild climates, sow seeds in early spring or late summer so plants will mature in mild weather. Space them 1 inch apart, then cover with 1/4 inch of compost. (To prolong the harvest, sow at monthly intervals.) When the plants are small, thin them to 3 inches apart. Keep the soil evenly moist, and apply a dilute fish emulsion after the tops are up.
How to Harvest: Pull up the roots when they are about 3 inches wide (the bigger they grow, the woodier they get).
Pulled straight from the earth and showered at the sink, homegrown carrots taste sweeter than any you can buy at the grocery store. But flavor, even among homegrown types, differs by variety. We grew ‘Nantes’, which forms blunt-tipped orange carrots about 7 inches long—great for munching raw. They are also delicious roasted with other root vegetables or grilled with thyme.
Best Site: Full sun with light, deep, well-drained soil free of clods and stones. Raised beds filled with planting mix are nearly perfect.
Days to Harvest: 70 days from seed.
Planting and Care: In mild-winter climates, sow seeds in early spring when the soil is warm (carrots are at their sweetest when the last few weeks of growth occurs in cool weather). Or, sow in early fall. Soak the bed, then scatter the seeds thinly on top, in rows 15 inches apart. Cover with 1/4 inch of compost to keep the soil surface from crusting. When the tops are 1 to 2 inches tall and have two or three leaves, thin the seedlings to 2 inches apart (eat the thinnings in salads or steam them in butter). Keep the soil evenly moist throughout the growing season. After the first thinning, work a narrow band of complete fertilizer into the soil about 2 inches beyond the row.
How to Harvest: Begin to harvest when the carrots are fully grown (about 7 inches long; pull one up to check) and the tops are green and full.
Seed Source: Burpee.
This lacy annual herb—one of French cooking’s four classic fines herbes, along with tarragon, parsley, and chives—resembles parsley, but is paler green and more delicate. It tastes like parsley, too, but with overtones of anise. We like to add the fragile whole leaves to salads, fold them into omelets, or float them on soups. As the plant matures, 1- to 2-foot-tall flower stems topped with white blossoms will rise above the low mound of ferny foliage. Cut those off—ideally before they open—to keep the tasty leaves coming (flowering causes the foliage to lose its flavor and aroma). Spring crops bolt (flower and set seed) quicker than fall crops, because they mature in warmer weather.
Best Site: Part shade and well-drained soil.
Days to Harvest: 6 to 8 weeks from seed.
Planting and Care: Plant seeds in early spring or in fall (where winters are mild), sowing them about 1/4 inch deep and 2 inches apart. When the seedlings are up (they germinate in 10 to 14 days), thin them to about 4 inches apart. Keep the soil evenly moist, and don’t let the plants dry out completely between waterings or they will set seed. Feed every 3 weeks or so with liquid fish emulsion.
How to Harvest: Snip off the young plants above ground level. Most will produce new leaves for your next harvest.
Seed Source: Burpee.
Big, umbrella-like clusters of yellow flowers and soft, feathery foliage make dill as pretty as a spring wildflower. The blooms that poke above the stately 3- to 5-foot-tall plant provide nectar for butterflies and beneficial insects. But the most compelling reason to grow dill is the pungent aroma of its seeds and leaves, which can flavor so many dishes. You can use the seeds in pickling and in vinegar and the leaves to flavor sauces and soups.
Best Site: Full sun and well-drained soil; protect from the wind.
Days to Harvest: 40 to 50 days to harvest leaves, 85 to 105 days to harvest seed.
Planting and Care: In early spring, sow seeds directly in the ground, 1/2 inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart in rows 6 inches apart. (Once the plants’ deep tap roots get growing, transplanting will be difficult.) Thin the seedlings to 12 inches apart when they are 2 to 3 inches tall. Water regularly—about once a week during dry periods. If you don’t want plants to re-sow (which they will, vigorously), shear off the heads before they set seed, or watch the seeds carefully and harvest them promptly (see below).
How to Harvest: Snip off leaves as you need them. To collect the seeds, tie small paper bags or tightly woven cheesecloth (double or triple layers if necessary) over the seedheads when the seeds begin to turn brown, and leave the bags in place for a week or so. Then snip the stems below the bags, bring the heads into the kitchen, and shake the seeds out onto a tray. Store them in airtight containers.
Seed Source: Renee’s Garden.
Not a true bean, the fava is actually a giant vetch (an ancient type of legume). Unlike true beans, it is cold hardy, which means gardeners in mild climates can plant it in the fall for harvest in late winter or early spring (as we did).
As long as the weather stays cool, the plants can last into midspring. You can cook and eat the immature pods like edible-pod peas, or let the pods hang on the plant to ripen into dry shelling beans. One caveat: Some people of Mediterranean, Asian, and African ancestry have an enzyme deficiency that can cause severe reactions to these beans and their pollen.
Best Site: A mild, sunny location with loose, fast-draining soil.
Days to Harvest: 65 days from seed.
Planting and Care: Sow seeds as soon as the soil is warm. Heavy leaves must push through the soil, so be sure the soil is loose and open. For a bush type of fava, which is what we grew, plant seeds 1 inch deep and 1 to 3 inches apart, allowing 24 to 36 inches between rows. Moisten the soil thoroughly before planting, then do not water again until seedlings have emerged. Keep the soil evenly moist throughout the growing season. Fertilize the soil after the plants are in active growth and again when the pods start to form, working a complete fertilizer into the soil along the row.
How to Harvest: To eat the pods, pick them when they are small (about 3 inches long), plump, and deep green. To eat the fresh beans inside (but not the pod), wait until the pod and beans are larger but are still bright green. For dry yellow shelling beans, wait until the pods have blackened and drooped.
Seed Source: John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.
Sometimes called scallions, green onions are either bulbing onions that you harvest young (before the bulbs grow), or bulbless bunching onions. We grew ‘White Lisbon’, a green bunching type with delicate stems and sweet, juicy tops.
Best Site: Full sun and loose, fertile, well-drained soil.
Days to Harvest: 60 to 65 days from seed.
Planting and Care: Plant green onions from seed or nursery seedlings. Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep and 1/2 inch apart in rows 12 to 15 inches apart. Plant seedlings 4 to 5 inches apart. Keep the soil evenly moist and feed plants regularly with a dilute liquid fish emulsion.
How to Harvest: Pull up green onions when the tops are 12 to 18 inches tall.
Seed Source: Botanical Interests.
The word mesclun, from a southern French word for “mixture,” refers to an assortment of greens picked when young and tender. Sweet red and green lettuces, piquant green arugula, spicy mustard, peppery red Komatsuna, tender Swiss chard leaves—some or all might turn up in one of these colorful mixes. Succulent “weeds” such as purslane and tender mâche might be included, too. You can choose a mix that contains the greens you like.
Best Site: Full sun in fall, winter, and spring in mild climates, and well-drained soil enriched with plenty of compost.
Days to Harvest: 35 days from seed.
Planting and Care: Scatter seeds over the prepared seedbed in spring. To prolong the harvest, sow seeds every 2 or 3 weeks. Thin seedlings to about 3 inches apart. Keep the soil evenly moist, and apply half-strength liquid fish emulsion after the first fully formed leaves appear.
How to Harvest: Snip off the young plants above ground level. Most will produce new leaves for your next harvest.
Seed Source: Burpee.
Round, bright green leaves of this pretty annual (Tropaeolum majus) have a refreshing herbal fragrance. When young and tender, they also have an appealing, dewy sweetness and a peppery flavor (as do the buds and flowers) that adds zip to salads. You can grow vining nasturtiums to trail over the ground or climb (to 6 feet), or you can plant bushy dwarf types that top out at 18 inches. Either way, they will reseed themselves: We still have offspring of ‘Copper Sunset’ popping up here and there, even though we haven’t planted it for years.
Best Site: Full sun or part shade and well-drained or sandy soil.
Days to Harvest: 45 to 60 days from seed.
Planting and Care: For an early summer harvest, sow seeds in March or April, or for a spring harvest, sow in October in mild-winter or hot-summer areas. Plant the large seeds 10 to 12 inches part and 1 inch deep. Keep the soil well watered throughout the growing season. Dig a little compost into the soil before planting and your nasturtiums won’t need fertilizer.
How to Harvest: Pick leaves and flowers as you need them. For the best flavor, harvest them early in the morning when temperatures are cool.
Seed Source: Renee’s Garden.
Among the easiest vegetables to grow, radishes are also fast to mature. We especially like ‘Easter Egg II’, a feast for the eyes that blends pink, rose, purple, and white radishes in one colorful mix. All have crisp, juicy white flesh. The best part: You can harvest from 2 to 5 pounds per 10-foot row!
Best Site: Full sun in mild climates and part shade where it is hot; fast-draining soil that’s been well amended with compost.
Days to Harvest: 25 days from seed.
Planting and Care: Sow seeds as soon as the soil is workable in spring, then at weekly intervals until warm weather approaches (plants go to seed when temperatures rise). In mild climates, you can also sow seeds at regular intervals in fall and winter. Plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep and 1 inch apart in rows 1 to 11/2 inches apart. Keep the soil evenly moist from seed to harvest. Ten days after planting, feed with a dry or liquid fertilizer (any kind), applying it alongside the rows.
How to Harvest: Pick as soon as radishes reach full size (about 3 weeks after sowing, as noted above, but longer for slower varieties). If you leave them in the ground too long, they will turn woody and too pungent to eat.
Seed Source: Burpee.
Nothing tastes sweeter than a plump, sun-warmed strawberry picked at the peak of ripeness. It is nature’s best dessert—divinely succulent and juicy, low in calories (about 50 per cup), and high in vitamin C. If you only have room for growing one crop, we suggest this one, since many commercial harvests are treated with chemicals.
We chose ‘Sequoia’, a locally adapted variety that bears its entire crop once a year. (It is called a “June bearer,” but we had berries in May.) The plants reach 6 to 8 inches tall and spread by runners about 12 inches across. The berries are large and luscious.
Best Site: Full sun and loose, well drained, well-amended soil.
Days to Harvest: 90 to 104 days from January-started bare-root plants.
Planting and Care: Set out bare-root plants in January or February (trim their roots back to about 6 inches and soak them in water for about 30 minutes before planting). You can also set out plants in late summer or fall for a spring harvest. Plant seedlings from small pots in late February or March. Plant with the crown (the point where the leaves come together at the stem base) slightly above the soil level (a buried crown will rot); the topmost roots should be about 1/4 inch below the soil. Mulch to deter weeds (we used straw, which did a good job of keeping ripening fruit clean). Keep birds from stealing your berries by covering the bed with netting or floating row covers. Water regularly (at least once a week) during the bearing season. Feed June-bearers twice a year—lightly when new growth starts, and more heavily after fruiting. Give ever-bearing types regular light feedings throughout the growing season, and alpine strawberries once in early spring and once after fruiting begins. For all strawberries, use a complete fertilizer.
How to Harvest: After a fruit has colored up, pinch through the stem with your thumbnail to detach it.
Plant/Seedling Sources: Bare-root plants and seedlings are sold at nurseries.
See the Winter Garden.
This sprawling, largely flowerless woody perennial (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) has dark green, aromatic leaves with an anise flavor and grows to less than 2 feet tall. The leaves are a classic seasoning for chicken dishes, sauces, and vegetables. Be careful not to plant plain old Russian tarragon—A. dracunculus—by mistake; it has tougher, narrower leaves and a pungent, bitter flavor.
Best Site: Full sun and rich, well-drained soil.
Days to Harvest: Leaves can be harvested any time.
Planting and Care: In early spring, as soon as the soil starts to warm up, set plants about 24 inches apart in garden beds or put a single plant in an 8-inch-deep container. Water regularly and let the plants dry out between irrigations. Apply a complete fertilizer during spring growth and again after major harvests. To keep a fresh supply coming, cut plants almost at the ground during the growing season. Divide the plants every other year during early fall.
How to Harvest: Pinch off leaves.
Seedling Sources: Mountain Valley Growers.
Camellia sinensis is the tropical shrub grown commercially in Asia for making green, black, and oolong teas. It is rare in the United States, and we couldn’t find mature plants at nurseries or growers on the West Coast, so we ordered them from a source in North Carolina (Camellia Forest Nursery). But if you are patient, you can order seedlings from the two sources listed at right.
Our three pretty, round tea shrubs have leathery, dark green leaves and fragrant white fall blooms. Initially we planted them in big pots so we could move them under the eaves in winter (the plants are frost tender), but they weren’t happy, so now they are in the ground (we will cover them when frost hits). The plants will eventually grow to 15 feet tall.
Best Site: Full sun, or light shade inland, and well-drained soil enriched with plenty of compost, or use potting soil. Protect from wind and from winter frost.
Days to Harvest: Plants must be at least 3 years old.
Planting and Care: Set the plant in the soil so its base is above soil level, then keep the roots cool by applying a 1/2-inch-thick layer of mulch (keep it away from the stem’s base). Young plants are best in light shade under tall trees. Water your tea plant regularly, at least weekly during the April to October growing season for the first few years; older plants can get by with less water. Feed occasionally with an acid plant food formulated especially for camellias.
When to Harvest: In spring, pick the two uppermost new leaves and the new buds.
More seasonal gardening plans:
Reprinted with permission from The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table by Margo True & the staff of Sunset Magazine, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Buy this book from our store: The One-Block Feast.
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