Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Planting a Salsa and Gazpacho Garden

Summer is that sultry garden time when the oozingly ripe tomatoes and cucumbers are hanging on the vine, when the hot and sweet peppers are bright with color and flavor, when garlic, onions and herbs are at their peak. In short, it is time to make your own homegrown salsa and gazpacho.

But if you want all of that garden bounty in August, you have to get started now. You can grow all the ingredients for these two summer favorites right in your own backyard. You can easily grow tomatoes, cucumbers, fiery jalapeno peppers, cilantro, onions and garlic. You can even grow the exotic tomatillos if you want to make salsa verde, the green sauce popular in parts of the American southwest and Mexico. The only ingredients you cannot grow are limes and olive oil. Not too bad!

Everybody knows what salsa is because we buy more salsa than ketchup in the United States. But store-bought salsa cannot compare to home-grown and home-made. Your own salsa will be fresher and the taste of the vegetables will be much more pronounced if you grow your own.
Gazpacho is a thick soup of uncooked raw vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and more. There are many different variations on gazpacho. In Sevilla it is more of a pureed bread soup with chopped vegetables sprinkled on top. but all gazpacho begins with garlic and olive oil spiked with vegetables. Since it is uncooked, only the freshest vegetables make the best soup.

Your salsa and gazpacho garden needs to be located in a spot that gets at least 8 hours of sunlight per day. It also needs to be a spot that is well-drained, where no water stays puddled up two to three hours after a rain storm. A 100 square foot spot (10 ft. X 10 ft.) is all the room you need to grow enough vegetables for all your salsa and gazpacho needs with some left over.
All of these vegetables need a deep fertile soil to thrive. Dig your soil to a depth of 8 inches. Spread a 2 to 4 inch thick layer of compost or other organic matter over the soil and dig that in, as well. Rake it all smooth and you are ready to plant.

Here’s a list of the vegetables for your salsa and gazpacho garden and how to grow them starting with the first to plant: Garlic. Fall is the preferred time to plant garlic here in the Northeast. But you can plant garlic this spring and you will get heads of garlic this summer. Gardeners in the Northeast grow stiff neck garlic. One to two heads of garlic separated into cloves will produce enough garlic four your small garden. Plant the cloves 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart. Green shoots will appear first followed by strong stems. Plant as soon as the ground can be worked and harvest in about 120 days.

Onion. Red, white or yellow onions are all good for salsa and gazpacho. Plant onion sets (they look like little bulbs) four inches apart with the sprouting end slightly below soil level as soon as the ground can be worked in early spring and begin harvesting in 80 to 90 days. It is very important to keep the weeds pulled where both garlic and onions are planted. They don’t like to be crowded or shaded.

Parsley. Both Italian flat leaf and curleyleaf parsley are good for these dishes. Both are biennial, which means they will produce edible leaves for two years before they die. But I plant new parsley every year because the second year never produces good leaves. Parsley seeds are way to difficult to start, so, buy parsley plants in flats and plant them about 8 inches apart in early spring.

Cilantro. Cilantro is the pungent feathery leaves of the coriander plant. They are easily grown from seed every year with seeds planted in late April till the first of June. Look for the slow bolting varieties such as “Santo” from Johnny’s Seeds ( to get more leaves for salsa than seeds for baking. Plant the seeds about 4 to 6 inches apart and cover with 1/4 inch of fine soil. Keep moist until germination in about 10 days. Harvest by pinching off the largest stems which will allow new stems to develop.

Tomato. Set transplants plants out in the garden in spring after all danger of frost has passed, usually between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. There are so many good tasting and robust growing varieties on the market that if you cannot start the seeds yourself indoors, you can easily buy wonderful tomato plants at farm markets and garden centers in May and June.
Any homegrown tomato will be good in these dishes, even cherry tomatoes or plum tomatoes. Rutgers and Celebrity varieties, a.k.a. Jersey tomatoes, are quite nice as are any variety of beefsteak tomato. Marmande, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter and other heirloom tomatoes have a particularly fine flavor. Yellow and orange tomatoes are just as flavorful as red and can give your recipe a certain accent.

Pepper. Salsa needs some type of spicy pepper to add zip to the recipe. Jalapeno is easy to grow and very productive but the smaller Serrano chile and the exceptionally hot habanero are good, too. Both salsa and gazpacho need a sweet bell pepper to add body and flavor. If you really want to make your dishes different form your friends, use chile ancho, a.k.a. chile poblano. This mildly hot green pepper has a uniquely smoky flavor that is indescribable.

Tomatillo. Sometimes called Mexican green tomatoes, these tangy little fruits do resemble tomatoes albeit they come wrapped in their own papery little husks. You grow them just like tomatoes and they will be ready for harvest 60 days after you set them out in late May. You can chop them and add their tart fruity flavor them to any tomato or fruit salsa or leave out the tomatoes and make the delicious salsa verde with them.

Plant your tomato, pepper and tomatillo plants after all danger of frost has passed, usually after Mother’s day because a frost at night will kill these tender tropical plants. Dig a hole large enough to hold the root ball of the plant. Sprinkle ½ cup of natural organic fertilizer in the hole, stir it in with some of the dirt and set the plant in the hole and cover the root ball with soil. Firmly press the soil around the plant and water. Spread mulch around the plant to keep the weeds down and water weekly.

Cucumber. This is one of the key ingredients for gazpacho. Cucumbers grow on long trailing vines that make growing them in small spaces more difficult. But not if you grow them vertically. Train your cucumber vines to grow up on a trellis, a flat fence or in a cucumber cage, a 3 to 4 foot long length of fencing wire formed into a cylinder.
Cucumber seeds will not germinate in cold soil. Plant the seeds in the ground at the base of the fence, cage or trellis between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. Plant seeds or transplants that you know are resistant to anthracnose, wilt and other cucumber diseases.

Making your own fresh garden salsa and gazpacho is really quite easy. The very best versions of both of these dishes are made with vegetables that you finely mince by hand with a very sharp knife. This is a little more time consuming, but if you are handy with a knife and your knife is sharp, this yields a slightly chunky product that is even more authentic. The other option is to whir everything up in a blender, not a food processor if you can avoid it. A food processor beats up the vegetables too much for my liking, while the blender leaves them a little more chunky.

Fresh Garden Salsa 2 cups chopped fresh tomato 1 cup seeded and chopped red, green, yellow or orange bell pepper or poblano pepper ½ cup seeded and chopped jalapeno pepper 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped 1 to 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and chopped The juice of one lime 1/4 cup washed cilantro or parsley leaves or a combination 1 teaspoon sugar ½ teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper

Finely mince by hand or whir all the ingredients in a blender. Let the salsa sit covered in the refrigerator for two hours for the flavors to mingle. Stir every 15 minutes, taste and adjust the seasonings as necessary. To make a truly unique salsa, substitute tomatillo, watermelon, peaches or cantaloupe for all or part of the tomato. Serve as a dip for chips or spoon over broiled fish or shrimp.

Gazpacho 3 large tomatoes, peeled and seeded 2 medium sweet bell peppers, seeded and chopped 3 medium cucumbers, peeled and seeded 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped 2 large cloves garlic, smashed and peeled 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 tablespoon sherry or red wine vinegar ½ teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper

Finely mince by hand all the vegetables or whir them coarsely in a blender. Add the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, Stir to blend well. Let the soup rest, covered, at room temperature for 60 minutes for the flavors to mingle. If you must refrigerate it, bring it back to room temperature before you serve.

Serve with crusty, country-style white bread that is rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil and lightly toasted on your outdoor barbecue grill. Add a glass of cold fino sherry, a bowl of olives, a platter of dry sausage and you have a complete Mediterranean feast right in your own backyard.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Gardening in Containers

Containers are the city gardener's very best friend. With pots, planters and window boxes made of terra cotta, wood, plastic or metal small space gardeners can fill their outdoor surroundings with vegetables, herbs and flowers and even trees, fruits and shrubs.
Almost anything you can grow in the ground you can grow in a container, as long as the container is large enough to hold the roots firmly in place. Terraces, plazas and roof top gardens throughout the area sport trees greater than twenty feet tall growing in containers. But even if you have room for only one small widow box, you can make that your garden and make it grow with perennials, annuals and trailing vines that can give you pretty flowers and edible herbs from early spring till late in the fall.
Now is the time to buy your pots, soil and plants to make your container garden come alive. The cold weather is over and it is time to move outside. According to the National Gardening Association, container gardening is the fastest growing segment of the lawn and garden industry. A plethora of pots and boxes in all types of sizes, materials and prices are pouring into the market at garden centers, in catalogues and over the Internet.
Prices range from a few dollars for terra cotta or earth-tone plastic pots to hundreds of dollars for stone or concrete urns in classic shapes. There are self-watering containers and whole container gardening kits complete with soil and plants that can be bought for as little as $12 and as much as $130.
Choosing the Right Container
Size is your first consideration. The pot needs to be large enough to hold the plant when it is fully grown. A tomato plant seedling might look good in a one pint pot, but when it is fully grown, that plant needs to be in a two gallon pot.
Plants need drainage so make sure your pots have holes in the bottom so excess water can drain out. If there is a hole-less container you just must have, you can always drill holes in the bottom to create drainage.
Terra Cotta is beautiful and old-fashioned but it is also heavier and more prone to breakage. Moisture evaporates faster out of clay pots meaning you might have to water a little bit more often.
Plastic pots have taken on a whole new look in recent years. They've been redesigned to look just like terra cotta. They are lighter weight, hold water better and don't break as often.
Wood is a durable material for planters and window boxes, especially if you buy rot resistant cedar or redwood containers. Avoid treated wood that contains creosote or penta that may give off plant harming vapors. Ordinary wood lined with heavy plastic sheeting does a fine job.
Metal containers, especially those made from galvanized steel, make excellent containers. Be sure to drill holes in the bottom for drainage
Soil Mix and Fertilizer
Ordinary garden soil or top soil is too heavy for containers. It also gets compacted over the season making it more difficult for the roots of your plants to spread out and flourish. Instead, plant your flora in a light weight, soil-based potting mix that contains the likes of sandy loam, peat and sand. This readily available product gives your plants the right balance of drainage, organic matter and stability your plants need.
Your container plants are very dependent upon you for food. Some soil-based mixes have fertilizer already mixed in. But you can do the same by mixing a granular, slow-release organic into the soil before you plant. This dose will feed your plants for 8 to 10 weeks. After that, you may need to add a liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion as a supplement.
Watering and Care
During the heat of the summer you may need to water your containers as often as once a day. There are several self-watering containers on the market with built in reservoir that will cut your watering duties down to once a week. Water slowly and gently until small amounts of water drain out the bottom. I place saucers under most of my potted plants that hold water the plants call on later in the day and to keep the porch cleaner and dryer.
Mulching your container gardens is both beneficial and decorative. Spread a thin layer of shredded bark or other favored mulch to help keep the soil cooler and hold in moisture.
You don't want your container plants to be constantly buffeted by wind. Build a windbreak or fence along your terrace or roof top to cut down on too much damaging wind.
All of the annuals and most of the perennials you grow in your containers will not survive the winter. Simply plan to replace them each year. Most trees and shrubs will survive if you can move them to a more protected part of your outdoor space. You can also wrap them the containers in burlap or bubble wrap to help protect the root system from extreme winter cold. Do keep the plants occasionally watered over the winter if they don't receive any rain or snow.
Never use the same soil twice. Soil borne diseases like mildew can be passed from plant to pot. Each year empty the pots and wash them out with a chlorine and water solution to kill diseases. Add a little fresh soil mix to your permanent pots of trees and shrubs each year to replenish the soil.
Good Plants for Containers
The range of plants you can grow in your container garden is limited only by your imagination and by sunlight. If you have a shady spot, you should rule out tomatoes, marigolds, roses and other sun-loving plants that need 8 to 10 hours of sunlight each day to produce flowers and food. But there are plenty of plants to choose from and one of the beauties of containers is that you can move them around, even during the day, to take advantage of what sunlight you do receive.
Basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley, chives, savory and other herbs are some of the best plants you can grow in containers. In their native habitat, most herbs grow in rather difficult conditions to begin with. Plant them in individual pots or in one big one and snip off what you like to add to your favorite recipe.
Tuberous begonia, impatiens and coleus are three shade loving colorful annuals that I frequently grow in my window boxes in deep shade. Viola is another colorful annual I use in dappled shade window boxes in early spring.
Heuchera 'Palace Purple' and H. sanguinea 'Coral Bells' are perennials with richly colored foliage and delicate flowers that both grow well in containers in full sun to partial shade. Bells Foliage is another good choice for containers.
Even though you can grow plants of almost any size in containers, plants of smaller size are better best because they have smaller root systems. Smaller plants fit into containers more comfortably that larger plants.
Regular and scented geraniums, nasturtiums, marigolds, snap dragon, wax begonia, lobelia, petunia, low-growing dahlia, salvia and swan river daisies are good selections that will fill your planter with flowers in bloom in full sun for most of the summer.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Things to Do in the Garden This Week

Before we get to the work list, let me tell you about what's blooming in my garden right now.
In the new woodland garden, the hellebores is blooming nicely. Two weeks ago the Hepatica was blooming. Also, the Mertensia (Virginia bluebells) is up and growing and is getting ready to bloom.
In the sunny perennial garden out front, the daffodils have almost all gone by, as have the tulips. The season for my bulbs is just way too short.
But, on the bright side, the Mertensia is in full bloom and the Pelomonium (Jacob's ladder) is just setting its lovely blue/purple flowers.
Time to plant dahlia, gladiolus, tuberous begonia and other tender summer bulbs. By next week if the warm weather continues, you can plant annual seeds and put out annual plants such as marigolds and wax begonia. Naturally, you can plant perennials.
Lawn Care:
Grass seeds won't germinate well until lthe weather wamrs the soil. Between Mother's Day and Flag Day, I am going to plant grass seed. This weekend, I am going to spread lime and organic fertilizer. I am seriously looking to get rid of my moles so I will look to spread an organic mole solution such as Mole Med.
Herbs and Veggies:
The snow peas and the English peas are already planted and so is the arugula, mache and mesclun mix. I am waiting for all of them to germinate. Between Mother's Day and Memorial Day I will plant tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, rosemary and leeks. I usually wait until early June to set out basil, it just doesn't seem to like cold weather at all.
By the way, my chives are up and I am eating them on everything!

Beautiful Easy Roses

A lot of people don't grow roses because these beautiful blooming shrubs have a well-earned reputation for being fussy. They are attractive to insects, black spot and mildew, they require frequent fertilizing and pruning and they often die over the winter if the weather gets too cold.
All of the criticisms are valid if you are growing the wrong type of roses. Hybrid tea roses, the ones with the beautiful fragrant flower shop blossoms, the ones with names like "Princess Diana" and "Peace," are the fussy ones that need the extra tender loving care.
But the new trend in rose growing is to return to the more cold hardy, disease-resistant, low maintenance roses that are even more beautiful and often just as fragrant as any dolled-up hybrid tea.
And now is the time of year when people should be ripping out their problem roses, replacing them with easy-care varieties and pruning the good ones they already have. Early spring is the best time plop your new roses in the ground and give them a trim when they are still dormant, well before the leaves begin to form. Now is also when lawn and garden centers will have the best selections of roses and before the mail order catalogues are all sold out.
Anyone can grow a rose bush as long as they have a somewhat protected, well-drained site that receives at least six hours of sunshine each day. Roses don't grow well in windy and dry conditions, they don't like soggy soil and they don't like shade.
If you want glorious flowers for your landscape or a delicate bouquet for the table, and if you prefer to spend your time admiring your roses rather than sweating over them, I advise you to grow the newly rediscovered old-fashioned looking shrub and climbing roses that are now widely available.
Here's a list of the easy-care roses you will enjoy:
Rugosa roses
are best known in many people's minds as the beach roses along coastal New England. They are cold hardy even in Canada, they are fragrant, bloom all summer long and produce rose hips for the birds in fall on shrubs that will grow four to five feet tall.
Some of the prettiest rugosa roses include 'F.J. Grootendorst,' 'Hansa,' 'Therese Bugnet,''Henry Hudson,' 'Blanc Double de Courbert,' 'Fru Dagmar Hastrop,' and many more.
'Betty Prior' is a cold-hardy floribunda rose, which mean they produce clusters of blossoms on bushy shrubs. This variety is also quite resistant to black spot and mildew. It will grow four to five feet tall and produce pink flowers all summer long. "Carefree Wonder" and "Bonica' are two reliably ever- blooming, disease-resistant shrub roses that will easily survive our coldest winters. They both produce medium-pink clusters of beautiful roses.
English roses are a new line of old-fashioned looking and often quite fragrant roses developed over the last 20 years by breeder David Austin. They have blended the voluptuous charm and old roses including damask and gallica and the vigor and repeat blooming of modern hybrids.
They are reasonably resistant to powdery mildew and black spot and they are cold hardy to all but the most mountainous locations in the New York metropolitan area.
There is no doubt they are incredibly beautiful with old- world names like ‘Cottage Rose,'‘Brother Cadfael,'‘English Elegance,' ‘Fair Bianca' and many more.
For really small garden spaces people should think about growing "The Fairy' a 2-foot-tall polyantha rose bush that is covered with small, light pink flowers from June until late September.
Climbing roses can add great dimension to a small urban garden by rambling up on flower-packed canes that can reach 20 feet long. All you need is sunlight and a sturdy support like a trellis or an arbor. Two of the very best easy care climbing roses are ‘New Dawn' and ‘Climbing Cecil Brunner,'
Once you are ready to plant your rose, be sure to dig a hole twice as wide and twice as deep as the root system of the plant. This gives you room to really spread out the roots.
You are going to plant the rose about one inch deeper in the whole than it was in the nursery for a potted rose, and for a bare root rose, deep enough so the beginning of the root system is one inch below surface level. This depth helps protect the root system from winter cold.
Place a bare root rose on a little mound of soil in the bottom of the hole, spread the roots out, set the plant so the crown is one inch below ground level.
Barely cover the roots with soil and fill the hole with water. Fill in the hole with the remaining soil and firm down with your hands to get rid of any air pockets. Water your roses once a week for the first year and as needed after that. Try not to get the leaves wet as this can promote the growth of fungal disease.
For new and existing roses, spread a handful of Epsom salts (a good source of magnesium) and a handful of natural organic fertilizer at the base of each rose bush in early June. Spread a two to four inch thick layer of compost or composted manure around the bush and the bulk of your maintenance duties are complete.
All of the roses I mentioned are resistant to the two main rose diseases of black spot and powdery mildew. If you have these diseases with your existing roses, spray them with a sulfur-based fungicide from a catalogue or garden center or with a homemade solution of one tablespoon baking soda, one tablespoon ordinary liquid dish soap and one gallon of water.
Bugs are another matter. Aphids and Japanese beetles are roses' two biggest insect enemies. Insecticidal soap and Neem, both available in garden centers and catalogues, are quite effective. Lady bugs feast on aphids and I enjoy controlling Japanese beetles by paying my kids to pick the bugs off by hand and stomping on them or dropping them into a container of soapy water.
Roses need a little pruning every year to remove dead canes, control their size and to promote good flowering. Prune in early spring when the forsythia is in bloom by cutting out any crossing branches and by snipping off up to a third of any canes length by making a cut 1/4 inch above an outward facing bud.
Good sources of roses include: The Roseraie at Bayfields, P.O. Box R, Waldoboro, ME 04572-0919, 207-832-6330,; David Austin Roses Ltd., 15393 Highway 64 West, Tyler , TX 75704, 903-526-1800 (Catalogue $5) or; Wayside Gardens, 1 Garden Lane, Hodges, SC 26965, 800-845-1124,
If you cannot decide which roses to grow, you should without a doubt visit two of the finest rose gardens in the world: The Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden.