Spiced Winter Squash and Pecan Tea Bread
This sweet bread, scented with warming spices, is an ideal companion on a frosty day. Slather it with soft butter or, even better, cream cheese for a yummy treat. I make this bread with red kuri, but any winter squash is fine. Makes one 9"x5" loaf.
1) Begin by roasting the squash. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut the squash down the middle, lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.
2) Place the squash cut side down on a lightly-oiled baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour or until soft. Remove from the oven, set aside to cool for a few minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F.
3) Butter a 9"x 5" bread pan. Set aside.
4) Once the squash has cooled, scoop the flesh out of the skin and place in a food processor. Puree for several minutes until smooth. Alternatively, mash by hand with a potato masher.
5) Combine the flour, baking power, baking soda, salt, and spices in a medium-sized mixing bowl and whisk briefly to mix.
6) In a separate bowl, beat the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. This can be done with either an electric mixer or by hand.
7) Add the eggs, one at a time.
8) Add the vanilla extract and the squash puree and mix well.
9) Add the flour mixture in two parts and mix gently. Fold in the pecans.
10) Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan. Smooth top with a spatula. Bake at 350°F for 1 hour, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool 10-15 minutes before serving.
Cracked Pepper Leek Kraut
Leeks originated in the Mediterranean basin and are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. Egyptian writings show leeks as a barter currency (along with oxen and beer). Despite their warm, dry beginnings, they’re a cold-weather crop and are often fresh and available the same time as cabbage. While this kraut has the same comforting simplicity of plain cabbage sauerkraut, multifaceted layers of flavor bring it to a new level. It was a market favorite. The best part is it’s still easy to make and versatile. Yields about 2 quarts.
3 pounds green cabbage, about one large dense head, reserve a few of the outer leaves
1 pound leeks, with 2–3 inches of the green, sliced thinly crosswise
1–2 tablespoons unrefined salt
½–1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Finely slice the cabbage into shreds and place in a large bowl along with the thinly sliced leeks and ground pepper to taste.
- Massage in 1½ tablespoons of the salt. Taste. It should taste slightly salty but not overwhelming. Add more salt if necessary. By now brine will be developing. Continue to massage the cabbage and leeks as if you were kneading bread. If you’ve put in a good effort and don’t see much brine in the bowl, let it stand covered for 45 minutes, then massage again.
- When the veggies are limp and glossy and there is a liquid at the bottom of the bowl, begin to press them in the jar or crock. Start by putting a little of the kraut in the bottom of your vessel, press until compacted and continue until all of the kraut is pressed in the jar. It’s finished when air bubbles are out and brine is on top.
- Top the vegetables with one of the reserved outer leaves. Then top the leaves with a sealed water-filled jar to weigh it down, or use the plastic resealable bag method outlined in the Leek-chi recipe. (Remember the key to success is keeping everything pressed under the brine.) Cover with a clean kitchen towel. Set aside on a plate to ferment, somewhere nearby and out of direct sunlight, in a cool spot for 7 to 21 days.
- Check daily to make sure the vegetables are submerged, pressing down as needed to bring the brine to the surface, and scoop out any scum that develops. It will be ready when it is deliciously sour to you. This kraut will keep, refrigerated, for 12 months.
“Uva Turnbull (1895 -1970)… started her hobby of collecting soil samples on a trip she took through Missouri and down to Texas. Eventually, she had over 100 scoops of dirt from every state in the Union and from such faraway places as Newfoundland, Greenland, about 800 miles from the North Pole, Africa, France and England.” —Evelyn Birkby, trustee of the Fremont County Historical Society in Sidney, Iowa
I wanted to go to Iowa because the landscape I live in resembles punched pillows and rumpled bed quilts after a thrashing night of insomnia and I wanted to see its opposite; I wanted to feel the vast flatness, experience the taut sheets of king-sized openness, to drive through a Sahara of soil: through Ohio, across Indiana, into Illinois and Iowa, the heart land, but most of all, I wanted to lay eyes upon Uva Turnbull’s collection of dirt.
Not just any dirt, but 159 cream jars of dirt from around the world on display for all to see in Sidney, Iowa.
As a subsistence farmer, I grow food, and in doing so I touch, dig, destroy, consume and remake soil. Moreover, as Karl Hammer, owner of Vermont Compost Company, says: I am walking soil.
And he is walking soil.
Are you reader, walking soil? Yes, you are walking soil.
What Karl is saying is that not only do we come from soil, and to soil we’ll return, but even in the present moment: we are the expressive form of soil. Even his license plate reads: ONESOIL
A few weeks before I leave for Iowa, I speak to the sultan of soil as we sit in his “office” under an exuberantly blue sky, in 19 degree air crisped with brisk gusts: wicked cold. We climb up to the topmost bark bed on his hillside. Karl scoops out a fanny sized nest of bark, releasing a great exhale of wintergreen-fragrant steam. He settles in, as if he were sinking into the bathtub, pronouncing, “I could live on a bark pile,” followed by, “I do live on a bark pile,” followed by mention of where he’s to be interred, (bark, of course) with instructions, “And please, don’t turn me.” I shimmy in beside him, and soon my butt feels like a spud baking in the oven, so I shift to my knees as we study the terraced landscape around us, a maze of windrows where food waste, manure, and barkchips are fast-tracked into premium compost, beautiful friable soil.
To Karl the world is one big dirtball where nutrients slosh around. He sees rivers of nutrients sliding into grocery stores in the form of all the stuff that fills the shelves; and then he sees rivers of nutrients washing out into the parking lot, packed into cars and then he sees rivulets of nutrients leaking out of neighborhoods into landfills. He sees gravity pull down mountains into particles that silt up rivers, and rivers that carry a billion Edens of dirt to the sea.
And whereas Karl spends most of his time accumulating and compiling the materials to make One Soil right behind the house where he lives, his converse, Uva Turnbull, left her Iowa farm, equipped with a trowel and a jar, collecting each specimen on numerous family trips. Her project wasn’t to make one soil, but to have a little piece of all of it.
I first learned of Uva’s soil collection in a tiny article in a farming newspaper my neighbor loaned me one evening. Her son, then five, began a tantrum over the newspaper, so I handed it back.
Later that evening I googled “Dirt Sidney Iowa” which yielded one contact: Evelyn Birkby. I called and no one answered. Undaunted, I plotted the trip. I wanted to leave after the threat of pipes freezing, but before the full throttle of growing grass, the burgeoning garden, the North Country jumping out of dormancy. Poet James Galvin calls early April, “the stunned little interval” –this would be my window of opportunity. With a specific destination and a general direction set, next I cast about for a companion. Three weeks before I left I met Charlie through a friend of a friend of a friend. Marisa, my neighbor said, “Don’t be mad that I got you this guy’s business card.”
In our first conversation, Charlie said, “Iowa! I was born there. Can I come?”
Walt Whitman, a Long Island man, lit out for parts west and south in 1848 when he was hired by a newspaper called the New Orleans Crescent. To get there he traveled by train, stagecoach, and steamboat, returning some years later via the Great Lakes.
His literary achievement, a sequence of poems titled, Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855, and in it one finds not just long- limbed poems celebrating the variety and complexity of America, but a spirituality that is both gritty and transcendent. He writes:
I will show that whatever happens to anybody, it may be tuned to beautiful results
… And I will show that nothing happens more beautiful than death. How can the real body ever die and be buried?
…My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.
…The smallest sprout shows there is really no death. And if ever there was it led toward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it.
Walt Whitman, by Hammer’s terms anyway, was singing soil.
And had Walt doffed his hat, then scrunched into the sedan with his rucksack to come with us, he might have penned new lines, verse beginning much as his previous did:
On journeys through the states we start How curious! How real! Underfoot the divine soil… The soul, Forever and forever—longer than the soil is brown and solid…
And then he might have celebrated the men and women of America, 150 years after his first encounter, his incantation running something like:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear:
The Ohio truck driver boasting a million career miles driven.
The hostess smoking by the lilacs, warning: you can’t take your dog in there.
The Indianan and his retriever, Einstein, suggesting the Best Western over the Motel 6.
The Illinois hog finisher at the gas station asking, You’re not from PETA are you?
And the Spanish teacher in Iowa wondering if his wife will ever love America.
Walt might have reveled in this opportunity to record the new news from the roadsides, as he once declared, Whoever you are/ To you endless announcements!
He would have reveled in:
Great Buy: Make it Pork; Welcome to Delphos: family community opportunity; Vote yes on issue 2; Miller and Coors lite pack $10.99;
Fresh brown eggs $1.50 dozen; Dan Quayle Birthplace and Indian Museum;
Sharfer for Sherriff; Coke $1 any size; Vote Drinski prosecutor;
Kentland, IN: where agriculture and industry meet; Birthplace of George Ade—the buckle of the corn belt; Crescent City: small city with a big spirit;
He would have heard music in:
The Cowbird perched on roadside cross singing:
Welcome to Chenoa: Crossroads of opportunity; Blazing fast internet $14.95; 86 pounds lighter and loving life;
And the Robin atop a stop sign singing:
Private dancer now open
And two meadowlarks in Clarinda singing with a redwing perched on the sign for Pioneer Park:
True Life Taxidermy; Windmill for sale $200;
And a starling on a yield sign singing:
Bad Boys Bail Bond— your freedom is our business; Matt Tebbs for Sherriff;
When we got to Ohio we found the rumpled landscape ironed out. Anything vertical was an event. A tree was an event. The world became one endless cinnamon brown expanse with an epaulette of trees, a corsage of trees at best; the vastness acted as a vacuum against our windshield. The bushel basket of my universe lost its hoop, its sheaves splattered open. I felt prone, revealed, like a weevil roving an almost empty table; once I counted eleven homesteads, surrounding us like numbers on a clock, each a mile away, and I am sure of it, that there were eleven, not possibly fourteen or twenty —because everything, everything was evident. When we hit a crossroads and stopped: looking north—infinity; looking south—infinity.
The beige dust blew across us, lifted from fields by tractors discing in last season’s corn stubble. Spring and the face of the earth was lifted up and tuned over, whole counties of sod tilted on its head, sprayed with anhydrous ammonia, seeded with corn and soybeans, by mansion sized vehicles, moved by a single man. His few hours on his few thousand acres—a diabolical miracle.
Occasionally we saw the focused work of a dust devil, dervishing in the field—as if a tree got loose and pirouetted…inimical of the tractors’ work, only doing it less methodically, doing it beautifully.
Why, then, were we driving through the exposed heart of the heartland, surrounded by all the dirt we could ever want to see, headed to look at someone’s collection of bottles of sod?
I can’t answer that now.
On the morning of the fourth day we drove into the sleepy Sidney, Iowa. There were no signs indicating a museum so we drove over to the rodeo arena, billed as “The greatest Show on Dirt” and found it deserted save one beefy man discarding an empty charcoal briquette bag. We asked, “Excuse us, but where’s the dirt museum?” He looks stunned. The what? He said he’d lived here all his life and had never heard of such. And then he stared at his boot, Wait a minit—you must mean the Lois Hill Museum over by the interstate, towards Omaha.
Well, according to the retired couple Stanley and Shirley, who volunteer once a month at the Visitor Center, No, this is not the dirt museum, but they do have some dirt we can take a look at, seeing as how we drove so far to see some. Shirley retrieves a bucket of the special soil beneath the interstate and the roots of corn and the parking lot where our car hunches like a jackrabbit taking a breather.
The tan loess (pronounced like luss, less or Lois) feels like a handful of baby powder. Its fine grains are made of glacially milled feldspar, quartz and mica. These soils, though not inherently rare, have accumulated in mammoth swaths in only a few places, the Hunagtu Plateau near the Yellow River Basin in China and here, where the Missouri River divides Nebraska from Iowa.
After the initial glacial churning and milling, winds blew loess dust into great dunes and swales. The three major episodes of deposition include: the pretty old dirt of Peoria Loess (12,500 to 21,000 years old), the thickest and most common loess in Iowa; the very old dirt of the Pisgah Formation (24,000 to 42,000 years old); and the freakin’ ancient Loveland Loess, (which strikes me as a poignant statement, as well as an era: Love, Land, Loss, or the three word synopsis of my essay) which accumulated 140,000 to 160,000 years ago.
This is a colossal story, albeit somewhat dull, of dust in the wind for damn near 50,000 years.
It’s so easy to let the soft powder pour from my palm into Charlie’s, and it is so hard to grasp its immortal formation.
“And have you seen these?” Shirley says offering a plate of knob sized objects. Charlie and I fondle the small eggs of loess kinderchen, German for “children” or “chicks,” formed when water leaches out the calcium carbonate from the soil grains.
They’d dent the body if you pelted a truck with them. Charlie asks behind Shirley’s back, “Isn’t this stone?”
Meanwhile Shirley’s husband, Stanley, sits at a broad table prodding puzzle pieces. The picture on the box is of a white church in Sharon, VT. I ask him about his life, and learn: While Walt Whitman was writing Leaves of Grass, Stanley’s grandfather was hitching his mule, driving a plough into the Iowa sod, raising 300 acres of corn. Stanley’s father doubled the farm and grew it to 600 acres, until Stanley took over and doubled it again, and again, and again: trading his mules for tractors Stanley planted and harvested 3000 acres. I had to ask: And your son? How many acres does he farm? He farms 6000 acres.
I see E Pluibus Unum and its opposite. From many one, as in the indigenous prairie sod has at least 300 species of plants. But there is less than one percent of one percent of virgin prairie left, and it’s mostly in cemeteries, as Whitman would call it, the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.”
However, one corn seed can reproduce itself 700 times from a single ear of corn in one growing season. Three hundred prairie plants usurped for one plant.
After pawing the loess soil, hefting the kinderchen, and browsing some dusty exhibits, I ask, Have you heard of Evelyn Birkby? Oh yes. Mind if we use your phone?
Evelyn’s husband tells us she’s at the beauty parlor getting her hair done, call back in an hour.
Well where are you? Evelyn asks, thinking maybe we could set up a time to meet next week. Uh, we’re here. Well, then.
We pick her up at her house, (white house with black shutters) on Maple street, since now her husband has the car, and, oops, the key to the museum. Edna, a Trustee, who works at the Law Office brings over a spare and lets us into The Freemont County Historical Museum, which is officially closed and under renovation.
The museum is in disarray (That’s putting it nicely). It looks like a multifamily yard sale. And in the corner, beyond the horse drawn hearse and the frontier woman’s tin speckleware, there it is: in what looks like a spice rack, all the jars of soil. In the dim light, they look like turmeric, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. Each labeled jar contains two spoons full, (or perhaps, thinking adventurously: a mouthful). I have just driven three days and 989 miles, through seven states, almost to Nebraska, crossing 14 rivers to witness: 159 mouthfuls, a spice rack’s worth of dirt, yes.
France had one specimen. France—all 67,464,300 hectares of of it, represented by this cream jar. A synecdoche—when one stands for all, this palm-able jar: France. Another simply said: Wyoming. You might think all of Wyoming’s soil would be just as this.
Yet another says: “Eishima Island where Ernie Pyle was killed 40 miles by plane from Okinawa,” and its contents are dark as poppy seeds. Grave soil as if to assert, Here, exactly, nowhere else.
And so it goes on this way:
Louisiana’s paprika soil
Ozarks’ peachy tan
Georgia’s cinnamon- cola colored
(and Kansas, and Kentucky, and Winnipeg…)
Frankenstein Castle’s bits of black twig, chocolate crumbs
Woodrow Wilson Flower Garden, in Staunton, VA, a grey silt, like ground pepper
Boone Ledges, Iowa, a wood -ash colored silt
Iwo Jima spot where two flags were raised, some fine brown grains
Evelyn confesses, “When they donated it, I said we don’t want it. Why would we want a bunch of dirt? It’s just dirt.”
But now she waits patiently as I take notes, and I sense her proprietary concern, what if I slipped a bottle into my purse?
As I am cupping the jar marked, “Bottom of a well 141 feet deep Feb 7, 1958,” she says, “I keep thinking what if you dropped it?”
Uva said of acquiring the collection, “People think something big is afoot when they observe you painstakingly collecting a soil sample from their road side or field.”
My great grandparents saved their plastic orange pill bottles for me to fill with sand from various beaches. The idea of parsing the universe, comparing sands’ hues and textures, was nullified by the translucent plastic: lined up in a row, it all looked like orange sand.
Edna said her eldest brother kept a bottle of soil from the dust bowl. Their soil was black and this soil, the soil blown into their life, was red.
In each bottle there is the implied action of searching, finding, and crouching to collect. Each is an artifact of a brief relationship, Walking Soil reaching toward the planet Earth.
And returning with the evidence.
Again, in general terms:
the coarse sand of Lake Superior rattles in on the glass;
Thule, 800 miles from North Pole, is like a collection of rocks;
Tower Isle, Jamaica, contains red-brown nuggets;
and specific terms:
Delaware, Near Capitol has golden pollenish grains;
Silver Mine, Taxco, Mexico are like little chips of bacos.
It’s like looking through a family album of dirt.
Suddenly I regret not bringing a sample from my silty land in Vermont. I could have offered some bran colored dirt to round out this united nations of terrains. But then, how would I have labeled it?
According to the Lamoille County Soil Survey, “Soils differ in texture…slope, stoniness, salinity, wetness, degree of erosion…a soil series is divided in to soil phases…” The kinds of soils within 50 miles of my homestead have decidedly British names: including Adams, Allagash, Berkshire, Boothbay, Borohemists, Coulton Duxbury, Croghan, Fragiaquepts and Haplaquepts, Hamin, Histic Fluvaquents, Londonderry-Stratton, Lyman Tunbridge, Marlow, Ondawa (the exception), Peacham, Peru, Podunk (yes, really), Potsdam, Ricker Peat, Rumney, Salmon, Scantic Variant, Searsport Muck, Stratton- Londonderry, Swanville, Teel silt loam, Tunbridge, Udifluvents and Walpole.
VII. Soul of Soil or: Why Does This Matter?
Or in lieu of teaspooned dust from my garden, what if I had brought instead the soil of a loved one, say, a cream jar marked, “Uncle Chris.”
We had argued over where to put him, my bachelor uncle. Some of us thought his ashes should be halved, to install some of him in Philadelphia where he was born, and grew up, where his original family still lives…and scatter the rest of him in the Rockies, near Boulder, his chosen home. My dad, as his brother and in some ways father, felt that to halve his ashes would dilute him, abstract him in a way, such as to lose him beyond even death. Their father, Pete, an ephemeral presence even during their childhood, had made his own funeral arrangements, instructing a cremation and dispersal so that no one, not even my father, knows exactly where Pete’s dusts were loosed or perhaps dumped.
Thus Chris’ ashes were wholly interred at Cavalry Cemetery in West Conshohocken near Philadelphia. So now we can all say: Here he is, like Ernie Pyle 40 miles by plane from Okinawa, he is here, exactly, for eternity.
Like Uva can say here—here is France.
“The sea is, in fact one ocean, one ocean with five great names and a thousand little ones…” —Alan Villiers Oceans of the World (1963)
On March 24th, 2009, the New York Times published an article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon about the world’s largest known colony of clonal social amoebas. Scientists had found a 40-foot patch in Texas consisting of billions of genetically identical individuals oozing around and behaving cooperatively in a cow pasture near Houston. The significance of this macro-patch of micro-organisms cooperating as a whole, “raises the possibility that cells might evolve to organize on much larger spatial scales.”
Though the patch was short lived—“just one week later it rained a lot and then it was basically gone.” Dr. Manifred Sliwa at the University of Munich, one of the scientists consulted for the article said, “I used to joke that there might be a giant organism in the soil spanning the entire continent and where ever you dig up a shovelful you get a giant piece of it.”
This is what I think Walt’s song is about: infinite nature, expressed temporarily, as specific beings. As he attests: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Therefore in his immensity he includes Karl, the husband of Onesoil; and he contains Uva, the farmwife curator of distinctive dirt.
Does he contradict himself? Very well he contradicts himself, for he also contains my uncle, reduced to an urn, and my grandfather, freed to the air.
And which camp do I belong to: generous visionary or proprietary connoisseur? Is my reverence, my brand of understanding, particular or galactic?
Uva lived in the spacious place of Iowa, so maybe encountering dirt by the spoonful served her purpose of managing overwhelm, whereas Karl lives in the rumpled blankets, the knees and shoulders of northern Vermont, maybe for him the whole totality of soil alleviates the oppression of tilting hills.
Whitman ends his poem ‘Song of Myself,’ the big hymn in Leaves of Grass with:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want to find me again, look for me under your bootsoles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean. But I shall be good to you nevertheless and filter and fiber your blood. Failing to fetch me one place keep encouraged. Missing me one place search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.
How do we behave if we recognize land as the source of our being: whether as teaspoons or as one planet-sized dirtball; how do we behave if we recognize we, in our human form are a phase of soil’s endless formations?
On the drive back Charlie and I decide to switch places. We pull off to the side of a county road beside an endless field in Indiana. The corn has germinated, and rows of green sprouts flicker. As we stand beside the car for a moment, the stillness and vastness obliterate a sense that there is anywhere else but Here. In the hush we imagine what it would be like to quit this road trip and stick ourselves like scarecrows amid the field, what would it feel like to rise incrementally from the dust as a stalk of corn? Or to be the soil that feels the clench of roots?
We stop for the night near Brunswick, Ohio. As we stretch our legs, behind the motel, tramping around the undeveloped plot, its orange-red soil gunks up our boots.
The next morning, at Charlie’s insistence, we stop at Lake Erie to fill a glass jar with its sediments.
Back home in the buxom version of Iowa, the stunned little interval is over, the lawn, shaggy. I pull on my boots still gummed from the ramble behind the motel. I wear the orange clay of Ohio into the dewy pasture in Vermont, as one “here” meets another “here,” and I am the walking next installment of it all.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . One-hundred-fifty-nine Spoonfuls of One Soil, written by Julia Shipley, was first published in the pages of Taproot, Issue 1 :: SOIL.
What holds us to our gardens is the constant gift of slow change and evolution throughout a season: a surprise, a gift, a little joy. A flower-cutting garden will keep growers supplied with gifts of living goodness all summer long. Don’t get rid of your vegetable garden, but embrace flowers as well. The gift of food is practical and maternal; a flower is the gift of a lover: symbolic, artistic, embarrassingly flirtatious. Once started, be careful—flowers and flower-growing can become an addictive habit and they might insist on more and more space in your garden beds.
Adding flowers to the garden mix allows for the chance to rotate garden beds out of produce for a season. Rotation breaks pest cycles, balances soil fertility, and allows the gardener to express her creativity with each new season. With a few exceptions, most of the produce grown in the garden comes mainly from five plant families: cucurbits, brassicas, alliums, solanaceous, and legumes. Flowers present us with dozens of other plant families, allowing the benefit of a beautiful rotation from produce to flowers.
Everything vegetables like—full sun, well-drained soil, and good air circulation—flowers also like. If the flowers are not being planted into an existing garden space, the start of a cutting garden requires the inevitable early planning decisions about placement and size. Initially, the size of the garden should not match one’s enthusiasm but rather a realistic estimate of the amount of time the grower will be able to devote to it. Flower growing can be an easy habit to slip into, but only if the work remains manageable. Besides the work of preparing and planting the space, the gardener will be picking from the garden twice weekly, as with cherry tomatoes or green beans.
The flower garden will look great next to your vegetable plot, but do not expect it to be a glorious showstopper. The cutting garden’s purpose is to be cut. It will be planted in rows, much like a vegetable garden. In order for the plants to keep producing, the blooms must be removed regularly. The purpose of the cutting garden is not to be beautiful in its own right, any more so than its cousin the vegetable garden. Both are the source of natural gifts and the gardener should feel no inhibition in cutting into a big healthy plant, and building gorgeous displays for the house.
This annual flower garden primer will focus on springtime work: forming beds, building fertility, and mulching to prevent weeds. A solid foundation will ultimately yield the greatest harvest from the healthiest plants and minimize maintenance mid-summer, when picking is at its peak. Embrace and channel the surge of energy that comes with spring.
Approach the preparations of the beds with restrained gusto. Loosen but do not invert the soil, removing any large clumps of weeds, particularly perennial grasses with a running root that sprouts from any small piece left behind. Most soil problems can be corrected by a simple soil test—support your state’s university extension service! —and an abundance of organic matter. The less digging, rototilling, or hoeing, the healthier the soil’s micro-organisms will be. Building upwards with compost and mulch, rather than disturbing the soil at deeper levels repairs most injuries to the earth.
Generally, most flowers prefer the same pH range as most vegetables: 6.5. The soil test from the university extension will recommend amendments, some of which should be scratched into the surface of the soil—no need to dig. Other amendments, like minerals and organic fertilizers, can be sprinkled onto the soil surface before the compost goes down. Flowers like a fertile bed as much as a broccoli plant does.
Organic matter should be the love that ensures health, always on-hand and generously offered. Compost is the most efficient way to deliver organic matter to the ground. Though it might have plenty of nutrients, it should not be considered fertilizer or food for plants; compost merely holds nutrients, water, and microbes in place. The science of soil is complex and we gardeners can feel overwhelmed by nutrient needs recommended by the soil test. But our blunderings can be buffered by organic matter and a diversity of mulches.
Any small garden, vegetable or flower, should rely on mulch to cover every inch of the soil. Mulch is usually material like leaves, hay, or straw. Other kinds of mulch, like woodchips and cardboard, can be used in pathways. Plastic is also an option, but whenever an organic material is available it should be used, since it will break down into worm-food. The main reason for mulch is to prevent weed seeds from sprouting. Mulch may need to be added throughout the season, and once the plants are large and flowering, the task becomes easier. Even before your garden is planted, mulch can be laid down. Eventually plan on a thick layer to be an effective weed barrier: six inches of fluffy mulch is a minimum. Mulching is an expression of love for the soil—feeding it, protecting it, and encouraging the many tiny homes for micro-organisms which keep the crop healthy.
Once the soil has been prepped, separate and mark garden beds from walkways to minimize compaction in the areas that will be planted. Decide where the beds are and where the walkways will be. When the time is right, after the last frost is a week gone by and the transplants are an appropriate size, use a leaf rake to create furrows (shallow, long ditches) by pulling the mulch back and exposing the soil where the transplants will be planted. Once the transplant is settled in, gently replace the mulch around the baby plants and water them well. Soaker hose on a timer is an excellent way to keep crops watered all season. This should be below the mulch, so as not to wet the foliage.
Sprouting flower seeds will give you a renewed respect for diversity in the world of plants. Unlike vegetables, which over thousands of years have been bred for food and thus have a certain homogeneity, most flowers are somewhat closer to the wild. For some seeds, light triggers germination. Other seeds require scarification (scratching), or vernalization (cold treatment) and long waits. For the dozen flowers varieties recommended here, germination is fairly simple, except the tricky sweet pea, but this earliest effort is still rewarding and somewhat addictive.
Sometime, during the late winter or early spring, space will need to be created in a sunny, warm window to start all the seeds. In some cases, as the sun moves around the house during the day, the amount of light will be inadequate for the little baby plants to grow without becoming spindly. Consider a grow light that will turn on after the morning sun moves to the other side of the house. Imagine replicating natural growing conditions.
Starting with transplants in the garden versus direct seeding provides a couple of advantages. When direct seeding, mulch can’t be applied to the area until the pants have emerged. Unfortunately, weeds will emerge as well, demanding the extra chore of weeding. Plants started indoors can be babied. For the control freaks out there—anyone who gardens is ultimately trying to control a little bit of nature—transplants are highly managed and the little spots of hopeful green inside will only serve to foster the excitement about planting time.
The transplant table is a mini-garden. Light, temperature, moisture, and pest issues can all be addressed in miniature with transplants. Seeds can be started in any type of container that will hold soil and water and has an opportunity for drainage. From tofu containers to small clay pots or old tea cups with a sprinkle of gravel at the bottom, all of these are utilitarian seed-starting vessels. Once the transplants leave the house and are planted in the garden, managing all the variables that make for success in growth becomes a greater challenge. It’s like sending a child off to school, hoping she is healthy and strong and instilled with everything she needs to flourish. As with children, it is helpful to set the seedlings outside in nice weather as their big day approaches. Start plenty more seeds than needed. Extra transplants that will not fit into the space allotted in the garden can always be shared with friends.
After the seedlings have a good set of true leaves—the first leaves, or cotyledons don’t count—they can be set out into the garden. As long as the plants’ roots have room to grow, the seedlings can remain indoors and grow all that much bigger and more robust. When the time comes to move all the precious little babies out into the big garden, make sure they are well watered and have a good spritz of fish emulsion. Ideally, morning or evening transplanting is best since wind and bright sun will shock the seedlings, stunting growth. Just as broccoli will button-up with a stressful transition, flower plants will produce flowers with fewer petals and less vigor.
Organize the order of where things are planted based on height. Taller plants want to be placed so that as the afternoon sun moves around, they do not cast a shadow over the shorter plants. Unlike vegetables, flowers should be tightly spaced to encourage tall flower stems. The plants will compete for light and reach high, resulting in stem length best for cutting. As a general rule, the flowers listed in the Dozen Favorites list can all be spaced at eight inches within the row and eight to twelve inches between rows. The tighter the spacing, the less chance of weed pressure as the plants out-compete the weeds.
Once the garden is prepped, mulched, and planted, the countdown to bloom time is less than six weeks. With a few exceptions, growing on of flowers will be similar to vegetables. Monitor the plants regularly for pests. Remove any weeds that appear through the thick mulch. If any of the mulch has been disturbed and soil is showing, heap more in place from a nearby stock-pile. Since flower crops are in the soil for so long, they will need more fertility over a longer period—a perfect excuse for using organic fertilizers like manure, fish meal, or soymeal. Even so, a second feeding alongside the plant might be necessary. As stable organic matter gradually builds in the soil, fertility will not need to be spoon-fed. Foliar feeds encourage an environment for microbial communities that live on the surface of the plant. These “good bugs” help the plant fight fungal and bacterial infections, as well as infestations by uninvited insects.
Some of the taller varieties may need to be staked, depending on how strong the wind is. Tomato cages, bamboo stakes, old metal bed frames, rebar, t-posts, and twine can all be used in creative ways to create trellising and support systems for flowering plants. Sweet peas need something to grow on, and nasturtiums can be trained to climb. Cosmos can topple without support in the strong wind of a summer thunderstorm.
Like vegetables, the flowers need one inch of water per week, either via rainfall or irrigation. When rain is scarce, a soaker hose placed under the mulch can be turned on to provide the necessary hydration. Avoid overhead watering with sprinklers. As with vegetables, infrequent deep watering is better than daily light watering.
Before long, each variety will start sending up flower buds. Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators will arrive to gather nectar and pollen. This is plant sex, and it is incredible to invite such shameless revelry into our cultivated space. But do not get too carried away. Seed production is the goal of flowering plants, and once that is achieved, flowering will ebb and vigor will decline. If the blooms are not continually cut, the plant will assume its job is done and stop flowering.
Some varieties, like zinnias or snapdragons are easier to keep up with, but calendula and nasturtium will likely blossom many more flowers than wanted. These seed-producing flowers need to be cut and simply left on the ground, a job called dead-heading. Let the chore of dead-heading be an excuse to harvest flowers boldly. Harvest the annual flowers on the dozen favorites list when they are open and do not be afraid to cut low down on the plant, sacrificing a few buds for a nice usable stem. To harvest properly, every few days carry clippers out to the garden. Bring a bucket of fresh, cool water along. Move through the rows, systematically addressing each plant. Remove any injured, unusable, or spent blooms. As the season progresses, stems will get longer, but even in the early summer, cut boldly. More flowers will come if the plant thinks it still needs to produce seed. Once cut, strip off the foliage from the stem, leaving just the last two whorls of leaves at the top near the bloom. Everything under water in the bucket should be leafless. When finished, the garden should only have the smallest hint of color from the blooms that are just starting to open.
That bucket full of blooms is the gift to be brought inside. Mix these pops of color with herbs, foliage, branches, grasses, and any interesting pods foraged from the yard. This is the time to experiment with design. In Maine, we only lock our car doors in August when we might otherwise find the passenger seat filled with produce (specifically huge zucchinis) from the neighbor’s garden. We have yet to scare anyone away with the gift of flowers.
END OF SEASON
Once the fall frost has killed most of the flowers, cut all the plant material down to the ground. Leave the roots in the ground and the mulch on the beds to help prevent erosion over the winter and during the spring thaw period when rains can wash exposed soil away. This is the time to jot down a few notes about what did well and what would be worth planting again.
Once the first cutting garden season has passed, the desire to branch out and grow some more challenging plants will emerge. A natural curiosity and sense of gardening adventure will draw the intrepid gardener onward. The desire for another shape, another color, another bloom in an arrangement will stoke the habit. Far from being a superfluous fancy, flowers quickly become a mainstay of the garden. As the gardener matures, he plants less cucumber and less cabbage, but the flowers remain, a sign of distinction; a calling card of his love for plants.
There are a multitude of perennials you can add to your cutting garden for unparalleled blooms. Peonies, garden roses, perennial phlox, echinacea, clematis, and bee balm are all favorites. Perennials are a more substantial investment in time and money. As a plant, they need more time to mature before they start producing a usable crop. Investment always requires stability and awareness of your living space. As gardening becomes an annual ritual, perennial beds will fill in spaces around your main garden. The financial investment is well worth it. Most perennials don’t produce blooms all summer long like some annuals. Normally, they have a bloom window. They can be difficult to start from seed so most gardeners either collect divisions of perennials from other growers or purchase plant stock from a reputable supplier.
GERMINATING SWEET PEAS
Soak the sweet peas seeds for twenty-four hours. Rinse the soaked seed. Using a cookie sheet spread with a few layers of wet newspaper, pour the soaked seed out onto the wet paper. Cover and keep dark and cool (around 60ºF). Check moisture daily and once seeds germinate, pot on into soil.
A Dozen Annuals To Get You Started
Cosmos bipinnatus: Double Click Mix
Zinnia: Benary’s Giant, Persian Carpet
Ammi: Green Mist
Snapdragons: Rocket Mix
Digitalis: Camelot Mix
Gomphrena: Qis Mix, Strawberry Fields
Nasturtiums: Peach Melba, Jewel Mix
Sweet Peas: Mammoth Choice Mix
Rudbeckia: Prairie Sun, Goldilocks
Scabiosa stellata & Scabiosa atropurpurea
(Download and print our illustrated (by Phoebe Wahl) Planting Guide.)