weird plants

How an unlikely plant saved Denmark’s farms.


If you were trying to grow something in Denmark in the 1700s, you were in for a host of problems. Your field was prone to flooding, your yields decreased every year and you might wake up one day to find that your field is covered in a foot of sand.

By the 1850s, though, Denmark was a different story. It was a breadbasket and dairy for all of Europe, with rich and productive fields. I came across this reference in a book on Danish cooking and wondered how they had turned around the country in such short time. I was able to find a great book on Danish ecological history on Google Books and learn the answers.

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Almanac: Forcing Dandelions and Fighting Illness


Awhile back, I dug up some dandelion roots to grow indoors. This may sound like the first time ever that someone has intentionally grown them, but the Italians and French have a long history of cultivating them and gathering them wild. I’d read a note in an Eliot Coleman book about certain varieties of dandelions that you can force (that is, grow indoors from roots) and I wanted to try. I had this dream of going to the basement to harvest gourmet leaves in the dead of winter. What a bonus that I could use weeds from the garden along the way.

Well, five weeks later and the experiment was largely a failure. The leaves were crisp and slightly bitter but they were not leafy enough to make a worthwhile garnish, much less a salad. I reckon this could be better if one had about fifty roots, but I am not that desperate for dandelion greens in the winter. That said, I’ll still be foraging them up in the early spring. They go great with wood violet leaves for an extra-early wild health tonic.

Speaking of health tonics, I have a runny nose right now. I’m treating it with my entirely-ineffective home remedy of hot beef stock with miso, lemon juice, ginger, pepper and shiitake mushrooms. I boil it up and then strain it and sip it like a tea. It probably does nothing to help me recover faster, no matter the myths I tell myself about vitamin C and the anti-nausea power of ginger. It DOES get me to drink more water, though. That (plus pharmacy-grade pseudoephedrine) should knock this out in no time. I’ve still got work to do.

Almanac: Artichokes, Compost, and Caterpillars

inside the frame

Time for another brief recap of my activities in the Almanac. Things are starting to green up already!

  • I am growing artichokes this year. The height of ambition and folly, but a fun project. I am growing an improved variety of Imperial Star, which allegedly will grow ‘chokes in the first year. They traditionally need two summers to grow, so what do we do? Fool them. The plan is to grow them for 4 weeks, then plunge them into 40 degree temperatures for ten days. The plants think they have gone through winter and get reprogrammed for their second season artichokes. Counting back on the calendar, that means that I’ve already started my seeds so that they get winterized in time.
  • I got to really get into the cold frame today. The picture above depicts the chicory plants I’m growing. The green dandelion ones are puntarelle. I noticed, alarmingly, that most plants were actually three to five plants growing right on top of each other! I blame my overzealous seed planting in the fall. I dug up the plants and gently separated them out, but we’ll see if I ended up killing them instead. Plants really don’t like getting their root systems messed up. On the other hand, this will give a lot more space for each plant to grow.
  • I moved the compost pile cage so I could start a new pile. I tossed the half-composted stuff in it to give it a good start. Part of the pile includes a couple dozen oyster shells, which I have a feeling I’m gonna be seeing for years. They’ll eventually break down and add calcium to the soil (I hope). The end result of a year of composting? Only this much black gold:
    Compost finish smushed

    Kind of disappointing to have only a cubic foot. My guess it that I probably could have bulked it out a lot more with brown, dry materials. This was mostly kitchen scraps, meaning high-nitrogen compost. At least that’s plant matter that didn’t end up in a landfill.
  • I am trying a new hoop house technique to protect seedlings. I twisted #12ga wire into hoops and I’m using insect-proof garden fabric on top. Often, it’s not the cold that kills seedlings. It’s the wind, the weight of snow, the temperature swings. Covering plants will allow them to live a stress-free life. I am working on how to best secure the fabric with the nylon string you see here.You may be wondering about the “Caterpillars” in the title. These hoops are called chenilles in French; that means “caterpillar,” an analogy to the appearance of those long white tunnels.

    It’s going to end up being planted with fava beans and sugar snap peas, most likely.

Alamanac: the week of January 1

Each Friday, I’m aiming to write a smaller post on a variety of things that I’ve thought about over the week. I’m calling it my “Almanac,” a fitting reference to both Writer’s Almanac and Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.

  • The cold frame is protecting the puntarelle, raddichio tardivo di treviso and quarantina broccoli that I’m growing… problem is, I think I planted them all too late and they’ve gone dormant before they could produce tasty winter greens. The puntarelle makes bulbous stems to eat, the raddichio makes ivory-colored leaf stems and the broccoli… you know what that is. Luckily, the first two plants are members of the chicory family, which means they’re perennial. They’ll still be alive in the spring and I’m hoping I’ll get to enjoy them as a very early Spring treat.
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Twelve things you can do for your garden this winter.

seed catalogsWinter blankets our gardens, covering our work in frost. The beds are tucked in; garlic and tulip bulbs alike sleep in the soil until spring. A gardener might think they must put their hobby to rest (and might even be grateful to!). When you’re getting restless in the late months, here are twelve great things that you can do to stay busy. The big payoff in gardening is that we get to see our successes; this list has more things with definite results. Keep reading to see what to do… Read the rest of this post…

Innoculating Apple tree roots with Porcini

mushroom pre blend


You don’t need to talk to me for long to know how much I like mushrooms. I grew them on the kitchen counter recently and I am always looking for more ways to get choice gourmet mushrooms on the cheap. Problem is, most of the really good mushrooms only grow in conjunction with tree roots. Good thing, though, because I just planted my micro-orchard of apple trees. Read on to see how I stacked the deck to get a chance at porcini…

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Busted Hands, Plenty of Updates

Hey! It’s been a little while since I updated, but I’ve got a lot going on. I ended up falling while stupidly trying to stomp on a box and sprained my left wrist, so I’ve been hobbled in the yard a bit. No matter; plenty is afoot!

  • I put sugar snap peas and favas in the garden because they love this cool weather. The peas are climbers so I’ll be building a collapsible portable trellis and sharing that with you.
  • My cider apple trees arrived and I planted them one-handed. There’s so much that goes into planting them – they’ll be there for thirty years – that I almost felt overwhelmed with decisions. I fell back on my mantra – perfection is the enemy of a planted garden. They’re in the yard and waiting to be written about.
  • I innoculated the root, us of one of the trees with something special, but you’ll have to wait to read about that…
  • I planted twenty asparagus crowns in the yard today, using my new tiller to open up a spot in the front yard and work in compost. I’ve had a decade-long dream of growing asparagus and from high school to college to law school, I never had the time to wait three years for a crop. This is big for me.
  • I’ve got San Marzano tomatoes and shishito peppers planted in pots and sitting in the cold frame. Why start there? The seeds like a temperature over 70 degrees and the cold frame keeps them warm enough so that they’ll germinate, even in April.

Quick Meal: White Bean Soup with Spring Greens

mizuna closeup

Thanks to my cold frame, I’ve already got a bumper crop of spring greens. The mizuna is going wild in our recent warm and sunny weather, so it was time to trim it out and make something with it. Mizuna is a Japanese green, very delicate with a peppery bite. It’s milder than arugula and at this phase, so tender. It helps that it grows in a wind- and rain-free paradise in that cold frame. Read the rest of this post…

An Introduction to Cold Frames


15 degrees out and four inches of snow on the ground!

15 degrees out and four inches of snow on the ground!

It’s the dead of winter, but it’s a sunny day. If you park your car in the sun, it’ll be warm inside – even though it’s freezing outside.

What if you could grow plants in there? They’d have warmth, shelter from snow and wind. They’d keep their moisture and not dry out.

With a cold frame, you can do exactly that. A cold frame is a wooden box that you put on top of soil, about a foot high. It’s got plastic or glass panes on the top to let the light in. Here’s mine in the dead of winter:

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