2021 has been a great year of progress in the kitchen garden. As the seed orders find their way to us via U.S. Postal Service, some reflection on the positives seems in order.
This has been one of the best years for apples. In our yard the three legacy trees bore abundantly and we used them for everything we needed. At the orchard (by this I mean Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, where I worked from 2013 until 2019) there was an abundant crop to supplement the two varieties that yielded here. The pantry is loaded with everything we need in terms of processed apples. We should have enough apple butter, applesauce, dried apples and cider vinegar to last two years until the next big crop. If our trees bear next year, that will be a bonus.
We had enough to take what we needed, let our neighbors pick some, and plenty for the deer once we harvested the best ones. The combination between our trees and a nearby commercial orchard meant we didn’t have to buy a single apple from the grocery store.
Each garden year begins with a couple dozen quart jars of vegetable broth. As I grow a diverse number of greens, I switch which ones dominate. Turnip greens have produced a consistently tasty broth, yet they all are good. We use this broth to cook rice, in soups, and as an alternative to using oil when frying vegetables for some dishes.
It took a few years but the integration of Guajillo Chilies into our cooking is complete. The main product is a cooked and preserved pepper combined with garlic, salt and apple cider vinegar in a food processor. Once the fresh chilies are gone, this becomes the main way I use chilies in cooking. I tried the technique with jalapeno peppers and while a little hotter, it also serves for our culinary needs.
When growing up, Mom’s cooking was pretty “American.” That is, outside the occasional Polish-style ravioli brought home from visits to LaSalle, Illinois, Polish heritage cooking was absent. That was also true of memories of my maternal Grandmother who often found paid work as a cook in settings where American cooking prevailed. It was discovery of the cook book Treasured Polish Recipes for Americans by the Polanie Club that enabled me to come to terms with my heritage.
Based on studies of the soup chapter, I developed a consistent soup recipe that uses vegetables grown in our garden. The ingredients in the book were the same as what I have been growing for years. The main characteristics of the soups are they are thickened with barley, I add lentils as a source of protein, and use onions, celery, broccoli stem, parsley, grated zucchini and other frozen vegetables from the growing season. I use whatever greens are in season, and frozen kale if they are not. I also add potatoes, turnips, and whatever root vegetables are on hand. Settling on a soup recipe has been a long time coming.
Sweet Bell Peppers
After years of experimentation I finally produced enough bell peppers to eat raw, use in cooking, and preserve in the freezer. This was a watershed year.
I grew the largest number of tomato plants ever and had plenty to eat fresh, can, freeze, and give away. The main successes were:
- Developing a method to extract moisture and freeze the pulp into small servings using a cupcake pan was a breakthrough. The idea is to use a couple of tomato “buttons” to make pizza sauce for our weekly, home made pizza. I use them in everything to add a small amount of tomato sauce when needed.
- I learned to grow enough Roma tomatoes so I can use them to can whole. I’m still working off a backlog of preserved tomatoes, but the system is in place for growing to match canning needs. Romas are the best to can whole.
- Our local food bank welcomed my extra tomatoes. My weekly seasonal donations took the pressure off of using tomatoes in a timely manner.
- I grew a wider variety of tomatoes this season, maybe 25-30 varieties. The benefit was I discovered some new favorites and we had tomatoes for every dish throughout the season.
- I can extra liquid from tomatoes if I don’t use it fresh. I try to use everything and the canned liquid goes into soups.
- I planted earlier than my peers in the local food movement and because of that, I had tomatoes earlier than they did. I risked frost only once or twice and using old bed sheets to cover the plants, was able to make it through without damage.
Squash, eggplant and cucumbers
I’m pleased with the way the squash came out. There was plenty of zucchini, and pumpkins and acorn squash produced beautiful fruit that tasted good. A little goes a long way with zucchini and I grew and preserved enough for soup all winter. I also froze cooked pumpkin flesh in one cup sized buttons to use in pumpkin bread.
A little eggplant goes a long way for us. I had six or seven varieties of seeds and planted some of each. I’m looking for enough to make one or two eggplant Parmesans and roasted rounds for the freezer. I had plenty this year.
The cucumber crop wasn’t as big as we’d like although it produced enough for plenty of canned sweet pickles to last us until next year. I’m on the way to striking a balance of varieties to meet our needs and this will be an ongoing experiment.
The garlic crop was the biggest yet with large heads, about 75 of them. The disease that was prevalent last year was absent this year. That’s because I was particularly diligent to pick clean cloves for seed. The main uses are fresh in cooking and in the prepared chili sauces mentioned above. I still harvest enough green garlic from the volunteer patch I planted decades ago.
There was a new celery seed this year and it produced a better crop. We eat celery fresh in season and use it in cooking. The extra gets sliced in soup style and stir fry style and we produced a lot of it this year. We’ll be eating it all winter.
I set aside a plot for cooking greens and the concept proved to be useful. We had greens for the entire season. The main change was cutting back the number of kale plants and planting chard , collards and mustard as alternatives. I also grew several kinds of cruciferous vegetables like kohlrabi and bok choy. I plan to further develop this concept.
I grew seven varieties of onions and shallots and would term it a success. It is the second year of having a big crop and the quality was quite good. I used a mixture of plants I started from seed and starts from the seed store. The starts from the seed store, along with the shallots, did the best. The challenge is picking storage varieties and then using the shorter storing onions first. This all worked out in 2021.
I successfully grew parsley for the first time. There was plenty of it to use fresh and I used the cupcake pan method to freeze some in water to add to soups during winter. I also had plenty of chives, savory, rosemary and basil. I froze many parsley stems for use in winter cooking. I feel more confident after this season and will likely expand my herb growing next season.
I bartered for some row cover and used it to grow an eight foot row of lettuce and herbs. It made a huge difference. It enabled succession planting in a way I hadn’t had before. More planning is in order for 2022 to make row covered vegetables a bigger part of the garden.