The catalogs are arriving, and it's time to start thinking about the vegetable garden. While 2010 was a banner year for me, 2011 was problematic for many reasons. I made a new garden in my city yard. Too small! Too many trees casting shade and sucking up all the nutrients! And it rained and rained and rained in late summer, discouraging the tomatoes and diluting the flavor of many other things.
Nonetheless, I always take my broker's advice to diversify. Shake enough paper packets over the soil, and even in a crap year, you will get some thrills. Here are mine for 2011.
1. 'Afinia' cutting celery: I started this early in the basement, and shoehorned the plants into my new garden underneath the branches of a viburnum. With very little sun, it nonetheless thrived. Cutting celery, which looks like a pale parsley and lacks the thick stems of ordinary celery, adds an intense celery flavor to soups and stews. Borderline too intense! But I wound up being very grateful for this tough planet, which is also extremely hardy. I was harvesting leaves into December.
2. 'Paul Robeson' tomato: A terrible tomato year, and the main tragedy was that after getting a few 'Paul Robesons,' in late July–a big, blackish tomato with spectacular flavor–I got hardly any more.
3. 'Applegreen' eggplant: I'm a 'Rosa Bianca' lady, when I can get them to do their stuff in my cold climate, but last year, I took a chance on 'Applegreen.' A big, beautiful plant, with wonderful green softball-sized fruit. Like 'Rosa Bianca,' 'Applegreen' has a creamy, unbitter flavor. My feeling is that the paler eggplants are just tastier.
4. 'Marconi Rosso' pepper: I fall into the camp of those who do not consider green peppers an actual vegetable, but instead merely an unfortunate stage on the way to red peppers. Too bad for me. I live in a place where the peppers often don't redden up before frost. But this one formed a huge plant, full of sweet horn-shapped peppers that turned red early. Another shockingly good Seeds From Italy selection.
5. Chrysanthemum greens: Here in upstate New York, I grow increasingly desperate about the lack of decent Asian restaurants. Increasingly, I ineptly cook Asian myself. Last year was my first experience with this Japanese edible. Easy to grow in spring and fall, with a flavor in which you'll detect the scent of chrysanthemum flowers. Just harvest before they bloom.
6. Chard: I like the more delicate-tasting white-ribbed varieties offered by Seeds From Italy, but the star here is chard, any chard. Spinach-like vitamins, only unlike spinach, it doesn't bolt as the days get long. Forms a handsome plant from which you can keep harvesting the outer leaves all summer. Stands forever in the garden into winter, almost as long as the toughest brassicas. If only my kids liked it!
7. Direct-seeded okra: I love okra. All those slimy gumbos and bisques in my 30 year-old Paul Prudhomme Louisiana Kitchen cookbook! Love them! But okra never loved my country garden, which was always too chilly, I think, and maybe had heavier soil than the okra wanted. Now, however, I am gardening in balmy and sandy Saratoga Springs, NY–zone 5, thank you. After losing all my onions to cutworm last year, I looked around in desperation in early July for something to fill the spot and found nothing except a four year-old package of generic okra seeds. What the hey. Only three plants germinated. But they grew so huge and tall and beautiful, even started so late in the season, that this year, I'll spring for fresh seed and find room for a dozen plants. Okra, you know, is a relative of hollyhock, and almost as pretty.
That's it! Like I said, 2011 was not a great year for me. But in the vegetable garden, the glass is always half full, as long as you plant a variety of crops. Whether the same holds true for life in general–whether the key to happiness is putting one's eggs in many baskets–is a debate for another time.