Freezer foraging and taste testing

By Tom Seymour | Jan 03, 2019
Use these items to plan for next season's garden.

Our gardens have long ago stopped producing. Even the wild, foraged foods that many of us enjoy are out of reach now. So until sometime next year, we must forage in our freezers, harvesting whatever we put up the previous season.

Freezer foraging works fine up to a point. Unless we have some sort of indoor growing system in place, things such as lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach must come from the store. But in winter in Maine, the term “fresh” for any vegetable is at best, a euphemism. This explains why in spring, most of us can barely wait to get outside and pick something fresh. Anything will do, from the spindly dandelions of early spring to early season lettuce and radishes.

We have no control over what kind of produce, good or bad, our local grocer stocks. But we do have control over what we put in our freezers and what we put up by pressure canning.

To that end, it’s time to consider the worth of everything we grew last year. This is where garden records come in handy. But even without written records, we can piece together a compendium of what we ordered last season and from that, memory can fill in the gaps.

Armchair Gardening

Yes, the “armchair gardening” season has begun. With seed catalogues landing in our mailboxes on a near-daily basis, we can peruse at our leisure and after satisfying ourselves that we have given everything due consideration, can begin to frame our order for the coming season.

My habit of putting a check mark next to seeds or plants that I wish to order makes it easy later when the time comes to fill out the order form and post it. These marked-up catalogues have a dual purpose because now, in January, it becomes a simple job to go back, find the checked items and read the write-ups. This stimulates the memory and makes it easy to go back in time and recall salient points regarding each plant.

For me, this exercise takes me back to the early days of summer when the garden magically makes the transformation from just pretty beds to my own, personal grocery store. From that point on, all my vegetables come from either the garden or from the woods and fields where I forage for wild edibles.

2018 Results

So now, with the memory of taste and texture of my favorite veggies in mind, I can share with readers my thoughts on what did and didn’t perform well last season. Let’s begin.

First, I was greatly impressed with Warrior bunching onion. If the term “bunching onions” sounds unfamiliar, just think scallions. Bunching onions have hollow, edible stems, similar to chives, and a white, onion-like swelling at the bottom. These never develop into bulb-type onions, however. But for fresh eating in salads and in cooking, chopped bunching onions rank as a must-have plant for any gardener.

Better yet, these are easy to grow from seed. I start my bunching onions inside in a rectangular peat pot and sow hundreds of seeds. Later in spring, when the time comes for planting out, just pull the little shoots apart and separate them before planting. And if you don’t have much space for an extra row or two of bunching onions, just mix them in with other plants wherever you have extra space and they’ll do just fine.

You’ll begin harvesting bunching onions in about 30 days from setting outside. These grow well all summer and were among the last plants I harvested this past fall. Frost didn’t bother them at all. The taste and texture of Warrior bunching onions were superb and I’ll surely plant them again and can recommend them to anyone. Warrior bunching onions won the 2016 All American Selection award.

Next, come beets. In years past I always grew Detroit beets, an heirloom variety that debuted in 1892. Detroits have dark red flesh and rank among the sweetest of beets. Somehow, perhaps because Detroit beets “bleed” red juice so freely when cut, I began searching for a less sanguine substitute. None have lived up to expectations. Last year’s selection, Red Cloud, was fairly sweet and didn’t bleed too badly, but still didn’t equal Detroit beets in sweetness. So from now on I’ll stick to my first love, Detroit beets. They simply are the best, in my opinion.

Green beans come next in my New Year’s lineup. Last year I planted Calima French beans. French beans run much thinner than standard bush beans and have a fairly delicate flavor. I enjoyed eating these fresh and froze and canned a good amount as well. My only negative comment is that they don’t produce over a very long period.

Standard bush beans, Strike, for instance, produce well and for an extended period. The trick is to keep them picked and they will keep on producing. Calima didn’t work out well in that regard. I can recommend them, but with the caveat that they will play out sooner than we might wish.

My choice for the coming season is a variety called “Strike.” These standard bush beans have excellent flavor and keep producing throughout the summer. What more could anyone wish from a green bean?

Next, Jersey Wakefield cabbage, an heirloom variety shaped like an upside-down ice cream cone, did well. It had excellent, sweet flavor and was quite dense. My one problem last season was that slugs managed to infiltrate my cabbage patch and destroyed many cabbages. But that wasn’t the fault of the cabbage. This year I plan on putting black plastic over all my beds. To plant seeds or set seedlings, just cut holes in the plastic in the appropriate places. The plastic will stop slugs in their tracks and my cabbage plants should grow well, sans slug problems.

Speaking of slug problems, I plan on adding many more containers to my garden. As long as these are held above the ground, slugs will have difficulty reaching the plants. But that’s a story for a future column.

Summer squash rate as one of my perennial favorites. I grow both zucchini and yellow summer squash. As per yellow squash, my choice never varies. Straightneck varieties are always my first choice and my favorite, Early Prolific Straightneck, stands as my favorite. These native American heirlooms begin producing early and keep on doing so all season. While these can be prepared in any of the usual manners, my favorite method is to cut into rounds, roll in flour, sprinkle with garlic powder and red pepper flakes and pan-fry.

Zucchinis, though, never perform as well for me as the yellow summer squash, although they are both planted in identical conditions. Most everyone always has a surfeit of zucchinis, but I only get enough to eat a few times per week. Nonetheless, I have toyed with scads of zuke varieties and finally, can name one that produces well, but also has a fine taste and best of all, the cylindrical fruits have tender skins. These are Raven zucchinis and I’ll plant them again this summer and can freely recommend them to everyone.

While I didn’t plant winter squash this last season, I plan to this coming year. So here’s a little something about winter squash. Catalogues abound in winter, or “keeper” squash varieties. But with so many to choose from, it’s difficult to select a variety to settle upon. And while taste is subjective, I will give my take on summer squash.

For me, the sweeter the better concept makes my decision easy. Old-fashioned buttercup squash has the best taste, hands-down. Some folks prefer butternut squash, but these aren’t as sweet as buttercup. The buttercup squash we mostly plant today are “Burgess Buttercup,” an heirloom variety dating back to 1932. Heirloom varieties come true from seed, so I like to save seeds from my sweetest squash for planting next year. Of course when starting out, it is necessary to buy seeds. Fortunately, almost everyone carries these venerable treasures.

I know the difference between “buttercup” and “butternut” can be confusing. Just remember that buttercup squash have a thin, tan-colored skin and are banjo-shaped. Butternut squash are rounded and have a buttoned turban on the bottom.

Carrots have always intrigued me, since like winter squash, there are so many varieties to choose from. Choice of variety depends upon a number of factors, not the least of which is soil depth. Long, tapered varieties will become deformed in garden beds that are somewhat shallow. My beds, for instance, are the result of years of building up soil atop a hard, clay base. This limits my carrot choices to the thicker, stubbier types.

For that, last year I chose Red Cored Chantenay, and wasn’t disappointed. These had a fine, sweet flavor and grew quite big around. A thick carrot makes peeling easier and also, you get more product from each carrot. Red Cored Chantenays are heirlooms, dating back to 1930 when Ferry Morse introduced them. I would recommend Red Cored Chantenay carrots to anyone, no matter how deep or thin their soil.

I’ll end with lettuce. Somehow, despite my love of salads, I never seem to plant enough lettuce. There are probably more lettuce varieties out there than any other vegetable and of that, choosing a favorite variety becomes extremely difficult. But why settle for one lettuce variety anyway? For a balanced salad, try growing two or three different types.

Over the last few years I have planted Oakleaf lettuce, an ancient, loose-leaf variety. Along with this, come another heirloom, Tennis Ball lettuce. Tennis ball forms compact heads meant to be picked all at once. These two give me a good variety.

But last year I sampled a thick-leaf, Romaine lettuce called “Freckles.” This had fleshy leaves and the flavor was simply fantastic. Freckles is a loose head-type lettuce and like Tennis Ball, is meant to be harvested intact. If you have any desire to experiment with the various lettuces, I suggest that you give Freckles a try.

Tom’s Tips

Do you have a back deck? Then consider turning it into a garden spot. With containers, your deck can become a green oasis. And even if your deck doesn’t get adequate sunlight to successfully grow heat-loving crops such as tomatoes, there are countless other varieties that thrive in semi-shade.

And for your deck railing, try planting an ornamental climber such as morning glory or clematis. If you do this it’s guaranteed that you will spend much more time out on the deck this summer.

 

Tom Seymour of Waldo is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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