Book review: Countertop Gardens by Shelley Levis.

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Countertop Gardens: Easily Grow Kitchen Edibles Indoors for Year-Round Enjoyment – Shelley Levis (2018, Cool Springs Press, Quarto Publishing Group USA, Minnesota)

If you’ve been following Flowery Prose for a while, you’ll know that we have teeth-chatteringly, bone-chillingly long winters here in Alberta.  Six months isn’t an overstatement, and it can stretch even further than that on occasion.  Accordingly, our growing season is short (and often brutal).  Planting outdoors is a challenge…one that we never back down from but occasionally must grin and bear.  Given the vagaries of gardening in our climate, growing edible plants indoors is a very tempting option.  Yet…growing plants indoors isn’t foolproof – there are so many factors to consider, such as heat, humidity, light, and space.

Fortunately, Shelley Levis has come to the rescue for situations like this with Countertop Gardens! This indoor gardening manual is chockful of inspiration and ideas for turning your indoor living spaces into miniature edible gardens.  From microgreens to herb gardens to simple hydroponic systems, it’s all here.  And there are some surprises, as well: have you ever considered growing mushrooms, potatoes, gingerroot, or tomatoes in your kitchen?  Try them all using Levis’ tips!  She also examines some of the most popular grow-light countertop garden kits available on the market today and discusses ways to maximize their use – practical information whether you’re thinking of buying one or already own one.

Countertop Gardens is a fantastic starting point for anyone wanting to grow fresh food indoors all year ‘round – definitely a recommended read!

*The Quarto Group generously provided me with a review copy of Countertop Gardens. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Nothing but blue sky.

Happy Monday!  I can’t believe it’s already the 20th of January…the first month of 2014 is flying by!  My hubby and I managed to get out and soak up some sunshine on Friday afternoon at the Cross Conservation Area, just south of the city limits (you’ll remember me writing about previous walks in January of last year and again in September).  We really regretted that we hadn’t brought our snowshoes, as the crusty deep snow was a bit of a slog with boots on.  Last year when we went around this time, the informal pathways were more defined, with less accumulated snow.  Oh well, the extra exercise was definitely good for me – I think I’m still packing around all that holiday baking!  😉

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All this sun and the steadily increasing daylight hours are definitely putting me into a gardening frame of mind…I placed a couple of orders for various herb seeds last week, and all the important dates (meetings, bed clean-up, maintenance days) for the community garden are now inked onto my calendar.  I just harvested some fenugreek microgreens (YUM!) and I’ll put up some basil this week – I haven’t grown as many MG this winter as I usually do and I miss them.  It’s nearly time to start the ground cherries, too…maybe this is the year I will finally have success with them.

Enjoy your week!  What projects (gardening or otherwise) do you have lined up for the next little while? 

(If you want to read a bit about the history of the Cross Conservation Area, I’ve written a post about it here).

Recipe: Corn Shoot Smoothie.

What is your favourite quick breakfast?

I always say I’m going to bake a whole bunch of muffins to grab and go, but either the muffins don’t get baked, or they don’t make it to breakfast.  😉  I like granola and muesli but I can’t eat commercial brands due to my allergies…and for some reason, I never get around to whipping up a nut-free batch.  This is where fruit smoothies come in…and in particular, smoothies with added shoots and leaves.

My current favourites are smoothies containing corn shoots.  I’ve been growing batches of corn shoots on the windowsill, in full sunlight, as well as in the darkness of the closet (not sure if my hubby enjoys having corn growing on the floor below his freshly washed and hung shirts, but hey! he ought to be used to my weird experiments by now).  The blanched corn shoots are definitely sweeter in taste, but I must admit I almost prefer the “grassier” notes of the shoots grown in sunlight.  Either way, they are absolutely stellar in smoothies!

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Blanched

Here’s the recipe if you want to give them a try:

Corn Shoot Smoothie

1 frozen banana, roughly chopped

1 handful corn shoots, thoroughly washed

2 oranges (I like Cara Caras), peeled, seeded and roughly chopped

1 cup plain yogourt

Throw everything into a food processor and pulse until thoroughly blended.

This recipe can have a ton of add-ins and substitutions – the sky’s the limit!  If you don’t like (or grow) corn shoots, try sunflower shoots…or kale…or spinach.  If you wish to go dairy-free, use almond or cashew milk.  If you want a thicker smoothie, use Greek yogourt instead of regular.  If you’re substituting a less sweet green such as kale or spinach, you can add a bit of honey, agave syrup, or maple syrup.  I’m going to put in some coconut next time I make this – I haven’t seen fresh coconut in the grocery stores here just yet, but I think some finely shredded unsweetened baking coconut would give the whole thing a pina colada type of vibe.

Mmmm…pina coladas….

 Do you like breakfast smoothies?  What greens – if any – do you put in your smoothies?

Sprouting fenugreek.

Do you grow your own sprouts?

If I’m not sprouting some kind of seed or another, I’ve usually got a batch or two of microgreens on the go. I don’t have the space to go all out, so the amounts I’m growing are tiny – enough for a couple of sandwiches, perhaps, or to throw into a stir fry at the very end of cooking. I’m constantly resowing and trying new types of crops – it’s like year ’round seed trials on a miniature scale.

I’ve sprouted fenugreek seeds several times before, but I haven’t had a chance to write about them until now (partly because I keep eating them before photographing them – oops!). These guys are super-easy to sprout and pack a spicy-sweet punch that is perfect for so many dishes.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum, called “methi” in India) is a plant of Mediterranean origin, and is widely grown throughout Asia and Europe. It’s a common staple of Indian cooking, where the fresh or dried leaves and the whole seeds are used in a wide range of dishes. A member of the Fabaceae family, this annual reaches about 60 cm tall and prefers to be grown in fertile, slightly acidic soil. Apparently you have to sow fenugreek directly into the ground or containers, as plants do not like to be transplanted. It seems that many people opt to sprout the seeds or grow them as microgreens, as I do.

If you’ve never sprouted seeds before, there are some great resources online: try the information on this website for the Canadian company Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds. I’ve tried both the tray method and the jar method (and had more success with the latter with most crops), but really, the most important things to remember with sprouting is to always use organic, untreated seed, always rinse seeds with filtered water, and ensure your jars, trays, etc. are spotlessly clean. And, eat your sprouts as soon as possible! Most can only be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days.

(Speaking of eating, fenugreek sprouts are marvellous as an addition to Sweet Potato and Chickpea Hummus…and if you want the recipe for that, please check out my blog post for Grit.com.  YUM!).  🙂

Have you ever grown fenugreek (as a sprout or otherwise)?  What types of sprouts are your favourites to grow? 

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Super soilless seedling sowing.

Are you attending a Seedy Saturday this month?  Have you started any seedlings yet?  If you’re thinking about sowing seeds indoors this spring, then you’ve given some consideration to what type of seed starting medium you’re going to use.

I’ve been growing a lot of different microgreens lately and while I usually use a good quality commercial seed starting mix to sow my seeds in, I decided this week to make my own concoction of 1 part vermiculite, 1 part perlite, and 1 part coir.  There is no soil in this mix, which hopefully will reduce any instances of damping off – which actually hasn’t been a real problem so far, but I figure, why take chances?   Because I will be harvesting most of the greens right after they grow the cotyledons and two true leaves, I don’t need to worry too much about adding fertilizer (which is absent in my planting mix).

Peat moss may be substituted for coir in this mix, but as there are worldwide concerns about the sustainability of harvesting peat, I’m trying to get away from using it as much as possible.  Of course,  although coir is a very workable medium, it may not be the best alternative as far as carbon footprints are concerned – but at the moment, I haven’t been able to source out anything else.  (In their fantastic book No Guff Vegetable Gardening, Donna Balzer and Steven Biggs suggest that a ground bark-peat mix may be a viable option, but so far the only bark I’m seeing in garden centres here is for the purposes of mulching.  If anyone knows of a brand or a source, please give a shout out!).

I’m also contemplating growing my microgreens in lightweight expanded clay aggregate (LECA), which is often used in hydroponic systems.  I think it would be worth it to try some larger seeds in clay and see how they fare.   I’m also interested in growing seedlings in pumice, but that’s a project for a later date (and when I can actually find some horticultural grade pumice!).  I believe that orchid growers occasionally use pumice as a medium, although I think bark is more common.   As I haven’t yet killed the Phalaenopsis orchid my nephew gave me at Christmas (I know, I can’t believe it, either), I will eventually need something to transplant it into as well.

As an aside, while I was searching the ‘net for sources of pumice here in Calgary, I came across a few different bonsai grower forums in which they discuss the merits of growing their beautiful miniature trees in oil dry.  That’s right – you know the stuff you use to mop up the spills in the garage after you’ve performed an oil change on your car?  Yeah, that stuff.  I’m not sure you’d want to grow edibles in it, though…. 😉

Merry Christmas!

Feeling a bit worn out by the hustle and bustle of the holiday season?  Try these easy, fast, yet oh-so-soothing plant therapies:

  • Enjoy the heavenly scent of an evergreen (if you can’t get out into the woods, go to your nearest Christmas tree lot).  I mean, really enjoy the smell – take a few deep breaths and remember Christmases past or hikes in the mountains or whatever wonderful memory the fragrance evokes.
  • Grow some paperwhites on your windowsill – they’ll flower in the gloom and snow of January and make you feel hopeful for spring.  Or, scoop up some of those amaryllis bulbs at the stores – they’re now on huge discount because they have no hope of blooming by Christmas, but you can enjoy their dazzling colour and beauty when they won’t be eclipsed by all the other decorations.   You might be able to find some narcissus and hyacinth bulbs for forcing – give them a shot as well.
  • Enjoy your houseplants: take a few extra, quiet minutes to water them, deadhead and prune them where necessary…you’ll find that caring for them without hurry will make you feel really happy (not to mention, the plants will love you for it!).
  •  Grow your own food:  sow a few microgreen seeds in a small, shallow dish in your kitchen window.  Green kale, for example, only takes about five days from seeding to harvesting, and a handful of  fresh, healthy greens that you grew yourself is a small gift to your palate (and a nutritious break from all those holiday cookies and eggnog!).

    Green kale microgreens

Have a blissful, peaceful holiday season and enjoy the time spent with your family and friends!   Merry Christmas from Flowery Prose!

Mmmmm is for “microgreens.”

Okay, I freely confess it, I’m a bandwagon jumper.  At least in this case, anyway.  The Spring 2011 issue of Enjoy Gardening magazine has made me want to grow microgreens…yes, I’m talking about that trendy new craze in salads.  But I don’t think it’s a fad, actually:  there’s definitely something to this when you consider that the cost of vegetables is climbing through the roof, and on top of that you really never know what kind of chemicals or other unsavoury elements food plants have been exposed to unless you grow them yourself.  And who doesn’t crave the exciting, fresh flavours of home-grown veggies?  Factor in the apparent simplicity and speed of microgreen growing and harvesting, and the fact that you can do it indoors at any time of the year and I’m completely sold on this whole idea.

So, what exactly are microgreens?  They’re not sprouts, actually – sprouts are grown in water, and they’re usually harvested before they’re permitted to grow a set of true leaves.   And microgreens are not the same as “baby greens” – baby greens are more mature when harvested and possess several sets of young leaves.  Those fancy mesclun mixes you buy in the grocery store are considered baby greens.  Microgreens are grown in a sterile soilless potting mix (or, often, vermiculite) and are harvested just as soon as they form a set or two of true leaves (botanically called cotyledons).  Depending on the type of microgreen you’ve planted, it can take just two weeks from sowing to the dinner plate – an enticing turnaround!

Planting microgreens seems like a breeze, although I must admit it will be difficult to choose exactly which plant varieties I will want to seed first.  (Thankfully premixed microgreen seed blends are available to make things easier if I so desire).  You can plant nearly anything:  lettuces, cabbages, chard, celery, radishes, kohlrabi, arugula, kale, turnips, parsley, basil, watercress, peas, endives, mustards, beets…well, you get the picture.  Bear in mind, of course, that the flavour of these young plants will be far more intense than that of the mature versions – that might influence your decision on what to try.  And be sure to use untreated seed!  You can buy one of those special microgreen “planting mats” or just sow the seeds thickly in a cheap seedling starter tray (make sure it has a plastic dome).  Thinly topdress with whatever soilless mixture you’ve selected to use and water the seeds in, careful not to unsettle them.  Maintain the plastic lid on the tray and periodically spritz the seeds with water.  Keep the entire project warm; direct sunlight isn’t necessary until the seeds actually sprout.  It seems that microgreens aren’t really susceptible to most of the diseases that plague other plants, due to the fact that they’re harvested so young, but I would imagine damping off is a distinct possibility so be very, very careful with your watering habits and make sure you maintain an even soil temperature.

And it’s that easy!  (I think).  Harvesting is as convenient as a quick green haircut with a pair of kitchen shears, and then you just reseed for your next crop.  Apparently all the rage in salads, microgreens are also great in stir fries and I’m thinking a ham and Swiss sandwich would be mightily enhanced with a handful of tender, peppery radish or mustard greens.   Mmmm….