Monday, April 25, 2011

Newbie in the Garden

One of the things I've done with some of the time I've bought is start a small vegetable and herb garden. I have never thought of myself as a particularly capable gardener. My herbs usually die. And the spot we have available right now for a vegetable garden is not optimal- it is on our south fence, and doesn't get much sun.

Between my conviction of my own gardening ineptitude and the overly shady plot available, I've always been able to talk myself out of starting a garden. But for some reason, a couple of months ago I just decided to plant some things. So I bought some herbs and some vegetable seeds. I always try to grow cilantro and basil, because those are the two herbs I'm always buying at the store, using a small portion of, and then letting go slimy in my fridge. I added some parsley and chives. For vegetables, I selected green onions (because the ones I buy at the store suffer the same fate as my cilantro), arugula (because I actually like it and it is stupidly expensive), and carrots (because... I don't know why. Probably because I saw some multi-colored carrot seeds and thought they looked fun).

Pumpkin and I planted everything one afternoon, and then we watered and weeded (OK, I weeded while the kids played in the backyard) and waited. An lo and behold, things grew. And grew. And grew.

We had a lot of rain this spring, interspersed with a lot of sun. My theory is that, combined with the fact that the dirt I planted in was heavily enriched from our compost pile, led to my unexpected success as a gardener. Suddenly, I had more arugula than I knew what to do with- because I am a complete newbie, and I made the classic newbie mistake of planting all at once, instead of staggering.

My cilantro grew to be a huge bush, and then did what my cilantro always does: it bolted.

I know from past experience that it is still edible.  But I also know from past experience that this plant will continue to bolt, and never settle back to be a nice bushy plant again. Oh well- I'll try again when this one stops being useful.

Meanwhile, the arugula is getting too old and bitter to be eaten in a salad, so I harvested a bunch and made pesto. I used an internet recipe as a starting point (yet another example of how my life is easier thanks to internet searching), but changed the proportions as follows:
  • 1 3/4 cup arugula
  • 1/4 cup parsley (because that plan is doing really well, too, and I thought it might mellow out the arugula a but)
  •  2/3 cup walnuts
  • 2/3 cup asiago cheese (I substituted asiago for parmesan because (1) I had it on hand and (2) I thought that the stronger cheese might balance my overly strong arugula- I think it did)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 6 unpeeled garlic cloves
  • 1 peeled and minced garlic clove
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper

(Isn't the messy counter top a nice, authentic touch?)

I browned the 6 unpeeled garlic cloves as instructed (i.e., for about ten minutes in a skillet over medium high heat), and then removed the skins. I toasted the walnuts and grated the cheese, then I blended everything up in the food processor.

 We ate about three tablespoons mixed with ~1/4 cup of pasta water over ~8 oz of pasta that night, and then I partitioned the remainder into an ice cube tray and froze it. I'll defrost a cube or two at a time to server over pasta or gnocchi for a quick weeknight meal- so I'm tagging this post with my "Dinner during Dora" tag, even though the initial pesto prep might take more than 20 minutes (but it might not, if you're speedy).

And then something really funny happened. I suddenly understood that Barbara Kingsolver book on food that I read when I was pregnant with Petunia. I still don't agree with everything in it, but I finally understand it. Back then, it annoyed me because it seemed that unreasonable to think that a busy, two career family like ours could find the time to grow any of our own food. But it isn't really- if you are lucky enough to live in a climate like San Diego's, it is actually pretty easy. Even a newbie can do it. And end up with a freezer full of arugula pesto.


  1. I'm pretty sure that's just the nature of cilantro--I don't think you're doing anything wrong. You can buy a variety called "slo-bolt" that won't bolt as soon, but even that just delays the inevitable. I've read that you're supposed to stagger the planting of it -- plant more seeds each week or every two weeks -- so that you always have some that's in good shape and has the fresher taste of a plant before bolting.

  2. Anonymous5:28 AM

    Cilantro pesto is awesome too! (We recently had a post on that...)

    The neat thing about Cilantro is that sure, it bolts, but next season you will end up with wild cilantro growing up here and there from the seeds that bolted this season.

  3. If gardening is something you love, that's great! Seems like kids really get a kick out of seeing the growing process.

    My book club discussed Kingsolver's "Lacuna" last night (the book was too long and depressing), and her "Animal, Veg, Miracle" book came up... the consensus was she is extremely preachy, but makes well-reasoned points. If you're a fan, I highly recommend her essay collection "High Tide in Tuscon," which I think is one of her best works.

  4. Anonymous2:41 PM

    I can't wait to have a yard (someday soon, I hope). I've kept a patio garden since I was an undergrad, but there are constraints to what you can achieve in pots. I long for the day when we can have more than just a few pea pods at dinner. For now, I'm putting off gardening until I have a yard.

  5. I was very curious about these strange plants you were mentioning, until I looked them up.

    Here in Australia, Cilantro is called Coriander Leaves and can also be called Chinese parsley.

    Arugula is called Rocket, which I'll admit is a strange name, but Rocket is used in many salads here, and that's what is says on the menus.

    Until we moved into our current home, which has many gum trees, (so year-round dappled light) we always had a little vege patch. The kids always loved growing snow-peas or sugar snap peas. We all used to eat them straight off the vine.

    Now we just have a few pots of herbs in the one sunny spot we have.
    We grow Basil, Chives, Mint, Rosemary and Parsley.

  6. @caro- if you keep on top of it and trim the beginnings of the boltings, you an keep cilantro bushlike longer. I never really succeed at this.

    @blue milk- I think the key is to pick plants whose growth is described as "weed like"!

    @nicoleandmaggie- I've been meanign to try cilantro pesto. I can't decide what to use as the nut. I'm leaning towards pumpkin seeds. Thoughts?

    @hush- I think the I'm finding gardening fun right now because (1) I have a very small plot to tend, so it isn't a lot of work and (2) I didn't expect anything to grow, so it all feels like a bonus!

    I loved High Tide in Tucson, which may be part of why I was so disappointed with Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. I agree with your book club. A little too preachy.

    @Micro DrO- I hear you. For years I kept trying to grow things in pots on apartment balconies. That never turned out well!

    @Claire- Sorry! I should have included the "non-American" translation. But yes, cilantro = coriander. We have coriander seeds here, but the leaves are always cilantro. And my mother in law calls arugula "rocket" so I know that one, too.

    I still remember the trouble I had finding cumin (an essential ingredient in many Mexican dishes) in Sweden. I was visiting a lab for two months and promised to make some enchiladas. That shopping trip was a challenge!

  7. Anonymous7:23 PM

    If you leave the arugula/rocket (another Australian here) to go to seed, it will will self seed and keep 'volunteering'.


  8. Anonymous7:46 PM for the cilantro pesto we made last. I bet pumpkin seeds would work really well.

    Just don't put mint in with the rest of your garden... it will take over and never leave.

  9. I know how that goes. Back when I started gardening, I had no clue on where to start. Flash forward, I can manage better now.

  10. Amanda9:27 AM

    Hi, can I use chopped up black berry shrubs, seeds & all, that had gone thru the lawnmower as mulch in my vegetable beds? Also guide me about artificial palm trees soil inside if home. Will they sprout & invade my garden or can I put them in the compost heap? Or should I just burn them in case they still spread? I have many huge sacks of them. Seems like good mulch?. Look forward to hear from you. Many thanks,


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