I was born and lived my first decade of life on a farm in New Jersey -The Garden State- and I have fond memories of an amazingly productive family garden. It was there I learned to pick dead ripe tomatoes in the field, and eat them -juice dripping down your chin- where you stood. I also learned the magnificence of a premature ear of corn, quickly picked and carried to a waiting pot of boiling water, and cooked for only one minute – and it was there my father taught me that the cantaloupe was never really ready until that wonderful summer morning when you opened the back door, and were met by the over-powering, super sweet aroma of ripe cantaloupe everywhere.
I later moved to Florida, where I tended my first real garden of my own – in Florida, a gardener can easily grow three crops a year, each a little different as the seasons changed – and it was in Florida where I experienced that tomatoes are not necessarily annuals, when I once grew a tomato plant in an abundance of phosphate enriched soil that grew up a seven foot fence, over the top and down the other side to touch the ground – all before it produced the first tomato! That one plant lived the better part of three years before succumbing to a unique 15 degree Florida night.
And now I live in Oregon – a place where the pioneers flocked because of the tales of abundantly rich farmland – tales that were both real and romanticized. Like the pioneers, I too expected a much more hospitable growing environment, but what I found, just like the pioneers before me, was one of America’s most unique climates, which although seeming to promise much, actually created a whole new set of challenges.
If climate were only about temperature, Oregon too would perhaps be a center of winter farm production – for although frost is certainly not unknown, temperatures under 25 degrees are rare in my area, and then, only for a few hours. What keeps us from prolonged deep freezes is the effect of the Pacific Ocean on the arctic winds which sweep in during the winter months – the Pacific warms those winds, so that they’re not nearly so cold when they finally reach us. But those same winds bring with them what really throws a damper over any ideas of trying to have a winter garden – rain.
Yup, it’s the rain which keeps us from being able to grow winter vegetables like Kale, Collards, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage or such – all of those would easily survive the cold, but they simply drown in an overabundance of rain.
The rain and moderate temperatures also create a favorable environment for an unusual number of garden pests – The Pacific Northwest is undoubtedly the world center for slugs and snails- if only these were edible. But those same conditions also make it relatively easy for many other garden pests, which may be killed off by cold in other areas, to simply burrow into the soil and wait out our 6-7 months of rain. Come May, the bugs emerge into the warming garden, just in time to catch and consume the emerging young plants of spring in all their succulent glory. How perfect.
And so I venture forth each spring, attempting to work a sodden soil, and hoping that maybe this year my seeds will meet some early soil warmth, and maybe the rains will even taper off a bit sooner than usual – and maybe I can even beat the bugs at their game. All this I do because I have the soul of a gambler – if I were more rational, I’d just wait until June, when the entire climate pattern will make an almost complete about-face, and the incessent winter rains will disappear completely for the next 4 months! I live all year for the magnificent Oregon summer, when every day is warm and sunny, but never over 85 F, and nights are cool and perfect for sleep – no AC needed, ever!
I know I’ve painted a bleak picture of the Oregon winter garden, but there always are a few winners each year – my problem seems to be in achieving consistency, perhaps because Oregon winters are seldom consistent. Some will be wetter than others – some will be warmer, or sunnier – you get the idea. One year, for whatever reason, my Brussels Sprouts produced like crazy from November right through to the following June, and grew 6 feet tall. This winter, it was the Purple Sprouting Broccoli that was the star – what an amazing and unique plant!
Its history predates any of the other ‘broccoli-es’, and it is assumed to have been cultivated from the wild and brought to Italy by the Etruscans when they first arrived there from the area around what is now Turkey – and the Italians have been enjoying Purple Sprouting Broccoli ever since, while the rest of the world has been slow to discover its goodness.
In the U.K., it has been enjoyed as perhaps the earliest field grown spring vegetable, and is commonly found in the marketplace. But, not so in America, for even though Thomas Jefferson was growing broccoli in Virginia, Americans in general took no notice of it until the D’Arrigo brothers imported some Italian seed on their way to their new farm in California in the 1920s (later to be called Andy Boy Broccoli), and broccoli was suddenly a hit in the U.S. as well.
In Britain, Purple Sprouting (the shortened name by which is popularly known there) is the most popular kind of broccoli – but here in America, where one would almost never find Purple Sprouting in the market, maybe one in a hundred people would be able to identify it, and those few would probably be gardeners. This is a real shame, because Purple Sprouting is undoubtedly endowed with more flavor than is its obese cousin, the Calabrese type, which fills the American grocery shelves each winter.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli has one of the longest fruiting schedules in the vegetable world – grown from seed in the spring, it grows through the summer, and then overwinters before producing hundreds of small purple ‘heads’ – keep those picked, and the mother plant puts out more heads (howbeit smaller each time). Recently, I read that if you are diligent about keeping those heads trimmed as the plant grows into year two, it’ll overwinter again and re-fruit the following spring! Amazing.
It is also different enough from regular broccoli -of which by March each year I am very, very tired- as to seem a completely different vegetable. The smaller heads make wonderful additions to the salad bowl – and steamed or stir-fried, their sweet earthy nuttiness does not remind one at all of broccoli – I pick them by simply snapping them off, for I’ve discovered that if the stalk can be snapped, it is quite tender for eating raw or being quickly steamed. But do not make the mistake that many do by thinking that it is the heads alone that are good eating – the tender stalks are perhaps even more delicious than are the heads.
And don’t worry about taking some tiny heads prematurely, for I’ve also discovered that the mother plant is ready and willing to shoot up new stalks and heads, should you strip bear all you can see. It is an unbelievably productive plant.
Here are a few shots of this past season’s winter garden – it was not a good year, so few shots were needed. But in all fairness, I didn’t plant a lot for this past winter -my back kept me inactive- so it wasn’t the garden’s fault. But of what I did put in, the Thai garlic and the Sprouting Broccoli did very well, and I’m not complaining. Still, I’m sure glad spring is here again, and that the new garden is slowly taking shape for a successful summer.
Now, if only my back stays OK.