Grow-It-Yourself Ingredients

Many farmstead chefs take the DIY mantra beyond the confines of the kitchen into the gardens. After all, the best-tasting meals start with the freshest, perfectly ripe ingredients.

by John D. Ivanko
Corn seeds in soil
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Farm-grown ingredients lead to the tastiest meals in a farmstead kitchen.

Many farmstead chefs take the DIY mantra beyond the confines of the kitchen into the gardens. After all, the best-tasting meals start with the freshest, perfectly ripe ingredients.

A new growing season ushers in hope for American gardeners, now numbering nearly 41 million, according to the National Gardening Association. Those who grow at least some of their own food are reclaiming the power that comes with being able to feed ourselves and our families. We’re first to admit to the spell cast upon us by seed catalogs in January, enticing us to prepare for spring planting. Forgotten are the painstaking hours of weeding or failed crops. Seed catalogs seem to save us from our post-seasonal holiday hangover.

So it’s time to plan anew, deciding what new dishes to try and the ingredients we need to grow to make them. Regardless of whether you’re placing your first seed order or you’re a seasoned farmer, the following guidelines that we’ve adopted have kept us out of trouble in the garden and well-stocked in the pantry, freezer and cold storage.

1. Grow what you love to eat and what grows well where you live.
Sticking close to dishes we enjoy making, like spanakopita and zucchini-feta pancakes, we grow plenty of “perpetual spinach” and zucchini to keep us stocked all summer. In fact, we can eat our first spinach pie with fresh spinach in May, and these days, we savor our last zucchini pancake in late September before a heavy frost sets in. We just finished off our last carrots this week with a celebratory carrot cake so moist it didn’t need the frosting.

If you’re new to growing your own ingredients, start with what grows best in your part of the country. It’s a great confidence builder. The USDA breaks the country down into hardiness zones that reflect the frost dates and historical weather patterns dictating what will thrive in your area. Cross-reference this zone number with the seed packets you’re considering. Another great option: Talk to neighbors or farmers at your local farmers’ market, and take advantage of their knowledge.

While each year we like to experiment with a few new crops, like collard greens or Brussels sprouts, we avoid taking on too many new ones because we get so busy in the summer.

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2. Diversify your selection.
Nature has a way of reminding us who’s in charge, and diversity means stability. Rather chancing losing your whole crop, try several different cultivars or varietals of the fruits and vegetables you like.

In any given year, we grow more than 10 different types of tomatoes, including some that are best eaten fresh as well as some that are better for freezing or canning. Some might be more susceptible to disease or insect pressures while other skate by without problems. In this way, you’re guaranteed at least some degree of success with any particular crop.

3. Start with great seeds (or transplants).
We use organic or heirloom seeds. We germinate some of our seeds in a greenhouse or barter with another organic farm for transplants started in their greenhouse. For regions with shorter growing seasons, transplants are the way to grow certain plants, like tomatoes, basil, broccoli and eggplant. The rest of our crops are direct-seeded into our fields.

Here are some of our favorite seed sources:

Most local garden supply stores sell organic growing media for container plants or can special order it for you. We use and sell a Sunshine Organic Mix listed with the Organic Materials Review Institute.

4. Avoid going overboard.
Seeds don’t age well. Many that are saved for future use are affected by moisture or other issues that reduce their germination rate. Plan your seed order based on one season’s growing needs. Many catalogs offer general guides to help you calculate the number of seeds needed. Johnny’s offers a seed calculator to determine the number of seeds you need.

We always order a little extra because we tend to plant in our rows of French-style raised beds, heavier than what the seed packets call for, then thin the rows to the healthiest, most prolific plants.

5. Remember your space constraints.
Space is sometimes a limitation, so consider this when planning your garden and seed order. It’s natural to grow what you love eating, but avoid going overboard on crops, like zucchini or cucumbers, that might overwhelm you with their prolific fruiting potential. Most varieties of pumpkins, for example, can engulf a small garden space, so if you’ve got space constraints, pick up this ingredient at the farmers’ market.

Of course, there are other variables that influence how successful you are in growing your own ingredients. You’ll need a water source for irrigation and plenty of sunlight. Soil quality can be built up over time, but having a supply line for compost or garden waste helps. Weather conditions, manageable growing soils without weedy competition, and healthy soil with plenty of nutrients and bustling with earthworm activity all play important roles beyond your seed selection.

Savoring the good life,

John and Lisa's Signatures

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