Garden vegetable soup


On Friday I realized that these turnips were ready to harvest in my vegetable garden, and then I happened on a Greenmarket in Manhattan and saw beautiful cabbages, carrots, beans, and summer squash. If your mind works the way mine does, you too are thinking “minestrone,” otherwise known as delicious vegetable and bean soup.

The soup is simmering as I write this. Here’s what I’m putting in it: onions, celery, and carrots (all from the farmer’s market and my CSA); dried red beans (from the supermarket); turnips (see above) and one fennel bulb that was in my refrigerator for a little too long (local greengrocer); a can of chopped tomatoes (supermarket); cabbage, purple and green beans, and summer squash (my garden and farmer’s market); corn (greengrocer); and parsley (CSA) and my pesto (my garden) for garnish. and because I didn’t presoak enough beans in proportion to all the vegetables, I’m throwing in about a cup of pearled barley (supermarket, but organic).

How much of everything? That depends on the size of your pot and the size of your vegetables. As you gain experience as a cook, you learn to gauge these things (but sometimes you buy too many vegetables and don’t presoak enough beans). I’m making two stockpots, each about 10 quarts, and I’ll freeze a lot of this soup and give some away.

Method? That’s a little easier to describe. I presoaked the beans overnight (I know that some chefs now say it’s not necessary, but I still think it is, and they take less time to cook). I drained the beans and simmered them with fresh rosemary sprigs (my garden) and garlic (CSA) while I chopped and sweated the onions, carrots, celery, and a little more chopped garlic. Right now, the beans and aromatics are simmering with canned tomatoes, water, and the turnips and fennel, the barley, and some Parmesan cheese rinds (I keep them in the freezer). In about 15 minutes, I’ll add the sliced cabbage, then the chopped squash, then the green beans (except they’re purple), and finally, the corn, removed from the cob. When we eat the soup, we’ll stir in some chopped parsley and a little bit of pesto and maybe some grated Parmesan. Yum.

I still have to make a second batch of pesto tonight, and you wouldn’t believe what a mess the kitchen is in right now.

6/28/13: In the garden this week


Late June is always the pink season in my perennial gardens–the place is lousy with bergamot/beebalm (Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma, two closely related native species). Rudbeckia is showing buds, so within a week or so, there will be lots of orange to enliven the scene.

In summer my perennials and woody plants require very little work; my attention is focused on the vegetable garden. Here’s a list of things to attend to this week, in between restful sit-downs in the garden to admire your handiwork:

– keep the grass long (3″ or more) to reduce mowing times. There is no need to fertilize or water. As the weather heats up, the grass wants to go dormant, so let it.

– start to collect perennial seeds: columbine, heuchera, and other spring bloomers are ripening seeds, even as they continue to bloom

— as perennials finish blooming, leave the dead flowers on the plants. The seeds will feed the birds next winter (and you can always collect some seeds later on yourself)

– if you have not already done so, pull out early spring greens, such as arugula, spinach,  and lettuce; pull out pea plants after they finish producing; compost all these plants unless they are diseased

— harvest basil and make pesto to freeze for the winter (see preceding post)

– continue to plant beans, kale, chard, and other members of the brassica clan if you have room; harvest peas, young squash, and beans before they get large and tough. Peas are finishing their brief but delicious run in my garden right now.

– continue to stake tomato plants firmly and remove all suckers

– monitor the vegetable garden carefully for pests and diseases

Happy summer weekend to all!


The taste of summer


Basil is the taste of summer. Dried basil tastes nothing like fresh, and the tired pale green things you can buy in winter taste like nothing at all. So we eat basil only in summer, when we grow it. It’s almost enough to make me appreciate hot weather.

In Italy, I’m told, they make pesto when the basil plants are no more than 6 inches tall. I wait a little longer, because if I did that, I wouldn’t have room for all the plants I would need. I harvest the basil when it starts to bloom, because after that the taste is strong, not delicate and perfumed. I cut the plants down at ground level and use only the leaves. The plants will regrow, so there will be at least a few leaves for the rest of the summer.

When the basil blooms is when the weather turns hot and when the beetles I call June bugs (shiny red-brown beetles about 1/3 inch long) appear to devour the leaves. The three things are not coincidental. If I waited a week longer, many of the leaves would be no more than skeletons. So it’s time to make pesto in northern New Jersey.

The photo above shows six basil plants–half my crop (I bought and planted a flat the last week in May). That’s the amount of leaves that can fit in my food processor in one batch. In a day or so I’ll harvest the second half and we’ll make another batch. And that will be it for the pesto. We freeze it in tiny containers, and if we’re very lucky, there will be at least one left on a dark, freezing winter day to remind us of the garden in summer.

How do you make pesto? Few things are easier. The ingredients are garlic, basil leaves, pine nuts, and good olive oil, plus salt and pepper. Start by putting a couple of cloves of peeled garlic in the food processor and process until it’s finely chopped. Add as much basil as the bowl will hold (mine is the big Cuisinart that holds 11 cups), plus about 1/3 cop of pine nuts (toasted if you’re feeling ambitious), plus salt and pepper. (You can add Parmesan cheese as well.) When everything is ground up, add about 1/3 cup of olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Taste for seasoning, and you’re done. It will take you about an hour to process the leaves–remove them from the stems and wash and dry them–and about two minutes to make the pesto. The six plants yielded about a cup of pesto. But it doesn’t take much pesto to make me happy.

Early blooming native grasses

Although perennials are the face of the native prairie garden, grasses are the backbone. Without the contrast provided by the grasses, the perennials are a confusing jumble of color and shape. And the grasses lend subtle visual interest throughout the year, both in and out of bloom (you may not think of grasses as blooming, but they do, and the blooms can be surprisingly colorful and beautiful in form).

Most of the common grasses bloom late in summer and set seed in fall. However, two easy-to-grow natives bloom and set seed early.


Junegrass (Koeleria macracantha) bloomed in early June, along with the penstemon. This is an exceedingly easy to grow plant, as long as it gets full sun, and its size, never exceeding 3′ tall, makes it easy to incorporate into the perennial border. As is the case with most of the native grasses I grow, the deer and rabbits leave this plant alone.


Bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula) is another story–the deer seem to relish it. However, it’s such a useful plant that I keep moving it around, hoping they won’t find it, and usually the critters miss some of the plants so it manages to bloom. This grass does well in shade (note the hemlocks right behind the grass in the picture), making it a very valuable addition to the garden.

All prairie plants have extensive root systems, which can be 20′ feet long, so even if they do get eaten one year, they invariably come right back up the next year. That’s what happens with my bottlebrush grass.

I’m enjoying these early bloomers while looking forward to the summer bloomers still to come.

How about growing this: Milkweeds

Orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

“Milkweed”  (the name refers to the milky sap that is produced when the stems are broken) is the common name for over thirty species of perennials, all members of the genus Asclepias, that are native to North America. Thirteen are native to northern New Jersey. Only one species, common milkweed, with huge clusters of mauve flowers, still seems to grow wild in our area, although it’s now pretty hard to find. Milkweed is one of those plants, like elderberries and serviceberries and asters, that should be everywhere, because it’s that crucial a part of our ecosystem. Sadly, many of these crucial plants have been crowded out by development and alien invasive plants, so the birds and butterflies that once depended on them have disappeared as well.

I grow two milkweed species, swamp milkweed, A. incarnata, and butterfly weed, A. tuberosa (shown above). All milkweeds have the unique flower structure you see in the photo, with clusters of small flowers whose parts are arranged in tiers of five; but very few plants have flowers with this wonderful intense natural orange color. Butterfly weed grows two to three feet tall and likes dry soil. It has brilliant orange flowers and blooms nonstop from the end of May throughout the summer. Swamp or red milkweed is about four feet tall, and as its name implies, it likes wet soil (although it is an adaptable plant that does fine in my dry, sandy soil). It has huge, deep-pink flower clusters and blooms in June.  All milkweeds are magnets for butterflies and other pollinators and incredibly easy to care for—plant them in a sunny place and stand back. All produce seedpods that are a source of fascination to children. I can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t grow milkweed.

Most people know there’s a connection between milkweed and monarch butterflies, but there are a lot of misconceptions out there. The real story is quite complex, as is true of most things in nature. Monarchs, those gorgeous, large, black-and-orange butterflies that flutter lazily over the summer garden, are long-distance migrators. However, it’s not individual butterflies that migrate from Mexico to Canada and back again each season; it’s three or four different generations of individuals. After wintering in Mexico and south Texas (where their habitat is rapidly shrinking), the butterflies begin migrating north, some going up the west coast of the United States, some taking a Great Plains route, and some traveling along the eastern seaboard. Along the way, the first generation will mate, lay eggs, and die. The eggs that live become the second generation, and they continue on northwards.

I often see monarchs laying eggs in July in my garden, and sources differ on whether this is the second generation or the third of the year. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars with distinctive black and yellow stripes, and this is where the milkweed comes in. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed and only milkweed. A female butterfly must find milkweed plants on which to lay her eggs. When she does, she perches on a leaf, curves her body under, and deposits her tiny eggs, one by one, on the undersides of the leaves. After laying eggs, she dies. If she doesn’t find milkweed—because someone mowed it down or used herbicides to kill it—she leaves behind no progeny to continue the journey north.

Suppose she manages to find a stand of milkweed—one that hasn’t been mowed down or sprayed with herbicides or pesticides (most pesticides kill all insects, including butterflies, ladybugs, lacewings, fireflies, and honeybees). She lays her eggs, and soon afterwards the tiny striped caterpillars hatch. They grow larger over several weeks, steadily eating the milkweed leaves. Then they pupate, or form pale green cocoons, or chrysalises; about two weeks later, adult butterflies emerge. The cycle continues as these adults fly north. In late summer, a final generation makes the long flight back to the southern wintering grounds. I often see monarchs nectaring on my New England asters in the fall. How do they manage to fly thousands of miles and find that place where their ancestors wintered in the past? It’s quite amazing.

But the milkweed is amazing as well. Notice that it’s the monarch caterpillars that exclusively depend on milkweed. Many insects sip milkweed nectar, and adult monarchs sip nectar from many different flowers—asters and liatris are favorites—but the caterpillars can eat only milkweed leaves. This is true of many butterfly species—the caterpillars can feed only on a single genus or species of plants, often, unsurprisingly, plants that are native, that used to be common, and that we consider to be weeds. Fritillaries need violets, skippers need grasses, red admirals need nettles. The list goes on and on.

The reason for this specialization is simple. Plants are the basis of the food chain, so animals eat them. To protect themselves, plants have evolved a variety of mechanisms, such as thorns, tough stems, hairy leaves, and chemical defenses. In response, specific animals have evolved the ability to withstand specific types of plant-produced poisons. That allows them to specialize in that one food source that other species ignore. Monarch caterpillars have evolved the ability to tolerate the deadly cardiac glycosides that milkweed plants produce. Female monarchs will lay their eggs only on milkweed plants. No milkweed, no monarchs.

Other animals have evolved the same strategy as well: small and large milkweed bugs, milkweed beetles, and milkweed aphids all feed exclusively on different parts of milkweed plants. All have bright orange or red markings, just like adult monarchs—small milkweed bugs are particularly handsome, with vivid orange X’s crisscrossing their black backs. Why the distinctive markings? All these creatures eat those deadly cardiac glycosides, and as a result, they themselves are rendered poisonous to other creatures that might prey on them. And there’s no point in developing a chemical defense unless your predators can recognize it, is there? A young bird that eats a monarch will taste something awful and get sick; if it survives, it will remember those orange markings and never eat another monarch.

The next time you see a monarch, observe its slow, smooth flight pattern. Other butterflies typically fly quickly and erratically to foil predators. Monarchs can take their time, because they have few predators. And guess what? Other butterflies have evolved to mimic the monarchs: they have look just monarchs to fool their predators.

Here’s a picture of swamp milkweed, which is just coming into bloom in my garden while butterfly weed is in full bloom:

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Plan to get yourself some monarch magnets next summer.

6/21/13: In the garden this week

Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) began to bloom this week.

Happy summer! Or if, like me, you belong to the minority of people who dislike hot weather, I wish you a cool summer.

My perennials gardens turn pink in late June. Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa, shown above), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) turn the garden various shades of pink, from cotton candy to subtle mauve. They are enlivened by the brilliant orange of butterflyweed (A. tuberosa) and the subtle whites of wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and Culver’s root (Vernoniscastrum virginicum). And within the next week, the first of the rudbeckias, orange coneflower (R. fulgida) will begin to bloom, and it won’t stop until September.

It’s time to shift from spring to summer mode in the garden. Spring is the time to do–to move, to dig, to plant, to weed–but summer is the time to enjoy the fruits of all that labor. There’s much less to do. It’s time to stop transplanting and start making plans for next year:

– keep the grass long (3″ or more) to reduce mowing times. There is no need to fertilize or water. As the weather heats up, the grass wants to go dormant, so let it.

— start to collect perennial seeds: columbine, heuchera, and other spring bloomers are ripening seeds, even as they continue to bloom

– if you have not already done so, pull out early spring greens, such as arugula, spinach,  and lettuce; pull out pea plants after they finish producing; compost all these plants unless they are diseased

– continue to plant beans, kale, chard, and other members of the brassica clan if you have room; harvest peas, young squash, and beans before they get large and tough

– continue to stake tomato plants firmly and remove all suckers

– monitor the vegetable garden carefully for pests and diseases

Enjoy the first weekend of summer.

Collecting seeds: sharing the wealth

Columbine bud and maturing seed pod on the same plant.

Yesterday I began collecting seeds of columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). The plants ares still in bloom even as seeds begin to ripen, as the photo shows. The seed capsules turns from green to brown and the top opens as the seeds inside mature (the seed capsule on the right in the photo is half mature). When you seed the open capsule, you simply shake the seeds into your hand or a container.

Each season I collect seeds of upwards of a dozen native species. I supply plants, seedlings, and divisions to friends, clients, neighbors, an elementary school, the Glen Rock Arboretum, my house of worship, and many other local institutions. I can do this because I grow pure species, not hybrids or cultivars. My plants were created by nature, not people, so they are fertile and grow true to type from seed.

I learned this lesson the hard way many years ago when I planted coreopsis ‘Moonbeam,’ a cultivar of  threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata). ‘Moonbeam’ has pale yellow flowers instead of the bright yellow flowers of the species, and it’s very pretty. But when it was in bloom, I watched as the pollinating insects flew right by it. It produced no seed. Something had happened to the plant in the course of breeding to render it sterile. Either the flowers did not produce pollen, or they were unattractive to pollinators, or they weren’t producing the right scent, or for some other reason, those plants were infertile. Because I garden for insects and fruit as well as for flowers, I pulled them all up, and I’ve stuck to pure species ever since.

Columbine seed is particularly easy to gather, and the plants are highly prolific. I gathered a handful of seed yesterday, all that I can possibly use myself this season.


I scattered these seeds in the two places in my garden that can use more columbine, and the rest of this season’s crop will be given away.

Nothing could be easier than growing columbine from seed. You simply scatter the seeds on the ground where you want the plants to be. (Columbine is taprooted, and like all taprooted plants, it’s difficult to move once established.) The seeds will germinate within a few weeks, and each season they will grow larger, until they reach blooming size in their third growing season. And then those plants will produce their first seed, and the cycle will continue.