Frost Seeding

March 15, 2019

“It feels like spring.” That’s what my 3 year-old said when we walked outside at 8 AM this morning without winter coats or hats. She was right. And after a winter that started the second week of November with a massive snow storm, an early spring is just what we need.

Perennial sorrel regrows as soon as the snow melts, quickly producing a large quantity of tangy greens that are delicious in sorrel soup.

I walked around the garden yesterday just to get out into the sun and see what was growing. The ground is still wet and fragile, so I stuck to the paths. This is definitely the time of year to appreciate perennial vegetables. Rhubarb and sorrel have already re-emerged. Garlic greens were still a little crumpled, having been flattened so long under heavy wet snow, but the flavor was fresh and vibrant, and I harvested a handful to add to our refried beans.

Gardening in the Unpredictable Spring

Anyone paying attention has noticed that our climate is changing. Especially if you’ve been in the same place for a while. I’ve been gardening in Syracuse for 20 years. When I first started, I used to plan to harvest all the tender annuals–peppers, tomatoes, green beans–by Indigenous People’s Day in mid-October. Now, I can pretty much take it for granted that they can stay in the garden until early November. That’s a huge shift to witness on such a short timeframe. And it’s not just anecdotal, there’s plenty of data to show that on average the first fall frost is coming later around the US. Check out this cool (yet sobering) graph where you can select a city to see the change.

March is a perfect time to try out frost seeding, even if there’s still a little snow.

Spring is less predictable. Warm spells in February or March can lure plants (and gardeners) into starting early, but late spring frosts are still common. Plants that bud or flower early, or seedlings set out too early, can suffer significant damage or even be lost for the season.

Besides, snow melt and spring rains often leave soil too wet to work until April. So, what can you do to get in an earlier spring planting?

Try Frost Seeding

Frost seeding is a practice that’s generally more familiar to small farmers than to home gardeners, but we can take advantage of it too! Basically, it works like this: seeds need good soil contact to germinate. Usually gardeners make that happen by planting seeds in a hole or furrow in the soil and gently tamping the soil to cover, or by broadcasting seed and raking it in. But using those methods in wet soil just leads to compaction and degrades soil structure, possibly for the entire growing season.

With frost seeding, you take advantage of the natural freeze-thaw cycle in late winter/early spring. The water in the soil freezes as temperatures dip below freezing overnight and then thaws as temperatures warm during the day. This is what causes soil to heave. It’s often the source of problems for gardeners and homeowners–cracking foundations and heaving posts out of the ground–but we can also use this natural process to plant our seeds for us. As the soil shifts up and down, it slowly draws the seed down, creating the necessary seed to soil contact.

All you need to do is broadcast the right seed at the right time.

Spinach seed on the soil surface after broadcasting.

The ideal timing for frost seeding is when there are still several frosts left. Plant too early, and seed is more vulnerable to rotting before conditions are right for germination. Wait too long, and you won’t be able to take advantage of the freeze-thaw action to draw your seeds into the soil. If you choose the right seeds and plant at the right time, they’ll survive just fine through many freezes, and even a late March snow storm.

A perfect strategy for a typical Syracuse spring!

Choosing a Crop 

There aren’t many crops that can be seeded in this way. Clover is commonly frost seeded by farmers in the Northeast, and I’ve successfully frost seeded garden paths to clover even during a January thaw. You need to choose seed that can germinate in colder soil temperatures, isn’t prone to rot in wet soils, and can be broadcast–you’re not going to successfully frost seed peppers.

Spinach and arugula are both extremely cold hardy.

The two vegetable crops I’ve tried frost seeding are arugula and spinach. Spinach will germinate at temperatures as low as 38F. Both benefit from an early spring planting, because they’re prone to bolt prematurely in hot weather. So, a late April planting can bolt before you’ve even had the chance to get a decent harvest when May temperatures soar into the 80’s.

Last year, we weren’t able to turn our garden beds until April 23, a full 2 weeks later than any previous year. But, we had a warm spell in January. And we had a couple large packs of old arugula and spinach seed. So, I frost seeded both in January.

The spinach germinated ok, but the arugula was not as good. I broadcast a second seeding of both in early April, which did much better. In the end we had our best spinach crop ever and one of our best arugula crops, producing well into June. I’m trying it again this year with fresh seed and a mid-March planting to see if germination improves.

I used to try to sow a late fall planting of greens to winter over, but sometimes fall is just to busy with food preservation and putting everything to bed for the season. In March, there aren’t a lot of other garden tasks competing for attention, and after a long winter, most of us are eager to get started.

Planting the Seed

To take advantage of frost seeding, you need to have a space in your garden that’s ready for planting — bare soil that’s reasonably smooth and level (not covered with weeds or crop residue or thick mulch, unless it’s easily removed, but an inch or two of snow is ok). You’ll use more seed in broadcasting than you would if you were carefully planting a row. For spinach, I use about 3/4 of an ounce (about 1500 seeds) for 50 square feet. Typical seed packets vary, but are likely to be 1/4-1/2 ounce. There are a lot of great companies with dozens of varieties to choose from, but just to give an example, we get a large 1 oz packet of Giant Winter spinach from Fedco for $3.80. For arugula, try 1/8 oz for 50 square feet.

We plant spinach and arugula in a bed that will later be planted to corn, beans and squash. Since we’re still harvesting greens when it’s time to start the 3 sisters planting, I like to mark out the corn/bean and squash mounds before broadcasting any seed, so that I’m sure to save them a space.

Once you have your seeds, mark your planting area and broadcast the seed being careful not to step on your planting soil. If you’re new to broadcasting seed, an easy way to spread it evenly is to divide the seed in half, broadcast half of it over the entire area, and then starting from the opposite direction, broadcast the other half over the same area. That way if you start broadcasting and find that you’ve used all your seed before you finish the area, you still have half the seed left to even it out.

You might feel odd, leaving your precious seed exposed to the elements. If you feel compelled to add a little protection, you can sprinkle a light layer of finished compost or mulch over the seeding, but it’s not necessary. Those little seeds are hardier than they look!

Preserving the Harvest

A typical day’s harvest in August.

Summer is ending. The nights are cooler and followed by heavy morning dews, summer vacations have come to an end, lakes are closed for swimming…but the garden is still in full force. Many favorite garden crops are just coming into their own in the late summer—corn, big heirloom tomatoes, spicy hot peppers and ripe sweet peppers, bouqets of aromatic basil and tender eggplants. By early September, fall roots, like carrots and beets have reached full size, leeks are ready for harvesting, and greens are looking lush, benefitting from the cool evenings.

Now it’s mid-September, and we’re in the thick of putting up the harvest for winter and early spring eating. We start preserving as early as May—with rhubarb—and there’s always some local crop in abundance throughout the summer—berries to jam, early greens to freeze, spring turnips and summer cucumbers to pickle, etc. But late summer and early fall are really when our pantry and freezer fill up. Currently, we’re freezing chard, canning all things tomato (barbecue sauce, crushed tomatoes and salsa this week), and fermenting the last pickling cukes and chinese cabbage (as kimchi along with some scallions and carrots from the garden). It’s the sixth straight week canning tomatoes.

Tomato Sauce cooling .

I always start by getting in some basic staples to use as ingredients in cooking: tomato puree, unsweetened apple sauce, frozen berries, herbs chopped and frozen in silicone mini-cupcake trays. These are easy to prepare and fill the pantry fast, and you can’t help but appreciate their versatility. But there are so many delicious recipes that can be preserved! Home-made convenience foods–like  pasta sauce, barbeque sauce or salsas, rich herb pestos and thai curry pastes (which we started freezing after adding lemongrass to our garden), spicy pickled corn and Italian-style marinated peppers–can be put up in big batches to have available through the off-season. These are the preserves that are particularly enticing to make and add that extra kick to meals on dark, cold winter days (and without any disposable packaging!).

To best capture the flavors and nutrients of the fresh harvest, it helps to choose your preservation method wisely. Fermentation, freezing, canning and dehydration can all work well depending on the crop and recipe. Here are some tips on which method to use for which situations.

Dehydrate It

Freshly harvested golden oyster mushrooms.

This is the method I use the least. It’s not nearly as good as the others for preserving nutrients. So, why choose it at all for your precious home-grown produce? Because, it’s simply the best method for preserving things for extremely long periods of time. It’s generally recommended that you consume most canned or frozen foods within a year or so (although some of that advice may be overly cautious due to a lack of research on the actual storage life of various products). But there’s plenty of research showing that properly dehydrated and stored foods can last for a decade or longer. The organisms that cause spoilage (bacteria, yeasts, molds) require water to survive. No water, no spoilage. So, shelf life is one reason to dehydrate.

Dried peppers ground into chili powder.

Another reason is that certain foods have a better texture and intensified flavor when dehydrated versus other methods of preservation—for example shiitake mushrooms. Many mushrooms turn to mush when frozen, and would need to be pickled or pressure canned to preserve through canning, but store and retain excellent flavor for years when dehydrated. We’ve found that the golden oyster mushrooms we’ve been cultivating store well dehydrated and are excellent in winter soups. Many herbs, both culinary and medicinal, also store well dried (for teas or cooking). We often dry herbs like oregano, basil, mint, and lavender.

A final reason to dehydrate is that some recipes work better with dried products–for example dried chili peppers can be used to make your own custom-blended chili powder, and dried fruits are perfect for home-made granolas. You can find an excellent introduction to dehydration from Virginia Cooperative Extension here.

Freeze It

Curry paste, pesto or chopped herbs defrost quickly if frozen in small cubes.

This is my absolute favorite method for preserving fresh flavor, and in most cases does the best job of preserving nutrients as well, especially for greens, as well as berries and herbs (like cilantro) that lose their characteristic flavor when dried. Of course, texture suffers, but that’s often not a problem. Freezing and thawing breaks the cell walls and softens foods in a similar way to cooking, so the difference in texture will be less noticeable in foods that will be cooked anyway, or if you use them while still partially frozen (like for smoothies). It’s so handy to have pre-washed and chopped vegetables ready to pull out of the freezer and add to recipes. Vegetables like corn, carrots, green beans, etc. are blanched just a couple of minutes to stop natural enzymatic processes and retain excellent flavor when frozen. University of Georgia has a great primer on freezing vegetables, and this factsheet from University of Minnesota has some excellent tips and background on freezing produce.

Canning

Hot pickled corn, from the Tart and Sweet cookbook.

From pickles like hot pickled corn and marinated peppers, to tomato sauces, or jams and juices, canning is an effective way to preserve a wide range of flavors that are ready to open and consume anytime and easy to store. Boiling water canning is only appropriate for high-acid foods (pH less than 4.6), which is why tomatoes, fruits and pickles are so popular. For low acid foods, pressure canning is the only acceptable canning method to achieve a shelf-stable product. That’s why for plain vegetables I prefer freezing, so they don’t have to be cooked into oblivion in a pressure canner. But most pickled products and fruits only need to be processed 10-20 minutes. And many tomato-based products, like pasta sauce or barbeque sauce, would be cooked for a long period of time anyway to thicken them, so processing in a canner isn’t really compromising on the texture, flavor or nutrient content.

The actual process of canning is quite simple…if you can boil water, you have the skills required to can your produce! It’s also necessary to pay attention to recipe proportions, timing and cleanliness, but there’s really nothing complicated about it. And these days, there’s a wide variety of recipes available beyond traditional canning resources, from recipe books on small batch canning or specialty pickles to blogs and webinars that make canning more accessible than ever. I love to check canning books out of the library during the winter to browse recipes. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has all the basics on both boiling water and pressure canning at their website as well as many basic recipes.

Fermentation
Most of our modern food preservation techniques are about eliminating bacteria, killing microorganisms and creating a sterile environment. Can you really just leave food in a jar on your table and have it increase in nutrition and flavor? Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. The magic of lacto-fermentation is that you create an environment in which good bacteria can grow, but harmful bacteria cannot. This is achieved through salt. Salt and sugar are often used in food preservation, because they bind water and make it less available for micro-organisms. Salt is used in lacto-fermentation because harmful bacteria can’t tolerate high salt environments, but some of the healthy bacteria (like lactobacillus) can. Once the harmful bacteria have been eliminated, the friendly ones can take over. They make lactic acid by consuming the natural sugars present in the produce, which preserves the nutrients, flavor and texture of the vegetables being fermented.

A glass jar filled with water will be placed on top of the kimchi to keep ingredients submerged and prevent spoilage from air contact. Note: no liquid is added, it’s just released from the cabbage after salting.

Some of the traditional fermented products we like to make include kimchi, sauerkraut, cucumber pickles, and hot sauce (from fermented hot peppers and garlic). The thing I love about fermenting…aside from the flavors…is how easy it is. At the end of the summer, when there are too many hot peppers, and I’m tired of processing, I can just cut off their stems, toss them whole into a jar with a few cloves of garlic, cover with brine and let them hang out on the dining room table for a month (covered with a cloth to keep out dust and flies). They do need to be checked periodically to skim any scum that forms on the surface to prevent it from suffocating the good bacteria (daily in hot weather, every few days in cooler weather).

Once the process is done (timing can vary a lot depending on size of the produce and air temperature), fermented peppers can be stored in the fridge and used in cooking, spooned over tacos, added to sandwiches, or pureed to make a delicious hot sauce. If we ferment late in the season, we often leave finished products on our unheated back porch. As long as the temperatures stay low but above freezing (cooler than 50°F), fermentation will slow or stop altogether, and they store quite well without taking up fridge space.

It’s hard to do better than Sandor Katz’s infamous guide to fermention, Wild Fermentationfor an introduction.

Join us For a Small Batch Preservation Session
If you’re new to food preservation and want some tips, are looking to expand your skills, or just want to exchange ideas with fellow local foodies, join us for a small batch food preservation session on Saturday, October 20 (Tomatoes) or Saturday, October 27, 5-7 PM (Fall Fruit – apples or pears). We’re keeping sessions small, to fit in our kitchen, and so that we can personalize the experience and answer all your preservation questions. We’ll can something together, review basic tips and process for canning, answer questions on other methods, and share samples of some of our products and our favorite food preservation resources. RSVP at least a week in advance if you’d like to help choose the recipe to be used. Each participant will be able to take a jar home. We’re asking for a $20 donation per person, but open to trades (contact us ASAP if you want a non-traditional arrangement!).

Welcoming Berry Season

Fridge full of berries

2018 was a late spring. The latest I can remember in 20 years of gardening in Syracuse. We didn’t make our first planting in the vegetable garden until Earth Day weekend…a full two weeks later than any other year that I can recall. But the strawberries came right on time.

Our patch of Honeoyes began fruiting lightly the first week of June and by the 2nd and 3rd weeks we were harvesting 20-30 lbs/week from our 40’x5′ patch. They’re finally starting to slow—we’ve probably only got another week or so of berries. But by then, the black raspberries should be ripe…

We may not be able to grow local mangos or bananas, but our northern climate does allow us to easily grow an amazing abundance of incredibly delicious and highly nutritious berries and other small fruits. It’s an easy, low-cost way to start producing some of your own fruit, and they’ll start fruiting within 1-2 years of planting. Berries are expensive to buy, especially organic, but easy to grow and maintain even for beginners. Pruning, trellising, and care are all very simple to learn. They’re also easy to propagate, many spreading by runners or suckers and/or rooting quickly from cuttings, so you can often come by plants for free or for a work trade in a neighbor’s garden. Plus, homegrown berries can be picked fully ripe, no need to worry about them getting squished during handling, packing or transport, which means you can pick them at the peak of their flavor.

There are so many types of berries, but below are tips on how to get started with some of our favorites! Or join us for our Summer Berry Pruning workshop on Saturday, July 14.

A perfectly ripe strawberry

STRAWBERRY
We started our strawberry patch in 2016 with 50 plants purchased for $18 from Fedco. Our original 40′ row produced runners to completely fill a 40’x5′ area with plants every 3-4” by the second year. A conservative estimate of this year’s harvest is about 70 lbs. U-pick organic strawberries have been $2.50 per pound the past few years, so that makes our harvest worth at least $175 this year alone. Since we fertilize only with our compost and mulch with leaves, our only other expenses were a roll of 9 gauge wire for cutting wire hoops ($6) and a roll of bird netting ($14) that we drape over the hoops to keep the squirrels out.

Mixed Berry Shortcake – a classic way to enjoy fresh berries!

BLACKBERRY & RASPBERRY
In Syracuse, there are so many wild black raspberry plants, you can likely find them for free—you may even already have some. We pruned the wild ones in our yard to make them more productive and easier to pick. For raspberries and blackberries, the challenge isn’t in getting them to grow so much as preventing them from taking over and maximizing berry production rather than growth of a tangled mass of impenetrable thorns.

We started our patches of red raspberries and blackberries courtesy of the OCSWCD annual spring tree sale—each available at 10 canes for just $15. Last year we canned several pints of blackberry sauce (1 cup sugar to 12 cups blackberries) and froze 3 gallons of blackberries in addition to lots of fresh eating and pies. We also dig up rogue plants every year for our spring plant sale, since the plants are vigorous and readily spread beyond their patch. We’re in the process of moving the red raspberries, which fruited nicely the first few years, but now are in decline. It’s likely a combination of decreasing sun as nearby trees have extended their canopies, and increasing size of nearby black walnut trees, whose roots and all other parts of the tree contain juglone, a chemical compound which can inhibit the growth of certain plants (black raspberries are not bothered).

Elderberry Peach Tart

ELDERBERRY
We also sourced our elderberries from OCSWCD, which were priced similarly to the blackberries and raspberries…an incredible deal if you’ve looked into purchasing elsewhere. Elderberries sucker readily and can form rather large colonies, so unless you have a lot of space to fill, you probably don’t need more than a couple plants to start. Elderberry jelly is one of my favorites, and elderberry-peach pie is a real late summer treat, but we mainly use them for making elderberry syrup and cordial (a traditional medicinal drink) to take advantage of elderberry’s well-established anti-viral properties during flu season.

CURRANT & GOOSEBERRY
Currants don’t spread like the other berries in this post, but they are easy to propagate by
layering. There were neglected, overgrown red currants already on our property when we purchased it, so we just pruned and relocated them to a sunnier spot. We mostly use them in baking—little bursts of flavor in scones, muffins or pancakes. But, last year we also pureed them with water and a touch of maple syrup to make a really delicious juice. We acquired our black currants through a work trade at Frosty Morning Farm in Truxton. They’re a large-fruited variety, Titania, that make excellent sauce or jam. Gooseberries are also in the currant family. We mostly eat ours fresh, but there are some nice gooseberry chutney or jam recipes. The birds share quite a bit in the red currant harvesting, which can be tedious, so we don’t really mind. But we plan to net the elderberry, because the birds didn’t leave us much last year.

Elderberry Jelly

PRESERVING THE HARVEST
Berries are incredibly easy to preserve, so you can have them for baking, smoothies, jams, etc. all year round. To freeze: wash and hull berries, and arrange in a single layer on a baking tray. Place in the freezer until frozen solid, then transfer to labeled freezer bags or containers. To can: process jams, preserves or sauces in a boiling water bath, exact processing times will vary by recipe and jar size. Basic instructions for most common berries can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Want to get your own berry patch started? Or have a patch that needs a little TLC? We welcome you to join us for a workshop on Summer Berry Pruning Saturday, July 14, 10 AM to Noon.

First BnR Blog Post

After a long and hard Syracuse winter, it’s finally summertime at BnR (Bread and Roses Collective). Work in the garden is picking up, and garden harvests are taking place almost daily- providing fresh food for the members of BnR, and the community.

Maintanence projects are also underway, as BnR has gained a few new members. Currently, house members are working on finishing the trim for bedrooms in the 405 house.

We have potluck together every Sunday evening, and this is a great time for catching up on each other’s weeks. We also usually make some kick ass food.

There have been many recent nights of hanging out by the bonfire, and getting to hang out with old and new friends stopping through Syracuse

 

Overall, summer is off to a strong start, and we hope to continue building community, participating in activism in the city and enjoying life. Stop by for potluck and a bonfire sometime?