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What's the first thing you're planting this spring?

The Garden Blog

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Marina di ChioggiaAs many of you know, last fall I grew three Marina di Chioggia -- an heirloom winter squash from Italy -- in my garden. Two I gave away as gifts and the third sat on top of my refrigerator for about four months. Internet searches had indicated that not only did they have a long shelf life (up to six months) but actually got better with age. But finally this past week it was time to prepare it. So. What to do?

Most of the sites I could find said that in Italy it's frequently used for making gnocchi, as a soup or as a filling for ravioli or tortellini -- essentially anything you might do with a butternut squash or kobucha you can do with the Marina di Chioggia.  Well, I didn't feel up for making the gnocchi -- feels like something I'll need to work up to. It was too hot for soup. And to make the ravioli or tortellini, I'd have to, well, make the ravioli or tortellini pockets first (see thoughts on gnocchi above).

Marina di Chioggia seasonedMost of the information I found indicated that the first step for just about anything I was considering was to roast the Marina di Chioggia. This is accomplished by cutting it up (see photo above). Use a strong knife, these are pretty tough dudes. After taking out all the seeds and stringy bits, brush on some olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and rosemary or other herbs, and then lay it face down or sideways on a cookie sheet (the slices on the right were turned over after the photo was taken). Then cook at 350 degrees for 30-60 minutes or until the fork test shows it to be tender.

Ann Garden May 28Yes, that mass of overgrown craziness in the middle of my garden and behind the roses is the tomato plant (actually plural -- there are three of them in there -- but it's one mass of tomato madness so I'll refer to it in the singular) that volunteered earlier this year. I let it keep going because I'm curious to test how volunteer tomatoes do/taste compared to starting them from seeds or seedlings. Although obviously the plants are huge (about my shoulder height), there is not a lot of fruit yet. Hard to tell if that's the cool and wet spring we've had or something to do with the volunteer status. I did cut the foliage back a bit since I took this shot -- taking out any branches not flowering or contributing, and to give the onions growing right next to them (in the foreground) a little more air.

Ann garden May 30To hedge my bets a bit -- and make sure we have tomatoes into September, especially since it's usually our warmest month in Southern California -- I've started a new tomato seedling as well. It's a Big Rainbow Heirloom I got at the farmers market on Cloverfield and Pico in Santa Monica (Saturdays 9 a.m.-1 p.m.). Here it is right after being planted yesterday afternoon. As I did last year, I incorporated an organic free-range egg at the bottom of the hole, plus a lot of compost and good organic soil from the nursery. Yes, it is loved.

Also in the garden, three baby sweet-corn stalks I planted from seeds that Jeff picked up are starting to make their Ann garden May 28 cornmove. If you squint, you can see them between the baby roses and the olive tree container (speaking of which, the Tanglefoot is definitely working to alleviate my ant problem there; this is my second application of duct tape with the Tanglefoot on it). I also scattered some alyssum seeds against the wall, both to add some color and because it attracts the beneficial insects. And I planted three new corn seeds in the same bed as the tomato seedling (in the above photo, they're up by the orange marigolds). The various melons and summer squash are hanging in there with various levels of happiness/success but again, it's been a rather cool and wet spring. We've just had a beautiful Memorial Day weekend filled with sun and the garden's gotten extra TLC so, just as the holiday is the unofficial start to summer, it feels like summer is beginning in the garden.

Hokkaido and Marina di Chioggia vinesThose of you who read the saga of the Hokkaido watermelon last summer may remember this blog post where I joked about the Hokkaido meeting the vine of the Marina di Chioggia I had also planted: and this photo of the moment when they did.

Well, in what was probably the most mind-blowing thing I learned at the organic gardening workshop I did up at Esalen a few weeks ago, I learned that because the vines met, the seeds I harvested from the Hokkaido and the Marina di Chioggia are no longer pure heirloom seeds but hybrids. In other words, there's now a little of the Hokkaido's DNA in the Marina di Chioggia and vice versa.

Ann garden May 16I'll wait a moment while the little explosion goes off in your brain the way it did in mine when you realize that just by touching the two crops essentially had sex and now who KNOWS what their offspring will be like. Okay, so the science is a LITTLE more complicated but still pretty cool, right? To make this year even more interesting, I've planted a seedling I cultivated from a Cantalupo di Charentais seed right next to one from the Hokkaido (see bottom of this photo). They'll all most likely cross vines at some point so, assuming I harvest seeds again (and I will) next year could be even more wacky -- creating a super Japanese-Italian-French melon hybrid. Booohahahahaha. (That's my evil laugh.)

One of the best things about gardening is the sharing that goes on, be it the sharing of information or seeds or vegetables. This poem was shared with us during the workshop I took up at Esalen and the author was kind enough to allow me to share it here as well. I think it's particularly appropriate at this time of year as we spend more time tending our gardens.

Tending the Garden
(from Messages to Me: Words Collected on the Road to Silence)
by Meg Coyle Irsay

And so I tend to my garden, the plot of mind that has been given me to live in, the plot of mind that provides for my only need, to express the One Love.

Ann garden April 24The downside to having a community garden versus having one at home is the inability to see the daily changes. On the flip side, I suppose, are the dramatic changes you witness when you do get there. This past week I didn't make it over to the garden at all -- it was a busy week and, lucky for me (or maybe unlucky because stopping by the garden tends to be very soothing during stressful weeks), it rained in the middle of the week so I didn't need to water. When I did get there I was amazed to see the difference, mostly in the tomato plants, which had grown another foot and had a couple baby tomatoes making their way into the world. Side note: I also found the anti-social gardener (the one with the chain-link fence surrounding his plot) who grows the amazing tomatoes taking out his annual cover crop of fava beans, which means he's about to plant said amazing tomato seedlings. 

April 24 Ann gardenThe plants I have been able to watch everyday are the melon seedlings growing in my kitchen window. The Marina di Chioggia, especially, had grown to a good four times the size of its little starter pot and was ready to be planted. While not quite as dramatic, the Cantalupo di Charentais was also ready to be transplanted. And so, yesterday, they made their way to the garden exactly one month after I planted the seeds. The top photo is the Marina, right is the Cantalupo (the little sprig to the right of the lettuce). The Hokkaido watermelon seed is the slowest starter of the three so I'm going to give it a little more time in the window. After returning from my week of organic gardening edification at Esalen I may even start another one (heck, there may be a lot of other seeds to start!) as this one seems a little gimpy. We'll see.

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