ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Cantaloupe from the garden, after three attempts

image from the past three years, I've tried to grow cantaloupe in my community garden plot in Washington, DC.

The first two years, I planted my seeds in late May or early June and then transplanted the plants to the garden a few weeks later. All would go well. The vines would spread on the ground, the flowers would appear, the bees would show up to help pollinate the plants, and then I'd see tiny fruit. The fruit would get bigger and bigger -- and then, I'd leave for vacation in August.

Once, I picked the fruit while still green hoping that it would ripen fully on the trip. It tasted awful. But when I left the fruit to ripen on the vine, the melons were usually half eaten by the time I returned. After all, these melons were extremely fragrant. If I were a rodent prowling the neighborhood, I'd want a bite too.

This year, I took a different approach. I planted the seeds in early April, and transplanted the seedlings in May, under row cover for warmth. I began to get fruit by June. By July, when DC was basking in 100-plus temperatures, everything was humming. 

Then I went to extreme measures. I bought a solar powered owl, which I propped up on a stake. The owl's head turns periodically (it actually freaked out my wife, who went to the garden and didn't know about the owl. She jumped when its head turned). So far I've had no pest damage. While this owl made for a helluva an expensive melon, I am enjoying my lucious, juicy and delicious fruit. And I bet it will work for my tomatoes too.

- Samuel Fromartz


Winter garden bounty in Washington D.C.

I harvested a bunch of Asian greens and lettuce last Saturday, having planted them in September and October. This bounty was the result of a lot of potent compost I added in the early fall and an extremely mild winter in Washington D.C. The result -- a now 10-month garden this year. (I had a light row cover over everything except the cabbage). If we don't get a serious cold snap I should continue to get lettuce and spinach through the holidays. That big cabbage (over 7-1/2 pounds) will make a lot of kimchi! 

Pictured below (clockwise from left): Bok choi, mizuna, napa cabbage and red romaine lettuce. 

image from

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Can a school teaching kitchen get built?

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I'm highlighting a Kickstarter campaign to build a teaching kitchen -- it's the companion to a school garden that is a leading example in DC. The project is being run by Jennifer Mampara, who I once worked with on another school project. She did cooking demos in a kindergarten class while I took the kids out to a community garden to transplant and grow lettuce. They loved it and one day we all sat down for a big salad lunch with lettuce the kids had grown.

Now, the project at Watkins Elementary is more ambitious, and they have just two days left to reach a $60,000 goal. Can they do it? You may help decide.

Cold Frame: the 30-minute spinach induced version


After five years of gardening, I finally took the plunge to garden in the winter. Now, I've grown stuff in the winter before, like lettuce, which last year made it through 30-inches of snow and produced full heads in March. Or radishes, kale, and other winter hardy crops.

But this experiment with a cold frame, or small hoop house, was built out of frustration with my inability to grow spinach. For those who live in the mid-Atlantic, or maybe just Washington D.C, you know growing spinach can be tough. Plant it in the early spring and it bolts quickly. Sow seed in late summer for a fall crop and it fails to germinate because it's too hot. 

So I put up this mini-green house. It's very easy, based on a clip system from Territorial Seeds and a greenhouse plastic they also sell. You can get this stuff elsewhere but I had the catalog in front of me so just ordered it from them and both seemed to work well. The kit came with instructions which told me what else I would need.

So, for the size I wanted, I went to the hardware store and bought:

- Ten 2-foot lengths of half-inch rebar, which luckily I did not have to cut myself.

- 1/2-inch drip irrigation tubing. 

To build it, I pounded the rebar into the ground until only a six-inch section was protruding. I then cut the irrigation tubing into 6-1/2 foot lengths, inserting the tubing over the rebar. It naturally bent into the hoop shape. Now the instructions say you don't really need rebar, but I think it adds strength especially when it's windy.

Then I laid the plastic on top and secured it with the clips. 

It took all of 30 minutes, not including the time at the hardware store.

Since the plastic just reached the ground, I got a bale of hay and spread it around the base to add some insulation.

So what am I growing? I seeded bok choi, turnips, beets, and two varieties of spinach to see which one does better. I'm also growing red boston lettuce, spring onions and a few broccoli plants. The broccoli can grow outside but I put them under plastic because it's starting to get cold and the plants are still small. My theory is the heat will give the broccoli a jump to mature in December or January. Then, I'll start sowing my spring crops early.

So much for taking a winter break from gardening. But at least the spinach is coming up nicely!

- Samuel Fromartz


The gardener's choice: What to grow?

CabbageChinese cabbage and daikon from last year's garden

In our garden this time of year, I grow a lot of Asian greens for a couple of reasons: first, they germinate and grow extremely fast and secondly, supermarkets and even farmers markets tend to have just a sampling. Asian markets in the suburbs have more choice, but the quality can be iffy and the veggies aren't organic.

So as the summer heat finally died down, I sowed mizuna, mibuna, Chinese broccoli, daikon, bok choi, tat soi, two varieties of Chinese cabbage, mustard, turnips, red carrots, as well as a couple of varieties of lettuce that I don't often find, like red iceberg, a heirloom. I'll be drowning in Asian greens and lettuce in about 6-10 weeks and making my own kimchi.

I thought about this approach - grow what you can't buy - when I read this interesting piece about a gardener in England, Mark Diacono, who has a new book, Taste of the Unexpected. He talks about how he decided what to grow:

I did a little research, whittling out the truly impossible as well as anything cheap and widely available. What was left formed my first wishlist: mulberries, apricots, medlars, persimmons, quinces, pecans, olives, peaches, walnuts, mizuna, Szechuan pepper, kai lan and almonds. What a menu. Otter Farm was on its way.

On top of that, he bet climate change would make it possible to grow plants more common to the Mediterranean than the UK. 

Apricots, peaches and nectarines, among others, will get plenty enough sun in England to ripen happily, but the frosts can nip the blossom and kill off any chance of fruit. I was convinced that climate change would make those late frosts fewer and farther between, so I planted.

What I liked most was this list of how to think about what to plant. So here's Diacono's 13 steps (edited a bit from the full list at the Guardian link above):

1. Drawing up your wishlist is the key step ... forget about any limitations your garden may have and think imaginatively. Let flavour be your guide.

2. Grow what you most like to eat. Make a list of all the food you love. Add to it anything you love the sound of. 

3. Grow what you can't buy. Some homegrown foods bear little resemblance to those in the shops. Grow them for yourself and get them to the kitchen within minutes and they will taste luxurious.

4. Grow something unexpected. Quinces, mulberries and salsify are three of the many that don't suit the supermarket system, and all are among the very finest food you can eat. 

5. Challenge your tastebuds. If you hate it, grow it, at least once. Chances are it'll be so far removed from what you buy in the shops, or be so fine in combination with something else you grow that you'll be converted.

6. Grow food that's expensive to buy. It makes little sense to grow the cheap stuff and keep forking out for the pricier food, but that's exactly what most people do. Grow something delicious and expensive instead. 

7. Transformers. The transformers are those harvests that ensure your main crops have any number of costumes to dress up in. They are typically long on flavour and short on volume – herbs, Szechuan pepper, Egyptian walking onions, etc. 

8. Think seasonally. It can be tempting to concentrate on the height-of-summer loveliness, ignoring the fruit, greens, buried treasure, salads and nuts from the other parts of the year.

9. Quick return. Like most things, growing is about confidence and momentum, so enjoy the taste of success early. Include some cut-and-come-again salad leaves, intense microleaves and pinch off day-lily flowers within a few weeks or even days of them starting to grow and you'll taste the difference.

10. Go for diversity. Generally speaking, a little of lots rather than lots of a little is what you're after. Go for a broad range of foods as well as a number of varieties of each.

11. Aesthetics. A beautiful plot is undeniably more compelling to be in. Foster your own sense of the beautiful, afford it importance and you'll find your patch the place you most want to be for your morning coffee.

12. Get catalogues. When picking plants go to someone who does it for a living: they know what they're doing and they have an interest in you coming back. 

13. Be realistic about your time. In the first year, bite off less than you can chew. If I gave you a tomato plant to look after you'd probably find the time; if I gave you a two-acre field you might find other commitments get the better of you. 

HT to my friend the writer Roger Atwood who alerted me. 

- Samuel Fromartz

How Do You Prevent a Garden Pest, The Elephant?

This past weekend, I took time off from work and headed up to Kafue National Park, the largest park in Africa roughly the size of Switzerland. It was my one shot to see animals I’ve only seen in the zoo, like elephants, impalas, and lions. And we did see a lot, including a pride of lions that was only 20 feet away. Luckily, they were not interested in us from a culinary perspective.


We stayed at Mukambi Safari Lodge on the banks of the Kafue river, which I recommend the next time you’re in Zambia (I know, it's a long shot).


Anyway, on the lodge grounds, I noticed a small, sad, vegetable garden.

So, of course, I get to thinking. It rains just 3-1/2 months a year and then it is bone dry and sunny. But the lodge has the advantage of being right next to the river. The water could irrigate the garden and it would get full sun. It would be the Central Valley of California! Tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, potatoes would thrive.

So I took my idea to Linda, the friendly lodge manager, who listened to me politely.

“Yes we grow all our own herbs,” she said.

“But you could do so much more,” I replied enthusiastically.

Then she told me about the elephant. Apparently, one nearby likes tomatoes. As well as everything else they’ve tried to grow in the garden.

"We much prefer the hippos. They just graze on the grass."

“Have you tried a fence?”

“Yes, he knocked it down. Now we’re thinking of building a cinder block wall, but he will probably topple that as well.”

“Well, maybe you should spread some scat from a predator.”

“The elephant has no predators.”

“What about planting a crop that will repel him?”

“Yes, we heard cayenne repels elephants. This one seems to eat the peppers. We even tried spreading ground-up peppers on the fencing. It didn’t work.”

“Hum, interesting problem,” I replied.

So much for importing my gardening ideas to Africa. But if anyone has an effective elephant repellent for a vegetable garden let me know and I’ll pass it on to Linda.

Update: Apparently, bees repel elephants, or even the sound of bees. Researchers are trying this in Africa.

- Samuel Fromartz

On Sale Now!!! Mark Bittman iPhone App, and Such a Deal!

 image from
 This is hard to pass up -- the Mark Bittman ouvre, How to Cook Everything, which is $21 and change over at Amazon, for the bargain basement price of $1.99 in an iPhone app -- that is, if you've already spent hundreds on the iPhone itself.

Mark Bittman? There's an App for That - Slashfood .

How to get our Bittman fix? Let us count the ways: There's his New York Times "Minimalist" column, of course; his expert contributions at; his health and fitness articles for Runner's World and Men's Health; and, lest one forget, his 1044-page tome How to Cook Everything. I happen to own that $35 behemoth myself; I thumb through it compulsively, getting Bittman's take on everything from scrambled eggs to bouillabaisse. But now the book's contents can be downloaded to your iPhone -- for less than two bucks.

Culinate, the smart food site, is apparently behind the app. What a great idea. I can't wait for more.

Oh, wait there already is more. Michael Ruhlman has an iPhone app too, based on his book Ratio. It helps you calculate ingredients in "all fundamental culinary preparations."

Now, Rodale, where are the organic gardening apps? J.I. Rodale would have been all over this. 

- Samuel Fromartz

With Tomatoes Failing, Why Are Mine Alive?


I've seen many articles about the tomato blight hitting the northeast, though what I find curious are the plants that avoid it, like the sungold tomato above. It's a hybrid variety though not immune to late blight.

In my community garden, many plants have succumbed to the disease but several in my plot are growing, the tomatoes maturing, including heirloom varieties. My yield though is down from last year.

In my sheltered backyard, where I grow sungold and heirloom chocolate cherry tomatoes in large pots, with nary another tomato plant in sight, I've no blight at all. Is it the variety? Is it the sheltered location? My friend, Jim Crawford, a Pennsylvania organic farmer, says: "No question, location makes a huge difference."

George Ball, who heads up Burpee Seeds, argues on his blog that heirlooms are least resistant to the disease:

If the spring and summer of 2009 is followed in succession by similar seasons in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, we could face a complete extinction of many—not all—of the old-fashioned heirlooms and open-pollinated tomato varieties that folks in the Northeast have come to enjoy since those varieties were reintroduced in the early 1980s.

Now Burbee sells a lot of disease-resistant hybrids, which gardeners must buy each year because they are not open pollinated. But I see no reason why open-pollinated versions will fail to develop resistance on their own. Why not get a healthy heirloom standing tall in a field of failed plants and then breed it?

That's exactly what Crawford is doing. "We've got one field of Brandywines, which went completely brown, but in the middle are four plants that are green from top to bottom," he said. He's saving the seed for next year -- something you can't do with hybrids.

This dovetails with something Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm writes about in his seed company's newsletter:

I know organic seed growers and breeders often prefer open pollinated varieties because type selection is fully within their control. This allows a practical and decentralized way of developing regionally adapted varieties that excel and resist disease pressure and certainly that's what we need as was made very clear by this year's cold wet conditions in the Northeast.

Who knows. Maybe one's even growing in my backyard. 

- Samuel Fromartz

In the News - Baguettes, Gardens, Fish

Susan over at Wild Yeast blog tried my baguette recipe and the results were stunning. Just take a look at the pictures to see her results. If you have a great loaf nearby and want a simple treat, dip a piece of bread in a good olive oil and sprinkle a few grains of fleur de sel on it. I gave this tip to my friend Roger, a former newspaper reporter now blogging for the California Olive Ranch.

In other links, Obama Foodorama has an astute analysis of the White House garden and Michelle Obama's mission to change the way the nation eats. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the Queen mother has planted an organic garden in a corner of Buckingham Palace. (Maybe that's why Michelle Obama was gently putting her arm around the Queen.) NYT also has a piece on rooftop gardening, which in part has been spurred by tax incentives.

Clare Leshin-Hoar stirs the pot in the WSJ, with a piece on how CSAs (community supported agriculture schemes) have come to the seafood world, with CSFs (community supported fish). Fish lovers in Boston can buy a share of the catch, though with this caveat: not everything is sustainable (cod, for instance).

In follow-up news, the campaign to stop Nobu from serving endangered bluefin tuna has not yet yielded results. Although partner Drew Nieporent told the New York Post, "At the end of the day, we are going to do the right thing," so far that has meant doing nothing. They are clearly betting this campaign will blow over and they will continue to serve bluefin tuna until it is literally gone.
- Samuel Fromartz

Potatoes v. Seed Potatoes: The Difference?

Can anyone explain the difference between potatoes and seed potatoes?

I just bought organic seed potatoes from Wood Prairie Farm in Maine - a place I've bought from before, with a wide range, if now dwindling (at this late date), choice of potatoes.

Now, I know I could Google to get the answer but wonder if my astute readers (farmers among them) could provide the answer in the comments.

I think I am going to grow these in an expandable bin. This article explains how you can get 100 pounds in a 4x4x4 bin. I don't need that many so am trying a 2x4 footprint if I can get my act together and build it.

- Samuel Fromartz

A White House Garden It's Not, But...

The Slow Cook has a post on a guy in Portland, Oregon, who got tired of waiting for a plot at a community garden, so he used Google maps to locate nearby empty city lots. Then he contacted owners about gardening on the vacant properties. One woman replied:

The landowner had recently received a nuisance complaint from the cityabout the buildup of refuse on the lot. She was elated that I would clean up the lot and turn it into a garden. In exchange for the use of the land, I am providing her with approximately one CSA share of produce for 16 weeks. We drew up an agreement, and she promises to give me as much advance notice as possible should she decide to sell. She also offered me a lot four times the size of this one, about 20 blocks away, which I hope to use next year.

The risk, of course, is that in a few years he'll lose the land and all the work he put into it, but then I imagine there will be other plots for the taking.

Let every empty city lot be a garden! Imagine.

More on the garden here.