Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Primula Odyssey

When I moved to Michigan on a day much like today (snow in March), I had left behind a California garden full of succulents and tropical plants like fuchsia and hibiscus.  Now it was time to regroup.  I studied the English cottage garden (always an ideal) and prepared to grow herbaceous borders.

Browsing through the seed packets at the garden store, I found Primula veris.  I had read about primroses in English gardens so decided to try it, though it looked difficult.  Two years later, I was enchanted.  The plants grew vigorously, self-seeded, and helped to make spring cheerful and light.  That was the beginning of an odyssey into understanding and growing this genus.

A classic polyanthus. I call this one "Old Yellow".
The most familiar Primula are the polyanthus "primroses".  These are hybrids and many selected varieties exist.  The flowers are held on a stalk, usually above the leaves.  Actually, these are not true primroses.  Botanically minded gardeners sometime refer to them as Primula X polyanthus to indicate that they are hybrids.

Primula vulgaris "True Blue"
The true primroses are Primula vulgaris, a European species that is well known as an English wildflower (but apparently much less common in the wild now).  The flowers are not mounted on a stalk, but arise singly from the crown of the plant, thus are sometimes referred to as "acaulis",  "caul" referring to a stem.  The classic P. vulgaris is a lovely creamy yellow (the color sometimes called "primrose").  But there are many color variants that have either occurred naturally or through hybridizing with garden plants.

But the genus Primula is not limited to our familiar garden plants.  Primulas exist in the wild all over the world, though the single species in South America is likely a modern introduction.  I can make this statement because I possess the most authoritative book on Primula in existence and it describes the range and distribution of the genus. The book is Primula, by John Richards (Timber Press).  Anyone who has become as obsessive as I have about primulas should have the book, which describes the history, distribution, and biology of the genus, as well as its taxonomy.  There are also a selection of color plates.  But for a really wide selection of pictures of primulas, see Pam Eveleigh's gallery of Primula species  (she uses Richards' taxonomic scheme).  As Richards makes clear, the overwhelming majority of primulas are from Asia, or as he puts it, "the eastern Sinohimalaya".

Candelabra primulas
Fortunately, the English, being great plant explorers, brought many Asiatic species home and they are available to gardeners.  The candelabra primroses are descended from those early collections.  They have been hybridized and released as special varieties, which are usually grown in sweeps together. But the species are still grown. The plant blooming to the left is Primula burmanica. Primula helodoxa is just visible to the right.  The hosta behind them is full-size; P. helodoxa is very tall.  The Asiatic primulas appear to require continual seed-harvesting and replanting.  For that reason, there are not many left in my garden.

Primula auricula
Another species that has been widely adapted to gardens is Primula auricula.  There are some varieties that are spectacularly colored, so that they almost appear to be from outer space.  They are usually grown in greenhouses and brought out only for flower shows.  But there are garden auriculas too. Note that the foliage is quite different from the other primulas shown.

Primula juliae
Primula juliae is not only a long-lasting and enjoyable garden subject, but was also the source of some of the colors now available in polyanthus.  It has a different growth habit, creeping to form a little colony over time.

Having grown, loved and lost a number of primulas, I've come down finally to concentrating on those I know will have some staying power in my garden.  They include my faithful Primula veris, the acaulis P. vulgaris types,  P. juliae, and the endless varieties of polyanthus. But probably I'll always be tempted by another challenge to engage more primulas.

This polyanthus is of the true "primrose" color.

Note: this article follows another one on primulas, Primula Fever, which describes more primulas and their hybrids and has more pictures.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Winter Dreams

So how does a gardener survive winter?  Especially such a long and cold one (Michigan has been in the path of the "polar vortex" and has received more than 40 inches of snow so far this winter).

The first line of defense is, of course, the garden catalogs.  This is the time to pour over the pictures and imagine a garden full of every delightful plant possible.  I find myself dwelling over Johnny's and wondering why I can't grow exotic varieties of vegetables that I've never even eaten.  My particular obsession is with lettuces - nothing more beautiful than lettuces like blooms on the soil, especially to my winter eye. Seed catalogs often tempt one to over-order but there are also stalwarts that simply must be obtained every year.  I have a number of favorites that my garden would miss if I didn't order them.

But the consequence is that the seed packets arrive in the mail, and many of them need to be started indoors.  This is a benefit.  It is an opportunity to work with living things and see the green of chlorophyll in spite of the snow cover.

The techniques of seed starting can be very simple or extremely complex.  Most garden plants have been selected over hundreds of years to be started easily from seed.  Wild or recently domesticated plants often have dormancy mechanisms that need to be overcome before the seeds will germinate.  The survival value of this is obvious.  Seedlings may be killed in one year's bad weather and others can germinate in a different year to flower and set more seed.  Here is a discussion of factors that inhibit germination.  Here is a master list of conditions for seed germination in many wild species.

Even easy garden plants have requirements. Seed germination requires several environmental triggers to be present, and the combination of these varies somewhat from species to species.  First, water must be present.  Even dead seeds will soak up water (imbibition) and it is the first step in germination. Light and temperature are the other two triggers.  The right combination, and sometimes the right sequence, will cause a complex series of hormonal changes in the seed that allow the embryo to grow and use the stored food reserves.  Here is a scholarly review of the physiology of seed germination.

For the great majority of garden plants, higher temperatures (around 70° F) are best for germination.  This can be supplied by "seedling heat mats" for sale in many garden stores and catalogs.  There are also many light fixtures for growing plants (fluorescent lights are best) that can be fancy or simple.  I use shop lights propped up on blocks.  It is necessary to keep humidity high while germination occurs - this can be with plastic domes, plastic bags, or even transparent sweater boxes.  A timer should be used to turn lights on and off.  I use a 14-hour day length.

Seedlings are easily killed by a couple of common fungi.  This is called "damping off".  For that reason, seedlings should be started in sterile artificial medium, typically sphagnum peat that has been finely milled.  The germination medium I use also has vermiculite added to keep it from clumping.The medium should be kept damp, but not flooded.  I use a plastic spray bottle to keep dampness at the right level.

Clean containers should be used to start the seedlings.  I use simple plastic trays (and plastic bags in the beginning).  But there are many "seed starting systems" for sale.  The trays last for decades and I clean them with bleach before use. 

Most seedlings should not be transplanted until they have developed some true leaves. For most garden plants, the first "leaves" are the cotyledons, which had been the location of stored food reserves and then become green and photosynthetic after emergence.  The seedlings are still very young and don't have much of a root system yet.

Later, the true leaves have developed and the plant has begun to grow.  Eventually it has become time for what the British refer to as "pricking out" - transferring them to single containers.  I prefer 4-cell packs which allow more root room than the 6-cell packs many commercial growers use to sell flats of annuals.

In the cell packs, the plants can grow under the lights, and later be moved outside.  I use a cold frame to temper them until it is consistently warm enough to plant.  But they'll last in these cell packs until June or later.

ADDENDUM: A question left unanswered here is, "When should you start the seeds?" This depends on your location and the first frost-free date for your area. In Southern Lower Michigan, it is approximately May 15, so vegetable seeds should be started with that in mind.  Johnny's Select Seeds has a handy seed-starting calculator for that decision.   Flower seed starting is variable: some need to be started as early as January in order to bloom in a reasonable time after they are planted out. Petunias take a very long time to become planting size, for example.  Hot-weather annuals like zinnias and marigolds will need to be held until the frost-free date, so that should be taken into account.  Some others, like pansies and violas, can be planted earlier so should be started earlier.  Perennial plants often grow slowly so benefit from an early start.  The seedlings shown above were all planted this year (2014).  A cold frame is useful to temper seedlings in the couple of weeks before the frost-free date.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Primula Fever

Gardening is not just about food, it is also about beauty.  The true gardener dreams of the moment a particular flower will share its beauty.  This is usually after months or perhaps years of cultivation and fussing.  From the viewpoint of the plant, all that beauty and fragrance is aimed at one thing: pollination. But for the gardener, just those few perfect moments are worth the long months of waiting.

Primula veris, the cowslip
This time of year, my dreams often center on a particular genus, Primula, which are the true primroses.  The name is derived from the fact that they are often a first plant to bloom in the spring, thus "first rose".  The modest and cheerful English wildflower, Primula veris (the cowslip) is one of the most welcome sights in my spring garden.

But there are many species of Primula, and many cultivars and hybrids.  The common garden primroses most often seen in cultivation are mostly "polyanthus", which are descended from hybrids of P. veris, P. vulgaris (the true primrose), and P. elatior (the oxlip).  Another species, P. juliae, has added more color range.

Because I was so enamored of primulas, I chose a garden primrose as my gravatar for this blog.  The picture is not of a "buttercup" but of a yellow polyanthus primrose that has been a sturdy guest of my garden for many years now.  It was given to me by a friend, which is the way primroses often get passed around.

Grace's Red
Two of my other favorite primroses were also given by a friend.  I've named them "Grace's White" and "Grace's Red" in her honor.  These are also sturdy and prolific.  Grace originally obtained them from yet another friend, who found them growing by an abandoned house.  It would be wonderful to know the full history.

Grace's White
Now I have divided and distributed these plants several times.  Primroses are best divided during their active growing periods, which are fall and spring.

I have grown many other types of Primula that I have started from seed.  This is a rather laborious process but the surest way to get many of them, since they don't all divide well and seed-starting is the way to get a wide range of types.  I've ordered many different ones from the North American Rock Garden Society seed exchange. I was able to start most of them, but many proved not to be hardy here in Michigan.

Long before I ever grew any Primula, I studied them in biology classes.  They are the classic example of self-sterile flowers.  Most of them have obligate outbreeding, that is, cannot pollinate themselves.  This is done both with genes and because the style and stamens are designed so that it is structurally impossible. Two types of flowers, pin (long style) and thrum (short style) exist; this is called heterostyly. Hand pollination is usually necessary to obtain seeds in the garden.  Here is a guide to hand pollination of primulas.

But a very few species do develop homostyly and can produce seed.  I inadvertently started a colony of candelabra primroses in my garden. I'm not sure of the species or cultivar because I had tried a number of different species in that bed the year before.  It may even be a self-sustaining new hybrid.

A rather perverse charm of Primula is that they are often short-lived if not cultivated very carefully.  They require top-dressing with compost and good fertility, not to mention water and protection from hot sun.  So I've lost many of them, and saved others through a last-ditch effort. Now I'm going to be trying to recover some of my favorites by starting seed as early as December, with long periods of chilling, warming, waiting, and slowly transferring the tiny plantlets until they are ready to plant in the garden.  I won't see any flowers from this year's seed-starting until next year.  But that is the price of having a lovely show of primroses in the early spring.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Keep It Simple, Sweetie!

There are many dishes that the abundant tomatoes of late summer can be used for, but finally we reach the moment when they simply need to be preserved for future use.  There are many methods that I've used, including dehydrating some plum tomatoes to be reconstituted for salads.  I haven't actually canned tomatoes in recent years because I have lots of freezer space, so I freeze them in several forms, including puree (cooked down, then put through a food mill) and Basil Tomato Sauce.

For many years I've used the Basil Tomato Sauce by itself and in combination (the Red Pepper Sauce and a rich complex ragu type spaghetti sauce that I have used the puree in as well).  But I wanted to explore some other options.

Perhaps I was the last person home cook in the Continental United States to discover Marcella Hazan's simple recipe for tomato sauce that is a galaxy away from my usual olive oil-garlic-spice based uses.  What I've learned is that her book,  Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking was central to reforming American cooking to utilize fresh produce and making food from scratch. Hazan died on September 29, 2013. In her obituary, her devotion to simplicity and fresh ingredients is stressed (a slightly different recipe for the famous tomato sauce is given there). She is quoted as saying, "Why not make it simple?"  Just before her death, I discovered this recipe and began experimenting with it.

The essence of the recipe is that it is startlingly simple and completely at odds with the palette of "Italian" flavors that we have become (perhaps too) familiar.  It consists of tomatoes, butter (not olive oil!), salt, and an onion that is removed before serving.

  One onion, five tablespoons of butter - that's it.

Apparently many people have made this with canned San Marzano tomatoes.  But I wanted to use my own tomatoes and I didn't want to keep all the seeds or to remove them by hand.

A friend who likes to make and can a huge amount of tomato sauce each year tipped me off to the use of a device often called a "sauce master" that uses a screw-type action and a screen to separate juice and pulp from seeds and skin.  There are several stand-alone versions but I found that my KitchenAid stand mixer has an attachment (the Fruit & Vegetable Strainer) which works much better.

Using this attachment, I produced 3 quarts of thin tomato purée from 6 pounds of very ripe tomatoes.  This then has to be concentrated slightly before using by cooking at low to moderate heat for about an hour, which reduces it to about half the volume.  I then used 3 cups of this (a total of 3 pounds of tomatoes!) to produce about 2 cups of dense sauce that is the very essence of tomato.  A little Parmesan, a little pasta, and you have a meal.  (This sauce does not have the faintly caramelized taste one obtains with tomato paste.)

Note the lush thickness of the sauce and how it adheres to the pasta. (Click on the image to get a closer look.)

Simple Tomato Sauce
modified from Marcella Hazan

3 cups tomato purée
One yellow or white cooking onion, peeled and cut in half
5 tablespoons butter
salt to taste

Place the pureé, onion and butter in a saucepan.  Cook at low to medium heat with occasional stirring until butter is well incorporated (a little layer of butter may appear at the top near the end, to be stirred back in) and the onion is cooked.  Remove the onion.  (It may be eaten separately or reserved for other use.)  Salt to taste (recall that tomatoes are rather salty on their own).

Use immediately.  I don't recommend storing or freezing this sauce.

Using a KitchenAid stand mixer with Fruit & Vegetable Strainer attachment 


Core the tomatoes and cut into quarters.  These must be pushed into the feeder with the supplied tamping tool.  A screw drives the seeds and skin out the end, while the pulp and juice come through the screen.

The housing for the screen channels the juice and pulp into a separate bowl.
 I found that the skin/seed material can be run through a second time.

Three quarts of tomato purée from six pounds of tomatoes

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Fruits of Summer: Eggplant and Tomato

The gorgeous fruits of summer's bounty are a delight to the eye but a challenge to the cook.  How to use not just one eggplant, but six or eight all at once?  And the tomatoes just keep on coming, despite numerous batches of sauce.  This sets off a search for dishes that use several of these fruits of summer at once.

Middle Eastern and "Mediterranean" dishes are a great source for such recipes.  Every summer I know that when the eggplants come in, I'll be making my favorite lamb and eggplant stew from Claudia Roden's classic A Book of Middle Eastern Food  (it has since come out in a revised version but I cling to my old one).

Note that most recipes in this book, and many other recipes using eggplant, call for sprinkling the cut eggplant with salt and then draining it after awhile.  I think this may have been intended to cut the "bitter factor" from the eggplant.  However, I do not use the large eggplants but rather a smaller variety, Neon. There are many varieties of pear-shaped eggplant that are similar but I have found this one to be sweet and mild even when fairly mature.  I never use the pre-salting technique.

Lamb and Eggplant Stew
adapted from Claudia Roden

1 large onion, chopped
1 pound or more of lamb stew meat (this can be made from leg of lamb)
3 tomatoes (quartered, peeled by immersing in boiling water)
1 tablespoon concentrated tomato paste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
olive oil
2-3  eggplants (medium size)
salt, black pepper

Brown the meat and onion together in scant oil.  Mash the tomatoes into the mixture and add the tomato paste, lemon juice and spices.  Add water to cover and simmer for about 1 hour until the meat is tender enough to cut with a cooking spatula.

Slice the peeled eggplants thinly and sauté in batches until translucent.  This will take up a lot of olive oil.  Some of it may be poured back into the skillet for the later batches.

Mix the eggplant into the meat mixture, cover and simmer for about 1/2 hour more.  Salt and pepper to taste.

This mixture is excellent over a bulgur wheat pilaf, but any grain pilaf should work.  It is also very nice with some yogurt on the side.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ripe Tomato Solution: Gazpacho

There comes a moment in the summer when the tomatoes are so red, so ripe that they demand a really luxurious use.  Sauces can come later.  Of course, many people would say that slicing them and eating with or without a drizzle of olive oil is enough.  But what I think of is gazpacho.

Ingredients for gazpacho are simple.
Gazpacho is a much abused dish.  I've been served many versions, and in browsing recipes I've found many horrors.

A common abuse is that bread is omitted.  The dish probably originated as a bread soup.  According to Wikipedia, it may have come to Spain from the Moors or from Rome, as a soup made of bread and vinegar.  Today there are several classic Spanish soups in which bread is a primary ingredient.

Many recipes have Too Many Vegetables.  Others actually use commercial tomato juice or add herbs or even Worchester sauce.  The result is more a salad than a soup.

I learned to make gazpacho from a Spanish woman and still use a much stained recipe in her hand to make mine.  Sara used only a few ingredients to make the soup, then passed little bowls of chopped vegetables (onions, green pepper, cucumbers) and cubes of bread to add as you wished.

Sara's Spanish Gazpacho

Soak a couple of pieces or a heel of French bread in water.

Remove stems from 4-5 very ripe tomatoes.  (No need to peel.)
Remove stems and seeds from a green pepper.
Peel 1-3 cloves of garlic.  (Three makes it rather garlicky.)
Squeeze the water out of the bread.

Place all of these into a blender (a little at a time, so that it will liquify and blend).  Once blended, add "a drop of oil and a drop of vinegar"  (I advise about 2:1 olive oil to wine vinegar) and salt.  You'll have to add these by taste.  I start with 2 teaspoons of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of vinegar, then add a little more after tasting.

Chill.  Serve with cubes of bread and vegetables to taste.  It will keep several days in the refrigerator and makes a great refreshment drunk out of a glass, too.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Green Bean Plenty

Mid-July brings a harvest of green beans (some call them "string beans") that moves rapidly into the "embarrassment of riches" period.  After the first several meals of simply prepared beans (I usually just cook them until fully tender and add butter, salt and pepper), it begins to be time to think of something else.
One popular idea I haven't tried yet is to pickle them (dilly beans).  Another winner is Maan's Green Beans, a recipe that has been passed around the Michigan food blog circuit.  (If you like garlic, you'll love Maan's.)

But my first impulse is to make up a bunch of Ted's Syrian Rice.  This is a meat stew with green beans that freezes quite well.  Like every treasured recipe, it has a history.

Middle Eastern food was essentially unknown in Oklahoma during the 1950s (unless you count Jamil's, where I first tasted tabbouleh and cabbage rolls).  So a dish titled "Syrian" was immediately exotic.  It was the specialty of one of my parents' dear friends, who would occasionally bring a dish of it to our table.  I don't know how he obtained the recipe, but it wasn't from traveling in Syria. It would be interesting to know how it came to include Worcestershire sauce.

Ted used canned green beans (what we mostly had in those days).  I simply cook my fresh beans well before adding them, and I use a lot of beans.  I've also added a pinch of cinnamon to make the dish taste just a little Middle Eastern.

Syrian Rice
modified from Ted Walstrum

1 pound lean ground beef
3 medium onions, chopped
1/4 green pepper, chopped
2 cups cooked tomatoes with juice (or 14.5 oz can)
2 cups - 1 quart cooked green beans, drained
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
salt, pepper (note canned tomatoes are already salty)
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon  (optional)

Cook the onions in butter (Ted's choice) or olive oil until they are translucent.  Remove and brown the ground beef.  Add back the onions and the chopped green pepper.  Mix in the green beans, tomatoes and seasonings.

Cook in a covered casserole at 325° for one hour.  Serve with rice.  (Ted made a hearty brown rice pilaf, but plain white rice or any other similar grain, like bulgur wheat, works just fine.)

This reheats well after freezing (the beans are not supposed to be crisp anyway).  Freeze without the rice.