Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cold Hardy Vegetables and Herbs


Snow Peas

garlic leaves


Corn Salad
Here in Tampa we got zapped by a HARD freeze a few weeks back.....farmers out east of us had heart breaking losses. I lost all my papayas, but my usual winter crops were unfazed by being frozen solid...that experience reconnected me to my 15 years of gardening in Denver .Are you weary of tomatoes and bell peppers getting zapped by frosts each winter here in Florida or the Gulf Coast, or spring in cold climates? Would you like to give unique growing edible gifts to friends and family? A mix of your native creativity and the need to be frugal these days can let you transform an ordinary supper into an elegant feast with just a candle, a simple bouquet from your yard, and the subtle sophistication of COLD LOVING gourmet herbs and vegetables fresh from your own garden or container garden. And a living gift of this treasure is sure to be appreciated.
Our cooler winter months in central and south Florida allow us to cheaply and easily grow crops planted in spring in cold climates, a whole chef’s blend that in the stores is pricey, and often wilted and hardly "fresh". All you need is fertile soil in a garden or flower pot, full sun, and a willingness to think "cheap and tasty". And all these crops taste BETTER after a frost! Any of these gourmet treasures can be grown easily in a decorative one gallon pot filled with a mix of half compost and half native soil as a charming living present that friends can enjoy for months for birthdays and other holidays.

Long treasured in Europe and only now getting noticed is ‘Mache’, also known as "Corn Salad" and "Lamb's Lettuce". I grew this very cold hardy leafy green in Denver early each spring when up to two months of snow threatened, so any frosts here in Tampa will actually help it grow. A member of the Valerian family, it is very easy from seed yet commands an astonishing price in the few produce sections that carry it. You’ll swoon over the crunchy texture and sweet nutty taste that puts lettuce to shame. It is also a very nutritious herb and vegetable treasured in its native Europe for many centuries for all these reasons. In Denver I would plant seeds in late autumn just before the ground would freeze, and in spring my Corn Salad plants would push up through the snow. Or I would sow seeds as soon as the soil thawed.

Asian cooking isn’t complete without the crispy crunch and color of the various Oriental mustards like boy choy, pai tsai, Chinese cabbage, and ‘Osaka Giant Red Mustard’, which is fiery when raw yet mild when cooked. We rarely see these fine veggies in the store (although mizuna is showing up in bagged mixed salads) yet they grow SO easily from seed in a healthy garden or patio planter filled with compost and fed with dilute "fish emulsion" from a garden center. Since they are all members of the Brassica family, the cool winter months in Florida allow them to prosper with few bug or disease problems and they enjoy cold snaps and frosts. In Denver, I sowed their seeds in my garden about 3 weeks before last frost danger (yeah right, like that can be predicted in Colorado!). My friend Sandy Cruze grew mizuna in the mountains west of Denver ALL WINTER LONG...it is right up there with curly kale for cold hardiness.

Both Mexican and Thai cuisine is rendered perfect with fresh chopped cilantro. But a tiny wilted bundle from the produce section can be a couple bucks! So just buy a cellophane packet of "coriander seeds" from the Mexican spice display and plant them 1 inch apart and ½ inch deep. Coriander seeds are literally cilantro seeds! A teensy packet of "cilantro seed" from a garden center can be almost two bucks for very few seeds, but the spice angle gets you hundreds for about a buck! Cilantro is a short-lived cool weather plant, so sow a new crop every 2 -3 weeks for a steady supply. Never buy cilantro plants as they are just weeks from dying at that point...now you know why yours always fail. If you live in a cold climate region, sow your first row when the soil has thawed but it still cold.

Pricey gourmet salad blends contain the French herb "arugula", also called "roquette" and "rocket". This potent member of the mustard family has a love-it-or-hate-it flavor..I love it! Rarely sold in produce markets, it grows like a weed each winter in central Florida. Like all mustards, the small seeds sprout quickly and soon mature in fertile soil and bear till the return of summer heat. Buy the seeds at garden shops and plant them from November through February for an exotic herb served raw in salads or flash sauteed with onions in bacon grease. I’ve grown it for non-gardening friends for many winters now. In Denver, arugula shed LOTS of seeds each fall that germinated very early each spring, giving me fresh organic arugula when it still felt more like winter than spring.
Chopped shallot, scallion, and garlic leaves give baked and mashed potatoes, soups, stir fries and omelets a chef’s blessings, so just plant a garlic bulb, several small shallot bulbs, and "onion sets" from a garden shop about 4 inches deep in rich soil. Within a month you’ll be snipping off warmly flavored green treasure, and they’ll keep regrowing till summer. In cold climates garlic can be planted in the fall like tulips to grow the following summer....harvest in late summer when the tops have died back.

Plant a packet too of Chinese Snow Peas or Sugar Snap peas....they groove on Florida winter’s cool nights, and their crunchy pods and edible leaves (yup, use the leaves raw or cooked) make a stir fry both lovely and authentic. And there is nothing like the pods and leaves raw in a salad. They were among my most cold hardy crops the fifteen springs and summers I gardened in Denver.
Candy mint, spearmint, chocolate mint and peppermint leaves snipped fresh from a potted plant kept damp in a tray with one inch of standing water are superb in delicious Indian dishes, plus in spring rolls, iced tea, or as a garnish for chocolate holiday desserts, and are widely available in garden shops. And while they tolerate summer here, they glory in winter. In cold climates, all the mints can be delightfully invasive.

Hey, we work hard, pay our bills, deal with jobs and kids and spouses and Big Brother, and the world at large....why not be good to ourselves with a little frugal fun in the kitchen with these cold-defying gifts from our own gardens?


  1. hey john, great work as usual.
    i just posted a couple shots of my garden "survivors"

  2. Nice Pics John, I can feel the crunch in my mouth!!!

  3. My broccoli and onions were untouched too.Then again, even in Denver they were very cold hardy for me.