Friday, September 30, 2011

Here Is An Article From My Old St. Pete Times Gardening Column


Are you like me?......powerless and paralyzed in the kitchen if you miraculously run out of onions or garlic? Sure, the Asian spice asa foetida can serve as a vague substitute for either in Indian cuisine, but the sensuous warm flavor and aroma of garlic, onions, shallots, chives, leeks and other savory members of the Allium family hold a singular crown of honor in many kitchens. Plus medical research has proved the old lores that those sulfur-rich tasty herbs can lower cholesterol and combat bad microbes. And the next 6 or 7 months of cooler weather in central Florida make growing them a chef’s dream come true if we improve the soil in just about any sunny chemical-free corner of our yards, or grow them in big pots on sunny patios.

Related to lilies, all the Alliums similarly love rich, humusy, pH neutral soil in full sun. Before planting, spread a 3 inch thick layer of organic matter like horse stall sweepings, compost, old leaves, bagged humus, or alfalfa pellets from a feed store, plus a generous sprinkling of cheap clay cat litter to trap moisture and provide the clay Alliums love. If your inland soil is very acid as is so often the case, apply a liberal sprinkling of dolomite annually about as heavy as parmesan cheese on spaghetti. Alkaline coastal soils can be acidified with a heavier quarterly sprinkling of cottonseed meal from a feed store….sprinkle it right along with the organic matter. Getting your soil’s pH (acidity vs. alkalinity) tested by your local extension service will confirm which is the best course of action. It sounds wacky, but adding to that organic matter and cat litter a 50 lb. bag of cheap dry dog food nuggets over a 10 foot by 10 foot garden before turning the soil will feed the earthworms wonderfully who will in turn nourish your garden. A 4 inch thick layer of mulch, like coastal hay or chipped tree trimmings, applied after the soil is turned and watered DEEPLY, will do wonders to keep the soil moist and cool but not inhibit the emergence of the bulbs’ foliage. Let all this “ripen” for two or three weeks then plant away.

If you garden in a condo or town home or apartment with a sunny patio, just fill some three gallon capacity pots with drainage holes with a good compost and potting soil mix, adding cheap clay cat litter 10% by volume. Try one half “spent mushroom compost” sold at garden centers and one half of your favorite potting soil. Into each pot of the mix blend in the shells of a dozen eggs or beach side sea shell grit from the tide line to supply calcium, plus two cups dry dog or cat food nuggets. Mix it all together, fill the pots to within two inches from the top, water deeply and let it age for two to three weeks also. To keep the soil damp and cool and to reduce the need to water, I usually mulch my potted plants with maybe two inches of either horse stall sweepings or chipped tree trimmings mulch. You can plant any and all of the edible alliums in these pots.
Scallions are simply the tasty results of planting ordinary onion sets “too deeply” and harvesting them “too soon”… let them mature a few months more and you’ll have regular onions! It’s fun to buy the sets of red Bermuda onions, yellow or white onions, or even Vidalia sweet onions, and plant them deeply (about 6 inches) in a furrow, spacing them about two inches apart. Mental over garlic like me? Break up a bulb and plant the cloves in the same manner, and in a few months you’ll have a religious experience eating and cooking with freshly-pulled “garlic scallions”.....try them all and you will be spoiled for a lifetime. Be sure to snip off the tubular leaves of all of them to try as “chives” in countless dishes, even salads.

I always plant a few entire garlic bulbs just to be able to snip off their leaves to use as you would chives in salads, simple broths, rich casseroles or that occasional impetuous gravy or omelet. ( Friends visiting my winter garden always marvel at their first sultry savory taste of raw garlic leaves nibbled right there in the garden.) Harvesting the leaves will slowly exhaust the bulb, so plant one new garlic bulb per month from October through March for months of culinary bliss. I almost forgot....for sheer nirvana in the kitchen all year long, stuff a few fistfuls of garlic leaves into your blender, pour in some extra virgin olive oil, and buzz it all into a kind of “garlic pesto” and pour it into ice cube trays and freeze. Pop the green cubes into a gallon freezer bag, and when you need a “fix” of fresh garlic flavor, toss a couple into a skillet or wok or soup or spaghetti sauce. On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this is near the top for me!

Experienced gardeners might try growing Leeks (Allium porrum) from seeds planted in shallow 1 inch deep furrows. A little slow, they are worth the wait. I get the best results from planting them in late fall in loose rich soil I keep damp with a deep mulch and deep weekly watering. As they gain height, start piling soil and mulch up against the row of leeks to blanch them into the long tender white portion we are familiar with. There is simply no other flavor like leeks, especially in potato soup.

While Chinese Chives (Allium tuberosum) can be an acquired taste (they remind some folks of the related edible ornamental Society Garlic, they are very productive and will multiply quickly by fallen seeds and self division into a massive clump in the vegetable or flower garden (they produce lovely tall white flower stalks reminiscent of petite agapanthus blooms). I cut off handfuls of the strap-like leaves and chop them with my kitchen scissors into soups, stir fry and casseroles, or raw as part of the filling in spring rolls. The underground portion resembles a narrow scallion and can be used as such though the flavor is more potent, hence the nickname “Garlic Chives”.

The true Chive grew like a weed for me in Colorado, where it reseeds like crazy. but here in my native Florida I only get several months of growth out of them and have heard that from many other gardeners. But that unique flavor is wonderful in cheesy pasta dishes so I try them annually. I’d love to hear from someone who has learned how to get vigorous perennial growth from them in central Florida.

When your alliums’ emerald spiky leaves are 8 inches tall, feed the soil again with a sprinkling of ‘menhaden fish meal’ from a feed store or a good drench of ‘fish emulsion’ solution at 3 tablespoons of it per gallon of water. Compost tea or horse manure are also superb. A deep weekly soak will meet their needs and conserve precious water.

Life’s most reliable and memorable joys are the simplest ones, so indulge yourself this winter with a bumper crop of tongue teasing Alliums.

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