}

January 27, 2019

Winter Gardening Ramps Up - Book Reviews Pour In


There are still endless lists of garden chores for those who garden where winter is mild - California, the Pacific coast, the British Isles, or the US south, but here in New England - winter gardening can often be defined by most people as dreaming and planning. Ordering seeds, starting seeds, making lists with nursery catalogs and websites, and of course, by reading gardening books and magazines. But don't be fooled in thinking that the Northeast gardener is lazy - for more serious gardener often have a long list of projects which go far beyond seed ordering (and beyond. cleaning tools - as who really does that!).






Of course those who are fortunate to have season-extenders, be it a cold frame, a hoop house, a protected porch, a heated greenhouse or inside gardening lights - the summer season is just ramping up in one way or another. I seem to fail in delivering on all the projects I seem to plan on doing. Things like propagating perennials from root cuttings taken in the fall (oriental poppies), or sowing alpine seeds for the rock garden (I'm always too late to send in my order to the North American Rock Garden Society. the Scottish Rock Garden Club or to the Alpine Garden Society in the UK due to my own Holiday drama), but there is probably time to still submit my order for the second round of seed.

It's worth mentioning here that these three societies offer many of the hardest-to-find seeds for home gardeners who are about to move beyond marigolds and who are looking for that 'something different'.  Many of these seeds just which may seem intimidating to germinate or grow, just need to be sown in a loose, gravelly or sandy soil mix, covered in chicken grit and set in trays outdoors for the balance of the winter. By spring, they will naturally germinate.






THE VALUE OF BOOK  REVIEWS ON AMAZON - 

If you have a moment - could you please write a quick book review on my book or simply click how many stars you think it should have?

Silly, I know, but apparently - it's as important as those Yelp reviews for small restaurants. I 'get it' now. Believe me - I've been just as out-of-touch about these things as anyone, until now. Reviews place a book higher in ranks, higher on lists, which means more sales, and while not really any money for me - as no one really makes money on a plant book - but it will lead to other books, better books and more books in the future.

As for marketing my Vegetable gardening book - don't fret -  it's not in my nature to over-promote here. This may be it for a few months - it's really not my thing.

A tiny note about your thoughts on this book will be much appreciated.  My goal in writing this first book was first and foremost -- to write an honest book with advice that would be useful to either advanced or beginner gardener.

My premise?

No hype, no trends, no fads, no 'hacks', no lasagna, no hay bales, no eggshells, no peeing on tomatoes, no molasses (homemade fertilizer), no manure teas, and as for organic vs inorganic fertilizer? I provide want the plant really needs to grow perfectly, and you - the end-user can decide what you are comfortable with. We are all adults here.

Briefly stated, this is the sort of book I would want to read. I hope you might find it useful in that way, too.

TO MAKE IT EASY, YOU CAN RATE WITH STARS OR LEAVE A BRIEF REVIEW OF MY BOOK HERE on Amazon. Even if you didn't buy one there.

I promise that I will never ask again.


Hardy herbs like this rosemary globe that I've been training, are doing well in the greenhouse. As well as the tiny Haemanthus spp. (yet unnamed but with hirsute or hairy leaf margins).




ALSO, BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR ME SPEAKING THIS SPRING

I will be starting my speaking tour in February and my book tour so many some of you will see me as I travel to some botanic gardens and plant societies with book signings and talks. If you don't have my book and are interested in it, I will be giving away a few copies here in February in a blog giveaway, and of course, it is available at most on-line bookstores globally, and on Amazon. Just google and find it.


LAST SUMMER, A PAIR OF CARDINALS WHO ALWAYS RETURN TO MAKE A NEST IN OUR BAY LAUREL STANDARDS WHICH ARE USUALLY SET OUTSIDE THE DOORS IN MARCH WERE ANGRY WITH US FOR BEING LATE - SO THE FLEW IN THE OPEN VENTS AND RAISED A FAMILY IN A FLOWERING JASMINE. WHO COULD BLAME THEM?



ONWARD, IN THE GREENHOUSE

Thank God for our mild winter so far. As January is the time of year when our home greenhouse is threatened by heating problems (blizzards, nor-easters and deep freezes). This all happened last year if you remember when early January brought us record-breaking cold and snow. Today, the greenhouse reached 70 degrees and I took the opportunity to begin cleaning and organizing it for spring seed starting. I was surprised at what was already in bloom - many camellias, some tender shrubs, and South African bulbs, but I also bought some Primula obconica and carnations to brighten dark corners, and to use as 'color-fillers' through these dark months. No harm in that. I just repot them into larger clay pots and keep them cool and bright, swapping them out of the plant windows every week or so - which sounds snooty I know - but why not? Less than a grocery bill for a weeknight meal, and it brightens our hearts. I will add that the cool greenhouse extends the life of many potted florist plants, so they'll 'keep on tickin' until their batteries run out around late April.



Single and semi-double camellia's like this pink, variegated one 'Happy Harlequin' are slow growers, but set outside all summer (when buds form) they come into bloom quickly just as the sun begins to brighten in late January. Even light freezes don't bother them. I love camellias so much, that I wish that I lived in a slightly more mild climate (like North Carolina) where they can be grown outdoors year round. You folks are lucky!


I am noticing that while many plants are blooming, some are ahead of schedule which always surprises me. Camellias are well on the way with at least a half dozen varieties in full bloom. Here in Massachusetts camellias cannot live outdoors so ours are potted and kept under cold glass where they provide us with endless blooms from December until March, with the peak season usually being February just around Valentines Day. Appropriate as most camellias either pink, red or white.



Camellia's lead the show in the greenhouse for much of the winter.



I really can't have enough potted camellias in the winter. Sadly they sulk when grown in modern homes, but there was a time when most every Victorian home in New England kept camellias as the rooms were heated by coal or wood, and temperatures would drop to either just above freezing or remain around 40 if the fires were allowed to run out. If you have a cool or unheated room (we have a large great room which we keep unheated most of the winter and camellias would thrive in there) or a garage, even a glassed-in porch, many camellias might do well for you. 



I fertilized my camellia pots (first with high nitrogen then a balanced feed bi-weekly) much of last spring and early summer, and it seems to have paid off with a high bud count. Cottonseed meal was also added to the soil surface just after blooming last winter.


I have friends who keep camellias in the glassed-in-porch of their farmhouse in Carlisle MA, and they never heat the porch - just opening the door to the inner house on the coldest night to allow just enough heat in. Many of these woody Asian natives can handle air temperatures that drop to near 20 for brief periods, as long as their roots don't freeze. There are estate greenhouses outside of Boston that have some camellias more than 150 years old.



An Agepetes serpens (from the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden catalog) shows off it's long branches and hanging stems. I'm still waiting for the pendulous red, waxy flowers to appear one of these years, but I'm not that disappointed as the foliage alone is nice. It goes out in the summer, as it is semi-epiphytic (lives on mossy tree branches) and it dislikes high heat that our summers bring.




'San Dimas' is a well known red Higo camellia that always gives us a good show even when grown in a large tub.


Lily of the Valley 'pips' or dormant buds with roots are being potted-up for indoor bloom and fragrance. I look forward to these blooms every year, but this year I splurged on some nursery-grown stock.


It's bulb forcing time, but as I didn't get a chance this year due to the book to get plenty of bulbs potted up in the autumn, I decided that I just couldn't live without Lily of the Valley forced (some hints here about my next book!). I usually dig some pip's from the garden in November which works perfectly well, but I thought I might splurge and order some fancy ones from White Flower Farm. These are much larger pips and have been grown specifically to be forced by flower farms and home growers. There was a time when forcing Lily of the Valley was a popular winter activity for any plants person, but those days have passed along with other Victorian charms, but January is THE time to bring pips into the warmth, and warmth is what they need if you want to experience blooms in winter. 


A pot of planted-up Convallaria majus pips (Lily of the Valley) is an old-fashioned thing to be treasured. Talk about experiential - Many drawing in old Victorian gardening books show these being grown - forced on winter windowsills, but the real trick is to keep them and their pots, warm. The greenhouse here is too chilly and they will remain slow growing until I bring the pots into 70 F. degree sunlight (or under lights).



I pot my pips (which have long roots) in deep, clay pots - only because I like how they look that way. You can trim the long roots down a bit with scissors if your pots are smaller or shallow, it doesn't make a big difference but it may delay flowering by a few weeks as new roots don't begin to emerge until after they bloom so don't be too aggressive with your manscaping. 

The pips are potted up in a clean, fresh potting mix - No wait. Be honest Matt. really not that clean - I should admit that I used a recycled potting mix from the bottom half of a hot pepper that died. It doesn't matter as I'll be tossing these once they have bloomed - potted in dirty, recycled crappy, used potting mix left over on the bench from some pots used in the garden last summer. That's more like it. I'm not that worried here about virus' or disease. Pots are kept in the cool greenhouse for a week or so and watered well which I think helps them get acclimated. They've already been vernalized (chilled for a period). All that needs to be done now is to bring the pots into the warmth - and bright light (artificial is best) and in four to five weeks the house will smell like May.



Imported Amaryllis are set out to be potted-up into fresh soilless mix. These large bulbs are of newer varieties and were not grown for Holiday bloom. As such, more buds per bulb (up to 3 stems) and they will bloom until March or April.


On this cold yet sunny day, it's warm in the greenhouse so I took advantage of the sunshine and potted up the rest of my amaryllis bulbs. Another dozen of fancier varieties not commonly found at retail or garden centers (spidery ones, new introductions) most of which are late bloomers - I know this as those specially treated to bloom for Christmas are all done with their show, while the larger bulbs like these are just starting to show bud tips. These too appreciate indoor warmth, so they'll be taking up a toasty spot in on our new slate window seat once the carpenter completes that job - hopefully this weekend. Hopefully.

It's been a few years since I've indulged myself with plenty of late winter blooming amaryllis so I am excited to see a spectacular show. All of these bulbs will go into deep and heavy clay pots as this helps keep the tall stems from tipping over. These too I bought at White Flower Farm ( I know, you are going to say that they are expensive) but I promise you - if there is anything worth buying from WFF it's amaryllis. Believe me - I've bought them from most every nursery and these will all have 2 or 3 buds, not to mention the varieties are exceptional. Go ahead - do your homework and you'll see that the price is worth it, at least for amaryllis.


Haemanthus albiflos is a South African geophyte (bulb-like) plant that clearly has a semi-dormant period in high summer when it sulks and prefers to remain bone-dry, but the roots are always active - looking for trace bits of water, as many South African bulbs do (including Amaryllis and Nerine - which is why getting the bulbs to re-bloom the following year is tough - as the roots had been removed the previous year). Haemanthus though is a genus worth growing - even on a sunny windowsill, where they shaving-brush-like flowers emerge in early winter around Christmas. Left potbound though, they will eventually break out of their bindings - like Clivia so choose a sturdy one!



Other southern hemisphere bulbs and geophytes are blooming too, such as this Haemanthus albiflos which very characteristically has broken a heavy, clay pot. Yes, an expensive clay pot that was handmade, naturally. So easy to grow, I love their shaving brush blooms every December, not to mention their vigor (I mean - this one wasn't watered since October, forgotten behind another larger plant and it's still alive. Talk about abuse. I should have known better to use a good pot, or I should have known better and just repotted it earlier.



More small Narcissus cantabricus are blooming like these which self seeded into another pot. So fragrant (like vanilla, not pissy like other winter narissius). The smaller hoop species are all so desirable and easy under glass.


Sometimes I feel like I am boring all of you with repetitive posts. Every January there is a post like this. The same plants in bloom, but usually in a different week. Truth is there is little more to write about here right now, and I think some of you might appreciate an old-school Matt post that is a diary in style, like this.


Japanese primroses - like these Primula sieboldii cultivars from a collector in Japan that we acquired - would do just fine outdoors in our Zone 5 garden, (and many do live here) but these are a bit more precious - new introductions and selections not in the trade (and we are forbidden or asked - not to share with nurseries) as they are gifted. We treasure all of these - some doubles, nodding flowers, and a lovely palette of pink, lavender, and white. Eventually, we will set these out in the garden, but we are allowing them to bulk up a bit in these pots for two years. Kept in the cold greenhouse, they emerge earlier than they would outdoors, where their normal blooming time here would be mid to late May.

Many of my tuberous 'nasturtium' (Tropaeolum species) from Chile and Argentina have emerged with vigor, and are just getting buds on their stems. I still want to try planting a few of these valuable tubers into the ground of the greenhouse as I've been told that when grown that way, they can really show off, but for now, they remain in large, clay pots.



Not all of these Tropaeolum are winter flowering. This T. ciliatum is late spring and summer flowering, and it really never went dormant for me. This is the first year that I am growing it (or second year?) so I am curious to see how it fares.


Winter greenhouse primroses include some store-bought ones as well. I don't bother with those tiny pots of purple, yellow and white primroses sold in 4 inch pots -that appear in supermarkets in January, as they will just die - indoors from the dry heat, or in the cool greenhouse because it is too wet - but the species popular in the late 19th century and early 20th century are very desirable. I still wish that I could get my hands on the most desirable - P. sinensis (to be correct, it's now considered to be P. praenitens)- Cultivaris introduced named varieties in 2016 but just try and find them anywhere. I keep looking, but only a few west-coast growers have trialed them. Surely - buyers will resist until it becomes more common.   P. sinensis was once a very popular potted plant and a winter standard in greenhouses until 1920 or so. Old seed catalog often featured 6-8 pages of varieties. Now, it's lost and no one has it.

A good standby is this - P. malacoides - the Fairy PRimrose, which would do nicely on a cool and sunny windowsill for much of the winter as long as you repot it and never allow it to go completely dry so that it wilts (not an easy task).  In the cool greenhouse these thrive, and are even slightly fragrant when the sun warms them up.




Primula obconica may slowly be making a comeback, or at least, you may be able to find some pots of this wonderful winter-blooming perimrose that will outside any hardy one for your winter window, or outside if you live in the South.

Primula obconica has always kept its popularity in Asia, but here in North America, one needs to look for it. Once I found a few pots at a Trader Joes in January, another time, at a large nursery - the sort that carries ALL of the Holiday plants at Christmas is a good sign that their buyers might snatch-up something more unusual for mid-winter sales. Here in the Boston area I once found them at Brigg's Nursery in Attleborough, and these I found at Mahoney's Rocky Ledge in Wilmington - but don't try finding them there - I bought them all! All 8 of them.


Even a common geraniaum (Pelargonium) such as this gold-leaved variety named 'Janie' can add bright color to a winter window. I happen to love the scent of the leaves (nostalgic, I guess) but who could resist this lime and bronze color? In many ways - who needs flowers?

December 11, 2018

Sneak Peek - My first gardening book is published - Pre-orders are welcome!

My first book - Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening launches on Jan. 1 with pre-orders started already on Amazon looking good. Thanks to all of you who placed orders early. I know the delivery date was originally Dec. 18 but Amazon tells us that it is now the first week of January. Hey, maybe that's a good sign?

You know, for someone who may seem as perpetually busy as a woodchuck I am known to be as lazy as one too. Here it is - three weeks before my book Mastering The Art of Vegetable Gardening ships from Amazon, and I get a call from my publisher (who is thrilled with the presales already - thank God), but who reminded me that I haven't posted any social media about ordering my book on this blog.  You can preorder it here: Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening. Thanks, bunches in advance!

You all deserve a sneak peek of this impressive, hardcover book. Im pretty proud of it (I mean - you never really know how a book is going to end up looking, right?). I wanted a mix of a cookbook that was written by a top chef - that style visually and a nice layout. No, before you ask there are no recipes in this book. I've been surprised with how many people have been asking for that. The cookbook version will need to wait.  I wanted this book to be pulled out to read on a winters evening while planing as a garden or referred to throughout the gardening season as needed. It had to be useful and with correct information. Of course, not everyone will agree with everything in it, but there was a need for a useful book as most, in my opinion, were lacking information that I needed.  I hope that you feel that I achieved that.

I share some family photos of the garden, home and lifestyle in the introduction section. I think this part is important to set a tone and to show what goes on around the garden behind the scenes. Besides, people like these sort of behind the curtain looks.


The book is still packed with step-by-step photos though. I've been growing mesclun since the late 1970's when my parents would buy something called 'Saladisi' - a micro green mix from Europe. I never knew that Mesclun itself is a rather new thing, even though it was common for Italians in the south of Italy to forage for herbs and bitter greens to create a mixed salad with a similar name. Today's commercial version in a poly bag doesn't even come close, but you can mix your own seed - find out how in the book!




You expected lots of varieties and lots of photos, right? I hope that I delivered to your expectations. I mean - how many okra varieties grown in containers is enough for one family? I found out over the past 2 years. So beautiful though, right?



Joe hates eggplant (which is crazy because he is Armenian) but I had to grow as many as I could, and honestly - that was alot. The plants consumed my container gravel garden, the deck and 4 rows in our back 40. No regerts, as the tattoo's say.



Apparently, pre-sale numbers are important in the publishing world - and hey, I 'get it'. But the last type of blogger I want to be is one of those who endlessly push their book on readers telling them how "awesome" it is, followed up by line after line of exclamation marks!!!! PRe-order, or buy after it goes on-sale after Jan. 1, I will appreciate it either way.

My friend (and barber) Juistin Pitts posed as an onion model for me. His tat's are better than mine as he has two sleeves.

Instead, I will do this, as you deserve at the very least to know the facts, and what this book is, and isn't. First of all, if you haven't noticed already, I'm rather fussy about aesthetics, so I tried every trick in the book to get my grimy fingers around the visual design of this book. Surprisingly, my publisher Cool Springs Press was completely open to collaborating (something I have heard horror stories about with some other publishers - though as a past creative director, I understand, as the last thing I would have wanted was some shmuck demanding that I use a certain photo, color or typeface which I didn't like.

I wish my step-by-step photos for how to grow Belgian endive and how to force it made it into the book but at least this one did - a new red variety from Italy. In my talks during my book tour, I will show everything though, as well as on a website.


I first assumed that any publisher would be resistant to working with me as I come with 29 years of graphic design and layout experience - that could drove anyone crazy. But then I felt that I also bring some good skills to, great photos that were all my own, and a good design sense. I sent a pdf of about ten pages that I designed to my publisher, and they ran with it. Sure, there are some things I might have changed, but mostly it's all me, 99.9 perfect.

Some of the step-by-step photos that did make it into the book show you how to grow parsnips, as there are at least four ways to grow them. I practiced even the British method of drilling holes and starting seedlings in root trainers.


Of course, about a third of the 1000 photos I sent in with the manuscript was never used, but the page count was pre-set early on, and while there are less step-by-step photo breakouts than I had hoped for, at least some still made it in. Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled with what the book designers were able to keep in the book, and while I wanted and was willing to have some copy cut, my editor said that it was too good to cut (maybe he was flattering me, but hey - maybe not?). We did end up cutting a few chapters instead, so no chapter on corn and a few other veggies. Maybe in a second edition?


Celtuce is somewhat new, or at least it is experiencing a re-discovery. I really wanted to show how to grow it by showing step-by-step pictures of my crops as this is the best way to learn the many things that could go wrong. The last thing I wanted to do was to buy some at a store, or show some grown poorly. This principle applies to everything in this book. If I never grew the vegetables before, I would not show it or talk about it. I was fortunate to have access to farmland and materials from a farm in central Mass for artichokes and other crops where I visited most every week, for things that I didn't have room to set out here in properly long rows. This celtuce was grown in the garden next to my greenhouse.


OK, I am rambling here more than Mrs. Maisel, so here is what you will find different about my book.

As I reread the manuscript I can see why they left so much of the copy in the book. Every sentence seems to have some sort-of nugget of information.

Asian melons an gourds are the next hot thing. You heard it here first. My friend Chou's parents who are from Viet Nam live near me and after a delicious meal of shrimp and noodles waiting for the sun to dip behind Worcester Airport I was able to get the perfect fuzzy sillouette on the fuzzy gourd. Our kitchen was full for weeks with bitter melon even this year when we built out own gourd tunnel. Luffa is so delicious when immature, I have no idea why we all are not growing it.

My goal with this book was to actually write a book that would be useful, over and over again. Need to know the best germination temperature for eggplant or lettuce? It's here. Ever wonder what the exact fertility ratio is proper for giant onions? It's here, even if you dare never use 30% urea, it's still helpful to know what an onion wants if you are looking for an organic alternative.

I didn't have enough room to grow all of the squashes I wanted, so I begged friends to loan me their gardens or farms where I could plant seedlings, or could camp out for the perfect shot when the sun was setting.  Thanks, Mike, Darrell, Chou, and Steve for dealing with runaway vines, muddy photoshoots or me leaving random squashes on your front steps, or letting me raid your parents bitter melon extravaganza with photo equipment. The last thing I wanted to do was to just go buy photo props at a farm stand in the fall.


What isn't in this book are novelty growing methods. Nothing against lasagna gardenings, hay bale methods, compost tea recipes or folk remedies, myths or even upside down tomato plants.  You would have a problem trying to find posts or books about those. What you will find in here is why that flat of Brussel's sprouts that you bought at the garden center never seemed to head-up, or why your radishes have tiny wormholes in them, and what you can do organically about eliminating them.

I outline the many benefits of proper fertility, not shying away from chemical fertilizer (the blue kind) for some crops as the truth is, some fast-growing crops require quick access to nutrients. For all, however, I offer both organic and inorganic solutions. Gardening is a science, remember. I leave it to you to decide what you are comfortable using. I promote no use of insecticides, however. Those nasty bugs need to be outsmarted, so there are ways to do that.


You will also learn about some newer veggies perhaps. I grew 36 varieties of eggplant and 14 varieties of Okra for this book. I forced endives, grew exhibition sized parsnips three ways and far more fava beans than any human would ever need, not to mention row after row of various peas, beans and limas. Of course, not everything is in here, but it does share the newest research, and I did the hard work of proof-checking through loads of misinformation out on the internet. Talk about fake news! Naturally, there is more than one way to do anything, as it is with cooking, but as with baking, there is usually the best way, and then one customizes down from that. Celery, for example, is extremely difficult to grow for many people, but with a few tweaks, one can do it.


Interested in growing French melons or watermelons? You can, because I did. Sure, they have exact requirements and not everyone can have success, but it will be helpful to know what they require.



I also shared vegetables that I think you really should try growing, especially as an autumn crop such as these Tokyo Cross white turnips.

All sorts of bits of information are in my book, along with fun stories, fascinating historical perspective for each veg featured and guidelines for how to start from seed, when to sow for each season and even what varieties are better in the kitchen for flavor or yields.

Once again, here is the link to my Amazon page where you can order the book now for less than $19.99 before it ships in early January. I thank you all in advance for staying with me on this blog journey since 2006, and for supporting my passion. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and Happy Holidays. If you do order the book and love (or even hate it)

Lastly, I was so honored to have Roger Swain from PBS's The Victory Garden tell me that he was a huge blog follower and that he was very supportive of my work. My hero, as I grew up watchin him every Saturday.

December 10, 2018

Forcing Winter Vegetables

Forced winter vegetables like this Belgian Endive in my garden may be the next hot food trend home gardeners and chefs haven't  rediscovered yet.

Think about it - there was a time, and really not that very long ago  - like a hundred and fifty years or so ago, when there weren't any supermarkets. There was no refrigeration aside from ice and no air travel so summer vegetables were just that - summer vegetables. Everything else was preserved, pickled, fermented or was considered storage vegetables, kept in a cold frost-free root cellar.

OK. We know that, right? But it's not the truth.

Instagram is a good place to see where trends might be taking off. This Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) long valued by foodies in the UK seems to be becoming more popular, at least with chefs. Anyone looking for a luxury crop to try in North America still has plenty of opportunities to specialize if only they look to the past.


The fact is there were plenty of fresh veggies grown in the winter, especially if one lived near a large city like London or Paris in Europe, or in the Northeast in the US, for Boston was a leader in forced vegetables. Vegetables that were either sown in fall and raised under glass that was heated once the fuel furnace came onto the scene, or even more common, forced in hotbeds - cold frames specially designed to hold fresh, hot stable manure in a layer, and then covered over on cold nights with straw-filled quilts to hold the heat in.


My own roots of Belgian endive which are potted up in October and sprout in winter once brought into a warm, dark closet bring us the highest quality endives at the lowest cost.

Some crops like forced rhubarb were dug in the autumn and forced into growth in complete darkness in caves or root cellars producing a very tender and pale pink product which is still valued today in the UK for its quality which is said to be far better than that of conventional rhubarb.

Homegrown Belgian endive like these from 2 years ago are very easy. I dare say that it is the easiest vegetable to grow given the fact that it demands poor soil and drought in summer and little more than moisture and darkness in winter.

As we enter the Holiday season, I often think of forced winter vegetables because they still feel special in a world where most everything travels by air over great distances to get to our markets. We live in a time where we have the great luxury (albeit at a great environmental cost( of having fresh strawberries every day of the year. Few younger people even think about this, but fresh produce year round is a relatively new idea.

Or is it?

In 1900 many old books and magazines show rhubarb being forced in North America in cold frames and hotbeds as early as January. Remember, there was little fresh produce or fruit then aside from canned or home preserves. A Holiday meal with fresh forced rhubarb was a luxury item.


My mind was blown recently when I discovered that the asparagus I just saw at our local Wegmans for Thanksgiving (what? Asparagus at Thanksgiving?) was actually not an unusual thing in 1880. Really. Especially in the Boston area, where I live. Suburban Boston towns like Belmont grew what is known as 'forced asparagus' in hotbed and greenhouse throughout much of the 19th century along with tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons which were made available to posh Boston and New York markets via train. Delivery beyond 200 miles in the cold winter wasn't practical, and this all ended by the end of the 19th century when transcontinental trains brought produce from the Westcoast, and when refrigeration by ice became more sophisticated.



A quicl search on Instagram shows that some UK farmers are revisiting the almost lost art of forcing rhubarb, which has a long tradition in Yorkshire where fresh winter forced rhubarb is preferred by chefs over sumer rhubarb. 



But even after 1888 when fuel-fired furnaces brought more practical heat to greenhouses and ranges could be built with steel and glass, the idea of forcing winter veggies continued to grow in the Boston area. Fuel meant that furnaces could create steam, and steam pipes could be set into pits, tunnels and in rows directly in the fields where asparagus was growing, to force it even earlier - often for Thanksgiving.

In the very early 20th century lettuce like any of the Great Lakes varieties were bred for growing in pots and sold in markets this way, before refrigeration - not unlike hydroponic lettuce sold today.

A book from 1917 by Ralph L Watts called 'Vegetable Forcing' presents all sorts of cropping methods, both old using stable manure to heat cold frames and hotbeds in which one can grow lettuce (Boston Lettuce actually came from Boston, and was an early forcing lettuce). I found it interesting that all early lettuce sent to market was grown in small pots, the root balls wrapped in waxed paper with a ribbon. Not unlike fancy hydroponic lettuce sold in markets today. Of course, before refrigeration - (and a time when those automatic misting devices at the market came along - with recorded thunder and tree frogs chirping!).


Lily of the Valley pips in this storage house is kept dark, then gradually grow quicker as warm temperatures are introduced.  I predict that the four-season market for Convallaria may experience a come back at least for flower farmers looking to extend their crops into the dark months.

The idea of forced winter veggies may be the next trend, after foodies have revisited Kombucha, heirloom tomatoes, the magic of fermentation, bread making, SCOBY, Kimchi and I guess - artisanal everything for that matter. The great local food movement is helping us understand and appreciate exactly where our food comes from and why 'seasonal' is generally considered better. Forced winter veggies fit right in. Who's going to jump on this next? Surely there is a market for locally forced endive and winter, white Asparagus or pale pink rhubarb, sweet Sea Kale or forced celery.


In 1900, cucumbers and tomatoes were grown in winter greenhouses once steam furnaces became more practical, but before trains could bring produce from the south or west coast.


Even flowers can be forced, and I don't mean branches. Lily of the Valley and French or Parma violets were once the most common Holiday flowers as along the Hudson River in New York farms with ranges of cold frames grew thousands of plants for the nearby cities. Maybe there are other crops too which have interesting stories. In Japan, I've seen winter-blooming peonies grown this way, with large flower in full bloom out in the garden even though it was snowing outside.

In Ralph Watts' book from 1917, bees are shows being brought into a greenhouse in winter to pollinate cucumbers in Boston, or kept just behind a glasshouse with the advice to open a few panes of glass.