}

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.




November 21, 2018

Pie Wars - Pumpkin or Squash?




Tomato tomahto? With squash and pumpkin, it's much worse than that timeless debate. Without even daring to step into the omnipresent 'Pumpkin Spice' arena (I wouldnt dare), this post does demonstrate how we humans sometime just get carryied away with perception and marketing.

My point here is this: There is no such thing as pumpkin pie.
It's all Squash.

Seems like even brand marketers can't make up their mind. Or they feel that this option is the safest route.



Sort of, because there is something called pumpkin pie actually made from orange pumpkins. I see it all the time on some food blogs and on Instagram. An eager and overly-ambitious food blogger will usually show us how. Well meaning, yes, but unless they are using a modern sugar pumpkin which can pass as a marginally suitable filling, you just can't use any old orange pumpkin left over from Halloween. If you do, you will end up with a watery mess with little taste.

This confusion does start with the history of the word 'Pumpkin'. While old, it is just an alteration of an even older name for many squashes from around the 1500's when many simply called these clunky, bulbous fruits 'pumpion', or 'pompone', depending on what country you lived and farmed in. The Middle French name for a squash with this shape was even 'Pompon'. It is beleived that American colonists brought these names over and some stuck. As for 'pumpkin pie' .while it too is nearly as old (1600's), what we thought then was 'pumpkin' (or even 'pie' for that matter) is quite different than what we associate both with today. Even as late as the 1800's, 'Pumkin Pie' wasnt a pastry-sort-of-thing, but a custard often cooked inside of an actual pumpkin (or actually, a squash - you'll see.).

The good news is that there are plenty of fine new and heirloom winter storage squashes available today to use, and many might still be in your autumn displays.

At the original Thanksgiving, winter squash looked something more like this, and it was probably baked in a Dutch oven or whole with the cavity filled with a custard-like mixture.

Much of this might already be familiar to you. Countless historical articles appear every autumn in cooking magazines hinting to parts of this lore. We've read that 'Punkin' is a vulgar slang for a 'person with their hair cut short all around, (as in 'punkin-head' - and yes, this does sound like a premise for a Hollywood movie) (I think it was.), but the while the story on how we arrived today with these very two, different  words for winter squashes (particularly 'pumpkin' for the large, round orange-shaped one) is still confusing. Especially since marketers have run off with not only 'Pumpkin Pie', used in Holiday Lyrics and now that the spices have even become trendy.

Have you ever tried to make a pumpkin pie from an orange Halloween pumpkin?

If you have, then you may have discovered that the result wasn't exactly what you might have expected. Often, it's a big mistake (or at least one that your great, great, great, great grandmother wouldn't approve of). A sugar pumpkin perhaps might work, but in no way should any of us use an orange pumpkin to cook with.

Chefs know (and you'll see the canned 'pumpkin' companies know too) that the best (and most authentic) pumpkin pie comes from any number of hard-shelled winter squashes and not a watery-ol Halloween-type pumpkin. How do I know this? First of all, thanks, mom. I grew up in one of those families who not only grew their own winter storage squashes, but who spent a couple of days preparing them (in the 1970's before we had a food processor) by smashing them on a rock outside, peeling them without losing a finger then roasting them in the oven (or was it steaming them?). My job was usually forcing the now soft flesh through a chinois or Chinese hat shaped sieve with a mallet. Fine for an 8-year-old, but it's not something I am going to do today.

This year I am using up some Red Hubbard along with a few Warted Green Hubbard squashes. Peeling and cutting these beasts is a task best saved for those with protective gear and muscles. This one is small enough to cut inside, but usually I throw them off the deck onto the stone walk to split first.


Eventually, a meat grinder was employed as if we were making sausage, and then finally the first Cuisinart - thank God. Our Squash of choice was either Waltham Butternut (Cucurbita pepo) or Blue Hubbard. There are finer cooking squashes of course, and today, even more heirlooms are available, but when it comes to pumpkin, one learns quickly if making from scratch, that the results will only be watery and tasteless, not to mention colorless.

Sure, there are a few new sugar pumpkin varieties which by name alone tells us that they might be a bit better for pie, (they aren't), but regardless of what some hip cooking blogs might be telling you, peeling a pumpkin and making your own pie will be disappointing. You might as well steam and mash up an old, giant zucchini or an Acorn squash to get the same results.

OK, let's be honest. If you are like me, you've had to zip out to the supermarket one more time before Turkey Day only to find those who rarely cook - literally freaking out about having to make a pie from 'scratch' (meaning 1. buy a premade crust from Pillsbury. 2. Buy a can of pumpkin pie filling. 3. Dump, spice up, and cook.). Hey, I've done this too, and as my assistant at work pointed out one day - "your family didn't even know the difference, did they?".

The thing id - They didn't notice. Apparently only I seem to have the ability to distinguish the flavor and texture of a rare heirloom warted squash from that of a mush dumped from a can of 'Libby's'. Still, I guarantee that you can taste the difference, if not see it. Plant people have that gift.

But here's the thing...'Libby's' knows something much of us don't. That can of "pumpkin' is actually a winter squash - one that Libby's bred and continued to use today in all of its commercial pie filling. The squash they grow is called 'Dickinson's Pumpkin' (it's a beige or tan, a Butternut-colored winter squash that botanically is of a different genus than orange pumpkins that we are familiar with). Read more about it here The Great Pumpkin Pie Conspiracy in the Atlantic.

Have you ever noticed that there are not photos of real pumpkins or squash on the labels of pumpkin pie filling? There's a reason why producers turn to illustrations of pumpkins or just a slice of pie. It's because of the legal department.

What's interesting to me is that on the label of most every pumpkin pie filling is either a photo of a pie, or an illustration of a Halloween pumpkin, and never an image of a squash. Sure, squash itself has a bad name and many associate icky, pasty tasting gunk rather than sweet, orange, cinnamon-flavored desert - but why no photos of orange pumpkins then on the can? Every other canned vegetable has a beautiful photo of the appropriate vegetable on it?

The answer is legal. Packaging requirements established and controlled by the USDA  and FDA have very strict rules. While their description of what exactly can be considered 'pumpkin-pie filling'is vague, it does restrict it to being any hard-skinned winter squash, any golden-fleshed sweet squash such a

Libby's is considered by many to have the finest quality of all the canned pumpkin or squash pie fillings. After all, the kind of invented it!

We can buy seeds today of 'Dickenson's Squash or Pumpkin from many heirloom seed sources, but Butternut equals it for density, sugar, and flavor, not to mention color. It may be the easiest and will make a very fine pumpkin pie. It's my go-to most of the time, but I still try a few other winter squashes as each is so very different.

Around here in Massachusetts, we live in the land of winter squashes. The Blue Hubbard was developed here 250 years ago, and Waltham, of Waltham Butternut Fame, was a field station outside of Boston where the variety was developed. Not to mention that the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock happens to be an hour away.


To understand all of this a bit better, it helps to know that most of the fruits we call squash fall into three distinct species, botanically speaking. don't worry, this will make complete sense.  Our hard-skinned winter squashes come from two species. Most are grouped into Cucurbita moschata like the Hubbards, the Kabocha or Lakota squashes, the Turban types, Buttercups and many of the weird-yet-beautiful warted heirlooms. Most of these make a fine pie filling. Fewer come from Curcurbita moschata but many of the finest eating squashes including the beloved Butternut group, those Fairy Tale pumpkins often sold as Cinderella squashes, and surprisingly 'Dickenson Pumpkin', the tan commercial variety used in canned filling.

The last group - Cucurbita pepo includes not only Zucchini but also summer squash and other summer-types like patty pan, We know that when we leave a zucchini in the garden that the skin gets hard, but it is still thin. The orange Halloween and sugar pumpkins are also C. pepo, as are Acorn squashes. These usually need added sugar to make them more edible and are usually more watery when cooked.


November 13, 2018

Hey Kale, Your Closest Relative is Crunchier, Yummier and Even Healthier. Oh, and Apparently It's Cool Again - Some Cabbage Love



As Food and Wine magazine wrote this month - 'The Cabbage Craze is Officially 'Real'. I would add "The cabbage craze is real again.".

Of course, there are other family members to thank for this resurgence in total-brassica-love such as the kimchi 'kraze', (or any fermented brassica for that matter), cauliflower (both in it's 'steaks' and 'riced' forms), Kohlrabi and it's Instagramable visual appeal, and even Brussel's Sprout (now that we all know how to prepare them properly (raw and sliced in winter salads or oven roasted with sea salt and a spritz of walnut oil).

Sure, kale is still cool (for some) but honestly, it's probably the most challenging to prepare in the kitchen as it must be perfectly fresh (pre-cut in poly bags just won't do) and we all know the one or two supermarkets that have some mysterious ability to actually keep Tuscan kale crispy and fresh for 5 hours (until we bring it home and store it in the fridge.). Unfortunately, at least in our house - unless there is kale in the garden which one can pick fresh, it's far easier to turn to an old half-a-head of cabbage found in the back of the fridge which the clever home chef can trim off the oxidized greybits and rescue it for some lucky dish and thus 'save-the-day'.

Young cabbage plants (an kohlrabi in the background) in our garden last summer. This is an early variety, sown in late May in the greenhouse and set out in mid June, the heads were mature by early July and were as sweet as an apple and crispy like Iceberg lettuce. The bed was complete by the end of July and replanted with a non-brassica crop (dill).


Cabbage it seems has always been a lifesaver, not just on busy weekday evenings after work, but back almost to antiquity. One of it's most valued traits is its storage-ability. Before refrigeration (which really wasn't that long ago as my dad remembers when we only had an ice box (with ice delivered twice a week!), there were pits and root cellars - at least here in New England. We still have one but rarely use it but cabbage, though much maligned by some Europeans 400 years ago who dismissed it as a peasant crop (it was, after all), saved countless lives along with other brassicas like turnips and rutabaga.

We would be hard-pressed to find one distant relative who didn't survive on cabbage or a winter brassica - regardless of our ethnicity if one traces their heritage back to Europe, northern Asia, and even Japan or Korea. In many ways, cabbage is the true hero of the vegetable kingdom - and not just during the Middle Ages, but today with its cancer-fighting phytochemicals and who knows what else, we have much to thank cabbage for. Sure, the sulfur compounds might bother a few, but as my dad would say - those farts are 'cabbage kisses' (eww, sorry).


Drum-head cabbages are old-fashioned and are often found in Asian markets (or sometimes organic markets) wrapped in plastic to help maintain their unique, crispy quality. Don't be put off by their flatter heads, sometimes wider than a dinner plate, they are usually very sweet and have a higher water content than most winter storage cabbage, and thus are more tender and useful both raw and cooked. Given the option at the market, I will choose a flat-head over a round one.


In our house, this has always been true. Thanks to my Lithuanian heritage I am hard-wired to not merely 'like' cabbage - but to truly crave this Eastern European staple. I can remember my parents and my older aunts and uncles laughing about how old they were going to live due to their cabbage consumption (my grandfather and my Dad lived until 100 years of age so who knows?).  For others though, it may just be because cabbage is sweet and delicious. Crunchy, yummy and useful in so many dishes in the fall and early winter when the large storage cabbages come to market - the world of cabbage while to the supermarket shopper may seem boring, is indeed surprisingly broad and diverse. Close relatives like kale and collards aside, just plain old heading cabbage is anything but common to the clever gardener and curious cook.

One of the best things about keeping a home veg gardens isn't just fresh, healthy vegetables - it's that you can choose what varieties you want to grow - and when it comes to cabbage - don't fall for what's available at garden centers or as seedlings in 6 packs - for bedding plant growers generally know even less than produce buyers for supermarkets - and you will most likely end up with ordinary, generic and under-performing varieties simply because we all aren't asking for the best cabbage, or the newest, or oldest heirloom, or the tastiest. Plug growers will just keep ordering the least expensive seed from their mass market seed suppliers because as far as they are concerned - the consumer is just fine with what they have already. This is why those labels found in 6 packs with names like Danish Ball Head, Red Acre, Golden Acre or even simple ones that just say 'cabbage' are still the same labels as the ones printed in the 1980's. They assume that we don't care.



Commercial growers assume that most consumers don't care about the variety they are buying, and the sad truth is - they are right. We, gardeners, care though and should know better when it comes to buying a flat of seedlings - especially when finding one labeled simply 'Cauliflower' (or 'Cabbage'). The horticultural system doesn't make it easy for plug growers to get new or the best varieties either. I've seen their seed-source catalogs, and they are limited to mass-produced varieties that are generally old and haven't changed since 1970. Plug growers grow what they know the buyer at a big box store will buy, and usually, that buyer isn't that informed either. We can change this though - look at how the heirloom tomato trend changed the varieties nurseries now offer? We just have to care and sales data will train buyers and growers to try harder.

Think about it -those colored plastic plant labels in some veggies haven't changed from the 1970's. Cabbage varieties like ' Golden Acre' or 'Danish Ball Head' - even 'Savoy' still appear. (Savoy is a group or type, not a variety). What can you do? Look for nurseries who care about plants, those who hand write their labels and may offer new or choice heirlooms that can only be found in the specialty or trusted seed catalogs (like Johnny's, or Fedco). Better yet - order seed from reliable sources and grow your own. You can do it! (my book may help!).

But maybe that's about to change now that we trained the system to pay more attention to what we really want to grow - I mean, look at how quickly plug growers adapted to adding heirloom tomatoes to their lists?

Thankfully, we savvy types can order seed from many great sources of interesting, choice and premium varieties of cabbage - most of which will never find a space on a plug growers list for buyers to choose from. It would be too difficult for the few plug growers who supply the Home Depot's, Lowes, Costco's and Walmart's to ask their buyers to ask agent to ask their liner grower to ask their plug grower to deviate from their normal way of acquiring seed - from the largest seed houses in the world who buy inexpensive seed of old, generic varieties in great volume to fill the garden centers of the world.

Those who dare may order a pound of seed or so of a great variety from a Johnny's or Fedco, but there is always the risk that the consumer who is stopping by the hardware store to buy a bag of grass seed and fertilizer, sees the tomato plants outside and thinks 'I should really plant the veg garden this weekend', and then perhaps chooses their entire season's-worth of plant via 6 packs. Cabbage then, if they are interested, is usually just an afterthought - "Honey - do you want red cabbage or savoy?", and then that's about the extent of it. ]

Home-grown brassica plants from seed will produce the largest and healthiest plants for many reasons, but mainly because they will have been raised without PGR treatment. Chemicals sprayed to make seedlings look stocky are used universally by growers to create a healthy-looking transplant.  These will always look 'healthier' than home-raised ones, dense and ticght with thick stems. Don't be fooled, start your own seed and never use PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators (root and foliar applications of various chemical's). It's why that store bought tomato plant always looks nicer than one grown at home - even in ideal greenhouse conditions (and it's why fall mums look so dense and mounded), I'm not anti-chemical for I use both organic and inorganic fertilizer, but with food crops.

We, however, dare to look deeper.

We want to grow the finest, the best quality cabbage or even a very unusual but outstanding variety that grows tremendously large, or has some unique quality that enhances the creativity of the home chef. I like to approach it as "if the finest chefs of the world chose the cabbage variety they would want to serve in their finest restaurants - which ones would they choose?" And then, I would grow those in my home garden.

With my book on growing vegetables due to come out in early January 1, 2019 (Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening - (and yes - feel free to pre-order it right now on Amazon - shameless pitch!), I am tuned in to cabbage. In it I dedicate an entire chapter to this veg. I share lots of new cultural information on how to sow and grow the brassica's (the cabbage family) as well for growing the crop well is not exactly the easiest of tasks. Few have great luck when it comes to cabbage in the garden.

My favorite cabbage as a raw veggie is really a toss-up between Carflex and any red cabbage. Caraflex has a short season so it's a treat for a month in summer, but red cabbage stores well as become number one for much of the rest of the year.


Just as a musician is often asked "so what's your favorite song?'  I'm often asked "What is your favorite vegetable?' Truly, hands down for me it is cabbage. Really. In fact, it's red cabbage if you really must know. As a kid red cabbage felt fancy to me. Only found in restaurants or at salad bars and for some reason, it always tastes sweeter. I could occasionally get my parents to plant a row but they felt that red cabbage was wasteful in the garden for it didn't store well and one could not make sour kraut with it. Red cabbage was reserved mainly for two things - fresh eating in salads and sometimes in sauerbraten. It wasn't practical, and as such, was a novelty they planted to appease me. their nerdy child. White cabbage was more useful, for use in slaws, or kraut in the late fall and in those inevitablele pots of cabbage soup all winter. Yes, we were that Lithuanian.

Cabbage must be grown with perfect to keep its crispy quality. After harvest care is important too if one wants to keep the perfect crunch. Even cabbage from the market must be soaked overnight and stored in a polybag and then refrigerated overnight for maximum crunch-factor. The thing is, this crunch is what one will get from a head picked fresh from the garden.

Fall planting of cabbage in September benifits from a floating row cover, if only to keep cabbage butterflies from laying eggs and by providing a bit of warmth in late autumn. A fabric or poly mulch helps keep late summer weeds to a minimum.

A hundred years ago folks really appreciated and knew how to deal with cabbage. Two hundred years ago and they really knew how valuable their crop of cabbage was.  It often meant the difference between famine and life. It was preservable, either in cold storage or as a pickled ferment, and it paired perfectly with most of the storage meats, especially those from the curing shed like pork. In France, we find this best expressed in the classic Pot au Feu with its charcuterie, root veggie s,sausages and various cabbages including fermented cabbage. Germany, Eastern Europe, Austria, Switzerland even China has its braised cabbage dishes based on winter stock from the larder and root cellar. In a time before refrigeration a little kraut enhanced a pork belly, ham or confit duck leg pulled fresh from its comfy plunge of fat in a cold barrel kept somewhere cool. It's how many of our ancestors survived, and cabbage was often the partner in what many of us now consider high-fare dining.

Understanding cabbage takes some homework if you are new to cabbage. First, think of varieties as three main types - Early, mid-season and late.  This is how cabbage was organized by farmers who grew it in the mid 19th century but few today ever think about 'type'or variety beyond what they know. WIth cabbage, all 'types'have their star performers, and to enjoy really great - and I mean really great cabbage, you will have to test a few varieties out and type them for yourself, for like so many vegetables -the finest varieties are often a bit harder to find - meaning that one will have the most luck  with varieties found in reputable seed catalogs - and from the ones who actually grow the crops or breed them themselves and not from a generic package found in a seed rack. Certainly, not from seedlings found at a large garden center unless one really knows the variety well.

Late cabbage often has beautifully tinted leaves hiding a tender, crisp interior. Sown in July or even early August, plants in our New England garden can often remain outside until Thanksgiving.


VARIETIES TO TRY

True cabbage connoisseurs have their favorites,and more often than not the top winner here is a variety known as 'January King' and forget about finding it in markets, this giant, purple-tinted hard-headed late cabbage is one you will need to grow yourself - along with the short list of other top plant-geek favorites, including mine - the early cone-headed 'Caraflex', a weird pointy cabbage the British call a 'hispi' type.

If you don't believe me, try to grow an early cabbage like a conical or cone-headed variety next year - like Caraflex F1even in your raised beds. I suggest a variety called 'Caraflex', an early, small cone-shaped cabbage which is easy to grow. even in containers as an early summer cabbage. It's being discovered by top chefs as well as by foodies who are growing it in their backyard gardens. I have even found it sold in some specialty markets this fall (Wegman's and Whole Foods in the Northeast).


'Caraflex cabbage, a cone-shaped delight.


Talk about sweet and crispy,  Caraflex is tender, crispy and delicious that it is being marketed by its breeder in Europe along with other early, tender and sweet cabbages as 'Léttage' (Lettuce and Cabbage-like. You heard it here, first.). Because these cabbages are lower sulfur (i.e. less farting) yet high in sugar - they taste sweeter. Although best of all is that tender 'crunch factor'.  Brassica Magazine(yes - there is such a thing) lists these along with other trends as 'Brassica Concepts' that are changing how cabbage and other brassicas are being marketed. Expect in the near future Kohlrabi sticks pre-packaged (sold as Kohrispy) and new shrink-wrapped Danish flat-head tender and crispy cabbages. These are all hot items in Dutch supermarkets. The days of tough, woody leather-like cabbage may be over. Remember though- it will take time for consumers to adapt, but you can grow these varieties at home.

Caraflex produced such a slender head that it can be grown in large containers. I have grown great crops in elevated cedar beds.


It is short-lived in slaw as it will wilt and sweat out moisture quicker than storage cabbage but just dress it immediately before serving. A slaw made with 'Caraflex' is sensational - as tender as one made from Iceberg lettuce in a way, yet sturdy enough to saute in butter as well. OK - In pork fat. Who am I kidding?

'Carflex' isn't an heirloom variety though, introduced worldwide by its breeder Bejo Seeds, Inc. in 2016 yet trialed a few years earlier and distributed first by Johnny's Selected Seeds in the US for trial  - I first grew it in 2011.  So while this month's Food and Wine magazine promotes it as 'a lesser-known heirloom', it's new. It's so popular that the breeder has even published 'sensory data on how well people like its taste and texture. It has also been awarded an RHS Award of Merit.

Young cabbge seedlings still outside where they were sown in mid-May. The warmer and much brighter sun along with spring breezes keep these plants sturdy and strong. If a hatch of cabage butterflies is seen, I move them to the protection of the greenhouse until I plant them out in the garden. I've lost many trays of seedlings to the almost invisible larvae, but plants grown this way are much healthier than those found in garden centers in spring as they have never been treated with PGR's and the varieties are always better.


MASTERING CABBAGE

Like most brassica crops, growing cabbage well takes some commitment. Crop rotation is essential, yet difficult to achieve in the home garden if one keeps raised beds. Why rotate? For a number of reasons but most relate to disease. Clubroot and certain insects which lay their eggs in the autumn and hatch in the cold, early spring are problematic and difficult to steer around if one grows cabbage in a soil where any other brassica crop was grown the previous year. Forget about myths like marigolds and companion plants, for while nematodes dislike their roots, there is little data that this benefits cabbage at all.  I also discourage manure teas and other fads as cabbage is a heavy feeder and may require you to shop the carb aisle (blue instant fertilizer) if you really want it to grow stupendously. Hey, we all like a Twinkie now and then.

Sowing cabbage seed is often where the home grower makes a crucial but fatal mistake. While we often think of brassica (cruciferous - the old name) crops as cold weather crops, you might be surprised to know that cabbage germinates best at high temperatures - 80 - 85 degrees. Once germinated, plants can handle cooler temps, and knowing why this is will help you understand many of the requirements that will enhance cabbage (and other brassicas) success. Without getting into too much detail - all brassica's are native to the warm Mediterranean. As biennials, they naturally bloom in their second year during the hot early summer and set seed which drops into warm soil. Cool, moisture-rich weather comes in the autumn and seeds germinate, grow all winter in a cool, maritime winter, and then bloom and set seed in the summer again. When we try to grow cabbage or any brassica, knowing this helps us understand things like why cabbage and broccoli like warm germination temps but grow best when it is relatively cool.

Early ball-head types are very tender yet crisp, never fiberous. I think they could almost be named an entirely different vegetable than tougher storage-types. If you find cabbage to be too sulfurous or tough, try these. They don't store well however, so one rarely finds them in supermarkets, but their looser heads and tender leaves make a superior slaw - look for them at some local farmer's markets, or grow early cabbage yourself - as it's a treat few have ever experienced.


Plants should and could be set out in cooler weather of course as they grow larger. I wait to start all of my brassica seed be it broccoli, cauliflower or kale until June. Why so late? I have a good reason, and it's backed up by some new research. Later sowing of brassicas in man parts of the country gives the plants a healthier start for a few reasons. First, the bright early summer sunshine keeps the seedlings growing short and stout (a reminder that many commercial growers cheat by using PGR's or plant growth regulators on most of our veg. seedling crops which makes cells grow shorter, resulting in a more marketable ('healthier-looking') seedling. The sad part is many PGR's last a while in the soil and plants, and I  have found that plants grown from seed out on my own deck in full sun grow the best crops. Sure, the seedlings don't look as tight and thick-stemmed as the ones on the shelves at the nursery, but I know why - and, it's totally natural.

Sticky yellow paper traps will show you when the hatch or 'flights' of certain insects occur in your garden. Here, we are looking for the date of our largest flight of cabbage root maggot fly, usually in mid-spring while temps hover near 40 deg. Note this date and plant seedlings of all brassica's after it. even though there will be 5 or 6 more hatches, by the second largest hatch again in cool weather in autumn, the plants will be large enough to handle a bit of root damage from munching larvae. Why bother? Imagine the amount of insecticide used commercially on the entire cabbage family. Unless you can afford to buy organic year-round, these are great tips to use at home.

The second reason why I sow seeds later near the summer solstice is that research has shown that late sowing of brassica crops helps many avoid the biggest hatch (flight) of a destructive cabbage insect -the dreaded cabbage root fly maggot. The same goes for radishes, turnips and other cabbage family crops by the way. Ever get those brown tunnels in radishes or suffered from your cabbage plants that looked so healthy for a couple of months but discovered that they started wilting on hot days? That's why. Tiny rot maggots dine on the roots, and the largest hatch in most areas is in late April until mid-May. There are typically 7 other hatches but they rarely affect larger plants.

The cabbage root fly maggot (Delia radicum)  starts life as a simple fly that looks rather like a tiny harmless house fly. Mature females lay their last eggs in the autumn, looking for the roots of any brassica crop- from arugula to brussels sprouts, where the eggs can lay in the soil over-winter, and then hatch as soon as outside temps in spring reach 40 deg. Usually just as we all traditionally planted our broccoli, kale and cabbage seedlings outside. The largest flight happens near the end of cold weather season - when temps tip just above 40 to 50 degrees.

Late crops of any of the Asian brassicas are often more tolerant of insect damage. I sow my cress, Napa cabbage, Chinese Cabbage and Tatsoi in late August in raised beds. A floating row cover keeps the butterflies at bay and once light frosts kill the bugs off, the cloths can keep these greens fresh and frost-free in the garden nearly until Christmas. It also keeps the dogs from eating them (they can't help themselves!).


Cabbage root fly maggots are tiny larvae which feed on the roots of all brassica crops - resulting in wilted plants just as the plants start to look their finest - in late June and July, or brown worm trails and tunnels in radishes, turnips and rutabagas.  While Floating row covers may keep butterflies from laying eggs, they would be disastrous in controlling cabbage root fly. Adults hatch from eggs which have been eggs laid in the soil during the previous year. A row cover will only trap them in under the cover. Great for cabbage buutterfly, but not for soil born insects. Crop rotation would help, but few of us have the space to rotate ever 5-7 years.

The steps recently published by the UMass Extension service in steering your crops around the hatch of cabbage root fly maggots  is something I outline in detail in my book, but briefly - care begins in the previous year by noting what beds have had brassica crops growing in them and then avoiding those beds for other brassica crops in the following spring (crop rotation). Don't forget - this includes late turnips, sprouting broccoli, Napa cabbage, and Asian greens and arugula - yes, both species of arugula are brassicas. Note that cabbage root fly maggots also feed on broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, radish, rutabaga, and turnips.

A floating row cover saved many a brassica crop from butterflies and moths which find the leaves the perfect home for their eggs and larvae, but the fabric will do little to discourage other insect pests like root fly maggots which are already in the soil if one grew any brassica in the same bed the previous autumn. If you have no room to rotate, try covering the soil year round with a much and cross your fingers, or transplant seedlings after the first big spring flight  to avoid the worst damage.


Then there are flea beetles, but they are less problematic to cabbage crops as they merely are acne for young plants - more of an issue with radishes, mustards, and turnips.  For what it's worth - my tip for avoiding these pests is simple, but not for everyone. I've found that elevated cedar beds (the type on legs) deter them nearly 100% As flea beetles prefer to stay active near ground level, and not waist high. The use of fresh (replace every season) sterile potting mix helps tremendously in these raised beds that can be 3 feet off of the ground, and now I get big harvests of radishes that are clean - no chemical sprays needed. The same goes for other brassica crops like Napa cabbage.

Knowing what your particular pests are and when they hatch is key here. With Cabbage Root Fly Maggots I needed to know exactly what dates, particularly in the spring they hatched. I discovered that the first hatch was often around April 1st and in some years in late March if the snow melted by March 15th. To find out the largest flight or hatch for your garden you must set out yellow sticky traps. I get Safer brand sticky yellow cardboard traps and start setting ours in late March here in central Massachusetts. There will be no mistaking the big hatch of both flea beetles and cabbage root maggot fly as the adult fly's will stick to the yellow paper in great numbers.

Young, healthy cabbage set out without a mulch in late June.

One or two may be early, but one morning you will find the cards nearly covered. Take note of this date and repeat noting the temperatures and weather. A garden notebook is helpful, or start a spreadsheet. You should start seeing many agricultural universities and eventually Master Gardener programs starting to suggest many of these newer methods.  Many organic farmer organizations are advising growers to plant brassicas after the large spring flight of these insects. Home growers should find their best results coming not from the traditional methods of sowing seed outside in the garden early (soil would be too cold) and certainly never in flats one sets outside in late winter with the assumption that cabbage and broccoli like cold temperatures - but by sowing seed in ones own plugs or cells set outdoors once the warmer weather has arrived - where seeds will warm in the brilliant summer sun of late May (in the protection of your close watch on a deck or porch) and then setting young plants out into the garden near to the summer solstice.

Certainly, nursery purchased brassica's will sulk compared to these other methods. Try it and see, resisting what may look like 'healthy' cabbage and broccoli' at nurseries and starting your own seedlings is quick (especially during those peak growing days of June), and seed sown in a 6 pack of sterile soil will often produce young plants in just a few weeks which will look decidedly better.



October 11, 2018

A New Book on Alpine Trough Gardening May, and Should, Change How You Container Garden

'Hypertufa Containers - Creating and Planting an Alpine Trough Garden is a new book by Lori Chips that addresses a very specific gardening method which while old-fashioned, may have found its time given climate change and a gardening audience which is growing more and more aware.

I'm excited to be introducing you all to a terrific and useful book; Hypertufa Containers - Creating and Planting an Alpine trough Garden by my good friend Lori Chip's. While some may struggle to get past the title with  'Hypertufa', as good, decent garden folk - we should all know about by now. I just hope the title doesn't scare off the mass market who could benefit from this book.

The visual design of the book will help attract curious gardeners as it is modern, smart and visually interesting.  But this book is so much more than just a good looking book. It does something rare in many gardening books today, for it has real content that is useful. Sure it will inspire, but even if you know nothing about alpine plants or rock gardenings, I guarantee that once you see the photos in this book that you will want to make a hypertufa trough garden.

This hypertufa trough is round and 24 inches deep - like a barrel. The hair-like root systems on these tight and dense saxifrages run all the way to the bottom planted in  pieces of real tufa rock, they bloom in late winter often when snow still sits on them. Talk about hardy.

If you don't know what hypertufa is...
It's a concrete/organic mixture which was designed to mimic Tufa rock (more about that rock, later).
It's a product well known to rock and alpine gardeners, but beyond that small and geeky world, few know about it.


Hypertufa is not a trendy trend.  It's far more horticulturally sound than let's say real trends like Hay Bale gardening or Lasagna gardening.

Hypertufa is more sustainable.
Gardens planted in it are intended to live a long time nd not be disposable.
Hypertufa is frost and freeze tolerant if made properly will last for decades.
Hypertufa in your garden will make you look like a serious plant person.

Here are some saxifrages planted in real tufa rock and sandwiched in Clay. A method only shared with a few folks a few years ago by rock gardening guru Josef Halda from the Czech Republic is a few workshops he did on the East Coast. We were fortunate to host him for a few days that year and he showed us a completely new way to grow alpines - sandwiching them in pottery clay between split pieces of tufa rock.  The troughs planted in the manner are about ten years old now and still growing strong. Lori shares this method in her book a well - this alone is worth the price!


Proper trough gardening has for years been defined as essentially 'planting alpine plants as long-term gardens in containers', but it can be so much more. Hypertufa itself is a substitute material for real rock troughs (which are virtually unaffordable to most).  It's where the name 'troughs' came from though- as alpine gardeners in the 19th and early 20th century started to use real stone farm sinks and troughs for their alpine plants. Today's troughs can be made in any shape, round, bowls, irregular, square, tall, deep, short or even looking like a piece rock - and Lori shows us all how to make them.

Hypertufa makes a sturdy stone-like container which can either mimic an ecosystem or a specific cultural need for a challenging plant.  This means that one can grow many plants that won't grow anywhere else. Look at it this way - if this was the world of aquaria, hypertufa trough gardening would be akin to keeping an authentic, sustainable fish tank of rare species intended to live long and not just bowls of goldfish that will die -which is how many of us treat our containers today. Disposable flower arrangement of plants.


Hypertufa troughs don't need to be large, this one is only 10 inches long.


I think that the challenge in the past was the while only serious plant geeks planted hypertufa containers, they rarely looked good which didn't help their cause. Most troughs ended up looking like cheap, concrete planters with rocks. But Lori's book proves that that doesn't have to be the case. Even my hypertufa troughs seen in the images throughout this post don't look as good as hers do -I am so inspired.

Trough gardening can be as simple recreating nature in miniature or as complex as recreating a bit of ecology from a very specific mountaintop in which to raise an endangered plant in.  While some are known to drift dangerously close to fairy gardening, most will fall somewhere in between.


Primula marginata blooming in March in a hypertufa trough that I bought at my first NARGS meeting 18 years ago but that still grows great plants.

Trough gardening has a history though, growing out of the Victorian rock gardening craze as enthusiasts in the late 19th century and early-to-mid 20th century found that it was even easier to raise these often difficult plants in containers and that large, rock sinks and stone horse troughs were common back then, and these sturdy containers were naturally considered as containers for these plants. Remember - back then most if not all containers were clay - a material that would crack in winter frosts. Rock was the only other option aside from wood.

There are many groups and types of saxifrages but the encrusted ones (dense rock-hard growing high-alpine ones) which tended to be only for specialists with alpine houses seem to thrive if planted in trough gardens. This one came from Wrightman Alpines already rooted in a piece of real tufa rock making me look like a genius with a green thumb.


I suppose that trough gardening just never took off in the US as it did in the UK, at least it never moved beyond the rock gardening world. The reason may be that there were only a few stone farm troughs to go around, or simply that homemade hypertufa troughs never looked attractive. If a large container company designed them professionally it may have helped. but the hurdles to creative containers - that would be unrealistically heavy and then to raise the proper plants for them not to mention soil mixes I can understand why it all seemed like too much.



'Trough gardening' includes most any container - not only stone sinks. This is one I made out of a 1950's cooler that I designed to look perfect on the steps of a ski lodge. A little crazy, but I loved making it and planting it with high-elevation mountain plants.

Today we are different. Many folks have no problem making their own kombucha or attempting to make puff pastry at home. We have access to more materials and curious, smart people are always on the lookout for something new, authentic and interesting. Raising alpine plants in hypertufa troughs checks off all of those.


Since many true alpines are difficult to find, seed-raised plants are easier to obtain - and these are often available once or twice a year at local NARGS plant sales and seedling exchanges such as these yellow draba and white pulsatilla which I raised from seed and shared with my local chapter. Super-rare plants are often only a couple of dollars each when purchased as seedlings. By the way - Pulsatilla is so hardy in my troughs that I have them planted in most everyone- never losing one to winterkill or summer drought. They don't live in my garden, though! Only on my deck in hypertufa troughs.


Yet it's not about rarity either. Trough collections make a statement. They can be planted just for pure beauty alone or as a way to display a collection of plants. Clever gardeners like the artist and author Abbie Zabar keeps a curated collection in which she has planted only the prettiest forms of sempervivums - hens and chicks, which are true alpines by the way. These live on the ledges and rooftop in her New York City penthouse garden. She is somehow able to cultivate a spectacular collection which thrives in a number, tiny, stone and hypertufa troughs that Abbie has collected over the years. These troughs flourish high above the city - and I am certain that her plants believe that they are growing high on a mountaintop in the French Alps.



Lori shows all types of hypertufa troughs in her book, but also she outlines everything that you would need to know about rock gardening - from planting and designing with real tufa rock to choosing the right plants and where to find them. My troughs, which are all hypertufa sit all over my garden - on walks, near doorways and on the deck. Most are just planted and then left alone aside from a bit of weeding now and then. They are very long-lived and are essentially little ecosystems.

In a way, troughs can whatever the garden creator wants them to be. From the tiniest zoos - little environments for only the hard-to-grow plants to just lovely containers for a few dwarf trees and easy growing woodland plants.

Of course, you can plant anything in a trough. I often plant a few of mine with just an interesting annual of one type like Monkeyflower (mimulus) or California poppies just to be different. Californian annuals that I buy from Annies Annuals that wouldnt survive our winter often do very well in them if planted early in spring. Two of mine have a dwarf Japanese Black Pine planted in them.


Primula marginata selections blooming in late February on a mild day outdoors, unprotected in a hypertufa trough. Better than crocus or pansies as few people (or even botanic gardens)  have these rare plants in their colelctions, but you can.


LoriChips' book is thorough and comprehensive which isn't surprising as alpine plants are her life. The reader will find everything one needs to know about trough making and designing. This is a book that is jam-packed with information. It's will be useful for those new to gardening to those who are experts. Regardless of your level of experience this book will excite and inspire you.  It's  design is fresh and modern,  attractive enough to be a picture book alone but it is much more than that.

What I most appreciate is that this book is loaded with step-by-step pictures which frankly illustrate tips and steps which are not even found on the internet as few people grow plants in troughs.  All levels of gardeners will enjoy it.



One of my hypertufa troughs planted with various high-elevation alpine plants from the Pyrenees.  I like to choose mountain ranges that I've explored and then recreate them in miniature in troughs, but you dont need to be that geeky. Still, this Primrose marginata from the Alps will grow terrifically if planted in a trough, while in the garden it may sulk. Once planted, these troughs are rather carefree. Sure you might lose a plant or two each year, but that only makes room for others.

What should make trough gardening attractive to most gardeners though is that troughs are designed for long-term planting which is the smartest way to plant them. Consider trough plantings like bonsai for perennial plants for a well curated trough can last a decade or more. A trough could contain a mini-meadow or prairie, or it could be planted with woodland ferns and ephemeral wildflowers or miniature hardy perennials.




A row of alpine plants in troughs on my deck (and a few window boxes planted with a tender South African bulb that does well in troughs in zones 7 or higher - Rhodohypoxis sit on our deck. The hypertufa troughs are lined up in the winter so that I can cover them with either a hoop of fiberglass roofing material or an old storm window - just to keep the worst of the wet winter weather off of them, they are left open on the sides for cold breezes and blowing snow.


If you want to learn more beyond Lori's book, I suggest joining the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS). NARGS clubs are local too so look for a chapter near you and just show up at a meeting as see if you like it then join. Members are super friendly and love new gardeners, and I can't think of a better place to get started (at my first NARGS meeting in 2001 I came home with a car laod of plants and a trough!). NARGS isn't just about alpine plants though, most members are passionate plant people and gardeners with all sorts of interests from orchids to ferns, woodland plants, woody plants, bulbs, trees, shrubs, rhododendrons, conifers. cacti and succulents. and many wildflowers. There are local chapters all over the country and many international members as well. Join for their seed exchange in winter and their 4 color quarterly journal which is one of the finest plant geek magazines. Join!



This tiny Primula allionii 'LismoreTreasure' is growing in a real piece of tufa rock, not hypertufa. While hard to find and costly, pieces of this porous limestone rock are often for sale at meetings of local rock garden societies. I planted this hard-to-grow plant as a seedling into a hole that naturally appeared in the rock, and then just left it alone. It rooted through the rock and as the rock is set into a gravelly mix in a large hypertufa container, it's on its own - and thriving. 



As for finding the right plants, this might be the hardest part. The truth is that the finest alpine plants though are hard to find.- of course, this adds to the overall appeal. What I don't get from NARGS meetings and members I order from Wrightman Alpines in Canada - great friends of mine, and they ship throughout the US). Shipping just ended for the autumn but early spring is a great time to stock up on these rare plants. Other alpine nurseries include Arrowhead Nursery in Michigan but many specialist nurseries carry plenty of rare and interesting plants that could be considered 'rock garden plants' (plant descriptions will often say 'great for troughs or rock gardens'. Oliver Nursery in Faifield, CT where Lori works sells alpines to but only direct at the nursery. They have a fine collection.

Also try rare plant nurseries. Try Plant Delight's Nursery,  Sequim Rare PlantsThimble Farms, and Digging Dog. All good nurseries will have plants that might be appropriate for troughs, but my big secret tip here is again to join your local NARGS or Rock garden Society as most have bi-annual plant sales, and a membership in the national club allows you to purchase seeds from one of the finest seed exchanges with rare seed collected from all over the planet. These seeds become available every December and often shares seed from expeditions to remote areas all the way to members secret collections.