The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
December 11, 2013
With the cooler weather it is now necessary to cover the parsley at night to preserve the foliage. Parsley is a biennial plant so it is adapted to over-wintering in most parts of the country but in severe weather the leaves fall down and are not useable by the cook. This would be a great disadvantage as there are few members of that tribe of plants known as the sweet herbs which are more useful in the kitchen. Stephen Switzer observed in The practical kitchen gardiner (1727): “The cook can never be without it, there being nothing more proper for stuffing and other sauces.”
Parsley is native to the Mediterranean shores of Southern Europe and was used as both a culinary plant and a medicine by the Greeks and Romans. It was almost certainly introduced to Northern Europe and England by the Romans legions. The first reference to parsley in England came in a Latin vocabulary written by Aelfric, the Abbot of Eynsham, in 995 CE.
There are two forms of parsley, the curled and the flat (also known as Italian parsley) and there is quite a lot folklore about the method of obtaining the two leaf forms. Thomas Hill recorded in 1577 that the flat leaf is obtained by tying the seeds in a linen cloth before planting and the curled leaf is obtained by wrapping the seeds in a ball and breaking them with a staff. Surflet’s The Country Farm, a 1616 translation of the 16th century French work, Maisons Rustique, advises that in order to make parsley curl we must bruise the seed and roll it when it first comes up.
The flat leaf has always been preferred by cooks while the curled is, as recorded by Mr. Miller, “sown in some curious Gardens, for garnishing Dishes.”
To preserve the parsley through the winter months the parsley is covered under bells every evening when the temperature is liable to plunge below 30 degrees on Mr. Fahrenheit’s scale. A little straw laid among the plants will greatly assist in keeping the frost from their roots.
With this simple precaution there will be sufficient parsley for sauce and stew as well as for its most famous use, as noted by Mr. Hill, “There is nothing that doth like sweeten the mouth, as fresh and green Parcely eaten.”
December 4, 2013
Mr. Jefferson has observed that though he is an old man, he is but a young gardener. Gardening is, indeed, a humbling experience and we often learn our lessons from unexpected quarters.
The planting of broad beans, or what the Italians term fava beans, is a case in point.
At one time we were accustomed to planting our beans in September at the same time we sowed our kale and turnips. We had, at best, mixed results from this planting as the resultant plants were prone to fall down and perish if the weather turned severe. We had several failures over the years and were forced to replant in early spring which does not provide a reliable harvest in Tidewater Virginia if the weather turns warm too early.
Several years ago the seeds we planted in September were discovered by squirrels and the mischievous vermin dug up and devoured every one. By the time we realized that all the seeds had been taken and were able to procure more seed from a seed house some distance from Williamsburg, it was the third week of November. This was far past the season we were used to planting beans but as the notable scholar and mentor to the famous Mr. Franklin, Cadwallader Colden, was wont to express, “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” so we decided to make the experiment.
To our great astonishment this later planting date proved to be the proper season and one that we have adopted ever since as we have discovered that smaller plants, no taller than three inches high, are best able to endure the trials of winter.
The broad bean is a large seed that is best planted in rows with a dibble and we have found that a light dressing of poultry manure laid over all will discourage the depredations from squirrels. Once the beans are up we construct a crude arbor of sticks and cover it with straw when night time temperatures dip below 25 degrees on Mr. Fahrenheit’s scale.
From this planting we are now able to reliably harvest broad beans by late April before the heat of summer commences and ends the season of this oft overlooked but worthy component of the kitchen garden.
November 20, 2013
This week we have planted the broad beans, better known to most Americans by the Italian name of fava bean. The broad bean originated in the area east of the Mediterranean basin and was initially gathered in the wild as a small-seeded bean known today as the horse or field bean.
The modern broad bean is a larger-seeded variety and was being grown in Egypt by 2400 BCE. From there it spread throughout the European continent and became one of the most important staple crops of the medieval period.
By the seventeenth century, however, broad beans came to be associated with the diet of the lower class and fell into disfavor with the gentry. They enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in England in the eighteenth century largely because of the great variety of broad beans that had been developed by curious and inventive gardeners as well as varieties brought from abroad.
When the first colonists arrived in North America they discovered the common green bean, so familiar to gardeners today, and called it bean because it reminded them of the European broad bean. Thomas Hariot, botanist for the 1585 expedition to Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina, explained: “Called by us beans, because in greatness and partly in shape they are like to the beans in England, saving they are flatter, of more divers colours, and some pied [speckled].”
The broad bean is a cool season vegetable that is more reliably sown in the fall in coastal Virginia and in points south. North and west of Williamsburg it must be sown early in the spring, even before the peas are planted. We will discuss the particulars of growing broad beans in our next correspondence.
I am traveling to the Carolinas in the next week so will not have the pleasure of your company but will resume our conversation the following week. Wishing all of you a happy Thanksgiving and a table filled with bounties from the garden.
November 13, 2013
The cooler days of November provide the perfect conditions for blanching endive. We grow both forms; the common curled endive and the broadleaf form, also known as Batavian endive or escarole. Endive is better grown as a winter green as the frosty weather improves both its flavor and texture which tends to be coarse and bitter.
It was these disagreeable properties that first gave endive the reputation of a medicinal herb rather than a salad green. The Country Farm, translated to English in 1616 from the much older French Maisons Rustique, observes, “Endive…is more serviceable in Physicke than any other wayes, and is not planted in Gardens, because it is alwaies bitter.”
Near one hundred years later, its reputation had been much improved through blanching as described in Botanologia, published in 1710: “Endive…being whited according to the following Directions is called White Endive, and is much in use in Winter time as a Sallet, with great Pleasure and Satisfaction.”
The author goes on to say “Curled Endive is much the tenderer, and far the fairer and better for that purpose.”
With all due respect to the wisdom of the ancient botanists, I must disagree as, in my opinion, the broad leaf endive, or Escarole, properly whited, is much the better form but I leave it to you, kind reader, to make the experiment and decide for yourself.
We blanch our endive by tying the foliage on a clear day when the foliage is perfectly dry. Any moisture on the leaves will rot the head. Thus bound, the head of endive is placed under an earthen pot for a fortnight with even the drainage hole plugged so no light may enter. The Batavian endive will turn a creamy yellow while the curled endive will blanch the purest white.
I have recently learned that endive is also of use in falconry. The worthy Mr. Campbell advises: “If you have reason to suspect your hawk’s liver is over-heated, or her gall overflowing, you must feed her with light cooling food, dipped into the distilled water of endive.”
November 6, 2013
In the past week we have transplanted the lettuce seedlings from the propagation bed to the frame where they will stand the winter. It is this winter crop of lettuce that is the finest and longest-lasting of year. The fall lettuce, in particular, is liable to bolt to flower before the heads are fully formed and often provides but a short season of harvest.
The spring crop, while more dependable than the fall, must never the less be harvested apace lest the plants turn stringy and bitter as the weather warms. It is the winter crop within frames, once they have been touched by frost, which provides the sweetest salad. In addition, those plants that head in mid-winter will remain perfectly fresh and good for many weeks together.
It is, however, necessary that some attention be paid to variety. William Hanbury advises, “In order to have them in the winter, let some good seeds of the Brown Dutch be procured; for that is the hardiest, and by the far the best and most proper of all the sorts for winter use; though, if a person is fond of variety at that season, he may also sow some of the Common Cabbage, Green Coss, and the Capuchin Lettuce-seeds, which are tolerably hardy, and in favourable winters succeed very well.”
The Capuchin is more commonly known today as the Tennis Ball lettuce and is very similar to the Boston lettuce our northern neighbors grow. We have also found that the Silesia and the Aleppo lettuce answer very well at this season.
The seeds are started on an old hot bed in early October and when they are well up they are thinned to stand at least four inches asunder. If any should appear weak, or in any way flag, a covering of cheese cloth would not be amiss. Grow them on until they have five or six leaves and they will then be fit to transplant to the cold frame.
If the weather should prove warm or if the wind should blow excessively you may ease the shock of transplantation by shading the beds with sashes formed from wooden slats that will shelter them until they have struck root.
October 30, 2013
This week we are blanching the last of the Cos lettuce planted for the fall season. This upright form of lettuce is probably named for the isle of Kos in the Aegean Sea, between Greece and Turkey and is the most ancient form of lettuce.
Lettuce has been known and cultivated for at least 4,000 years and was likely first used as a sedative rather than as a salad ingredient. The lettuce genus, Lactuca, derives from the Latin lac, or milk, in reference to the milky sap called Lactucarium contained in the stems of wild lettuce. This compound is often known as lettuce opium and has long been used for its hypnotic and sleep-inducing properties.
By the first century CE varieties of lettuce that contained much less lactucarium and were much less bitter were available. Pliny the Elder described these lettuces as “possessed of cooling and refreshing properties” and recommended using them for “promoting the appetite.”
Lettuce was likely introduced to northern Europe and England by the Romans from whence it received the name of Roman or Romaine lettuce. Cos tends to be somewhat coarse with a slight bitterness, a holdover from its ancient ancestors. This can be remedied through whiting or blanching. The method we use was first explained by the Italian refugee Giacomo Castelvetro in 1614: “Our ingenious gardeners tie [the lettuce] tightly together round a cane, so that the insides blanch as white as snow and become wonderfully crisp.”
In a fortnight, or two weeks, the lettuce will head handsomely and the inner leaves will turn a creamy whitish color, which vastly improves the flavor and produces what the modern shopper would recognize as hearts of Romaine.