Centering vegetables

In the days after Thanksgiving, I was casting around for something to write about in this blog post, when my husband surprised me at dinner with this masterpiece:

(From a Washington Post recipe; he used pine nuts instead of almonds because that’s what we had.) 

So I began to think about the idea of vegetables as centerpieces for the table. We are not vegetarians and this meal did include meat, but it was off to the side, not the focus of attention. Now, anyone who reads my posts here knows I love growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. When I go out to a restaurant, the kind where vegetables aren’t “sides” but a part of a constructed meal, I generally read the menu descriptions backwards and often choose the entree I’m ordering based on the vegetable accompaniment, deciding that I’m in the mood for parsnip puree or butternut squash risotto and that delicious-sounding salsa, and only afterwards acknowledging that the meat it comes with is just fine. (I’m also a sucker for unusual produce; I once ordered a meal at a restaurant in Oregon that was… probably fish? I don’t recall, but what sticks with me is asking the waiter what sea beans were, and when he was unsure, placing the order anyway and then pulling out my phone to search. They were great; can’t grow them here, alas, because they require a salty environment.)

But the point of those restaurant meals, and most of the ones we eat at home, is that the meat is in the middle. Even many vegetarian meals center a protein element that explicitly substitutes for meat, from plant-based burgers to Thanksgiving Tofurky. Many meals don’t, of course; pasta, pizza, and stir-fries are a few of many examples that combine elements from different food groups. But don’t we tend to describe them in terms of the protein, unless they’re a side dish themselves? How often do we talk about, yum, that dish I made with Chinese broccoli and those wonderful little peppers, oh and by the way I also put in chicken?

I think this is very much a cultural thing, and this is not the place to try tracing it through American history and sociology and noting the influences of and changes in various immigrant communities. I also don’t have the expertise to tell you exactly how much protein you need in your diet based on what food choices you make, and where you can find that protein. I do know, however, that it’s possible to eat healthily while thinking of meals in the way we’ve come to consider inside-out, that is with the vegetables first. This doesn’t have to involve spectacular centerpieces that take hours to cook; the pumpkin stuffed with onion, apple, fennel and cornbread, with maybe a little bacon for fun, can be relegated to the big holiday meal. But vegetables can at least be first in our meal planning part of the time. Maybe even all of the time.

Tamar Haspel, who writes for the Washington Post about larger perspectives having to do with diet, had a recent article about which plant foods are most and least impactful on our climate. (All plant foods are usually better climate choices than meat.) She concluded that fruit, nuts, and row crops such as grains and beans are better in an environmental sense than vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, and tomatoes, because the latter use more fertilizer and pesticides, go bad quicker and so contribute more to food waste, and provide fewer calories per acre. What this doesn’t account for, of course, is growing your own. Your home-grown veggies have zero crop transportation costs, and you will likely be using a lot less in the way of inputs. So I think you can eliminate climate guilt from the equation if you plant a garden. (Buying locally-grown produce would be the next best option.)

What are the best crops to grow if you’re trying to center vegetables on your table? Anything you like and will eat, basically, but if you’re going for the big centerpiece, think about squash or peppers that can be stuffed, beefsteak tomatoes (especially colorful heirloom types), or indeed cauliflower, though you’ll have to keep up with the fertilizer and water to achieve big, fully-formed heads, especially for a spring crop. Also think about ingredients you’d like to add to savory pies, galettes, or other pastries, or quiches and frittatas, or casseroles. Greens make a great base for many other dishes, or can star on their own mixed in with pasta or grains. And there’s always a big salad filled with lettuce, arugula, herbs, cucumbers, etc. – oh, and maybe some meat or fish too.

I’m still trying to shift my thinking from saying, when making meal plans, “We’ll have pork chops and…” “We’ll have macaroni and cheese and…” to a vegetable-centered focus. Here is a big lovely winter squash, I might think—what meat goes with that? Or maybe cheese and nuts? Can they go inside? Those Yellow Cabbage Collards I grew and put in the freezer: great with a little ham and a high-protein grain. I mean, sometimes we’ll just want a steak and potatoes with the greens on the side, but it’s worth doing the vegetable mind trick several days a week. And when there’s a little leftover steak, it might add something to a stir-fry of broccoli and beans.

If you’re looking for recipes, either search online for the vegetable you want to feature and “main dish,” or use a cookbook, vegetarian or not, that makes vegetables or vegetable families one of its primary organizing principles. And when you’re browsing the seed catalogs that are starting to arrive, consider what you might like to grow next year that will feature as the center of your table.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

How to choose a real Christmas tree

I love Christmas.  My favorite part is decorating a real tree, bringing all that woodsy freshness and fragrance into my home.  If you like real trees too, listen up for some shopping tips.  

Christmas tree with decorations

First, measure.  If you’ve ever had to lop off the top to make it fit you know that eyes can deceive.  So measure the space and get a tree that fits both the height and width.  Yes, I’ve had to rearrange the furniture. 

Next, visit a local tree farm or lot.  Bundling up and strolling through a Christmas tree farm is old-fashioned fun.  Cutting your own guarantees it’s fresh.  Plus it’s a good excuse for hot cocoa.   

But before you head out to a tree farm, toss some sturdy rope and a blanket or tarp in your car to secure and protect your tree and car.  Most farms have maps, saws and helpful folks.  

Local tree lots are a fine option, too.  Most benefit a local business or nonprofit group so you’re doing good while having a good time.  Raise your hand if you get overwhelmed looking at all those trees. 

Should you get a spruce, fir, pine or cedar? It’s a tough choice, but here are some fast facts to help you.  

The longest-lasting trees are Colorado and Norway spruce and Frasier fir.  Concolor fir also last well and have a handsome blue tinge as do some Colorado spruce.

Balsam fir is the most fragrant.  Pines have long, soft needles. And local tradition points to our native Eastern redcedar, often harvested on farms in days gone by. 

Eastern red cedar with berries
Eastern redcedar
Credit: Mira Talabac

Once you’ve settled on a type of tree, get up close and personal. Stroke a branch from trunk to tip.  Few needles should fall.  Gently bend a few needles.  They should bend, not break.  

If you’re buying a pre-cut tree, give it the gentle drop test.  Lift the tree off the ground a few inches and let it hit the ground softly.  Only a few needles should fall.  

Tree farms and lots will offer to wrap your tree in netting.  Spring for the extra few bucks if there is a charge.  It’s good protection.   If you have a short trip home, ask for a fresh cut on the trunk of a pre-cut tree to help it take up water.  Or cut a half-inch off the base when you get home.  

Your tree will travel best in the cargo area of your car if it’s roomy enough. Put down a tarp or blanket to catch any falling needles. If your tree is traveling in the back of a truck, wrap it and secure it with rope to minimize shifting and damage.  The quaint image of a Christmas tree atop a car is all well and good, but trees should only travel on car roofs with roof racks to avoid damage.

Load your wrapped tree with the base forward and secure it with sturdy rope to avoid the unpleasant “opening umbrella effect” en route.  Yes, trees can fly.

As soon as you get home, plunge the tree into a bucket or stand that holds at least a gallon of water.  Trees are heavy drinkers, so check and top off the water daily.  Check twice the first day.

The right Christmas tree tended well can give you a month or more of enjoyment. Make yours the centerpiece of your family’s holiday celebrations. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Food waste reduction: It’s everyone’s job!

Our society wastes food at every point in the food chain from farms and gardens to home kitchens, restaurants, supermarkets, food service companies, and large institutions like universities that feed  thousands of people daily. Last December I was astonished to lean about the extent of food waste at the MD Food Recovery Summit organized by the Maryland Department of the Environment. 

Surplus food is the term used to describe unsold and unused food, like crops that don’t go to market because prices are too low, perishable items tossed into supermarket dumpsters, and groceries and restaurant meals bought and not eaten. 

In 2019:

  • 35% of all U.S. food went unsold or unused 
  • 23% of all surplus food is fruits and vegetables 
  • Only 15% of Maryland’s 900K+ tons of food waste was recycled 

Why it’s a problem:

  • Huge economic and environmental costs of producing surplus food
  • 1 in 6 U.S. residents are food insecure. Surplus food can feed hungry people
  • Surplus food is the #1 landfill material (24% of landfill space) 
  • Food waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can trap 28X as much heat/mass unit as CO2
  • The value of wasted food at the consumer level is $161 billion/year
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We are still alive! How to protect pollinators in the slow season

Even when they look dry and “dead,” our green spaces are full of life. When we think about plants, for example, we can see that herbaceous perennials seem dry but they are actually just retreating underground, while annuals continue their life cycle by spending the winter as seeds in the ground. The same is true for other organisms that live in our green spaces: squirrels become less active, snakes retreat to sheltered spaces, and insects may overwinter as adults underground or in crevasses or as juveniles in their nests or chrysalises. Among these insects, there is a particular group that we seem to take a lot of effort to protect in season, but that we may then forget about in the fall and winter: our pollinators. In today’s post, I would like to talk about some specific ways that allow us to take care of our green spaces in the fall, all while continuing to support these organisms we worked so hard to support throughout the growing season.

Where are our pollinators in the winter?

As we mentioned in a previous post, pollinators don’t disappear in the winter. Instead, they either migrate to warmer conditions (like monarchs do; check out this website to know where they are now!) or stick around and overwinter right here in protected spaces such as crevasses, underground nests, and within plant stems. If we have been enjoying supporting them throughout the season, it may be a good idea to continue to do so also throughout the winter. Let’s see some ways to do this.

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Get to know your local mantis

Carolina mantid
Carolina mantis adult female in early autumn. Notice how her wings don’t reach the end of her abdomen, as they would with our other local mantids. Photo: M. Talabac

Q:  I’ve heard that not all of our praying mantis types are native. They’re all good for garden pest control though, right, or are some bad instead?

A:  Maryland is currently home to five species of praying mantis, but only one is native, which is the Carolina mantis. The others are the European, Chinese, Narrow-winged, and Asian jumping mantids, with the latter being the most recent introduction. While non-native, the other mantids have more-or-less been integrated into our ecosystem for some time now, so they don’t necessarily need management or removal. Evidence of this includes the fact that insect-eating birds and other predators will readily consume them, and their eggs can also be parasitized by the tiny wasps that presumably evolved to have a relationship with our native mantis. In the grand scheme of things, other invasive species deserve more attention. Plus, at least they also eat various other non-native insect pests.

If you prefer to support native mantids found in your yard, make sure you’ve identified them correctly. Maryland Biodiversity Project has image galleries for each mantis species and provides a few ID tips for telling the difference between them, at least for adults and egg cases (called ootheca). Put “mantids” in the search box to see the species list.

Comparison of 5 mantis ootheca. The native Carolina mantis has a narrow gray ootheca.
Photo: Pawel Pieluszynski

Mantids are generalist predators, so can consume pest insects and beneficials like pollinators alike. They’re opportunists, nabbing anything they can subdue (including each other), so are neither universally good nor bad. Gardeners generally consider them helpers since they do consume pests, though we don’t know to what extent the non-native species may be depriving the native species of a food source due to competition. (Given how many other non-native insects exist in our area, I imagine this impact isn’t that significant, especially when compared to the greater problem of habitat loss and degradation.)

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Gardener Magazine. Read more by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension. Our horticulturists are available to answer your questions online, year-round.

In praise of turnips

Are you a turniphead?

I sure am. And I’d love to turn this from an insult, with connotations of “lumpy, dull, bitter,” to a compliment meaning “smart gardener”! Turnips are a great cool-weather root crop and an excellent addition to spring and fall meals. They’re easy and quick to grow, offer variety and good taste, plus you can eat the entire plant.

To be fair, some varieties of turnip (and its cousin rutabaga) are used for animal feed, and as human food are valued mostly for their storage capacity. Turnips have fed people in the midst of famine and wartime rationing, and while this is a terrific feat for a plant, it doesn’t lead us to think of them as tender, delicate, spicy little treats. But they really are!

Turnips are a subspecies of Brassica rapa, which also includes many of the Asian greens such as Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and tatsoi, and the Italian rapini. Turnips likely originated in northern Europe, probably one of the first domesticated crops there, and later made their way to Asia, where many new cultivars were created. Until recently, most American seed catalogs listed one type of turnip – Purple Top White Globe – or if you were lucky maybe two or three (including Gilfeather which is actually a rutabaga). And listen, PTWG is a perfectly decent turnip, but it’s easy now to find more interesting fare. Many catalogs will at least sell you seed for one kind of round white Asian turnip, probably Hakurei. Grow these, from seed planted directly in the garden in late March or early April, or in September, and you’ll be rewarded about 45-50 days later with a perfectly white ball, mild and crunchy cut up for a salad, or tender and sweet when braised, roasted, or stir-fried.

You only need to do a few things to help your plants along. Provide a planting bed with loose soil that’s been amended with compost, give your plants plenty of water, and cover them with a floating row cover to keep off insect pests (and also rabbits, if you don’t have a fence. But you have a fence, right?). Turnips grow so fast that it almost doesn’t matter if the leaves get chewed a bit, but since they’re also edible, spicy in a mustardy way and great either cooked alone or mixed with other greens, you don’t want to have to pick off caterpillars. (If you really love turnip greens, you can grow types that produce leaves and not much in the way of edible roots, or add extra nitrogen fertilizer for the same effect. But why not have both greens and roots?)

Perusing catalogs with wider selections, you may find other types of round white turnips. I have no idea what the best one is, so pick what sounds good and experiment. You can also find red-skinned, white-fleshed types, which look really striking, though for some reason I’ve had trouble getting them to produce the few times I’ve tried them.

And then you can branch out into the weird ones, like Hinona Kabu, which I grew for the first time this year.

They are not actually meant to be that twisty and branched (the catalog photo looks like purple and white carrots) but I guess the bed I grew them in still has some issues with compacted soil. But it doesn’t affect the taste. This type of turnip is traditionally pickled, so that’s what I did. This is a fairly spicy turnip and the pickles add a nice potent bite to other foods. I made some squash soup the other night and offered various toppings to add, such as rye bread croutons, green onions, and cubed sausage, and also pickled Hinona Kabu turnips, along with Nadapeño pickles.

The pickling process turned the turnip slices pink – very cute! As with the round white types, there’s no need to peel these, just clean and remove some of the odd side roots.

I’m going to make sure turnips are a regular part of my spring and fall garden from now on. Frankly, there are few easier crops to grow, so why not? Let’s all be turnipheads!

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

Colorful shrubs jazz up the fall garden

Our landscapes are changing into their fall wardrobe which in many cases is brown, brown and more brown.  Add some pizzazz with shrubs with colorful leaves and berries.  As leaves lose their green chlorophyll, the underlying colors shine through in an autumn palette of red, gold, purple and orange.  Many shrubs reveal these vibrant leaf colors.

I’m a sucker for sumac.  Native varieties are already blazing red and orange along roadsides, but are often too big for the average backyard.  A better choice is a shorter cultivar such as the 3-foot ‘Gro-Low’ sumac. It’s a tough drought-resistant shrub that can handle poor soil. Its botanical name – Rhus aromatica – hints at another bonus: scented leaves.  

Fothergilla fall foliage – Image credit Miri Talabac

Also scented is native fothergilla.  Fragrant white bottlebrush blooms cover the plant in spring and in the fall it can wear red, yellow, orange and sometimes all of autumn’s colors combined.

Related to fothergilla is our native witch hazel.  Its leaves turn a sprightly yellow edged with orange in fall.  In winter it flaunts spidery yellow flowers.  Yes, it blooms in winter.

Oakleaf hydrangeas’ distinctive leaves deepen into a rich purple, red and bronze in autumn.  Their whopping blooms – like lilacs on steroids – tinge from white to mauve as they mature.

Love red?  Be kind to the environment and skip invasive burning bush which bullies out native plants.  Opt for a highbush blueberry instead which flashes the same rich red and provides food for both you and wildlife. Berries are berry – um, very – striking additions to the fall landscape.  Here are a few of my favorite berry-producing shrubs:

Viburnums are handsome, tough, pest-resistant shrubs whose praises I love to sing.  There are over 150 species and sizes run the gamut. Flower forms range from snowballs to flat-top clusters and many are fragrant.   Fall leaf colors range from rose to burgundy.  Then their berries take center stage in shades of yellow, orange, pink, red, blue and black.  Some even have two-tone berries.

I am not alone in my fondness for viburnum. Author and plantsman extraordinaire Michael Dirr says, “A garden without viburnum is akin to life without music and art.”   

The native American beautyberry stops traffic in the fall.  Somewhat nondescript much of the year, its cascading branches hold fistfuls of purple berries in autumn.  If you see it, you want it. 

Cotoneaster is another underused cascading shrub, this one dotted with red berries.  Pronounced cah-toe-knee-aster (no, not “cotton Easter,”) it looks especially fine draped over the top of a wall 

Red chokeberry – Image credit Miri Talabac

Native red chokeberry has dangling clusters of red fruits.  The ones in our demonstration garden get rave reviews when they are loaded with fruit or their abundant snowball-like spring flowers.  

Get thee to a nursery.  Enjoy a pleasant stroll while you search for just the right shrubs to enliven your fall landscape.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.