Thursday, March 22, 2012

Savory Surprises in the Winter Garden

When I think of the garden in winter, I think of dried seed pods and grasses, rose hips, and bare twigs. The thought of herbs rarely crosses my mind. Any green to be had in the winter garden is usually in the form of pine boughs.

After a season total of  more than nine feet of snow last year, this winter has been eerily mild.  Total snowfall barely topped a foot in aggregate and the temperatures were more like the kitchen refrigerator than a typical New England winter!

The garden under six inches of fluffy snow, March 4, 2012  
Except when they were covered with snow and I was too lazy to dig out my boots, I was able to pick fresh rosemary, oregano, thyme, parsley, and mint throughout much of the winter.

Even when they spent a few days under snow, they all rebounded quickly and I've made tabouleh all winter from the bounty. 

Flat Italian Parsley:  I covered it with an overturned bucket or  laundry basket when snow was expected.
On the deck, this shrub was the easiest to protect with a box or bucket when the weather was harsh.
The sage lasted through the New Year.  The thyme remained green all winter.
Spearmint grew with abandon all winter long.  The new growth is tender and flavorful.
Fresh oregano - a treat in pasta sauces, soups, and roasted meat.
With winter temperatures milder than normal and snowfall and ice storms infrequent, it was easy to protect tender herbs with an overturned laundry basket, box, or bucket.  I didn't expect the sage to last past the first hard frost and was pleasantly surprised to be able to pick it into the New Year. With fresh herbs a few steps from my kitchen door, fresh tabouleh salad was a treat all winter. Serve it with homemade pita chips or with hummus on English muffins.

Fresh Tabouleh Salad
1 cup (dry) whole grain light bulghur (approximately 2-1/2 to 3 cups prepared)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup flat Italian parsley, finely chopped  
1 large seedless cucumber, finely diced  
1 cup fresh mint, finely chopped 
1 bunch green onions, finely diced (1/2 to 1 cup)
½ bulb garlic, minced
½ sweet orange pepper, finely diced (add more if desired)
½ sweet yellow pepper, finely diced (add more if desired)
2-3 Roma tomatoes, seeded and finely diced  
½ cup finely chopped broccoli florets (use the florets only, no stems)
3 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme
2 lemons, squeezed and zested
2 Tablespoons champagne vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil (add more as needed, depending on volume of bulghur)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Bring two cups of water to a boil and add bulghur and salt.  Simmer for 15 minutes and then turn off the heat and let the bulghur soak in the pan until soft.  Test the texture of the bulghur and add more water and reheat as necessary until the bulghur is fluffy, soft and only slightly toothsome. Set aside in a large bowl to cool.

Finely chop the vegetables and herbs and add to the prepared bulghur. Add lemon zest and juice, pepper, oil, and vinegar.  Toss with a large fork to mix.  Add additional mint, lemon, salt, and pepper to taste. 

Pita Chips

Pita pockets (large)
Olive oil
Oregano and Basil (dried)
Garlic Salt

Cut each pita pocket into 8 wedges and separate each wedge into two chips.
With a pastry brush, lightly brush the inside surface with olive oil. Sprinkle with garlic salt, basil and oregano.  I either crush the basil and oregano with a mortar and pestle or grind it with an herb grinder to get a very powdery consistency.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 5-10 minutes (until the inside surfaces begin to turn golden brown).

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Welcome Spring! Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, March 15, 2012

March 10, 2012 - a surprise storm 

Spring arrived early in New England.  This is usually the time of the month when I am anxiously waiting for the last of the snow to melt and for the first signs of spring to appear.  Last year at this time, we were still digging out of one of the snowiest winters in recent memory - more than 9 feet (almost 3 meters) of total snowfall. Ten days ago, we awoke to a wholly unexpected four inches of fluffy snow that almost completely melted away as we thought about shoveling over breakfast.  It was the second such snowfall in as many weeks, and accounted for most of the snow we saw this winter.

This past weekend, we were outside in spring and summer clothing, enjoying temperatures that soared into the 70's F (20's C ), far above the norm for this time of year. With temperatures expected to top  80 degrees F (26 C) today, it's hard to believe that we are only into the third week of March.

The snowdrops weathered the snow quite nicely.
Compared to past years, the crocuses, hellebores, and snowdrops are blooming more than a month ahead of schedule.

The snowdrops first appeared during the last week of February and were covered with snow in the last storm.  When I was photographing them again this week, I noticed for the first time the way the center of each blossom is a beautiful layered rosette of white petals edging in green. With their faces looking down at the ground, I never looked closely inside the blossom before!
I never studied the faces of the snowdrop blossoms before, which are angled down toward the soil.
The daffodils will opening in a matter of days.
Clumps of miniature iris are blooming very early.  Usually they bloom much later, at the same time as the miniature daffodils which are planted in the same border but which have barely started to show buds.
Over the past two winters, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of squirrels and chipmunks and the beds are dotted with the openings to tunnels dug by the voles burrowing through our gardens.  Last spring we noticed a significant decrease in the number tulips and daffodils, evidence of winter feeding on our bulbs. This spring, the amount of bulb loss is even more concerning.  Where we ordinarily had large clumps of crocuses, scarcely a handful remain and some clumps have disappeared completely. 

An opening to a tunnel created by a burrowing vole.  In some areas of the garden, the tunnel network is so extensive, the ground actually feels spongy.  At right, now that the perennials are beginning to sprout, they make a tasty treat for chipmunks and voles.  This was a newly awakened hosta, whose tender shoots made a tasty salad for one garden visitor.
The best known harbingers of spring, most of our clumps of crocuses have been decimated by the voles.  We'll plant more in the fall, but we'll need to address the rodents this summer.
The honeybees have returned.  The hellebores have been alive with them from dawn to dusk, a most welcome sight!

The mauve and aubergine hellebores opened earliest and have been blooming since the beginning of the month, through two snowfalls, in fact.  The lime green ones are now budded and ready to open, and the white ones opened on the 17th.
The miniature hyacinths seem to be the one spring bulb that the voles have avoided.
This past weekend we filled all of our planters with perky pansies.  Another spring fixture in New England, usually we don't plant these until the end of April.
The rich mauve were not available, but the blue is definitely eye-catching.
The koi came out of hibernation and started schooling this week, which occurs once the water temperature in the pond is a consistent 50 degrees.  We'll start feeding them Cheerios in a few days if they remain active.  For now, they are feeding on the algae which remained in the pond and grew over the winter and early spring.
The star magnolia and yellow magnolias have plump buds.
Although the star magnolia usually opens well before the saucer magnolia, this year might be different.  Several of the saucer magnolia buds have started to open already, about 6 weeks ahead of schedule. With the leaves having fallen, we were able to see a nest that sat in the top of the saucer magnolia.  Hopefully, it will be reclaimed by another family of birds this spring!
In New England, lilacs can usually be counted on to be in bloom for Mother's Day.  They are already beginning to leaf out and buds are already formed and beginning to develop.
Like the lilacs, the cherries are budded more than a month earlier than usual.  We usually see the tree in bloom at the end of April. I won't be surprised to see the tree in bloom before the end of this month.

Whether it's from the effects of global warming, sun flares, la nina, or other variables, the mild winter and early spring, though most welcome to those of us who love to garden, may also lead to a variety of other issues we will need to contend with in terms of insect and rodent population shifts. It's hard to think about negative consequences, however, as I listen to the birds singing through the open doors to the patio where the temperature has now reached the 80 degree mark.

As a native Yankee, even though I am delighting in this glorious respite from winter, I still recall snowfalls well into May and I am not forgetting the age old warning not to plant tender annuals until "all danger of frost is past".  April Fool's Day is less than two weeks away and it would be just like Mother Nature to follow this blissfully summer-like weather with a spate of frigid weather and perhaps even yet another snowfall.  With that in mind, we are limiting our planting to pots and raised beds that can be easily protected if the weather changes dramatically. 

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is the brainchild of Carol, who blogs about her gardening escapades at May Dreams Gardens. Like me, Carol is a lover of spring (May in particular) who invites gardeners to record the blooms in their garden every month throughout the year on the 15th of the month. You can read more about it on her blog where you can also find links to tens of dozens of other gardens who celebrate their gardening blooms each month with Carol. Click here to visit Carol's fabulous blog!