Friday, May 18, 2012

Bloomsdays A Great Success

Bloomsdays at UT Gardens last weekend was a great success despite the rainy weather on Sunday. Saturday morning saw crowds thronging around the many booths, with vendors offering plants, garden art, and much more. The annual event just gets better and better.

James Newburn, Assistant Director of UT Gardens, told me they have hired a part-time person whose efforts are devoted exclusively to the Kitchen Garden. As you can see from the image at left, this is a large area with raised beds and many other features that would be the envy of any dedicated veggie grower. The buildings visible at the far end include two storage sheds and a shaded spot planted with mints. A rain barrel catches water from the roofs in this area, and there is a weather station housed in one of the sheds. The entire space is enclosed in a picket fence, with compost bins built along one side. Outside the fence, on the left side in this view, the staff has planted blackberries, raspberries and elderberries.

All the plantings integrate herbs, flowers and vegetables. Although it is mid-May, the beds were already hosting tomato, squash, cucumber and okra plants no doubt started in the greenhouses adjacent to the Gardens.

The Kitchen Garden illustrates virtually all of the design techniques that one might want to use. If only we all had this much space! And not everyone I have talked to likes the purple paint, but each to his own tastes.

Here's a shot of the raspberries outside the kitchen garden.

UT Farmers Market

On the Wednesday following Bloomsdays, May 16th, the UT Farmers' Market opened at UT Gardens. Complete with music from a banjo and guitar duo, the market offers produce from UT crop production classes, along with creations from the UT Culinary Institute and food and craft items from about a dozen local vendors. Some of these were familiar from other area farmers' markets, but not all.

The market is held at the Gardens every Wednesday from 4:00-7:00 PM from now until October 24.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Whippoorwill Winter

My grandparents would characterize this week's spate of lows in the 40s as "Whipporrwill Winter." By traditional reckoning, this is the last cold snap of the season, and we should have uninterrupted warmth from now until autumn. For those unfamiliar with our local lore, the earliest cold snap is "Dogwood Winter," which arrives as the trees are in bloom. A few weeks later "Blackberry Winter" arrives, as the snow white blooms of wild blackberries appear. Finally, the current cool-down, when the whippoorwills can be heard in the evening, calling out for a mate, provided you live far enough out in the country. (A bigger challenge each year, it seems.)

Tomato, pepper and eggplant plants can go into the ground now that we've passed this weather milestone. Many of us went ahead a planted tomatoes a couple of weeks ago, on the assumption that the season is running about a month early. Tomatoes don't seem much affected by a cool spell. They just sit there until things warm up. But peppers can be stunted by spending a night out in the cold, and eggplant is likely to develop an infestation of flea beetles. With these two, it is always better to wait than to rush the season.

This is also the season for herbs. Even the specimens in the supermarket look fresh and flavorful. In the garden, oregano, French thyme (at left) and tarragon are going gangbusters, and it will not be long before we have plenty of parsley. (I was late getting plants started this year.) Chives are blooming, and the sage plants are rapidly adding new leaves.

One of the best ways to preserve herb flavors is to make compound butter. Nothing could be simpler. Just soften a stick of butter, then use a fork to combine it with 1 tablespoon of minced fresh herbs. Turn the mixture out on to a piece of foil and shape into a log. Wrap in the foil and freeze. Tarragon butter makes a great topping for asparagus, also now in season.

Local Food Report
With farmers markets in full swing, no one has an excuse not to eat local. Our weekly check of Three Rivers Market turned up the usual suspects: arugula, bok choy, chard, lettuce, kale, and radishes. Strawberries and early red raspberries are abundant. The area farmers markets offer a much better selection, including French dandelion greens, asparagus, a kaliedoscope of lettuce varieties, early onions, and much more.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Local and Regional Food Finds

Local Food Report
Local food advocates are no doubt as happy as I am about the uptick in availability of local products as the growing season progresses. Strawberries are abundant, spring greens and onions are reaching perfection, and the area farmers markets are in full swing. This week’s visit to Three Rivers Market turned up kale, arugula, chard, bak choy, lettuce, and onions, along with the strawberries. Farms in Spring City, Loudon and Jefferson Counties are the sources.
A regional producer, Shuckman’s Fish Co. & Smokery in Louisville, KY, is featured in the meat and seafood case at Three Rivers. Besides producing fish flavored with Kentucky bourbon and slow-smoked, Shuckman’s offers what they call “spoonfish” caviar. This product is the eggs of the Mississippi paddlefish Polyodon spathula. Tennesseans know this same species as “spoonbill catfish” or simply “spoonbill.” This rather ugly river fish is a holdover from an ancient line that has survived in the Mississippi River watershed, and is esteemed for caviar rivaling the best that Russia’s Volga sturgeons produce. If you are planning something fancy, like a June wedding, this regional product should certainly receive your consideration.
Farmers Markets Opening Across the Region
Farmers markets across the region are operated by various entities. The Farmer’s Association for Retail Marketing (FARM) operates markets in Knoxville and Oak Ridge. Learn more about them here.
The FARM market opens in Knoxville on Tuesdays and Fridays, at the Laurel Church of Christ on Kingston Pike, across from the entrance to Cherokee Boulevard. Hours are 3:00-6:00 PM. In Oak Ridge, FARM markets are 3:00-6:00 Wednesdays and 8:00-noon on Saturdays.
The Market Square District Farmers Market operates on Wednesdays 11:00-2:00 and Saturdays 9:00-2:00. Maryville also has Saturday and Wednesday markets.
Last year, the Knoxville News-Sentinel published a list of area farmers markets.
If you are traveling anywhere in East Tennessee, you can find a farmers market, depending upon when you travel. Oak Ridge and Norris are the only ones open on Mondays, and none are open on Sundays. Saturday is clearly the most popular market day in most communities. A visit to the Saturday market on Market Square in Knoxville is a trip back to a time when this was the thriving center of commerce for the city.
I have made many pleasant food and gardening discoveries at each of the farmers markets I have visited. Extra-early Garnet Beauty peaches made the best jam I have ever tasted last season. I will be looking for them again. Wild blackberries, which may arrive prior to July 4 this year, are always worth bringing home. I admire anyone who endures the briars, bugs, hot sun and the occasional snake to pick wild blackberries. Furthermore, the flavor of wild berries is unmatched in the domesticated varieties. Arrive at any of the larger markets in late July and you may find more than two dozen varieties of tomatoes alone.  Growers explore new varieties, hoping to find one that makes their booth a stand-out. This gentle competition among the vegetable growers is a bonanza for shoppers looking for something different to cook with.
Vegetable, herb, fruit and flower plants also appear in abundance at the markets. Not only can you find new and interesting flowers, you can also locate old stand-by varieties of useful plants that people have grown in this region for generations. Novice gardeners take note: the old stand-bys achieved their status by not placing unreasonable demands upon the always-busy farm families of past generations. They will be equally forgiving in your suburban back yard.
Our pet project this year has been “Strawberry Fields,” a container garden inspired by the Beatles song. How we came to design it requires a little explanation. We bought one of those 10 by 10  canopies for the deck only to find the fabric was not particularly durable. After running through two roofs in as many seasons, we have this year turned the metal frame into a support for plants. Hanging baskets at each corner hold a pair of strawberry plants, and large pots on the floor under each basket have three plants each. We have additional pots of strawberries here and there among our collection of dwarf evergreens in containers that we display on the deck. Strawberry Fields has been giving us a nice bowl of berries every day, and they are free of dirt and slug damage because they are elevated above ground level.