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Thinking Ahead to Spring Gardening

February 1, 2012

Because there was less field work and outdoor activities, the winter season was the social season for people of the 19th century.  January has been pretty social with historic dinners here at the farm house. (There is still time to come and join us for dinner!) But, as that season wanes we look forward to Spring on the farm.

A mild winter has helped us forget about the Iowa cold, but some recent snow has reminded us that it IS January.  Like every January, I was warmed by the sight of this year’s seed catalogs that recently came in the mail.  By 1900, many companies existed that provided seeds for the kitchen garden.  Farmers in 1900 had the option of saving their own seed (which we do some of) or spending money to purchase seed (which we also do).  The seeds could be ordered from a catalog much in the same way they are today.  Because I plant heirloom varieties that existed at the turn of the century, I look to a couple of smaller Midwestern seed houses.  There are many places to get heirloom seeds all over the country, it is always fun to find out what is near you!

This year I am using seed stores from previous years on the 1900 farm, in addition to new varieties acquired from both Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA) and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Mansfield, MO).  It is always interesting to look at the origins of the different varieties, and as I leaf through the catalog I am always amazed by the plethora of different vegetables available to the kitchen gardener at the turn of the century.

Some of the varieties are named after seed houses that existed at the time, like the Livingston Beauty tomato, named after the Livingston Seed Company founded in Ohio in 1875.  An interesting local tidbit is that the Livingston Seed Company moved to Des Moines in 1880 for a time.  For more information about seed houses of the time period, or when well-known companies (like Burpee, 1876) were formed, check out the research done at the Victory Horticultural Library.

When looking at what varieties to grow in the garden I try to pick seeds that will adapt to our climate well.  Lettuce that is slow to bolt, or tomatoes that like humidity  are examples of seeds that would be useful in a typical Iowa growing season.  But like all things farm-related, much of the “normal growing season” is dependent on the ever-changing Iowa weather (for another example, consider our abnormal 60° days at the beginning of January).  I also choose seeds with interesting stories, and would like to share one with you.

I have really grown to like beets. The sweet and savory flavors of pickled beets, sugared baked beets, and roasted red beets all are lovely to me. This is not the case for all people I realize, but I like interesting stories about beets because I enjoy them so much. This year I am going to grow Crapaudine Beets, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. From the catalog I have learned that these particular beets were referenced in a French book of 1885 call The Vegetable Garden. This book was written by Maurice Vilmorin-Andrieux,  a member of a prestigious French family of growers. The Vilmorin Company, according to the corporate website, was founded in 1743. In his book, Vilmorin stated that the Crapaudine Beet was one of the oldest varieties. Baker Creek goes on to say that this may be the oldest beet still in existence, it’s presence going back nearly 1,000 years.  I am excited to try out this variety, that gardeners may have grown during the Renaissance!

The beet is carrot-shaped, and should be quite tasty. I hope it enjoys the heat of an Iowa summer and is prolific enough to have some to can.  Regardless, I am already anxious to prepare them, in a way such as that suggested by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln:

Beets (page 306)

Wash, but do not cut them, as that destroys the sweetness and color.  Cook in boiling water until tender. Young beets will cook in one hour, old beets require a longer time; and if tough, wilted, or stringy, they will never boil tender.  When cooked, put them in a pan of cool water, and rub off the skin. Young beets are cut in slices, and served hot with butter, salt, and pepper, or are cut in small cubes and served in a white sauce.  They are often pickled in vinegar, spiced or plain, and served cold; or they may be cut into dice, and mixed with other vegetable for a salad.

-from Boston Cooking School Cookbook, 1884

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of skinning your own beets, pick up a can at your local grocery store and start enjoying this pretty vegetable.

I can nearly taste the yummy flavors of baked beets and am anxious for the weather to break for spring garden plowing.  As the year progresses I will let you know how the beets do, and share some more of my favorite beet recipes.  Until then, have a good time planning your garden, I know I did.

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