Rhubarb ready for cooking

This year, the rhubarb has flowered or bolted early and has an abundance of tender stalks for cooking now.

Since rhubarb stalks dry out quickly once picked, here’s two tricks to storing the stalks in the refrigerator and preserving their moisture before cooking. First, it’s best to pull the stalks straight off the plant rather than cut them.  Just give the stalk a good tug and it will slide off the plant. Second, rather than cut off all the leaf which is indigestible,  trim the leaf to look like a duck’s webbed foot so the moisture stays in the stalk while you refrigerate it. (Make sure you remove all the leaf when you’re ready to cook your rhubarb.)


Rhubarb harvested by pulling the stalks off the plant and with trimmed leaves to preserve the moisture and tenderness of the stalk. Taken at the Madison Farmers Market, Memorial Day weekend.

And, if you do cut the stems top and bottom, all is not lost. You can cook it right away and freeze it. Or you can put the trimmed stalks in a freezer bag and freeze them until you’re ready to cook them.

Passel of parsnips

The Kitchen GardenerAll winter long, the parsnips were caramelizing under ground and under snow. I planted these parsnips late Spring 2013 for harvest now.  Lovely to spy their feathery, deep green tops in the early spring garden.

Parsnips are related to carrots, only sweeter and much more deliciously flavorful. Before the potato was brought from the New World to Europe, parsnips were immensely popular in everyday dishes from baby food to stews to chips to cakes. The Romans adored parsnips, considering them a great delicacy, and used them to make cakes. (Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian has a recipe for parsnip cake with fresh grated nutmeg and a not-too-sweet buttercream frosting (p. 852). I will let you know how it turns out.)  Sadly parsnips are ignored and unknown now.

I am roasting mine because roasting condenses all the sugars and flavors. It’s also nice to roast carrots with parsnips for your Easter dinner. Parsnips are wonderful steamed until soft and mashed with butter. You can also add sautéed spring leeks or onions with them for a savory dish.

And parsnips are relatively easy to grow. I will be planting my seeds for the Spring 2015 harvest next month in May. Plant, water, enjoy the pretty foliage, and let them do their parsnip thing.

Lighting for seed starting success



Giving your seedlings enough light is an important step in successful seed starting. Since most people do not have access to a greenhouse, they need additional light.  I use everyday shop fixtures with energy efficient fluorescent bulbs.

Hang lights with an adjustable chain so that they can be raised and lowered as necessary. The goal is to have the lights about  two inches above the growing plants. Light is critical in these first weeks of growth. If a seedling is searching for light it will become spindly and weak. A tall, thin seedling will never be as healthy or productive as a short stocky dark-green seedling.

Lights should be replaced before they burn out or show darkening on the edges. Use them for other lighting, but not for seedlings. If you notice plants not responding well to light, replace the bulbs.

Soils for Seed Starting Success

imageI always use a potting soil with certified organic compost or worm castings in the mix. This is not a sterile mix, which is what is normally recommended. However, it is alive with microorganisms that feed your baby seedlings for up to the first six weeks of growth.

Typical components of a organic seed starting mix are the following:

Peat Moss or Coir (waste product from coconut production)
Perlite or Vermiculite – for drainage/aeration
Sometimes Yucca (if soil dries out, this helps the peat to reabsorb moisture)
Compost/ worm castings or a mixture of organic dry fertilizers.

You can purchase organic seed starting mixes at almost all local nurseries in Chicago. The selection increases every year.

This year, I am using a combination of two local/regional soil mixes. The local mix is 50% coir and 50% worm castings from Growing Power. The other is Purple Cow that is peat, vermiculite, perlite, organic fertilizers, and compost.

Want to make your own mix? Do not use backyard compost or garden soil for seed starting. Worm castings though are a perfect addition to a sterile seed starting mix. Generally people recommend adding 30% worm castings to your mix. If you are using your own worm castings avoid adding vegetable scraps with seeds. Otherwise, you will have random plants germinating and may not be able to identify your seedlings from the others. This is particularly an issue with tomato seeds in worm compost, since tomatoes are one of the favorites to start indoors.

Moisten Soil Mixes before planting. It should be like a wrung-out sponge, moist but not dripping.  Use room temperature water that has set overnight to off-gas the chlorine in the water. I keep a pitcher of water close by to use for watering seedlings.

Why start your own seeds?


This is your chance to grow what you want. What do you like to eat? Kale, red & yellow striped tomatoes, mini sweet peppers, lots of colorful salad greens? Just flip through a seed catalog and the desire to start seeds is strong.

By starting your own seedlings, you have the  ability to grow a diversity of crops quickly.  Each summer we have a different challenge. Hot and dry, cold and wet, never ending winter. You can give some plants an extra month or more of growing time and it is easier to fill in the gaps if something isn’t thriving.

A few suggestions for the first time seed starter.

Stagger plantings. Do a little each week. My parsley is now about 3 weeks old, broccoli is starting to get their first true leaves, and the kale has just sprouted. Peppers were planted today and tomatoes will follow in a week.

Start Small. Unless you have a farm,  most city gardens are limited in size.  In addition, these indoor seedlings  are fairly needy right before they go into the ground. If you grow too much they may get leggy and neglected, better to start small and successful!

Future posts will discuss soil mix, lighting fixtures, watering and hardening off of your seedlings.

Learning organic gardening


Photo by Patricia Evans

As some of you know, I started my professional life as a librarian so it gives me pleasure to see public libraries serving the needs of our changing, churning society. The New York Times covers why libraries have not gone the way of the postal service: “In upstate New York, the Library Farm in Cicero, part of the Northern Onondaga Public Library, lends out plots of land on which patrons can learn organic growing practices.” Just how cool is that? Got your library card ready to garden?

New growth

IMG_0671The Kitchen Gardener is very pleased to announce a new partner: Kirsten Akre.

Kirsten Akre has over twenty years of experience connecting youth and adults to food and nature through community gardening. Most recently, Kirsten managed the Chicago Park District’s Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse where she grew over 20,000 seedlings for the annual heirloom plant sale, developed the outdoor spaces into a community and children’s garden, and expanded its educational programming. She previously managed the demonstration garden and volunteer programs at the Garfield Park Conservatory and worked on the Resource Center’s Turn A Lot Around community gardening program. She developed her love of nature while exploring the mountains of Montana with her family and at her grandparents’ farm in Minnesota. Kirsten is thrilled to take her knowledge and passion to support and enhance edible landscaping and organic vegetable gardening through her position at The Kitchen Gardener.


Great success growing tomatillos this past growing season. A huge crop which allowed me to experiment with different recipes.

Of course, I made salsa verde.


Best of all, the roasted tomatillos mashed into a green sauce. The roasting brought out delicious citrus flavors along with a tart sweetness. Amazingly delightful. I put it in sandwich-sized zip lock bags and froze it. All winter I’ve been defrosting a batch to stir into guacamole or use as an enchilada sauce.

And a little spice too. These serano chili peppers are hot! Both fresh and dried.