Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Leeks come back! Planting Strawberries, Asparagus, Spinach and Peas in the Springtime

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! It’s been so nice to be out in the garden again this spring! It seems like ages have passed since my last gardening blog in December of 2020.

January was temperate in Chicagoland.  It finally started to snow in earnest in February, and then seemed like it would never stop.  By the end of the month, my yard was blanketed in 4 feet of snow!  But once the snow cleared, I was excited to see the tiny, bright yellow, sun-like faces of my winter buttercups, followed by daffodils, tulips and hyacinths in the early spring. Check out my Instagram posts at Conversationalitalian.french  to follow my flower beds  more closely if you like.

I have great expectations for the vegetable garden this year, since I hired a landscape crew to build 4 new raised beds! These beds are on the top of a hill, in the sunniest location in my yard, and I know this will be wonderful for the Italian summer vegetables my family loves. 

As I have mentioned in my  Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, for the last two years, my focus has been on how to grow Italian vegetables in the suburbs, even in a small space.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through many years of experience and be encouraged to start an Italian garden yourself — be it large or small, in a yard or on your porch, or even indoors in pots near a sunny window — after reading the blogs in this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”  

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

In this blog I’ll describe how to get started in the springtime with vegetables and greens that love the cool weather, and set out my garden plan for 2011. 

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you want an easy, step-by-step way to learn the Italian of today. Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

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Watching Leeks Spring Back to Life

 

In my December post, I mentioned my first attempt at growing leeks last year. In short, I had found leek sets in the garden shop and  planted them in two rows in the center of my lettuce bed by the house. Although I did not realize it at the time, they were planted in a good location for over-wintering; that particular bed is sheltered by a large tree on one side and the house and patio wall on the other two sides. The leeks provided greenery in the center of that bed all winter, their long so I knew they were alive. By early spring, when the ground thawed I was able to pull two fragrant leeks to make with my salmon for Friday night during lent.  

A few tips about cooking with leeks:

Whether store bought or homegrown, remember to continuously clean the leeks of the bits of dirt that hide in between the layers.

The long, white “bulb” portion of the leek (called the “shank”) is used for cooking, along with the tender green portion of the bulb at the border with the white.  The long green leaves are normally discarded into the compost bin. Although, I did find an article from La Cucina Italiana that mentions boiling the tough green leaves and rolling each to make individual serving “rounds,” with a filling or to use them for soups or stews. Interesting ideas!

The “white part” of the leek is usually cut crosswise, is tender when cooked, and has a delicate, oniony flavor and  floral scent.  This portion of the leek alone can flavor an entire dish. So when I paired leeks with salmon for the Instagram post shared below, I did not use the usual Italian technique of a preliminary sauté in olive oil to soften them, and I did not include garlic in the dish. But the pasta in this dish is cooked and then added in the “typical” Italian way.

My salmon, leek, and cream with pasta dish is so simple to make. It takes only one large pan and I think the flavors meld beautifully. Check out how I did this on my Instagram video below and then try it yourself and see if you agree!

 

 

 

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Planting Seeds for Spinach

and Italian Greens

 

This year I wasted no time ordering seeds. As soon as the catalogues appeared in my mailbox in January, I sent out my order. The first item on my list was spinach, as it is one of my favorite leafy green vegetables. It is said that Catherine de Medici from Renaissance Florence loved spinach so much that when she was queen of France she asked it be served at every meal! Perhaps this is why dishes that feature spinach are called “Florentine.”

Spinach grows easily from seed in the cool spring of Chicago, and homegrown spinach has a fresh taste that the supermarket spinach lacks. I especially love young spinach leaves and it is wonderful to have them available right in my backyard for an afternoon lunch. This year I planted two varieties of spinach, both of which were advertised as being resistant to going to seed and dying out in the warm weather. Fingers crossed, because it typically turns from a cool spring into a hot summer very quickly in Chicagoland.

Other than spinach, I like to plant greens that are not commonly found in the grocery stores here in the US. My favorite company to order from is Seeds from Italy. They are an American distributor of seeds from authentic Italian producers.  As a result, I was able to find two varieties of arugula, lamb’s lettuce, and several types of Italian leafy romaine that love cool weather but are also supposed to be resistant to going to seed when it turns warmer. 

Another of my favorite Italian greens that can be planted in the springtime is cavolo nero.  The name means “black cabbage,” but it is really a kale. This leafy green has become popular lately, but I’ve grown it in my garden for years. Cavolo nero grows easily from seed and will last all summer into the late fall. Cavolo nero is an attractive, tall leafy green and needs a lot of space, so I planted the seeds in their own row just outside the garden bed. 

Just north of the cavolo nero is my bed of Swiss chard. One valiant plant came up again on its own this year. I’ve planted more seeds in the perimeter of the old bed since Swiss chard needs cool weather to germinate. The package recommended soaking the seeds in water for 24 hours prior to planting for best germination. And in the center of this garden bed, I trying to grow some new vegetables from seed: broccoli rabe and romanesco broccoli from Seeds of Italy.  

Shallot sets and green onion sets from the garden shop in my neighborhood complete my lettuce beds this year. My chives came up again in their own pot nearby, as expected early in spring, as they have been for over 10 years!

Of course, before planting this year, I added more soil to my garden beds and amended the soil with cow manure and some garden compost. In my experience, lettuce will grow well without any other additions to the soil. 

See below for an image of my garden beds with the greens and onions this year.  Between the garden beds are lavender that I planted last year as part of my herb garden. A row of sedum was planted by the previous owners of my house, and comes up reliably every year, so I have kept it in place as a border. The leeks are in the center of the southern raised garden bed. Otherwise, not much to look at right now, but I know from experience that it will not be long before the seedlings pop their heads out of the ground!

Leeks growing in the center of a raised garden bed; in the distance another raised garden bed and additional land for leafy greens. Seeds have just been planted.
Italian garden beds for lettuce, onions, and leafy greens, after seeds were planted. The leeks overwintered from last summer.

 

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Last Year’s Overwintered Strawberry Plants


and Planting New Bare Root Strawberries

 

Last year’s strawberry plants have greened up again. At this point, with many of the leaves now green and functioning again, I’ve read it’s important to cover the plants with a old sheet if the temperature dips below freezing at night. I’ve sometimes followed this advice and sometimes not. Either way, my strawberry plants seem to survive. They do need fertilizer for berries early in the spring and then in mid spring (about 30-45 days later)  when they get ready to flower.

 

Raised garden bed with overwintered strawberries, now with green leaves
Strawberries spring 2021, overwintered with green leaves. Two small plants showing new red stalks and green leaves, peeking out in the center are overwintered rhubarb.

I’ve also planted more strawberries in the periphery of my asparagus beds at the top of my hill. Strawberries love the dappled shade that asparagus provides and are a nice border plant. I’ve always found the two to grow well together.

This year I was able to get down to Peoria (where I lived for about 18 years and learned to garden) and bought bare root strawberries from Kelly’s Seed in Peoria, Illinois.  A family run business since 1905, Kelly’s seed only sells plants that will grow well in central Illinois. All of their staff today are knowledgeable about when and how to plant the seeds and root stock they sell, which is a huge added benefit. Plus is is always fun for me to share stories with them about my garden and they always listen and are helpful!

Check out your area for a  local gardening store instead of the big box stores. If you are lucky enough to have a garden store in your area, and can buy bare root strawberries, just click on the link I’ve found to a post that will walk you through each step for planting strawberries:  How to Plant Bare Root Strawberries.

Below are my morning’s adventure. Only 1 1/2 hours and 18 strawberry plants planted in each box! For that little work, hopefully I will be enjoying strawberries for years to come.

 

Bare root strawberries as they are sold on the left, demonstrating their long roots and a second image of the roots trimmed and ready to plant.
  Bare root strawberries as they are sold on the left, and trimmed and ready to plant on the the right. Roots were soaked about 4 hours.

       

Newly planted strawberry crowns peeking out of the soil
Strawberry crowns, newly planted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last Year’s Asparagus Plants

 

I planted asparagus crowns in the spring of last year,  and after they came up posted about how to get them ready for winter. 

Since it is now spring again, here are some tips about planting asparagus. First: check your location and see if asparagus will grow. Asparagus likes cool weather. The best way to plant asparagus is by buying “crowns” or the roots of the asparagus plant. I found an excellent post about how to plant asparagus that will take you through each step, with lots of pictures. The details about how to plant the crown are in the middle of the post. I would skip there as the home gardener would find it difficult to plant asparagus from seeds (as mentioned in the article).  I have only grown asparagus from crowns. How to Plant Asparagus.

Asparagus that has overwintered needs a covering of cow manure compost in the spring and fall and with this little care the plants should continue to produce asparagus each spring for about 10 years and even up to 25 years. Since I live in hardiness zone 5 (temperature falls to -20 degrees for part of the winter) I cannot cut my asparagus for the first three years or the plant will die. Extra root power is needed to survive the cold Illinois winters! So no posts on fresh asparagus will appear until the year after next! 

I plan on planting potatoes in the beds next to the strawberry patch along the west side of the house, and moving the tomatoes that were in these beds last year to the new beds when it gets warmer this spring. But for now, I have other plans for the new beds…

 

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This Year’s Peas and Then…

Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant

 

And in my four new raised garden beds? I’ve planted peas! My family and I love fresh peas and this year I hope to have enough peas to enjoy all spring. A second planting in two to three weeks will help to prolong the season as long as it does not become hot too quickly.

Peas are also a good vegetable to start with in a new garden bed because they accumulate nitrogen gained from a symbiotic relationship between their roots and the bacteria in the soil. The bacteria are able to obtain nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the pea plant. After harvesting the peas, the remaining plants can then be turned into the soil to increase the nitrogen available to the next set of plants to be grown in the bed. Which in this case will be the Italian favorites — tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Here is an image of the raised beds. Nothing to look at for now. I just need to keep them watered and my fingers crossed they will germinate. A tip: Soak peas overnight in cold water and they will germinate more quickly.

 

Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four new raised garden beds planted with peas

 

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 My Grand Plan for 2021

Below is a map of my garden plan for this year. A map always helps me to plan what I need to do for each part of the spring and summer. You may notice the blackberries, raspberries and cherry trees… hopefully we will have fruit from these new plants in a few years also!

 

Italian garden plan for Spring 2021
IItalian gardening plan for Spring 2021
 

 

 

Please write and let me know what you are planting in your garden this spring.
I’d love to hear how your garden grows!
Until the next blog, follow my Instagram account, Conversationalitalian.french
for recipe ideas from my garden to yours!

Your Italian-American Gardening Tips – Fall Clean Up, An Autumn Soup, and Planting for Spring

oval plot of swiss chard plants growing after zucchini have been removed
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! I can’t believe that my last gardening blog was so many months ago in August! Actually, there hasn’t been much to report about maintaining the garden in the early fall,  and I have mainly spent these last few months harvesting, cooking with fresh tomatoes, and posting what I’ve cooked on Instagram. In short, maintaining a garden in early fall is relatively easy in northern Illinois. Simply harvest what you can and clear away the plants that have given their all or die off with the oncoming frosts.

Speaking of freezing temperatures,  I did post on my Conversationalitalian.french Instagam when it was time to take in my herb pots.  Was it really as early as October 5 this year?

Anyway, little by little, I have been clearing out my garden beds of the annual vegetables of summer. For my cold-hardy leeks and leafy greens, like Swiss Chard and cavolo nero (Italian “black” kale), I have been weeding (this job never seems to end) and harvesting sparingly so they will continue to grow.

I have also taken the opportunity this fall to plant an essential Italian ingredient — garlic — which came up faithfully every year in my old garden when I was living in Peoria. I always look forward to garlic scapes (green shoots) in springtime, and of course, harvesting the bulbs later in the season.  I also love shallots, and have planted these bulbs as well this year, so hopefully they will be ready to harvest in the summer. The enjoyable part of my fall garden duties this year has involved planting  for next spring!

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, this year I have been focusing on my raised gardens, and all the wonderful Italian vegetables that can be grown in the suburbs, even in a small space.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through many years of experience and be encouraged to start an Italian garden yourself — be it large or small, in a yard or on your porch, or even indoors in pots near a sunny window — after reading the blogs in this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”  

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

Below are my insights on how to clean up and prepare your garden beds for fall, caring for herbs over the winter, and what to plant for next spring.  

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you want an easy, step-by-step way to learn the Italian of today. Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

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Putting Garden Beds to Rest,
Harvesting Leeks and Planting Garlic

Fall 2020

As I mentioned in the introduction to my blog, during these past fall months, I did manage to complete the boring and labor intensive but necessary part of gardening —  putting my garden beds to rest. Little by little, when a sunny day would appear, I took the opportunity to pull out my old and spent tomato and bean plants. I also finally cleared out my lettuce patch.

The soil in the raised beds that grew these annual vegetables all summer was then amended with compost and mulched leaves. I also added crushed egg shells to provide calcium for the tomato plants next year. I planted garlic bulbs in the perimeter of the beds where I will grow tomatoes next year. Some gardeners believe that garlic planted by tomatoes is beneficial and although I am not sure this is true, the particular location  in my garden works for both plants for me and I will be able to harvest the garlic in mid summer before the tomato plants become too large and take over .

To plant garlic, simply separate the cloves and plant as you would any bulb, with the pointy side up. I like the Italian hard neck garlic best, of course. Homegrown garlic is said to be more flavorful, and I do love the garlic shoots (scapes) in the springtime.

Finally, I covered the garden beds that I don’t expect to produce until I plant again in spring with black landscape fabric, which I hope will keep weeds from growing in the meantime.

I had a small fall harvest of leeks from my garden beds as well. In the center of the lettuce bed, leeks had grown up nicely during the cool weather, just in time for me to harvest two for my family’s favorite “Thanksgiving Leek and Potato Soup.”  I have not mentioned that I have been growing leeks up until now, as this year was my first attempt, and I wasn’t sure how things would go. Actually, although the initial planting was a bit difficult (the young seedlings I bought were grown together in one pot), after each seedling separated and placed in the soil, my leeks grew pest-free and virtually weed-free. The only  activity required was to mound up the soil around each plant periodically as it grew.  Here is how my gardens looked in the early fall and today, with the leeks still happily growing in the center of my mulched plot in early December.

Two rows of leek plants growing in a raised garden bed
Young leeks growing in early fall 2020
December leeks are growing in the middle of a plot with leaf mulch
December leeks 2020. Self-seeded borage growing to the left of the raised bed.

 

 

 

 

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Thanksgiving Leek and Potato Soup

Leek and potato soup is simplicity itself.  Just two ingredients boiled together in a little salted water and then puréed, with a bit of cream added, yield a light, delightfully complex oniony flavored soup.  Leek and onion soup is the most requested soup for Thanksgiving that I make, over mushroom and butternut squash. Below is my Instagram post from this year’s version.

My leeks were smaller than the grocery store leeks, but so flavorful that just two worked perfectly.  Whether store bought or homegrown, the only trick is to remember to continuously clean the leeks of the bits of dirt that hide in between the layers. The white, long “bulb” part of the leek is used in cooking, along with the tender green portion of the bulb at its top.  The long green leaves can be discarded into the compost bin.

 

 

 

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How to Overwinter Herbs

Overwintering herbs is one of the most tricky things about gardening.  One has to know which herbs will survive the particular winter climate where they are gardening. Herbs that are said to be perennial (come up on their own each year) in one region may have to be grown as annuals in a another, colder region. Here is a short run-down of what I have found to work in northern Illinois.

 

Since I find fresh herbs essential to good cooking
I’d love to hear more helpful tips on how to overwinter,
so please feel free to leave a comment at the end of this blog!

 

Rosemary and Bay leaf: Each year I plant rosemary and bay leaf in pots so I can take them indoors to overwinter.  Although their woody stems and tough leaves make it seem like they should be cold hardy, both plants will die with the first frost, so it is essential that they be moved indoors early. Rosemary and bay leaf are an important ingredient in Italian winter roasts and stews, so I find it wonderful to have easy access to these herbs in a sunny corner of my kitchen. The fresh bay leaf in particular has so much more flavor than the dried supermarket bay leaves that I will only use fresh bay leaves from my own plant, or those that I have dried myself the year before.

This is the second overwinter for my bay plant, and this year has been responding will to the blue spectrum of my new grow light, making many new leaves since I have brought it indoors. It is also the second year for my rosemary plant, which is particularly finicky, and needs  good, cool air circulation and therefore to be kept away from any heating vents. Both plants will die if given too much water, so it is best to keep the soil dry.

Parsley: Parsley is a biennial, which means that it will grow into a plant every other year (setting seed in the year in between). Parsley does not always grow easily from seed easily in Illinois, so I take a large pot of parsley indoors every year and keep it as long as it will last. I will obtain new plants in spring from the gardening store.

Basil: Basil, of course, will flower and die back right afterward, and needs to be cut back several times over the summer.  My mother and grandmother always clipped a few bunches of basil that would happily grow roots in water glasses on the window sill.

Marjoram and Oregano: Marjoram, which is also called “summer oregano”  (and I think far more complex-tasting and fragrant than Italian oregano) is a tender perennial, meaning it will not survive a winter in Illinois. I have had Italian oregano bushes outgrow everything else in my herb garden over the years, though! Italian oregano will die back in the winter and come back year after year.

Mint and Catnip: The mint I planted 2 years ago came up again this year, overtook much of the perennial herb garden, and continued to seed flower beds on the other side of my yard! No need to worry at all about mint surviving the winter! I have had a similar experience with catnip as well.

Ancient Roman Herbs: I love rue for its delicate, finger-like leaves and borage for it’s beautiful pink and blue flowers. The Romans favored these herbs in their cooking, even floating the borage flowers in their wine! Both rue shrubs and individual borage plants and come back year after year in my gardens. Rue even grew well during the 3 weeks of consecutive days over 100 degrees last summer. The borage I planted this summer has already seeded out of its original pot and this fall another crop is growing happily along the southern side of my raised garden.

 

 

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The Zucchini Plot turns into a Swiss Chard Bed

As I’ve discussed in the last blog in this series, Tomatoes, Zucchini, Italian Beans, Brussels Sprouts, Swiss Chard,  by late August my zucchini plants were growing valiantly outside their original garden plot, despite being infested by the squash-vine borer. I cleared out the old plants and harvested a few more zucchini flowers from the newer vines before removing all of the zucchini plants for the season. I specifically did NOT put the vines and leaves into my compost bin, so as not to spread disease. Instead, I bagged them up for the weekly neighborhood garbage collection.

This clean-up revealed the Swiss chard plants I had planted from seed in the summer, which were growing in the perimeter of the bed. Swiss Chard seedling dwarfed by a cucuzza zucchini plant.

Unfortunately, as the Swiss chard plants had been deprived of sunlight, they had not grown very large by the end of August. (See photo to the right.)

I did find a few additional Swiss chard plants that also had not grown to maturity on a visit to the garden store. So I weeded, amended the soil in my old zucchini bed with compost, and planted additional plants in the center of the garden bed.  All my Swiss chard plants have grown nicely in the cool weather and sunlight, and, despite several episodes of frost, one light snow, and a few of my harvests, they continue to do well. A recent photo is below from early December. I expect they will continue to do well as long as the late temperatures stay on the milder side. To harvest Swiss chard and other leafy greens like Italian cavolo nero (“black kale”), which I plan to plant next year, just take a few older leaves from the outer portion of each plant; more leaves will continue to grow in the center.

oval plot of swiss chard plants growing after zucchini have been removed
Swiss chard growing in my old zucchini bed on a sunny fall afternoon 2020

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Strawberry Plants with Rhubarb

My strawberry patch was newly planted this year, so I let it grow freely and have many healthy plants in the perimeter of this garden bed growing into the late fall.  Rhubarb is in the center of the same garden bed, since it is said to be a classic companion plant for strawberries. There are a lot of myths that have grown up and been repeated over the years regarding companion planting, and often not much science applied, but to my mind this combination makes sense. Rhubarb and strawberries both come back to life in the early spring, need an open, sunny location to grow, and last into the fall. And, of course, the flavor of the rhubarb stalk and the strawberry fruit blend beautifully together in the classic strawberry rhubarb pie, which was the pie that got me hooked on pie making when I moved to the Midwest!

The strawberries in my previous garden in Peoria did well year after year with a sprinkling of compost in the late fall and strawberry fertilizer in the spring. This year I am a little further north, and I have straw reserved for the coldest days of winter. I plan to cover the strawberries with a thick layer of straw when the temperature drops to -20° for consecutive days, as it usually does in the last two weeks in January.  Another precaution I always take is to cover strawberries with old sheets during a springtime frost, to protect the plants during their time of new growth.

 

Asparagus and Strawberries  

My newly planted asparagus also did well growing in their new beds this year. I love asparagus, so have two raised garden beds with asparagus growing in the center. I plan to plant strawberries in the perimeter of each bed this spring, which love to grow partially sheltered from the summer sun under the asparagus fronds. The broad leaves of the strawberry plants in turn provide good ground cover in the perimeter of the asparagus, which grow tall but do not spread.  

I will not be able to cut asparagus for the next 2-3 years, but will instead allow them to grow into high, lovely, fern-like plants. Asparagus should be cut back after the fronds turn yellow in the fall and a nice layer of compost applied over the crowns, so the roots can absorb nutrients through the winter and be ready for the springtime sprouts.  This year, they developed pretty red berries before I was able to achieve this task. So, I’ll find out in the spring if the birds were able to spread asparagus plants throughout the garden!

 

Close up of a fern-like asparagus plant with red berries
Asparagus in the fall with red berries

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Until it is time for spring planting, when I will revisit this series,
please follow  my Instagram account, Conversationalitalian.french
for the many ways to cook  with Italian winter vegetables and herbs!