Well it’s that time of year again… The 2018 Gardening Guide is out in the hands of many gardeners, and providing a glimmer of hope about the coming season. Winter is just about to commence (three more days from the Solstice at the time of writing), but it marks the point when the days begin to grow longer. For gardeners, that’s a key turning point.

Our main trial garden on our farm underwent a sizeable expansion in 2017 as we took on seed trials for the All-America Selections, [AAS] as well as our own extensive trials of new products. The grounds produced over 4,700 lbs of food that was distributed among local, community-based food banks, as well as masses of flowers, and a few genuine experiments. I grew puntarelle and broom corn for the first time (and will do again!), and our farm manager Galen grew sesame on site.

We also started a cooking club with some of our coworkers, which allowed some of them to try new and unusual vegetables for the first time. All in all, it was a highly rewarding growing season, and we made many new discoveries. Here are some of the highlights, and some seeds I personally recommend.

Scarvita Cabbage Seeds
Red Scarvita is a new hybrid sui choi bred to have the tightly packed, wide leaves of conventional Chinese cabbage, but with strong red colouration throughout. It’s such a surprising looking vegetable that it provokes a double take — really? A red sui choi? It was easy to grow and very tasty, and I’ll grow it again in 2018 to see what kind of kimchi it makes. But the look of this beautiful vegetable is its main selling point.

Sugar Loaf Chicory Seeds MS492
At our smaller demonstration garden at Kirkland House in Ladner, I grew the heirloom Sugar Loaf endive, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. Many endive varieties have a strong flavour that is (somewhat rudely) considered “bitter.” That’s a poor word to describe the fresh, invigorating taste, in my opinion. But Sugar Loaf grows upright, quite like a head of romaine lettuce. This means that most of its interior leaves never see the sunlight. And like hearts of romaine, this makes them sweeter and more tender than the exterior leaves. After pulling off numerous wrapper leaves, one is left with a central column that is very loaf-like. “Sugar” might be an exaggeration, but it is pleasantly sweet. Cut it in cross section and let the leaves fall into a stir-fry, soup, or raw salad. Delicious.

Piccolo Organic Eggplant Seeds
As part of the AAS trials, Galen grew many different eggplants side by side for comparison. They were grown through a black mulch that both controlled the weeds and ramped up the temperature of the soil. As a result, all the plants were hugely productive. Every week saw a massive harvest, so we were fortunate enough to compare the very best of the best. There was much agreement that Piccolo was a winner for flavour, texture, productivity, and overall charm. They are the perfect size and shape, with appealing purple striped skins. It’s difficult to describe them without using the word “cute.”

Lancia Organic Leek Seeds LK446-1
We grew out all the leek varieties at Kirkland House, starting the seeds very early last winter (for the summer harvest varieties). Another batch of winter harvest leeks got started later in early summer, and they are just about ready to harvest now. In some ways, a leek is a leek is a leek, but Lancia Leeks stood out for its size and vigour. For an open pollinated variety, we were very pleased by its uniformity. Plus the abundance of leeks led me to discover prasopita, a traditional leek pie that uses leeks instead of spinach. This is a new standard on Greek food nights at my house. Thank you, Lancia.

Twingo Pepper Seeds PP622-1
Peppers were also on trial in a big way here on the farm this past summer. Both AAS and some new and existing peppers produced amazing harvests both sweet and hot. We picked up several new varieties for 2018, but I wanted to mention a new arrival from last season called Twingo. At 60 to 65 days, this hybrid is one of the earliest maturing of all bell peppers. The pods are enormous (one pound each!), with thick, really substantial walls. They start a luxurious jade green, and mature to a sunny yellow colour. The plants are only knee-high, but quite productive over a fairly long harvest at the peak of summer. For a crisp, sweet, refreshing bell pepper, I recommend Twingo.

Naked Bear Pumpkin Seeds
Galen grew a thirty foot row of Naked Bear pumpkins in the farm trial, and it produced an absolute mountain of fruit. The appeal of this small, bowling ball sized pumpkin is its utility in the kitchen. The thick flesh is tasty and smooth, and its seeds are produced without hulls – the papery coating that appears on most winter squash seeds. Hull-less seeds just need to be separated from the pith, rinsed briefly, and dried off. Then they are ready for roasting. I roasted more than a hundred seeds that I retrieved from a single pumpkin and gave them a dry shake of salt, pepper, and cayenne. We passed them around the barn to much approval. To roast them, heat the oven to 300°F. Melt a bit of butter and mix in the spices of your choice. Coat the seeds with the melted butter and bake on a centre rack for about 45 minutes. When they can be heard popping, they’re ready.

Golden Sesame Seeds
I have to mention Golden Sesame in this list for two reasons. First, it was a totally new learning curve for me — don’t sesame seeds just come from the store? Second, despite some early challenges, the crop does what it claims and produces very tasty, ready-to-eat sesame seeds. This crop is grown in desert settings, so it likes its feet very dry. Once the seedlings are established, just stop watering altogether. We started in the field with drip irrigation, and admittedly the plants suffered for it. But once we had the water off, they perked right up and attracted masses of ladybird beetles. Brian Campbell had brought in a beehive for pollination, and his bees were all over the sesame flowers. The peculiar little pods grow along the stem, and ripen from the bottom up. With a little earlier start next spring, and better water management, our crop will definitely improve. Black Sesame is exactly the same plant by all appearances, but the seeds are black. We are hoping to bring in White Sesame for next season.

Siam Queen
We grew a variety of basil plants at both sites this past summer, including Siam Queen, a Thai basil type. We’ve carried this variety for years, and I thought I’d mention it here simply because I actually prefer it to the Thai basil that is grown in Thailand. This can be found at many international grocery stores, but the flavour is just not as good as Siam Queen. Perhaps the air travel from the tropics kills off the flavour? Grown in the summer herb garden and enjoyed fresh, our Siam Queen makes southeast Asian recipes positively come alive with stronger flavour and clearer notes of cinnamon and anise. Make sure to grow some Genovese basil, too, of course. But check this one out as well.

Culantro Sawtooth Herb Seeds
My last pick is another herb that plays a key role in southeast Asian cuisine, and that’s Culantro or Saw-Toothed Herb. We thought we were going to have it in stock last winter, but there was a crop failure on the farm that supplies it. Culantro is now in stock with a great germination rate. This herb has a strong flavour like mint or cilantro, and it pairs beautifully with both. It’s the sort of fresh herb one might have with some barbecued brochette in a lettuce wrap. It brings a powerful flash of freshness that answers spice and savoury, umami-heavy flavours of grilled meat and fish sauce.

So we’ll stay cozy and warm over the coming months, and start a few seeds here and there indoors. Look at seed catalogues, and make drawings and designs. Now is the time to fantasize about the flavours and aromas of the garden season that lies ahead.

Happy Solstice to you all.