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Market watch

Wed., May 16, 2012

Farmers markets in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene opened on Saturday and several other area markets will be opening soon.

Farmers markets in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene opened on Saturday and several other area markets will be opening soon. While it’s too early for the full bounty of summer, it’s the perfect time to get the plants starts you need for your vegetable garden. Local growers have been working hard all winter, producing everything from strawberry seedlings to parsley pots to give gardeners an jump-start on our region’s short growing season.

Buy from the experts

Patricia Mattson of The Herb Garden is gearing up for the Liberty Lake Farmers Market, which starts Saturday. Mattson will be selling potted culinary and medicinal herbs, edible flower plants and a variety of vegetable starts. She says there are plenty of reasons why people should buy plants from area markets.

“We’re local farmers, not a big box,” Mattson said. “I know I can answer your questions and we service what we sell.”

Often shoppers will find varietals that are uniquely suited to our short growing season and unpredictable climate. Mattson also carries hard-to-find edible plants, like a bay laurel plant she sold to a recent customer.

Buying and growing plants from local farmers is a way to ensure continued diversity in our food supply, said Mattson, who is committed to selling open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of vegetables that are prized for flavor, not supermarket shelf-life.

Watch the weather

With the weather warming up and the wonderful variety of herb and vegetable starts available right now, it’s tempting to take home a carload of plants and get them in the garden the same day. But Mattson warns shoppers not to be in too much of a hurry to put their new purchases in the ground. Parsley, mint and lavender can take cooler nights, but basil doesn’t like it below 50 degrees.

Cold-sensitive plants like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers should be hardened off first. “Put them out on the porch and pull them in at night for a week,” suggested Mattson, who stressed that it is important to look at the temperature, not the calendar. “These are our babies – give them a good home.”

So how do you know when it’s time to plant your garden? Ask experienced gardeners and they’ll tell you if there is still snow on the top of Mount Spokane or Mica Peak, hold off.

That might be a good starting point, but Timothy Pellow from Tolstoy Farm points out that there are many micro-climates around the region, so you need to pay attention to signs of frost at night in your own backyard. Pellow suggests checking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website for the weekly weather forecast in your area and paying attention to the evening low temperatures. Chard, kale, cabbage and broccoli are not as frost sensitive, but these plants should still be covered on the first night if it is below 40 degrees. A light sheet (an old bedsheet will work) staked up in the corners or a floating row cover will prevent the frost from settling on the plants and keep the earth warmer.

Keep in mind that transplanting is disruptive to plants, and they will wilt if it is too hot and sunny, Pellow warned. It is best to transplant starts later in the afternoon or evening when it is cooler.

Save space

Even if you don’t have room for a big garden, you can still enjoy home-grown produce. “Container vegetable gardens are really hot right now,” said Susi Faville of Mountain View Farm. Also known as the Idaho Tomato Lady, Faville has multiple varieties of tomatoes, vegetables and herbs for sale at the Kootenai County Farmers Market.

Faville recommends smaller varieties of tomatoes like Window Box and Patio Princess for containers, and she also sells hanging tomato baskets that are great for decks and patios. Lettuce and strawberries work well in pots too, Faville said.

Sweet and hot peppers are another option. “My wife grows peppers in pots and brings them inside in the winter,” said Pellow. Swiss chard, which produces maximum harvest from minimal space, is also a good choice. Just pick a few leaves at a time so the plant will continue to grow.

Tolstoy Farm sells certified organic vegetable starts including hot and sweet peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and strawberry and raspberry plants at the Spokane Farmers Market.

Bring the kids

There is no better way for kids to learn about where their food comes from than for them to help grow it. It’s even more fun if they get to pick out the plants themselves. Local farmers markets are full of kid-friendly ideas, like yellow pear tomatoes that kids can eat straight from the plant and fragrant chocolate mint plants.

“(Kids) love to pick berries,” said Faville, who sells raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and blueberry plants. Space raspberry plants 2 to 3 feet apart along a fence, or add a few Alpine strawberry plants to your garden. “They almost taste like bubblegum. Kids love them,” she said.

If you’re thinking about blueberries, Faville suggests getting two varieties to boost production. “They’re a really nice landscaping plant. They’re pretty even in winter.”

Mattson says sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes) might appeal to kids with their bright yellow sunflower on top. This starchy tuber has a nutty flavor when roasted with olive oil and fresh herbs and makes a fun change from potatoes. Just make sure to find a permanent home for this perennial, because “it just keeps giving,” Mattson said.

Start an herb garden

You’ll find potted herb plants and edible flowers for sale at local farmers markets that can be kept inside near a kitchen window or gather a cluster of herb pots for an outdoor herb garden. Faville likes nasturtiums for their peppery leaves and colorful edible flowers, which she adds to salads. Small purple violas are edible and fun for decorating. “They look so cute on top of a cupcake,” she said.

Mattson has more than 12 kinds of basil and multiple kinds of scented mint for sale, including berries and cream and strawberry spearmint, which she says is delicious in mojitos.

Elithorp Farm will have individual seed starts of basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender and parsley at the Spokane Farmers Market, as well as pots with five or six varieties of herbs planted together. “We’ve found these are really popular with our customers,” said owner Cindy Elithorp.

Susanne Miller of the Fussy Hen has been preparing herb starts all winter to sell at the Spokane Farmers Market, including tarragon, rosemary, and five kinds of scented geraniums. The edible leaves of the rose-scented and lemon-scented geranium can be chopped up and added to pound cake or placed in sugar to give it a subtle flavor. Lavender-ginger-scented geranium leaves can be tossed into green or fruit salads for a boost of flavor. Scented geraniums should be kept in pots that can be brought inside during the winter.

“A lot of the things I sell can be dried and used for tea or tisanes,” Miller said. She also has five kinds of lavender plants for sale, and says culinary lavender can be used in baking or for lavender margaritas. Miller also sells lovage, which she describes as a big perennial with a flavor similar to celery.

Kirsten Harrington is a Spokane freelance food writer and can be reached at


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