How To Plant A Garden – Israeli-Style and Israeli Vegetable Recipes
Vegetables, herbs and the flavors of Israel in your backyard
Written by Debra roth kane
Photography by kirsten beckerman
A trip to any local grocery store can score you the makings for an Israeli-style meal. But how much more satisfying, now that it’s spring, to begin growing your own produce with this goal in mind. As savvy local gardeners know, even novices can succeed with certain hardy vegetables and herbs that thrive in Maryland (as well as the Middle East!).
Shari Patz of Owings Mills has been growing vegetables and herbs in her backyard for several years. Her reasons for doing this are clear. “I’m picky about the foods my family eats — I’d rather know what I’m eating. I don’t want pesticides; plus it’s a little bit of therapy working in a garden. My kids pick the little tomatoes and eat them right like that. We don’t have to worry about washing them off,” she says.
Tomatoes can be started indoors from seeds in April and moved to larger pots as they grow. In the beginning to middle of May, the plants can then be transplanted outdoors. Hardening off is important: Let your seedlings acclimate gradually to being outdoors by allowing them a day or two in shelter and shade, and increasing their exposure to sun for a few days following.
Tomatoes are sun-loving plants. Try to find a permanent garden spot that gets six to eight hours of direct sun daily. Space your plants about 24-inches apart.Tomatoes need support as they grow, so use a cage or garden stakes from the start. “Good nutritious soil, sunlight, occasional water,” says Patz.
Cucumbers grow more quickly, so they can be started inside beginning in May or planted directly from seed outside. Be careful if you start them in small pots; the plants will stunt if they do not have sufficient room to grow. Outdoors, plants must be spaced twelve inches apart and you may want to install a trellis for this vine crop to climb.
Many herbs are hardy — perfect for novice gardeners, especially if you use a small starter plant from a local garden store. Try basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, flat-leaf parsley, or chives. All will add flavor to your spring and summer recipes.
Rebecca Brown of Reisterstown points out that herbs like variegated lemon thyme can be pretty as an edging in a garden. She should know. Her background includes pitching in on a one-acre family garden in the Berkshires and working at the New York Botanical Gardens. She is currently the landscape chairperson at the Suburban Club. Brown has also “hidden” a rosemary plant in the middle of a flower-filled pot. “It’s not the most decorative, but it adds interesting color and texture,” she says.
Many resources are available for those who want to learn more about vegetable gardening. As Patz says, “I learned from gardening magazines, from going to Valley View Farms, talking to my landscaper and just asking around.”
Once you have your bounty, you want to take it to the table. If your goal is to achieve a taste reminiscent of Israel, there is no better place to start than a salad.
In her “Book of New Israeli Food” (Knopf, 2008), Janna Gur describes a flexible concoction of chopped fresh vegetables and herbs. “Most of us simply cannot do without it. Israelis insist on a salad with almost every meal,” she states in her book.
Her secret to a special salad: Serve the vegetables fresh from the garden, because refrigeration can dull their taste. Alternatively, you can bring refrigerated vegetables to room temperature before chopping and serving.
If the recipes given whet your appetite for more, try the cooking classes that will be offered on a monthly basis through the Kayam Farm program at Pearlstone, focusing on using organic farm produce in cooking. They will be taught by certified holistic health counselor Rachele Henry.
Tips for successful gardening
Healthy fertile soil is key. You can buy organic matter to improve your soil at any garden store.
Jakir Manela, Kayam Farm Director at the Pearlstone Center, suggests planting your vegetables in succession. For example, some of your cucumbers would be planted in May, some in June, some in July. “This will hedge your bets in case of pest problems,” he says. It also keeps your plate full all summer long.
Make sure you introduce variety — again, as a hedge against pests. One vegetable is likely to be more vulnerable than, say, two to three varieties of tomatoes; or plant marigolds around your vegetables, because their odor can be a deterrent to pests.
Don’t overlook the option of container gardening if your yard is small and/or deer-filled, or if you simply have a back porch that needs adornment.
Another Path to Creating an Israeli Garden
Gardens can be Israeli in flavor, but as Jakir Manela points out, they can also be Israeli in spirit. Manela is the Kayam Farm Director at the Pearlstone Center and this is one of the goals this Jewish organic educational farm has set out to achieve.
Although ancient Jewish agricultural laws, found in the Torah, in the Talmud and in other rabbinic sources, in general apply only to planting in Israel, Manela aims to put some of these laws into practice on Kayam’s acres. Vines are not planted with vegetables. Grains are separated from one another by a path or a cistern (actually a green plastic water tank). It is a beautiful, concrete evocation of written law.
The intent of these laws is not always obvious. Some have to do with maintaining the integrity of individual species. Jewish scholars have also noted that Jewish agricultural laws generally suggest a belief that your land and your produce is not entirely yours, but is also meant to sustain religious leaders and the poor.
With this in mind, Manela and his staff at Kayam are pondering how they might incorporate the laws of peah (which literally means corner), familiar to many from the Biblical story of Ruth. This law concerns the obligation to leave some of your fields to be harvested by those in need. Thus the corners of the wheat and barley fields at Kayam will be left unharvested.
Law also dictates that the poor be allowed to come harvest the grain in the corners themselves, and, as Manela points out, this is problematic. Even if invited, who would choose to come to harvest their own grain, by hand, and then make their own bread?
Manela remains unfazed however. “That’s sort of the point. We’re putting these laws into practice and trying to figure out how to make them work in our modern context,” he says.