April 15 could not arrive fast enough for Julian Morelos of Aurora, because it was the day that the Fox Valley Park District opened its garden plots.
The Park District offers over 500 plots at two locations for residents to garden. The cost is $15 per plot for Fox Valley Park District residents.
Morelos, 38, has been gardening the same three plots for four years and has managed to get the soil to his liking.
"My family has a lot of gardeners so I knew some things," he says. "But the other people at the community garden share information, too. Gary, the guy next to me, is a farmer from Minnesota, and he gives really good advice, like he told me I was putting things too close together."
Morelos is an organic gardener who uses no pesticides on his vegetables. He rotates his crops around the plot and tries something new every year.
"I save my seeds," says Morelos, showing off several plastic bags filled with seeds from past gardens, a practice he learned from his grandfather. "I just take the tomatoes and things that fall to the ground, take out the seeds, rinse them really well and let them dry."
Last year he went to a seed exchange.
"I took some of my tomato seeds and got to pick some other seeds. I got this really big bean that has huge purple flowers. It was very good. I also got black radishes which I didn't like so much," he recalls.
Vegetable variety is important to Morelos.
"I plant 14 different kinds of heirloom tomatoes," he says.
He starts his tomatoes indoors in early spring and transplants them when danger of frost is gone.
"I don't call my tomatoes by the right names. I call them by what they are, like the black one or the big red one," he says with a smile.
Morelos cans tomatoes during the summer to use all winter.
"I just can the tomatoes with a little salt and lime juice. Then, I use them to make salsa. I can make salsa in five minutes with the canned tomatoes. I just drain the juice and put the tomatoes in the blender. Then I add a little salt, pepper, garlic and cilantro. Give it a little mix and that will do it," he says.
Some of his favorite garden vegetables are zucchini and yellow squash.
"I plant them in May and in about 40 days, I can be eating them. I pick them when they are young — about this big," he says, holding his thumb and finger about 5 inches apart. "They are just so good right out of the garden. I can't really say why but there is just so much more flavor — not a strong flavor but a good flavor."
Morelos sometimes eats the zucchini blossoms. The male blossoms on the plant do not produce zucchini so picking some of them does not reduce the zucchini crop as long as a few are left for the bees to use to pollinate the female blossoms.
Both male and female blossoms can be eaten. Morelos says that his wife would never try them at first, "but once she tried them, she loved them," he says. "Some people sell the blossoms to fancy restaurants."
To prepare the blossoms, Morelos carefully washes the tender petals, peels away the stem and removes the pistils since they can taste bitter. He then sautés the blossoms but notes that some people stuff the blossoms with cheese, dip them in a batter and deep fry them.
"They taste like zucchini but fresher. They are a lot of work to prepare because they cook down. It takes around 20 blossoms to make just one serving."
One of the challenges of gardening at the plots is taking water to the plants. Morelos has large barrels that he fills with water when Mother Nature does not provide enough rain.
"Last year, there was good rain. The year before, there was very little rain but I got great tomatoes so I think they liked it dry," he says.
Now that the garden is open, Morelos has begun planting.
"I try to go by the garden every day just to check it out. It is kind of like a baby," he says.
In just a few weeks, Morelos hopes to be enjoying a zucchini and squash omelet, his daily breakfast once the vegetables are ready. He shares his recipe for others to try and challenges everyone to start a garden of their own.
Julian's Culinary Cue
Start planting cool weather crops now for the best results. Peas, carrots, cabbage, onions and lettuce all grow well in cool temperatures.
Zucchini Squash Omelet
2 small yellow squash
2 small zucchini
½ teaspoon chopped garlic
¼ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 slice cheddar cheese
Slice squash and zucchini into ¼ inch thick rounds. Lightly cover the bottom of a pan with olive oil and sauté the zucchini and squash slices until tender. Season with garlic, salt and pepper. Set aside. In a bowl, beat 6 eggs together with Parmesan cheese. Coat the bottom of a second 8- to 10-inch frying pan with olive oil. Pour in the eggs and cook until set, lifting the side to allow uncooked eggs to flow under. Place cooked zucchini and squash in the center of the eggs. Fold eggs over the top of the vegetables. Place cheese on top of the folded omelet. Cover pan and heat over low heat until cheese is melted. Serve immediately.