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Superabundant dispatch: Don’t overthink your vegetable garden

By Heather Arndt Anderson (OPB)
April 28, 2023 1 p.m.

Gardening with seeds vs. starts

OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest. To keep you sated between video stories, we’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week she invites you to take the easy way out on vegetable gardening and offers a recipe for ricotta dumplings (gnudi) with pea shoots and spring onions.

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Maybe we’re just a bunch of try-hards over here at “Superabundant,” but planting a vegetable garden from nursery starts instead of seeds always feels like the Blue Apron of gardening; more like assembling IKEA furniture than actual woodcraft. Why, though — are starts a cheat or a necessary convenience? Does the Betty Crocker Effect apply to gardening? What even is the Betty Crocker Effect? Read on to find out!

Small bites: The Northwest wins some (awards), loses some (calves)

Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:

Oregon wins big at the Good Food Awards

The Good Food Awards were held last week (the San Francisco-based company moved its awards to Portland this year) and though we’re proud of the Oregon businesses that made more than half of the 60 winning products in the western region, we can’t say we’re the least bit surprised. Between candy cap mushroom chocolates made by Batch and the very yakisoba noodles that grace the plates of Portland Public School students every month, Oregon’s purveyors of fine foods made our region proud. And a huge shout out to Sibeiho, seen on our Dungeness Crab episode; their spicy achar (a South Asian pickle) took home an award in the Pickles category. Sadly, the news comes too little, too late for Eliot’s Nut Butters, a 2023 Good Food Award winner who announced last month that they were shuttering.

Pacific Northwest baristas also sweep the U.S. Coffee Championships

Proving that the Great Northwest is still the best place to find a great cup of joe, baristas and coffee roasters from Oregon and Washington took top honors and/or runner-up in every single category at the 2023 U.S. Coffee Championships held at the Oregon Convention Center last week. Congrats to all the winners, especially to Portland’s own Morgan Eckroth, coming to an episode of “Superabundant” later this season.

Calving season takes a hit from severe weather

After an onslaught of late winter weather pummeled southeastern Oregon earlier last month, ranchers are still rebounding, as Anna King reports for Northwest News Network. Emerging warm and wet from their mothers, calves are not meant to be born on top of two feet of snow; not only is it treacherous for the animals, but ranchers have a harder time reaching the laboring cows when they need assistance in the birthing process. And when winters stretch on an extra month or two, feed starts running low. With temps climbing into the 70s and 80s around the state this week, here’s hoping that the wet winter means a greener summer.

Oregon’s nursery business keeps growing

The Oregon Department of Agriculture released its annual list of the top 20 most valuable commodities last week. The top spots are held by nursery stock, cattle, and grass seed (jumping from fifth to third place), and industrial hemp made the list for the first time, reflecting the changing face of Oregon agriculture. Here’s good news for vegetable gardeners who feel like it’s cheating to plant starts instead of seed: Though 74% of nursery stock is sold out of state, buying locally grown plants means you’re still helping Oregon’s economy.

…and this brings us to an internal dialog we seem to have every year.

Green pea shoots growing in dirt.

Pea shoots, from seed, in the author's garden.

Heather Arndt Anderson / OPB

It’s OK to reap what you didn’t sow

Or, “How to let go of your guilt and learn to enjoy the ease of growing a garden from nursery starts.”

Maybe we’re just a bunch of overachievers here at “Superabundant,” but planting a vegetable garden from nursery starts instead of seeds always feels like the Blue Apron of gardening; more like assembling IKEA furniture than actual woodcraft. Why, though? Why are we ashamed of some shortcuts but not others? Do we wring our hands over using a food processor or baking with flour that we didn’t grind ourselves?

Is vegetable gardening really only about proving one’s self-sufficiency mettle? Of course not. So why do we buy potted pansies with glee, yet feel like a cheater for planting cucumbers and tomatoes that are ready to grow when they go in the ground?


Fun aside: When General Mills launched its line of instant cake mixes in the 1950s, the products languished on market shelves because they cut too much of the work out. Homemakers just couldn’t feel good about a cake that they made by just adding water, even if they technically had to bake it themselves — the convenience somehow robbed cooks of the ownership they felt over their work. When General Mills arbitrarily added steps and required one or two extra ingredients, the mixes sold like hotcakes. It turns out the Betty Crocker Effect might apply to gardening too.

Portland Monthly laid out a discursive pros and cons list about a decade ago and we don’t really have much to add. The long and short of it is: Buying seeds is great because there’s usually much more variety — especially for organics — and you can buy them through the mail far ahead of time, sparing you the bedlam of a garden center on a sunny day. They also tend to cost a fraction of pre-grown starts.

But seeds take planning, maintenance and indoor space! And speaking for ourselves, late winter is not exactly the time of year that we’re brimming with executive functioning skills. The only stuff we grow from seed is vegetables and cool-season herbs that can be direct-sown in the spring or after cleaning up the beds in the fall, like crucifers, parsley, beans and peas. Even when we do manage to get seeds growing on time, there’s the whole hardening-off hurdle to clear — it just takes one freak 85-degree day to burn all your sprouts (if they managed to survive hungry slugs, digging squirrels and the uncouth toilet habits of neighbor cats).

Nursery starts are just so easy. What you lose in variety, you more than make up for in that exquisite dopamine bump that only comes from impulse-buying plants. And you can find vegetable and herb starts in the most unexpected places — check discount stores like Grocery Outlet and BiMart for basics like tomatoes and greens (you can still grow them organically even if they didn’t start that way), or Korean markets for specialty plants like shishito and cheongyang peppers, kabocha squash, foot-long “White Sun” cucumbers and perilla with leaves as broad as your hand. They usually bring them out in early May for a couple bucks apiece.

Not that you need us to give you permission, but go ahead and pick up those plant starts — what grows from them is still a garden. You still have to water and tend the plants as though you’d grown them from seed, and most importantly, you still get that special joy of harvesting food from your own little patch of earth.

A bowl of dumplings with fresh spring greens.

Ricotta dumplings with pea shoots and spring onions.

Heather Arndt Anderson / OPB

Recipe: Ricotta dumplings (gnudi) with pea shoots and spring onions

Unlike gnocchi, which derive their tenderness from mashed or riced potatoes, gnudi are moistened with fresh, creamy ricotta to yield the lightest, fluffiest dumplings ever. If you don’t want to mow down your homegrown baby pea shoots for this dish, look for them in Asian markets, farmers markets or better-stocked produce aisles. If you can’t find pea shoots, use baby arugula or spinach with a handful of thinly sliced snow or snap peas in the pod, or toss the gnudi in nettle pesto (find the recipe here). Serves 4.


1 16-oz tub (2 cups) whole milk ricotta

½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or ½ tsp fine sea salt)

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp fresh lemon zest

1 tbsp finely minced fresh parsley

¼ cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 spring onions, finely sliced

3 cups fresh pea shoots, trimmed of any tough stems and roughly chopped


  1. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmesan, egg, salt, flour, lemon zest, and parsley. Mix until thoroughly combined, adding flour as necessary until a soft dough forms.
  2. Dust a rimmed baking sheet with flour and using a size 40 (1 ½ tablespoon) portioner/scoop, portion the dough into dumplings onto the floured baking sheet. Dust the dumplings with more flour, drape a kitchen towel over the top and allow the dumplings to rest for 15-20 minutes.
  3. While the dumplings are chilling, warm up the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Sauté the garlic and spring onions until glossy and fragrant, about five minutes. Add the chopped pea shoots and toss in the warm oil to coat, stirring until wilted but still bright green. Add more salt as needed.
  4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the gnudi and cook until they float, then remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the pea shoots. Toss to coat, and serve with extra lemon zest and Parmesan if desired.

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