Category Archives for Plants

The Best Edible Flowers for Colorful Cooking

nasturtium edible flowers

Be sure not to eat florist or foraged flowers, which likely contain pesticides and preservatives, and don’t assume every edible plant’s flowers are also edible. Here, we offer a primer to selecting the tastiest blooms.

Borage

Taste: Faintly like cucumber.
Use: A common garnish for drinks, it is also sometimes sugared and dried to garnish cakes.

Dianthus

Taste: Lightly spicy and clove-like.
Use: Often used to decorate desserts.

Onion

Taste: Similar to very mild green onion.
Use: The large decorative flower makes a beautiful garnish in salads.

Nasturtium

Taste: Mild pepper (both leaves and flowers are edible).
Use: The colorful flowers are tossed in salads or used as a finishing garnish.

Pineapple Buds

Taste: As expected, a gentle pineapple flavor and aroma.
Use: A tiny garnish for small composed bites or sweets.

Radish

Taste: A concentrated spicy bite.
Use: To punctuate composed salads or to garnish a flavorful dish.

Society Garlic

Taste: Traditional garlicky flavor and aroma, but milder than garlic cloves or true garlic flowers.
Use: This ornamental plant doesn’t grow bulbs, but its flowers add a tasty pop to salads and many earthy dishes.

Szechuan Buzz Buttons

Taste: Herbaceous and slightly bitter.
Use: Employed less for flavor and more for the tingly, buzzy sensation they create in the mouth, they also garnish cocktails or flavorful dishes.

Zucchini

Taste: Mild squash flavor.
Use: Stuffed, battered and baked, or sliced crosswise and served raw in salads. Yellow squash blossoms make a good substitute.

Themes for What Vegetables to Grow in Pots

illustration showing what vegetables to grow in pots

Don’t have acres of farmland to grow your own vegetables? No problem. A thoughtfully curated container garden planted in a simple pot at least 24 inches in diameter and placed on a sunny patio will yield multiple meals’ worth of colorful health-boosting produce. Here, we offer three themed plant mixes for what vegetables to grow in pots, and recipe ideas to show off your harvest.

Southern Classic Vegetables to Grow In a Pot

Okra or Pole Beans
Mustard Greens
Mint and Marigolds
Ornamental Sweet Potato
The anchor plant here is a 4-foot tall okra or pole bean that will both grow into attractive shrub shapes. Around the central plant, tuck a few leafy mustard greens, which grow to about 2 feet tall. Intersperse taller mustard greens with mint and one or two French marigolds to attract pollinators. When you are trying to decide what vegetables to grow in pots, don’t forget to mix in herbs and flowers! The mint and flowers will fill in when the weather becomes too hot for the greens. For a trailing plant to soften the pot edge, plant a few ornamental sweet potatoes. The roots are edible, though not as flavorful as traditional sweet potatoes, which have much larger leaves and roots.

The Recipes:

• Pick young okra pods and toss them with salt and olive oil, then roast on a sheet pan in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes.

• Dice sweet potato roots and roast, then add to soups or a skillet hash.

• Stew bitter mustard greens as you would collards (they are best cooked) with chicken stock, onion, bacon and a splash of cider vinegar.

• Use fresh mint to make mint juleps, mojitos or tea for refreshing summer drinks.

• Pull marigold flowers apart and use the edible petals as colorful food garnishes.

Mediterranean Warmth Vegetables to Grow In a Pot

Sun Gold Cherry Tomatoes
Rainbow Chard and Basil
Arugula
Thyme
You’ll find endless ways to eat the vegetables grown in this pot. In the center, plant a bushy dwarf or cherry tomato, such as a Gold Nugget variety. Be sure that your tomato is a compact “determinate” and not a leggy “indeterminate” variety that can grow out of control. Add some colorful chard and purple basil to grow alongside the tomato, and alternate those with shorter arugula. Plant thyme along the edge to trail down the side of the pot. Pinch the basil tips frequently to keep them from blooming, which makes the leaves bitter.

The Recipes:

• Toss fresh cherry tomatoes with torn purple basil leaves, fresh mozzarella balls, olive oil and vinegar for a twist on a traditional Caprese salad.

• Add peppery arugula to salads and soups, or bake on top of pizza.

• Pull the chard leaves from the stem and chop coarsely, then slice the stem into small pieces. Sauté both leaves and stem with garlic, onion, olive oil, pine nuts and a splash of lemon juice for a simple but flavorful pasta topping.

• Sauté arugula quickly with olive oil and garlic, then toss with pasta and Parmesan cheese.

• Toss diced root vegetables with olive oil, thyme and rosemary, and then roast on a shallow tray in the oven.

• Sprinkle fresh thyme on pasta salads.

Asian Spice Vegetables to Grow In a Pot

Chili or Sweet Bell Pepper
Thai Basil and Broccoli Rabe
Mizuna
Cilantro and Nasturtiums
Plant a spicy bird chili or sweet dwarf bell pepper variety in the center of the pot for an anchor shrub. Select a variety with bright red peppers for the best pop of color amid the green foliage. Fill in around the chili with Thai basil interspersed with a few mizuna (an Asian green) or broccoli rabe plants. Plant cilantro and nasturtium along the edge of the pot and encourage it to spill over the rim. Let cilantro flower to attract pollinators, and use the blossoms in salads or as a colorful garnish.

The Recipes:

• Put two or three whole-bird chilies (fresh or dried) into a spicy stew or a stir-fry, then remove them before serving. They will add a mellow warmth without being harsh.

• Add sweet bell peppers to stir-fries and salads, or slice and dip in hummus.

• Add Thai basil, nasturtium leaves and chopped mizuna to salads, miso or ramen soup, and stir-fry.

• Stir-fry chopped broccoli rabe and its leaves with sesame oil and soy sauce, and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

• Garnish any dish with bright nasturtium flowers, which are entirely edible.

The secret to deciding what vegetables to grow in pots is simply to choose what you like to eat! Then build a layered pot with a selection of a tall central focal point, mid-level fillers and trailing edge plants. Make your own list and get potting!

This story was written by Phaedra Hise for Virginia Living magazine. 

No Till Method for a Winter Cover Crop

no till method for spring soil

A winter cover crop will replenish your urban garden soil with critical nutrients, prevent weeds from growing and even provide a handy mulch when you mow it down. Here’s how to also get the benefits below ground, with this adapted no-till urban gardening method.

A healthy cover crop digs in deep. This is a good thing as its roots are sending nutrients far below the surface, and also aerating the soil. But it means that breaking up those strong roots can be a challenge – if you overthink it. Instead, we leave the roots fairly intact. Here is how to effectively break up a cover crop for spring no-till planting.

No Till Method: Mowing

Trim your cover crop close to the roots. Save the tops (no need to shred them), you’ll use those later as a green mulch to add even more nutrients to the soil.

If your plot is small, try using clippers to hand-trim the crop. Or, if you don’t have clippers, you can use kitchen scissors (that’s what we did). City people have to make do.

No Till Method: Hoeing

Get out your hoe and start breaking up the soil surface into chunks. If you have good crop coverage, you’ll end up with big rooty clods of soil. It’s tempting to shake out the dirt and toss the roots into compost but don’t! These clods are important.

The whole idea of no till methods is to preserve soil health. The less you till, or work the soil, in a garden plot, the happier your beneficial soil organisms will be. Those chunky clods are known as soil “peds,” and they are what worms and other healthy bugs eat their way through. Peds next to each other also create important gaps for air and water. To preserve your peds, break up and turn the soil roughly. It will look a bit of a mess, like biscuit or pastry dough when you first turn it out of the bowl.

No Till Method: Amendments

If your bed needs extra soil, now is the time to add it. Our raised beds lose an inch or more of soil each year due to compaction, erosion and hungry worms eating through it. We replenish with a few buckets of compost, leaf mold or other organic matter every spring.

Just sprinkle compost or a bag of garden soil right over the top of the clods and spread it around. Don’t tamp it down – garden soil should be about 50% air for optimal root development.

No Till Method: Mulch

Spread your trimmed tops over the bed. A well covered bed will warm up more quickly in spring, enabling you to plant a bit earlier. Also, as the mulch decomposes it will release valuable nutrients.

A hardcore no till method doesn’t break up the soil at all. Farmers who don’t till use special seeding tools to dig plugs and plant among the cover crop roots. We don’t have those tools, obviously, but our adapted method works great for urban garden plots. After a few seasons of modified no till methods your urban garden soil will be aerated and full of good microbes!

The Top 7 Heirloom Seed Catalogs for Urban Gardeners

top 7 catalogs for heirloom seeds

Spring’s last cold snap is here – let’s all curl up on our couches and flip through some beautiful seed catalogs! Some are works of art in their own right, with hand-drawn plant illustrations and detailed histories of heirloom seeds. It can be hard to decide which one to order from. If you also browse the seed packets display at your local garden center, you’re in danger of picking up a packet of carrots or spinach from every single tempting source.

There’s a smarter way. This winter we sent away for all the pretty catalogs (they’re free!) and did a little research to find out which ones are best, and why. We eat everything we grow, so our focus was on vegetable catalogs (there are very few ornamentals in our tiny garden). In researching seed choices, we limited ourselves to heirloom seeds because those are usually the vegetables with superior flavor. Which seed catalog is the right one for you? Here’s how to decide.

Three key seed company must-haves

There are really about a bajillion seed catalogs out there, so how did we narrow our list down to seven? Simple – we looked for three things that are important to us when it comes to heirloom seeds.

Locally grown

We don’t necessarily mean buying seeds from a locally-owned small business near you – although that’s ideal if you can. Instead, look for suppliers based in your growing zone, and the closer to you the better. Seeds develsafe seed pledgeoped and saved in your same zone will be more acclimated to your growing area’s quirks. Local seeds will adapt more quickly to your soil and weather patterns. Also, the seed company probably works more with plant varieties particularly suited to your region. This is why we buy from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which is about an hour away from us in Virginia.

Sustainable practices

The best heirloom seeds aren’t necessarily labeled “organic.” The organic label is a costly Federal certification that not every small farmer or gardening business can afford. Instead, look for the words “earth friendly,” which basically means “we’re organic but we can’t afford the certification.” Call the seed company and ask questions to make sure you agree with their practices.

Look also for the “safe seed pledge.” Companies featuring this pledge in their catalogs and websites dedicated themselves to using non-GMO seeds and sustainable growing practices.

Seed research

We like to support seed companies that are committed to ongoing research and development. Many heirloom seed companies work hard to recover and preserve rare heirloom varieties. If you buy seeds from a company dedicated to seed saving, your money helps support the larger global gardening and food web.

The best heirloom seed catalogs

These seven heirloom seed companies meet our criteria for quality. Any of these will sell you some terrific seeds! We recommend browsing their websites and ordering the print catalogs to get a feel for each seed company’s personality, then choose the one (or ones) you like best. If you’re lucky, your favorite will also be the seed company down the road.

Annie’s Heirloom Seeds – Hudsonville, MI

A small company saving non-GMO heirlooms in a challenging climate, Annie’s toughs it out in one of the chilliest zones in the midwest. A husband and wife team run this small farm in Michigan, focusing on local heirloom varieties.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – Sonoma County, CA

Baker Creek is the big daddy of heirloom seed companies. They have one of the largest, if not the largest selection of seeds. Their catalog photographs are beautiful, and customers eagerly await each new catalog to see the stunning cover.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds – Winslow, ME

Johnny’s is a favorite among gardeners in New England. Not only do they offer a wide ranging seed collection from one of the coldest zones in the country, but the website has lots of helpful growing resources, including the “Ask a Gardener” section where visitors can submit questions.

Seed Savers Exchange – Decorah, IA

This seed catalog sparked the whole heirloom seed-saving movement. A nonprofit, Seed Savers Exchange has a seed bank of over 20,000 heirloom varieties, carefully stored in their seed vault. Their online information and resources are terrific for gardeners interested in learning how to save their own seeds.

Seeds of Change – Rancho Dominguez, CA

You may have seen Seeds of Change grains on your grocery store shelf. The company has a great seed catalog as well. And they’re based where everything grows like a dream, in Nirvana – uh – California. They offer lots of interesting edibles like medicinal herbs and wheatgrass

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange – Mineral, VA

Coop-owned, Southern Exposure is dedicated to preserving and developing regional heirloom varieties. The website has a spiffy digital garden planner, and owner/gardener Ira Wallace is the author of Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast.

Territorial Seed Company – Cottage Grove, OR

This company sells hybrids and conventional seeds and plants, but they list heirloom seeds separately on their website. We love that they are a family-owned seed company in the Pacific Northwest, which is its own funky tropical-ish growing zone.

You might still buy some plants and seeds from your nearby garden center, but please develop a relationship with a seed catalog as well. You’ll be inspired every spring to try something new, and a good seed company will encourage you along the way.

Get the List: Know What to Plant in Your Urban Garden

Books For research on what to plant

You can’t plant just anything in an urban garden. Well, you can try, but then you’ll be sad when that beautiful heirloom corn doesn’t grow ears or the crazy cucumber plant overruns your patio. Avoid mistakes by knowing what to plant in the first place.

We’ve made plenty of mistakes, and we got tired of failure. That’s why we created our Urban Garden Plant List. Knowing what to plant in your urban garden is probably half of the battle for success (I think other half is watering).

Losing at the plant guessing game

We haven’t always known what to plant in our urban garden, so a lot of what we’ve learned was through trial and error. The sweet potato vine that took over half the yard gave us only two potatoes. The beets all died. The squash rotted. Our tomatoes always expand and swallow up every inch of space, but they do give us lovely fruit. You win some, you lose some.

The problem with a tiny garden is we can’t really afford to “lose some.” If you only have space for, say, three plants, those three had better produce.

We got tired of guessing, and last year I decided to do some actual research on what to grow in an urban space. My gardening skills may still be on a learning curve, but as a writer and editor I do know how to do research.

What to plant for real

For my “what to plant” research project I read through piles of books at our local botanical garden library. I talked with experts and searched websites for gardening data. I combed through seed catalogs for plant cultural notes. And I relied on our experiences.

The urban garden has some distinctive characteristics. I looked for plants that wouldn’t just tolerate these conditions, but thrive in them:

  • Urban gardens are usually small. That’s great for plants that grow well in tight spaces or containers, and grow into a tidy, compact shape or can be trained to go vertical.
  • City spaces are often warmer than suburban or rural land, so urban plants must like heat.
  • Gardeners with only a few plants don’t want to wait forever for them to mature, so I looked for plants that grow quickly and bear fruit early.
  • Urban gardens can be noisy, dusty places with lots off traffic and vibrations. Better to grow plants that in general aren’t fussy.
  • City gardeners who don’t want the hassle of growing from seed usually have to shop at a big box garden store. That means growing common plants that are widely available.

Know your garden’s personality

For the Urban Garden Plant List, I ended up rating plants by four key factors that matter in the urban garden: Low maintenance, fast growing, high fruit yield and fits well into a small space. Using those criteria, you can select plants according to your particular space.

For example, if you have some room for an in-ground garden, you can choose a plant that needs a little more space. We grow indeterminate tomatoes because the flavor is so good and they yield all summer long – but we have some extra room to plant those giant sprawlers in the yard, in a raised bed.

At the same time, I don’t want to put a lot of work into my garden. They’re plants, they shouldn’t need me to grow! We like to travel in the summer, and I don’t want to worry about our urban garden. So I always choose low-maintenance plants. And I mix fast-growing with slower growing plants because I have enough plants that I can patiently wait for the later fruit as I’m eating the early growers.

Get the right plants in your space

We built a list of 22 plants that fit the bill. While we are planning this year’s garden, I’m confident for the first time that we are selecting plants that will be happy in our urban space. If we want to try something off list, at least I know it’s a risky plant that may need special attention.

If you’re one of our subscribers, then you’ve already seen the free download link in the weekly email. Non-subscribers can sign up here to get the free list. Try a few plants on our list this spring, and you will start to learn which ones grow best in your particular urban space. Know what to plant, and you’ll be on your way to urban garden success.

How to Grow Mushrooms Without the Kit

fresh oak log to grow mushrooms

drilling holes in mushroom log

I fell into this whole mushroom farm thing by accident. Maybe more of a “planned” accident. I had been wanting to grow mushrooms for a while. Chef Iggy said he would like to have a regular supply of shiitakes, because he likes the flavor and they are expensive in the store. I knew I could get those little mushroom kits with the pressed block of sawdust inoculated with mushroom spores. But they’re also expensive.

Then I saw an ad for mushroom plugs in my favorite seed catalog. Apparently you can drill holes into tree logs, insert the plugs and voila! Instant mushroom farm. Isn’t that a budget-friendly and green way to grow mushrooms? I decided to go for it, and I ordered the plugs in October. shiitake mushroom plugs

I ordered 100 shiitake plugs for about $11.00. Then I started looking for the rest of the supplies.

Grow mushrooms by crowdsourcing

Just as when we built our cold frame, I hoped to turn to crowdsourcing to find our supplies. We didn’t need much, just some beeswax and logs. I found the beeswax pretty quickly – donated by a neighbor who had a bag sitting in his kitchen. With that done, I planned to put out a call on social media and get some logs in no time. But, once I started researching them, I realized that there are a lot of rules about these mushroom logs.

To grow mushrooms, or shiitake mushrooms anyway, we needed fresh oak logs. Logs that had been chopped down between October and February, when the sap is running. Logs that are about four feet long and 8-12″ in diameter. Logs that had been felled within the last day or two. The bark must still be on. Not to be picky or anything.

Several log-blessed friends answered my plea on Facebook, offering me a wide range of free logs. But one set of logs was hollow – not good because other fungus can enter the log and crowd out the shiitake. Another friend had logs that were too short. Another set of logs were too old, having been cut down over a month before. Some logs weren’t oak. Others were too skinny.

I put the mushroom plugs into the refrigerator and kind of gave up. Whatever. I had only spent $11.00. I decided to wait until January and then maybe call a firewood company. After the holidays.

Thanks for noisy neighbors

The week after Christmas, I was working in my office and trying to ignore the whine of chain saws outside. For the past few days our neighbors had been having a giant tree trimmed. Bzzzzz bzzzzz bzzzzz – the noise was like leaf blowers on steroids. I was just about to pack up my laptop and head to the peace of the nearby library when Chef Iggy came up to my office and peeked out the window.oak tree

“Looks like they are taking the entire “It looks like they are taking the whole tree down, not just the dead limbs,” he said.

Wait, what? TREE? FRESH TREE?! Why had I not thought about this when I first heard the chainsaws?

I ran outside to ambush the arborist team, to beg some of those fresh, four-foot-long logs. It turned out the arborists did not speak English.

Fortunately, I speak Spanish.

What kind of tree was it? Oak! The logs had bark still on. They were fresh. All were healthy and not hollow or rotted. Could I have a few logs for a garden project? Of course.

The arborists gave me a bit of side eye, and chuckled when I explained I wanted to grow mushrooms. My Spanish is a little rusty so maybe I said I actually wanted to grow Champions instead of grow mushrooms. I’m not exactly sure. But the crew very helpfully carried several perfect logs across the alleyway to our back yard.

Mushroom garden setup

Chef Iggy measured the shiitake plugs and chose the right sized drill bit. He put tape on it at the perfect depth so that the mushroom plugs would be slightly below the surface of the bark. Following the instructions we found online, he drilled a diamond pattern on the log – a repeat pattern one inch wide and four inches long. Basically you drill a line of holes four inches apart, and then space another, alternating, line one inch next to it. He left four inches undrilled at the end of each log to help protect the plugs from any other fungus that might grow there.

mushroom logWhile he drilled the log and seated the plugs, I was in the kitchen. I melted the beeswax pellets in an empty (clean) tin can sitting in a shallow saucepan of water. Once it was melted I carried it outside and used a disposable brush to seal up each plug with a splash of hot wax. Then we rolled the log over to the shady side of the storage shed and propped it up on a few spare logs for air circulation.

These mushrooms are supposed to take nine months to a year to fruit. Some directions suggest that you keep the logs moist with non-chlorinated water. Other directions suggest “thumping” them, or picking up the log and dropping it to the ground, hard. Voodoo aside, I do have the log in a shaded area, and plan to keep it dampened with our rain barrel water. It’s a long wait to see if we can actually grow mushrooms in our urban garden. But for an $11.00 investment and very little work, I figure it’s an experiment worth trying. We will keep you posted!

Bloody Butcher: Virginia’s Heirloom Corn

Gardeners and small farmers are leading the heirloom seed movement, bringing back nearly forgotten strains of garden vegetables. Jake Garland lives in rural Nelson County, Virginia. Garland began farming in his spare time. He started small, growing corn for his family and neighbors. Now that he’s recently retired, Garland is expanding, dedicated entirely to bringing back Virginia’s Bloody Butcher heirloom corn. We talked to him about his experience growing Bloody Butcher.

What do you grow? Tell us about your farm.

I’ve been on this farm 25 years, it was my mother’s home place. Corn is the only thing I do, and Bloody Butcher specifically.

What I’ve grown in the past was only Silver Queen, but I didn’t grow any the past two years. I just decided I was going to go for it with the Bloody Butcher. With the Silver Queen, I never tried to sell it commercially. Mostly I supplied the community by giving corn to my neighbors. But with the Bloody Butcher I’ve made a little money on it.

shrimp and grits

Classic shrimp and grits with Bloody Butcher heirloom grits.

How did you discover heirloom corn?

There was a family in my community, Raymond Thomas was the patriarch. He had what they called Thomas Family Corn. It had a big long red ear. This corn was a family heirloom and they had been saving the seeds and handing them down through generations.

After investigating it I got interested. Turns out it was actually Bloody Butcher, an heirloom corn from Virginia. I found some at SeedSavers.com, out in Iowa. At first I bought four pounds of seed corn, it was $19/lb.

My first year was three years ago, and I got a 300-pound yield out of that four pounds. That’s a good yield, right where it’s supposed to be. Bloody Butcher is an open pollinated corn, since it’s an heirloom, so you can save the seed. I did that and then I planted five acres. From that five acres I got 5000 pounds of seed. I partnered with historical local mill Woodson’s Mill. He ground it into red cornmeal and red grits to sell. We’ve done a bang up job with it.

bloody butcher cornmeal

Order stone ground cornmeal from local mills.

Why do you like Bloody Butcher in particular?

It is fantastic to get into that community of heirloom folks. I’m 63, I’m getting more nostalgic as I get older. My heritage is gaining importance to me every day. And this corn has a story.

Bloody Butcher corn came out of Virginia in the mid 1840s, it’s a Virginia heirloom corn. It’s how people survived through winter. Then it disappeared. The Thomases were the last family I knew who grew it in Nelson county.

It had all the buzzwords. I didn’t use fertilizer because I wanted to see how it would do if it grew like it did 100 years ago. No herbicides, no pesticides. I pick it by hand, and shell it on a 1930s Blackhawk sheller. In total, I only touch the corn three times.

What’s different about an heirloom corn compared to conventional?

Bloody Butcher corn seems to do well in Virginia. It’s hardy, it tolerates drought. I spread mine out between high ground and fertile bottom area, and it does well both places. The stalk is 9-12 feet tall. Some almost 15 feet tall. Traditionally it grows up to two ears on a stalk. A lot of mine had one, but it’s a 10-13-inch-long ear, full of beautiful deep red kernels. I save it on the cob because I read it’s a higher germination rate if you save it on the cob.

It must be true because every seed I put the ground came up. With heirloom products, when you don’t fertilize and herbicide, the yield per acre is half that of commercial corn. Commercial growers would laugh at our yield, but that’s with no herbicide and pesticide. Low yield is why heirloom varieties cost so much.

Harvesting I do by hand so that’s more work for me. A commercial combine picks, shucks, shells and cleans the seed all with one machine, but those are $350,000. For me this is sort of my retirement golf game. It’s fun for me.

sub rosa bread

Fresh bread made with Bloody Butcher cornmeal.

Why is Bloody Butcher corn trending?

People have especially been interested in these red grits. You can also get the cornmeal. We like the grits because they look so cool on the plate under something. This isn’t to replace instant grits from the café in the morning. This is for high-end chefs who want a base under a cool entrée. A cool-looking shrimp and grits.

My first year was a test, I just wanted to reproduce the old-fashioned farming days with tractors and a two-row corn planter. And it turned out great. I’m going to double my acreage next year. I’ll call you in November so you can come help me pick some.

For Bloody Butcher seeds, or other heirloom corn, visit the folks at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

 

That Time the Sweet Potato Vine Volunteered

sweet potato vine

It was a surprise to see a sweet potato vine emerging from our compost heap. Sure, compost piles get a lot of “volunteers” – plants sprouting from discarded vegetables. Tomatoes we’ve had. Squash. But those are coming from seeds. A sweet potato is not a seed. Or maybe it’s one giant seed. That’s just weird.

Chef Iggy has this thing where he plays target practice with the compost bin. He likes to stand on the back deck, off the kitchen, and chuck vegetables into the compost bin, about 25 feet across the backyard. He only does it when he has a big, weighty vegetable. Like a squash. Or a sweet potato.

The birth of the sweet potato vine

And so, it came to pass that one summer day Chef Iggy chucked a sweet potato into the compost bin. And apparently scored a hit (his aim isn’t always dead on). I have no idea why we discarded this particular sweet potato. It must have been pretty far gone, because Chef Iggy is a master at cutting off the nasty bits and saying, “Don’t worry, it’s fine!”

That sweet potato liked where it landed. A month or so later when Chef Iggy went out to turn the compost bin, he discovered a happy little sweet potato vine. He didn’t recognize it at first. He had to dig it up before he realized that the sweet potato vine was, in fact, attached to an actual sweet potato.

Admiring the plant’s volunteer spirit, Chef Iggy decided to transplant it to a small, unused corner of the garden where the haricot verts had fallen down on the job. Exit haricot verts, enter sweet potato.

I hadn’t thought we could grow them because a sweet potato vine creeps along the ground like kudzu, covering everything. In an urban garden we don’t have space for that kind of business. But this sweet potato vine found exactly the right place to spread out. It filled in this one-foot dead spot between the edge of the garden bed and the backyard fence. It choked out the weeds, and thus endeared itself to me.

Sweet potato siblings

We left the sweet potato there all summer, coaxing the leaves off the raised bed and onto that dead spot next to the fence. Sweet potato must have been happy because it put forth many leaves. And lo, before the first frost, it came time to harvest the sweet potato.

I dug it up, not sure what to expect, and found three sweet potatoes! The magic of gardening! Since Chef Iggy and I are only two people, this was plenty for a bounteous dinner.

On closer examination it turned out that the middle sweet potato was actually the original chucked volunteer. It had dings and rotten spots. It had given its life for its two siblings. We returned that original potato to the compost pail and feasted on the two side potatoes. And they were good.

The moral of the story is, when you have a compost volunteer, transplant it. And give thanks. It may end up being manna from heaven.

 

6 Ways to Get Winter Kale to Thrive

winter kale

We call it “winter kale” because kale is happiest in the colder weather of fall, winter and early spring. We love to grow (and eat) winter kale. It extends our tiny garden into cold weather. An urban garden that works year round make the best use of a tiny space. You earn a higher yield of vegetables per square foot. We work our little back yard pretty hard, and winter kale is a reliable crop that keeps us eating hyper locally all winter long.

Winter kale starts in fall

Like all plants, kale really slows down its growth in winter. You must give it a head start if you want it to winter over. This part can be tricky. Even winter kale needs some warmth to get started, but it doesn’t like too much heat. Plant it while the weather is still warm enough to sprout the seeds, but cool enough for kale to be happy. For us in Virginia  this is early to mid October.

But our summer plants like tomatoes and peppers are still producing like mad into the late fall. We don’t want to rip those up too soon. To get winter kale started you have a few options:

  • Sprinkle kale seeds in and around existing plants. As the kale starts to sprout you can thin them out. Use the seedlings in salads or on sandwiches. When tomatoes or peppers are done producing, cut the stems at the roots. Pulling them out by the roots would disturb the baby kale. Voila – kale is perfectly spaced and ready to take off.
  • Plant kale in a cold frame to winter over. By late fall the cold frame is probably empty, since it is best used in cold weather. Plant the seeds directly in the cold frame. You can either transplant them in spring or just leave them there until they start to bolt.
  • Leave an open space from an early summer crop, like cucumbers. Plan ahead to place those early crops in a sunny space that will work well for winter. Just let the space sit empty for a few weeks (pro tip: grow a quick cover crop like red clover to replenish the soil’s nitrogen while you wait). Once the weather cools off, plant the kale.

Warm and cozy winter blanket options

You could just leave winter kale out there and let it fend for itself. It’s pretty hardy, especially in warmer climates. But we like to give ours a little added protection because we end up getting more kale. There are a few cozy options for this:

* Mulch the kale with crunched-up leaves. This blankets the leaves, and adds nutrition as the leaves break down. Snow cover will add some extra insulation.

  • Use row cover. Just unroll a layer of lightweight fabric row cover directly on the plants. Hold down the edges with bricks or row cover staples.
  • Build a hoop house of either fabric row cover or clear plastic.
  • Plant kale in a cold frame with a glass or clear plastic lid. Lift the lid to water and cool off the plants on warm days.

Eating fresh all winter long

Wait for a day when the temperature rises above freezing to harvest kale. Otherwise the plant’s watery cells are frozen and the leaves will wilt. They need to warm up to recover. You can either pull off some leaves here and there during the winter, or wait until the plants get a little growth spurt in spring.

Chef Iggy cooks either kale or collards about once a week, and has some tasty go-to recipes like this Southern Braised Kale with Onions. Sometime we only have a small harvest, or a leaf here and there. We  cut it it into julienne and add to a potato hash or a flavorful bean soup. Trim the leaves and keep them fresh for a week or two in the refrigerator in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel. Enjoy this fresh treat from the winter garden!

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Tips for Growing Fussy Garden Basil

garden basil

Basil can be tricky. Like a lot of urban gardeners, we started our urban farm journey with garden basil. Most garden herbs, like rosemary, grow like weeds, thriving through drought and heat. But this fragile, fragrant herb is one fussy baby, so don’t feel bad if you have trouble growing it. We did too.

In fact, struggling with garden basil can make you think you’re a crappy gardener when the real problem isn’t you at all. Here’s why we have kind of a love/hate relationship with basil.

Garden basil should work, right?

Chef Iggy uses a lot of basil. It’s great on a Margarita pizza for our weekly pizza night. He does a fancy little basil leaf garnish on gnocchi. We like to sprinkle cut leaves on pasta dishes and tuck whole leaves into fresh rice noodle rolls.

The problem is that basil is expensive to buy at the grocery in those little plastic containers. It’s not always fresh. Once you get it home it doesn’t keep long in the refrigerator. It’s not like you can buy it every Friday and count on it still being usable by Wednesday. I don’t like paying a lot of money just to dump something in my compost bin.

Basil tastes best when it’s really fresh. It makes sense to plop some into a kitchen garden or patio container. Then it’s easy to grab a few leaves of garden basil any time for topping pizza or garnishing a pasta dish.

This all sounds good, but there’s only one problem. Garden basil can be kind of a drama queen.

Why it’s not you, it’s the basil

Sometimes basil is all happy and sassy, shooting up tall and popping out big dark green leaves. But for keeping basil happy, the margin for error on is pretty small. Basil likes sun, but not too much. It likes to be moist, but not wet. This herb likes warmth, but not heat.

Basil hates living indoors. Just try putting a cute little pot on the kitchen windowsill and watch the leaves turn yellow and fall off. Even outdoors, garden basil can randomly get brown spots on the stems, which then collapse and wilt. The leaves can get brown edges and spots. Why does this happen? Who knows?

Good luck growing garden basil from seed. When we’ve tried it the little sprouts pop up, but then they wilt and die. Probably we are giving it one spray of water too many, or putting it outside when the temperature is two degrees too cold. It’s anyone’s guess.

Also, don’t plant the cute little pots of basil you find in the grocery store. We’ve tried that too and they die almost as quickly as the seedlings. A gardening friend told us that the grocery plants aren’t hardened off, so they freak out when you move them outdoors. Whatever.

Here’s how to give it the love it needs

If you can get it right, basil will thrive. When it thrives, one tiny plant will give you fat, sassy leaves all summer long. Here’s what we’ve learned about how to keep this fussy baby happy:

  • Give it lots of water (basil is the first herb to wilt), but really good drainage. We plant ours in a container with gravel in the bottom. The basil pot sits on pot feet, so it’s raised about half an inch from the deck and can drain well.
  • Find the perfect spot. We moved our pot around for a few years until we found the place that had just enough sun, but not too much. Now, we never move that pot.
  • Pinch the little buds off before they bloom. Not only does blooming make the leaves taste a little bitter, but if you pinch off the flowers, the plant puts more energy into the tasty leaves.

Sadly, we haven’t found a way to get garden basil to winter over. It doesn’t like to be moved indoors, and there don’t seem to be enough covers to keep it happy in the cold. The only solution is to pull off all the leaves before the first frost. Keep an eye on the leaves, and if you start to see brown edges then it’s time to go. We make pints and pints of bright green pesto and store those in the freezer. They’re ready to pull out all winter long for a burst of of summer flavor. Thanks, fussy baby!

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