Down to earth – sem(pl)antics

Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers July 6, 2016.

I had a friendly debate the other day (weeks ago now) with a fellow professional gardener that might have devolved into a heated argument if I hadn’t capitulated. We were talking about one of my favorite plants, African blue basil, which she described as an annual. I call it tender perennial. To-may-to, To-mah-to? It comes down to semantics.

What is an annual? The definition I use was written by botanists who base it on a plant’s life cycle. An annual is the sort of plant that grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies all in one growing season. My friend’s definition swings a bit wider to include anything that won’t survive winter in our gardens. I yielded the point because she’s not alone. You won’t find African blue basil in the perennial section at any nearby nursery.

bluebasil
African blue basil growing in the Mount Hope Farm cutting garden with nicotiana, feverfew, and snaps

But this is where it gets tricky and why I’m having trouble letting go: I bought mine a whole growing season or two ago. Life-cycle-wise, African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum ×basilicum) takes after its perennial parent. In its East African home climate, O. kilimandscharicum doesn’t die after flowering and setting seed. (Never mind that the hybrid child is sterile. That tiny detail is beside the point.) It grows on.

I use the term tender perennial where applicable because I rise to the challenge of keeping “annuals” alive inside over the winter and replanting them summer after summer.

Self-sowers add to the confusion. Plenty of botanically true annuals return year after year more reliably than some perfectly hardy perennials. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) falls into that category along with shiso (Perilla frutescens), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). I always think of Verbena bonariensis as an annual because in my garden it grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies. Or does it? In fact, it’s a marginally hardy perennial (to Zone 7) and sometimes only dies back to the ground after frost, coming up fresh as a … well, not a daisy exactly, but as itself all over again the following summer. And whenever winter kills them, seedlings will pop up in the same spots and everywhere else besides.

I know another gardener who would give perennials that aren’t great at spreading from the roots, such as coneflower (Echinacea sp.), sea holly (Eryngium sp.) and heuchera, the qualifier “short-lived.” We might think twice about purchasing a plant with only three or so years to live. Then again, in general, only the sterile hybrid cultivars will poop out completely and need to be replaced (or not); given the chance, straight species self-sow their own succession.

When it comes to buying plants, most of us gardeners simply want to know exactly what to expect. But a lot of factors are involved in ultimate plant happiness and longevity; a certain amount of unpredictability is part of the challenge. If we didn’t enjoy that we wouldn’t bother bothering. I will always be happy to shell out for one-summer wonders because my garden wouldn’t be half as lively without annuals. And with any luck some might just turn out to be perennial.

Down to earth – life could give you Meyer lemons

(Originally published February 4, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

It isn’t my intention to brag but right this minute there are no less than five ripe lemons on my Meyer lemon tree, four of them hanging from a single bowed branch tip. It’s a bumper crop this year — we have already used two — and I wish I could share the wealth. Instead I’ll just tell you that if I can grow this fruit indoors, so can you. And I’ll follow that statement with a couple of reasons why I think you should.

A perfectly ripe Meyer lemon waiting to be turned into ice cream...Number one, you don’t have to love lemons to think that this one is delicious. Whatever it is in lemons that makes my face implode in an agony of tartness is almost missing from this species. Meyers, thought to be a cross between a lemon and an orange, are much sweeter and less acidic than an everyday lemon. And although they can be used for normal things like lemonade, squares, and garnish, a quick internet search will result in a stack of gourmet recipes from savory root vegetable roasts to custardy desserts.

Some sources credit Martha Stewart for popularizing cooking with Meyer lemons but I suspect Alice Waters of Chez Panisse had something to do with it too. Or maybe I only think that because my chef has made the Meyer lemon relish from her cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, on several scrumptious occasions. Part of what makes Meyer lemons extra special and particularly necessary for a recipe like Waters’s relish is that their yolk-orange rind is edible, nearly pithless, and delicious. But the rind is also why they are expensive and hard to come by: it’s too thin to protect the fruit during shipping.

So number two, if you want a Meyer lemon for a recipe (and are reluctant to pay dearly for the pleasure) you’ll have to grow it yourself. Many of our local nurseries sell good-sized plants, or you could start small with a cutting from Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut (They do mail-order but I recommend taking the hour-long trip.) They’ll start flowering and fruiting young. Continue reading “Down to earth – life could give you Meyer lemons”

Down to earth – Start a windowsill farm with microgreens

(Originally published January 22, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life. The article ran with a pretty picture of a productive windowsill microgreenery that people thought was mine. I wish. My windowsill farmlet is pictured below.)

Either winter makes me hungry for fresh vegetables or the seed catalogs do. Either way, every year around this time I decide this is the year I will grow vegetables in the garden. For real — not just what comes up in the compost pile. I’m forgetting that I did plant kale, cabbage, lettuce, and basil last year and the woodchuck ate it all down to nubs. Which is the same thing he/she did the year before that. And the year before that. And so on. Or else it was the bunnies.

Every year I think I (meaning my carpenter) should build a raised bed tall enough to keep critters out of the veg. And every year so far I have not decided before spring planting where to put it. Nor have I bothered to buy the lumber or stockpile enough soil to fill it.

I’m guessing that once I decide where it goes (in full sun somewhere near the kitchen door) it will need to stand a good 18” high. The other option I have is to surround my vegetables with fencing. Eight feet high is about right to keep deer out (it’s probably only a matter of time before they wander every Bristol street as freely as gulls do), but bunnies and woodchucks are tricksters. To deter them, a much shorter fence will do as long as it’s made of an unchewable metal mesh and is set deep in the ground. And if I really want to give those guys a challenge, the bottom of the fence should probably even curve outwards a little. I am a lazy McGregor, though, and that’s much more digging than I’m usually inclined to do. Are fresh homegrown vegetables worth it?

Probably. Everyone says so.

To find out, I’m going to start by growing microgreens. (I’ve said this before…) All of my favorite seed companies, like Renee’s Garden, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden, Botanical Interests, and Johnny’s, just to name a few, have done the hard work of combining seeds that sprout at the same time into blends with flavor profiles ranging from mild to spicy. Botanical Interest’s 17 green “Sassy Salad,” which includes arugula, nine lettuces, two mustards, Swiss chard, endive, spinach and bok choy, falls somewhere in the middle. Sounds delicious.

My microgreenery shares its windowsill with cuttings and a sorry begonia.

If I supply enough water to keep the seeds and starter soil moist but not boggy, and put them in a windowsill-full of daylight, I should have at least one meal’s worth of tiny bite-sized but intensely flavorful and nutrient-rich salad garnish within two weeks. Maybe two or three meals’ worth depending on the size of the container (ironically, a store-bought salad mix box would be perfect with a few holes punched in the bottom for drainage) and my dinner party. Set inside a cachepot, a mesclun mix might even look as handsome as a houseplant as soon as it gets going and before I eat it up. The seedlings only need to be grown as far as their first set or two of true leaves before becoming supper so the trick is to have several packs growing at once but staggered in an endless succession. (My last packet of old seeds went into that box. Making a mental note right now to order another batch.)

This will be a good test for me. I figure if I become a successful windowsill microgreen farmer, it will be a slippery slope to wanting some of the same vegetables to grow to maturity outside. Maybe it’s time I finally find a place for that raised bed.

What’s growing on your windowsills? 

Snacks

I know this is going to sound sacrilegious — and you probably already know this about me — but I’m not into growing food. Crops generally require more time, effort (the calculus involved in succession planting makes my head explode), and watering than I’m interested in giving them. I’d much rather be lazy, sit back and watch my garden grow and I’m perfectly happy to buy vegetables from people willing, able, and eager to do all that hard work. More power to them. But I do have a deep appreciation for the edibles I have growing my garden that put out with very little input.

thornless blackberry

My first summer here, my mom bought a thornless blackberry (Rubus ulmifolius) for me at a plant sale and I planted it with everything else I had at the time against my front yard fence. A mixed garden is maybe not the ideal place for a suckering bramble — no doubt it would be much more productive given plenty of space and its very own trellis. And no doubt it would be easier to harvest the berries if I didn’t have to dive headfirst into the border between iris, daisies, and teasel to find them. But I’m all for being rewarded with handfuls of warm berries while weeding and I’m not a pie maker anyway.

All this blackberry seems to require is a good bit of sun and some judicious pruning/editing. Flowers and fruit occur on second year canes and fresh canes shoot out of the ground in 10′ arches every year. I whack those back midsummer to encourage them to branch. Old canes that have done their business should be cut off at the ground in the fall. Suckers — these plants are very generous — can be removed and transplanted anytime. My experience in moving this plant — even a well established clump with several thumb-thick canes — leads me to believe it’s virtually unkillable.

My other favorite garden snack is ground cherry (a.k.a husk cherry, dwarf cape gooseberry, Physalis pruinosa). The first time I ever peeled open the tomatillo-like papery husk and popped one in my mouth was at a farmers market only about 10 years ago and I ate an entire pint in one sitting. I think they taste like fruit salad heavy on the pineapple. I must have eaten and dropped a few  near my front steps because the plants first appeared in cracks along the stoop and have since planted themselves like weeds along the sunny front of every border. In fact, they are weeds. But I’m thrilled to have them will always allow a few to grow and fruit because they’re awesome. They fruit best in full sun and don’t seem to require much water. Cherries form underneath a canopy of moleskin leaves and are ripe when the husks are yellow and they drop off the stem into your paw.

ground cherries ripening

What are your favorite garden snacks?

Down to earth – hope springs

Originally published in East Bay/South Coast Life on March 13, 2013, a good week and a half after my first day back in the garden. Not that I have gotten much done yet. If only it would stop snowing. Another freaking “wintery mix” is forecast for this week. I’ve done all the damage (i.e. spent all the money) I can possibly do inside. 

I am desperate to get back out in the garden. This time last year I lamented about not getting a proper winter break. This year, the opposite. Maybe gardeners are never content. But I’m pretty sure that nothing would make me happier right now than to spend one non-rainy, non-snowy, calm-wind weekend day outside. I can’t wait for the pleasure of composting fallen stems, digging out more lawn, laying flagstone paths, whacking the butterfly bush back down (almost) to the ground, and worrying over exactly how much to prune from my gangly Black Lace elderberry. If I can’t get out to do that stuff soon, I might go mad. Or to the mall, which in my book is a little bit the same thing.

I have tried very hard over the last few weeks to use my gotta-garden energy productively indoors. Reorganizing the kitchen cupboards felt something like weeding. Browsing pillows and picture frames was not unlike plant shopping (though less gratifying because once they’re planted on couches and walls they don’t grow anything but dusty.) And a drab room repainted a vivid shade of raspberry fills my eyes like a hot August dahlia up close.

So I’m very glad that it’s finally March because regardless of the vagaries of weekend weather, a New Year has (re)turned and I’m confident that it won’t be long now before I’ll be losing track of time in the garden again. Hope springs and everything starts this month. The birds at my feeder are already singing love songs. Are the redwing blackbirds back yet? If not, they will be soon, along with osprey, killdeer, and the robins (who have been here all along). And sometime, usually towards the end of the month, the spring peepers, tiny frogs about the size of a quarter, will come out of hibernation from under logs and behind loose tree bark along marshes and ponds to trill their little throats out from evening into night. Noting these signs of spring in a perpetual calendar or notebook—and competing with friends and family for first sighting/hearing every year—will keep you vigilant, if not patient.

arugula seedlings germinated in 4 days.And this month, whenever the weather forces us back inside, there is some actual indoor gardening to do. Usually I’m delighted enough by the thousands of seeds sown by some of my favorite volunteers in the Blithewold greenhouse that I don’t feel compelled to fill my own windowsills with starts. But this year I’m looking forward to watching my own plants, destined for my own garden, spring like hope itself from tiny packages of dormant DNA.

I’m determined to grow more vegetables, so the first seeds I’ll sow will be artichokes. Some gardeners are surprised to see them producing outside of California, but the only requirement that sets these tender perennials apart from other veg is two or more weeks of chill temperatures (40s-50s) after germination to trick them into thinking they’ve overwintered. (Like biennials, they usually wait to bloom until their second year. And of course, the bloom—in bud—is the delicacy.)  But check the seed package: some promise to flower the first year without cold-temperature trickery.

Along with artichokes I intend to sow packs of lettuces, arugula, beets, kale, and radishes because they’re cool season crops and delicious as seedlings. The name “microgreens” doesn’t do them justice… By the time they germinate and I pluck them for a dinner salad, it will be high time (mid-April-ish) to sow seeds for plants that will actually make it into the ground. But of course by then we should all be spending whole glorious, soft, and sunshiny days outside in the garden. Hope springs. Happy New Year!