Flowers from Vegetables

flower of an Italian dandelion

Whenever possible I let vegetables go to flower, sometimes to save the seed, but more often to share the bounty with insects and birds. The usefulness comes in two waves: the first being the pollinators attracted to the flowers, and once the flowers go to seed the birds will move in. Of course this means that I’m “wasting space” and making my garden “unproductive” but the rewards outweigh any inconvenience.

New gardeners are often surprised to see what amazing flowers different vegetables make. People with no connection to food plants whatsoever may not even know that vegetables make flowers, so it’s fun to show them a carrot flower, a squash blossom, a bean flower.

My new favorite garden flower comes off an old Italian chicory plant left to go riot. I’m not sure which chicory it is, but it’s one of those  long-leaved, bitter greens beloved in Italy and sold by Franchi seeds. It’s easy to grow, pest proof, and we like the strong, bitter flavor. The flowers, though, are amazing. The greens send up narrow stalks 8′ tall or more (approx. 2.5 meters) and the stalks are covered from top to bottom with beautiful periwinkle blue flowers which are about 2″ (5cm) across– classic chicory flowers.

The bees adore these flowers. What’s more, this plant has been blossoming continuously for months now–at least 3 months. Unfortunately I didn’t mark down when it started, but it’s been at least 3 months by now, maybe 4. It’s given me lots of joy.

In our yard the flower stalks have interwoven with grape and bean vines, adding a lot of color to a corner of our patio. The situation is impossible to to photograph, because the flowers are both high and low and tangled up with everything, but trust me, in person it’s charming in its wild way.

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Is Purslane the New Kale?

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Salty, crunchy, nutritious and edible raw or cooked, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) could soon be ready for its fifteen minutes of vegetable fame. We planted some this year in our summer vegetable garden and I’ve used it in a lot of salads this week.

Purslane is a common weed in North America. We’d love to be able to forage it in the neighborhood but, for some reason, it only tends to appear in unappetizing locations: usually the gutter (I think it needs a bit more water than what falls naturally from the sky here). You can eat the whole plant: stems and leaves. It has a salty and slightly lemony flavor reminiscent of New Zealand spinach.

There’s always a huge bin of it at Super King, our local Armenian supermarket. In Armenia it’s gathered in the wild and used either raw in salads or lightly sauteed.

There’s even a World Cup tie-in. The color of the plant in South America is associated with green/white soccer uniforms.

Have you grown purslane? Foraged purslane? How do you like to eat it?

Direct Seeding vs. Transplants

How I used to plant my veggies.

How I used to plant my veggies. An 8 inch spacing guide and some seedlings back in 2009.

To direct sow or transplant, that is the question. I’m as indecisive as Hamlet when it comes to this question. Some caveats here: we live in a warm climate where you can direct sow almost anything unless you want to get an early start on tomatoes and peppers. And we don’t have to start seedlings indoors.

Another thing to note–I fell under the spell of John Jeavons and even took his class up in Willits a few years back. Jeavons transplants everything. One of the best vegetable gardens I ever grew was done following his instructions to the letter. But I’m not big on double digging, nor do I look forward to the twice a year transplanting chores.

backbeds

Look what’s growing in the new raised beds–nada!

This year I tried to direct sow the summer garden instead of growing trays of seedlings and I have to say I’m not getting good results. A week of temperatures over 100° F didn’t help. Nor did the long delay getting the vegetable garden planted while I attempted to evict skunks from the backyard. I know I sound like the president of an excuse factory. Let’s just say it’s good that we’re not trying to subsist on our home grown produce.

My conclusion? I’m going to have to go back to sowing seeds in flats and transplanting them out in the garden. It may not be the best practice from a horticultural perspective, but in terms of my own personality and the quirks of our little yard, it may still be the best option.

Dear readers, where do you come down on this question? Do you sow direct or do you transplant? How does your climate influence this decision?

Dry Climate Vegetables

roguenewze

Here in Arrakis, I mean California, we’re in the midst of a terrible drought. And unfortunately, most of the seeds we buy for our vegetable gardens are adapted to require lots of water. One solution is to find veggies that have reseeded accidentally without supplemental irrigation. Here’s a short list of reseeding rogue veggies from our garden that have thrived with just the small burst of rain we got last month.

Continue reading…

World’s Largest Kale

bigkale

The Franchi kale (collard?) “Galega De Folhas Lisas” I planted in the fall of 2012 has reached six feet. It’s a Portuguese variety used in a soup called Caldo Verde.

Given that we have such a small yard I’ve really got to stop planting gargantuan vegetables like this and those ridiculous Lunga di Napoli squash. Root Simple is at risk of devolving into a geek with large veggie Tumblr site.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Raised Bed Vegetable Gardening

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The new hexagonal raised beds. More on the design in another post.

Due to contaminated Los Angeles soil, we’ve got to grow our veggies in raised beds. There’s just too much lead and zinc in the ground, according to our local soil lab. Putting together three new beds recently got me to thinking about the ups and downs of gardening in raised beds. I thought I’d list off the pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Keeps roots away from contaminated soil.
  • Good for disabled or elderly gardeners.
  • Neat.
  • If high enough, can keep out some critters–and keep veggies above the dog pee zone.
  • Plug and play–no need to build or improve soil.
  • Keeps roots from getting waterlogged in a wet climate.

Cons

  • Requires materials to construct.
  • Might need to buy soil–gardening in the ground is free.
  • Roots dry out quicker in a hot climate.
  • Lack of mineral content in bagged soils.
  • Use of peat moss in bagged products.
  • Unable to truly embrace the “no dig” philosophy: despite best efforts to the contrary, it seems the soil needs to be swapped out every few years. It’s container gardening, really.

Going through that list of pros and cons, if it weren’t for our contaminated soil it would be better for us to grow in the ground. From a water use perspective, in Mediterranean climates such as ours, it’s better to garden at ground level. Less evaporation.  In dry desert climates such as New Mexico it’s often better to garden slightly below grade to take advantage of summer rains. Conversely, in soggy climates raised beds have some advantages.

Another factor is cost.  A bulk soil order doesn’t start to make sense until you’ve got a lot of raised beds to fill or neighbors to split the order with. This leaves me stuck with bagged products. I’m testing out a variation on Mel’s mix: one part coconut coir, one part vermiculite, one part compost. It’s still expensive, but at least I’m weaning myself from peat moss, an unsustainable product. Unfortunately, all those bags have to be hauled up thirty steps.

As a whole, what we’ve done with our garden is a compromise. Most of the yard is permaculturish: lots of small fruit trees, some native plants, ornamental flowering plants for the wildlife and a whole lot of mulch. But I like to have a few Italian veggies so we’ve got five small raised beds.

Did I leave anything off this list of raised bed pros and cons? What are you growing your veggies in? Leave a comment!

Front Yard Vegetable Gardeners Fights Back

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Hermine Ricketts, vegetable gardening outlaw. Photo: Greg Allen, NPR.

I’ve got a tip for to city bureaucrats. Bust someone for growing vegetables in their front yard and you’ll be held up for ridicule around the world.

This time it’s the city of Miami Shores’ turn to make fools of themselves for forcing Hermine Ricketts and her husband Tom Carroll to tear up the front yard vegetable garden they’ve tended for 17 years. NPR has the details here. Listen to that story and you’ll get to hear an especially ridiculous grilling from a code enforcement official.

It’s absurd when city codes single out “vegetables.” Broadleaf plantain is a vegetable and anyone who has a lawn is probably growing it. Many flowers such as calendula are edible. Broccoli is a flower. I could go on.

Let’s just say that we wish Ricketts luck with her lawsuit against Miami Shores.

Straw Bale Garden: What I Learned

straw bale garden before and after

Straw bale garden–April on the left, November on the right.

The straw bale garden I started this spring has been one of the most successful vegetable gardens I’ve ever planted. In fact it’s still producing well into November. Here’s what I learned from the experiment:

  • Plants that suck up a lot of nitrogen, like squash, do well in a straw bale garden.
  • My tomatoes flourished but, due to the high nitrogen, made more leaves than fruit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t plant tomatoes in straw bales–results will be better than in poor soil, but it’s hard to regulate the amount of nitrogen when prepping bales.
  • Stake the bales. They will fall over eventually. I knew this but was too lazy to actually do it.
  • Straw bale gardens are a great option for those cursed by poor or contaminated soil.
  • I’ve got lot of bales to compost!

My future in straw bale gardening
I’ve decided to continue straw bale gardening on a smaller scale. I’m going to build some raised beds and fill them with soil, but I’m leaving room for two bales to grow nitrogen hungry crops, principally squash. I’m also planning on building a box to hold those bales so I don’t have to stake them every season.

Like most things in life it’s not an either/or proposition. You can have a conventional vegetable garden and save some space for straw bale gardening. I think the two compliment each other really well.