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~~~Hayefield Ramblings~~~

Offbeat Edibles

by Nancy J. Ondra

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2011 Nancy J. Ondra

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this free ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form.

About This Experimental Ebook

The text below is based on seven posts that originally appeared at the blog Hayefield: A Pennsylvania Plant Geek’s Garden. I’ve modified the posts a bit to update the information and to fit this format, and I’ve added links to online, mail-order seed sources that are current as of March 2011.

Despite my best attempts at preparing the document according to the style guidelines, the Table of Contents links may not work, the photos may appear blurry, and the font style may vary within the pages, depending on which reading format you use to view the ebook. Sorry about that, but hey, it’s free, so I hope you can excuse the flaws. To see the posts and images in their original forms, please visit Hayefield at http://www.hayefield.com.

Contents

Asparagus Peas

Couve Tronchuda

Non-Green Greens

Peanuts

Red Noodle Beans

Spigarello

Sunberry

Asparagus Peas

I’m always on the hunt for plants that really earn their space in the garden, so when I ran across a listing for asparagus pea (Tetragonolobus purpurea; also known as Lotus tetragonolobus), I knew I had to try it.

known as Lotus tetragonolobus ), I knew I had to try it. The description said that

The description said that the plants like heat, so I gave them a head start by sowing the seeds indoors on a heat mat in March and set them out about 1 foot apart in the third week in May. They sat there for about two weeks, then they starting shriveling up one by one. By mid-July, there were only two plants left, but they really were beauties, eventually dotted with tiny but intense, deep red flowers against pale green leaves.

By late summer, the flowers started maturing into four-winged pods. The first one I tried

By late summer, the flowers started maturing into four-winged pods. The first one I tried was woody and inedible (I guess I picked it too late), so I tried a smaller one and found it quite crunchy and tasty. By frost, I’d gotten probably eight pods in total: nice for occasional snacking but hardly qualifying as a harvest.

The original seed description suggested supplying a trellis to support the plants, so I did

The original seed description suggested supplying a trellis to support the plants, so I did that. They didn’t climb, though; the trellising mostly just served to prop up the shoots, which otherwise would have stayed close to the ground. Without the support, they make attractive edging plants for a bed or border.

I do plan to grow asparagus peas again, just because they’re so pretty, though I don’t expect to get much of a harvest from them. I think it’s plenty hot enough around here in the summer, but I guess the plants prefer even more heat than our normal southeastern Pennsylvania summers can provide.

Source for asparagus pea seeds: Seed Savers Exchange

Couve Tronchuda

You know how there are some plants you just can’t grow, no matter how often you try? For the longest time, I drooled over pictures of sea kale (Crambe maritima), and I desperately wanted to grow it. I bought plants, I grew them from seed, but I couldn’t get them to last more than a year. Eventually, though, I found what I consider a great substitute: couve tronchuda.

I found what I consider a great substitute: couve tronchuda. Also known as Portuguese cabbage or

Also known as Portuguese cabbage or Portuguese kale, this cabbage relative produces a stout, upright stem to about 2 feet tall, with broad, wavy, light green to blue-green leaves with thick, white stalks and veins. A single plant fills a space 2 to 3 feet across by the middle of the growing season.

Couve tronchuda is usually grown as a vegetable for its sweet, cabbagey leaves and crunchy

Couve tronchuda is usually grown as a vegetable for its sweet, cabbagey leaves and crunchy leaf stalks, but it’s handsome enough to serve as a foliage accent in ornamental beds and borders. It looks great with whites and pastels, and with rich greens too, and the broad leaves contrast handsomely with tiny or spiky blooms. (It’s shown above with Angelica 'Ebony'.) Sometimes the plants produce an abundance of white blooms toward the end of the first growing season; sometimes they overwinter and flower in their second spring or summer. The flowers are cute but not nearly as striking as the foliage.

Couve tronchuda is as easy to grow as a heading-type cabbage. I usually start mine

Couve tronchuda is as easy to grow as a heading-type cabbage. I usually start mine indoors in mid-March and set out the seedlings about 18 inches apart in early to mid-May, in full sun or light shade.

The plants don’t need any special care, but you’ll need to watch for cabbageworms, because they can quickly chew the leaves into lace. You can remove the larvae with daily hand-picking (though it’s tough to find them, because they blend into the foliage so well), or you could spray with BTK (Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki).

And wouldn’t you know: Now that I stopped trying so hard to grow sea kale,

And wouldn’t you know: Now that I stopped trying so hard to grow sea kale, I actually have a nice clump of it (above). The very last plant I tried decided to take hold, and it’s even large enough to flower. But I’ll still keep growing couve tronchuda too, just in case the sale kale gives up again.

Source for couve tronchuda seeds: Kitchen Garden Seeds

Non-Green Greens

Late spring is prime time for picking great salad fixings from the garden. We generally refer to them as “greens,” but there are many intriguing options to choose from that are anything but plain old green. One of my new favorites is a mustard variety called 'Ruby Streaks'; it’s the jagged purple foliage shown below. The other variety shown is 'Golden Streaks'. It’s even more frilly, and it makes a great contrast to 'Ruby Streaks', but it doesn’t appear nearly as golden next to other greens.

The flavor of the first cutting (about 10 days ago) was mild with just a

The flavor of the first cutting (about 10 days ago) was mild with just a little mustardy tang; the second cutting today is much zippier but still tasty. I’m hoping to get at least one more cutting in a week or so, but even now the plants seem to want to go to flower, so we’ll see. If they do bolt, I’m tempted to let 'Ruby Streaks' self-sow, because it’s so striking.

Mizuna, too, has been a great performer for me this year: I sowed it in

Mizuna, too, has been a great performer for me this year: I sowed it in late March took three harvests from the patch. The jagged form of the ordinary green kind makes it interesting as-is, but I think this purple-leaved form (shown above) is even prettier, and it tastes just as good. The young leaves are mostly green, but the leaves turn more purple as they age.

Lettuces offer some lovely green shades and some stunning reds too. I still haven’t seen

Lettuces offer some lovely green shades and some stunning reds too. I still haven’t seen anything that beats the appearance of rich red 'Merlot' (shown above with Coreopsis 'Limerock Ruby'), but I found an interesting oak-leaf type to try this year: 'Mascara' (below).

This variety bears frilly leaves that are heavily blushed with deep red (shown above with

This variety bears frilly leaves that are heavily blushed with deep red (shown above with 'Giant Exhibition Limelight' coleus). The flavor is great, and it looks spectacular in a salad.

Source for 'Ruby Streaks' mustard seeds: Territorial Seed Company Source for 'Golden Streaks' mustard seeds: Territorial Seed Company Source for purple mizuna seeds: Territorial Seed Company Source for 'Merlot' lettuce seeds: Territorial Seed Company Source for 'Mascara' lettuce seeds: Territorial Seed Company

Peanuts

As I was ordering vegetable seeds last year, I ran across a listing for 'Early Spanish' peanuts, and I absolutely had to order some. Would I even be able to grow them here? Would they need a lot of pampering? Would I actually get a harvest from them? On our afternoon walk that day, I reported my great find to Mom and rambled on a bit about what I’d read about growing them. When I stopped to take a breath, she calmly replied “You used to love to grow those when you were little.” What? I’m pretty sure I’d remember that, but well, I’ll defer to her on that point. Maybe I did plant them, but did I ever harvest any? She’s not too clear on that, so maybe that’s why I don’t remember the experience. Because with peanuts, the real fun is in the harvesting, not in the growing.

the real fun is in the harvesting, not in the growing. Sprouting them was easy enough.

Sprouting them was easy enough. I started a half-dozen plants indoors on a heating mat about 4 weeks before our last frost date, then set them out around the end of May.

They were in flower by the end of June, I think, with small, yellow blossoms. They weren’t all that exciting, so I forgot to look closely to see the really neat part: Once the flowers are fertilized, they bend downward and push an inch or two into the soil, a process called pegging. So aboveground, it doesn’t look like much of anything is happening; the real action is underground. It’s probably just as well I didn’t think about that, or I’d probably have poked around in the soil and damaged the developing peanuts.

Around the end of October, I was doing some cleanup in the veg garden and

Around the end of October, I was doing some cleanup in the veg garden and found the peanut plants, which had been partially swamped by some winter squash vines. The plants didn’t look too promising, but I grabbed a fork to dig them up, and wonder of wonders, they had peanuts on them!

Eager to sample my harvest, I washed off the roots, picked off a plump-looking peanut, pried open the soft shell, and popped one of the pale seeds into my mouth. Hmmm. It was kind of crispy, kind of starchy-tasting, but overall not much of a thrill in the flavor department.

I was rather disappointed, but then I thought, well, maybe they were supposed to dry

I was rather disappointed, but then I thought, well, maybe they were supposed to dry out some after harvest, so I left them out for a week or two, then clipped the clusters into a paper bag. I sure wish I’d tried to taste them again at that point, because for the life of me, I can’t figure out now what I did with the bag after that. Gee, maybe there’s some cosmic reason I’m doomed to forget my peanut-growing experiences. I’d try growing them again this year, but, um…I’ve forgotten where I put the seeds.

Source for peanut seeds: Henry Field's Seed & Nursery Co.

Red Noodle Beans

A

few years ago, I decided that the orchard arch ought to have something edible growing on it,

so

when I ran across 'Red Noodle' (also called 'Chinese Red Noodle') bean in a seed catalog, it

seemed like an interesting option.

I’d grown the green 'Yardlong' bean ( Vigna unguiculata ) in my old garden and

I’d grown the green 'Yardlong' bean (Vigna unguiculata) in my old garden and liked it, but it wasn’t especially ornamental, so a red version sounded intriguing. I had visions of it creating an

effect something like a bead curtain, but it didn’t quite work out that way, because the vines weren’t as dense as I expected.

like a bead curtain, but it didn’t quite work out that way, because the vines weren’t

I think that was just as well, for two reasons. First, the pale purple flowers were always covered with ants and wasps, which made picking difficult and would have made walking through them downright unpleasant. And second, the deep purple-red beans themselves (which reach closer to about 18 inches, rather than a literal yard) were quite creepy-looking: rather like lumpy little snakes.

were quite creepy-looking: rather like lumpy little snakes. Will I grow ‘Red Noodle’ again? Maybe –

Will I grow ‘Red Noodle’ again? Maybe – if only to try tasting the young pods. I never have gotten around to harvesting any of them.

Source for red noodle beans: Territorial Seed Company

Spigarello

When I read seed-catalog descriptions that tell me a plant “tastes just like [fill in the blank],” I have to wonder, well, why don’t I just grow the original plant, rather than the taste-alike? Sometimes, it seems like the substitute might be the easier route, but we all know how shortcuts often have a way of turning out to be disappointing, to say the least.

a way of turning out to be disappointing, to say the least. If I’d put some

If I’d put some effort into getting a good bed of real asparagus going last year, for instance, I’d probably be able to harvest a few stalks this spring, and they’d really be asparagus. Instead, I went for the seemingly simpler route of growing asparagus peas and spent months waiting for hardly a mouthful of pods that weren’t all that asparagus-like anyway.

I’ve made similarly poor plant choices before, so you’d think I’d know better. And yet, I fell for the “tastes just like” line a second time last year, with a plant called spigarello (also spelled spigariello), or Italian leaf broccoli. Last year was also my first year for real broccoli, and I had my doubts about how it would do, so I thought maybe the spigarello would make a good backup. Well, the broccoli turned out great and kept producing sideshoots through the summer, so I didn’t pay much attention to the spigarello until early fall, by which time the broccoli was too wormy to harvest anymore.

By early September, the five spigarello plants I’d started indoors in late March and set

By early September, the five spigarello plants I’d started indoors in late March and set out in early May were about 3 feet tall, and they looked rather more like kale than broccoli plants. But

they sure did have lots of leaves, in a beautiful powdery blue color and in a variety of textures:

Some were tightly crimped and others were smoother and broader. Most importantly, none of them had been bothered by the cabbageworms, so I figured it was time to try them.

I clipped off a handful of the tender, small new leaves, and Mom and I tried them in our salads.

Wonder of wonders: They actually did taste like broccoli! I can’t speak to how they’d taste when cooked, but I do know that they made a great fresh broccoli substitute into December, and at least one of the plants may even have survived the winter. I have plenty of real broccoli already started for this year, but I think I will sow more spigarello too, since it’s handsome enough to be ornamental as well as edible.

Source for spigarello seeds: Johnny's Selected Seeds

Sunberry

I try to grow a few odd edibles each year, and when I recently read an article about Luther Burbank’s garden, it reminded me that I hadn’t yet written about one of this summer's experiments: sunberry.

about one of this summer's experiments: sunberry. Trying to untangle the origin of this plant is

Trying to untangle the origin of this plant is a real challenge. Similar plants are available under a variety of botanical names, including Solanum x burbankii, S. burbankii, S. retroflexum, and S.

melanocerasum, as well as several common names, including garden huckleberry as well as sunberry and wonderberry, Many gardeners who have grown the plant report being disappointed with the lack of flavor, especially if they grew it from seeds sold as S. melanocerasum. I acquired the seeds I grew this year from Seed Savers Exchange, under the names sunberry and S. burbankii. So I guess it would be safest to say that my observations apply only to plants from SSE seeds; your results may vary if you order seeds elsewhere.

I sowed the seeds indoors in late March, under lights and on a heat mat. They germinated and

grew quickly, and they began flowering when they were just a few inches tall, while still in pots.

I planted them outside in late May. By mid-August, they were about 18 inches tall.

in late May. By mid-August, they were about 18 inches tall. Despite leaf damage from flea

Despite leaf damage from flea beetles, they flowered freely for about four months. The white flowers are small and not especially showy.

They certainly do fruit abundantly, though. The fruits stay green for quite a while, then quickly turn a dull, near-black color. The calyx of the fully ripe berries is yellow to brown. Sunberries are very easy to pick: you just tickle the clusters with your fingers, and the ripe berries drop right off into your hand.

I’d read that some people liken the flavor of the pea-sized fruits to that of

I’d read that some people liken the flavor of the pea-sized fruits to that of blueberries. I find them to be mild and pleasant, if a bit seedy, and I enjoy snacking on a handful every few days, but I wouldn’t say that there’s any flavor similarity to blueberries. A few weeks ago, I tried some on a friend and asked her what she thought they tasted like; she immediately said kiwi fruit, and I think that’s a good description. I’ve seen reports that the fruits freeze well, and that they are good for preserves and pies combined with lots of sugar. I’m not much of a cook, so I haven’t tried any of those uses. But I do think they’re tasty used fresh in fruit salads.

Would I grow them again? I’m not sure I’d buy and start the seeds, but

Would I grow them again? I’m not sure I’d buy and start the seeds, but I’m guessing that the plants are going to self-sow freely, and I’ll be happy to have them next year. Honestly, I’d much rather eat the raspberries and blackberries that ripen around the same time, but once I share those sweeter fruits with the yellow jackets and the birds and my alpacas, there usually aren’t many left for me. With sunberries, I never have to wonder if I’m going to get a snack for myself!

Source for sunberry seeds: Seed Savers Exchange

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About the Author

Nancy J. Ondra gardens on four acres in southeastern Pennsylvania, supervised by her two alpacas, Daniel and Duncan. She is the author or co-author of over a dozen gardening books, including:

The Perennial Care Manual: A Plant by Plant Guide (Storey Publishing, 2009) Foliage: Astonishing Color and Texture beyond Flowers (Storey Publishing, 2007) Fallscaping: Extending your Garden Season into Autumn (Storey Publishing, 2007) The Perennial Gardener's Design Primer (Storey Publishing, 2005) Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design (Storey Publishing, 2002)

Connect with Nan at her blog: http://www.hayefield.com