October 24, 2020

Suck on a Firecracker

For plants in my yard, quid-pro-quo has a specific meaning. If you want irrigation, yummy compostables, and protection from the elements, you've got to feed me something healthy and tasty.  You feed me and you won't have an unfortunate accident I'll feed you. 

I've made it my focus to plant and grow edibles in my yard, but I also have a live-and-let-live philosophy for most everything else that I didn't plant. This is primarily a practical response to the poor soil and dramatically inconsistent rainfall that provides the sustenance for much of what grows here. But it goes deeper. My knowledge of common local ornamental and native plants is limited. I have much to learn about what these plants have to offer; some of them are actually edible. I had no idea that the pretty bush with slender, rush-like, weeping stems growing right by my front door held a sweet surprise. 

October 20, 2020

Tour Sarasota Backyard Food Forest

Come with me and explore all the corners of my small-scale food forest. We live in a world filled with the tastes and textures of many foods that most people in the United States have never heard of. And we don't always know how to eat some foods that are oh-so-familiar. Did you know that you can eat broccoli leaves (and that they taste like broccoli florets)? I love to share what I know about these foods and how I grow them. Despite the numerous and voracious pests that call Florida home, I grow all this without herbicides or pesticides. Read more ...

October 14, 2020

Sourpuss? Sour Plus!

Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) hanging in tree
We began planting our mini food forest at the turn of the 21st century. As we embarked on this adventure, we had one key lime tree, probably planted in 1965 when the house was built. This gnarled old beauty, even at about fifty-five years of age, continues to produce fruit year after year. The act of planting a fruit tree demonstrates a certain confidence in the future. We enjoy it in our time and know that we will most likely pass it on to those who come after us. Our key lime tree did more than hold out the promise of key limes. It also showed us that the contrived pile of sand and shell we were living on could also provide us some food. 

October 6, 2020

Inviting the Purslanes Over

Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
I didn't so much come to common purslane as it came to me. It is a wild edible that grows almost everywhere around the globe, including disturbed sunny spots in my yard as well as cracks in my lanai's concrete deck. It tastes pretty good, is drought tolerant, and grows like a weed. Actually, many people call it a weed. When looking into its nutritional value, I was shocked to find claims that it has the highest level of ALA omega-3 fatty acids of any vegetable source. This is an intriguing claim as I'm not sure that vegetables are even a good source of omega-3s. Purslane is also on the extraordinary side of high when it comes to antioxidants, e.g. seven times as much Vitamin E as spinach. With all this hullabaloo about its fantastic nutritional profile, I wanted to eat more purslane.

September 28, 2020

Alligator Pears

Avocado (Persea americana) has experienced a spectacular rise in popularity over the last couple of decades. With that have come reports of environmental degradation, sprawling monocultures, and pumping so much water that nearby residents must import their water. Quite the opposite is true in my small forest garden. In addition to eating avocados without the associated guilt, I reap the benefit of a fruit/vegetable that hangs around for quite a while in the ready-to-pick state. Unlike bananas or figs, which wait for no one, those tasty and nutritious avocados will wait for weeks on the tree. To top it all off, I get a kick out of telling people that I'm growing alligator pears, a rather provocative alias.

After moving to Florida, I bought a nice looking, smooth-skinned, bright green avocado at the supermarket, representative of Florida-grown varieties. Unlike most of the Florida varieties I had previously tasted, it was quite creamy. I have seen liquid drip out of some Florida avocados, they are so watery. I commented to my sweetheart how much I liked the taste. He decided to reenact a science experiment from elementary school. He stuck three toothpicks in the pit and suspended the pit in the mouth of a water-filled jar. The pit eventually sprouted and then grew quickly.

September 21, 2020

Lucky Number 7 and the Anatomy of a Salad

We humans are able to find a meal in almost any ecosystem. The Inuit, who inhabit various arctic regions, traditionally got as much as 99% of their calories from seals, narwhals, and fish. Other than the Inuit, most diets historically have relied on plant-based foods. Some groups ate/eat a completely vegetarian regimen, such as the Jains in India. Hunter-gatherer societies were/are heavily reliant on plants, because meat isn't always available. Let's face it; even the best hunters sometimes come home empty-handed. From a nutritional perspective, the garden can offer a significantly broader selection of food choices than supermarket shelves. Left to your own devices in your own garden and kitchen, you might focus on growing foods solely based on taste. But, if you choose nutrition as a focus, how should you go about deciding what to grow?

September 13, 2020

Sea Grape: a Fine Florida Native

An enchanting sea grape tunnel
Florida native fruits are even rarer than the rare native Floridian. Oranges came from China via Spain. Everglades tomatoes came from Peru courtesy of the colleagues of the conquistadores who brought the oranges. Sixty-four percent of Florida residents, me included, came to Florida from elsewhere. In my garden, with dozens of fruit varieties, the sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) is the lone Florida native fruit. As befits its native status, it is markedly hardy. Sea grapes are impressively drought-tolerant. They can withstand hurricane force winds. They don't mind salty soil or salt spray. Their fallen leaves create a carpet of brown discs in the general vicinity of the tree, making their own mulch. And they provide habitat and food for our native wildlife. 

Adding a sea grape to a landscape can provide a tropical look with little effort. A sea grape can showcase a bit of sculptural whimsy - trees with rugged, twisted trunks or protective archways letting in delicate light. A sea grape can make a striking shade tree, with its round, wide, evergreen leaves. On the east coast of Florida at the Blowing Rocks Preserve, sea grapes run along the beach arching overhead to form a tunnel tall enough to walk through. If pruned to a purpose, sea grapes can make a dense hedge, an effective noise barrier, or a coastal windbreak. 

September 6, 2020

Experimenting with Cuban Oregano

I shook my head in amazement, as I climbed back to my feet. I had just been knocked over by the flavor blast from my first taste of Cuban oregano. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. Including herbs in my garden connects me with cultural and medicinal traditions that span centuries. And yet there are many I have never even heard of. Count Cuban oregano among the latter. It looks like a succulent with its fleshy leaves, but it tastes something like oregano and has a powerful aroma. Best of all, it grows very nicely in my well-drained, dry, sandy ground, while attracting no pests.

Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) is not a true oregano and is actually a member of the mint family. So the first question is whether it can be used in much the same way as common oregano. The answer is a resounding yes. You can use it to flavor tomato sauce for pizza and pasta. You can soak it in olive oil to make a classic vinaigrette. You can chop it very fine and add it as a topping for soup or stew. Chop it up with parsley for a fine garnish for hearty vegetables such as cauliflower, eggplant, or zucchini. Just remember to tread lightly, until you know how much to add. 

Given the fleshy quality of the leaf, I felt there must be other uses to consider for this potent herb. I cut up slivers of a large leaf to add to my salad. In such a small quantity, its lovely aroma gently permeates the bowl of greens and adds fun occasional bites of flavor. 

August 30, 2020

Let's Drink to Ginger

A Ginger Fizz

I grew up associating ginger with ginger snaps, ginger ale for an upset stomach, and ginger chicken at our family's favorite Chinese restaurant. These are fond memories, but ginger (Zingiber officinale), and particularly fresh ginger, offers so much more. For most of my life, I used ginger exclusively in dried powder form. Fresh ginger was a foreign concept to me, until I grew my own. Now, with fresh ginger from my own garden, I especially like ginger's zesty contribution to beverages - think soda, smoothies, tea, and kombucha. The motto Expect the Unexpected comes to mind.

Let's start with ginger soda. Mass-produced soda tends to be super sweet with artificial flavors and colors. When you make your own soda, you have total control over all the ingredients. By reframing soda this way, you can turn soda into a healthier drink. You can combine flavors. You can leave out the sugar. You can experiment. My sweetheart makes a ginger-infused simple syrup that we keep handy in the refrigerator. We combine it with carbonated water to make what we call a Ginger Fizz. 

August 23, 2020

A Handsome Pile

There is so much foliage here, 
the 3' x 7' brush pile is hardly
noticeable. Can you find it?

I like a well-kept landscape around my house, but when I mimic Mother Nature, I generally end up with a bit of mess. For example, we have a policy that if it grows on our property, it stays on our property. Rather than considering vegetative debris as waste, we embrace it as a resource to help build up our soil. Rather than bringing in nutrients from somebody else's ecosystem in order to feed our plants, we try to use what we have on hand. Brush piles are an excellent example of waste-turned-resource, but they can be a bit of an eyesore. So what's an environmentally sensitive gardener to do?

When Hurricane Irma roared through Florida three years ago, it left a massive debris field in our backyard. One third of our big avocado tree came down. We created a long brush pile next to the avocado tree. This location had a couple of inherent advantages. First, we didn't have to haul anything very far. This could be interpreted as using less energy or exerting less effort, but it is the praxis side of the save-my-aching-back gardening philosophy. Second, placing the pile near its source meant that the nutrients incorporated in the avocado tree branches would now return to the soil from whence they came. A cycle fulfilled, as nature intended. We let the spirit of a natural forest guide us, but neatened it up a bit. Eventually, we covered it with wood chips. 

August 15, 2020

Salad, Pickles, or Skyscrapers?

What looks like an elongated watermelon, is shorter than my index finger, and is sometimes referred to as a perennial cucumber? If you know the answer, then you may be from the Indian subcontinent where it is grown and eaten widely. Its scientific name is Coccinia grandis, but we generally call it tindora or ivy gourd in Florida.

By way of introduction, tindora is juicy and crunchy like a cucumber. It is a bit more crisp and tart with a stronger overall flavor. Unlike a cucumber, tindora stands up well to cooking. It doesn't turn to mush and it retains its color. The plant is quite handsome with its graceful, curling tendrils and ivy-like leaves. Different parts of the plant have medicinal properties that are still being explored by modern science. Finally, in the right climate, a tindora vine is easy to grow, albeit with a few important caveats. 

Before going any further, it is important to note that I grow a sterile variety of tindora. Thank you Andy F, plant expert and collector extraordinaire, for introducing me to tindora and giving me a sterile plant. The seeds do not germinate. Although new roots may grow where the vine touches the ground, birds do not distribute viable seeds, because there aren't any. I understand that varieties with viable seeds are an invasive problem in other areas. I only recommend the sterile cultivars. 

August 8, 2020

Delight your Senses, Awaken your Memories

Rosemary has been cultivated throughout recorded history. In fact, the word for rosemary has been found carved into a cuneiform stone tablet from 5000 BC. After such a long run, you'd think there would be nothing left to write about it.  Still and all, long histories have a way of being interesting in and of themselves. Here is a cultural tidbit worthy of mention. Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus and previously Rosmarinus officinalis) made its way around the Old World, arriving in English medicinal herbal writings in the eighth century. It became a symbol for fidelity, fertility, and happiness. It was widely cultivated in English kitchen gardens and came to be associated with women. In The Treasury of Botany (1870), John Lindley writes,

'There is a vulgar belief in Gloucestershire and other counties, that Rosemary will not grow well unless where the mistress is "master"; and so touchy are some of the lords of creation upon this point, that we have more than once had reason to suspect them of privately injuring a growing rosemary in order to destroy this evidence of their want of authority.' 

Rosemary does grow particularly lushly at my house; so, please don’t mention this mind-set to my sweetheart.

I bought my first rosemary plant at a natural foods store on a whim. I was subsequently gifted two beautiful rosemary plants on two separate occasions based on two additional cultural traditions, which I will elaborate on shortly. I planted the first plant near the house in an unirrigated spot. The literature assured me that rosemary is a hardy plant that tolerates heat, prefers dry soil, and, to put a point on it, suffers if there is insufficient drainage. With sandy soil and occasional downpours, I was good to go. The plant prospered. Occasionally, where a branch touched the ground, it would set down roots. Then a hot summer came with no rain for a couple weeks at a time. The needle-like leaves yellowed and died back, as did my lawn. Contrary to my usual practice, I hand watered the rosemary; I left the lawn to fend for itself. Rosemary may be hardy, but perhaps not hardy enough for Florida's hot summer combined with bouts of droughts.

August 2, 2020

Perfume of Paradise

Green sugar apple tree with hidden fruit
My sweetheart wrote some sugar apple inspired poetry -

  smooth black seeds slip loose from what I seek,
  the yielding sweetness of their white robe,
  a rare sensation, eating sweet perfume,
  a perfume that sings a promise of paradise.

Some fruits are so sweet, juicy, and flavorful that, before I even get to them, pests and critters devour them on the tree. I count the sugar apple (Annona squamosa) as a paragon of such flavor. And yet my sugar apples don't have any significant pest or disease problems. The part you eat is the inner white flesh. It is creamy in both color and texture. A sugar apple makes for messy eating with quite a few seeds, but its aromatic, creamy sweetness keeps me coming back for more. 

July 26, 2020

Wonderful World of Wood Chips

Thibault - international visitor and
wood chip spreader extraordinaire

It's time for Jeopardy. 
  • The category is Soil
  • The answer is This readily available material improves most soils.
The question is, What are Wood Chips?

Twenty years ago, I ordered my first monster load of wood chips from FPL, our electric company. FPL is responsible for keeping their electrical lines clear. They remove vegetation, send it through the chipper, and deliver the resulting wood chips to customers free of charge. I planned to use the wood chips as a mulch, to cover bare ground. Mulch is wondrous. It can be made from more or less any organic material (and even inorganic material, but then it's not so wondrous). I had tried mulching with palm fronds, which seemed to fall in enough abundance that I was able to spread them out and cover the backyard. Unfortunately, the weeds zigzagged in and around the fronds, until they found some sunlight. The palm fronds simply made the weeds harder to pull up. With wood chips, I planned to spread them four to six inches deep. I wanted a thick layer of mulch to help keep moisture in the ground a little longer and to control the weeds. Over time, I hoped they would decompose and add some fertility to my scrawny soil. 

That was the sum total of my plan. Bring in wood chips, spread them, and wait. But my vision was much larger than that. Why is it that everything that most of us touch turns to waste in precious little time?

July 18, 2020

You Can Grow Loofah?

Loofah flowers, fruit & leaves
Many people use a loofah sponge to exfoliate their skin. When I ask folks what a loofah is and where it comes from, I invariably hear something along the lines of “It's a spongy thing that lives in the ocean.” I harbored the same misconception, until I learned that I could grow it in my bathtub. Just kidding! Loofahs are a member of the cucurbit (cucumber) family. They have been cultivated for thousands of years in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. In many regions, the mature fruits come in handy as sponges, dishcloths, hat padding, filters, healing extracts, and even mattresses. Often unnoticed amid loofah's intriguing repertoire of uses is the fact that you can eat it.

What does loofah taste like? Before I answer, keep in mind that you have to pick them young, before the fruit starts creating all the fiber that eventually makes it spongy. Also, keep in mind that I have only tasted the variety that I grow. I grow a smooth skinned variety (scientific name is probably Luffa aegyptiaca). There are ridged varieties that reputedly taste a bit sweeter. When young, the smooth skinned loofah looks something like a zucchini and can be used in the same manner. Its skin is crisper and more noticeable. As it ages, the skin gets bitter and thickens, as, sad to say, some people do. Under the skin, the flesh is mild tasting. It is somewhat soft and pliant. I would call it squeezable, also like a good number of people.