Category Archives: Edibles

It All Started With Seeds

Saving various types of lima beans and their names and stories

I read a phrase that is so true: “It all starts with the seed. The seeds take care of us.” We rely on seeds, thus plants, to feed, clothe, and shelter us. But these seeds in turn rely on us. Our cultivated plants (not wild grown but grown in gardens and farms) depend on human care. If we do not preserve a species it will become extinct. If no one grows a plant and saves the seed, the plant and its genetic material will not exist anymore.

The Importance of Seeds

Because seeds are fundamentally important to our survival, saving seeds, especially open pollinated, heirloom seeds, is vital. Plants make up 80 percent of our diet. On an agricultural level, saving seeds preserves genetic diversity. Breeders can tap into a large genetic pool for improved crops and pest/disease resistant crops. Saving seeds of various plants ensures crop diversity so that one pest/disease does not wipe out one crop. Saving seeds of plants that have adapted to a local area helps to become resilient to climate change.

Sharing saved seeds at a seed swap

On a home gardener level, saving seeds saves money. One can exchange seeds at seed swaps or pass down seeds to future generations. Over time, saving seed from plants that have done well in the garden saves plants that have adapted well to the region. This may help with climatic change. Saving seed also increases the diversity of plants grown. There is more of a choice, more of a variety to choose from for better flavor, time of harvest, or plant type. Saving seeds also saves the memories and stories from previous generations and the lineage of heirlooms.

However, each year, as seed are not saved, plants become extinct. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 75 percent of global food diversity has become extinct in the past 100 years. Of just 20 plants used for global food production in 2014, only 9 accounted for more than 66 percent of all crop production. Only five cereal grains make up 60 percent of our calories. In the past century we have lost more than 90 percent of our seed diversity. Thousands of plant species are no longer available, and we continue to lose them every day. Yet biodiversity is essential to food and agriculture and provides us and plants with resilience.

Seed Saving Initiatives

Grandpa Ott’s morning glory

Fortunately, there are seed saving initiatives across the world to save seeds for future generations. One American organization, Seed Savers Exchange, has several programs that are extremely useful and helpful to home gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) began in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy. Diane’s grandfather gave them seeds of Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and German Pink tomato which were brought by Grandpa Ott’s parents from Bavaria when they immigrated to Iowa in the 1870’s. Diane knew that with her grandfather’s passing, unless the seed were grown and saved, they would be lost. She reached out to like-minded people interested in saving and sharing heirloom seeds and gradually formed a network.

Seed Savers Exchange

German Pink tomato

Today, SSE is a non-profit organization in Decorah, Iowa, with more than 13,000 members. Its mission is to “conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.”

The SSE maintains a seed bank with 18,000 to 20,000 varieties at their headquarters in Iowa. They also send seed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seed vault at Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

“At SSE, we store seeds at zero degrees Fahrenheit and 20 percent humidity. Under these conditions, certain seed can last up to 100 years,” said Philip Kauth, Ph.D., Director of Preservation.

To give an idea of the number of varieties that can exist within one plant, Philip said that currently the SSE collection has 6,000 tomatoes. There are 3,000 types on the market that are commercially available. “We have 1,100 varieties of corn but the USDA has 20,000 varieties of corn. We also have 6,000 varieties of beans.” What makes SSE unique is that they also maintain the seed’s history. “We put a lot of emphasis on stories. We preserve the varieties and their histories as well as evaluation data on their performance as a plant.”

The Seed Exchange

Anyone, including home gardeners, may access some of these varieties through the Seed Exchange. The Seed Exchange is a free online database of seeds, basically a seed swap. Anyone can offer or obtain open pollinated seeds to grow in their garden. It does not cost money to view this database; however, in order to list or request seed a free account must be established. If reading hard copy is preferable, there is an annual catalog called the Yearbook that can be ordered for a fee. The Seed Exchange has more than 11,000 varieties of homegrown, open pollinated vegetable, flower, and herb seed. Once people obtain and grow these, they can save and re-sow the seed (hence have them for a long time) or even save and share the seed with friends and family. The Seed Exchange also includes potato tubers, garlic bulbs, apple tree cuttings, and other non-seed material.

Field crew harvesting beans

Today, a quick look at the Seed Exchange reveals 9,563 varieties of tomatoes. Some entries have short descriptions, some long, and some have photos. For example, the description for the Silvery Fir Tree tomato is a “compact (18 – 24 inches high) with unusual, delicate, lacy leaves. In Russian, it is called ‘Serebristaya El’ .. it is an old Russian variety that was introduced to American seed savers in the early 1990s by Marina Danilenko, pioneering private seed seller from Moscow during the Perestroika-era.”

There are 38 entries for spinach including a broad leaved prickly seed spinach “described by Albertus Magnus, a Catholic saint from Germany, in 1260, has been commercially available in the US since at least 1806, and was planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1809 and 1812.”

SSE also sells seed, people can order online and from a free catalog. SSE makes about 600 varieties available commercially to the public when inventory of seed is high enough to meed the demand. The revenue from the seed sales, as well as donations and memberships, maintain the organization’s seed collection and promote and encourage the tradition of saving and sharing seed.

Trial beds at Heritage Farm

Seed Savers Exchange Projects

Other interesting SSE projects are Seed Rematriation (identifying and growing plants grown by indigenous communities in order to obtain and save the seeds); SeedLinked, a seed data platform connecting people with information on varieties from other gardeners/farmers; and the Community Seed Network, which engages hundreds of people across the United States and Canada to connect, share, and learn about seeds. The SSE also provides free seed to schools, community groups, and people in need via the Herman’s Garden and Disaster Relief Seed Donation programs.

Heritage Farm

The SSE is a destination point — hundreds of gardeners, horticulturists, and seed savers visit the headquarters, known as Heritage Farm, each year. The public is encouraged to visit the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center and Gift and Garden store, walk through display gardens, including an apple orchard with 900 varieties of apple trees, and attend events such as a seed swap, an heirloom plant sale, a seed school, a tomato tasting, and a harvest festival. And if that isn’t enough, there is always the Robert Becker Memorial Library with 6,000 volumes covering agriculture, horticulture, and biodiversity. And to think it all started with seeds of a morning glory and a tomato.

All photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Celebrate National Hot Tea Day with Lemon Balm

lemon_balm (2)Out of all the herbal teas, lemon balm tea taste most like black tea, without the caffeine. I use the leaves for hot or iced tea either alone or as a base to which I add more pronounced fruity flavors from other plants. In the spring and summer, I pick the leaves as I need them or shear the entire plant down.  The plant revives quickly and a second shearing can be done before the fall. The leaves dry well so I can make lemon balm tea all year round.

One of the easiest herbs to grow, lemon balm is a perennial bush grown for its lemon scented leaves. Lemon balm thrives in morning sun and afternoon shade in my Virginia garden. Hardy to zone 4, lemon balm co-exists well with other plants in the garden, serving as a beautiful green “landscape edible” but also as a pollinator plant. Its botanical name, Melissa officinalis, refers to the bee attracting white flowers (“Melissa” is Greek for “bee”) and long-serving medicinal qualities (“officinalis” refers to historical medicinal value). Actually, lemon balm’s medicinal value has been known for more than 2,000 years but for my family I tend to focus on lemon balm’s culinary uses. Fresh leaves add lemon flavor in baked goods like pound cake, muffins, scones, and cookies. Lemon balm can also be added to fruit salad, sorbets, butter, cheese, fish, and chicken dishes.

Lemon balm is easy to grow from seed but also cheap to buy as a small plant in the spring. If a friend has it, get a stem cutting and root it in water. As a member of the mint family, lemon balm roots easily but this species is not invasive. Try growing lemon balm to brew a hot cup of tea to celebrate National Hot Tea Day!

New Downy Mildew Resistant Basil Plants on the Market

Devotion Basil

Basil lovers are in luck this year. There are four new sweet basil varieties that are resistant to downy mildew. Downy mildew disease has affected basil for a decade now, destroying the leaves so much that gardeners have to throw away their infected basil plants.

The four new downy mildew resistant (DMR) basils developed by Rutgers University are Rutgers Devotion DMR, Rutgers Obsession DMR, Rutgers Passion DMR, and Rutgers Thunderstruck DMR.

Downy mildew disease was first reported in Florida in October 2007. It has since spread to field-grown and home-grown plants across the country. The disease appears as yellow leaves and a gray cotton appearance under the leaves (the spores). There is no treatment since these plants were meant to be eaten. Gardeners must throw the plants away at first sign to prevent infection of other plants.

Sweet basil has been more susceptible to the disease than Thai, lemon, lime, and the spice types of basil. This suggests that these other basils are genetically resistant to downy mildew. Researchers at Rutgers spent many years crossing sweet basil with these plants in order to provide the sweet basil with the same resistant genetic makeup. These basils were developed through traditional crossbreeding efforts, not genetic engineering. The four Rutger varieties still look, grow, and taste like sweet basil and can be grown in the garden or in containers. There is the possibility that home gardeners may see some disease spores under the leaves and yellow discoloration on the upper side but all they must do is snip off these leaves. The entire plant does not have to be thrown out.

Obsession Basil

Basil is an annual herb, easily grown from seed. In the Washington DC metro area, start growing basil outside after the last frost, usually mid-May. Basil likes full sun, warmth, and well-drained soil. The plants can benefit from fertilizer mid-summer especially if they are being harvested often. Basil should be harvested or pruned to encourage branching and more foliage and to prevent flowering. Home gardeners can find the Rutgers Devotion DMR and Rutgers Obsession DMR from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Stokes Seeds.

Photos courtesy of Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

Local Resources for Gardeners Interested in Culinary Herbs

According to the Herb Society of America, herbs are “plants (trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, biennials, or annuals) valued historically, presently, or potentially for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualities, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide.” I am particularly interested in “plants valued for their flavor,” i.e., culinary herbs. This is a work-in-progress guide to culinary herbs resources in the Washington DC metropolitan area.

The following are the local public herb gardens, sources for buying herbs, societies, magazines, and books. The asterisk indicates that the locations listed also offer herb events, classes, and workshops. This is not all inclusive, there are other groups and businesses such as master gardeners and nurseries that provide herbal presentations. These are listed on my local monthly events tab on pegplant.com.

Public Herb Gardens

National Herb Garden, U.S. National Arboretum, Washington DC*

National Library of Medicine’s Herb Garden, Bethesda, Maryland

Green Spring Gardens (Potomac Unit donated the Doris Frost Herb Garden in 1995), Alexandria, Virginia*

Meadowlark Botanical Garden’s Herb Garden, Vienna, Virginia*

U.S. Botanic Garden and the Bartholdi Park, Washington DC*

The Bishops Garden at the National Cathedral, Washington DC.

The Franciscan Monastery’s garden, Washington DC (annual plant and herb sale in April)

The Green Farmacy Garden, Fulton, MD*

Plant and Seed Sources

See pegplant.com for a list of nurseries and a list of seed sources. Most local nurseries sell herbs in the spring. Two nurseries that specialize in herbs are Debaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery in Chantilly, VA, which is only open from spring to mid-summer; and Willow Oak Flower and Herb Garden* in Severn, MD.

The Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America sells herbs at the Friends of the National Arboretum plant sale at the U.S. National Arboretum in DC, in April.

The Franciscan Monastery has an herb and plant sale in April.

The Baltimore Herb Festival is in May at the Leakin Park, Baltimore, MD.

Blooming Hill Lavender Farm specializes in lavender and has an annual lavender festival in June as well as other herb-related events throughout the year, Purceville, VA.*

Smile Herb Shop, College Park, MD.*

Societies

The Herb Society of America, Ohio. The website has many resources and a library of webinars.

The Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America is the local unit for the Washington DC metro area. There is a membership form on the website or come to a meeting as a guest.

Magazines

The Essential Herbal magazine (a website, blog, magazine).

Herb Companion was bought by Mother Earth Living which keeps the content on their website. Herb Quarterly, can subscribe or buy at Barnes & Noble.

Culinary Herb Books, chronological order

Botanical Baking: Contemporary Baking and Cake Decorating with Edible Flowers and Herbs by Juliet Sear, 2019

The Herbalist’s Healing Kitchen: Using the Power of Food to Cook Your Way to Better Health by Devon Young, 2019

The Kitchen Herb Garden: Growing and Preparing Essential Herbs by Rosalind Creasy, 2019

Grow Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker, 2019

Beyond Rosemary, Basil and Thyme: Unusual, Interesting and Uncommon Herbs to Enjoy by Theresa Mieseler, 2019

The Herbal Kitchen: Bringing Lasting Health to You and Your Family with 50 Easy-to-Find Common Herbs and Over 250 Recipes by Kami McBride, 2019

A Taste for Herbs: Your Guide to Seasoning, Mixes and Blends from the Herb Lover’s Garden by Sue Goetz, 2019

Herbal Handbook for the Homesteaders: Farmed and Foraged Herbal Remedies and Recipes by Abby Artemisia, 2019

The Art of Edible Flowers: Recipes and Ideas for Floral Salads, Drinks, Desserts and More by Rebecca Sullivan, 2018

The Herbalist’s Kitchen: Cooking and Healing with Herbs by Pat Crocker, 2018

The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion: The Ultimate Guide to Growing, Preserving and Using Herbs by Amy K. Fewell, 2018

The Art of Cooking with Lavender by Nancy Baggett, 2016

The Culinary Herbal: Growing and Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker, 2016

Homegrown Herb Garden: A Guide to Growing and Culinary Uses by Lisa Baker Morgan and Ann McCormick, 2015

Cooking with Flowers: Sweet and Savory Recipes with Rose Petals, Lilacs, Lavender and Other Edible Flowers by Miche Bacher and Miana Jun, 2013

Edible Flowers: 25 Recipes and an A-Z Pictorial Directory of Culinary Flora by Kathy Brown, 2012

Eat Your Roses: … Pansies, Lavender and 49 other Delicious Edible Flowers by Denise Schreiber, 2011

Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs by Herb Society of America, edited by Katherine K. Schlosser, 2007

The Edible Flower Garden by Kathy Brown, 1999

Edible Flower Garden by Rosalind Creasy, 1999

Edible Flowers: Desserts and Drinks by Cathy Wilkinson Barash, 1997

Living with Herbs: A Treasury of Useful Plants for the Home and Garden by Jo Ann Gardner 1997

Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate by Cathy Wilkinson Barash, paperback 1995; hardback 1993

Herbal Treasures: Inspiring Month-by-Month Projects for Gardening, Cooking and Crafts by Phyllis Shaudys, 1990

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, 1987

The Pleasure of Herbs: A Month-by-Month Guide to Growing, Using and Enjoying Herbs by Phyllis Shaudys, 1986

Fennel: A Multitasking Herb

fennel in the summer with caterpillar in right corner

I grow fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in my Virginia garden for many reasons. As an accent in the garden, fennel grow easily from seed to a few feet tall. Sometimes, they are erect and sometimes they bend from weight to weave among the perennials and shrubs. Their tubular stems mingle with the pumpkin vines on the ground or rest on top of the chrysanthemum shrubs while their green, fern-like foliage peak through the zinnias.

Throughout the summer, I can harvest the foliage for use in the kitchen. The leaves have an anise flavor and are good for flavoring fish and chicken dishes and root vegetables. Snips of the foliage can be sprinkled on salads, soup, eggs, and tuna salad sandwiches.

In the summer, the fennel blooms with large, star-burst like structures, comprising many small yellow flowers. These attract beneficial insects and pollinators, good for the rest of my garden. Sometimes, I clip the flower heads for floral arrangements but I always let some flowers go to seed.

In the fall, I clip the seed heads and put them in a paper bag. I save some seeds for sowing next year and some for the kitchen. The seeds have medicinal qualities (the foliage does not) and are often served at the end of the meal in restaurants to help with digestion and to freshen the breath. Eating the seeds or making a tea from the seeds can relieve flatulence, bloating, gas, indigestion, cramps, and muscle spasms. Fennel seeds are also called “meeting seeds” because when the Puritans had long church sermons they chewed on the seeds to suppress hunger and fatigue.

fennel as a filler in the garden

In the kitchen, seed can be used whole or ground or toasted in a dry frying pan. Seeds can be used as a spice for baking sweets, breads, and crackers, or in sausage, or herbal vinegars and pickling. The seeds have the same anise flavor but are so sweet, they taste like they are sugar-coated. For me it is like eating small candies, especially tasty after drinking coffee.

I also grow fennel for the caterpillar form of the black swallowtail butterflies. The caterpillars love to eat the foliage and it makes me happy to grow food for them and to support the butterfly population.

Sometimes the fennel comes back the next year, it really depends on the winter. I have heard that in warmer climates it gets out of control but in my zone 7 garden, it has not been an issue. After a hard freeze, when I am cleaning up the garden, I cut back the old fennel stalks revealing new foliage at the base. In December, the new foliage is just as lush and green, providing me with more fennel for my recipes as well as a nice garnish for holiday meals.

fennel seeds in the fall with the mums

Fennel is easy to grow from seed and should be sowed directly in the garden. The plants have a tap root and do not like to be transplanted. The plants prefer full sun but can tolerate some shade and they need well-drained soil. Treat them like summer annuals and sow seeds every year.

fennel in December

I should point out that there are two types, Foeniculum vulgare, which is the leafy one I grow, and Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce, which is the bulbing type. I have grown the bulbing type before but not for the accents it provides in the garden bed. The bulbing type is a shorter plant with a bulbous base so it is harvested for the bulb before it flowers and sets seed. The bulb is often sliced fresh for salads or cooked with fish and vegetables. One could consider the bronze fennel a third type, it grows like the leafy fennel only it is a dark bronze color, not bright green. Bronze fennel also can be used in the kitchen.

In the kitchen, use the foliage for:

  • green salads
  • fruit salad (nectarine/apricot)
  • egg dishes
  • soup and chowders
  • chicken salad or tuna salad
  • Dips and cream sauces
  • yeast breads
  • fish, put a fish filet on bed of leaves and broil or mix leaves with butter and drizzle over the fish
  • vegetables such as root vegetables, peas and potatoes
  • Combine with parsley, chervil, and thyme or make a fennel, parsley, thyme and lemon juice rub for white fish

Seeds can be used for:

  • Fish soup/stock
  • Cucumber salads
  • Soft cheeses
  • Bread/biscuits/crackers
  • Sausage mixtures and pork dishes
  • Pickling vegetables
  • Marinades for meat
  • Bean, couscous, lentil or bulgur wheat dishes
  • Potato salad
  • Dry rubs or spice blends/powders

Celebrate National Cookie Day with Herbal Cookie Recipes!

December 4 is #nationalcookieday so here are three recipes for cookies that include herbs!

Lemon Thyme Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

¾ cup sugar

2 ¾ cup all-purpose flour

½ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp salt

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves

2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

1 egg

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Optional Icing: 2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest, 2 cups confectioner’s sugar, and 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

thyme

Directions: In large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt, set aside. In another large bowl, beat butter and sugar with mixer and then beat in thyme and 2 teaspoons lemon zest. Add egg and vanilla. Reduce mixer speed and add flour mixture. Roll dough into 1 ½ inch diameter logs, wrap, and place in freezer for 30 minutes. Line baking sheets with parchment paper, slice 1/8-inch rounds and place on sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

When cookies have cooled, can top with icing. Mix the confectioners’ sugar, fresh lemon juice, and 2 tsp. of lemon zest and spoon over cookies.

Herbal Shortbread Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, cut up and at room temperature

½ cup sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ tsp salt

1 tbsp. herb of choice: try calendula petals, lavender flowers, rosemary, or lemon balm

calendula

Directions: Beat together butter and sugar, add flour, salt, and herb. Mix and then roll out onto floured surface, so is about ¼ to ½ inch thick. Cut shapes such as circles and then put on ungreased baking sheet, bake at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes.

Lavender Cookies

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1 ¼ cups self-rising flour

1 tbsp dried lavender flowers, crush with mortar and pestle

Pinch salt

lavender

Directions: Cream butter, sugar, and salt and then add flour and lavender. Mix and let sit in fridge for a few hours. Then place dough onto floured surface, roll to 1/3-inch thick Cut into circles and place on greased baking sheet, bake at for 400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.

lemon thyme cookies courtesy of Tonya LeMone at Perennial Gardens, Utah.

Get Your Veggies by Growing Microgreens

mustard microgreens

Now that winter is coming, you can still grow your greens, just indoors. Growing microgreens is a fun, cheap way to grow nutritious vegetable seedlings for sandwiches, wraps, soup, and salads. Microgreens are the shoots of edible plants, requiring very little space and minimal cost.

Microgreens differ from sprouts. With microgreens, the seed germinates in a growing medium and after one or two weeks, the “micro” stems and leaves are cut down to the soil level and eaten. Sprouts are seeds grown in a moist container—no soil. After a few days, the entire sprout–root and seed–is harvested and eaten.

Although there are microgreen kits for sale, a cheap way to grow them is by reusing the plastic containers from the grocery store, such as clam shells for berries, baked goods, and Chinese food containers. Poke a few holes for drainage and fill with bagged, sterile, soilless growing medium, not soil from the garden. The mix specifically made for starting seeds works best. Fill the container with 2 inches of mix and water thoroughly.

radish seeds germinate in 24 hours

The best seed for microgreens germinate quickly and produce tasty shoots and leaves. There is no such thing as a microgreen seed; microgreen is really a stage in which the plant is harvested. However, you may find seed packages sold as “microgreens” because the package is a mix with similar germination rates. Popular seed are kale, mizuna, mustard, radish, carrot, cress, arugula, basil, onion, chive, broccoli, fennel, sweet pea, celery, bok choy, and Asian greens. Local independent garden centers carry these seed packets or order online from any of these companies.

Because seed germinate and grow at different rates, it is best to use one type per container. Cover the surface with seeds and press down with your fingers to put them in direct contact with the moisture. Place the container on top of a tray to catch the excess water. Cover with another container to increase the humidity level and warmth. Always label containers with the plants’ names and keep records so you learn how soon you can harvest and what you like to eat.

radish microgreens in five days

After the seeds germinate, remove the cover and provide light via grow lights, fluorescent tubes, or a south facing window. If you do not have a very sunny window, you may have to rotate the container for the stems to grow straight. If the top level of the soil dries out, water by either misting the top or putting the container in a pan of water so the water is absorbed via the bottom drainage holes.

The first set of “leaves” you will see will not be the true leaves. They will be the cotyledons or the seed leaf within the embryonic seed. If the plant grew outside for the mature fruit or vegetable, these would eventually shrivel and disappear. For many microgreens, you can harvest at this stage because there is plenty of flavor in these “leaves” and stems. For example, you can harvest radishes at this stage because you will taste plenty of spice and the stems will be crisp.

With some plants, you wait until the second set of “leaves” appear, which will be the first set of true leaves. For example, you will want to harvest cilantro at this stage because you get more flavor in the true leaf. At this point, the seedling is probably 2 inches tall.

Harvest by cutting straight across with scissors a centimeter above soil line. You can cut what you need and wash or cut all of it, wash, dry, and refrigerate in a plastic bag for a few days.

Growing microgreens is fun and easy. The more you determine the flavors you like the more you can set up a system where you are sowing seeds on a weekly basis to feed your family nutritious and colorful vegetables year round.

Chives: A Perennial Herb for the Kitchen

chive plant in November, after hard freeze

We had a hard freeze a few days ago and my chive plant still looks great. I cut some foliage, washed with cold water, and snipped little pieces to add to our pierogies. That is what I love about herbs: you can just pop in to the garden, cut a few leaves, and add a punch of flavor and a dash of color to your dishes.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are a must in the garden. They are foot-tall, perennial herbs that can be incorporated within a garden bed, taking up little space. Although chive foliage will die back in the winter, they are one of the first herbs to emerge in early March and are still looking good now in November despite the freeze. Chives are also easy to grow and easy to divide. From one plant, you can divide again next spring to create more for the garden or to give away to friends.

chopped chives on pierogies

Although chives can be grown in a container in the summer, I have mine in my garden bed, which is in part shade with soil that is on the moist side. Usually we are harvesting the foliage for the onion flavor but the pink-lavender, clover-like flowers are edible as well.

In my family we prefer to cut fresh chives for potato and egg dishes, rice, chicken, tacos, quesadillas, and tomato soup. We also make chive butter by stirring in chopped chives to soft butter – butter that has been sitting at room temperature. We refrigerate the herb butter in a container or wrap into a log and freeze. This can be done with soft cheeses as well.

about to mix chopped chives with butter

The chive foliage can be preserved in the freezer, dried, or in ice cubes. Chive foliage and flowers can be used in herbal vinegars. Chives are so versatile in the kitchen and so easy to grow in the garden, there is no reason not to have them in your garden.

chive butter, rolled for freezing and to later give as a gift

American Heritage: Native Paw Paw Trees

Paw paw flowers in the spring

It’s paw paw season! Paw paws (Asimina triloba) are native trees that bear fruit in August, September, and October. Fruit of cultivated trees look very similar to mangos—green, kidney-shaped, and about 6 inches long and 3 inches wide. They have a variety of common names such as Indiana banana, poor man’s banana, and bandango. When cut in half, the interior reveals a yellow, custard-like pulp with two rows of large seeds. Paw paws can weigh from ½ to 1 pound. Technically a berry, they are the largest North American edible fruit. Paw paws taste like a cross between a banana and a mango with a splash of pineapple. They can be eaten raw or used in ice cream, pudding, smoothies, butter (such as apple butter), baked goods like cookies and pies, and even beer, brandy, and wine!

From Florida to Texas, north to New York, and west to Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, paw paws are native to 26 states and grow as understory trees in hardwood forests near streams and rivers. In the wild, the trees grow to 15 to 30 feet and sucker, creating colonies. Reminiscent of cucumber magnolias, they have foot-long, dark green leaves. Unlike other fruit trees, paw paw trees are not subject to a high level of pests and diseases.

Paw Paws in American History and Folklore

Paw paw trees are part of American history and folklore. Jamestown colonists wrote about them in the 1600s. John Lawson, an Englishman, described them in his travels in the Carolinas in the 1700s. Danielle Boone enjoyed eating them. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition ate paw paws for pleasure as well as sustenance. George Washington grew paw paw trees at Mount Vernon and ate the fruit as dessert. Thomas Jefferson grew them and sent seeds to his colleagues in Europe.  William Bartram, a naturalist, described the trees in Bartram’s Travels. His father, John Bartram, a botanist, sent seeds to Europe. During the Civil War, soldiers as well as African American slaves collected the fruit in the wild to supplement their meager diets. There is even a popular folk song called “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch” about collecting ripe paws paws from the ground and putting them in a basket.

Paw paw fruit develop in clusters

Finding Paw Paw Trees and Fruit

Currently, Washington DC residents can see paw paw trees in the wild along the C&O Canal and Potomac River and as native plant representatives in public gardens. There are paw paw trees at the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden, next to the National Museum of Natural History, and at the U.S. Botanic Garden’s newly renovated Bartholdi Park and their National Garden’s Regional Garden of Mid-Atlantic Native Plants. 

Although paw paws are part of American heritage, you may not find them in grocery stores. When the fruit is ripe enough to eat, it drops to the ground and is highly perishable. The thin skin bruises easily, discoloring to black. Paw paws are best eaten immediately or preserved by removing and freezing the pulp. You may find them at local farmers markets in peak season and you will definitely find them at paw paw events across the country in the fall.

Growing Paw Paws in the Home Landscape

Paw paw fruits can be eaten raw

“There is a paw paw renaissance now,” said Michael Judd, owner of Ecologia, an edible and ecological landscaping service in Frederick, MD. Author of Edible Landscape with a Permaculture Twist and For the Love of Paw Paws, Michael hosts an annual paw paw festival which will be on September 21 this year at LongCreek Homestead. “I call the paw paw an edible landscape all-stars because the tree is very attractive, low maintenance, and very fruitful.”

As native, hardy trees, paw paws can be grown in typical suburban plots. “Paw paws grow easily here,” said Michael. “This is paw paw country.” Although they are not self-fertile, that is, there must be two trees to cross pollinate to produce fruit, one can trim the trees to fit in residential properties. Michael recommends growing the trees in full sun, 10 to 12 feet apart, and cutting the central leader back to keep the trees at 8 feet. This shorten stature also makes them easier to harvest the fruit. Therefore, homeowners could have two 8-foot trees in the yard producing 50 pounds of fruit each year. If full sun is not possible, they can grow in part shade but will produce less fruit.

Paw paw trees have a pyramidal shape

Michael recommends purchasing either a grafted tree, a select seedling, or a specific cultivar. Starting from seed takes years to produce fruit. Also starting from a wild paw paw seed will result in less than desirable fruit. The taste of wild paw paws varies plus the fruit is small with a poor pulp to seed ratio.  Breeders spend years selecting desirable characteristics such as large fruit, a high pulp to seed ratio (more pulp, less seed), and good flavor.

You can’t go wrong planting paw paws. They are native, deer resistant trees that provide fruit and pretty yellow fall color. “Paw paw trees are very ornamental, they have a beautiful pyramidal shape,” explained Michael. “The leaves turn to a beautiful yellow golden color in the fall and when the leaves drop they reveal a tree with nice architecture in the winter.”

All photos taken by Michael Judd.

Habanada: A New Habanero Without the Heat

As a professional garden communicator I receive plants from nurseries to trial in my Virginia garden. I grow them to see how well they perform in our hot and humid summers, our mild winters, and with our own particular population of insects and diseases. Frequently I am growing plants that I would not have even looked at in a garden center. This year I grew something new to me and a game changer for gardeners as well as chefs: Habanada.

Burpee sent me a Roulette “sweet habanero” pepper plant. I have heard of habanero chilies but I have not grown them before because I cannot tolerate the heat of chili peppers. I always grow sweet pepper plants. This habanada plant has not only grown well, it has been producing many peppers about three inches long. Each pepper has folds and dimples, a broad shoulder, and a tapered end. Now in the beginning of August, the plant has about 10 peppers. I ate one raw and it was not spicy at all. It was not sweet either, certainly not as sweet as yellow and red snacking peppers. Intrigued, I had to learn more.

A search on the Internet told me that several years ago, the University of New Mexico discovered a plant from its habanero line that did not register on the Scoville scale. The Scoville scale measures the level of capsaicinoids, the chemicals that cause the burning sensation or the heat. A normal habanero can reach 300,000 Scoville heat units (very high). They sent seeds to Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek who was interested in peppers at the time. Mazourk was inspired to breed a delicious pepper without the heat as part of his doctoral research. The result was the habanada.

I read that the habanada has “floral properties,” that it tastes like a melon or a guava, but to me it is savory, similar to a soft cheese. I picked them at a more orange than red stage but I will let some mature to red and see how they taste again. With the ones I did pick, I chopped them and made an omelet that was delicious. No doubt chefs will be able to see the possibilities of using habanadas in desserts, as a spread, or maybe even a jelly. It can be used whenever a sweet or hot pepper is called for in an entrée and it certainly can be used to color a dish.

The plant was easy to grow. It is about 3 feet tall now. I used a single stake because a single stake has always sufficed with my other peppers but this plant is bushier so I had to keep it propped up with yarn. Next time, I will use a tomato cage. Oh yes, there will be a next time, I am growing this again next year. My habanada plant grows with my other peppers and tomatoes and they all receive ample sun and water but habanadas do not need as much fertilizer as tomatoes.

I highly recommend the habanada, not only as a star performer in the garden but as a tasty pepper!