Category Archives: Edibles

Drought-Tolerant Okra Offers Colorful Pods in the Garden

Yellow okra flower, similar to hibiscus

When I was at Rooting DC last February, I received six seeds of “African red okra” from a person who was talking about preserving seed diversity. Intrigued, I planted them later in the season just to see how they would grow. Four of the six seeds germinated resulting in two plants in the front garden in full sun and dry conditions and two in the back garden. The two in the back lived with the tomatoes in morning shade and afternoon sun and did not lack for water since the diva tomatoes get all the water they need.

All summer long I have been watching the okra grow in my Virginia garden. When people think of okra plants, they think “vegetable.” True, the immature pods are harvested for many types of dishes and are highly nutritious. Other parts are edible: the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (like spinach) or used as a thickener in a stew. The seeds, if roasted and ground, can be used as a coffee substitute and if they are pressed, they can yield oil for cooking.

mature pod splits open to reveal seeds

I never intended to eat the pods, I just wanted to see how the plant would fare as a garden plant, a summer annual. Now in September, I think they have reached their full glory. These plants are about 4 feet tall with sparse foliage but plenty of pods and flowers. Because okra is a member of the hibiscus family, the small, yellow flowers look like hibiscus flowers but are not as flat. The thick pods are red and green, with five broad sides that taper into a point. The pod points upwards, much like a hat. Some pods have already matured enough to split open, revealing many dark black seeds (which mature to a soft gray later on). These I cut and put in a paper bag to prevent okra babies in my garden next year. The mature pods can be dried and used in floral arrangements such as wreaths. The young pods, if sliced in half, can be used to make flower designs by pressing the cut half into an ink pad and pressing down on paper.

Although not deer resistant, these plants have proven to be pest-resistant. I have read that okra plants are the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and they certainly were drought-tolerant in my garden. They are known to grow in poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Technically okra is a perennial but in our zone 7 area, the plants will die from the cold this winter.

I like their strong vertical shape but because the foliage is sparse, they would work best if many were grown together yet with enough space to see the pods. There is actually quite a lot of diversity with okra with regards to the pods: they can be spiny, smooth, thin, thick, short, or long and have many more ridges than five. Pods can be green or green and red or burgundy red. However there is little diversity with the flowers, basically yellow or white. There are some varieties with gorgeous burgundy red pods that would be very interesting to try in the garden, especially in a mass up against a house, as a backdrop to other plants. Instead of growing okra for cooking, try growing okra as an ornamental garden plant and let the pods mature into unusual colors and shapes. The yellow flowers are a bonus!

young, immature pods are best for cooking

Growing Burpee’s Tomatoes and Heirloom Tomatoes this Summer

Labor Day Weekend Haul of Tomatoes

I have always grown tomatoes from seed, simply because I like to grow plants from seed. Tomatoes are particularly easy, they germinate fast and are easy to grow. Each year I start different tomato seeds indoors under lights and end up with many to give away. My family of four loves fresh tomatoes in the summer so I grow at least half a dozen tomato plants in our Virginia backyard.

This spring, a representative from Burpee Home Gardens asked if I would like to grow several tomato plants that Burpee was going to introduce in 2018. I was intrigued. Since I have not bought tomato plants in years, I thought it would be interesting to see the difference between these hybrids and my plants. Burpee has been selling seed for over 140 years but they also sell plants and they offer both heirlooms and hybrids for some of their vegetables.

I had already started the heirloom Marglobe (determinate slicer) from a source other than Burpee (Burpee also sells this) and Chianti Rose (indeterminate beefsteak) from seed when Burpee had contacted me. In May, I planted my seedlings and Burpee’s plants, each with a 6-foot tall post. Deer came through once or twice in early summer so I was left with the following from Burpee: two Gladiators (indeterminate paste), two Oh Happy Day (indeterminate junior beefsteak), and one Tomato Combo Take 2 Blockbuster (a determinate slicer and a cherry together). I also had two Marglobe and four Chianti Rose plants.

Heirloom Chianti Rose tomato

My two heirloom tomatoes are plants that have been grown from seed for generations. Heirlooms are usually passed down and have a story connected with them or are a family favorite. I could save the Marglobe or Chianti Rose seed, plant them next year, and get exactly the same type of plant. The Burpee plants are cultivars that have been bred to have particular characteristics. I could save the seed, plant them next year, and get tomatoes but they would not retain the same desired characteristics that Burpee had selected (usually disease resistance). Except for the annual deer visit, I don’t have a serious disease/pest problem in my garden with my plants.

Heirloom Marglobe, a determinate tomato plant

I do grow a combination of determinate and indeterminate tomato plants to space out my harvest. Indeterminate plants grow, bloom, and fruit over and over again until frost so you can harvest tomatoes throughout the summer. Determinate plants will stop growing when fruit sets on the top buds so the tomatoes ripen at the same time in a window of a few weeks.

As the summer progressed, I watered all the plants often with a hose, fertilized a few times, and strung the branches to the post with yarn (leftover from kids’ projects). This year, however, I felt that I had to keep stringing the tomatoes, more often than in the past. Every weekend I was stringing up the Gladiator and the Oh Happy Day plants to the stake and then having to string the branches up so they would not fall down. These two in particular were growing fast, with many branches and more weight. My yarn was becoming an aerial infrastructure just to keep branches up. My heirlooms were growing well but not as robust or as branched as these Burpee plants.

Burpee’s Gladiator paste tomato plant

In mid-August, I had harvested about 2 red tomatoes from the two Gladiator plants, which had about 10 green tomatoes on each plant. Gladiator is the first paste tomato plant that I have grown and it is firm enough for sandwiches and salads, not as wet and messy as the slicers or beefsteaks. Traditionally, paste tomatoes are used for pasta sauce and for dehydration so I plan to use these in our pasta sauce, chili, and bean stew. I would definitely use a cage next time; one stake is not enough. This particular type was bred to resist blossom end rot, which rarely occurs in my garden, but I did not see it on these plants.

Burpee’s Oh Happy Day with red tomato

The Oh Happy Day gave me a couple of red junior beefsteak tomatoes early in the season, which we used in salads and sandwiches. Anything that colors up early in the season is a plus in my book. In mid-August there were about 20 green tomatoes on each of the plants. This plant was very vigorous and again, I would use cages next time. The fruit clustered together, making it easy to simply twist a ripe one off the vine.

The Tomato Combo Take 2 Blockbuster is a combination of a small cherry tomato, a yellow indigo, and a determinate red slicer. Although I planted these in the ground, I would recommend planting in a large container on the deck. The plants are only a few feet tall and would make a great conversation piece on the deck or patio. It would also make it easier for people to see the pretty yellow indigo tomatoes. By mid-August, I harvested about 10 yellow indigos and a red slicer but there were about 5 green slicers and a few more yellow indigos on the plant.

Yellow Indigo cherry from Burpee’s Tomato Combo Take 2 Blockbuster plant

In mid-August, the Marglobe had a dozen green tomatoes on each plant. The plant seemed to be okay with the stake, it was not as heavily branched or as “viney” but then it is a determinate. Marglobe has very pretty fruit, red and round like a ball.

The Chianti Rose plants had about five green tomatoes on each plant. The Chianti Rose is not a pretty tomato, it is large and flattened, sort of an oblong beefsteak. It ripens to pink instead of red. Because the fruit is large, the plant bends under the weight. A cage would have been better, plus each plant took up a lot of space.

I have to confess I rarely have pests or diseases with my tomatoes so I did not notice any difference between Burpee’s plants and the heirlooms in this regard. I did notice that the Burpee plants had more vigor and growth so it would have been best to use cages for the Gladiator and the Oh Happy Day plants. They were large plants with many branches and more tomatoes than the Marglobe and Chianti Rose.  If I had to do it over again, I would have put the Tomato Combo Take 2 Blockbuster in a container. All of the tomatoes tasted good and it was great to learn that the paste tomatoes could be used for sandwiches and salads as well as pasta sauces. I am sure Burpee will have these plants for sale at the local garden centers next year.

Next year, grow tomatoes in the garden or in a container. Nothing beats their fresh taste — summer in a bite!

Oh Happy Day grows in clusters, easy to pick

Invasive Balloon Flower Takes Over the Garden

Today I tweeted that it would be good to pull weeds since it had rained buckets for the past few days, thus decreasing the heat and humidity and loosening the soil. For me, the time was ripe to pull an invasive plant from my garden, balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). “Balloon flowers?” you say, “but it has such pretty blue flowers and the kids love to pop those inflated buds.” Yes, my kids did like to pop the buds on my original plants as they walked to the front door and yes, they do produce pretty blue flowers on tall stems all summer long. But after 10 years, the kids don’t see them anymore (because their heads are always bent down viewing their iPhones) and the original four have multiplied into hundreds, crowding out my other perennials in my Virginia garden.

original four plants have multiplied on left side of walkway and have tan seed pods (directly across walkway is one balloon flower from front garden bed)

Part of problem is that balloon flowers self-seed very fast. The plants could be deadheaded to prevent self-seeding but this is a nerve racking, time consuming task. Each single seed pod has to be clipped off in order to leave the remaining buds or open blossoms. It is not possible to whack the entire plants down a foot. And part of the problem is that they are deer-resistant, drought-resistant, and generally pest free but the worst part is that balloon flowers have long, large tap roots. Breaking off the stem just encourages more stems to grow from the root. Although it is easier to pull and dig after it rains, I still spent hours pulling and digging to get the whole roots out as much as I could. I suspect I did not dig deep enough though, there probably are pieces in the soil that will rise again like the phoenix.

seeds landed on front strip across walkway (blooming with blue flowers)

Interestingly, I have found little reference to its invasive attribute on the internet. I did learn that the Kitazawa Seed Company catalog sells them and according to their description, the root, called doraji, is used in Korean cuisine. It is also used as an anti-inflammatory to treat colds and is considered a cheap ginseng substitute. The root can be dried and packaged for sale in Asian markets.

Unless you want to grow your own doraji for medicinal or culinary reasons, don’t plant this invasive perennial in your garden no matter how much fun you have popping the balloons.

pulling to reveal tap root

 

Letting Your Herbs Flower to Attract Beneficial Insects

My first guest post for the Herb Society of America’s blog appeared yesterday. I was inspired by the numerous beneficial insects hovering around my herbs in my Virginia garden. Often my herbs flower before I ever get to harvest the leaves but that’s okay because their tiny flowers attract the “good” bugs. If you are interested in growing and learning more about herbs, contact the Herb Society of America (I belong to the local Potomac Unit).

Harvesting Heirloom Yellow Potato Onions

harvest with one lone flower

I dug up my yellow potato onions and was surprised to find almost 40 bulbs. I first wrote about them in September 2016, when I received the shipment from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I planted the original 15 bulbs in the fall in very loose soil, high in organic matter. This spring, green stalks grew so that by summer there was green tubular foliage, similar to scallions. By the end of June, I could see bulbs clustered at soil level, as if emerging from the deep. The green stalks were bent and falling over so that when it was clear that the stalks were dying, I dug up the bulbs in the beginning of July.

Potato onions are a type of multiplier onion called Allium cepa var. aggregatum. They multiply at the base by making more bulbs. They are not as large or as pungent as onions we get at the grocery store. Within the same species are shallots, which also multiply at the base but are milder, can be eaten raw, and are round or bullet shape. The Egyptian walking onion is another type of multiplier onion, a different species called  Allium cepa var. proliferum. The difference between potato onions and Egyptian walking onions is that potato onions do not create bulbils at the top. The Egyptian walking onions create bulbs in the ground and bulbils at the top; therefore, are “proliferate.”

green stalks are down, signaling harvest time

In my Virginia garden,  potato onions are planted in the fall, dug up in the summer, cured until fall, and then some are re-planted and some are eaten. Thus they are “perennial” because they will exist in the garden every year. In the 1800’s, they were very popular because they were a constant source of onions, they stored for a long time, and they propagated easily. People just passed them along to neighbors and family. Now they are considered an heirloom. Very few seed catalogs sell them and you probably will not see them in your garden center.

Like other onions, potato onions have to be cured in order to extend their storage time. Bulbs should be in a shaded, warm, dry, well-ventilated area for a few months. I could slice up the large ones now and cook them or just let them cure if I want to use them in the winter.  In the fall, I will plant the smaller bulbs and harvest again next year in July. It’s a perennial cycle but I am looking forward to sliced yellow potato onions in butter and parsley over broiled trout, with green beans on the side.

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: Border Pinks

Years ago I was given a border pink named Heart’s Desire. A border pink is a group of Dianthus perennials that are used for border edging or rock gardens. They are small plants with gray green, grass-like leaves. They prefer full sun and are drought tolerant once established. Dianthus flowers range from pink to red, have the same ruffled look as a carnation, with the same clove fragrance as a carnation. But a Dianthus is a much smaller plant, a mound of foliage less than a foot wide with inch-wide blossoms on 6-inch stems. Heart’s Desire, a Blooms of Bressingham introduction, is bubblegum pink with a red halo.

Dianthus flowers are edible but fortunately deer don’t eat them. For my family, I pull apart the petals to add color to green or fruit salads and lemonade or fruit drinks.  I also cut the flowers for small vases in the office. This plant is a performer — it has thrived on a sunny terrace in my Virginia garden with no maintenance and no fertilizer for many years. Heart’s Desire blooms all summer long and the leaves stay above ground during the winter. 

An Entertaining Lecture on Herbs at Merrifield Garden Center

Yesterday I attended Merrifield Garden Center’s free lecture on herbs and was pleasantly surprised by the great speaker and the event itself: part entertainment and part educational. Merrifield is known for its free seminars in the spring, which I have promoted on my website for years. The herb lecture was at the Fair Oaks location, which has a spacious room on the second level of the garden center. I arrived early and was surprised to find pastries, brownies, fruit, cheese, crackers, and coffee! Sarah, a Merrifield employee, created this lovely feast and topped it off with an eye-catching display of herbs. Apparently she is known for making such creative displays and generous offerings of refreshments. Sarah was a hoot!  She talked to everyone and encouraged people to submit their drawing on time!

I discovered that at each seat there was a handout on herbs, a 15% discount coupon to use that day or the following day, and a form to complete for the drawing. I did not know there would be a coupon and a drawing but I could tell there were plenty of “regulars” who knew the drill. They seemed to know each other and had been there many times. The mood was so friendly and jolly I almost thought they were part of a gardening club. Filling up on pastries, we completed our forms and dropped them in a large glass container.

At 10:00 am, right before the lecture, Peg Bier, also a long time Merrifield employee, drew slips of paper several times. I did not keep count but was surprised that there were several drawings, not just one. Winners could have their choice of circus tickets or a Merrifield gift card. I did not win but I did use my coupon to buy something after the event.

Peg then introduced our speaker, Nicole Schermerhorn, co-owner of A Thyme to Plant at Lavender Fields Herb Farm (wearing dark brown in the photo). A Thyme to Plant is a wholesale operation near Richmond, growing and selling USDA-certified herbs and vegetables. Her nephew manages Lavender Fields Herb Farm, the retail garden center that focuses on herb classes and demonstrations. Nicole was very entertaining and down to earth – I could have listened to her for more than an hour. She sprinkled her slide presentation with funny learning experiences and witty conversations with her husband. Nicole provided a lot of detail on cultural requirements, including growing herbs in raised beds, while her handout had information on specific herbs. She was very nice about answering everyone’s questions and offered to stay afterward. A few of the interesting tips I learned were: there are 200 varieties of rosemary but only a few are hardy in Virginia (Arp, Salem, and Hill Hardy); Vietnamese coriander is a heat-loving substitute for the cool-loving cilantro; and parsley is the most nutrient-packed herb one can grow (does not matter if curly or flat leaf). I liked the fact that there was a handout to take home about specific herbs and recommended varieties plus cultural requirements on the backside. If you are new to gardening or new to Virginia, I recommend attending Merrifield Garden Center’s free seminars, especially Nicole’s talk on herbs.