Ground Cherry Adventures

Ground cherries 3During a visit to England in spring 2013, we enjoyed many puddings and cakes garnished with little round golden/orange colored fruits framed by lighter gold husk-like leaves. They were slightly crunchy with a sweet and tart flavor, tropical like pineapple. I’d never seen or eaten them before and even their name, Cape Gooseberry, was unfamiliar.

Months later as I was ordering seeds for the 2014 kitchen garden I saw them again, this time in the Territorial Seed catalog under the name Ground Cherry, Physalis peruviana. They were listed along with tomatillos, another husk-enclosed orb of the Physalis family. I definitely had to try growing some of these delicious little fruits. Of the two varieties offered, Aunt Molly’s and Pineapple, I chose Aunt Molly’s because the days to maturity were ten days shorter than for Pineapple.

The catalog description suggested growing them as you would tomatoes, starting seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost, carefully hardening them off before setting them out in a warm place, and watering regularly. When I told my friend Carol, a specialist in unusual plants, that I was growing ground cherries this year she offered me seeds of goldenberry, a related variety, to try as well. The tiny seeds of each variety germinated well though slowly, and by late spring I had sturdy plants to set out. I put two of each variety in the cold frame where they’d get plenty of heat and good irrigation, spacing them about eighteen inches apart.

Ground cherries growingGoldenberries growingIn the weeks that followed their growth habits emerged. The ground cherry sent out branches in all directions, hugging the ground as its name suggested. The goldenberry grew upward, strong branches more like those of tomatillos. Both produced lovely exotic blossoms, yellow with purple centers. If they’d done nothing else, they’d still have been a great ornamental addition to the kitchen garden, but by mid-July the blossoms gave way to little lantern-like shapes hanging from the branches, lovely as well. The ground cherry lanterns were light green and rounded while the goldenberry lanterns were darker green veined with purple and elongated.  And finally, just as the catalog described, the  husks on the ground cherry turned from green to golden tan and dropped to the ground. I gathered a handful, peeled back the husks and there were the golden/orange orbs I’d tasted over a year ago on English desserts. We ate them like candy. The cold frame became the favorite kitchen garden snack stop.

We’ve continued to treat them like candy but the abundance of ground cherries has lead me to look for other ways to prepare them. They are definitely more than a dessert garnish. In her cookbook Chez Panisse Fruit (2002), Alice Waters suggests holding them by the husk and dipping them in chocolate for a stand-alone dessert treat. Moving beyond desserts, she suggests adding them to salsas and to salads. Their sweet/tart flavor combines well with spicy peppers, pickled onions and sweet tomatoes as well as with pungent greens like arugula. Recently I made a salad of fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled red onion, basil and lots of husked ground cherries. The ground cherries added a welcome layer of sweet tart flavor to this already tasty mix. Ground cherry salsa saladTo a grain salad made with Bluebird Grain Farms Potlach Pilaf (cracked emmer farro and wild rice), I added sliced fresh plums and basil leaves, toasted pecans, and lots of ground cherries to the cooked and cooled grains for a delicious complement to pork chops.

Ground cherry pilaf

And one morning, I added husked ground cherries to cornmeal scones, just to see what they’d be like. Cooked, they lose some of their intense flavor and reminded us most of blueberries. They were tasty but their flavor raw is so much more interesting I think I’ll stick with them fresh and experiment with more salsas and salads.

Ground cherry scones

Waters also points out that ground cherries “continue to color and ripen after harvesting and should not be eaten until they have turned yellow or orange.” (52) Other sources explain that when green and unripe, ground cherries can cause an upset stomach. Finally, in good news for storage, Waters and others say that ground cherries in their husks will keep for months in a cool, dry place.

Google searches have turned up many more dessert and salad recipes for ground cherries as well as more tips for growing and harvesting them and even lists of other names they go by: husk cherry, Peruvian ground cherry, bladder cherry, husk tomato, strawberry tomato, pohas or poha berries. I’ll continue to collect recipe ideas as the remaining ground cherries ripen. In another month the goldenberries should be ripe too and will provide more material for experiments. Thanks to those English desserts, ground cherries and their cousin goldenberry will be part of our kitchen garden from now on.

 

 

Renewing the Herb Garden

Herb garden view  2014The sage, thyme, rosemary and lavender that make up the bulk of our front entry herb garden are getting old, ancient even. Seventeen years ago when I was planning this twenty-by-forty foot herb garden, books I read noted that perennial herbs would eventually need to be replaced. According to the Rodale Herb Book (1974) sage “should not be allowed to outlive three or four years because of the tendency of its stems to become woody and tough.” Not only the sage but also almost all the other herbs in this garden are definitely at the woody stage and probably should have been replaced several times over. But each July after they finish their lovely May and June bloom, I begin shearing them back, finding new growth despite the matted and woody stems and branches, and decide I can put off replacing them for one more year.

The idea of starting over is so daunting. There are the tasks of starting and growing new plants, pulling out the old ones along with the dandelions, vetch and other persistent weeds, renewing the soil, updating irritation lines, replanting, possibly with a new design and then ending up with a garden of smallish new plants, a disappointing contrast to the lively tangle of overgrown plants that characterizes the herb garden now. Surely there is something else I could be doing.

Sage woody stems

I’d have put off doing anything for yet another year if my friend Carol hadn’t told me how easy it is to propagate plants from cuttings. She lent me her copy of the American Horticultural Society’s Plant Propagation manual and suggested I also look online at how-to videos. Encouraged, I found an excellent UTube video by Tim Rumball, editor of Amateur Gardening Weekly, a British gardening magazine.  The process did look pretty easy. And the rest of the steps involved in renewing the herb garden? Well, I could put those off until fall or winter. And perhaps tackle only one of the three long beds that make up the herb garden.

Following the steps in Rumball’s video, I cut six-inch branches of several sage varieties, removed the lower leaves with a sharp knife, sliced off the top half of the remaining leaves, firmed these stems into pots of my regular potting soil, topped the soil with a layer of quick-draining material, perlite because that’s what I had though Rumball used horticultural gravel, watered the pots well and pushed in sticks around the edges of the pots to hold the plastic bag propagation tents away from the leaves. They are in a warm, shady spot in my seed starting room where I’ll check them regularly for roots emerging from the bottom of the pot. In six to eight weeks, I hope to be transplanting new sage plants to individual pots.

Sage cuttings removing leaves

Sage cutting leaves

Sage cutting firming in pot

Sage cuttings in tent

I took cuttings from three favorite varieties of sage that have been growing robustly since the first years of the herb garden. ‘Bergartten’, a rounded-leafed, gray/green sage with a mounding habit and light blue blooms recommended by Jim Wilson in Landscaping with Herbs (1994); purple sage whose leaves contrast wonderfully with the softer greens of other sage; and an unnamed sage variety my neighbor Frances gave me when I began the garden. Frances explained that a gardener friend “from a fancy estate” gave it to her and told her it was special. It is a lovely sage with pointed light green leaves like culinary sage but more modest light blue blooms that hold longer than the robust purple blooms of ordinary culinary sage. If these cuttings thrive, I’ll take cuttings from the rosemary, lavender and thyme in the weeks ahead.

Inspired by these first steps, I’ve pulled from the shelf the herb garden books I used to begin this garden, reviewing both herb varieties I’d underlined and noticing design ideas. The process of renewing this garden is starting to seem less daunting and more fun. And what better way to spend a warm summer afternoon on the terrace than with garden books and daydreams about new gardens.

Shapes of the Summer Solstice Kitchen Garden

In these long days around the summer solstice, pole beans and winter squash, pea vines and garlic stalks are lengthening themselves to match the days, stretching and twining, sending out tendrils, twirling and looping into fantastic shapes.  Responding to sun and warmth and longer days, these vegetables have begun their serious growth.  We’ve made it past the uncertain weather of spring and summer is really here.  It’s a lovely time to wander in the garden.

pole beans climbing 1

Winter squash vines 1

On the sisal strings of the pole bean trellis, leaves are spreading open along the twining vines and will soon cover the entire structure.  White, pink and scarlet blossoms will join the green of the leaves before giving way to dangling pods.  Squash vines are reaching beyond the borders of their beds and will soon carpet both paths and beds with giant leaves, then blossoms in shades of white and yellow and finally swelling orbs of squash.

Peas are producing now, the first crunchy sugar snap pods ready to enjoy raw or sautéed. Their blossoms and climbing tendrils continue to grow upward, lovely to look at and also delicious to eat.  We’ll have more peas than we can keep up with so harvesting a few vines and blossoms and sautéing them along with the pods adds beauty and variety to dinner.  In another month we can do the same with squash blossoms and late vines.

Sugar snap pea vine:flowerAnd finally the garlic stalks rising above the soon-to-be harvested bulbs have been creating the most whimsical show of shapes in the early summer garden.  Called garlic scapes, these seed heads of hardneck garlic are not only a delight to observe, each one different from its neighbor, they are also a delicious garlicky treat.

Garlic scape groupSome cooks make a pesto from the raw scapes but we find the resulting sauce too garlic-hot.  Lightly steamed, though, the scapes are really delicious, like a sweetly garlic-flavored green bean.  We eat them alone as a side dish or mixed in with other spring vegetables, peas, carrots or turnips.  Last night, garlic scapes, peas and pea shoots mixed with pasta for a summer dinner.

Garlic scape, pea still life

Garlic scape and pea pasta

Looking ahead to July and August, the garlic will be harvested in the next few weeks, then the peas will wind down as the beans come in and the winter squash will take on colors of rich green and deep orange, but for now, in these days just after the solstice, we’ll enjoy the special beauty of the early summer kitchen garden.

In the Early June Kitchen Garden

Our spring and summer vegetables are off to a great start this year. The early June kitchen garden isn’t always this promising but we’ve had an exceptionally lovely spring, just enough rain and many warm, sunny days to encourage speedy seed germination and quick growth of transplants.  Even a travel schedule that had us away several times through April and May didn’t hold slow down the garden.

The bed of spring vegetables I planted April 30 is providing radishes, lettuce, chard and turnips with beets and carrots in the wings.  A second bed of these spring delights that I planted May 23rd will be producing in another few weeks, just as the first bed winds down.

Spring vegetable beds

The sugar snap peas seeded indoors March 3rd and set out March 14th have topped the trellis and are covered in white blossoms and the first few peas, both promising lots of sweet, crunchy pea flavor very soon.   I’ve hilled and mulched the potatoes and the earliest fingerlings have blossom buds forming.  Peas and potatoes will be a late June treat.  And in the onion bed the rows of sweetly pungent purplette spring onions are beginning to bulb.

DSCF5876

Looking farther ahead to summer meals, tomato and pepper plants are blossoming and setting fruit and eggplant isn’t far behind.  Zucchini is putting on leaves and will soon outstrip this summer trio in size and production.  And beans and corn planted May 14th germinated quickly in our lovely warm spring, their leaves now spreading out and up. The first pole bean vines are reaching for their strings and the corn is on its way to knee high or higher by the Forth of July.

Tomato closeup cherry

Pepper closeup

Beans pole & bush

Corn closeup

I don’t know what weather is ahead for July and August but if summer continues the pattern set by spring, we have some glorious meals ahead.

Training Tomatoes

The richly flavored heirloom tomatoes like Amish Paste, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Prudens Purple and Speckled Roman and the equally tasty newer varieties like Momotaro, Sungold and Sweet Million that we grow in our kitchen garden greenhouse all are indeterminate varieties. Also known as vining or climbing types, indeterminate varieties keep growing, Jack-and-the-beanstalk style, putting out new blossoms and setting new fruit all summer and on into fall until frost.  In contrast, determinate or bush tomatoes grow only two to four feet tall and typically blossom, set fruit and ripen over a much shorter time, great if you want tomatoes all at once for canning or drying but not so good if you want to eat and preserve tomatoes at a manageable rate all season long.

The wonderful flavors and long season of indeterminate tomatoes do come with one challenge though.  The climbing vines need support and training to take advantage of their ongoing growth.  Fortunately, my husband Scott is a master at both supporting and training the growing vines.  In mid-May, as the tomato plants in greenhouse start their serious growth, Scott applies twine and nippers to each plant, beginning a process that will create a wall of tomatoes by mid-summer.

Tomato wall'13

Scott’s method of training is based on allowing just two lead branches per plant. When the plant is still young, only about a couple of feet tall, he selects the two strongest branches and pinches off the rest.Tomato leaders closeup

Around each of these leaders, he loosely ties and wraps lengths of twine that he then stretches up to a cross piece fixed seven feet above the plants.  These lengths of twine create the frame for the future tomato wall.

Tomatoes, Scott training

Tomato twine wall

Tomatoes before 2nd training

About once a week, he wraps the twine around the new growth emerging at the top of each leader. The plants in the second and third photos above show an interval of ten days with plants ready for their third training and pruning.  Most of the plants will eventually grow beyond the seven-foot high crosspiece and when that happens, Scott will extend the twine for each plant up to the top of the ten-foot high greenhouse.

Pruning is the other on-going task.  Tomatoes will send out new side branches just above every leaf stem and the main leaders will occasionally vee into two equal branches, so at the same time that he’s training the leaders to the twine support, he’ll prune away this new growth.  On the plant in first photo below, he’ll cut off the branch to the left, leaving the branch to the right with the tomato blossoms.  On the plant in second photo below, he’ll remove the sucker emerging at the vee of the branch.

Tomato branches

Tomato sucker

By the end of August most of the leaders have reached the top of the ten-foot high greenhouse.  Because it’s too late for new blossoms to become ripe tomatoes, Scott tops the leaders at ten feet so the plants can use all of their energy on the fruit that is already set.  By this stage, we’ve been enjoying delicious tomatoes for a month and a half so it’s not too painful to stop future growth.

I imagine that every tomato gardener has his or her variation on training indeterminate tomatoes.  We like ours because it suits our greenhouse structure just as it suited the plastic structures we used before we built the greenhouse, but even more we like it because Scott learned the basic technique from my dad over forty years ago in our first garden in Massachusetts.  Like heirloom tomatoes, this technique is an heirloom too, a lovely legacy from my dad and one that I find pleasure in knowing my sisters and brother still use as well.  Every week or so, all summer long fingers turn sticky and green and smell of tomato leaves as they train and prune, our dad’s instructions guiding our hands.

Spring Planting

Through many years of experiment and observation, I’ve created a planting calendar for my kitchen garden, a monthly reminder of what to plant when.  This time of year, every week or two from early March through late May there are seeds to sow, usually in pots indoors but sometimes out in the garden, and growing plants to harden off and set out.

The onions I seeded indoors in early March went into a garden bed this past week, thin green shoots that will be robust spears by mid-summer, and the potatoes I greened up in late March went into the ground in late April, their sprouts buried in a shallow trench but promising vigorous above-ground growth in just a few weeks.

Onion planting

Potatoes in trenchThe sugar snap peas I planted in early March and set out in the garden ten days later are already over a foot tall and climbing in the bed next to the potatoes.  The tomatoes I seeded indoors on that same March day went into the greenhouse in early April and are thriving, almost ready to start training into the tall vines they will become by summer.  The eggplant and peppers started indoors in mid-March went into the greenhouse yesterday. They’re much smaller than their tomato cousins but will catch up soon.

Peppers, Eggplant, Tomatoes in GHAnd last week on the last day of April I planted seeds of radishes, chard, lettuce, carrots, beets, and turnips in a garden bed.  A few warm days and the radish sprouts will be showing followed soon by the first green of the other roots and greens.  As May warms and dries, I’ll plan beans, corn and squash and at the end of the month another bed of greens and roots.

There’s great pleasure in repeating these tasks every spring, planting seeds, watching for their germination, tending the growing plants, setting them out in their permanent spots. Coming regularly as they do each year makes them less a chore and more a part of the natural rhythm of the year, a link to the lengthening daylight and warming temperatures, the blossoms and leaves on fruit trees and shrubs, all signals of the welcome turn to spring and summer.

Early Spring Harvest

We were in Portland, Oregon earlier this month, timing our visit so that we could go to the Saturday Farmers Market. Even in early spring, this wonderful market inspires with a bounty of fresh vegetables.  A highlight for me was seeing bunches of kale, Brussels sprout and mustard flower bud tops at many of the stands, confirming that others enjoy these tasty spring offerings from the Brassica family as much as I do.  I was interested to see that several vendors called these flower buds raab, linking them to broccoli raab, the pungent green popular in Italian and Asian cooking.  Kale “raab” tends to be sweet while Brussels sprout “raab” is a bit more earthy and mustard “raab” deliciously spicy.

Raab PFM

Mustard Raab PFM

Raab PFM closeup

When we got home from our travels, I was happy to find all of these “raabs” in my kitchen garden. There was also asparagus ready to harvest and lots of perennial herbs, chives, new growth thyme, burgeoning mint and parsley, all welcome flavors of spring, all beautiful and all offering inspiration for this season’s meals.

A quick stir fry of mustard flower buds and asparagus created a lovely side dish.

Asparagus mustard top bouquet

Asparagus mustard raab saute

Another night, kale flower buds and asparagus became pizza toppings.

Asparagus kale top still life

Pizza kale top & asparagus

And on another night asparagus and herbs combined with last year’s frozen fava beans to make my favorite spring pilaf.

Asparagus, kale top, herbs in basket

Pilaf in pan

This time of year the landscape offers new shades of green each day and so do the contents of each day’s garden basket and each evening’s dinner. I’ve written about kale, Brussels sprout and mustard flower buds before, about asparagus and about fava beans but there’s pleasure in writing about them again just as there’s pleasure in finding them in the garden each spring and transforming them for the table.