Edible Garden Plants That Grow Themselves (Almost)

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With a new cat to take care of, it’s a good thing that there are at least some plants that come close to growing themselves. Of course, I’m not including my extensive collection of invasives – those have death warrants, but I have a short list of plants that have a valuable edible reward for non-work. They are the ones I will always grow, since they are also delicious. This post will describe my aloes, and subsequent posts will include paw paws, basil, garlic, and daikon radish.

After starting out growing the most common aloe, Aloe vera, a very delicate aloe, I am now growing Aloe ferox or Cape aloe, originally from South Africa. _mg_6844The Aloe veras had a hard time adjusting to outdoor weather, especially to any sun at all, and I do like to clean up my indoor gardens in the spring and place many outdoors for the summer. The Aloe ferox is a larger, chunky aloe, which takes moves outdoors here in Michigan in stride. This variety, having larger leaves, also produces more gel. The Egyptians called aloe the herb of immortality because of the gel which is both antibacterial and antifungal. It is also soothing and healing for sunburns. I also like to use it in smoothies because it contains polysaccharides or complex sugars for sustained energy.

StrictlyMedicinalSeeds.com has a long list of available aloe plants of all kinds. Along with the Aloe ferox, I ordered a couple others, which are more like tree aloes. _mg_7063It will be interesting to see how tall they eventually grow (or not). I haven’t used these in smoothies, but they are fun to watch grow (so far). Richo Cech of Strictly Medicinal Seeds writes that “the leaf mucilage (gel) has a cooling and healing influence – the gel of Cape aloe is very similar to Aloe vera and may be used interchangably for it.” Dr. Group of the website Globalhealingcenter.com has an article on many other species of aloe titled, “Health Benefits of 13 Species of Aloe”.

Aloes are easy to grow, requiring only fast draining soil, sparse watering, and fertilizing only once per year. I simply start with my basic soil recipe, which is equal parts spaghnum peat (moistened), compost or worm castings, and expanded shale (or perlite) and add more expanded shale,perlite, or pumice –  about another one third. I like to place pea gravel around the aloe as a mulch (and it makes it more attractive). I have them dotted around the house, looking like starfish on the ocean floor, and I’m sure by spring, there will be many more “pups” to remove and replant in their own pots. Thank goodness for all the neat pots at Goodwill!

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Last Days of Fall Color Along Lake Michigan

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Selecting Basil

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Coco cat with flowering basil, October 2

I have grown many varieties of basil over the years, from the tall Genovese to lemon and purple basils. However I began to notice that the larger basils deteriorated at the slightest hint of cool weather and shorter days in September. If I still needed to make and freeze pesto, I had to search for enough good leaves. I always grew Greek bush basil too, but considered them a novelty, until I read a chef’s five star review of the bush basils over all others, because of their more intense spicy flavor. As well as the flavor, I had noticed that the bush basils seemed more rugged, easier to grow, and lasted later in the fall. The next year, I decided to grow only the bush basils and was able to put in a dozen because of their small size.

That year, I noticed some seedling variations that were quite amazing. One was much bigger than the others, more vigorous, and much later to go to seed. After watching it last and last into October before finally biting the dust, I realized it would be worth propagating (oops, too late!). The next year, 2015, I again planted a dozen or so bush basils from the same seed packet (I save them in the freezer). They were called “Basil, Greek Yevani” organic seed from Botanical Interests, hoping more such variations would turn up. Luckily, there were again a couple of great ones. This time, I rooted 5 cuttings in water in September, to winter over in the house.

But keeping the warmth loving basils alive all winter in our cool Michigan house seemed doubtful. I figured my only chance was to use my seed starting mat which maintains about an 86 degree temperature. I also put them near a south facing window, as if south meant anything in the dead of winter. But I did everything I could think of. I also used some additional light from a bulb in a desk lamp called Sun Blaster 26 watt 6400 K  I found on Amazon. Toward spring, I lost 2, but 3 survived. I planted them out in late May and they took off in a hurry forming huge, not so diminutive, bush basil plants. I planted tomatoes on their south side, which soon grew to 6 feet, shading them from August onward. That didn’t seem to faze them. We  love the pesto they make. My husband is not normally a pesto fan, but raved about this. I did use pine nuts (Trader Joe’s), and I like the recipe called “I Am Graceful Hemp Seed Pesto” from my tried and true “I Am Grateful” book by Terces Engelhart with Orchid from Cafe Gratitude.

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Selected basils on October 2

 

I am now back to taking cuttings from these and rooting them in water for next summer. I’ll use the same system again, but may add my new and improved foliar feed with sea-90, BioAg’s Ful-Power (fulvic acid), General Organic’s BioWeed and BioMarine. Just to make sure the science (we know about) is there, I’ll also now use BioAg’s VAM to inoculate the roots with mycorrhizae. I’m hoping all five make it, (but do I really need 5?).

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‘Wonderful’ selected basil on left with unselected basil ‘Slim Pickins’ on right

My Inscrutible Grape Vines

grapes-2Last winter my husband suggested I should prune the grapes. We have two Swenson Red variety vines. He may as well have suggested I hike across the Sahara Desert. I just started to sweat. Because plants can be intimidating, like a tennis partner who is much much better. In fact, I can only say, like Gaël Monfils at the US Open Tennis Tournamengrapes-1t, when he stopped to tie his shoe in the middle of a point, “I get lost”. If you’ve ever seen an unpruned grape vine, you would agree. However, our laisez-faire approach has produced actual grapes, so much so that we felt compelled to purchase a juicer, so as not to waste them.

I may be ahead in this game, but the grapes may win the match, since pruning may be required to save the yard and house. (I’ve seen what untamed plants can do.) However, I’ve been training for an event like this, by deadheading phlox and other sporting activities. Because plants are like tennis partners, constantly hitting back balls I have to run down, making gardening an endurance sport. Plants only look stationary – they are very active even without visible movement – ask any gardener – when you turn around, they always look different. People may move, but at least they still look the same. (I guess friends would be shocked if I “matured in 60 days”.)

But I will continue to run down flying grapes and other startling occurences resembling plant tennis. And if I ever really learn to prune grapes, I will hastily and happily write it all down.

Digging Deeper In The Garden

oat-cover-cropOver the past few years our garden was slowly going down hill. After continual cropping, even the easy radish wasn’t so easy anymore. I used plenty of organic fertilizers like fish emulsion, seaweed, bat guanos, and sometimes dried chicken manure. But the soil was clearly exhausted and standard practices didn’t get results over time. My first thought was that I needed to start cover cropping. But the question was how to adapt farm style cover crops to 3 foot wide , often hand dug neat (sort of!) beds. The other question was time. We don’t have enough space to have half the garden in maturing cover crops all summer. Looking over the cover crop chart in the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, only one – oats, seemed to be adaptable to small garden beds. I was also looking for something instant, maybe with a little magic. After several trials, the oat grass proved to be an excellent first step to solving my soil problems.

In the past, I grew wheat grass in shallow trays indoors, the seeds super close together, letting it grow only 7-10 days, and that became the model. Sowing the oats much closer together than recommended for standard cover crops began to miniaturize the process. Then I let the oat grass grow only 6-8 inches tall. This usually takes only 10-14 days. When the bed looks like a large tray of wheatgrass, ready to juice, I turned it under using a shovel. I’ve been amazed at how easy this turning has been (and I’m almost 69!) compared to my previous torturous bed turning without this cover crop. The soil takes on a new quality, not really like soil anymore, but overflowing with young roots and tender blades, all with a pillow-like texture that microbes seem to love and break down in a hurry.

In early August, I put in Chinese cabbage transplants the very next day after turning thechinese-cabbage oats under. It was an emergency and this was the only availabe space. I just pushed aside any grass pieces and inserted them within the living, decaying mulch – most of which disappeared within a week. The Chinese cabbage is doing nicely – usually a quite ungrowable crop for me, its halting growth attracting scads of tiny flea beetles. I find it difficul to buy organically grown Chinese cabbage, and we love to use it for kimchi. Now I’m hoping for a warm September so these will head up.

Over the next year I plan to learn more techniques to move this garden from limping to in sync with the latest soil science adding worm castings (still have to get the worm bin), compost, compost teas, and comfrey and nettle mulches. One of my great helps and inspirations has been John Kohler’s YouTube site, GrowingYourGreens.com. Many thanks to John! Next, My Inscrutable Grape Vines.

 

 

 

Fig in the House

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I love figs and have had a Chicago Hardy fig for the last 5 years, gradually potting up to an 18 inch diameter root pruning pot from Rootmaker.com, called the Root Trapper Grounder. I would manage to move it outdoors every spring, but last year noticed that it never seemed to adjust to the sunlight and wind. Its large smooth leaves continually wilted and look sun scorched even in part shade and with plentiful water. So this year, I decided to leave it in the basement since it seemed happy and content with its light from the windows and flourescent lights. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been harvesting _MG_5392a few figs every day – a gradual ripening which suits me perfectly. This  harvest is better than my outdoor harvest. They also like our well water, which is high in calcium and magnesium. Rain water seems not to be their cup of tea. No one talks about acid rain anymore, as if the problem is totally solved; but I suspect it is not. Judging from the sulking and harsh words from my goji berries (they need alkaline soil), it is still acidic.

I plan to keep it in this pot, so I may root prune it this winter as the Royal Horticultural Society (rhs.org.uk) suggests. Their roots like cramped quarters they say, but even figs need root pruning “every 3-5 years”. I’ll take a photo of my first large scale plant surgery when I get up the nerve.