Tropical punch: Ground cherries offer strong flavor in a tiny bite.

ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa)

Related to tomatoes, and more closely to tomatilloes, the ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) goes by many names, including ground tomatoes, husk cherries, and cape gooseberries.

The fruits grow under the plant’s large leaves, encased in a thin calyx that dries to a crispy, papery husk. The husk and fruit fall to the ground when they are ripe (hence the name).

husks and fruit

Ground cherries grow encased in calyces that turn brittle when the fruit is ripe.

Large fruits measure about the size of an adult woman’s thumbnail, with a texture resembling a firm grape, and taste strongly of pineapple. I look forward to experimenting with them in cooking, if I can stop eating them by the handful, like popcorn.

In my Zone 7b garden, I transplanted seedlings about one month after the average last frost, or mid-May, and got my first fruits about six weeks later. This plant does like it hot–it seemed to double in size every day the temperature hit 90 degrees or higher.

For those who practice permaculture, this plant seeds itself easily and seems to require no inputs except for hot sunshine and whatever rain may fall. Do allow space for them–halfway through the growing season, mine are five feet tall and wide–or were, before the 8-year-old ran over a few inconvenient stems with a bicycle. The stems are rigid but not woody, a bit like basil in mid-season, and may crack or break under their own weight. Because my space is limited (and shared with bicycles), my plants are now supported with slings of garden twine, tethered to a bamboo pole.  You could perhaps grow lettuce beneath them, or root vegetables, if you wished to implement companion planting.

This is a fruit that has made it into my garden’s permanent rotation. I’ll share recipes later in the summer–assuming I can quit snacking.

ground cherries physalis fruits in bowl

Dear Friend and Gardener: July 11, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

I don’t know about you, but my garden at midsummer looks more than a bit tattered.

garden at midsummer

It’s fine if you don’t look too closely. But if you give the beans a second look, you’ll see the flea beetles’ handiwork.

tired beans

They’re still producing beans, but they look as sapped as I feel. Somehow we both keep managing to plug along. My second sowing got its leaves eaten off while I was out of town one weekend. Third time lucky?

The tomatoes, however, cheer me up no end. ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is outdoing herself. For a short-season variety, she’s giving me a lot. I only have two of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ but I’d guess we’ve gotten 3 or 4 pounds of tomatoes just this week. Dinner has tasted and smelled fantastic. Is anything better than a fresh, home-grown tomato?

Maybe a home-grown tomato in the dead of winter? Well, they won’t be fresh, but perhaps they’ll taste like it. My ‘Principe Borghese’ tomatoes keep yielding, and I dried a large batch the other day. My winter sauces shall taste like summer, I am determined.

principe borghese

How’s the picking where you are?

Amy

 

Grilling on Fourth of July? Try lemon balm pesto.

The Fourth of July is a big day for grilling in the US–although just about any summertime evening when it isn’t storming makes a pretty compelling candidate. I love grilling foods, from meats, fish, and shellfish to vegetables and fruits. More than that, I like to create my own marinades and sauces with the herbs I grow. If you’re looking for something fresh, summery, and different that’s also extremely easy to make, give my lemon balm pesto a try.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is an herb in the mint family. Its small white flowers attract bees and other pollinators, but you’ll be drawn by the lemony scent of the foliage as you brush it with your fingers. It is reputed to be effective as a mosquito repellant when the leaves are rubbed on the skin. But more than all of that, you’ll like the bright lemon flavoring the leaves lend to salads, drinks, and marinades. It has endless uses in the kitchen.

Lemon balm grows easily to 3 feet tall in sun or shade. It spreads like its mint relatives, so grow it in a container of well-draining potting soil mixed with compost. It does not require fertilizing, and is quite stoic in drought but delights in regular rain. One plant should be plenty for you, unless you run a busy restaurant or keep bees. In those cases, two plants should suffice.

MissingHenryMitchell’s Lemon Balm Pesto

  • 3 cups lemon balm leaves, washed
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
  • Coarse salt and pepper to taste
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon juice or lemon zest

Put the first three ingredients and a pinch of salt and pepper into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Start the blender, and drizzle olive oil into the mix until the mixture is the texture you like.  If you want your pesto extra-lemony, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or lemon zest. Add more salt and pepper to taste.

Spread on chicken, fish, or shrimp before putting the food on the grill, or allow foods to marinate in the pesto in the refrigerator overnight. For overnight marinating or for brushing on food on the grill, a thinner mixture works well. I like a thicker paste as a garnish on finished dishes. It also tastes great as a salad dressing when tossed with greens, olives, peppers, and a bit of goat cheese, or as a spread on crusty bread.

The pesto may be kept in the refrigerator for a week, or may be frozen for later use. The pesto may slightly discolor as it freezes, but it will taste just fine.

Hope you enjoy your holiday grilling!

Dear Friend and Gardener: June 27, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

It was another hot and dry week in the garden. I fed the beans with some nettle tea to perk them up. I’m starting to see flea beetle damage but the plants are big enough to be able to withstand it, I think. I have also sown a second crop elsewhere in the garden in case these do surrender their fight before long.

The tomatoes are showing signs of ripening, particularly the Principe Borgheses. I am so ready for them! I love dried tomatoes, particularly in the dead of winter, but have never tried drying any of my own. Another kitchen adventure awaits. The basil tastes splendid and there is plenty of it.

I noticed a little mildew on one of my honeyberries the other day. I shall spray it with a little milk spray if it gets truly bad, but I’m willing to let a lot go for the sake of avoiding toxic sprays. It doesn’t look terrible unless you get up close, and if you get that close, well, you shouldn’t be walking on my garden beds to begin with.

I transplanted a few Blue Hubbard squash seedlings sown from the packets I got at the seed library. I have heard that nasturtiums planted with squash will help deter squash bugs. Do you know if this is true?

Hope your garden is giving you joy and lots of tomatoes.

Best,

Amy

 

 

 

Wood sorrel: Turning my garden into public grazing lands?

Waiting for the school bus a couple of weeks ago, my neighbor’s son wandered over to a patch of weeds and plucked up a handful.

“What are you doing?” my daughter asked. “Are you eating weeds?!”

“It’s wood sorrel,” said the boy. “It’s good. It tastes sour, kind of lemony.”

Wood sorrel

Wood sorrel, Oxalis stricta

Wood sorrel is a member of the genus Oxalis. It is edible, if you go for that sort of thing. The leaves, seed pods, and flowers are all safe to eat raw or cooked. My neighbor’s son likes the seed pods especially: “We call them sour bananas.”

The plant is high in vitamin C. It also has diuretic properties and is high in potassium oxalate and oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is a compound also found in grapefruit, parsley, broccoli, spinach, and many other vegetables. While it’s unlikely that anyone would consume enough wood sorrel to suffer any toxic effects from the oxalic acid, people with kidney disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout should avoid consuming oxalis until they consult with a medical professional.

Have I stumbled upon a new means of organic weed management? I envision herds of grazing children, replacing their favorite Sour Patch Kids with this weed that proliferates in my garden. More likely, I’ve found a new phenological cue: “When you see the children grazing, the sorrel is setting seed.” This reminds me that I had clearly better get to the weeding, unless I hope to find even more of the stuff in my garden beds next year.

By the way, my daughter knows not to eat anything in the garden without first checking with me. Encourage your kids to check with you before eating wild plants–even if their friends do it.

For more information:

Dear Friend and Gardener: June 20, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

After a week of brutal heat, today we have a slight break. It will only be 90 today, humidity 68%, feels like 102. A storm last night brought some much-needed rain, although in temperatures like this, moisture evaporates from the ground rapidly. I finished extending the drip irrigation and topped off the mulch. Everything (except me) looks just a bit fresher.

My pickles turned out not too bad. I feel that the recipe I used is a good starting point. I used an off-the-shelf pickling spice but it is heavy on the cloves. I am thinking of mixing up my own, or at least picking out the cloves until I have used up this batch.

ground cherries (physalis)

I have tiny peppers on my jalapeno and anaheim plants. The ground cherries are now about 4′ by 4′ and covered with little paper bells where the fruits will form. They shade the lettuces well; I can’t believe the lettuce hasn’t collapsed completely in the heat. And most peculiarly, the peas are hanging on for dear life. I think I must get ruthless and cut them down in the next week or so–they’ll only get sad as the summer goes on, and I could use the real estate in the bed for something more productive.

Tomato 'Principe Borghese' is great for drying.

Tomato ‘Principe Borghese’ is great for drying.

Lots of tomatoes on my Principe Borghese plants and on ‘Sophie’s Choice.‘ The ‘Sophie’s Choice’ are slightly shaded by the peas and the cucumbers so I hope they’ll prove resilient, at least until the fruit ripens. They don’t care for high heat. I need to start another batch of plants in my seedling bed. The summer tasks never end, do they? (I wouldn’t be very happy if they did.)

Tomato 'Sophie's Choice'

Tomato ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is a short-season variety.

Hope you are well and that your garden is flourishing.

Best,

Amy

 

 

Digging Durham: Is this a great library, or what?

As I mulched the vegetables yesterday before the temperatures hit 93 (34C), I thought about the second sowings I need to get started.  And I remembered that while I’d donated some seeds to the Digging Durham Seed Library back in the early spring, I hadn’t been by since the collection launched to see what my fellow citizens brought forth from their seed shoeboxes to share.

seedDigging Durham Seed Library vegetable packets

Free veggie seeds for the taking: Eggplant ‘Listada di Gandia’; squash ‘Blue Hubbard’ and ‘Waltham Butternut’; bush baby lima beans; bush bean ‘Contender’; and two packets of drying beans ‘Lazy Housewife.’

What incredible luck! This covers just about everything I had planned to grow but the sweet potato slips, which can’t fit into the little envelopes, and the Malabar spinach. If I had found Malabar spinach in the seed library, I would have fainted in surprise and been roused only by the echoing choruses of “Shh!!”

I’m still a bit giddy.

“Checking out” the seeds means taking them from the drawer and taking them home. I didn’t even have to flash my library card. As part of the deal, I will grow the crops, save some seeds at the end of the season, and return them to the library for next year’s growing season. What a fantastic way to try out new vegetable varieties.

Digging Durham seed library

The seed library’s baby photo

If your local library doesn’t have a seed library, consider starting one. I can tell I’m going to be a patron of ours for as long as I can.