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

 

 

 

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

 

 

Cooling it: Helping your veggies through intense summer heat

Getting a good harvest through the summer, particularly in areas where temperatures regularly rest above 90F (32.2C), can be challenging. Today, it’s 97 (36.1C) and still. I watered early in the morning. A thick layer of straw mulch covers the ground around all the vegetables, and shredded bark mulch protects the ornamentals, but it doesn’t feel like much help.

Seeing my plants droop in the heat makes me depressed. More importantly, heat-stressed plants are more susceptible to viruses, fungal diseases, and all sorts of nasty stuff. So today, in anticipation of these ghastly temperatures, I went spelunking in the shed and found the old patio umbrella and cast iron stand. I set them up on the southwestern corner of the raised bed, where the umbrella shades the beans, tomatoes, and some of the peppers from noon until sunset. They do get morning sun, as well as reflected light all day from the gravel paths close by.

It may sound ludicrous, but providing your vegetables just a tiny bit of shade, particularly from the afternoon heat, can make a big difference in their resiliency over the season. Give it a try.

 

Dear Friend and Gardener: June 13, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

A hot and muggy week, with downpours every night. This is the summer weather I remember from childhood. I spent the morning building a trellis for the tomatoes, which have outgrown their stakes, and preparing containers for the second round of tomatoes that will come from the suckers I pinched off the first ones. I’m not wasting a thing!

The beans (‘Provider’ bush beans) seem to have taken a pause. I cannot blame them; I don’t want to work much in this humidity, either. I keep them picked and hope they’ll recover a bit when we’ve had a few days below 90. I’ve read that pollen dies above 86F, so that would explain why production is shallowing out. I saw a nice fat bee lurching from flower to flower as I picked a handful this morning. I hope he remembers to come back.

I acquired some new seeds from the local seed library and got them started in the house yesterday. Do you have a seed library in your town? I love it and I am telling everyone who’ll give me the time of day to stop and check out some seeds. My neighbor politely asked me not to tell his wife, a dear friend who shares my gardening compulsions, but I had to inform him that he was too late. She was already making her list. I am going to ask her to join me and Plant a Row for the Hungry.

I’ve harvested enough cucumbers to start making pickles. I found what I hope will be a good recipe for producing authentic, city-kosher-deli-tasting pickles. A good pickle is hard to find and I have never much cared for the sweet, bread-and-butter types. I will know in about a week whether the recipe is worthwhile and if it is, I will share it with you.

Wishing you just enough rain and hoping the tornadoes stay far away.

Best,

Amy