The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Posts tagged ‘greens’

Bergeron Fava Bean

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Here’s quite an unusual heirloom for northern New England – vica fava, also known as broad bean and horse bean. This is a different species than our more familiar snap and dry beans, phaseolus vulgaris, which have their origins here in the western hemisphere.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Favas are one of the oldest domesticated food plants, with origins in the Mediterranean region. They are quite widely grown and eaten elsewhere in the world, but are not very well known here.

I received this in the 1980s from Annette Bergeron, who, with her sister, left their family farm in Quebec to marry two brothers in West Burke, Vermont probably in the 1940s. Hence, I gave it her maiden name. She said in Quebec they called them “Monkey Beans” and in some years, when they could not afford to buy coffee, they would roast the favas and grind them up for a coffee substitute.

As an aside, I used to have a bean (phaseolus vulgaris – it was a bush dry bean) called Quebec Coffee (aka Canada Dot Eye), which makes me wonder if it was a common practice in Quebec to roast and grind various beans to make their hot beverages. If anyone knows anything about this, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, most likely these favas were brought over from France to Quebec.

It took me quite a while to get what they were all about. For years, I gave them prime real estate for phaseolus vulgaris – sunny, sandy well drained soil – and I was barely able to keep them alive. They would get totally covered with aphids, and have very few flowers, and hence very few beans. They were miserable, but I stubbornly kept them going, motivated by sentiment alone.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Finally, I got decent information about their cultivation (Thankyou Alan LePage – see “Radio Talk Show for Gardeners” at right). Favas, unlike phaseolus vulgaris beans, like cool and moist conditions (they are grown in the winter in the Mediterranean). This makes them quite valuable to me, because a large portion of my gardens are on the wet and clay-ey end of the spectrum. Heavy wet soil is no good for ants, so the aphid problem is nearly eliminated by growing favas in the wetter spots.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Here on the edge of zone 3 and 4, favas need to be sown absolutely as early as the ground can be worked so that they can set pods before summer’s heat (we sometimes do actually have hot weather in the summer, though sometimes not). I haven’t tried fall planting them yet, but that’s a possibility when I get to a point where I have plenty of seed to fool around with. Overwintering’s risky with our voracious mice and voles.

Bergeron is not a particulary early-maturing fava, and I can’t really say how it compares in other ways to other fava varieties. It’s the only fava I have any significant experience with. Favas self pollinate but are also insect pollinated, and very attractive to pollinators; so isolation is required to maintain the variety.

green shell stage

And so, what can you do with them, you may well be wondering. Check out Wikipedia and you’ll find all kinds of culinary suggestions. Favas are very delicious at the green shell stage braised, steamed or sauteed. I haven’t yet tried them as a substitute for chick peas in hummus, but that’s another way folks use them. As a dried bean, they have a tough skin, some varieties more so than others, so sometimes it is necessary to remove the skins before cooking or serving. I’ve used Bergeron either way – at the green shell stage the skin is usually tender enough to leave on.

Favas sprouts

I learned about sprouting the dried beans before cooking from an Egyptian garden blogger, and I really like them that way, braised with onion or garlic and simmered until tender. The skins come off the sprouted beans easily. In Egypt they are evidently widely eaten for breakfast.

Also, the young leaves are very good as braised greens, so I plant the favas thickly and harvest the thinnings, which are very welcome in early spring. Note the sticks in the photo below laid out to keep the vole patrol (2 cats) from digging up the newly planted bed…

Favas for greens

My sugarloaf chicory greges*

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

*(from Wikipedia) The term grex (pl. greges), derived from the Latin noun grex, gregis meaning flock…
When a hybrid cross is made, all of the seedlings grown from the resulting seed pod are considered to be in the same grex. Any additional plants produced from the hybridization of the same two parental greges also belong to the grex. All of the members of a specific grex may be loosely thought of as “sister plants”, and just like the brothers and sisters of any family, may share many traits in common or look quite different from one another. This is due to the randomization of genes passed on to progeny during sexual reproduction.

chicory in the lawn

The sugarloaf chicories are absolutely my favorite green. I tried saving seed for them quite some time ago, in the 80s, and didn’t have great success at first – chicory seed is not easy to harvest and process. They are mostly biennial, so I thought at first that I needed to choose my seed parents in the first year and over winter them in the root cellar. However, one May as I was walking across the lawn, my eyes beheld a sight very like the photo above. Somehow a sugarloaf seed had managed to escape into the lawn, germinate, grow and survive the winter. I can take a hint, so I dug it up, gave it a proper place in a garden bed, and decided to pretty much just let it do its chicory thing with a few other stray sugarloafs I found in the garden proper. We have no wild chicories in the neighborhood, so I didn’t have to worry about isolation (they’re insect pollinated). And, I gave up trying to figure out the optimum sowing time (too early, it bolts; too late, not big enough). Now they just sow themselves. I weed them, toss them some compost, yank out whatever doesn’t please me… and eat them all.

The original one plant was probably from Greenlof (Sugarhat) which I got from William Dam Seeds, so it’s likely of Dutch origin. I soon added more varieties of this type of chicory including Cornet d’Anjou, Snowflake, Sugarloaf/Pain de Sucre and most recently Blanc de Milan, in three different parts of the gardens.

A chicory patch just after the snow has gone

Just after the winter snow had gone (early April 2010), a patch of naturalized sugarloaf chicories, 15 years on. The plants in this area are descended from the original plant I found in the lawn. You can see the remains of the seed stalks fom last year.

Only plants that survive the winter in the garden become seed parents. I sometimes give them a leaf mulch for winter, but this is tricky. It does allow harvesting the greens right out of the garden well into December, but it also attracts voles who will pull whole plants down into their underground lairs and eat them roots, leaves and all. I hate voles.

Second year plant surrounded by seedlings

Second year plant surrounded by seedlings.

I make selections for seed parents mainly in the late fall and early spring, just by roguing out (removing) any plants that don’t have the characteristics I’m looking for. At these times of the year the plants express their more subtle differences the best – in the summer when they are seedlings and when the second year plants begin to bolt, they more closely resemble each other. At first, making the choices was pretty easy, because there were a lot of hairy, limp leafed plants and I knew I wanted hairless, crisp leaves. Now there are very few hairy chicories showing up, but, what is fascinating to me is that even after all these years of selecting, if anything, there seems to be MORE diversity in the population. Check out the photo below – I have never had any radicchios or red chicories bolt here, yet in the last couple of years, I have color showing up more and more.

Diversity in the chicory population

Spring 2010 – the diversity in this group blows me away!

Bolting chicory

I have been favoring curling leaves and wavy edges. The result has been more plants like the seed parent in the photo at left which bolted last summer. It reminds me of a many-armed flamenco dancer.

I have also been watching out for anything that shows perennial tendencies, and letting it propagate. Color pleases me, too. As I walk into the chicory areas, I often feel like a guest at a huge banquet table, presented with more enticing possibilities than I can possibly pursue…

And speaking of banquets, you will never find salad greens better than these:

early April salad greens

Early April salad greens, straight from the garden. From top left, clockwise: hesperis, lovage, peppermint buds, sugarloaf chicory, and parsley.

In praise of an outlaw, hesperis matronalis; or, if you can’t beat it, eat it

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

hesperis in the garden

Dame’s Rocket is considered invasive and is illegal to cultivate in three states. Fortunately, Vermont is not one of them, because hesperis matronalis is, in my humble opinion, a very useful and important plant in a cold climate permaculture scheme. Rocket is fairly well known as an ornamental, and is a survivor (and, yes, escapee) of long abandoned flower gardens. It is a crucifer, a member of the mustard family, but few gardeners realize that it is an edible cousin of those nutritional powerhouses kale, broccoli, and cabbage.

Over wintered hesperisSpring greens

Rocket is reputed to sometimes be a short-lived perennial, but is mainly biennial. What I really like about it is that its foliage survives winter well with no protection, lots better than kale leaves do for me. This makes it one of the very first sources of spring greens available to us. As soon as the snow melts, you can push aside the tattered old leaves and find tender green shoots hiding beneath. All through spring, we pinch off tender new leaves, shoots, and unopened flower buds for salad; and in June the blooms are fine garnishes as well, not to mention fragrant cut flowers.

Rocket blooming

Herbal authority Maude Grieve lists it as antiscorbutic, which implies that it is very high in vitamin C. The leaves have a slightly acrid after taste, that may be off putting for some, but I find it pleasant. It mixes well with other salad greens, but I think the trick is, as with so many greens, to harvest only tender new growth.

Rocket is a managed volunteer in our gardens. Its growth cycle is easy to integrate with vegetable plantings. We leave a few first year seedlings growing here and there around the garden when weeding. They take very little space the first year, and in the spring occupy what would otherwise be empty space. (The tender weedlings are also good in salad.) Rocket begins flowering just as we get past any likelihood of frost, and when the space is needed for frost tender plants. By that time it not as useful for greens, so a few very robust plants are chosen for seed and staked up. The photo at left shows the nearly mature seed pods on a staked plant. The rest of the plants throughout the gardens are pulled as the space they occupy is readied for planting other things, though some plants get to linger past blooming to ensure maximum pollination of the plants that will be left to bear seed.

And why, you may wonder, would anyone fuss about seed from an invasive weedy plant? Well, copious seed production is what makes hesperis matronalis a pest, but the seed happens to be fine for sprouting. It is a little sharp in flavor, but mixes well with milder sprouts, and other salad elements. For sprouting, you don’t even have to bother to clean the seed thoroughly, you can just float off the trash as you make the sprouts.

Outlaw, maybe, but I think she’s a classy dame nonetheless!

Sugarloaf chicory – Blanc de Milan

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

This is the time of year for one of my favorite greens, sugarloaf-type chicory (chicorium intybus). There is no lettuce that can compare to a sugarloaf’s crunchy, very sweet and faintly bitter taste, in my humble opinion. Best of all, it’s early December and we are still harvesting sugarloaves right out of the garden, no greenhouse or coldframe.

Snow covers a bed of sugarloaf chicoryBeneath the snow and leaved are delicious greens

We’ve had a few nights down to about 10 degrees F, but a thick covering of maple leaves is keeping the sugarloaves in good shape, and a pea fence laid over the top prevents the deer (who are especially fond of these chicories) from getting them all before we do. There is now some damage to the heads from freezing, but with a little trimming, there are still plenty of crisp, sweet leaves. What’s in the colander below is one untrimmed head, which is plenty for a two person salad.

Ready to trim

I have been working on establishing a naturalised population of sugarloaves in our gardens, with good success, though I’m still trying to understand their cycles better. My limited understanding is not a hindrance, though, because they seem to like it here and do just fine on their own.

We have about 4 different patches, corresponding to 4 different parent varieties: Greenlof, Cornet D’Anjou, Sugarhat, and Blanc de Milan. There is, of course, crossing going on, which is fine – I’m not maintaining a particular variety. I want to develop a hardy strain for our garden.

Blanc de Milan

Blanc de Milan, featured in all the photos here, is the latest strain to be added to the mix, and I am very impressed with it. Above is a cheesecake photo of a primo specimen harvested several weeks ago. Notice the curving, wide leaf veins, the curling leaf edges, the nice thick cylindrical form, and the shear size of it – now that’s what I like in a chicory!

Purchased seed was sown in 2006, and the plants that survived the winter unprotected bolted in 2007. I pushed the tall seed stalks over towards another part of the bed, collected some seed and allowed some seed to fall on to the soil in the bed. The plants here are from the seed that fell, so I guess you could call them volunteers, except that I aimed the mother plants.

Dangerous parsnips

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Parsnip flowersParsnip leaves

I finally unravelled a mystery that had me baffled for 20 years.

Our winters are very long, and in general, we don’t get a lot of sun. This makes me crave the feeling of the sun shining on my bare skin. When it wasn’t winter or “bug season” (which comes fairly soon after “mud season”) I’d often work outside in shorts. I had to abandon this habit, though, when one season I started getting mysterious small burns on my legs that would leave scars for at least a year. I knew it was not poison ivy nor stinging nettles, but could not figure out what it could be. The best guess I could come up with was that it was from handling hot grass clippings when making compost. Since I was not really sure exactly what the cause was, I resigned myself to always wearing long jeans and socks for any kind of yardwork.

Parsnip plants in situ

Yesterday a local newsite had a blurb about “nasty plants,” and of course, how could I not click on that? And there it was – beware wild parsnips, with an exact description of my mysterious burns. The thing is, contrary to this article and all the further info I found on the web, I know that “wild” parsnips and “garden” parsnips are the same creatures, pastinaca sativa. I had been growing parsnips and parsnip seed, and there were escapees from the gardens proper, which was fine with me, as long as they didn’t get too rowdy.

The plants are not a threat unless you cut into the green parts and get the juice on your skin. Beyond our lawn and garden area, we have little meadows that I scythe once or twice a year, and use the cuttings for making compost. The parsnips have a healthy colony in one of them, though I have generally made it a point to mow them down when they’re in flower… and this is how I was getting burned.

Parsnip burn

The reason it was so hard to figure this out is that there is no immediate effect when you get the juice on your skin. But, if the skin is exposed to the sun, the burning starts to happen about a day later, and the skin will actually blister. If you got a lot of the stuff on your skin, you could have some pretty serious and painful burns. The scars can last 2 years.

We have occasionally also eaten very small quantities of parsnip greens in spring, but we’re rethinking that in light of this new information. Parsnip’s appeal as a green is not all that great, anyway. The root is nice for the winter larder, but I will be handling these volunteers far more carefully in their green state.

Here’s a good article about “wild” parsnips.

Beetberries

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Spinach is such a prima donna in my garden. We tend to go from winter to summer weather abruptly, and even when fall planted, spinach is likely to bolt before we get much out of it. Some years we have a great planting or two, but more often I find myself wondering why I bothered to plant it.

There are plenty of greens that can be substituted for spinach, both raw and cooked, but over the years, nothing we’ve tried has particularly knocked me out in terms of culinary quality combined with ease of culture. That is, until getting to know chenopodium capitatum, aka beetberry, or strawberry blite.

Let’s call it “beetberry.” “Strawberry blite” certainly does not do it justice. It volunteers very freely, meaning it grows like a weed. I like that, and haven’t sown it since we first got it quite a few years ago. It pops up everywhere, and any time of the season, so when weeding, I just leave some plants here and there, and also eat the “weedings”. It has both annual and biennial tendencies.

Last fall I left a few that had managed to colonize the more finished cooled-down compost piles, and when the snow retreated in April, there they were, growing like crazy. I am pretty fastidious about keeping a clear zone around the compost area (the flame weeder’s great for that), but I’m a sucker for uber healthy volunteers. Fortunately we had enough compost so that I could work around them.

Chenopodium capitatum in leafy stage

Here they are. That’s just 3 plants, and they’d had a lot of leaves picked from them daily for about 3 weeks when the photo was taken. They certainly responded to the 100% compost! Some of the leaves are the size of my hand, and even though the plants are bolting, they are still making large tender leaves.

The beetberry fruit

And here is the fruit, the beetberry. The color alone is wonderful in the garden, but the fruits are also quite delicious when well grown. Structurally, they are a bit like a raspberry’s cluster of drupelets. The fleshy part is juicy and tender, so delicate that if you touch the ripe beet berry you will get beet red juice on your fingers. The flavor has more than a hint of beet (they’re cousins, after all), and when fully sun ripened they are quite sweet, and a really nice salad component. This is one of those vegetables that you really have to grow yourself. The berries are probably too delicate for a farmer’s market.

Later this season I’ll sow a variety of beetberry called “Sweeter”, to see how the seedlings overwinter. It was bred by Peters Seed and Research to be sweeter and more biennial. Of course, I’ll also take some seed from the compost giants, and see if I can get a repeat performance in a generously fed garden bed.

Where the wild things are

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

My take on permaculture is that before you bring in the heavy equipment and start carving out gardens, orchards and waterworks everywhere, it’s a good idea to get acquainted with what’s already on your land. Here are some photos from a couple of weeks ago of some favorite northern Vermont natives.

Fiddleheads…

Fiddleheads

The ones on the left are ostrich ferns, and delicious raw or cooked. Notice the smooth dark brown papery stuff around the emerging fronds, and the dark green color. On the right is the toxic interrupted fern, which has fuzzy stuff both white and brown on the emerging fronds.

My favorite patch of wild leeks…

Wild leeks

Allium tricoccum. Actually I prefer them at a slightly earlier stage. They have a woody bulb at the base of the plant, which I pulled up for the photo. When foraging, I normally just pinch or cut them off a bit below ground level and leave the woody bulb in the ground, and use them like other green onions. The season for eating coincides with black fly season.

One of the precious few bits of plant lore handed down to me by my grandfather was that the Cowas (the native Americans in this area, my ancestors) would eat lots of these leeks, and rub their sweat all over their bodies and clothes to keep the black flies away. My grandfather also said I wasn’t allowed to do this.

Anyway, the city of Winooski and the Winooski River are named for allium tricoccum.

And the morel of this story is…

morel mushrooms

These and several more large morels appeared under one of our apple trees. I suppose we could have been good little ants and dried or canned some for winter, but they all got sauteed at once in a little bit of olive oil, with asparagus fresh from the garden, and some chopped winooskis thrown on top at the end of cooking. No regrets.