Throw on your grubby clothes, folks: The warm season is just offstage and out in the kitchen garden, the cool weather crops are setting seed and the compost pile is raring to go. Once again, it's the season for planting tomatoes, beans, papalo, sunflowers and good old corn.
Hold on. Papalo?
Papalo is a Bolivian herb that tastes distinctly like cilantro. If you've grown cilantro, you know that it goes to seed as soon as the temperature reaches 80 degrees. Hence, cilantro is short-lived here. By planting papalo in the spring instead, you can toss together homemade chilaquiles and garnish them with homegrown spice in the dead of August.
Well into my second decade of following the gardening maxim, "something old, something new," I'm wholly devoted to unearthing fresh things to grow. I'm a gardener first and a farmer not at all, so I can play with my food. My list of indispensable plants expands every season. And apparently, I'm not alone.
"People, I think, since 9/11, are starting to use their yards like they did 100 years ago," says Jimmy Williams, owner of Hayground Organic Nursery. "The interest in homegrown, edible gardening has quadrupled in just the last year. I see young people, young teenagers, growing unusual tomatoes these days. And I got a lady growing rat tail radish, which has a beautiful flower. Not many ornamentals are prettier than that. We've got people trying all kinds of different things. I've got a new, rare kohlrabi from Sweden. Grows to 10, 20 pounds."
Creamy-white Casper eggplants actually look like eggs. But if it's truly exotic eggplants you're hankering for, such as the 6-foot-tall, head-thumping, African Tree eggplant, talk to Williams at the Hollywood Farmers Market on Sundays.
In the "something old, something new" philosophy, "old" might refer to the Armenian cucumbers you'll raise again this year. Great choice. But why not try pepino dulce? Pepino dulce (meaning "sweet cucumber") has a flesh that reminds the taste buds of cantaloupe and cucumber, and an amber skin squiggled with violet-purple graffiti. The fruit, close in size to a Roma tomato, is a classy addition to both your garden and your plate. What's more, pepino dulce is vastly easier to grow in this town than thirsty cukes are.
The amaranth you let go to seed seven or eight years ago will, as it always does, poke up in the garden wherever it sees fit to. If it's thoroughly out of place, pluck it up and add it to the manicotti. Otherwise, let the "keepers" grace your land with their gaudy summer plumes of burgundy and gold, picking a few leaves, as needed.
Quinoa, like amaranth, is a South American grain crop possessing leaves you can cook as a potherb. Planted from seeds available straight from the bulk bins at Whole Foods, it requires semi-arid conditions for growing, which is exactly what we've got. Quinoa is a goofy-looking plant and it gets fairly tall, so inter-plant it with something traditional, perhaps Russian sunflowers (whose young leaves you can cook up too).
Stevia, a non-caloric sugar substitute, embroiled in an ongoing debate as to whether it is 200 times or 300 times sweeter than sugar, is a must-have herb. Experts do agree that stevia grows quite nicely here (nicely enough to be sold at hardware stores) and that it's wicked cool to use a sprinkling of stevia leaves in your homegrown, herbal iced teas. For example, this spring pinches of new growth from your Camellia sinensis (a petite, white flowered camellia) can be steamed and dried, then steeped with stevia for a delicious pot of white tea. Your summertime choice might be the Long Life Tea, brewed from the leaves of gotu-kola, a shade-tolerant groundcover. According to "Cornucopia II, a Source Book of Edible Plants," gotu-kola tea "was regularly consumed by Professor Li Chung Yon, who reputedly lived 265 years and married 24 times." Who wouldn't want some of that? Sweetened with stevia, no less?
Jerusalem artichokes, commonly dug up and eaten by the Founding Fathers, are often overlooked today. They're not from Jerusalem and they're not artichokes, so, in a way, it's fitting that they should be described as "nutty." The tasty rhizomes can be eaten raw, steamed or baked. Again, starter roots can simply be bought from an organic market. They're invasive, so plant them in a big pot and thrill at the extra bonus Jerusalem artichokes provide: flowers — jillions of little sunflowers. These plants can tolerate light shade so they can also be used to brighten an otherwise dappled corner of your world.
And, naturally, you'll want tomatoes in your garden. To not plant tomatoes in the kitchen garden is a scandalous act, an embarrassment to the neighborhood. I'll plant my old stand-by, Mr. Stripey, because I have grown the lightning-struck fruit every year since discovering it at an heirloom tomato sale. But there are new ones to try, 'Black From Tula' could be this year's choice if you are keen on the complex, smoky flavors of black tomatoes. You'll find all the tomatoes you need at Tomatomania, a weekend festival at three different Southern California locations in April (see above) but these days most nurseries carry a healthy selection of heirloom and hybrid varieties. It's almost too easy to find tomatoes in newfangled shapes, sizes and hues.
David Diaz, whose nursery, Bountifull Gardens, sells heirloom tomatoes as well as a whole slew of other hard-to-find flowering plants, believes that "people are looking for the old flavors, the tastes they remember from when they were kids. So, customers are planting what they can't find in the supermarket. It makes them happy."
Maybe it's just that. Maybe we experiment with dishes from other cultures, plants from faraway lands, fruits from times long ago, because to do so makes us happy. Is there any other reason necessary?
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Where to start
For heirloom, antique and hard-to-find plants, try these resources:
David Diaz, Bountifull Gardens in
Lake View Terrace. Call for an appointment: (626) 833-6814.
Tomatomania! April 1-3 tomato
seedling sale at Tapia Brothers Farm Stand, 5251 Hayvenhurst Ave., Encino, (818) 905-6155; April 14-17 at South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa; April 29-May 1 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, (626) 821-3222.
Jimmy Williams, Hayground Organic Gardening at the Hollywood Farmers Market, or call to make an appointment: (323) 216-0379.
Tony Kienitz is the author of "The Year I Ate My Yard."