Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Swedish Pea in a California Garden- How Heirloom Edibles Survive for the Next Generation

This year's seed trial: 'Sweet Fall' squash and 'Swenson's Swedish' snow pea

In California we are in the midst of a record breaking drought that has put a sizable dent in what I'll grow in my edible garden this spring and summer. I'll focus on keeping my existing garden alive and forgo planting edibles in every available corner, but I decided to go ahead with my yearly seed trials for Seed Savers Exchange Member Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN), and Rancho Gordo's Bean Buddies Group.

The Mystery and Romance of Seeds
The last two years I tested lettuces through M-GEN that had been grown by families for generations until there was no one left to carry the seeds forward, and a unique variety risked being lost. That's a familiar story. This year when I opened my package from Seed Savers Exchange, I discovered 'Swenson Swedish' snow pea, and 'Sweet Fall' winter squash for my trials.

Grandma Hadley's lettuce was part of the M-GEN trials in 2013
I love the mystery of getting a package in the mail with a special and precious cargo every spring, and I admit I revel in the romance of their stories. Stories carry our collective histories and our favorite foods speak volumes about who we are and where we came from. 

'Swenson Swedish' was brought to the Minnesota by a Swedish immigrant around 1876, then handed down through the family who developed favorite recipes, among them is a creamed Scandinavian dish that I'm anxious to try. (Seed Savers has requested the recipe.)

Preserving Our Stories Through Seeds
Non-profit Seed Savers Exchange has a seed historian, Sara Straate, whose mission is to verify and uncover the stories behind their seed accessions:
In 1987 long time seed saver and SSE member, Will Bonsall, received the seeds "out of the blue" in the mail after the elder Swenson (Alvin) entered a nursing home. Alvin's son Charles Swenson had sent them from Iowa after reading about Bonsall, who began offering it in the Seed Savers Exchange member's yearbook. Charles still grows them, but he thinks he may be the only family member left doing so. 
Through the M-GEN team the peas will be spread throughout the continent and beyond, and no doubt become a favorite of families once more. 

For a map of M-GEN participants click here.

If you are interested in joining the the M-GEN team, contact: mgen@seedsavers.org 

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Creating A Healthy Garden Ecosystem

Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) is a favorite of hummingbirds and bees
In a previous post I wrote that by adopting certain gardening practices you can take advantage of “ecosystem services”, which provide pest control, healthy soil, thriving pollinators, and more.  The goal is to strive for a balanced system where natural processes are encouraged and thrive.

Why bother? In a healthy garden diseases and pests are minimized and you are contributing to the health of our environment overall. Here are my favorite tips for creating a thriving ecosystem in your garden.

The Basics: Food, Shelter, Water
To keep it simple think of it this way: an ecosystem is made up of living things and all living things need the basics: food, shelter (a home, i.e., habitat) and water.  In my garden a combination of California natives, ornamental plants (non-natives), and edibles make up a triad that buzzes with life. The native plants encourage wild pollinators and provide habitat and food. A careful selection of water-wise ornamental plants (a must in California) do the same. Edible plants are a diverse group that includes trees, herbs, perennials of many types, and annuals, which include many of our vegetables. In an ecosystem these plants have multiple roles. 
Scarlet Runner Beans have edible flowers that bees love 

Traditional Lawn Centered Gardens are Low on Diversity
Most traditionally designed gardens in urban areas do not have all of the three components above. The typical lawn-centered garden that is overly manicured with nary a leaf out of place is generally not very biologically diverse. Urban and suburban gardens are often designed to minimize leaf litter and emphasize a significant monoculture of lawn space. All lawns are not necessarily bad, it's the practice of using weedkillers and synthetic fertilizers that do the most harm to the ecosystem, in addition to wasting copious amounts of precious water. 

Furthermore, the flowering plants in these traditional gardens are usually not allowed to form seeds, and they aren't selected for their value as food for wildlife. In fact, some hybridized flowers don't produce pollen (sterile hybrids), which is considered a messy drawback for cut flowers brought into the house! 

In short, the traditionally landscaped garden is low on diversity, and a healthy ecosystem is just the opposite.

Transforming Your Garden 

The Big Three: Edibles, Natives and Ornamentals
In my garden, a combination of California natives, ornamental plants (non-natives), and edibles make up a triad that buzzes with life. I didn’t follow a formula to arrive at this combination- it happened naturally during the process of redesigning our yards. The native plants encourage wild pollinators and other beneficial insects, and provide habitat and food. A careful selection of water-wise ornamental plants (a must in California) do the same, as do edible plants.   

 Chamomile is a lovely ground cover with a delicate apple scent
Among my edible plants I’ve included a variety of perennial culinary herbs that insects love. These herbs have low water requirements: oregano, sweet marjoram, sage, rosemary, winter savory, lovage and different thymes. Allowing them to flower is critical. Not only do they attract pollinators, they are essential for cooking (the flowers are edible too), and can be cut back periodically after flowering to renew their foliage.  With these attributes they are popular in gardens for Mediterranean climates like ours in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Herbs are planted around my raised vegetable beds as permanent companions to seasonal vegetables to maximize pollination and bring in beneficial insects.

Flowering herbs and edibles ensure that my front yard is buzzing with life
Trees and Shrubs
A mature tree is extremely valuable and not readily replaceable. They provide us with numerous benefits that we take for granted at our peril.  A mature tree is an entire ecosystem that contributes (at a minimum) habitat for wildlife, shade, food, organic matter through leaf litter that feeds the soil as it decomposes, they transpire moisture into the surrounding air to regulate the local temperature, and their extensive root systems are part of the ecology of the soil food web. 

In keeping with my strategy of using natives, ornamentals and edibles, here are the trees in my garden: avocado, Meyer Lemon, a Blood Orange, Pomegranate, Santa Rosa Plum, a Pluot, a multigrafted apple, California Buckeye (Aesculus californica), Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron californicum), Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), and Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). 

Our shrubs provide a dense screen along our backyard fence and they are a favorite nesting place for local birds. They enjoy foraging on the ground where wood chips have replaced the lawns, and I provide water in two birdbaths for them.

A Morro Blood Orange
You can build your ecosystem over time as you learn more about the best plants to include for your climate zone.  It’s a lifestyle choice and gradual process of discovery. Select plants that have flowers and seeds attractive to the local wildlife.  

Birds enjoy hunting for bugs in my lush artichoke berm 

Remember that a healthy garden is lively with activity!

Related posts you might enjoy:
Maximize Free Ecosystem Services in Your Garden
The Rewards of a Seedy Garden
Your Garden as Wildlife Habitat
An Inspiring Talk by Toby Hemenway (author of Gaia's Garden)

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fresh Winter Herbs for Tea

At a recent dinner party I delighted my guests with fragrant, soothing cups of fresh herb tea (a.k.a. herbal tisane, or infusion) served with their dessert and picked from my garden only moments before. We had eaten a filling meal, it was late and no one wanted caffeine- perfect! my herbs are always at the ready to pop into a tea pot.  It was gratifying that they enjoyed it so much- a simple pleasure from the garden that I’m especially grateful for.

Use Both Fresh and Dried Herbs 

In my view, herbs are essential workhorses of any garden and many are easy to grow and undemanding. It’s winter but in our zone 9 climate I’ve still got mints, bronze fennel, and Yerba Buena, plus sage, rosemary, oregano and sweet marjoram for cooking. 

In the fall I watched diligently for the first predicted frost so that I could harvest branches of fresh lemon verbena for drying. It's frost sensitive and goes dormant for the winter but the fresh leaves (before frost damage!) dry quickly and store well in an air-tight container. It's my favorite lemon scented herb, and potent too! 

Lemon Verbena dries in a few days in a warm room
An Winter Herb Tea Recipe
I often steep a tea bag or two of chamomile with herbs from my garden. I like to use it as a base to add more body to the infusion. Don't be afraid to add typically "culinary" herbs such as sage, rosemary or thyme. Sage adds a surprisingly pleasant and mild spice to the tea when you add just one or two leaves per pot. 

Clockwise from top: sage, bronze fennel, dried lemon verbena, and basil mint
For a medium sized teapot (holds 2 1/2 to 3 cups of water) use:

2-3 sprigs of fresh mint, any kind (2 to 3 inches long)
1 sprig fennel, any kind (2 to 3 inches long)
1 - 2 leaves fresh sage (the culinary kind)
3 or more leaves lemon verbena, fresh or dry

Optional: 1- 2 tea bags of chamomile

Rinse all fresh herbs with water and shake them dry. Add to the teapot with stems and leaves intact, add chamomile tea bag. Pour boiling water (or just about to boil) over the leaves and steep for 5 minutes before serving in pre-warmed cups. Offer honey as a sweetener. 

Have fun experimenting with herbal combinations and enjoy using what's available seasonally.

Tip: when making herbal infusions steep the herbs while covered to capture any volatile compounds. The herbs in this recipe are known to aid digestion.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke