Edibles add tasty flourish to gardens - and meals

March 6, 2011 

Dale Mathis has a large artichoke plant, foreground, and Vidalia onions at a plot on Seabrook Farm in Hilton Head Plantation. In the background, a heavy weighted cover keeps Mathis’ lasagna garden cooking.

PHOTO BY BETSY JUKOFSKY

  • Clemson Extension will sponsor a one-day course from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. March 26 at The Exchange Park in Charleston. Cost is $65. Details, www.clemson.edu/extension/county/charleston

I like anything that does double duty in the garden. I practice organic gardening but call myself a "sustainable gardener."

These words were said by Amy Dobbs, Clemson Extension Horticulture Agent for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, speaking to a near capacity crowd of Avid Gardeners and their guests at the Plantation House on Hilton Head Island.

A big fan of edible landscaping, Master Gardener Dobbs covers community gardens in all three counties; writes a quarterly newsletter, The Taproot; and wins prizes at agricultural fairs, notably the recent second-place finish with friend Jo Anne Bolland for their "Incredible Edibles" portable garden and a victory at a grow-off competition featuring landscaped yards. Dobbs competed with tilled gardens and won with her no tilling, no weeding, lasagna garden.

"Since first lady Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the south lawn of the White House, sales of vegetable seeds have jumped 30 percent," Dobbs said. "There are now 30 million Americans gardening for food, integrating vegetable plants, with edible fruit and berry plants in yards, in containers, even in rain gardens."

When audience members are fellow gardeners, they are ever alert to hear the take on new varieties, ways of using old favorites and seasonal hardiness of both.

Dobbs knew what we wanted to hear: that Meyer lemon, a cross between orange and lemon that makes great cookies, is one of the best citrus plants that we grow here; we can grow spinach variety Malabar in the hot summer months; and those pretty purple pepper plants need only 3 to 4 hours of sun to produce fruit.

EDIBLES AND WEED CUISINE

There's an incredible edible pink blueberry plant with stunning fall color that's made for container planting. Another good-looking fall container planting might include Swiss chard with red mustard. Swiss chard is very heat-tolerant, and I might add, it also takes extreme cold. A container I planted in November with "Bright Lights" Swiss chard and arugula is still growing. I picked leaves of both one January day when the temperature was below 30 degrees.

Dobbs set me straight on my non-fruiting pineapple guava tree. My 3-year-old tree has not produced flowers or fruit; I have it growing where it gets hot in summer. It does not like reflective heat and may need a mate. It takes two.

Edibles that can grow in the sometimes-dry conditions of a rain garden are sorrel and cardoon. Cardoon plants took a hit this winter but will come back; sorrel remained untouched by frost. Delicate-looking perky pansies proved to be amazingly cold-tolerant, and I continue to pick and use them for edible flowers in soups and salads. When the heat lays them down and out, the buds of daylilies will serve; they are delicious.

Nature has a storehouse of edibles both delicious and nutritious. Wild Foods Forum of Virginia Beach, Va., regularly reports on these. Lamb's quarters is one; it's often called wild spinach. New research shows that it is rich in health-promoting antioxidants. There are dozens of other weeds for the diet: purslane, chickweed, chicory, plantain, dandelions. Most are perennials here and appear in our gardens long before the official spring arrives.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going outside to pick my daily bite of chickweed now growing in two otherwise unplanted containers. It's also delicious; it tastes like uncooked corn on the cob. Chickweed will soon be appearing in salads in some of the top restaurants in major U.S cities -- if they can harvest it from under the snow.

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