Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Five Summer Veggies for the Home Cook to Grow

As a gardener I'm a great grocery shopper. I come from a long line of excellent gardeners, yet whether it's my lack of absolute dedication or the ever-compacting clay soil in my little pocket yard, I have yet to attain the success of my mother or her mother in growing a sustainable harvest even just for myself.

My Nana had a victory garden of at least an acre in East Los Angeles during the Depression and going into the privation of World War II. My mom recalls her using fish bones from the fish monger to fertilize the soil and growing every vegetable you can imagine, as well as berries and tons of flowers. My mom inherited this talent. She's like a plant whisperer. They respond to her with magnificent offerings--Meyer lemon trees weighted down with golden fruit, basil plants bursting with clean wide anise-scented leaves, eggplants and tomatoes enough to make Italians weep with delight.


Me? I compost and compost and the soil still seizes up. I get white fly on my Meyer lemon trees that never quite goes away. And some little varmints are stealing my ripe harvest.

And yet. There I am year after year tending to this lovely little space, and despite my shortcomings and that of the soil, I usually get a small if regular crop.

All this is to say if I can do it, so can you.

This isn't a gardening blog, but many home cooks love to grow their own food. I'm no different. There's such joy in picking a cucumber or pepper or handful of tiny cherry tomatoes that I grew from seed or seedling. It makes cooking and eating them that much more satisfying. My year-round edible garden includes Mexican tarragon, Greek oregano, English thyme, garlic chives, Italian parsley, Meyer lemons, limes, Thai chilis, sorrel, and a basil bush that produces year round. Then there are the seasonal plantings. In late spring, I planted three types of cherry tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, zucchini, string beans, basil, more chiles, plus some strawberries. Some are in pots; some in the soil. All seem to be thriving so far.



So, given my tendency to growing failure, I thought I'd offer up some suggestions for what does work and, hopefully, give inspiration to the soil challenged.


Let's start with my annual favorite: Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. I grow these in a large pot on the sun-drenched part of my patio. In the 13 years I've lived in my house I think I've only had one year of failure. This variety is easy to grow and you may find that the only reason you have nothing to bring into your kitchen is because you've munched on all the ripe ones while hand watering. They're like eating candy. But if you do have enough ripe at one time to make a meal, halve them and serve with fresh ricotta and a drizzle of olive oil on toasted sourdough bread. Or toss with pasta and pesto. Or mix with watermelon chunks, feta, and basil leaves as a salad, drizzled with olive oil and thick balsamic vinegar.



Japanese eggplant: I've always grown this successfully in a pot but after working my garden soil decided to try planting it in the ground this summer. And, woo hoo, I've got gorgeous fruit coming in. I only have one plant so my harvest will be limited, but when the first little guy is ripe, it'll probably be sliced lengthwise, pierced in a few places, then layered first with a thick coating of minced garlic and olive oil, followed by a layer of grated parmesan before heading under the broiler for a few minutes. Of course, you can also stir fry or grill these slender eggplants, or even pickle them.


String beans: This was an experiment last year and they did so well, I got another couple of plants this year and, as you can see, they're popping out! These bush beans are pretty easy to manage and I love the sweet crunch they give when fully ready for picking. If I can keep from just snacking on them, I like to blanch them and include them in a summer salad with sliced radishes and cucumbers, tossed with a light vinaigrette.


Zucchini: This black zucchini variety--like almost any zucchini variety--has a mind of its own and its mind says "Be fruitful and multiply!" I can never decide whether to pick the gorgeous blossoms and stuff them or wait for the fruit. Currently I'm waiting for the first fruit to mature. Once I've had my fill, the blossoms will be snatched for stuffing with creamy cheeses before being dunked in a light beer batter and fried--or simply chopped and added to a quesadilla or omelet. I love having choices!



Peppers: No matter how bad things get in the garden, which includes stealing by varmints, peppers are my salvation. The local thieves don't seem interested in them. I've had one Thai chili plant for years and it keeps popping out the hot stuff every summer. Last year I planted a Hungarian pepper plant that produced beautiful round fruit. I never pulled it and once again it's heavy with green balls that will eventually turn a vibrant red. The same with my bell pepper plant in a big pot on the patio. It just keeps giving and giving so long as I water, feed, and weed it. I also have new serrano and jalapeño plants, both full of fruit, planted in the ground. It's so cool to make a salsa and just go out the door with a little clipper to harvest what I need.

This morning I did one of my favorite garden chores--I fed the plants with fish emulsion, a byproduct of fish waste. This stinky source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is fabulous for photosynthesis, flowering, and fruit development. And, with its potent odor, it's the rare plant food that makes you feel like something's happening from the moment it hits the soil. When I feed them fish emulsion I feel like I've really done something wonderful for all my little garden babies.

You don't need me to share the plentiful variety of gardening resources out there, whether online or at the bookstore (although I will give a shout out to my high school friend Nan Sterman, who has a terrific KPBS show called A Growing Passion). All I can emphasize is that you should buy non-GMO seeds or seedlings from reputable resources, use lots of compost to both amend your soil and protect it from the heat, and water as needed. I've gotten in the habit of keeping a pail in my shower to collect water since we're in a drought. That helps. So does composting. And to keep nasty bugs at bay, use natural pest control--whether it's planting flowers that attract insects that will eat your critters or spraying with non-toxic, natural pesticides. Soon you'll also start seeing bees and hummingbirds. That's when you know you've created a magical little ecosystem.

What else? Oh, how about have fun!


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