Edible plants in an HOA landscape part 3

Making a yard useful, edible and beautiful poses certain challenges in the ever-changing climate of Austin, TX. Especially if you are gardening in an HOA like I am. Here I’ll be outlining my favorite edible plants for our climate here in Austin that are annuals or biennials. For more information about fruit trees and large shrubs check out Part 1. And for more information about perennials (things you don’t have to replant every year) check out Part 2. This is the stuff you will have to plant every year, or every other year, but does well with little to no supplemental attention so is well suited to being out in the general landscape. A lot of this stuff is tropical in nature so winter tends to kill it. But once it’s in the ground it’s fairly maintenance free. Most of these things, although considered an annual will self-seed readily so it will appear as though they come back year after year.

Vines

Passionfruit – Tropical will die with frost. Needs a support to climb on. I pruned mine pretty hard and just trained it over an arbor to walk under. To get more fruit it will require supplemental water. The leaves and flowers are useful to make a calming tea, and of course you can eat the fruit. This one does not readily self seed but if you save some seeds from a fruit you can sprout them in a moist paper towel then plant it in a pot to grow into a plant over the winter for a new one. No pest problems Sunny location.

Malabar spinach – The red veined variety is beautiful. Super easy, very low maintenance. Readily self-seeds. you can eat all parts of the plant, leaves, shoots, even the berries. (which don’t taste like fruit berries at all and will stain your hands/mouth/teeth a dark purple color. Most pests avoid it although you can see a few holes in the larger leaves on the picture to the left below. It’s used some in Indian cooking and is the only leaf I’ve found that will readily grow during the hot summer here. I have to say I have yet to find a good recipe for it. It’s sort of thick leaves and is a little mucilaginous for my taste to eat on it’s own and raw, but added to a soup or a stew or a curry would probably taste great.

Wild cucumber – This, I believe, is a hybrid from one that i planted in a back corner years ago. It must have been cross-pollinated with a native wild sour cucumber and now I get a volunteer plant in the back by sunchokes every year that looks very odd:

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Nasturtiums – These will give a nice accent to a salad in spring and fall with a peppery tasting leaf and flower both are edible. However summers are too hot for this plant so you’ll have to plant it twice a year to get the most out of it’s growing season. Since they are a little bit higher maintenance I usually plant them among my annual veggies so they get more attention. Slightly shaded/part shade. Here you can see them as an understory surrounding my cucumber and watermelon vines.

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Leaves, Flowers and Herbs

Lemon grass – tropical will die with frost. This legit just looks like a tall grass. I only pull up the fat stems for cooking. Some are spindly and flat like a regular grass blade and that’s what they smell like to me too. The big fat ones are the ones that give off that lemon grass flavor we love.

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Basil – plant it. Water it for a week or two then forget it. Makes a large bushy mass with bee-attracting flowers and is so delicious!! So many kinds of colors and flavors to choose from. Snip back regularly to get a bushy rather than spindly habit. Love putting this one row back from a pathway easy to get to and smells amazing.

Chard – is actually a perennial although it tends to look a little rough after its first year. If you can put it in a place where the caterpillars don’t find it, you can have a beautiful swatch of color.

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Parsley – Makes a beautiful ground cover when planted closely. Tabouli anyone? This is a biennial which means it grows leaves the first year and i=will flower, go to seed and die the second year. If you let it go to seed you can basically just keep having parsley without much effort.

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More:

Pansies – edible flowers. These are quite tough. I plant mine in fall in a part sun location and they last through the winter into spring and only start to piddle off in the heat of summer. You nearly get an entire year from these tough little guys.

Fennel – likes heavily amended soil and frequent moisture. Mine lasted for two years and grew to be 5 feet tall. Attracts butterflies.

Aloe – tropical will die with frost is great in a pot that you can bring inside in winter. You can eat it, but also is useful for sunburns which is how I primarily use it. It tastes a lot more vegetable-like than I imagined (especially after having it in sweetened drinks you can get from trader joe’s) and of course is very slimy.

 

Roots

The no-joke highest output lowest input plant that I have. Throw an inch of dirt on top and forget about it forever plant is Sunchokes. Also called Jerusalem artichoke. What a star. My crappy gumbo clay soil that is hard as a rock is not even a match for this guy. I put it in the back corner which rarely receives any attention -ever. No watering, no weeding, nothing. This plant is crazy. I put one tuber in the ground and I get 4 lbs back in return for no work. Dig them up in fall/winter. usually after a frost when they are sweeter. If they get too cold they start rotting which is fine, you don’t want to eat it then but somehow more plants come up in spring. They look like weedy tall sunflowers. Stick them in a sunny location that doesn’t get much attention and you will be rewarded. Mine grow between 8-12 feet high and produce tiny little sunflower blooms that smell amazing. When the stalks die back completely you can harvest them. If you don’t you’ll just have more next year. I do recommend thinning them to get larger tubers. Put them where you want them. It’s impossible to find all of the tubers and make sure they don’t come up next year. They also have a tendency to spread so unless you want your neighbor to have them in their yard plant at least 2 feet away from your fence line. They are Great in sunchoke soup. It tastes like artichoke soup. It’s really delightful in the winter. I’m experimenting by growing some in a half whiskey barrel this year. We’ll see how it goes but so far so good.

 

More to come.

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Ways to use herbs 9/9/2017

What good is growing an edible landscape if you don’t use it? It’s fun to find new ways to use the stuff out in the yard. The cool and fun thing about it is making things that you wouldn’t be able to find at the store. Growing odd stuff means you get to be a little creative with how it’s used. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use some herbs that are in the general landscape at my place.

 

Sun-Tea

Sun Tea was something newly discovered a few years ago here. It’s super easy and a great way to use fresh herbs from Spring through Fall here in Austin. In its simplest form you can just put a tea bag in a cup of water and leave it outside in the sun. The version I make now varies depending on what is available in the yard. There are herbs strewn throughout the fruit trees along the border of our lawn so all that is required is taking a stroll to see what is available.  The lemon/lime/mint flavors seem to work well. It can be made as simple or complex as desired, but here’s the base recipe:

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Sun Tea (for approximately one gallon):

  • 1/2 -1 cup honey – depends on desired sweetness level (or you could completely leave it out and use stevia.)
  • 1 cup of leaves in any combination (common varieties I use are mint, spearmint, lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon verbena, stevia, and pineapple sage)
  • Juice of a whole lemon or lime – (the skins of the fruit impart an unpleasant bitter pith taste).
  • 5 tea bags. Usually Mint and/or Tazo’s Zen Tea (made of mint and lemongrass)
  • glass pitcher & water

Pour honey into the bottom of the pitcher, throw in your washed herbs and if using lemon & lime juice plunk that in too, and then muddle. The goal of muddling is to bruise the leaves not to tear them. If you muddle for around 2-3 minutes you’re good for sure and you can probably do it in less just fine. Top off your pitcher to the desired level with water, toss in your tea bags (drape the tea tags over the side of the pitcher). Use saran wrap over the top of the pitcher secured with a rubber band so bugs can’t get in. Then plop it in a sunny part of the yard for a few hours. My pitcher will normally be outside anywhere from 4-8 hours. Strain out the teabags and leaves from your tea, press out the remaining liquid from them and refrigerate. (We toss the used up leaves and tea bags back out into the garden.) Serve over ice and drink while it’s cold for the best flavor. It’s amazingly refreshing on a hot summer day. It will last a week in the fridge but mine rarely makes it that long. You can also freeze it into ice cubes and use in a cocktail. Now that sounds like it would be good in some hard lemonade.

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My favorite variations of this recipe so far are:

  • Lemon-Lime = uses lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon grass, stevia Zen tea bags and the juice of a whole lime or two. Good for summer when mint goes dormant.
  • Lemon-mint = uses fresh mint and spearmint, lemon balm, juice of a lemon and 3 mint teabags and 2 zen teabags. Great for spring new leaf growth.
  • Pineapple sage = pineapple sage, stevia, juice of a lemon and zen teabags. Good when running low on minty or lemony herbs.

Experiment and see what you like. It’s super easy to throw together in the morning then you have something to look forward to after work.

Cheers!

Want to kick your drink up a notch and do something a little more boozy? try some Herb simple syrup .

Rosemary-Sage Salt

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This has become a cooking staple in our household. It is something I usually only need to make only once a year. A small mason jar of the stuff will last us the whole year.  It’s super easy to scale the recipe because it just dependent on how many herbs you have on hand to use. Basic recipe:

  • 1 part rosemary
  • 1 part sage
  • 2 parts salt

Wash and dry the equal parts of rosemary and sage collected. Go for similar total volume once the rosemary is de-stemmed. now the part that makes the whole house smell amazing: Chop up the rosemary and sage into the smallest pieces that you can. The goal is to get them to be salt-like sized so you can use it through a shaker (although we never do). When the herbs are chopped it’s time to get your glass container out. Make a thin bottom layer of salt. Aim for 1/8-1/16th inch evenly covering the bottom of the jar. Sprinkle your minced herb mixture in approximately 1/8 inch or less thick evenly over the salt layer. Pour over the top of that an even layer of salt again covering up the herbs completely. when finished, there will be little distinct layers of salt and herbs beautifully ringing the container.

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The herbs are fresh and still have moisture in them, the salt helps draw out the water content of the herbs and I’ve found that if the container is turned upside down on top of a paper towel it has a way to escape. So I leave mine on the counter for a week or two until it looks like everything has evaporated and then seal it up and put it in the cupboard.

 

You can use other herbs too. Thyme, oregano, and lavender would all work well. We love the original so much we haven’t strayed from it yet though. It will last for a year and then the potency of the herbs starts to decline although it is still perfectly edible. My husband will use this to season almost any meat he’s cooking, he’ll put it in ground beef, on lamb, on top of steaks, chicken, to seasoning oven roasted new potatoes… It’s pretty delicious in almost any savory dish you can think of.

Herbed Salad

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It seems like a no-brainer that you can use herbs in a salad. When I think of salad, I still think of pre-washed bagged stuff from the store. But making it out of the yard isn’t hard and is a great way to use some herbs. I will say through trial and error there are some that I would leave out of a salad in the future. The more woody herbs that are perfect for the salt recipe above (rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, lavender) do not lend themselves well to an herbed salad in my opinion. That was an experience getting a mouthful of thyme leaves and an intensely bitter/pine taste and spitting them out again. Those herbs are best left for cooking and infusing drinks.

Things that go well in an herbed salad (in my opinion). Also you can add in some edible flowers for fun. If you have them why not use them?

  • Spring onions / chives & purple chive flowers – oniony taste
  • Society garlic stems & purple flowers/ Garlic chives & flowers – garlicky taste
  • Nasturtium leaves and flowers – peppery taste
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Red veined sorrel/lemon balm/lemon verbena leaves  – lemony & sour taste
  • Chard – nutty taste
  • Basil
  • Mint

Making a base of chard or some less intense flavored leave works the best. but I add in a ton of just random things that are available at the moment and it’s amazing how well it all seems to work together. Just take a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

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