In the garden

Swiss chard is a good producer of greens well into the warmer days coming. Protect during the hottest part of the day and keep well watered, and it can produce through fall.

I covered my early planted warm weather crops, prior to the most recent freeze, with overturned pots. My longtime friend and fellow organic gardener, Lalla Ostergren, preferred sheets and blankets but back when she learned I used overturned pots, told me to add a handful of mulch on top for insulation. It made sense then so I’ve continued her suggestion ever since. While adding mulch to my pot tops I couldn’t help but think about her.

By this point in the growing season Lalla used to be reaching a peak of enthusiasm. It started back in December, when she would start planning the coming season’s garden. And continued rising as she began cool weather crops indoors in January and February. But it really started to take off when she moved her transplants into the garden in March. By the beginning of May, she was having visions of bountiful warm weather crop harvests to come, as she moved more transplants out and started to direct sow seed.

I always marveled at her total enthusiasm for gardening. It was more than just a hobby or pleasant activity. It was her life, because from her point of view, it had saved her from the medical diagnosis that she was terminal. So she became convinced that fresh fruits and vegetables, preferably organic and self-raised, had extended her life.

But there was even more to it than that. Lalla had deep wonder about and love of the natural world. She marveled at how all the essentials for a strong mind and body could be found in her garden, yard and surrounding forest. How it was all interrelated fascinated her. She remembered lessons from her moma and grandmother, studied on her own and took courses to become a naturopath. She didn’t care that the medical community tends to be dismissive of this approach because it had worked for her.

As she shared her information with others her fame grew with each passing success story. Individuals and groups came to her homestead to tour and learn. People from across the country wrote and called for advice on what they might do to become more healthy.

She was free with her knowledge and shared her experience with anyone who was interested. She felt an obligation to be helpful, to give back the blessings of health that she had received.

I remember when I first started taking care of her yard, she would follow me around and give directions.

“Oh Jeff, don’t weed out the dandelions. They are just filled with vitamins and minerals.”

“What do you mean Lalla?”

She was delighted I was interested and launched into details. “They’re rich in minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium, vitamins like A, C and K.”

“So you’re telling me you eat these, Lalla?”

“Yes! Young leaves go in my salads, a bit older leaves go in my morning vegetable juice. The roots I make a tea with, which helps digestion, removes toxins from the body, boost the immune system, promotes liver function and ...”

I interpreted, “ Okay, we leave the dandelions. But what about this weed in the flowerbed?”

“That’s purslane,” she said, as if that explained it all. It didn’t, so asked why it was good.

“It’s at the top of the list in omega-3 fatty acids. You know, like the healthy fat in salmon. The stems, leaves and flowers are all edible raw or lightly sautéed.”

“Okay, can I remove that patch of weeds over there,” I asked?

She looked horrified and said, “Oh no that’s lambs-quarters, sometimes called goosefoot, and the leaves are delicious quick boiled or sautéed. It has huge amounts of vitamin K, and lots of A and C, plus calcium and magnesium.”

She saw I was looking at another patch of weeds and immediately jumped in with, “And not that either! That’s plantain. It’s just filled with vitamins and minerals although go ahead and thin out the leaves longer than four inches since it’s new growth that is most palatable. I like to pan fry it a few seconds in olive oil to bring out the flavor.”

I was feeling a bit frustrated about taking care of her yard when I spotted something my grandma Violett had always told me to stay away from when I was a kid.

“There’s something I know you want me to remove,” I said pointing at the offensive plant.

She smiled knowingly, “Stinging nettle? Yes, please be careful of the tiny acid-filled needles.”

Finally, I thought, I found something to weed out, but then she continued.

“I guess you don’t know it’s filled with lots of protein and loaded with essential minerals, like iodine, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, silica and sulphur.”

I laughed and asked, “How do get past the little needles?”

“Use gloves and put it in a bag. The needles fall off when steamed or boiled. It tastes a bit like spinach but more flavorful. I prefer to get all the plants goodness over the winter by making tea. I hang the entire plant up in the harvest room and eventually the needles fall off. Then it’s ready for brewing.”

“I can see working in your yard is going to be very educational, Lalla!”

With a twinkle in her eyes and a half smile, she said, “And very healthy too!”

My original interest in gardening was cultivated by my Grandpa Henry but Lalla helped add a zest and intimacy to my gardening that I had not previously known.

So now as I approach preparing for the my summer garden I pay attention more fully to my plants and their needs. They’re communicating their condition constantly with their appearance and vigor. Paying attention to that can make you a more successful gardener.

For example, when you buy transplants look at all the offerings closely. Some will be larger, greener and more robust than others. Purchase those. After you plant them does their vigor continue or falter? The key is paying attention and learning to read their language. Spotting small changes can mean heading off big problems. Insect damage begins with a little bit, and can be stopped there if you notice and address the issue swiftly. The same applies with diseases, nutritional needs, overcrowding and watering. The more we notice our plants needs and address them quickly, the more our plants will reward us with continued robust growth and productivity.

Let’s finish this month’s column by adding some color to our garden and dinners with edible flowers.

For years I have grown nasturtiums with my cucumbers to deter cucumber beetles, and used their colorful flowers to brighten up my salads. But it wasn’t until Lalla I learned many other flowers were edible.

Most allium flowers are very tasty, including onion, garlic, leeks, shallot and chives. They are all easy to grow and leaves and bulbs can be eaten also.

Squash blossoms are favored by many and often stuffed with cheese, floured and fried. But they can also be added to vegetable stews, top pizza, folded into frittatas, or added to quesadilla filling.

Wild violets, in white and purple, are often added to cakes and other pastries.

Calendulas, known for their medicinal properties, can be used as colorful garnish in numerous dishes.

Pansies and violas are a longtime favorite with many. And like most of the flowers mentioned here, can be dried and stored for later use.

This is not a complete list and you are encouraged to do some research on your own. Finding the perfect flowers for your garden is a process of trowel and error.

Hope to see you in the garden next month.

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