Invasive Thoughts

Isn’t “invasive” just another word for “abundance”?

Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive invader or abundant producer?
Garlic Mustard. Evil invasive weed or abundant producer?

One of my favorite weeds is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Yes, that invasive biennial that’s the bane of naturalists and ecologists everywhere. Ever since I discovered it a few years ago, it has held a special place in my heart. Most of its detractors (“haters gonna hate”) don’t know a dirty little secret – garlic mustard is edible. It’s in the New World because settlers brought it over from Europe as a culinary herb. Garlic mustard is a mustard green that tastes like garlic and has no natural predators here in Ohio (including our veracious deer and groundhogs). It grows where other plants don’t (shady, wild, and disturbed areas) and makes a really delicious pesto. My garlic mustard adoration stems (pun intended) from its resilience. It’s the kind of resilience and vigor I wish all my plants had.

During a library gardening presentation, I was describing my garlic mustard love. One woman stopped me mid-sentence as she finally put two and two together and realized that I was talking about Garlic Mustard (cue the evil music). She thought I was actually cultivating it, and was abhorred at the idea. For the record, I’m not purposely growing it. I try to harvest as much as I can carry every spring so it doesn’t take over the world. Truth be told, because of its “invasiveness”,  I will never have to cultivate it. Garlic Mustard can really take care of itself.

“Indeed, Homo sapiens is perhaps the weediest of all species, and the more he dominates the landscape, the more he seems to thrive. If we confine the concept of weeds to species adapted to human disturbance, then man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved.”
Crops & Man, Second Edition, Jack R. Harlan,  p. 87

I do find it interesting that people love to villainize flora and fauna with the “invasive” tag. As I was going through my Permaculture Design Course, my instructor Peter Bane wouldn’t even utter the word. He called it the “I word”. This label is put on plants and animals which are seen as invaders from another land. They take over niches that “native” plants have and squeeze them out. Of course, from an environmental point of view, I get the whole “keep our natives native” concept but the problem I see in this discussion is the elephant in the room – us.  

Humans are more invasive than any other creature except maybe cockroaches (you know, the whole surviving nuclear war thing). Yes, settlers did displace the native people that were here in the Americas 400 years ago (thanks to the animal-based diseases Europeans carried with them), but those “natives” have only been on the continent maybe 15,000 years maximum. Considering the Earth is 4 billion plus years old, and humans have only been around a 200,000 years in our present form, native is extremely relative. All I can say is that maybe all our efforts to eradicating invasive species could be put to better use, like creating sustainable ecosystems and using “invasive” resources to feed and warm us when the oil runs out.

Permaculture stresses utilizing on-premise resources.  My plea to you is research the wild plants on your sites. Try to learn as much about them as you can before dismissing them. “How may ways can this plant be useful?” is a question every permaculturalist should be asking (otherwise known as “function stacking”). Many of your “weeds” came to your location as food and/or medicine. Here’s a list (in order of deliciousness) I came up with here at Snarky Acres (my .91 acre Kent Ohio urban farm) by asking this very question.

Fact that only interest me:
Most descriptions I find for unknown edible plants state that they taste and cook like spinach, like the plant version of “it tastes like chicken.”

 Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

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Lamb’s quarters are in the same family as quinoa and is closely related to spinach and beets.  I found this in my backyard last year, saved some seeds. and tossed them throughout my garden. The plants I discovered almost didn’t make it as the friendly neighborhood groundhog seemed to prefer it over other plants in the backyard (which tell’s me it’s delicious). This last season I ended up with about a dozen plants, one was 10 to 12 feet tall, during our mild drought (resistant!). I don’t think I’ll ever need to worry about having enough lamb’s quarters again.

Best way to eat Lamb’s Quarters:  same as spinach

Violet (Viola sororia)

violet

Violets (a perennial) not only show up in my garden, they are also spread throughout my yard.  I didn’t know until last year they are edible but have been eating them ever since. The leaves are pleasant and remind me of spinach.  Like many leafy greens, the earlier in the season the better.

Best way to eat violets:  leaves and flowers in salads

Plantain (Plantago major)

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Also known as white man’s foot, plantain is a yard and garden staple. It loves compacted soil, so you’ll notice it growing near where there is a lot of foot traffic. The leaves are full of nutrients with a spinach like taste. Plantain can be used medicinally for bug bites and scrapes.

Best way to eat plantain:  same as spinach

Dandelion (Taraxacum)

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We all know the good old dandelion. I laugh (just in my head) when people talk about eradicating them from their yards. Not only can it be eaten, but it helps in other ways.  The yellow flowers give bees pollen early in the season when they need it the most.  Its long tap root brings up minerals and nutrients that are then utilized by your garden plants.  Just hoe the plant down and use the leaves as mulch around your veggies.  Don’t worry – the tap root stores plenty of energy and will help the plant grow back in no time.

Best way to eat dandelions:  young leaves in salads, flowers in fritters, and roots in beer or wine

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

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In the mint family. purple dead nettle is a bee favorite.  It comes up early and often on bare ground in gardens.  As a salad addition, the taste isn’t the greatest but a few flowers at a time doesn’t hurt too bad.

Best way to eat purple dead nettle:  just a few flowers in salads

Ground Ivy/Creeping Charlie) (Glechoma hederacea)

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Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie is a ground cover in the mint family. It’s not my favorite food but the bees seem to love it. Ground Ivy’s little purple flowers give plenty of nectar to small native insects. It’s strong mint-like flavor makes ground ivy a good companion plant and natural mulch.

Best way to eat Creeping Charlie:  it’s too strong for my taste, but I’ve read it makes a good tea. 

Permaculture creates abundance through nature” – Don Abbott

Seven useful weeds listed (including garlic mustard) and many not mentioned, including quickweed, hairy bittercress, purslane, multiflora rose, , and poison ivy (just kidding), raspberries, pigweed, and pokeweed. Pretty impressive.

Another place I hear the “I-word” is with common herbaceous perennials. Everybody knows that the mint family (including the Creeping Charlie mentioned above) can run amok if left unchecked. I even relocated my chocolate mint from my main garden to a more secure and bordered shady plot next to my house. I wasn’t as careful with my oregano and lemon balm though, and both have taken over a few areas of my production garden. What’s not always discussed with the mint family is their wonderful purple flowers. The oregano especially ends up looking like a pollinator airport once the flowers open up for business. Bees (both native and the non-native honey bee) and predatory insects swarm all over to the point I have to avoid the area completely so not to get stung.

“The common definition of a weed – that is a plant in the wrong place – conceals two important implications. Firstly, the word “wrong” implies a human opinion, since right and wrong are human concepts not inherent in nature. Secondly, the word “place” implies some characteristic dependence on environment, or in other words an ecological relationship, and clearly that relationship has to do with man’s own botanical activities in farming.” – A.H. Bunting (1960)

The invasiveness of weeds is a human judgement. We as humans put values on things we often don’t understand. Both honey bees and earthworms are not native to my eastern United States home, but everyone accepts them as a positive thing. Some day I’m going to ask those who describe living things as invasive to explain to me why these two examples (plus us humans) don’t count. Should make for an interesting conversation.

How to Grow Potatoes in Clay Soil

The Snarky Gardener loves growing potatoes even though heavy clay soil dominates his region of Northeastern Ohio.

New potatoes
New potatoes

I recently came across an article on the Internet about growing potatoes in the garden from the Penn State Extension Office. I decided to read through it even though I’ve been successfully growing them for the last 10 years or so. According to this article (much to my chagrin), I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.

Potatoes mulched with fall leaves
Plants mulched with fall leaves

“Potatoes grow best in soil that is well drained, loose and high in organic matter. Soil that is too sandy, rocky, or clay is not good for potatoes.”

This is true, but we don’t always have perfect conditions. My research found mention of taters being used to break up clay soil back in the day, especially in areas previously covered with grass. I believe the process of hilling up soil and organic materials around the growing plants assists in the soil building process. I’ve used both straw and fall leaves to cover the stems with nice results.

“The soil should be tilled at least 10 inches deep or double shoveled and raked. The PH for growing potatoes is 5.5 to 6.0 which is lower than most vegetables as potatoes favor a more acid soil.”

Um – normally I don’t till and all this shoveling and raking sounds like work to me. Usually I just dig a small hole or run my hoe down east and west to make a furrow. Then I drop seed taters in and cover them up with soil and/or leaf mulch. As for pH, it’s never been a major concern for my little gardening mind.

“Last years potatoes or grocery store potatoes should not be used as seed potatoes, use only certified seed potatoes which are state inspected.”

This rule is usually not broken unless I have spouted stored potatoes and extra ground to bury them in. I’ve been known to plant a potato variety I’ve seen at the farmer’s market if I haven’t seen anywhere else. This being said, my recommendation is to buy certified seed whenever you can.

Potatoes need 1.5  inches of water per week, more during dry spells. Do not water from above but by drip irrigation or soaker hose. Weeding potatoes is essential to disease and pest control, however you can grow potatoes using plastic mulch. The mulch can be cut with a bulb planter every 12 inches and hand planted in rows about 18 inches apart. Drip irrigation works well with this method of planting.

As a rule, I don’t water my garden unless we are in a drought. Spuds I’ve grown in the past seem to have survived just fine without the water. Hoeing and hilling the dirt around the potatoes keeps weeds down naturally. Also, I’m not one to use non-organic materials for mulch, but if you want to, be my guest.

“Potatoes can get early blight which are small circular brown spots with a target like spot in the middle. This will kill plants and is caused by plant debris overwintering in the bed you plant them. Plant rotation is extremely important with potatoes. Do not grow in the same bed for 4 years. Clean up the garden in fall.”

I try to keep from growing members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, and ground cherries) in the same place for 3 years, which is the minimum time suggested by most experts. I’m not always able to accomplish this as I grow A LOT of tomatoes and taters. To keep this all straight, I utilize GrowVeg.com planner software. This platform lets me know if I’ve grown something from the same family in a specific spot in the last 3 years. I don’t always take the advice (especially with legumes like beans and peas) but the Nightshade family does get my respect.

“Common Scab is caused by a bacteria that can be in the soil for a long time, even when potatoes were not planted  in that spot. The main cause is decomposing material such as vegetable matter not cleaned up. Using an acid based fertilizer can sometimes help, or find another place to plant.”

The Snarky Gardener’s tubers were infected with common scab a few season’s back. They tasted just fine, but it was a concern. After reading up on the subject and doing a soil test the following year, I traced the problem down to high pH (7.4). I haven’t planted nightshades in that area since and haven’t seen scab on my taters grown in other places either.

Mulching potatoes with straw
Mulching potatoes with straw

My takeaways from the Penn State Extension Office article:

I’ve been growing potatoes in our Northeastern Ohio clay for the past decade. Besides a small common scab issue, I’ve had little to no problems. I do appreciate advice given by people who have WAY more experience and knowledge than the Snarky Gardener. The article was written from the “maximizing potato output” point-of-view. My gardening designs lean towards minimizing labor, soil disturbance (“low-till”) and “outside my property” inputs. This means I might not get the biggest or best harvests, but I will always get something. And isn’t that the goal of every gardener?

I’ve also learned that I don’t follow instructions well (never have, never will). For me, gardening is as much art as it science. If we aren’t allowed to try our own systems and practices, the fun of the garden is removed. And I’m all about having a great time out in my yard, even if it’s hard work sometimes. Nothing beats growing plants, harvesting produce, and eating meals created with food that you grew (even if you are not following the directions).

By the way, here’s a really cool Ruth Stout interview including her planting potatoes. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

The Snarky Gardener’s Beginning Vegetable Gardening Video

On April 21, 2016, the Snarky Gardener gave a presentation on vegetable gardening for beginners at the Kent (Ohio) Free Library. The audio isn’t the greatest, but hopefully you’ll gain some new information.

Subjects covered:
1. Gardening Definitions
2. Plant Families
3. Easiest to Grow Veggies
4. Gardening Advice

Here’s the video of my dog that didn’t work:

Weeds Can Be Your Friends

The Snarky Gardener knows how to turn weeds into allies. Or at least keep them from being a problem.

No-till, mulch and homemade weeds - what a combo!
No-till, mulch and homemade weeds – what a combo!

On the Mother Earth News blog, I wrote an article describing my techniques to bring your weeds down to a dull roar. There I listed 5 different ideas to mitigate garden weeds (including eating them). I personally think “weeds” are misunderstood. Unless an unwanted plant is literally shading out one that needs the sunlight, there is no reason to remove them. Most of my weeding is preventative, meaning I remove plants going to seed that I believe I have plenty of (grass and quickweed for example).

So here’s the list:

  1. Low till – tilling brings up weed seeds
  2. Mulch – to keep weeds from growing in the first place. I usually use fall leaves or straw, especially with my potatoes.
  3. Utilize them – many “weeds” are edible
  4. Cover crops – keeps the soil covered while enriching it
  5. Make Your Own – turn your seedier veggies (like lettuce and turnips) into edible weeds
  6. Plant closely (especially beans) – closely planted vegetables naturally shade out other plants

I left out number 6 from my Mother Earth News blog post mostly because including it didn’t occur to me until after it was released. It’s worked with green beans but I might try it with bush zucchini also. Just have to find the right sweet spot between crowding and too weedy.

Turkey Cottage Pie with Sunchokes and Turnips

The Snarky Gardener welcomes Brooke the Cook to the blog. She has created a recipe to use up his abundance of sunchokes, potatoes, and turnips.

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Photo Credit: gkdavie cc

Turkey Cottage Pie: is it a shepherd’s pie or pot pie?

Inspired by the bounty of root vegetables at Snarky Acres, this recipe combines the rich filling of a shepherd’s pie (sans sheep), the abundance of turkey left-overs available after the holidays, and is topped with low-glycemic white root vegetables to balance the body.

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I recommend pairing this delicious casserole with a side of steamed asparagus or green beans, and a fresh salad of mixed greens.
Serves 6.

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 cups root vegetables (choose low GI: (Jerusalem artichoke/sunchoke, celeriac, white turnip)
  • 1 potato (see note below)
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 cup sweet peas, fresh or frozen
  • 1lb / 450g turkey
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp chilli powder or reduced sodium Old Bay spice
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup flour (all purpose, gluten free or chickpea)
  • 1 cup white wine (or filtered water)

Topping

  1. Roughly chop the root vegetables and potato. Boil in 3 cups of water until soft (15-20 minutes). Partially drain and set aside.

Note: Russet potatoes will give it a lighter-fluffier mash. Yukon Gold will give a smooth but heavy texture. Red or white skin potatoes can quickly turn gummy. For the best texture use a masher. Do not use a mixer or it will go gummy.

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Filling

  1. Finely dice the carrot, onion, garlic and celery. Sauté for 5-7 minutes, or until soft. Sprinkle flour and add wine and spices. Stir well and cook for 3-5 minutes more. Set aside in a dutch oven or oven-proof casserole dish.
  2. Scramble fry ground turkey, drain. If using left-over roast turkey, chop finely 1-2 cups and pan fry 3-5 minutes to warm. Add the turkey to the vegetables. Note: For a vegetarian option, replace the turkey with 1-2 cups of cooked lentils and/or quinoa, combined.

Assembly

  1. Mash root vegetables with a pinch of salt. Beat until smooth. Spoon evenly over the filling. Bake 40 min at 375F. Let stand 5 min.
  2. Serve with steamed asparagus or green beans, and a salad.

What’s your favourite way to use up left-over turkey?

In health and friendship,
Brooke

Brooke loves to cook, hence the nickname. She is passionate about eating for pleasure and nutrition. Her recipes are health-conscious, though she does enjoy a satisfyingly-rich dessert. If you like what you read, please leave a comment below and subscribe for new recipes at weekbyweek.ca.

Let's Grow Some Veggies!