Tag Archives: garlic mustard

Visiting the Early February Garden

In the wintertime, I rarely take the opportunity to visit my Northeastern Ohio vegetable garden. This is doubly true in February, as this month is when I often forget I even have a garden. So on a cold, partly cloudy, early February Sunday afternoon, I breached my protocol and took a backyard tour.

Early February 2017 Garden
Early February 2017 Garden

Temperatures hovered in the low 40s, which I have to admit is mild for this time of year. I’d actually been out digging in the dirt a few weeks ago when we got up into the 60s. Why would one be working a shovel during a notoriously slow garden period? To dig up some food, silly. I purposely left potatoes, turnips and Jerusalem artichokes underground to store them. The earth is a much better place to keep these root vegetables from going bad than the refrigerator or the basement. Looking around, those uncovered places were now a dark rich brown. Everywhere else I inspected, the ground was covered with plants or other mulch, just as I planned it.

Garlic Under Straw
Garlic Under Straw

My garden design employs a blanket of organic material, whether it is fall leaves or common weeds. Covered soil is happy soil. Even in this bleak winterscape, the soil is alive with activity, albeit slowed down by the cold. I observed green even underneath the blobs of snow that dotted my raised beds and garden paths. Of course this green was not the bright vivid green of spring, but a dull representative of a future only a month or two away. After closer examination, I discovered some living leaves to sample. The citrus taste of lemon balm, the bitter garlic of garlic mustard, the spinach tang of Swiss chard, and the distinct flavor of oregano all reminded me that warmer weather was around the corner. The straw-mulched garlic peeked out from its blanket, becoming greener by the day.

Garlic Peeking Out
Garlic Peeking Out

Gazing around my semi-frozen field, I realized I had left plenty of untouched vegetable remains as tributes to fall’s frosts. Dead pepper plants stood blackened, as they can’t withstand even a touch of cold. Lamb’s quarters branch towards the sky, spreading their millions of tiny seeds with every winter blast. Tomato vines, long dead, twine through my fencing, reminding me to start their seeds soon for summer planting. Again, leaving these all here was done intentionally, as overwintering “good guy” insects need spaces to hide and survive.

As I returned to my house with numb hands and eyes squinting from the unusual bright sun, my thoughts turned to my perennials, as those need less care and return year after year. Strawberries were visible, even now, though it would be April or May before I’d see flowers. My Egyptian walking onions, so named because they spread themselves around the garden, were weak but present. The sage sat with a few leftover leaves on top like helicopter blades. Twelve-foot high Jerusalem artichoke stalks whipped in the winds, each one marking a treasure trove of calories and fiber we will enjoy this spring. Even the infant trees (maples, walnut, and honey locust) which coexist with my annuals made their presence known, though they all were still hibernating. I guess it takes a gardener to truly see what the future holds for this mostly brown dull rectangle of possibilities.

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)

purpledeadnettle

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.

Northeastern Ohio Edible Garden Weeds

Don’t think of them as weeds. Think of them as dinner.

Looking at my garden, one would think I don’t do enough weeding.That’s on purpose as most of my weeds are edible (not to mention beneficial to my garden’s productivity and soil quality). Many of the plants others call “weeds” were brought to Northeastern Ohio via Europe or Asia as culinary herbs or vegetables. I also admire these plants for their ability to survive the most harsh conditions (including human poisons). I wish my regular garden plants had the same resilience.  Below is a list (in order of deliciousness) of some plants that will turn your weeding chores into simply picking dinner!

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Garlic Mustard. Invasive weed or delicious plant?
Garlic Mustard. Invasive weed or delicious plant?

One of my favorite weeds in my backyard, garlic mustard comes up early in spring and is ready to eat by Earth Day (April 22nd).  The scourge of environmentalists and naturalists as an invasive species, this plant is actually a culinary herb. Garlic Mustard is not related to garlic but instead is a mustard variety that tastes like garlic.  It originates from Europe and has no natural predators in North America (except for the Snarky Gardener).

Best way to eat Garlic Mustard:  Garlic Mustard Pesto with pasta and cheese.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Portulaca oleracea.JPG
Purslane via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portulaca_oleracea

Purslane is one of those weeds that doesn’t really look like anything else in your garden.  It grows best on warm, dry, barren soil (like corn or squash mounds) once the heat of summer really hits. A few years ago when we were going through a drought, this was my only produce from the garden until July and August.  Purslane is a succulent (reminds me of tiny little non-spiny cactuses cacti) so it tolerates lack of water when other plants in your garden are wilting. As for eating, it’s not bad with a slightly sour and salty taste, though can be somewhat slimy. Little known fact:  purslane contains more omega-3s than any other leafy vegetable source.

Best way to eat purslane:  in salads or pickled.

Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album)

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Lamb’s quarters are closely related to spinach and beets and is in the same family as quinoa.  I found this in my yard last year and actually saved some seeds and tossed them into my garden.  The plants I found almost didn’t make it as the friendly neighborhood groundhog seemed to prefer it over other things in the backyard.

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 that 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)

wpid-img_20150509_065214.jpg

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)

wpid-img_20150430_121045.jpg

We all know the good old dandelion.  I laugh 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

Quickweed (Galinsoga parviflora)

Galinsoga parviflora bluete.jpeg

This weed took me three years to identify as it’s not common enough to show up online easily.  One season back a few years, after my last full tilling, this plant bolted like a banshee (is that a phrase people use?) and took over my garden (thus the quickweed name).  Wished I would have known it was usefulness in salads back then.  Would have had a delicious summer instead an endless weed battle that I eventually lost.

Best way to eat quickweed:  in salads

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

bittercress

Hairy bittercress is a bitter herb in the mustard family.  It’s winter hardy and will survive under snow and ice.  It’s pretty small but can be used in salads or as an herb.

Best way to eat hairy bittercress:  in salads before the plant goes to seed

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

purpledeadnettle

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)

Ground Ivy / Creeping Charlie
Ground Ivy / Creeping Charlie

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 nector 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 

Garlic Mustard Pesto for Earth Day

The Snarky Gardener ate garlic mustard to celebrate Earth Day.

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Garlic mustard

It wasn’t until last year that the Snarky Gardener knew that garlic mustard is so invasive in the United States or even what it was. I learned that garlic mustard is a type of mustard that is native to Europe but escaped into the wild here in America. It spreads very easily and is hard to eradicate, especially since garlic mustard’s garlicky smell and taste keeps animals (deer, etc) from eating it. Fortunately for humans, it’s delicious for us if prepared well.

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Garlic mustard at the top left – just to the right of the logs. River is of course digging holes.

The first indication that garlic mustard grew at Snarky Acres was the above picture. Notice the white flowered plants just above the yellow flowered plants (to the right of the logs)? The yellow flowers are Seven Top turnips going to seed. The others are garlic mustard. Over this last weekend, River and I walked the property line next to the woods to see how much garlic mustard we have to make pesto with. The answer ended up being “as much as we want”. So to help the local ecology and my stomach, I made pesto on Earth Day with the possibility of it becoming a tradition (unless of course I eat all the available garlic mustard).

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Too many garlic mustard plants

After a little Internet searching, I found the recipe I wanted to use.

Garlic Mustard Pesto

3 cups Garlic Mustard leaves, washed, patted dry, and packed in a measuring cup
2 large garlic cloves, peeled & chopped
1 cup Walnuts
1 cup Olive Oil
1 cup grated Parmesan Cheese
1/4 cup grated Romano Cheese (or more Parmesan)
Salt & Pepper to taste
Combine Garlic Mustard leaves, garlic and walnuts in food processor and chop. Or divide recipe in half and use a blender. With motor running, add olive oil slowly. Shut off motor. Add cheeses, salt & pepper. Process briefly to combine.

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Garlic Mustard Pesto with Pasta