Tag Archives: mint

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)

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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.

Shade Gardening in Northeastern Ohio

A shade covered yard shouldn’t keep you from growing your own food.

Snarky Acres in the shade
Snarky Acres in the shade

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a sunny plot. Trees are great to climb and sit under, but not so much if you want grow vegetables. The first question you should ask yourself is “How much and what kind of shade do you have?” Not all shade is the same. Dappled shade under a tall tree is not equal to total shade on the north side of a building. There are several ways to determine how much sun you have on a given site.  If you are more technological, there are devices that will give you an exact reading, like the Suncalc Sunlight Calculator.  Just pop it into the ground in the morning on a sunny day (which isn’t always available here in Northeast Ohio), and by evening, it will tell you how much sunlight you have at that specific spot. I would recommend setting a phone alarm on your phone to remind you to pick it up at the end of the day. I once forgot about it for several days and thought a mushroom had popped up in the yard until I had a flash of memory.

Here is Suncalc’s definition of full sun through full shade:

Full Sun 6+
›Partial Sun at least 4 hours up to 6
›Partial Shade 1.5 to 4
›Full Shade less than 1.5 hours

Stick it into the ground at your site in the morning, and by evening you'll know how much sunlight you have.
Stick it into the ground at your site in the morning, and by evening you’ll know how much sunlight you have.

Another way to determine how much shade you have is to observe the current plants growing in your yard (including weeds). Both violets and ground ivy (shown below) are indicators you have at least partial shade (if not more sunlight). If the spot in question has issues even growing grass, you probably don’t have enough sun. Just remember that different times of the year will have different amounts of sunlight. For instance, in the spring before the trees leaf out will have much more sun than in the summer.

If you don’t have the time or patience to just observe the site, try some limited trial plantings in pots first. I’d also advise starting with the 2 to 4 hour veggies listed down below, especially the leafy greens.  If those are successful, you can then try plants that need more sun.

violet
Violets
Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie
Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie

›Front Yard Herb Shade Garden

My shade perennial herb garden receiving its one hour of direct light of the day
My shade perennial herb garden receiving its one hour of direct light of the day

2 to 4 hours
Herbs – Chives, Cilantro,Garlic,Lemon Balm, Mint, Oregano,Parsley,Thyme
Asian greens – bok choi, komatsuna, tatsoi
Mesclun
Mustard/Turnip Greens
Scallions
Arugula
Lettuce/mache
Kale
Spinach/Chard

4 to 5 hours
›Peas/beans – bush
›Root veg – beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes, turnips
Swiss chard with stalks

More than 6 hours per day
Tomatoes
Peppers
Eggplants
Corn
Squashes

Identify and Utilize Your Current Weeds

One possibility you probably didn’t think of is identifying and eating your yard weeds (of course only if you don’t spray chemicals on your lawn). Many of the “weeds” we despise are actually edible and good for you. Dandelions are an excellent example of this. The leaves (in the spring), flowers,  and roots all can be eaten. I have a complete list at “Northeastern Ohio Edible Garden Weeds

Mushrooms

Mushrooms are another solution you may not thought of. There are plenty of kits on the Internet that allow you to grow mushrooms under your trees, in your yard, on logs, or even inside your house!

Perennial Food Crops – Part 1

Growing food that doesn’t need planted again saves time, effort, and money.

Sunchoke or Jerusalem Artichoke

The Snarky Gardener was tasked with writing a paper for his permaculture class. This is part 1 of several written about perennial food crops from a permaculture perspective.

Perennial versus Annual Food Crops

With our current agricultural systems, annual monoculture plants rule with corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat being the primary crops. Every year, lots of money and non-renewable energy is used to till the soil, plant the seeds, remove the weeds, protect the crops from insects, and fertilize. Perennial food crops, when planted in a polyculture (ie with many other plants), help to mitigate much of these costs while providing a long term answer to growing our food. This is not to say that annual crops don’t have a place in a permaculture future, but their dominance will need to be reduced for designed systems to work to their full capacity and potential. Biologically, most annual plants are weeds, needing disturbed ground to thrive (thus all the tilling). This churning of the soil is very destructive to the web of life that exists under the surface. Earthworms, fungi, bacteria, and other organisms work in harmony to break down dead plant material and create the conditions plants need to survive and thrive. Perennials reduce the havoc tilling causes as they don’t need to be planted over and over. There are also some annual no-till systems that achieve some of the same goals, like the use of cover crops and special equipment to punch planting holes for corn and soybeans, but unfortunately they have been slow to be adopted.

Conventional Garden Perennials
Strawberries

Some perennials are commonly utilized by gardeners.  Many perennial herbs (like mint, sage, thyme, oregano, chives, horseradish, and lemon balm) are easy to grow (sometimes too easy as mint and horseradish can be invasive).   Living up to 15 years, asparagus is one of the first plants to be eaten the spring.  Its spears can be grilled or baked with olive oil and parmesan cheese.  Strawberries come back year after year, spreading by the use of runners.  Rhubarb (which was planted next to the strawberries by my grandmother) produces reddish stems which can be used in desserts (strawberry rhubarb pie anyone?) or soups.  Note: the leaves and roots are poisonous.

Rhubarb
Sunchokes in bloom
Lesser Known Garden Perennials

Perennials unknown by many people can also be used in the garden.  Ramps (aka Wild Leeks) are found wild in the eastern United States and grow in shady and/or wet areas.  Also a native of the eastern US, the groundnut (a nitrogen-fixer) grows in 6 foot vines and produces tubers that taste like nutty-flavored potatoes.  Sunchokes (or Jerusalem Artichokes) are a North American native related to the sunflower.  They grow from 6 to 12 foot tall and have crisp, sweet tubers.  Egyptian walking onions get 3 foot tall, set bulbs on their tops, and then fall over to spread to others parts of a garden.  Crosnes (or Chinese Artichoke) is a mint relative that spreads using runners and and have crisp, sweet small white tubers.  Good King Henry is a traditional European leafy green spinach relative.  French Sorrel has lance-shaped leaves good for salads.  

Egyptian Walking Onions

Playing in the Dirt in January

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1/4/2014 – potting up rosemary

January in Ohio is tough on the gardener as we have at least 2 months until working our outside gardens is feasible. But today on 1/4/2014, the Snarky Gardener had the opportunity to play in the dirt. I’d been soaking 4 rosemary cuttings and it was time to pot them up. Easy work as I just stuck the rooty ends into the small pots, poured the dirt in, and watered briefly. Luckily I had some starter soil and pots in the house so I didn’t have to make the treacherous trip out into the snow and cold to my storage shed. I’ll have to admit it was fun to get my hands dirty on this winter’s day. These starts are for my January swaps – the Countryside Conservancy food swap and the Food Not Lawns Cleveland seed swap on 1/25.

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1/4/2014 – starting lavender, mint, and sage. The 20 – 3/4″ square soil blocker is on the left and the 4 – 2″ square blocker is at the top of the picture.

Another reason for my dirt play date is the box I received yesterday from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I ordered a full set of soil blockers and wanted to see how they worked. I bought 2 blockers – one that produces 20 – 3/4″ square blocks and another that makes 4 -2″ X 2″ blocks. The really cool part is I added an Insert Set with “dibbles” to my order which will make 3/4″ square indentions on top of the 2″ X 2″ blocks.  This way the smaller start blocks can be added later to bigger blocks as the seeds grow out.  There was also an available single 4″ X 4″ blocker but it was a little out of my price range for now ($99 normally but just went on sale for $93.60 until March).  As you can see by the picture above, I planted lavender, mint and sage.  The mint and sage seeds are a few years old, so I’m dubious if they will germinate.  But if they do, I’ll have more starts for my swaps 🙂

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The outside garden on 1/4/2014. No digging in the dirt out there for the Snarky Gardener.

The Snarky Swapper

On 11/19/2013, the Snarky Gardener attended the Countryside Conservancy Food Swap held at The Grape and Granary (915 Home Ave, Akron OH).  Advertised as a monthly event to “trade homegrown and homemade items with other DIY-ers”, it did not disappoint.  The Snarky Girlfriend (aka SGF) talked the SG into attending the swap two months ago with encouraging results, trading our organic herbs and greens for other things (including beer!).  This time was better as we were much more prepared.

First, we needed to decide what to bring. Thanksgiving herbs (rosemary, thyme, and sage) seemed a natural and straight forward decision. The next idea we came up with was baking dog treats. These used up our organic wheat (which the SGF is intolerant of) plus we added our mint and parsley. My terrier River was a willing taste tester.  I was concerned she wouldn’t like them, though that was sort of silly as she’ll eat pretty much anything. Our third idea was to put some “adult” herb infused vodka marshmallows into little jars. We made this with our basil, thyme, and rosemary a few months ago after seeing it on Pinterest. The SGF used her crafting skills to make our offerings appear more professional though I would love to get some sealable plastic bags with the Snarky Gardener logo. Of course, I need to get an official logo first.  Any suggestions?

Our Snarky offerings - Thanksgiving herbs , herb infused vodka marshmallows, and mint/parsley dog treatsOur Snarky offerings - Thanksgiving herbs (rosemary/thyme/sage), herb infused vodka marshmallows, and mint/parsley dog treats
Our Snarky offerings – Thanksgiving herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage), herb infused vodka marshmallows, and mint/parsley dog treats

The event went well as we traded 2 jars of adult marshmallows, 3 bags of doggy treats, and all 3 bags of herbs. In return, we received bags of wheat and corn flour from Breakneck Acres, the same place we purchased the whole wheat that was used in the dog treats (ah, the circle of life). Also, we got lip balm, chocolate covered pretzels, cookies, bars, and canned goods (all homemade). All in all, not a bad haul. So now we have to come up with what we will bring to the swap next month, though I’m sure they will all have a Christmas theme.

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Jackpot!