The veggie garden is ankle- to calf-deep in miner’s lettuce this time of year. It began with a single generous packet of seed a few years ago, and now it comes back reliably–if by “reliably” you mean “with a vengeance.”
It’s spread onto walkways, in cracks of concrete next to the house, even in the scrappy little patch of green that’s left of the much larger lawn. But hey, it’s a California native. It’s edible. It’s pretty.
It has perfoliate leaves–leaves that when mature can completely encircle the stem, making it appear as if the stem pierced the leaf. And it pulls up easily enough from where you don’t want it. Definitely easy to like.
If you don’t want it to re-seed, just pull (and eat) the greens by the time they begin to flower. But if you want to encourage the plant’s spread, let a few of the plants bloom, set seed, dry and then crumble the dried plants wherever you want plants next year. It’s not a super-meticulous method of propagation, but it works as long as you don’t cultivate the soil too intensely.
Calflora shows Claytonia perfoliata to inhabit many coastal valley to foothill locations statewide. And there’s a herbarium sample that was collected just down the block from me. It can get by with no added water, but will give you a nice kitchen crop when kept just-moist. Sun exposure: full sun to dappled shade. It’s pretty adaptable and just about the easiest thing to grow.
Edit, March 15, 2023: In the 5 years since I wrote this appreciation the colonial name of “miner’s lettuce” is being retired for the less colonial name of “indian lettuce,” or, probably better, “rooreh,” its name in the language of the Ohlone people, one of the peoples to have used (and to currently use) this plant. “Rooreh” is now the common name you’ll find listed in many sites, including the Jepson e-flora.
What kind of vegetable gardener are you? Do you spend winter charting out rows and developing timetables for when things needs to go into the ground? Or does chance play a big part in what’s in your veggie garden?
Here’s a photo of one corner of my small veggie garden, proof that I’m definitely of the second school. I do a little tiny bit of planning. And I drool a little over veggie catalogs just like most of us do. But the garden that develops has a lot to do with what the garden wants to be this year, as much as what I want it to be.
I like chard. Chard likes me. For me it’s easy from seed. And if I buy a sixpack of something and let half of it go to seed, there’s usually enough chard plants coming back from seed for two or three years. In my near-coastal San Diego garden chard produces almost year-round, so it’s one of the backbones of the veggie garden. Russian red kale can do the same for me, though looking around the garden it’s time to get another generation going… Soil nematodes will eventually find both of these plants, so I like to give the plants a break and rotate what I’m growing.
Another staple that returns reliably is miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata. Once the weather cools and the rains start up it comes back all over the garden. You can find this fairly common California native state-wide when you’re out on the trail, and you’ll also find occasionally find it on the menus of adventurous restaurants.
The crisp-to-slightly succulent foliage has a mild flavor, something like spinach, but what makes it really cool are the rounded leaves that grow all around the stem (perfoliate leaves) when the plant begins to bloom mid-spring. Be sure not to pull out the youngest plants, which have long, strappy leaves. And don’t lose patience when you only get heart-shaped leaves for a while. (Call them “lover’s lettuce” and use them for a Valentine’s Day salad!) The anticipated round leaves will come, along with starry little white flowers on a short stem in the center of the round leaf. Very cool, and definitely worth the wait.
A little planning went into some of the other things in the garden. Pod peas are great this time of year, so I planned ahead to get some seeds into the ground in late October. Super Sugar Snap did well for me last season so I planted more of that variety. Unfortunately the raccoons dug up and dined on most of the seedlings, so I’ll be running a comparison with another pea variety, Oregon Sugar Pod II–racoons willing.
And what else? There’s some leftover dinosaur kale from two seasons ago, still alive, worth a salad every few months. And leeks. I’ve never had much luck with them, probably something to do with not watering them enough and not mounding soil around the developing stems. But the raccoons don’t seem to like them so far.
And strawberries, used in the garden more for groundcover and attractive green foliage than for berries. When they bear, it’s a great snack for the gardener pulling weeds. The berries almost never make it into the house.
And in the middle of all this randomness is a young tangerine tree, covered with delicious orange ornaments right now. Part of my veggie garden slacker-ness I blame on the tree. The plant is developing its root structure in the same place I have many of the veggies. The frequent cultivating and digging that goes with a traditional veggies garden would hurt the tangerine’s roots. So…more reason to only occasionally disturb the soil to plant things or pull them out. As the tree matures it’ll create more shade, as well as having a larger root system. By then it’ll be time to find a new spot for the veggies.
Until then, there’ll be a nice supply of ingredients for nice lunches like this one, with miner’s lettuce from the garden and crunchy kohlrabi from the store.
And no, I do not live inside Sunset Magazine. The rest of the table looks something like this, complete with reading glasses for the morning paper and fluorescent pink string to amuse the cat…
Some folks in my office organized an event where we’d bring in our excess fruits and veggies and do a big exchange for some of the other things people brought to share.
My main time of having excess food in my garden is around March, when the grapefruit tree goes crazy. Now in the late throes of summer, the garden basically had herbs to share–I didn’t think the figs would make it intact in a tight backpack as I scootered to work. So here’s my little pile of offerings: rosemary, parsley, lemongrass and rose geranium. People weren’t convinced that rose geranium was edible, so I also brought a couple recipes. [ Here’s one of them. ]
I didn’t feel so bad that my figs didn’t make it in. Someone had three trees of green figs, all of them ripening at the same time.
We have another gardening artist in the building. He had some potted tomatoes and sweet peppers to share. I helped myself to one of the peppers, Doux Long d’Antibes, a long sweet pepper from up the coast from Cannes.
And here’s this glorious collection of hot peppers. I love my hot peppers, but being fairly coastal I have a hard time growing them. This gardener lives inland a few miles, so the little bit of extra warmth helped her get this great crop. So of course my haul included a few of these as well.
This was the first time that this food swap was tried at the office, and I’d definitely call it a success. You reach a point where even neighbors and family don’t want to see you headed their direction with a bag of fruit.
I’m hoping we can do this again, maybe in the late winter, when I’ll have kale and chard to spare, along with a tree full of amazing grapefruit…
One night a week and a half ago, when much of the world was watching the final “American Idol” showdown between Adam Lambert and Kris Allen or viewing the finale of “Dancing with the Stars,” almost a hundred of us were at the local native plant society meeting to hear Kristie Orosco. Environmental Director for the San Pasqual Band of Kumeyaay Indians, ethnobotanist, and member of the Native American Environmental Protection Coalition, our speaker gave us a quick introduction to how some of the local Native Americans traditionally used plants in their environment as food.
She was one of those rare communicators, a person who with a very few words can take you into a different way of thinking and seeing the world. One thing she said, in particular, has stuck with me. Instead of stating that a plant blooms, she used the phrase that a plant “gives it flowers.” What a gorgeous way to phrase it: Instead of a plant being an inert blooming machine that you pick up for a few bucks at the nursery and toss when it turns ugly, it was a living entity that gives of itself by producing flowers.
How you say something is as important as what you say, and her words opened up a world to me where everything in nature is a gift. Although I’ve developed a cynical side to my personality, I’ve tried to counter it by keeping alive a part of me that continues to stay amazed at the things of the natural world and almost willfully naive about many of the ways of humankind. It’s that second side of me that’s certain that the earth would be a lot better off than it is if we all spoke and viewed the landscape the way Kristie Orosco did.
You often read that the plants you encounter in the wilds have traditional uses, but it’s not until you’ve had direct experience with the uses that the connection really clicks. To cement that connection, our speaker brought foods for all of us to try, enough to cover several large tables.
On the menu:
Shaawii, or acorn pudding (pink, looks like spam but it’s actually edible–and subtly tasty)
Pit-roasted agave root (something like a chewy, smoky vegan beef jerky–my favorite of the night)
Limeade with seeds of chia (Salvia columbariae)
“Medicine tea” (steeped dried flowers from Mexican elderberry, Sambucus mexicanus, very delicately flavored, used for a number of purposes, including breaking a fever)
Yucca root (starchy, but different from potatoes in flavor)
Yucca flowers, boiled (the blooms of Hesperoyucca whipplei, which is finishing up giving its flowers in many of our hillsides around town; very delicate flavor with a tiny nip of bitterness, brussels sprouts for people who don’t like brussels sprouts, or a new food for people who love artichoke hearts)
Yucca flowers, raw (as above, only crunchier, a little more bitter)
I’ve always admired plants of Hesperoyucca whipplei from a distance–The ends of its leaves end in sharp points that you have to show immense respect. Now that I’ve tasted its root and sampled its flowers and heard Kristie Orozco speak about the plant, my aesthetic appreciation of it has deepened into something else much richer.
It’s hardly May, and I have my first tomatoes of the season already, this gorgeous pair on a seedling of the heirloom Cherokee Purple.
Okay, I cheated a little. These are actually hothouse tomatoes. Some seed I planted in the greenhouse last spring didn’t germinate until last fall. Transplanting the plants outdoors in November would have meant certain death for the little tomatoes, but I didn’t have the heart to pull them out. One of them set down roots through the drainage holes of the pot and just kept growing. Although the greenhouse is too shady and unheated, the plant survived. And now I have these first two tomatoes, with more on the way.
I’ve never used the greenhouse for anything as practical as growing veggies, so this will be an interesting experiment.
The first artichokes of the season are also on some plants that were almost accidents. For years we had a clump of an especially good selection growing in the veggie garden. But a room addition on the house put the garden in shade, and the plants went into decline. I dug them out and was going to toss them, until I decided to try a couple stems in the back of a new raised bed. The combination of more light, more moisture, and fresh compost-rich soil worked their magic, and the plants are now looking as good as they ever have.
I like to think that I earned some bonus points for showing some mercy and not tossing the tomato and artichoke plants into the greens recycling. But in the case of the artichoke, at least, it’s another life lesson in trying to find the right location for an underperforming plant.
Are there any plants that you’ve had similar experiences with? Any “rescue plants” that ended up rewarding you as much as others you’d planned for?
I often have trouble mixing ornamentals and vegetables together in a garden bed that’s supposed to be “for company,” a bed that’s meant to be attractive as well as containing tasty-looking plants that you’d like to take to the dinner table.
Some parts of the garden where I’ve snuck veggies in with the other plants look a little chaotic, but here’s a patch that I really like the looks of. Earlier I showed part of this corner that the bedroom window overlooks. But new things are starting to bloom, and the colors are starting to really click for me.
When I was putting this bed together, I set myself the main rule of “nothing yellow.” In deciding what veggies to place there, I just stuck to that organizing principle. (Okay, can you tell that I work in libraries and organize information during the week?)
This bed features several edibles: red-stemmed chard, orange-stemmed chard, Red Winter red Russian kale, red beets, plus catmint for tea (and for the cat). The ornamentals include scarlet geum, purple heliotrope, violet blue-eyed grass, the salmon-colored bulb Homeria collina, two blue sages (Salvia sagittata and Salvia cacaliaefolia) plus a few other things not in bloom.
For sure, there’s a lot of red and blue and purple going on here. But several variations on green in the background green do wonders to pull together what might otherwise be chaos.
I’m going to hate cutting any of these veggies for dinner…
Saturday I put some seeds of Armenian cucumber into the ground.
There are heirloom vegetables and then there are ancestral varieties like this, varieties that go so far back into history that to grow them and have them at your table is to connect with history, traditions and the ground that they grow in. The Armenian cucumber dates back at least to the fifteenth century, when it was introduced into Italy from Armenia. I’m sure it was being consumed long before then.
Although called a cucumber it’s actually classified as a melon, Cucumis melo var. flexuosus, and is closer genetically to honeydews than to the standard English or pickling cucumbers. With its unusual ribbed creamy green exterior, you have to do a bit of explaining when you share the extras from the garden: well, yes…it’s called a cucumber, but it’s really something different…
The flesh is mild and firmer than any other cucumber out there, almost crunchy, the texture of unripe melon. The fruits can easily reach 30 inches long, but are best picked when half that size. They’re great in salads, and they pair amazingly well with tomatoes.
Last year I started them in late June and had cucumbers 60 days later. Two hills of plants were plenty for two people, with cukes left over for the neighbors. Pretty good soil, moderate watering and occasional fertilizing kept them happy and productive until the end of September. Some people trellis them, but they’re fine if you let them roam like other melons. I like this variety so much that it’s one of those plants that I’ll keep planting as long as I have room for it.