Pots, Parking Strips and Kiddie Pools: Grow What You Can, Wherever You Can

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I live on a very small corner lot (⅕ of an acre), with about 8 feet of back and side yard, entirely in shade.  Because I really wanted to grow some of my own food, I started gardening in my front yard, inspired by Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates. When I discovered that having a vegetable garden in Minnesota meant a lot of bare soil in spring (not beautiful in the front yard, and not great for erosion, either), I began looking into perennial food plants, many of which are beautiful.  I planted dwarf fruit trees everywhere they would fit and stuck rhubarb and berry bushes on my boulevard. In the picture above you can see an area next to the street that used to be nothing but weeds, where now I have rhubarb (see my post on making rhubarb leather to see why I’m putting this plant everywhere I can), gooseberries, serviceberries, several varieties of mint, alpine strawberries, and a few things that are edible if I bothered to do anything with them. The cool red plant poking in on the left is amaranth, which has edible leaves and seeds. Even the weed next to the curb is edible; purslane sounds pretty amazing, so I let it be, though with everything else to eat around here, I haven’t gotten around to trying it.

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Another part of the boulevard has a quintet of honeyberries (above), a very early elongated blueberry-type fruit that my little ones couldn’t get enough of. This area also has more rhubarb and an apple tree, and sometimes self-seeders borage and calendula, a medicinal herb with a lovely yellow flower.

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I have containers to take advantage of sun where I don’t have a good spot to plant directly in the ground and grow pots of basil, tomatoes, and creeping rosemary (above, with a weed called wood sorrel, which is also edible and has a nice tangy flavor, good for salads when other greens are not yet plentiful).  When we needed shade on our porch, I planted grapevines, which not only give us lovely shade in the heat of summer, but a bumper crop of Bluebell grapes.  The vines are underplanted with strawberries and serviceberry shrubs, because we can never have enough of those!

Interested in growing more food? Look around your yard.  If you can add trees, consider one with fruit for you and your family to enjoy.  Dwarf plums, apples, and pears can yield quite a lot and require very little attention.  Have space for a veggie garden?  Dig up some grass (or better yet, try the lasagna method of gardening) or build a simple raised bed like the one here.  Renting or not ready to commit?  Pots can grow everything from tomatoes to cucumbers to strawberries.  One of my friends filled a kiddie pool with soil and grew all the veggies she wanted for summer on her concrete patio.  Also check out Mel Bartholomew’s fabulous Square Foot Gardening for a simple and efficient way to grow a lot in a small space.

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These delicate pink raspberries grow off to the side of my front yard, but the plants are pretty invasive, and a little rangy for a front-yard garden.  I’m moving them to a more contained out-of-the-way location by our back door.  I underplant this area with strawberries, thyme, and borage, an odd-looking self-seeder with edible flowers and leaves that lend a melon-cucumber flavor to water.

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No Thanks, Chicken Nuggets! Feeding Little Ones Well

With two little kids who go to bed pretty early, we don’t have a lot of time for fuss when it comes to dinner.  I’m committed to feeding my daughters “real” food rather than prepackaged kid fare when I don’t have time to cook.  Instead of turning to processed food of questionable origin, I keep my freezer stocked with cubes of quinoa, beans, pastas, and vegetable and fruit purees I make when produce is in season.  I make large batches and freeze them in ice cube trays, so I always know there’s something healthy and delicious ready for their lunch or dinner in the short time it takes to heat a few cubes in the microwave.

When I do cook, I make extra so we can eat at least twice and only have to do the chopping and cleaning once.  Lots of easy homemade soups feed us two (not necessarily consecutive) nights, and more goes in the freezer.  Some gets frozen in ice-cube trays and will form parts of baby meals on many different days.  Ditto with ratatouille and pesto I make in giant batches when we are awash in summer’s bounty of zucchini, eggplant and basil — bags and containers will come out of the freezer all winter to make delicious toppings for pasta.  Stir-frys, pizza and calzones, and the occasional fish or chicken with rice make up most of the family menu.

A wonderful book, Super Baby Food, has numerous ideas and recipes to get you started on food cubes for the littlest members of your household. You can also just freeze some of the kids’ favorites when you make them for the whole family. When they were still eating mainly purees and I made a big batch of ratatouille, I would whir up a little of it and freeze it it ice cube trays.  We save not only time but money, and have tasty, healthy meals for our little ones on nights when the fare on the grown-up menu doesn’t appeal to discriminating toddler palates.

Other helpful things to keep on hand:

*Blocks of tofu. Babies seem to be happy to eat this plain; my little ones discovered the joys of soy sauce when they saw grownups using it and ask for plain tofu with soy sauce whenever they don’t feature what’s on the dinner menu.  My littlest one has discovered my favorite Annie’s salad dressings is also scrumptious on tofu.

*Hummus to dip carrots, cucumber, green beans, or celery in.

*Corn or wheat tortillas that can be topped with cheese, beans, and whatever veggies are on hand

*Cans of beans and frozen edamame. Black beans and italian salad dressing is a favorite with my 4-year-old.  (Note: most cans these days are lined with BPA-containing plastic, with a few exceptions.But it’s not clear whether the exceptions are lined with anything better, so you may want to cook up a big batch of beans and freeze them instead to avoid exposure to these chemicals.  More on problems with plastics in a separate post.)

Anti-inflammatory Smoothie Part 2: Enter Purslane!

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After those last couple posts, I got to thinking about purslane, a truly amazing little weed I’ve let alone on my boulevard.  After double-checking a couple weed identification sites, I went out and picked some, as I was running low on other smoothie ingredients and didn’t think anything could beat purslane nutritionally.  Success! Purslane-pineapple-ginger smoothie is great, and the purslane you can find just about anywhere for free.  One of your neighbors might even offer you money to take it away!

According to John Kallas, author of Edible Wild Plants, the whole plant is edible. Don’t worry about taking the last little bits from your yard, as it seems this little wonder plant is indestructible. Packed with vitamins as well as being one of the best plant sources of omega-3s, this green is versatile and works well as a salad ingredient, in stir-fries, and of course as the green in your green smoothie.

I whirred together a loose-packed cup of purslane, stems and all (though I pulled out the larger stems and saved them for stir-fry experiments), about 1 cup canned pineapple, 1/2 c. yogurt, 1/4 c. almond milk, then added 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric and 1/2 tsp. fresh ginger (these last two ingredients mainly for anti-inflammatory properties, though the ginger flavor is quite nice in this not-too-sweet smoothie). You could add some flax and/or wheat germ as well as chia seeds for additional  fiber and nutrients. Bottoms up!

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Superfood Smoothie — Better than Advil?

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I never really did much with smoothies besides yogurt and whatever frozen fruit had accumulated in the freezer, but when I started whirring up fruit + veggie combinations for baby purees, I discovered that vegetables were actually a pretty tasty addition.  I would finish putting up the little one’s blueberry-broccoli combo and leave some in the food processor for myself. Little bits of broccoli actually add a surprisingly nice texture and no detectable flavor if you’re not too heavy-handed.

When there were some extra beets lying around, a smoothie veteran suggested adding them to my next concoction.  The only fruit on hand was pineapple,* so that went in as well, with some frozen broccoli for texture.  A little flax for omega-3s and fiber, and then some ginger and turmeric for an anti-inflammatory boost. This combo worked surprisingly well; the ginger was not overpowering, and the normally bitter turmeric wasn’t even noticeable. (Check out upcoming posts on anti-inflammatory foods for more on why these are great ingredients to sneak in anywhere you can for pain relief, long-term health, and anti-aging). Plus that new hot food, chia — I felt like I’d started the day supercharged by all these healthy ingredients, just like all the proponents of green smoothies promised. And how about that amazing beet color?

The beet-pineapple combo made this a pretty sweet smoothie, so I might see what other fruit-veg combinations can stand up to turmeric.My little mini Cuisinart is not up to raw kale, but that would seem like the next great addition if I upgrade my equipment.

What super-smoothie combos do you like?

*Pineapple is on a lot of lists of anti-inflammatory foods, but according to the Nutrition Diva (check out her information-packed podcasts!), the canning process destroys the enzyme, bromelain, that is what all the excitement is about.

Freeze some of your harvest

Freezing even a little of your summer produce will pay off when you take out luscious roasted tomatoes and green basil for your winter pizzas.  Freezing is pretty simple and you can do a little or a lot.  When you have too much fruit around or if you find a deal on some summer berries, simply rinse and freeze on a cookie sheet, then put in bags.  Stone fruits can be sliced and put in a single layer in a bag then crunched apart when you want them for smoothies.  Sweet peppers can also be chopped and tossed in a bag; you’ve got an ingredient for winter chilis ready to go and don’t have to fork over big bucks for organic produce from thousands of miles away in wintertime.

When you have extra cherry tomatoes, try roasting them in the toaster oven until they lose some their moisture, roughly 30 minutes at 300 degrees.  After they’ve cooled, put them in a bag and freeze.  Defrost (in the fridge overnight if you remember, microwaved in a bowl if you forget) and use them on pizza (great with just fresh mozzarella and basil, broken off from the block in your freezer.)  See my recipe for easy pizza dough and enjoy!

See my post on dehydrating for more great ideas for preserving the bounties of summer for those long winter months.

Tomato chips and rhubarb leather

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If you haven’t done much food preservation and are intimidated by canning (I’ve never had the time to try, but perhaps will learn when kids are old enough to help), freezing and drying are good places to start.  Dehydrators aren’t cheap, but you can go in with some friends on one and take turns dehydrating some of the fabulous fruits of summer. My friend across the street and I share ours, and it travels back and forth all season.

When we have an oversupply of plums, apples, or tomatoes, I just slice them, lay them on the dehydrator, and turn it on overnight.  In the morning, we have sweet treats to enjoy.  We can’t help but eat a lot of them fresh off the dehydrator, but we also put up a lot in mason jars and enjoy them throughout the winter.  Lackluster canteloupes are also transformed into unbelievably sweet, chewy fruit candy, and bananas kids aren’t keeping up with become delicious little fruit leathers that even those who aren’t great fans of bananas (me, for instance) can’t get enough of.  Dried tomato slices were a very popular Christmas present one year; they can be enjoyed as a snack straight from the jar or used for a great pop of flavor in cooking.  Zucchini also dries nicely into crunchy little chips that are a low-cal, veggieful way to give into your salty snack craving.

Rhubarb leather is the only reason I grow rhubarb.  It is absolutely delicious, and takes the place of candy as an extra special sweet treat for my sugar-obsessed pre-schooler. And it’s technically a vegetable!

Rhubarb leather how-to: I chop huge armfuls of rhubarb stalks* into 1/2 inch pieces until my biggest stockpot is mostly full, cover with water and bring it almost to a boil, then let it sit roughly an hour, when it should be quite soft.  Then I drain most of the water and start scooping it with a slotted spoon into the food processor.  I add a big dollop of all-fruit jam to each 2 cups of rhubarb then add sugar to taste; some of the extra liquid is useful for thinning out the sauce if it’s very thick.  I keep it pretty tart because the sugars concentrate when it dries, but the sauce is still pretty yummy to eat plain, not totally sour.  You can experiment with how much sugar you like and whir in some other fruits if you want. Use the leather-making discs over the grates on the trays; they just need a little spray of oil to keep the leather from sticking. It’s best if spread about 1/4″ thick.  (Any fruit sauce, like leftover applesauce or sauce from your overbountiful pear tree, can be turned into leather as well.)  I understand you can use your oven on very low heat if you don’t have a dehydrator, but I haven’t tried.

* Rhubarb leaves are poisonous and should be discarded; they make useful weed killers if you leave them lying around the garden when you harvest.

The last word on dehydrating is Mary T. Bell, who has written wonderful books on dehydrating and promoted the wonders of drying as well as of Lanesboro, Minnesota’s Rhubarb Festival, which I hope to attend someday.

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