Monday, September 22, 2014

Growing (and Eating) What's Good for the Garden

I tell new gardeners who are looking for information and advice that they should grow foods that they and their families like to eat. If no one in the family likes tomatoes, then their garden doesn't need to give any space to tomatoes, regardless of how much other gardeners rave about the amazing flavor of homegrown tomatoes. I don't, though, practice what I preach in choosing crops for my own garden.

One reason for straying from this really good advice is to improve my crop rotations. Several years ago, I decided that expanding my spinach/amaranth family plantings could help the garden, and one way to do that was to start growing beets, even though I didn't like them.

I could just have grown more spinach, but the phosphorus levels tend to be a little high in my garden-soil, and root-crops can use up some of that extra phosphorus. Over time, as a result of this decision, I've learned to prepare beets in ways that we like, and beets have become just one more good food that we look forward to bringing in from the garden.

I've been working on collard greens in about the same way. Collards are grown and eaten in my home-state of Oklahoma, too, but my Mom didn't serve them (she still doesn't like them), so I've had to work on this vegetable. It's taken a lot longer than the beets.

A good reason to grow collards, though, is that the whole Brassica family -- which includes collard greens -- helps suppress the root-knot nematodes that are a huge problem here in the South. The guys on whose garden/farm I volunteer on the weekends call the winter, mixed-greens crop (collards, kale, mustards, radishes) a "fumigant" crop for the good work it does in cleaning up pests in the soil.

We could all be growing broccoli and cabbage (also Brassicas) instead, but those crops tend to not stay as long in the ground. After the flowering head has been harvested, or a hard freeze come along and turned the plant to mush, it's all over -- but collards and other greens in the family can be harvested leaf-by-leaf, and it takes a heck of a freeze to take them out of the garden. The greens keep working on the soil all winter long, and tilling in the roots and any remaining leaves at the end of the season just frosts that cake of beneficial effects.

I'm writing about this today because last week, I came across a Yale Environment 360 interview with Dan Barber, a chef who has written about the importance of eating all that the farm offers as a way to support sustainable agriculture. The central example discussed in the interview was a farm that was growing emmer wheat, an ancient variety that Barber was excited about using in recipes.

This is the relevant bit of the interview:

"...I was standing in the middle of a field and all of a sudden discovered that he was growing very little wheat, and that instead he was growing a whole suite of lowly grains like millet and buckwheat and barley, and leguminous crops like Austrian winter peas and kidney beans. He was growing a lot of cover crops like vetch and clover. And they were all very meticulously timed and spread out among the 2,000 acres that I was standing in the middle of. And that’s when I sort if had this agricultural epiphany. But it led to this gastronomic epiphany, which was that here I was as a farm-to-table chef waving the flag of sustainability and realizing that I wasn’t supporting most of the farm. In the case of Klaas, he needed these lowly crops and cover crops and leguminous crops because his soil health needed it to grow wheat. You couldn’t get the wheat unless you grew all these other crops. And you had to time it in this way that brought the fertility to the soil to give you this incredible tasting wheat."

Most of us are not going to develop elaborate rotations for the production of emmer wheat, but reading the interview made me feel like less of a loon for growing -- and learning to prepare and eat -- crops that are not my favorites, all because I thought they'd be good for the garden.


  1. Love it! Thinking about the whole picture of why we should grow some things should lead us to naturally think about how to eat them. Such is the nature of an authentic cuisine. I’ve been thinking about it more from the livestock end of things recently. But your post and Barber’s book have me thinking a bit more rationally about my garden. More cowpeas, please!

  2. Hi Brian, The more I work in the garden, the easier it is to see where traditional dishes for each region come from.

    Hope your fall garden is growing well. -Amy


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