Loaves & fishes in the garden, part 2

Shiso, forget-me-nots and purple sweet potatoes

Annual forget-me-nots ( Myosotis) annual forget-me-notare a bit like rhubarb. They stand out as the first of their kind, overshadowed by later beauties or in the case of rhubarb,  delicacies. Although sporting bright little blue flowers, they were weeds in my hoop house (greenhouse). Then a chance conversation I overheard alerted me to some people’s love for the little blue flower. So, rather than toss the weeds on the compost pile, I potted them. Since weeds come up early in the hoop house so my “flowers” were available before they started blooming elsewhere. We sold 4” to 8” pots filled with annual forget-me-nots for $0.75 to $2. at the local gift & thrift store. ( Gift & Thrift )

Perennial forget-me-nots (Brunnera) have several leaf types and much more vivid flowers than the annual. About 10 years ago I saw a 3-gallon pot at a garden store at a price I thought would shock my gardening partner. Soon after Julia was touring neighborhood yard sales with my sister, Lois. One of the yard sellers had Brunnera and Julia commented on them. The neighbor said “Help yourself, they are spreading too far”. We dug out several and planted them. Since then our original site has increased from probably 3 plants to plants scattered over 2’x8’. But from that area we have transferred some to another spot where there now plants spread across a 12′ area. In addition for the last 5 or 6 years to have given away or contributed to fund raisers up to a dozen potted plants a year. That neighborly gift was multiplied greatly.

shiso with beets

Purple weeds stand out. Bringing other people’s leaves, grass and other yard wastes for my composting passion brought in weeds. A thorny version of pigweed/amaranth is one example from the last five years. One visitor that proved positive was shiso. At first we thought it was a coleus. But this plant (before “sun-loving” coleus) loved the sun. Eventually we identified the plant as the red version of shiso or Perilla. A bit of research revealed that it was a culinary herb. None of my gardening acquaintances had heard of shiso. My gardening partner insisted it was a weed. But each year a dozen or more shiso plants offered for sale at Gift & Thrift have sold quickly.

Rod called about 15 years ago and said he had a clump of ornamental grass he wanted to reduce in size. I had wanted a tall ornamental grass, so I went to help. I identified this grass as miscanthus—probably the most common type of miscanthus. Digging out the grass was a challenge. Cutting the clump of grass required jumping on the spade. First, I planted two dinner plate sized clumps in my yard.  Then I used a hacksaw to cut up the rest of the clump into small enough pieces to put into pots. The potted clumps grew nicely. Several months later the church youth fundraiser quickly sold 11 pots of the grass. Five or so years later Wayne told me he had a clump of grass he had dug out—did I want it? The clump was large enough that he had used his tractor scoop to dig it. He dumped it on my pickup. The source of his grass? The youth fund-raiser! It took an ax and the hacksaw again to reduce the clump to pot size.

img_2703.jpgThe bright yellow of daffodils have been a favorite part of my favorite season, spring.  Friends asked if we would like to renovate their daffodil bed for a share of the bulbs.  Some of the bulbs would be for us, some to be put back into the bed and some to be given to Gift and Thrift for sale.  We agreed to the project.  In doing so, we made 2 initial mistakes.  We didn’t ask how long the daffodil bed was (70 feet).  And, second, we waited until October to start digging the bulbs.  Unfortunately the bulbs had started to grow and they were not saleable.  We spent a day and a half digging and replanting bulbs.  When we were finished, the bed was twice the width it had been before.  Then!! we had eight — five gallon buckets full of bulbs left over!  More than enough to spread around our yard and we gave many away.  Some covered a bank (above), more were planted in our back yard.

Sweet potatoes, estimated by some to be among the tops in nutrition per square feet among garden fruits and vegetables, are not among my favorite vegetables.  But I persuaded  myself to start growing them when we were offered some starts by Esther Shank (compiler of Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Country Secrets) who worked with Julia at Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg.  Esther had enough starts from the “mother” sweet potato, so was giving “her” to me rather than “terminating her”.  (See my earlier blog on “Terminating mother”.)  This sweet potato was a split-leaf type (not heart-leaf) with pink skin and pinkish/orange flesh, not real big with moderate long vines.  Maturity was medium length, probably around 95-105 days.  Esther did not know the heirlooms origin, simply that she had gotten it from an Old Order Mennonite some years earlier (1950-1970).

Being inquisitive, I wanted to know the name of the variety.  I found that Mahon was a well-known split-leaf variety in this area.  Then I learned of Sand Hill Preservation Center.  They list many split or cut leaf varieties.  Those with similar vining, skin, flesh and maturity date characteristics numbered around 6.  So, I am still not sure what variety I have.

I gave the mother the first year I had starts to Brian across the street.  He started keeping a root for a starter.  One year my starter/mother didn’t produce good shoots and I was without sweet potato slips.  But, Brian to

IMG_4519
The gardener with purple and Shank sweet potatoes

the rescue.  He had plenty to share with me.  Later I had plenty of slips and Brian ask me if I had to share.  He told me that the garden at Eastern Mennonite University wanted sweet potato starts.   I passed on the “mother” and some starts I had potted.  Esther Shank’s heirloom had blessed another generation.

Four years ago Roger handed me two purple sweet potatoes.  Eat one, he said, and then if you like it, start some next spring with the other one.  He had purchased the sweet potatoes while on a trip to  South Carolina.  The purple sweet (I wasn’t given a name) had dry flesh, but the bright purple made it desirable on the table.  But it came with a surprise.  When Julia made muffins with it the first time, they came out a pleasant lavender color.  But she tried another recipe and the muffins turned GREEN.  As treats at Gift & Thrift they were less appealing, especially when one of the workers said “They look moldy”.  A chemist friend explained that baking soda in the second recipe resulted in the green muffins.  (Google “using baking soda to keep vegetables green’.)  As you see in the picture above, the purple sweet gets large.  The vines are very vigorous and overrun the other sweets.  So, the purple is a mixed blessing.  But Julia’s purple sweet potato pie was a delicious and colorful surprise!

A number of years ago a friend said he had some grass he wanted to reduce in size.  I had wanted a tall ornamental grass, so I went to help.  I identified this grass as miscanthus—probably the most common type of miscanthus.  Digging out the grass was a challenge. We jumped on the spade to cut a section of grass for me.  How do you cut miscanthus planted two dinner plate sized clumps which required a hacksaw to cut up the rest of the gift clump to pot.  The potted clumps started growing.  Several months later the church youth had a fundraiser to which I contributed 11 pots which sold quickly.  Five or so years later someone told me he had a clump of grass he had dug out—did I want it?  The clump was large enough that he had used his tractor scoop to dig it.  He dumped it on my pickup.  The source of his grass?  The youth fund raiser!  It took an ax and the hacksaw again to reduce the clump to pot size.

miscanthus '17 at fence

Forsythia, nandina, Oregon grape holly, kerria japonica, Lenten rose, and lilac are other plants that have multiplied for sharing with others.

Terminating mother

Having all the sweet potatoes slips I need signals the end of main planting season.  Now I must decide what to do with the “mother” that has produced all the sweet potato slips.

Sweet potatoes are not one of my favorite foods. I grow them because I have read that they are one of the most productive of nutrients per square foot.  Further, they are satisfying to grow:  seeing the rapid sprouting of new slips from the “mother”, watching the running of the vines and then lifting the orange or purple tubers in early October (we are in zone 6 at 1500 feet in western Virginia).  The June 10 late planting date approaches.  The tub of moss and vermiculite that I buried the tubers in proved a good incubator for all the new plants I need.   I have the two dozen or so plants potted for myself, plus more to sell at the local Gift & Thrift of Harrisonburg.

Sweet potato slips may be purchased at the local hardware store and some greenhouses or ordered from a number of sources.  Common varieties available are Beauregard, Centennial, Georgia Jet and Porto Rico.  The Sand Hill Preservation Center carries many more, listing white, purple, yellow, orange, short vine, long season and other types of  sweet potatoes.  I have been growing a split leaf variety of sweet grown and preserved for many years (she didn’t know how many) by Esther Shank, compiler of Mennonite Country-Style Recipes.  I got the sweet potato slips from her when we worked together at the Gift & Thrift store.  To try to identify the Shank heirloom, I have worked through the Sand Hill online catalog and located six split leaf sweets of the right vine length, season length, and with orange skin and flesh.  I can say they are a tasty sweet potato that keeps well.  Not as large as Beauregard, perhaps, but sufficiently productive to keep us in sweet potatoes until May.

Ending the first planting season

Sprouts are still emerging from the sweet.  How do I give thanks for the mother tuber’s productivity of slips but by finishing the job and moving on to the potting?  I had buried the sweet in vermiculite and moss producing good “dirt roots”.  So why, one might ask, is potting necessary?  I have relatively limited space, so I have a form of double cropping.  .  As peas—planted in the middle of my four-foot wide beds—are declining, I push aside the mulch nearer the edges and set in the sweet potato plants.  Planting is usually two weeks later than if I had enough space to plant peas and sweet potatoes in separate beds.  So, the potted sweets have good roots when set in the ground and take off with little stress.  This year we were traveling until March 6, so did not get our peas in the ground early, so there is even more overlap.

Corn’s up, the snap peas are reaching the top of the fence, pole limas show the first signs of “running”, green beans look ready to send out blossoms, first tomatoes are swelling, peppers have blossoms and cabbages are big enough to cut.  It’s the lull before produce starts becoming the “burden” we love.  The heat this week will wilt the lettuce, send the arugula and mustard to flower and turn the spinach bitter.  We will still have Swiss chard, though, and maybe the “summer” lettuce can be shaded and watered enough to show its superiority to store-bought.

This year I don’t have someone else to give the mother to.  Why do I find difficult slicing   the “Original Sweet Potato” in pieces?  Partly because there are still a number of new sprouts showing on the tuber.  Terminating the mother, even more than giving her away, sets the end to the main planting season.  Then, too, I enjoy the starting of plants and of the garden, more than the maintaining.  This “pioneering” inclination of mine is an annoyance to my gardening partner.  She would like to see me equally engaged in the watering, weeding and harvesting aspects of gardening.

Giving thanks to God for the soil, the rain and strength to plant.  Looking forward (with a non-ground hog summer) to a bountiful sweet potato harvest.