Notes on Aronia (How does it taste?)

I'm sure many have partial shade, perhaps wet areas around their yard, they desparately wish they could plant the North American native Aronia in, but wonder about the reports on taste? 

Or perhaps you've never heard of the plant to begin with. A. melonacarpa, A. prunifolia, and A. arbutifolia are often considered ornamentals for their blazing, orange-red leaves shown off in fall. They can tolerate salt to the point many authorities recommend planting them as a privacy hedge by the road. In cold climates, where salt is spread for ice and snow, most plants in this area would be salted to death. It can abide a decent amount of shade, and doesn't mind moist soils, and blooms rather late in the season helping it slide its flowers by frosts even in low areas. All this is especially attractive when reading reports of a mature plant producing 20 lbs of dark blue, highly nutritious berries every year. 


I suspect they are right on that point. I have a couple in the food forest; and one, this year, although only two feet tall and two twigs wide, has made several healthy, dark blue fruit clusters. 

I think many are put off by the common name for these plants -"chokeberries. " Statements in shrub books that say 'The fruit is unattractive to birds, so stays on the bush for months" also cast a shadow of doubt. What's the point of tons of fruit in poorer sites if it's inedible?

I was quite excited to see the fruit from this "Viking" cultivar (Aronia prunifolia) because I could finally taste some fruit myself. 

I found the taste quite mild compared to what I expected. Really, it's almost bland, and rather dry, with white inner pulp, and a couple crunchy seeds. A pure sourness twinged in the background. 

I don't have the average palate though, because I don't eat any sucrose sugar, and am sparing with even unrefined sweeteners, so find pleasure in many food others find repulsive. To give a more trustworthy report, I took the copious harvest and handed them out to my sugar seeking siblings. 

Invariably their faces scrunched up. One said she had to force herself to swallow, another said it reminded him of pomegranate (including the seed) with a touch of blueberry. My mother had come across the dish of them when I wasn't around, ate one, and apparently spit hers out promptly. 

I really have no problems eating more of these for their health benefits. To quote: 

Aronia berries contain higher levels of antioxidants, polyphenols, and anthocyanins than elderberries, cranberries, blueberries, grapes, and most other fruit.

-see the rest of the article here.

I'm sure also that a little cooking and flavor work on these rather bland fruits could do something for them. They are so dry I can see them sucking any added flavor like a sponge. 

The next time you are at a nursery then, keep an eye out for one of these Aronia species. As they are self fertile, and quite willing to grow, it is likely most yards will have a spot that can grow out these happy shrubs to productive fruiting. I'll update when I have more than one handful in the coming years and can play around with flavor. I have a feeling it will be well worth the wait.

The many harvests of perennial garlic

The luscious bulbs of garlic (Allium sativum) are all the rage. But planted in fall into as fertile of soil possible only to be dug up in June-July, they’re essentially a vegetatively propagated annual. You might be surprised how much garlic yields to those who refuse to bow down and grub for bulbs and rather harvest the topside of garlic as a perennial.


From year one to twenty of leaving a garlic bulb in the soil, the harvest is about the same. In early spring, tender shoots rise from the soil that can be snapped off, and sautéed, or the like. Snapping them like this leaves the root intact. A sprout grows up from that portion of the root, replacing the harvested sprout in short order. This gives you opportunity for another harvest sooner.

Green garlic goes on until about the end of May for me, when the days lengthen enough to cause the formation of scapes, and a tougher stem to hold them. The scapes, straight away, can be harvested. I treat them like green garlic. You might find The Season of Scapes, and several other posts from Heather over at My Urban Homestead helpful in figuring all the uses for these.

In the care of annual garlic, these really must be removed, or the bulbs will be small. When garlic is perennial, there is no rush whatsoever to get the scapes off, because they eventually yield the best harvest of all: the bulbils.


Garlics, unlike The conglomerate of perennial leeks, don’t bloom,* but rather make little bulbs en mass atop their stem. These burst their papery wrapping, perfect for harvest in early July for me -about the time I have to dig the bulbs of annual garlic. I prefer the bulblets though. They have a milder flavor, and are very tender. No peeling necessary for these but peeling back the outer paper that covers the clump as a whole.

These bulbils are delicious when broken up and sautéed in butter to flavor whatever dish that could use a vibrant flush of garlic.

Once the bulbil high is over, it’s not long before cool weather in fall (about September for me) brings another flush of new shoots. The process from here repeats ad infinitum.

You could, if there are ever more bulbils than you can use, let them fall to the ground to make more garlic plants. Unfortunately, these don’t make sizable garlic bulbs as we’re used to from planting cloves. Helen over at Growing Out of Chaos has posted some interesting notes in The Garlic’s Surprise lately. Even in the first year they attain descent size, and might make a stand-in for the high labor of bulb division. Some sources say that if a bulbil is left in the ground for two years it will form a full garlic bulb. So perhaps spread around a couple extra of the bulbils, and wait two year to see what your situation yields. You might have the big garlic without the work.


What I most appreciate about the perennial garlic harvest is its willingness to grow and yield excellent harvests even when crammed against weeds. There are several garlic specimen near me growing in the roadside ditches surrounded by grass and young trees, but yield excellent little bundles of bulbils for harvest come July. If paired with more sensible neighbors in a forest garden setting, a perennial garlic clump can grow and give copious harvests of shoots and bulbils without any problems.

So perhaps try sticking bulbs of garlic in the ground this fall in one of your perennial polycultures, and forget digging it ever again. The yields are lower in the winter of course, unless you store the bulbils in olive oil or the like. It beats bending over to work the soil, hurriedly getting the scapes off on schedule, and digging in the heat of summer a bulb you’ll in part have to pay forward to next year’s harvest. Just leave them in the ground I say, and try the perennial, above ground harvest.

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*This is technically the definition of a leek vs, garlic. The Oepri Perizweib though, which I mentioned in the former leek post, actually makes bulbils, not blooms. Technically it ought to be a garlic. On the other hand, the Sacred Forest garlic from Oikos I mentioned actually blooms, further showing it’s really a leek. If such details don’t bother you though, then by all means don’t mind them. The name may not make much difference on your plate and palate. Just a note in case you want bulbils but get flowers. A name that usually goes with the real garlics that produce bulbils is rocambole garlic.

Approaching Hablitzia

Scanning page after page on late night searches for interesting plants, there is one that has always topped my list of most lusted after leaf.

Hablitzia tamnoides, or Caucasion mountain spinach, is the sole member of the genus Hablitzia, closely related to Amaranth. It is a perennial vine, growing 6-10 ft (or so), hardy to zone 4 by most accounts, boasting the title of ‘the’ perennial spinach, with harvest beginning in very early spring. Tantalizing, isn’t it?

The plant is also said to be triploid, which is supposed to result in poor germination. Diploid strains seem to have surfaced in the gene pool after increasing interest in the plant. Years ago the seed was only available per the kindness of a handful of growers -sometimes at a dollar a seed as I recall -aside from any shipping.

I have traded, bought, begged hablitzia seed from several sources, for several years, gotten several strains. Every year I have carried out the most carefully composed care I can contrive to obtain a healthy plant. They have invariably died.

Every year I have inched closer, with barely a sprout the first year. In following years, I began getting what I think must be diploid seed strains, because the germination greatly improved to about 90 percent.  I also began stratifying them for shorter durations; because one gardener told me he gets sprouts by simply putting the planted flat in his root cellar for two weeks in fall. Which one allowed the improvement in germination is hard to tell.

Once germination was no longer a problem, I achieved whole trays of the plants. This was only for one by one, day by day, each plant to wilt. The next day I’d find it flat on the ground, dead.

I figured it must be a bacterial infection. What kind I am not sure. The only disease I have ever heard hablitzia succumbs to is botrytis, but I had never seen a sign of the ‘ash.’

It may have just been post hoc, but I found the greatest onslaught usually followed even slight long term excess of water -such as watering two days in a row. Now I keep a tight leash on any watering, waiting until the soil completely dries out, then drenching. The plants seem to like this. Other variables may be at work.

This year, I finally made a breakthrough: I have continued using more and more rock powder, with better and better results for the plants. Most describe hablitzia as a ‘woodland’ plant; but the situations that seem to give the best results simulate dry river beds, or rock crevices. They seem to like tons of available minerals, little nitrogen, and alternating dry and wet, with lots of sun. Providing enough rock seems to be especially important.

I started the seeds last year in a simple organic blend of potting soil. This includes small amounts of peat moss, and chopped wood chips, and has proven the best choice. Once sprouts appeared, I dusted the plants heavily with a very silica-rich rock powder called wollastonite.*

Also, I only filled the pot about half way with soil. This way the walls block most movement of air, and reflect heat and light on the seedlings. Because the soil is thinner, it dries out faster too.

Once the seedlings achieved true leaves, I transplanted into simple, unamended clay I dug up from under a healthy clover plant, mixed with wollastonite until it was white. I put the transplanted seedlings in the shade, and didn’t water for the first day. When I did finally water, I put them in full sun for a couple hours, to dry off the leaves, then put back in the shade.

The plants that followed were some of the most sturdy specimen I have ever grown. I dusted again with wollastonite, and moistened with water I  added a little honey to (antibacterial properties). Bacterial wilt stayed away for a long time.

I gave away a couple of these plants, hoping they would live somewhere. Haven’t heard back any successful reports. I gave two to one of my clients. These I dusted and sprayed during a later visit in hopes of holding off any possible infection. One died. One took.

Yes, one continued to grow beyond the size of any hablitzia I have grown. Then it vined. It even bloomed! This spring, it’s sprouting!

Obviously I’m just short of delirious. What’s more, I am reverse engineering the heck out of this situation in the hopes I can actually get one to grow in Mortal Tree. I transplanted several of the other plants to the food forest last year. They all died -some due to animals though. Perhaps they would have overcome the wilt otherwise.

The situation at my client’s is a southeast corner of their white brick house, next to a concrete patio. This protects from all the most undesirable winds, but is wide open to early morning, and some mid-day sun. It is also under the rain gutter, which overflows in downpours, but dries out quickly after because of all the reflected sun. The soil isn’t notably good -actually quite gravelly there. Spent flower bouquets, and a few kitchen scraps under thin grass in a sort of thin Lasagna Garden fashion provides a small flow of nutrients. If you would like to learn more about the site, see this For example:

Eventually I will get one of these plants to flourish in Mortal Tree. Until then, I am ecstatic my clients have achieved one of these precious plants, and look forward to hearing what they think of the flavor when they begin harvesting. That will probably be next year of course. We want to be sure this plant is here to stay!

 

*I got it from the mine owner when I met him at a conference, but he sells as small as 50 lb bags on request through his website. My parents are considering getting a couple tons of the stuff for our gardens and fields. I am actually planning on taking the distribution a step smaller with one, or even half pound units available for sale for small scale gardeners. I’m still working out packaging and sales channels; but contact me if you would like to be informed of Stardust Chelation Substrate’s launch in a couple months.

Growing Amorpha

Deep purple petal over bright orange stamens of Amorpha fruticosa melt into green, spotted little crescents of seed. These ripen in the sun to a dark brown, then white-gray and hold. I kept thinking these seeds would fall off, but even in January when I lately picked some, they were tightly attached.

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They have a peculiar ability to sprout without cold -unlike most woody perennials that need months of subfreezing temps. They just need heat above 70 degrees F, and up pop little green leaves. Usually I soak the seed for a couple hours before sowing into flats. I start them in February in some years, March in others, but for my climate these both mean heat has to be provided.


I have to be careful with the dry air of indoor heating to keep the seeds wet, so usually cover with some plastic, and water often. We begin heating a small portion of our greenhouse about that time for garden vegetables, so these seedlings can soak up real sunlight from day one.

They are wise little seeds, and spacing their sprouting time -which outdoors would be a fail-safe against late frost and other catastrophes. For me, it’s a great convenience. Out of one ‘source flat’ as I call it, sprouts pop within three days after planting, but keep popping up for several weeks.

Usually I wait until the first true leaves show before I begin transplanting, then clear the flat of any sprouts with true leaves once a week.

Out of the hundreds I have grown, I find it’s best to start the seeds with potting soil, or compost with good levels of nitrogen. From here I separate into small pots or cell flats no larger than 2 inches across, filled with the same kind of nitrogen rich potting soil they sprouted in.

The heat and rate of drying in smaller pots, where the roots can quickly reach the bottom and be air pruned, has given superior results for me. They still develop very deep taproots once in the ground, but this root pruning while in the pot is helpful -in part because it stimulates more branching of the root system. Planting in extra large pots with nitrogen rich soil, many seedlings rot, and must be replaced two or three times over before each pot successfully grows a plant. On the other hand I have tried planting them this early in nitrogen poor soil, and they make little headway.

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I think this best mimics the situation they would find in nature. Forests and grasslands have a thin layer of nutrient rich, fluffy soil on the surface usually, which quickly becomes clay or whatever the base soil of the area. I want to get the seedlings into nitrogen poor soil to induce nodulation (aka hosting nitrogen fixing bacteria as evidenced by the formation of little nodules). This is spurred on by a lack of nitrogen in the soil. The catch is it takes time for the young plants to find the bacteria and get the symbiosis set up.

Nature’s way seems to be nutrient rich soil at first, then less rich soil as the plant gets bigger, the roots deeper. My contrived biomimicry that gives best results is moving the seedlings once they have filled their small pots and gotten a bit root pruned (not pot bound, as in roots turning back on themselves) into larger pots of whatever size you choose, filled with nitrogen poor soil about 1/3 rd coarse sand. I usually mix nutrient-rich rock powders, such as carbonitite or granite, into this before filling the pots.

Usually I transplant into 4inch pots at this point so they are filled with their roots in a couple of weeks -about the time nodules start to form. Usually this is early June -plenty of time for establishment before fall. Those I don’t get in the ground the first year go into gallon pots by August, which they usually have amply filled by next spring.

I try to avoid keeping Amorpha in pots more than a year. They grow best put in the ground as soon as possible after they have acclimated to the nitrogen poor soil. After years of refining this method, I’ve had transplants pushing 5ft by the end of year one -well on their way to exploding every spring with growth, providing some of the best organic matter for fueling your plant projects.

Where to get the seeds? You might have a plant nearby, which I recommend you snatch some seeds from. Otherwise they’re very affordable, and widely available from Sheffield seeds (my first choice), Oikos Tree Crops (They advertise A. californica, but I’ve gotten their seed -and plants, and compared it against pictures and attributes on the USDA plant database, and they have the name wrong. It’s species fruticosa), or even Amazon if you shop there.

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Oregano

Oregano (Origanum) takes its place in the mint family as the more stable relative, slowly expanding as a clump instead of runners -even getting woody with age.

The root system is thick, but not specially deep, allowing some interplanting if you just give other plants some space. A buffer of two to four inches around a new plant to give some time to establish before the oregano grows against it is adequate.


From then on a little mulch placed around the prefered plants makes things very happy. The oregano even provides some of the mulch. Growing up and dying back every year, it leaves a lot of sticky looking stems over winter that in spring can be gathered up and conveniently stuck around the plants you want to encourage. Depending on the ratio of oregano to plants to be mulched, the oregano can provide enough mulch to hold itself back.

I am just introducing oregano to the food forest, but have seen it well used in other gardens. Martin Crawford is one good example. In “Creating a Forest Garden” he shows the progression from a bed freshly denuded of grass by laying canvas over the ground, to a mix of annual mustard and tranplanted oregano, to the next year when the mustard is gone and the whole thing is a thick mass of oregano.

This technique can be applied for many other groundcovers. Usuaully I opt for the violets, creeping charlie, or mint that follows by its own invitation. If you’re lacking those, or want something more tame (well, violets are pretty tame, but the other two need watching) oregano is a good alternative.

Golden oregano in winter.

 

Oregano is a bit more attractive than these naturally occuring groundcovers, for one, because it is seldom recognized as a weed. Personally I don’t care about that a lot. I like the looks of creeping charlie running wild. But I do like the ornamental effect of oregano. I’m drawn to the gold, which is more like neon green with touches of gold. There are several other colors and varieties. Most of these colors come in variegated form too.

The same golden oregano this spring. I will be pulling that vetch soon.

 

Another point for oregano is its highly antibacterial essential oil. I have unfortunately never come across a study showing any benefit for other plants around it. The fact that it is so effective as an antibacterial, even when compared to other essential oils, is suggestive of good effect.

One point that suggests an appreciable effect: the main constituent, carvacrol, is volatile. In fact it can makes the majority of the volatile oils in the plant -sometimes over 90 percent. If you have walked on a hot day through a garden where oregano grows, you probably noticed the scent can be delightfully prevalent. It serves to reason oregano in the garden would give some small antibacterial effect.

It is also quite attractive to a range of wasps and many other insects that congregate on its flowers. So add beneficial insect attractant to the list of functions it offers.

If not for the benefit of the garden and other plants’ growth, its strong scent and flavor benefit the food you harvest. Oregano is used to flavor lots of foods. Just think of pizza.

With all these functions, there is little chance oregano won’t somehow make it into the garden. Let me know how it works for you as a groundcover. I’ll update on mine in the near future.