Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 21, 2017

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Celeriac.

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Garden of eating

Go out on a limb with these five unusual (and easy) options for your vegetable garden

Tasting sun-ripened food picked fresh from your own yard is always a treat. Maybe you've tried your hand at growing a few herbs, a tomato plant or a strawberry patch, and loved it. But given your small yard and limited free time, you figured that was all you could handle.

Master gardener Sonia Day begs to differ. Her new book Incredibe Edibles: 43 Fun Things to Grow in the City, published by Firefly Books, makes you see just how exotic you can make your backyard bounty with minimal work.

As the author of six gardening books and the "Real Dirt" column for the Toronto Star, Day knows how to maximize tight urban plots and balcony gardens and make the most of our short growing season. Her latest book lays out her 10 Commandments of Growing Food in the City and lists 43 hassle-free edible plants with tips on planting (in yards or containers), harvesting and avoiding common problems. Plus there are over 30 recipes to help you enjoy the fruits of your labour. Here are five of our favourite options for a backyard garden that are as unusual as they are easy to grow.

Asparagus Peas

Tetranogolobus purpureus
This is perhaps the prettiest vegetable on the planet, perfect for containers on a sheltered, sunny deck. And it’s so offbeat, visitors are sure to say “Wow. What’s that?” The plant produces thin, sprawly stems stippled with small leaves that fold up at night like wings. Its flowers are small too, but a knock-out wine red. Then the peas come along, frilled down the sides and fascinating to look at.

Some say asparagus peas (also called winged beans) got their name because they taste like regular asparagus. Others argue that cooking requirements –– they should be treated in the same way as their namesake –– are the reason. Either way, they’re a novelty and fun to eat, if you get to harvest a big enough crop.

Important things to remember
• Asparagus peas originated in scrubby wastelands of the Mediterranean and grow easily in hot, dry weather. But in cool summers, pea pods will be sparse.
• These are low-growing plants, which like to spread out. Space 90 centimetres (36 inches) apart in the garden. If using containers, thin to only one plant per container. Their floppy stems can reach 90 centimetres (36 inches) long, but don’t try staking them because they’re too numerous.
• Asparagus peas don’t like competition. Keep weeds away by spreading a mulch of straw or shredded tree bark around the base of the plants.
• Pick peas when they’re no more than 5 centimetres (2 inches) long. Do the “bend test.” If they bend easily, they’re edible. If they don’t, they have probably grown too tough and fibrous to eat.

Celeriac

Apium graveolens var. rapaceum
Forget regular celery. It’s a huge hassle to grow. But its rooty relative, celeriac, is a breeze and tastes virtually the same. This is in fact a very practical veggie for northern gardeners, because it stores well and is terrific in winter soups.

You can also grate the roots raw into salads, boil and mash them like potatoes, or dip thick slices in oil, then roast them in the oven. Young leaves snipped off the burgeoning plant impart a gentle celery flavour to salads or to a stock for soups. Don’t use old ones, though, which turn awfully bitter.

Important things to remember
• Celeriac takes an eternity to develop –– as long as 160 days. So started plants (if you can find them) are better than seeds, which may not mature before winter comes.
• As celeriac roots start swelling, they may stick up above the soil surface and turn green. This exposed part will become inedible. To turn the tops white again, scrunch up a layer of straw or leaves around the base of the plants.
• For salads, use young celeriac, that is, tennis-ball size. Big roots are tougher, but fine for soups.

Edamame

Glycine max
Edamame (the Japanese name for a type of soybean) is all the rage as a cocktail snack. And it is certainly a novelty. The beans have a nutty flavour, unlike the standard soapy-tasting soybeans.

They can be served warm, cold or roasted in the oven. It's fun to crack the whole pods open with your teeth to get the beans out. Kids love doing this –– so serve them edamame (pronounced Ed-a-marm-may) often, because soy is loaded with protein for growing bodies, yet contains virtually no fat.

This is a veggie that adapts well to containers and looks quite decorative.

Important things to remember
• Seeds will rot in cold, wet ground. Wait till all frosts are past. In poor, clayey soil, put a scoop of mycorrhizal fungi (sold at garden centers) into planting holes. This helps the plant take up nitrogen.
• Watch for aphids. One telltale sign is leaves puckering up and turning yellow. Douse plants in an insecticidal soap bath if infestations are serious. Encourage ladybugs, which eat aphids.
• Plants sprout quickly. They can grow bushy and reach up to 90 centimetres (36 inches) high but are usually smaller. Several per container is fine, but don’t jam them in. Also, don’t make them compete with other plants.
• Beans mature quickly in hot sunny summers. Regular watering boosts their sugar content.

Garlic

Allium sativum
There are two kinds: hard-neck has a central stiff stem and stores well. Soft-neck, mostly sold in supermarkets, won’t keep as long.

Garlic is truly easy to grow. Just bury the cloves in the ground in fall, spread a mulch of leaves or straw over the area, then ignore all winter. In spring, pull the mulch off and green shoots will pop up quickly. Then come August, dig up the swollen garlic bulbs from the soil and prepare to be popular.

In fact, there’s only one drawback: like homemade compost, you’ll never have enough.

Important things to remember
• Seek out locally grown seed garlic in farmers’ markets and at garlic festivals in early fall –– tougher, more suited to your climate and less prone to stem and bulb nematodes which may attack.
• Pick full, heavy bulbs, not dried-up ones. Pry bulbs apart carefully when you plant; broken or split cloves won’t grow.
• Give garlic room. It will develop better without competition. Fertilizing isn’t necessary, but weeding is.
• Outside the garden, your container must be deep and have sides lined with Styrofoam. Plant only three cloves deeply in the centre, then wind bubble wrap around and over the container top. A protected spot is good or an area where it will get well covered in snow which is a good insulator.
• In mid-June, early July, cut all the scapes off — those twirly “pigtails” that shoot up from the centre of the plant and contain new flowerheads.
• Don’t wait too long to harvest. Bulbs should be intact; when their papery skins start to split, they won’t keep long.
• To avoid bulb and stem nematodes (for which there is no remedy –– the crop must be destroyed), don't grow garlic in the same location year after year.

Ground Cherries

Physalis peruviana
Ground cherries are cousins of trendy tomatillos and have been around a long time. Their taste is often described as a cross between cherries and kiwi fruit, with a touch of tomato.

They are most often used to garnish plates of hors d’oeuvres in restaurants, because the orangey-hued fruits look very decorative when their outer husks are peeled back. Yet in bygone days, ground cherries were a favourite in pies. The recommended variety is Aunt Molly from Poland; it does well in cool climates.

But be warned: once introduced into a garden, ground cherries self-seed everywhere and tend to stick around forever!

For more tips on how to plant, grow and harvest these incredible edibles, see page 54 of the May issue of Doctor's Review.

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