ARTICLE BY: RICHARD HOFFMAN
Richard Hoffman is a member of the HPSO Board and his current interests range from identifying edible wildflowers to working edible plants into a mostly ornamental garden.
Since childhood, I have taken an interest in edible plants. Getting your food directly from its source provides a unique sense of satisfaction, a connection to the land, and an appeal to the senses. You can try out fruit and vegetables in your own yard that stores do not carry. Some edible plants contribute greatly to the beauty to the landscape. A continuation of the theme of garden experiments, this article concentrates on experiments with edible plants.
After reading the books written by Euell Gibbons and Bradford Angier during the 1970s, I became enamored with learning to identify edible weeds and wild plants. In fact, I took a course at Lane Community College on that very topic. Each class meeting, a different group of classmates cooked a meal consisting mainly of wild edibles. Yum! I already went around identifying wild plants, using guidebooks but learning to identify plants with a dichotomous key turned out to be essential for the wild foods class. Weeds obtained a new status in my mind, a potential survival source. Since that time, in the garden, I allow a few weeds to take up space because they are so delicious and nutritious. Portulaca oleracea (purslane) and Sonchus oleraceus / Sonchus arvensis, both bearing the common name “sow thistle,” though scorned by gardeners, taste absolutely delicious when picked young.
Purslane, high in Omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C, grows throughout the world. Purslane makes a sweetly crunchy, slightly lemony, and refreshing raw green, the perfect summer food. Fortunately, that’s when purslane makes its entrance to the garden scene. Some people wonder how to eradicate this plant, but I like to eat it! Notice the red stems in the photo. Sonchus oleraceus, the annual sow thistle, and Sonchus arvensis, the perennial sow thistle, both taste like lettuce, except sweeter, when young! The Sonchus plants, closely related to lettuce, bear a dandelion-like seed cluster that flies with the wind. One year, I even used sow thistle as supports for dwarf pea plants, and the peas greatly enjoyed the help. The photos below show Sonchus oleraceous. Whenever eating the weeds make sure that the plant carries no pesticide or herbicide. Never eat plants found right next to a road.
Typical vining “fruits,” such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and winter squash straggle along the ground. This makes harvest time a variation of hide and seek, involving much bending and twisting. Also, these plants take up huge amounts of garden ground space, engulfing all plants in their path. To solve this problem, I started with the usual conical cages for tomatoes. The tomatoes, planted deeply, grew well for a while, but soon far outdistanced the small cages. I tied jute twine around the tomato vines, but the string tangled and the tomato cages, overwhelmed by the weight of the plant, eventually fell over. Cutting all the strings at the end of the season and untangling the dead vines became quite a chore. I heard about concrete mesh available at building supply stores and tried using these as circular trellises. But these, despite being staked, fell over with the fall rains leaving me with a big mess, and after a few years, rusted out.
What could be strong enough for support but not rust out? Bamboo poles crossing one another, tied by jute string, offered the necessary strength but proved rather laborious. The jute also rotted out when watered. A breakthrough idea suggested by Patricia Hoffman… zip ties for the bamboo poles. Using the Japanese tying method of crossing, the bamboo poles connected quite easily and stably. Still, I needed to tie plants to the bamboo supports, and encountered difficulty tending and reaping because the poles and tomato-connecting twine got in my way. The bamboo, with zip tie connections, bore some perennial edibles quite admirably as low fences. You’ll see more about that later.
One spring, my daughter, Jenny, and son-in-law, Andrew, decided to build me a trellis that I proposed. Engineers, Andrew and Jenny initiated wonderful structural changes to my idea. They made the trellis so strong that many winter squash plants could grow up the sides without any concern about the weight. The attractive trellis drew much admiration from neighbors and fellow gardeners who visited our Open Garden. This year, I gave scarlet runner beans and black beans a significant head-start before planting tromboncino winter squash. Amazingly, this huge trellis is built in a modular fashion, and can be taken down and transported.
A revised version of Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew provided a new possibility. Using a level for straightness, pound rebar, obtained from a home improvement center, into the ground. Place galvanized EMT (Electrical Metallic Tubing, also found at the home improvement center,) over the rebar and a support is born. You can cut the EMT to any size with a pipe cutter. Bartholomew used a net to support plants, but I needed something stronger. Aha! Galvanized wire—hog wire, cattle wire, utility wire all work well. These wires are thick and strong and last for many years. (Please be warned that unless you take proper caution in transport, the strong galvanized wire may damage your vehicle.) Wire cutting was difficult until I used a heavy-duty bolt cutter from a discount tool supplier. The bolt cutter went through the thick wire easily. Use a file to smooth the cut ends of the wire to prevent snagging of people and clothing. Heavy duty zip ties from the same discount tool supplier worked to attach the wire to the frame. I hooked together the tubing at the top of the trellis with metal “pull elbows” of the proper dimension, sold by the home improvement store. The combination allowed me to place trellises all over the garden inexpensively and sturdily.
Laboriously rolled hog wire, hooked together by zip ties, gave me an incredibly durable and practical solution that supported huge tomato plants in raised beds. Mature tomato plants no longer toppled in fall winds. Tuck the tomato vine into the cage and up we go—no string necessary at all. This solution functions well for heavier vines, if the cage is anchored with deep tent stakes.
Certain edible plants fascinate me. In the Pacific Northwest, our mild climate enables the growth of so many plants. Catalogers like One Green World Nursery and Raintree Nursery carry various intriguing edibles from all over the world. I bought two jujubes, placed the fruit trees in half-whiskey barrels next to one another and waited. Because jujubes can spread from their roots, I needed the fruit tree duo contained. After several years, the jujubes bloomed in entertaining fashion, putting forth tiny yellow-green flowers that smelled just like imitation grape soda pop. The fruit that followed tasted sweet, like a cross between apples and dates, with date-like pits. A dwarf mulberry tree sits in a ceramic pot and supplies incredibly sweet small fruits that tastes like a cross between blackberries and raisins.
Did you know that pomegranates grow here in Oregon? Even if we never get a fruit from the pomegranate in a stock tank placed on top of a piano dolly on our driveway, the foliage (red and green) and flowers (brilliant reddish-orange) make this a superbly attractive ornamental. ‘Crimson Star’ Goji berries, otherwise known as Wolfberries, Lycium barbarum, carries small tomato-like blue flowers and affords bright red, incredibly nutritious sweet berries. Again, these plants provide both ornamental and nutritional values. Then there’s the perennial favorite fruit, figs. Our compact ‘Negronne’ fig bears fruit for the first time this year.
Perennial vegetables also produce both beauty and a harvest. Witness the leaves of an artichoke plant. Of course, it’s the flower bud that we eat. The perennial tree collard sprouts leaves year-round for soups and stews, and look at those phenomenal light red and green leaves. So many wonderful edibles abound that I think I’ll need to write about more garden experiments at another time.