Category Archives: Specific Plants

The Great Cactus Growing Race

Watching paint dry?  Watching ice melt?  What could be more exciting than cactus growing?


Five species of the cactus family were planted early this morning, April 14, 2015: (1) a variety mix of dragon fruit, (2) a common sort of red-skinned, white-fleshed dragon fruit, (3) a strawberry hedgehog cactus, (4) Xoconostle, a trendy, sour sort of cactus pear, and (5) Ficus-indica, the most common type of sweet cactus pear.  There’s more detail about each here.  Which will grow the quickest?  Can’t you just taste the excitement?


cact3You are humbly invited to check out the Pierce Farmstead & Botanical Garden’s new Cactus & Succulents page with the link above or at:

Root Vegetables, Lessons Learned

Radishes, carrots, onions, beets, ready for roasting

Radishes, carrots, onions, beets, chives and parsley, ready for roasting

Over the last eight months or so I’ve deliberately planted root vegetables instead of more common garden items.  Sweet potatoes through the summer and then I got a late start on my fall garden, planting it too close to the cold season (such as it is in Central Florida) so I deliberately planted veggies that would grow underground so that they would survive any cold.  With many of them now grown and eaten, I thought I’d talk about the lessons learned.

Root vegetables are, generally speaking, biennials.  They grow their first year, and devote much of their energy to creating moist, starchy roots that they use in their second year for the energy they will then need to survive, go to seed, and spread.

Humans, of course, learned to interrupt that two-year process after year one and eat the roots.  That said, root vegetables seem to be less popular with more recent generations, mostly in the name of convenience.  However, if you just roast them you’ll find that they are actually great tasting.  Just clean them off, cut them up into equal-sized pieces, toss in some oil, (cut some chives, parsley, thyme or other herbs overtop if you like) and roast them at, say, 350F for 35 minutes or so (depending on the size you cut them and your oven) and they are great, nutritious, inexpensive and filling.  If you have a broiler pan or some kind of rack so that the oil can drip down into a pan below, even better, since some, like turnips and beets, will get mushy sitting in the oil that long and are great if they’re not.

Apparently onions can go to seed in year one, but it's not common.

Apparently onions can go to seed in year one, but it’s not common.

“Root cellars” were popular in northern basements in the past because at moderate temperatures most root vegetables will store for a long time, providing nutrition during the cold winters.  In Florida, though, they’ll still hold a good month or so, and often you can just leave the ones you’re not eating in the ground until you want them, which isn’t always an option up north.

The fact that they’re filling, I’ve discovered during the last year, is a great thing.  You can plant cucumbers  or cauliflower, and they’re tasty, but use the same space to grow turnips or potatoes and you have a good amount of vegetables that will fill the belly for a long time.  I expect to devote half my garden to root vegetables from now on, having learned this.  It’s just a great use of space, and they are far more economical when a $1.25 pack of turnip seeds can produce a good 35-45 of them (compare that to the grocery store where they seem to be about a dollar a piece if you do the math).

A few thoughts on some particular root vegetables:

QuickestRadishes, of course.  I was never a fan of radishes until I figured out to roast them.  They can grow within a month and make a nice side.  Their sometimes harsh taste when raw mellows out into something quite nice when roasted.

Most Useful: Sweet potatoes.  Where my garden usually sat empty and grew weeds through the Florida summer, I finally found sweet potatoes.  They grow merrily underground all summer and then you get an abundance of filling tubers at summer’s end.  Weed anyhow or they end up a bit twisted (though still edible).  To eat, rinse, poke them with a fork a few times, wrap them in a paper towel, and just nuke these puppies, then add some butter or  lo-cal sour cream and chives.

Turnip Seedlings

Turnip Seedlings

Most Roastable: Turnips.  Turnips are easy to grow through the cooler months, are highly productive and are are a tasty blast from the past.  Cut up and roasted with some onions, they are a star.  Steamed they are not so tasty, sautéed would probably be fine.  Nowadays, turnips sit sad and forgotten in small batches for too much money at the grocery store.  Throw down some seeds and rediscover these guys.  Seriously.

Most ConvenientOnions.  I just buy a pack or two of the thin, pencil-sized seedlings of granex onions (white, yellow or red) and plant them all over.  Onions can be eaten at any stage, as green onions then, of course, as regular onions after they bulb.  I put them around the edges of the gardens and always have them growing (well, not through the summer).  They roast fine with the others, or can be sautéed or of course raw in salads (duh).

Most Foolproof: Carrots.  Another great roasting vegetable, and pretty filling.  There are a hundred kinds and colors if you grow from seed, and they have so much more taste when you grow them yourself.  The tops are highly edible carrot greens (which I’ve put into my chimichurris) and the carrots themselves are good any way you want to eat them, but of course roast up nicely.



Most NutritiousBeets, hands down.  Just check out any list of the most healthy foods and beets will always be near the top.  For some reason people do a lot of prep with them, which deters you from making them.  Just cut them up and roast them like anything else on this list, though.  No I don’t peel beets or anything else here.  A lot of the nutrients are in the skin of vegetables.  Also, like turnips, the greens are good too.

Old SchooliestSalsify.  This is the ancient root vegetable that looks a bit like white carrots but supposedly tastes like oysters and/or artichoke (not sure how it could taste like both of those).  These are not done growing, so they are a post of their own for another day.

Honorable MentionsParsnips and rutabagas didn’t make it into the garden, glaring omissions in the root vegetable category.  Both projects for another day.  At Christmas I made a wicked rutabaga mash from store-bought ones, which was excellent. Also, underground vegetable-wise, I’m growing chufa, the edible part of which grows underground like a peanut.  I’m not certain if it fits into this category or not.  Also, of course, peanuts, a summer crop I may look at in late May.

Glaringly Absent: “New” or “Irish” Potatoes, which is to say, Potatoes.  I tried to grow them once and they got some kind of blight.  Apparently, you may need to start with a “seed potato” from a feed store that hasn’t been sprayed so it won’t produce eyes and be vulnerable to this sort of stuff.  Once you have a few seed potatoes, though, you’re golden as they grow happily and are, of course, filling.  However, they are a higher glycemic load food, so I thought I’d try out some less common ones with the space I have.

Growing Cacao

Inside a cacao pod.  Image from Wikimedia CommonsIt was called Chocolātl, a bitter, foamy mix of spices and cornmeal, created with the grindings of an odd bean that was believed to be the gift of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, given to bring wisdom to the user. The bean was found in the viscous insides of a pod growing out of the bark of an odd tree that grew under the jungle canopy, preferring only peripheral light from the sun.  Today, we call the tree cocoa, and the end product chocolate.

Somehow, for all of its commonplace availability, chocolate still retains a bit of exotic allure.  Most people have no real idea where it comes from (other than from a “bean”), and have never seen one growing.  It melts at the the human body temperature, literally melting in our mouths, and satisfies on some of our core appetites.  All of that said, the tree and the cacao are truly quite a bit different than the resulting candies in the grocery aisles.

cocoa1We bought our chocolate plant at a University of Southern Florida Botanical Garden event on June 14, 2014, when it was perhaps 24 inches tall.  The cacao tree is a native of Central and South America and likes to live out of direct light, and in year-round humid conditions, which is not a precise fit for a Central Florida backyard, but we wanted to take on the challenge.  You don’t, after all, see chocolate trees every day.  That said, they have been around for a very long time.

The Mayans, after all, also considered cocoa food of the gods, and the Aztecs made a drink out of for royalty, as well as mixes for the common man. See here. Indeed, “cacao” may actually be from an Olmec word, which is even more ancient than both cultures.  Regardless, it seems to have been an aphrodisiac from the start.

That said, it’s a curious plant, the pods that have the beans grow out of the bark of the mature tree. Inside are the cocoa “beans” surrounded by the cocoa butter.  The beans, without a good amount of processing, are bitter and do not hint of any use as candy.  The “butter” was likely more useful originally, but ancient alcohol mixes with the cocoa bean have been found, and it would become the star ingredient.  See here.  Technically, the tree is theobroma cacao and the raw, unroasted beans are cacao, after processing they are often called cocoa, though this is all rather loosely defined, in English anyhow. See here.  (“Coca” however, is very wrong, referring instead to erythroxylum coca, the cocaine plant which is, of course, a whole other story. Of note: See the story with Coca Cola here.)

cocoa2We put ours under the back patio (our makeshift jungle canopy) in the summer and have been bringing it in if the lows get below 50F or so.  This is a picture from the end of summer, in its usual spot, surrounded by sweet potatoes from the garden.  This has been pretty successful, with the bottom leaves occassionally drying up and coming off, but with top ones always coming in.  From the original 24 inches, it’s now 47 inches eight months later, so it seems content.  It will need to get quite a bit bigger before there’s a chance of it making cacao pods.

There’s an interesting video here where they explain how to grow cacao and later how the lower leaves seem to brown regardless of what you do.  He seems to think its the water, which I doubt, but it’s interesting take on the plant in general.

That’s all to report for know, but we’ll keep you updated if we get pods in the next year or so.

The Curry Leaf Tree

At the Pierce Farmstead we are trying to grow a few curry leaf trees, because we love the taste of it, particularly in rice and with meat.  We typically add it to the oil first when we are going to cook something, and it imparts a great, peanut-like taste.

You may at this point be picturing shaking a container full of curry powder into a pan.  But what we’re talking about here are a handful of leaves the flavor of which would disappear before it could ever be put into a powder.

“Curry powder” historically comes from the exotic and mysterious Asian nation of England. England, of course, held India as a colony and came up with a mix of dried spices to attempt to match the Indian masalas (spice mixes), and some of the Indian dishes that contained these masalas included curry leaf. Curry powder itself, however, normally contains items like dried turmeric, cumin, coriander, dried peppers, etc. with no curry leaf at all.  (Note though that dried turmeric is very healthy and there’s nothing wrong with curry powder as a spice blend. Quiz question: What common American condiment contains mainly turmeric?)

Small Curry Leaf in Pot

The Curry Leaf Plant.

Pictured here is a (small) curry leaf tree. Murraya Koenigii. The leaves of this plant have a strong taste when fresh and a weak taste when dried (to me, fresh, it tastes a lot like peanuts). It’s used as a base in some Indian masalas and eastward throughout Southeast Asia.

In Thai cooking (which uses fresh herbs much more than the dried powders seen in some Indian cuisines) the leaves are ground in a mortar and pestle with other fresh items (lemon grass, chilis, galangal, etc) to make what we would call curry paste. It is just one of a number of ingredients required to make kaeng (Thai curry), and the curry leaf is a background taste, but an essential one in the many varieties of Thai curry.

The “curry plant”. Not the curry leaf tree.

Just to confuse the issue, this is a “curry plant” (the photo is from Wikimedia Commons). It’s a Mediterranean plant, Helichrysum Italicum, that Europeans gave this name because of its strong, spicy smell. It has nothing to do with curry powder nor the curry leaf tree and is generally not a great thing to add to food.

Spices in general are a great way to flavor foods with without adding unhealthy ingredients to them, and spices, historically, have had great value because of their ability to transform simple foods.  Movement of spices around the world not only bought improved flavors and developed commerce but it also was a way that cultures came into contact with each other.  See Wikipedia, the Spice Trade.

We have planted curry leaf trees in several locations around the Farmstead.  None have grown as quickly as we might like, but I’ve made an attempt to acidify the soil they are in to get them growing to a sufficient size that we can start taking the leaves off and using them.  We’ll keep you posted.