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?
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.
“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:
Quickest: Radishes, 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.
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 Convenient: Onions. 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 Nutritious. Beets, 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 Schooliest: Salsify. 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 Mentions: Parsnips 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.
Scientists have identified a micronutrient in foods that are farm or garden fresh, which is slowly lost over time as foods are transported to other regions and finally to supermarkets. This component could be key in the body’s increased ability to more frequently access the nutrients in fruits and vegetables. The ingredient has preliminarily been labeled “taste”. Scientific research is ongoing.
The Pierce Farmstead started as a curious slab in our Central Florida back yard in February of 2009. An 8 x 8 foot slab on which the prior owner (or the one before him) had built a gazebo too small to sit in because he didn’t know what to do with the slab. I took that down and it was a slab again. Then came the idea to make it a garden. Then came quite a few concrete blocks. Then it was a raised-bed garden, a peach tree in the back, a coconut tree in the front and a lot of pots with herbs in them. Then there was another raised bed garden in Februrary 2014, then an expansion a year later for the upcoming growing season. Soon it was something more than a back yard, it was, at least in jest, a farmstead. I have always wanted a lot of land to grow things on,and at some point, I guess I decided I just couldn’t wait.
My motivation was and is simple curiosity. How does this grow? What would that taste like? What did my own ancestors eat? What did mankind itself eat before everything was mixed with high fructose corn syrup and put on a shelf? A garden supported the intellectual side of my (continuing) quest to diet and lose weight. Herbs, spices, roasted vegetables all worked toward that end. Slowly I came to begin eating low carb, again, this time under the banner of “paleo”, with a motivation to try different species of herbs, vegetables and the like. Ones I’ve never had. Ones that you can’t find at the grocery store. This on top of the ones I like and that grow well here, which took years of sorting out.
It is, in short, my little outdoor research project. What can I grow? What can I eat? What is the history of it? In what ways is it healthy? Did we discovery this or did people always know it? From native flora to vegetables from Asia or South America, it is my little exploration of the world and its edible history, located 10 feet from my back door.
As a result, the articles here will be on things I’m interested in, and they’ll be interesting if you’re into this kind of thing, and probably quite dull if you’re not. But with the push to eat local, eat organic, to provide for yourself, to live more like people once did, this may all be accidentally topical. In reality, it’s just another exercise in curiousity and my little attempt to contribute to the conversation. I hope you like it.