Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Three successful new plants from this summer's garden

As a gardener, this chilly time of year always threatens to become the winter of my discontent: I look back over my summer and consider the diseased roses, the cosmos that took over my beds, the pumpkin vines that were the victims of an accidental (so he says) mowing by my husband. In a few more weeks, after everything is mulched and composted, I'll have a change of heart and begin again with my grand plans for my little plot of earth. I did have three excellent showings this year by new plants in my garden. Of course, when you have a cramped urban garden, one's heart sinks a little when you gather three new things onto your must-have list. Adding to your list inevitably means editing out other plants, for as Joe Eck wisely advises in his beautifully written Elements of Garden Design, "The smaller the garden, the fewer will be the number of species that should find a home in it....the smaller the space, the more the eye will need to rest on ample, extensive masses of plants". Sigh. Here are my three new loves from Summer 2009, all of which are easy and rewarding:

1. Alpine strawberries

Thomas Jefferson had a passionate love affair with these small, delicate fruits; I first encountered them in Italy, covered in Prosecco as a light dessert. They are beautiful plants and delicious to nibble, a mix of intense strawberry and pineapple flavor. While the plant bears the fruit cheerily from June to October, the strawberries are quite small. I now appreciate that the dessert bowl I ate so quickly likely represented about twenty plants' worth of fruit.

I initially tried to grow these from seed a few years ago using a packet of "Mignonette Strawberries" from Renee's Garden Seeds. I was warned they were slow to germinate, but I never saw any growth but weeds in the intended patch for the entire spring and summer. So, this year, I secured two small plants in the Herb section of Grand Street Gardens. Both plants took well to the sunny corner of my herb patch and happily bore small, delicious fruits all season. I am going to mulch them with a generous layer of straw this winter, much like my Ozark Beauty strawberries. I do wonder if mulching is really necessary given the "alpine" half of the plant name. But I don't want to experiment and potentially lose the output of one of my plants next season.

2. Scarlet Runner Bean

My child loves birds, especially owls, but his little eyes linger lovingly on the hummingbird pages of the bird guide as well. I have a need for vertical growth, not just because I am short on space, but also because the back of my house faces a tall white expanse of garage. I had initially planned on growing hops up the garage wall this year, but all the mail-order sources I found had them on back order. So I decided to go for hummingbird-friendly annual vines, and the best one I planted was the Scarlet Runner.

The Scarlet Runner grew fast and furious, and my main mistake was putting in short six-foot trellises. Next year, I'm going to trellis the whole 12-foot wall. It produced beautiful but small red flowers, several vines of which I trailed from my flower arrangements with nice effect. Then it produced huge big flat green beans. Apparently you can pick and cook them like pole beans before they get fuzzy, but we were too busy with the Blue Lake pole beans we planted in the raised beds. Best of all -- especially for toddlers -- the mature beans are gorgeous: big, black and speckled with brilliant hot pink. They look straight out of a Jack and the beanstalk story. For this alone, they are a worthy addition to a child's garden: my toddler is now a committed seed saver after seeing what he gets to collect.

3. Lemongrass

I cook a lot of southeast Asian recipes for my family, and lemongrass was the perpetual ingredient challenge for me. On the west side of Chicago, we have some small Chinese markets and a large Korean grocery store, but I have yet to find a Thai or Vietnamese store. For that, we have to go all the way up to Argyle. So I was excited to see a small, cheap lemongrass plant at City Escapes. I stuck it on the "Asian" side of my herb bed, along with the perilla, the holy basil and garlic chives. It grew into a beautiful ornamental tuft of grass. This lemongrass was a culinary revelation: I was used to wrangling those tough dried-out tusks of lemongrass from the market. Not only was the flavor more intense, but it was easy to chop. I also got the grassy tops, which apparently are rare to come across if you don't grow it, even in Vietnam. Next year, I am going to use it as a grassy effect in my perennial bed....no one needs to know it serves double-duty on the dinner table.

Here is a recipe for the rare grassy tops, adapted from the invaluable cookbook Real Thai by Nancie McDermott:


A generous handful of lemongrass leaves, cut into two inch lengths with scissors
3 cups cold water
3 tablespoons super-fine sugar (or, if you want to be fancy, a 1/4 cup simple syrup)
Ice cubes

1. Pack the leaves into a blender then top with the water and sugar. Blend for 1 minute. Strain into a pitcher.

2. Taste, adjust for sweetness, and pour over ice.

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