Sunday, 13 October 2013

Kitchen Garden Multitaskers

What is your horticultural multitasking superhero? For me, it is the runner bean. It may not be the most fashionable or glamorous of plants, but it has an attractive twining stem; delicious pods; it makes a valuable contribution to structure in the border while taking up little space; it fixes nitrogen in the soil; and the flowers are hugely popular with bees. Could any plant ever match the multitasking capabilities of the mighty bean? Surprisingly, there are a few good-looking contenders in our kitchen garden this year.


Asparagus pea pod
I had been warned that I might struggle to spot the difference between asparagus peas and pencil sharpenings,* so any peas with sharp wings go straight into the compost bin and we eat only young pods. They are so delicious that they cause ructions at the table and I have been compelled to count pea pods onto plates. This painstaking act has triggered happy memories of my own childhood, when bowls of trifle were launched in turn onto kitchen scales to ensure that each of us had a fair share of pudding (I now applaud my mum's patience and in the interests of self-preservation, I never serve trifle). 

Asparagus peas
Asparagus peas (Lotus tetragonolobus) have exquisite foliage and the daintiest of flowers. These little plants would look perfectly at home in an ornamental border or a containerThey are a visual feast and an edible delight. My only regret is that I didn’t grow more of them this year.

Yacon
Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) has added a touch of the exotic to our plot this summer. Its broad, generous foliage is intriguingly veined and contrasts beautifully with the intricate shamrock-like leaves of oca (Oxalis tuberosa). This undemanding duo have a long growing season and while we wait eagerly for frost and our first excavations to see if there are any edible tubers, our garden will continue to benefit from their exceptional weed-suppressing capabilities, while I get to enjoy an occasional nibble on delicious apple flavoured oca leaves.


Oca
Another root crop with beautiful edible foliage is the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas. Most of the plants are in the kitchen garden, but since we do not have a greenhouse, I concealed a few pots indoors and guess what? Sweet potatoes masquerade as houseplants so successfully that no one has mentioned past indoor crop misdemeanours such as the cucumber kitchen curtains fiasco (for which I am profoundly grateful).**


Sweet potatoes incognito
There may be another reason why no one is alluding to cucumbers. My children have long-ridiculed me over my hatred of cucumber skin. They think that peeling cucumbers is a ridiculous waste of time; or they did until this year, when I started growing a variety called ‘Marketmore’. This cucumber thrives outdoors; it is delicious; crops prolifically; and best of all, when harvested young, it has spikes! Even my most vociferous dissenters on the cucumber-peeling front have been forced to eat their words along with their sandwiches. ‘Marketmore’ might not be the prettiest plant on the patch, but by silencing my detractors, it has achieved something that beans can only dream of. 

38 comments:

  1. Nice selection of edible and ornamental cross over plants there! Might try asparagus next year, as for Yacon we grow it too on most years and we vouch for its ornamental value too!

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    1. Thanks! I shall continue to grow Yacon even if I don't like the taste of the tubers as it makes an impressive ornamental plant and puts on such a lot of lush growth in a short time.

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  2. The foliage of beetroot is attractive in the garden but I so agree about the runner bean and the broad bean has lovely flowers with a good perfume

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    1. Oh I agree, beetroot leaves look lovely in the border. Broad beans have great attributes... and they are attractive to pollinating insects. I just can't get the structure from them like I can from runners. Perhaps I should try for a broad bean hedging effect.

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  3. I must admit I love seeing runner beans grow in a veg patch; the bees adore the flowers so much. And I also admit that I peel cucumbers, too - I've never liked the skins.

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    1. Wendy, you are clearly very wise. There is only one place for cucumber skin... in the compost heap; not in a salad.

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  4. I have never eaten aparagus peas, I certainly have to try these in my garden next year. As I understand they are as delicious as trifle, what is our favourite dessert. The sweet potatoes look nice in your house and about cucumbers I have to say I always peel them but my daughters don't .

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    1. Clearly, you need to do a taste test: asparagus peas followed by trifle. The peas aren't particularly filling, so that will leave plenty of room for trifle!

      Before 'Marketmore' my daughters would give me unpeeled cucumbers in food and I would pick them out and nibble the innards, leaving the skin. I was hoping that my bad manners might cure them; it didn't. Prickly cucumbers are the way forward Janneke!

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  5. I grew up thinking that the weighing or counting out of precious foodstuffs such as strawberries and raspberries was normal. I got laughed at. Until I started growing my own peas, raspberries, strawberries etc, when suddenly everybody became very concerned with fairness, and out came the scales - or the fingers, for counting small crops. I have been looking up Oxalis tuberosa and have asked Real Seeds to tell me when they are avaialble, they sound really interesting. Asparagus peas also sound as if they must be tried, and as for Smallanthus sonchifolius, since I want to try more perennial veg, I am three for three from this post, so thank you! I'll skip on the spiny cucumbers though...

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    1. So far they have been very welcome additions to our kitchen garden. Oxalis tuberosa has pretty yellow flowers now. The yacon, oca and asparagus pea plants are still looking good after all the wind and rain this past week, so they are continuing to impress. I bought the oca and yacon as little tubers last winter and started them off on my office windowsill.

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  6. Your veggie garden is beautiful! I never thought I'd use veggie garden and beautiful in the same sentence.....useful is what usually comes to my mind. There's nothing like garden fresh beans! they ruin your taste buds for frozen or canned ones. I was never able to get pea pods into the house. We ate them straight from the vine. Yum!

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    1. I think veggie gardens should be beautiful. We spend a lot of time growing our food, so if our veg patch is a lovely place to sit and eat those peas from the vine, even better!

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  7. Ha!! Glad to hear you silenced your crew...I don't doubt that they were happy you peeled those cucumbers!!! Wonderful inspiration here for foliage and crops for next years garden. I will definitely be trying those peas!!!

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    1. Great! Eat the asparagus peas young! You will be able to feel the ones which are past their best.

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  8. Asparagus peas that look like pencil shavings and cucumbers with spikes — yikes! This post has been an education to me. I have never heard of yakon, oka, or asparagus peas and have never seen spiky cucumbers. As one who loves oddities, I think your veggie garden must be delightful! And now I wonder if asparagus peas will grow in my climate.

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    1. I think they might grow for you. They are a popular food in Southern Asia. I have certainly seen sites about growing them in Australia... and if they cope with our windy, wet UK climate pretty well (although we did have a sunny summer this year), I guess they must be pretty forgiving!

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  9. Any plant that's good at suppressing weeds should definitely be in my garden... from what you say about yacon I should be growing lots of it - scattered among the runner beans of course!

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    1. It really does the job very well! I have hardly had to do any weeding in the kitchen garden this year.

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  10. haha - That's a funny story about the spines on your cucumber. I peel my cucumbers, too, even without spines! I haven't had asparagus peas, but you make them sound delicious. I can remember as a kid never wanting the short end of the stick when it came to food. We didn't have a kitchen scale. My mom resorted to one of us dipping, cutting, etc., and the other one getting to pick, so it was always very even (at least to the naked eye).

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    1. Ah yes, it is possible to get away with the "divide and pick" method of fairness with two siblings. I was one of five children, so we had to resort to the kitchen scales.... even then there might be further debate about the custard/cream ratio in the bowl. I don't think that age has improved us ;-)

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  11. Spiked cucumbers will silence any complainers! But I LOVE that you grew cucumbers on your window sill. YOU ARE THE BEST!

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    1. Thank you! I am pleased that someone appreciates my efforts in unseasonal produce. I don't expect the same response from my family... I only hope that they manage to put the whole disappearing daylight episode out of their minds.

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  12. You made me laugh counting out pea pods and weighing trifle, though I've been known to get a ruler out to show my two that they've each got exactly the same amount of fizzy drink in their glasses. I've never grown asparagus peas, something to do with the fact that I haven't read one complimentary review of them before, perhaps I should reconsider.

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    1. I had heard negative and positive comments about asparagus peas, but I wanted to try for myself. It matters that the pods are picked young. I understand that they are often sliced finely prior to cooking to reduce the risk of getting a mouthful of fibre, but we simply harvested them young and steamed them whole and they were absolutely delicious.

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  13. Hmm ! A multi tasker that equals the mighty runner bean ? Can't think of one, but I can think of a berry which makes me wash my car , and that is quite a feat ! Elderberry + bird + tree overhanging drive = blotchy purple car which has to be washed lest I be shamed in the staff car park!!

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    1. Now that IS impressive - and elderberry can make wine too!

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  14. Multitasking plants are the best! And I love the idea of bringing traditional veggie garden plants inside. Sweet potato vines are so pretty--I love the chartreuse ones the best. Great examples of multitaskers!

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    1. They are incredibly pretty. I don't know how well they will crop, but they have certainly earned their keep as a houseplant this summer!

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  15. Always fun to come across interesting new edibles that are also pretty to look at. Your descriptions had me drooling.

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    1. I like to grow something new to eat every year - it isn't always a huge success, but it's interesting to try. This year the new edibles look great, which has been a massive bonus. Of course, I still grow my old faithfuls too.

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  16. Broad beans have to be my garden multi-tasker, for the same reasons as your runner beans. Found myself going "ooOOooh" when reading about asparagus peas - have heard of them but didn't know they were delicious. One for next year's lists I think! PS Love the idea of a spiky cucumber, I grew Achocha for the same reason ;)

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    1. I've just read your post on achocha.... I shall be adding them to my list for next year. Thanks!

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  17. Mmmm, your post have me almost convinced I need to chuck out some roses and start growing vegetables – not likely to happen though! My horticultural multitasking superhero must be the Dregea sinensis, the vine I have over my arch in my garden. It provides both flowers for months on end and a lovely drape over the arch for almost 10 months a year and it is so pretty to look at, so many people comment on this feature in my garden. And, it is not even supposed to survive in my climate, it is usually referred to as too tender, although mine has survived outdoors for almost 10 years!

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    1. A beautiful plant! You are so fortunate to be able to be able to grow it! One of the joys of a sheltered garden in London...

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  18. Love beans, pretty flowers, gorgeous big leaves, yummy food. funny though, I've never even heard of any of the other plants you have suggested. There's a whole world of veggies out there I need to discover apparently!

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    1. You do! It is a shame that we often have to grow the produce to see what it tastes like. We have excellent markets and shops selling a wide range of produce, but I have never been able to buy yacon and oca, so I don't even know if I like the tubers.

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  19. I suppose I would say fennel: tasty bulb, ornamental foliage, and a host plant for the swallowtails.

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