A Renaissance of Diversity

Bringing a little variety to your garden, including a brief lesson on growing kale.

January 1, 2015

HomesteadIssue 10: January/February 2015

Every issue, in these pages, my goal is to get you to plant varieties of vegetables and fruits that you don’t find in the grocery store. In the days before industrial agriculture simplified our choices to just a handful of varieties, information was passed between people about what apples made the best pies, which tomatoes made the best canned sauces, and what the heck does one do with salsify. This information was regional, depending on what was historically grown in each area. In some parts of the world, these traditions are still held. At street markets in Europe, generations of families still sell their farm products to the public—they’re so common that they aren’t called farmers’ markets; they are simply referred to as the local markets. Where we live, in the United States, this kind of connection has been overshadowed by our current food economy in which just a few varieties are grown on enormous scales to sell worldwide.

Romanesco (Brassica oleracea), by Danny Martin

Romanesco (Brassica oleracea), by Danny Martin

Over the past century, varieties of vegetables and fruits were chosen not necessarily for their taste or performance in particular dishes, but for their shelf life and appearance. Basically, they were chosen for their economic performance. You all know those perfect-looking tomatoes or apples that taste awful (but yet somehow are still sold daily in the supermarket). We have been trained to purchase food based on superficial qualities that don’t reflect the nutrition, flavor, or useful qualities of any particular variety. And it is convenient, having fewer options. You don’t have to work very hard to figure out what to do with Tahitian squash or Italian puntarelle. You can slice up those tasteless, medium-sized whatever tomatoes and put them on a salad and call it dinner.

That was the case—until recently. Somehow, diversity has become popular again. I have been somewhat impressed with offerings made available even in corporate chains like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Black garlic, mache, and amaranth flour are a few things that are now easily found for purchase.

But even the diversity appearing in the grocery store pales in comparison to what a gardener can grow. A stunning array of plants can be grown in the Baja Arizona backyard and all you have to do is figure out what the heck to do with a plant once you grow it.

This has been my experience growing food. I admit, I am a botanist and I grow things just because they are weird or fun. Once I have grown them, I am often faced with the challenge of figuring out how not to waste my efforts and turn them into an edible dish. This educates me about more than just food, or botany. I learn about culture.

We’re living in a time when we have the entire world of genetic diversity available online and in the pages of a few incredible seed catalogs.

One stunning catalog available now is the 356-page Whole Seed Catalog put out by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. They have taken it upon themselves not only to make amazing varieties available to the public (varieties found by extensive research, lots of world travel, and sleuthy plant geekness), but also to document these varieties with gorgeous full color pictures. Who wouldn’t want to grow green fingerprint fava beans from the Andes or the pusa asita, a black carrot from India, once you see a photo of each? They are making rock stars of rustic, often ancient vegetables and fruits. It’s about time.

But we don’t have to look farther than our own backyard for such amazing plant geekness. For three decades, Native Seeds/SEARCH has been preserving both the genetic diversity of our region and also the culture behind it all, using the fanaticism of gardeners to help preserve our region’s bank of food options (and preserving arid-adapted crops for the world if global warming dries the planet out).

In Baja Arizona, we are certainly at the forefront of change, and it all starts in the garden. All you have to do is grow, research, or just experiment with something new.

That experimentation ends in the kitchen, of course. And it’s more work to have to plan out your dinner than to add water and heat to a boxed meal. You will have to spend more time thinking about your meals. Yes, I am asking you to choose inconvenience. Because you will certainly fail many times. You may perhaps plant something at the wrong part of the year and not give it enough time to develop. You might not always use the crop for its best purpose and may waste a good vegetable on the wrong sort of dish. But if you care, you will learn what to do with all that bounty. You will become a better gardener. You will become a better cook. And your life will be enriched by the diversity that has never before been so available to any one group of people. We are privileged to live in a time when so much is being made available, and in a climate where so many things can be grown (if planted at the right time, in the right way). We are so lucky to find ourselves exhausted at the end of a Saturday, having harvested the bounty we painstakingly grew for a season, and processed it in our kitchen to enjoy with loved ones at the dinner table.

Kale (Brassica oleracea), by Danny Martin

Kale (Brassica oleracea), by Danny Martin

The Bacon of the Vegetable World

The culinary world’s newfound enthusiasm for this hardy, cool-season vegetable is well-deserved. Kale is relatively easy to grow, presents few horticultural challenges, has a healthy nutritional profile, stores well in the refrigerator, comes in a wide variety of gorgeous options, and is absolutely delicious. My favorite is still the nero di Toscana or Tuscan kale (also known as lacinato kale, dinosaur kale, or palm tree kale). But I don’t want to undervalue other varieties, like the lovely oak leaf shape of Russian red kale, or the mouth-pleasing texture of the curly kales. With most varieties, colors range from light to dark greens, but there are some varieties that are partly or entirely red or purple to almost bluish. Texture can be extremely serrated and “curly,” bumpy, or smooth and round. A few varieties grow like palm trees, especially the walking stick variety that grows six to 10 feet tall and produces a stem that can literally be dried and laminated to make walking sticks!

Most kale varieties are easy to find, but varieties like the walking stick kale can be trickier. Hirt’s Gardens (Hirts.com) has them, as well as a variety called Nagoya flowering red kale, an ornamental variety (still entirely edible) that grows in rosettes with a deep blood-red center.

The more pedestrian varieties of kale can be grown from nursery-grown starts (most commonly found in 4-inch pots or six-packs). This includes my favorite, Tuscan kale. But more variety is available if you start from seed, obtained online or in print catalogs.

To start from seed

Plant seeds an inch apart and keep seedlings well-watered, thinning them out as they grow (save the seedlings you pull out for salads and garnishes). Give each plant enough room to fully develop. If you let them grow too close (or fail to thin seedlings out sufficiently) individual plants may not grow to mature, optimal size.

Eventually most kale varieties get fairly large. With some types, you can harvest the lower leaves and they will continue to produce more leaves growing up though the meristem (growing point). Kale is best fed steadily with an organic fertilizer like fish emulsion or kelp meal. Mulch the base of plants after they reach a few inches high with straw or compost to conserve water. Plants are best grown in full sun, but can tolerate some shade—but too much shade causes plants to succumb to pests. Well-established kale can persist into the summer and sometimes into the following year, but such plants are more prone to problems, like aphids. In the cooler areas of our region, well-watered or well-fed plants can suffer frost damage, but a little frost and cool weather can improve the flavor of kale.

Gardening Without a Garden

Some of you may want to grow a garden, but lack the space for it where you live. The formation of public, community gardens is a growing trend in Tucson (and in the country), which can provide you with an option for space to grow. Community gardens are sometimes free (if supported by a neighborhood association), but often have minimal fees—usually under $20—that go toward water bills and resources for the garden, like irrigation supplies, shovels, or infrastructure. For the most updated list of community gardens in the Tucson area, visit CommunityGardensofTucson.org.✜

Jared McKinley is the associate publisher of Edible Baja Arizona

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