There is a reason why Belgian endive [on-DEEV] is so expensive in the stores. But odds are pretty good that you can grow your own.
Blanching is a method of growing in which seedlings are covered with soil or other materials to block photosynthesis.. Belgian endive is grown commercially in dark rooms. The lack of chlorophyll in the leaves makes them white. It also gives them a more delicate flavor and tender texture. Blanching is also used on asparagus and celery. To grow your own Belgian endive, you need to learn a few tricks.
How to grow Belgian endive
Belgian endive is one of the few crops that is grown twice. First you grow the root and then you grow the head. If you simply put a Belgian endive seed in the ground and water it, you will get what looks like several other green chicory plants. In the case of Belgian endive, a seed is planted and allowed to grow normally. Then the top portion is removed, the root is refrigerated [vernalized] and then replanted, and grown in the dark. This “forces” the plant to believe it has gone through a winter and the head it produces is very tightly wrapped, pale, and tender.
Three to four weeks later, you will have your very own Belgian endive crop. Simply snap the head off and there you have it!
Problems associated with growing Belgian endive
If you plant seeds too early, bolting may occur. While that’s a great way to get seeds for next year, you won’t have any harvestable heads. And if too much nitrogen is present, your plants will focus on leafy growth rather than root development. And you need healthy roots to get harvestable heads.
Each root only produces one head, so the old root can be fed to your chickens or added to the compost pile.
Jerusalem artichokes are a species of sunflower with an edible tuber.
Jerusalem artichoke description
Jerusalem artichokes look like their cousins, the sunflowers, reaching 6 to 15 feet in height, with somewhat smaller, bright yellow flowers. The tubers look a lot like turmeric and ginger. Long and bumpy, these tubers can range in color from brown to white, or purple to red, depending on the species and growing conditions.
Growing Jerusalem artichokes
To grow your own Jerusalem artichoke crop, begin by selecting a site. Remember, these plants are going to be around for a long time, and they can become rather tall. Unlike many other plants, sunchokes seem to enjoy being clumped together, but they should still be planted 8 to 12 inches apart. Create soil mounds over the plantings, 2 to 3 inches deep, and water regularly, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings.
Starting with a single Jerusalem artichoke tuber, you will eventually find your garden overrun with these perennials. Each plant can produce 75 to 200 tubers every year. Left unharvested, each of those will produce tubers of their own. In my book, that’s a good thing - but you may feel differently. Since tubers left in the ground for too long tend to deteriorate, and they can become invasive, Jerusalem artichokes are a good candidate for large containers or raised beds. This will facilitate crop rotation and control the number of Jerusalem artichoke plants you end up with each year. Any little piece of tuber left in the ground is likely to sprout, to plant accordingly.
Grown in containers, Jerusalem artichokes do not need to be fertilized if you start with nutrient rich potting soil mixed with aged compost. Plants will need to be watered deeply, once a week, throughout the summer. Staking may be needed to keep plants from toppling over, or you can grow them along a fence or against a building.
Harvesting Jerusalem artichokes
As the leaves, flowers, and stems begin to die back at the end of the growing season, usually around October, you can dig up the tubers and allow them to dry, unwashed, for storage. Each plant will produce approximately five pounds of tubers. Sunchoke stems can be chopped and used for mulch, while the tubers to be used for the next year’s crop are simply placed back in the growing bed, along with some aged compost, and the cycle begins again.
[Mostly] edible sunchokes
Surprisingly low in starch, Jerusalem artichokes contain a type of carbohydrate sugar, called inulin, which gives them an underlying sweet taste. While the human gut cannot digest inulin, bacteria further down can, so some people may experience a certain ‘airiness’ after eating sunchokes. If they are not bothersome to you, they also provide a lot of potassium, iron, fiber, and B vitamins.
Or, if you prefer, you can ferment your Jerusalem artichoke crop to make brandy, the way they do in Germany.
As an older native plant, sunchokes have very few pests or diseases to worry about. So, mark your calendar to start Jerusalem artichokes in March or April, and start preparing the planting space today!
Escarole is a ‘bitter green’ member of the chicory family that looks like a lettuce, but packs a powerful nutritional punch. And no Italian wedding soup would be right without it.
Escarole has been eaten and cultivated since Egyptian times. Escarole is an excellent addition to soups and salads, providing both flavor and texture. It can also be baked into casseroles, sautéed, added to pasta, or used to wrap meat or fish. [Lightly sautéing or braising escarole is the best way to bring out its sweetness.] In fact, it is easier to find recipes for escarole than growing tips. But grow it we shall!
The escarole plant
Cousin to radicchio, escarole is a subspecies of endive [on-deev]. The endive species is divided between curly endive or frisée (var crispum), with narrow, toothed leaves, and escarole, or broadleaf endive (var latifolia). Being a type of chicory, escarole has darker outer leaves and pale green to white inner leaves. The degree of greenness to a leaf is an indicator of its bitterness. The chemicals that create the bitterness are said to aid digestion. This group of plants also produces a milky white latex than can cause skin irritation for some.
Escarole, and other chicories, are biennial plants grown as annuals. If you allow them to go through their full lifecycle, as I do, the flowers will attract pollinators and you will find escarole turning up everywhere that it can grow!
How to grow escarole
In hot regions, escarole seeds are generally planted in early fall through early spring, successively. This helps avoid bolting, or going to seed, before plants reach full size, and ensures a ready supply of fresh escarole for the kitchen. While they are less likely to bolt than lettuce or spinach, escarole leaves do not taste very good once this process begins.
Escarole is grown much like lettuce, in that it prefers full sun, consistent moisture, temperatures between 50 and 75°F, and a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.8, ideally. Like lettuce, if the soil dries out too much, growth will slow and the leaves will become too bitter to enjoy. Prepare the seed bed by top dressing with aged compost.
Seeds are planted 1/4-inch deep and thinned to 6 to 12 inches apart. Plants growing too close together are more likely to bolt. Side dressing with more aged compost will provide valuable nutrients, retain moisture, and slow weed growth. Escarole also makes a lovely container plant, indoors or out. Escarole matures in 85 to 98 days, depending on conditions.
Escarole pests and diseases
Aphids, flea beetles, beet leafminers, cabbageworms, cabbage loopers, leafhoppers, slugs and snails, and cutworms may feed on your escarole plants, but they rarely cause serious damage. You can use brassica collars to protect young escarole from cutworm damage, and row covers to block many of the other pests. Diseases of escarole include damping off disease, downy mildews, Alternaria leaf spot, Rhizoctonia blight, white mold, leaf rot, and bottom rot.
You can remove outer leaves any time you like, or cut the entire plant off at ground level. Leaving the root system in place feeds the soil microorganisms that help our plants thrive.
Escarole does not freeze well, but many of the recipes that use escarole do, so cook it up and freeze it for later use.
Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) are edible thistles from the sunflower family.
Eaten the same way as celery, or cooked into stews and soups, cardoons are a maintenance-free perennial. The familiar, grocery store variety of artichoke is a type of cardoon, but there are differences.
Native to the dry climate of Morocco, cardoons are unfazed by drought, making them an easy choice in California and other Mediterranean climates. Also known as artichoke thistles, cardoons produce magnificent pinkish-purple spiked flowers from April through July, but it is the stems that are eaten.
Wild cardoons are sturdy herbaceous perennials that grow 3 to 5 feet tall, with deeply lobed, greenish-grey leaves that can be spiny, hairy, or downy (a condition called tomentose). The fleshy taproot is very good at finding water. And pollinators love the big, showy flowers!
Cardoons are grown for two different crops, using different cultivars. The familiar globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) is grown for its large edible flower buds. The plant referred to as ‘cardoon’ (C. cardunculus var. altilis) is grown, instead, for its edible leaf stems. Since the wild ancestor to cardoons featured painful spines on those stems, spineless cultivars have been developed. Our domesticated artichokes and cardoons are so closely related that they can cross-pollinate, so they should be grown a fair distance from one another.
How cardoons grow
Cardoons need a long, cool growing season, making them an excellent winter crop in the Bay Area. Seeds are started late fall to mid-winter and they transplant easily. These plants grow slowly, at first, but don’t let them fool you. Cardoons can get quite large, averaging 3 feet in all directions. Plants need full sunlight, moderate amounts of water, and good drainage. Watering regularly improves the flavor of cardoon stems. They are frost sensitive, so some protection may be needed in the form of mounded straw or dry leaves around the base of the plant during winter. The plants often die back to ground level after flowering, but they will come back, year after year, adding structure and color in winter, and a spectacular show in spring and early summer.
Only the tender, inner stalks are eaten. These are harvested before the plant goes to flower. Much like celery, these stalks are wrapped in fabric, paper, or straw during the 30 days of growth. This etiolation, or bleaching, keeps the stems white and tender. Traditionally, the stalks were buried under a mound of soil as the plant grew, but that just sounds like too much work. The stalks are then peeled and treated with a little lemon juice, to prevent browning. Simmer for 30 minutes or so and add to any number of Moroccan, African, Greek, Italian, or Persian dishes. In addition, cardoon seeds contain a high quality oil, similar to sunflower oil and safflower oil.
Cardoon pests and diseases
Like its close cousin, the artichoke, cardoons are vulnerable to feeding by slugs and snails, and the artichoke plume moth. They are also susceptible to the viral disease artichoke curly dwarf. Other than that, they are relatively indestructible.
An invasive weed
Cardoons are so hardy, and they self-seed so readily, that they are categorized as a Most Invasive Wildland Pest Plant by the Invasive Species Compendium. What this means to you, as a home gardener, is that it is very important that mature flowers are deadheaded before seeds can spread. This will protect the environment and prevent your yard from filling up with pokey thistle plants. Cardoons grow and spread so readily that some researchers are studying them as a source of biofuel and bioplastics materials.
Invasive weed or delicious vegetable, cardoons have been part of the human diet since ancient times, only falling out of public favor over the last 100 years.
As easy as it is to grow, perhaps it is time for a cardoon in your foodscape!
Chicory root coffee may stir you to wax romantic, with thoughts of beignets and jazz dancing across your synapses, but this rugged roadside weed offers far more than daydreams.
Chicory is a woody perennial that comes in many different varieties, depending on the cultivated use: roots (var. sativum) and leaves (var. foliosum) are the most common. Chicory, occurring naturally, can indicate compacted soil. Luckily, its deep taproot helps break up that compacted soil, plus it’s a drought tolerant plant!
Chicory’s bitter truth
It’s true. Chicory has a bitter taste. Some people like it and some don’t. Science Daily published an interesting report about the evolution of bitter taste sensitivity. It talks about how we evolved to dislike bitterness to avoid being poisoned but, as a result, we now avoid many healthy foods! It’s an interesting read; check it out.
Chicory as food
Chicory is a highly versatile plant. It’s slightly bitter leaves are used in salads, the buds can be blanched in boiling water, and the taproots are frequently roasted and ground up as a coffee substitute. Chicory is also grown as livestock feed and is said to combat internal parasites. The leaves of wild chicory and domesticated chicory plants that have been stressed are more bitter than domesticated varieties. You can reduce the bitterness by changing the cooking water 2 or 3 times. If you want to harvest chicory root for a Big Easy beverage, gather them before the flowering stems emerge. These roots can also be cooked and eaten the same as carrots or parsnips. Chicory roots can also be ground into flour and used to make bread, and some brewers add chicory to their beer recipes. How’s that for versatile?
Chicory and nutrition
We’ve all heard how important it is to eat our fruits and vegetables. And a certain sailor has been telling us, for decades, to eat our spinach. You may be surprised to learn that chicory contains powerful disease-fighting compounds called polyphenols. In 2013, the Journal of Nutrition published research that showed adults who consume 650 mg of polyphenols each day tend to live longer and better than those who don’t. This is due to polyphenols’ abilities to protect your cardiovascular system, fight cancer, and reduce inflammation. One cup of chicory contains 235 mg of polyphenols, which is twice the amount found in spinach!
Chicory’s family tree
Family trees can be funny things. It’s like going to a reunion and learning that you are actually related to that person. A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), chicory (Cichorium intybus) is one of those large, gregarious groups that keeps turning up in unexpected places, and some of the connections aren’t exactly clear. For example, curly endive, Belgian endive, and radicchio are all types of chicory, dandelions and lettuce are siblings, and chicory’s cousins include sunflowers, artichokes, yarrow, chrysanthemums, and even dahlias.
Chicory’s pretty blue flowers have lent it many names: cornflower, bachelor’s buttons, coffeeweed, blue daisy, and wild endive. Like other members of the sunflower family, the flowers are composite and leaves are normally toothed or lobed. The tough, hairy flowering stem is grooved and plants grow 10 to 40 inches tall. Occasionally, the flowers can be white or pink, but this is rare. Flowers appear July through October. Like dandelions, chicory plants have an irritating milky sap that you know as latex.
Chicory leaf types
Many people call leaf chicory ‘endive’, but this is a mistake. True endive (Cichorium endiva) is its own species. The two can, however, cross-pollinate and hybridize, but that only affects the seeds produced that year. There are three types of cultivated leaf chicory (Cichorium intybus):
*Sometimes, chicory receives a special treatment called etiolation. In the culinary world, this is called blanching. [The word ‘blanching' can also refer to a cooking method that submerges food briefly in boiling water, but I digress.] Whatever you call it, this refers to blocking sunlight to all or part of a plant to produce longer stalks (celery), or white leaves (Belgian endive).
How to grow chicory
In warmer climates, chicory is a cool season crop that can be started in January and February, for an early summer crop, and again in July or August, for an early winter crop. This gives the seeds time to get started before the weather turns too hot or too cold. Chicory grown in areas with scorching summers tends to bolt, and the leaves are more bitter. A light frost actually reduces some of the bitterness and adds just a touch of sweetness. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep and thinned to 12 inches apart. Avoid overhead watering, as the leaves are prone to rotting.
Chicory pests and diseases
Despite its rugged nature, there are some pests and diseases that can impact chicory. Bacterial soft rot, damping off disease, fusarium wilt, white mold, anthracnose, bottom rot, downy mildews, and septoria blight are all diseases that attack chicory. Aphids, cabbage loopers, darkling beetles, flea beetles, leaf miners, thrips, and slugs and snails may feed on your chicory plants.
Chicory is one of those plants that can grow like a weed. Once established, you can pretty much ignore it until you decide to harvest whatever part you have a hankering for. And, hey, even the flowers are edible!
The large floral disk of sunflowers, jam packed with seeds, hardly needs description, but there is a lot more to this cheery bloom than meets the eye.
Ancient history & sunflowers
Sunflowers are native to North America. Recent research has shown that they were also growing in Central America way back into antiquity. There are some interesting name exchanges in primitive languages that lead archeologists to believe there were far more cultural exchanges between the two regions than was previously thought. According to researchers at the University of Cincinnati, “sunflowers were domesticated thousands of years and hundreds of miles apart” making them an interesting topic in human history. More currently, sunflowers are one of the world’s top oil producing plants. Each year, nearly 45 million tons of sunflowers are grown worldwide!
The sunflower family
Sunflowers are part of a plant family called Asteraceae. The sunflower family includes asters, artichokes, dahlias, yarrow, marigolds, endive, dandelions, and Echinacea, just to name a few. Sunflowers can be annual or perennial, depending on the variety, microclimate, and growing conditions. Some varieties grow as a single fat, hairy stalk, while others grow several branches. There are eleven species of sunflower (Helianthus annus) in California. Some dwarf varieties are only a foot and a half tall, while others can reach twelve feet!
Benefits of sunflowers
If the happy blooms and tasty seeds weren’t reason enough to add them to your garden, sunflowers also attract many beneficial insects. Honey bees, lacewings, butterflies, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps enjoy the nectar, pollen, and prey insects found on and near sunflowers. Personally, I love the tiny finches that are so fond of eating the wide, spade-shaped leaves. Local squirrels and seed eating birds can become problematic, or you can simply plant a few extras near the fence line.
Heliotropism refers to a plant’s ability to track the sun’s movement and sunflowers are masters of heliotropism. Sunflowers use phytohormones called auxins and an internal circadian clock to follow the sun across the sky each day. During the night, they turn their west-facing blooms back toward the east, in anticipation of the dawn. Scientists were surprised to discover that bringing outdoor sunflowers indoors, with a constant overhead light source, the plants still went through their east to west cycle for a few days. It was also found that certain genes tell the east side of the plants grow more quickly during the day, while the west side of the plants grows more at night. As the plants mature, this movement slows, leaving most sunflowers facing east, rather than west. The reason? Scientists found that eastward facing flower heads (capitula) heated up more quickly than their westward neighbors. This added warmth attracted FIVE TIMES more beneficial insects, for better pollination and pest protection!
Sunflowers and children
Sunflowers grow quickly and often to impressive heights, which makes them an excellent choice when gardening with children. In fact, if you plant your sunflower seeds properly, you can create a fort, a maze, or a magic castle right in your own back yard! Or, to watch germination as it occurs, you can place sunflower seeds inside a clear glass with a dark colored sponge. Place the seeds between the glass and the sponge and add water. Before you know it, the magic happens! Then take your sunflower sprouts and add them to a salad or plant them in the garden! In either case, they make a healthy snack and provide your children with a sense of ownership.
How to grow sunflowers
Most sunflower plants are grown from seed. A few species also propagate using creeping roots, which makes them a noxious weed in some agricultural areas. Sunflowers need lots of sun, water, and nitrogen, but they are less picky about soil than many other plants. Seeds can be started in cell flats or other small containers and then transplanted, or they can be directly sown into the garden or landscape, after the last chance of frost has passed. Seeds should be planted one inch deep and watered daily until they sprout. After they have sprouted, plants will need an inch of rain or irrigation each week, depending on the weather. For optimal growth, space your sunflower 2 ½ to 3 feet apart. Dwarf varieties only need 6 inches. Seedlings often need protection from birds, squirrels, slugs and snails. Sunflowers can take up to 3 months to reach full size. Sunflowers need lots of nutrients, so adding aged compost to the planting area will help them to get a good start. They do, occasionally need staking.
Sunflower seeds contain a chemical that is toxic to grass plants, so you should harvest the seeds before they start falling on your lawn or near other members of the grain family (Poaceae), such as corn, millet, wheat, barley, or bamboo. You can also plant sunflowers much the way Native Americans did, using the Three Sisters Method, by replacing corn with sunflowers. The squash or melon leaves will shade the ground around your sunflowers and pole beans will climb the stalks and provide a nitrogen boost before they go to seed themselves.
Sunflower pests & diseases
Sunflowers tend to be sturdy plants that fend for themselves rather well. Keep a look out for ant trails going up the stalks that can indicate an aphid problem. Sticky barriers can be used to block the ants, which makes the aphids more vulnerable to their natural enemies. Other sunflower pests include dried fruit beetles, cutworms, carrot beetles, some foliage-feeding caterpillars, leaf beetles, spider mites, thrips, and the dreaded sunflower bud moth. Fungal diseases, such as crown gall, downy mildews, powdery mildew, rust, and Verticillium wilt can be a problem, but this occurs more in agricultural fields than in backyard gardens.
Once your sunflower head has reached full size, it will probably be bent over and surprisingly heavy. If you stroke the face of the flower head with your hand, dozens of tiny dried bits (pappus) will fall away. Personally, I give all my sunflowers a quick rub to dislodge potential pests and to remove these bits. Before removing the head from the stalk, use your fingernail to nick out a few seeds and open them up. Are the seeds plump? If not, give them some more time. You certainly don’t want to harvest a head of empty shells! Seeds have normally reached maturity around the same time the petals start to fall from the flower. You can protect immature heads from birds with netting or large paper bags. Once the seeds have reached maturity, cut the stem an inch or two below the flower head. Seeds can be allowed to dry in the head, or they can be rubbed loose over a newspaper or old sheet. Be sure to blow away any chaff that may harbor pests or disease. I always save several of the largest, healthiest looking seeds for next year’s crop. After that, allow seeds to dry out completely before storing in an airtight container. You can also salt and/or roast your seeds. If you suspect seed pests, freezing your sunflower seeds will kill off any eggs that may be lurking in the shells. Sunflower seeds stored in the refrigerator or freezer are good for a year, while raw seeds stored at room temperature are only good for 2 or 3 months. Roasted, shelled seeds have a shelf life of 3 to 4 months, and unshelled roasted seeds can last 4 to 5 months.
Sunflower oil can be used as a horticultural oil, but I definitely prefer it as sunflower butter on toast or in place of peanut butter in cookies. Yummy!
One variety, the giant whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus) was first seen in 1892. Then it was believed to be extinct until 1994 when it was discovered by Vanderbilt University student, Jennifer Ellis. The giant whorled sunflower is currently listed as an endangered species and is only found in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee - the birthplace of the sunflower species.
In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadores banned the use of sunflowers in Mexico, believing that they were an aphrodisiac.
Add some sunflowers to your garden today! (No matter what the Spaniards said!)
Curly endive, Belgian endive, or whatever variety of Cichorium strikes your fancy, this is one vegetable that should be part of every foodscape.
If you eat salads, soups, or burgers, curly endive is an excellent addition to your garden. It looks pretty, it tolerates both heat and cold, and, if allowed to go to seed, will decorate your yard with dozens of rosette-shaped edible plants! These cousins to dandelions and sunflowers have much to offer the home gardener. One cup of fresh endive contains 220% of the Daily Value for Vitamin K, 36% folic acid, 20% manganese, and plenty of other nutrients. Endives also add a distinct depth of flavor to many dishes.
There are several members of the endive family. They are all cool season greens, with high nutritional values and varying degrees of bitterness. Now, bitterness is a weird thing. I just read Evolution of bitter taste sensitivity, from ScienceDaily, and learned how the conflict between disliking bitterness protects us from eating toxins and prevents us from enjoying healthy foods is more complex than you might expect. Give it a read!
How to grow endive
Endive is a cool season biennial plant, like lettuce and spinach, that can be grown in sun, shade, or outdoor containers. (It would look nice on an apartment balcony, too!) In the Bay Area, endive can be started in late summer, fall, or winter. The plants are tolerant of light frost, which is about all we get. Plants prefer plenty of sunlight and a soil pH of 5 - 6.8, which is more acidic than we tend to have, but my plants don’t seem to care. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep. Mature plants will need to be 8 to 12 inches apart, unless you are growing Belgian endive, which is another story altogether (below). If plants are too close together, they are more likely to bolt, or go to seed. Water regularly to keep the bitterness to a minimum. Dressing the plants with aged compost once or twice during the growing season adds nutrients needed for the best flavor and growth. (Dressing means putting aged compost around a plant.) When plants are 5 to 6 inches tall, they can be harvested by cutting them off at ground level. The remaining stump will grow another plant for a continuous harvest. Or, you can simply remove outer leaves, as you need them, which is what I do.
Endive pests & diseases
I have found slugs and snails to be the biggest pests, but even they don’t do a whole lot of damage to my curly endive. Aphids and cutworms may also show up, but, again, the damage is minimal. Apparently, the bitterness that makes endive so healthy for us is also what makes it undesirable to pests. Curly endive has no serious diseases. Broad leafed varieties, however, have a tendency to collect water on the leaves, creating habitat for occasional fungal diseases.
Lettuce may not look like it has much to offer, but this member of the sunflower family can provide good food, ground cover, and fun!
Lettuce is a biennial garden staple that finds its way into most burgers and lays the foundation for nearly every salad ever made. With half of the world’s lettuce crop being grown by China, and numerous cases of E. coli and Salmonella poisoning in bagged salads, lettuce should be one of the first garden plants you try. Fresh lettuce is cheaper, tastier, safer, and far better for the environment than anything that has been shipped from halfway around the planet.
History of lettuce
The ancient Egyptians took advantage of a certain type of weed, whose seeds contained a lot of oil. Over time, those weeds became domesticated and the edible leaves started being used for food and medicine. The Romans gave lettuce its Latin name, Lactuca sativa, for the white latex (lactuca) that drips from cut stems. (Sativa means cultivated.) Being people, we saved seeds from our favorite types to ultimately create nearly 150 varieties of lettuce.
Lettuce generally grows in a crisphead, loose leaf, or romaine form, but there are seven cultivar groups:
Loose leaf and romaine lettuces can be harvested in a cut and grow method, in which outer leaves are removed for consumption and the plant is allowed to continue providing edible leaves for the entire growing period.
How to grow lettuce
Lettuce, like spinach, tends to bolt when it gets really hot outside, so fall, winter, and spring are the best times of year for growing lettuce in San Jose, California. Lettuce can be grown in containers, in the ground, or on a window sill. Lettuce prefers sun, but it can grow just fine in shade gardens, too! In spite of its taproot, lettuce does not need a particularly large or deep container to provide you with fresh leaves for your sandwich or salad.
Lettuce seeds are really tiny, so don’t try planting outside on a windy day. (Yep, I learned that one the Hard Way.) Seeds only need to be covered with 1/4” of soil, but they must be kept moist until they germinate. Spacing between plants depends entirely on the variety. Keep planting new seeds every few weeks, in succession, for a continuous harvest.
Once temperatures start rising, your lettuce plants will probably bolt, or go to seed. You can tell this is happening because your docile, rounded lettuce plants will suddenly send up a spike of growth from the center that looks very un-lettuce-like. If you allow this to continue, and I urge you to do so, your lettuce plant will become too bitter to eat, but it will produce flowers and seeds for future generations. I allow my lettuce plants to go to seed and let them fall where they will. (You can also wrap bags around flowering heads to collect seeds.) I now have an attractive foodscape, with all sorts of lettuces growing in all sorts of places. Unless it’s the peak of summer, I can create a fresh salad with a variety of lettuces simply by walking around my backyard!
Lettuce pests & diseases
Aphids are a lettuce plant’s worst enemy, with snails and slugs being a close second. Earwigs, cutworms, weevils, rabbits, and voles will all be attracted to your lettuce plants, and white mold can sometimes be a problem.
Finally, any packet of lettuce seeds that you buy will have far more seeds than you will be able to use in a growing season. Solution: invite your friends over for a seed-luck. What's a seed-luck? That's when everyone brings a packet of a different type of lettuce (or other) seed, a dessert, and a bottle of wine. You will need to provide little packets or envelopes for guests to (decorate and) use to take their bounty home. A good time is sure to be had by all, and everyone ends up with a bigger variety of plants!
Your Caesar salad wouldn’t be the same without Romaine lettuce and this nutritional powerhouse should be part of every garden.
You can grow Romaine on a windowsill, in a container, on a balcony, in a traditional garden or sprinkle it around your landscape. Wherever and however you grow Romaine, you’ll be glad you did.
Romaine is high in folate, which has been shown to boost male fertility and reduce depression for everyone. The CDC ranks Romaine as the 9th healthiest food you can eat to prevent chronic disease. Hey, and it tastes pretty good on a burger, too!
How to grow Romaine lettuce
Plant Romaine seeds 1/2 inch deep and several inches apart (just picture how large a head of Romaine gets). Water thoroughly at first and then as needed to prevent wilting. One cool thing about Romaine is that you can regrow a head from the stem at the base of the head. Simply place it in a container that can hold 1/2 inch of water, Pyrex baking pans work well and you can always find them at a thrift store for practically nothing. You will need to change out the water every day, but then you can use that water on houseplants, the lawn, or anywhere in the landscape. Once roots develop, move your lettuce into soil for the best growth. To harvest, simply break off outer leaves as you need them, or cut the whole head off and restart the base in water all over again. Just don't start with a grocery store head of Romaine. Grocery store produce is (usually) safe to eat, but that does not mean it is safe to plant. It may be carrying pests or diseases that can take decades to eradicate from your garden.
Earwigs, cutworms, rabbits, and uncaged chickens can cause problems in your Romaine patch.
Planting your Romaine near garlic and chives is said to reduce aphids, but I don't know if that's true or not.
Artichokes are a ritualistic food that require patience, good conversation, and a nice glass of white wine to be truly appreciated.
Modern artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) have evolved from the cardoon, a plant still grown in Spain and Portugal as a vegetable for its stalks and immature buds, and as a source of plant-based rennet for cheese making. Artichokes found in grocery stores today tend to be larger and tougher than is ideal. Gardeners can enjoy a more tender and flavorful experience by growing these prehistoric-looking members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) themselves. As a health benefit, artichokes contain more antioxidants than most other vegetables.
Artichoke buds & flowers
The artichokes we eat are actually spiny, immature flower buds. Each artichoke that we buy or harvest is made up of a cluster, or inflorescence, of hundreds of smaller flowers, protected by modified leaves called bracts. Once these flowers bloom, the meaty bracts and the base, or heart, are too tough to eat. The lovely purple flowers are nice to look at, however.
Do you have space for artichokes?
Artichokes can be grown practically anywhere, but they are large plants, averaging 4 to 6 feet across, so be sure to give them room to grow. They prefer cool, moist summers (or relatively shady spots) and mild winters. The majority of the commercial crop is grown in the central, coastal areas of California. While most artichokes are grown as annuals, the plants can actually be grown as perennials, producing edible buds for 4 or 5 years. Under the right conditions, you may be able to harvest as many as 30 artichokes per plant per year. To get the most out of your artichoke plants, it is important to provide light soil (add compost!), water in summer and improve drainage for winter.
Artichokes & temperature
Timing is critical when starting artichokes from seed and when selecting varieties. The heirloom varieties (‘Violetta Precoce’, ‘Green Globe’, or ‘Romanesco’) are very temperature sensitive and will not grow well in northern regions. ‘Opera’ and ‘Imperial Star’ are better choices for colder areas. ‘Green Globe’ and ‘Imperial Star’ perform well in the San Jose, CA area.
Artichoke varieties & propagation
Artichokes are either green or purple. Traditionally, artichokes are a warm weather crop that can be propagated vegetatively or by planting seeds. Varieties that perform better through vegetative propagation include Italy’s large purple Romanesco, Spain’s medium green ‘Blanca de Tudela’, and Peru’s spend ‘Spinoso e Inguano’. Vegetative propagation refers to division and root cuttings.
To divide an artichoke plant, simply wait for new growth to appear in spring. Sink a shovel between the new shoot and the parent plant, lifting the new growth with the shovel and transplanting it elsewhere. Root cuttings can be taken from established plants and placed in a favorable growth medium (moist soil) and allowed to create a new stem and become a complex, independent plant.
How to grow artichokes from seed
Many varieties of artichoke perform well when grown from seed, but it may take a period of vernalization before flowering begins. Green ‘Harmony’ or ‘Symphony’ and purple ‘Opal’, ‘Concerto’ or ‘Tempo’ can all be grown from seed. Since artichokes have deep taproots, they are not well suited to container gardening. Seedlings should be handled very carefully when transplanting. It is easiest to simply plant them in the ground where you want them to give the taproot the freedom to grow deeply, without interruption. Artichoke seeds should be sown 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep at a time when temperatures are expected to be in the 70 - 75º range for a few weeks.
Artichokes are heavy feeders. Using a side dressing (adding fertilizer or aged compost next to plants, where it is watered into the soil around the roots, rather than digging it in), each mature plant will need 1/10 of a pound of nitrogen at the beginning of the growing season. Plants will also benefit from 1 cup of ammonium sulfate and 2/3 cup of ammonium nitrate during the harvest season. If you are like me and prefer a more natural approach, simply keep mulching the area around each plant with aged compost. Blood meal can provide the nitrogen.
Artichoke pests & diseases
Aphids and slugs are an artichoke’s most common pests. At the end of each growing season, many pests can be thwarted by cutting the stems to ground level and covering with mulch. Artichoke plume moths can be a problem in perennial beds. Artichoke curly dwarf is a viral disease that causes stunting and dark, necrotic (dead) spots. To avoid this problem, use only disease-free stock. Botrytis, or grey mold, is a fungal disease that occurs after extended periods of warm, wet weather.
Harvest your artichokes when they are about the size of an apple for the best flavor and tenderness.
A funny side note about artichokes: the fleshy leaves contain a chemical, called cynarine, that inhibits certain taste receptors, making water and other things taste sweeter!
Did you know that artichokes are used to make tea and liquor?
Now you know.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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