November 20, 2015

Garden Review 2015: Greens & Herbs (Tokyo Bekana rocks!)

In early spring I planted spring radish, brassica greens, and chrysanthemum greens. I was inspired by the concept of "eat-all greens" outlined by Carol Deppe in her new book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening.

The idea is you plant fast growing greens pretty densely to cover a certain area. The greens grow up faster than weeds and shade them out. To harvest you cut them off a few cm above the soil and ideally don't need to wash. Sounds great, right? I bought seeds from many of the varieties recommended by Deppe for eat-all greens to see what would work for me. I ended up not doing area coverage because I wanted to plant potatoes in between the greens before the greens were done. In retrospect I could have planted some stuff there and just pulled out anything that was in the way when I wanted to put the potatoes in. But in the front box the greens almost grew together anyway, and in the back they didn't do well enough for it to matter particularly.

I'm not a very good gardener at this point, so as I often tell people I plant 20 things and 2 of them might do well. Something like this happened with the greens. Tokyo Bekana in my front box was an absolute gem, making tremendous quantities of excellent greens with little work. Mustard greens and Tatsoi also did fairly well, especially in the front box. Here they are early in the season.

At the same time the spring greens were getting big enough to eat, I was sampling lots of wild greens from the bikepath. This made me really appreciate how yummy cultivated plants are compared to most of their wild counterparts! About the only things I think can compete with garden plants for ease of harvest and good eating are wild garlic and daylilly shoots.

The front yard box was vastly improved in performance from the last couple years. We took down a small oak tree in the front for a variety of reasons, but one result was that the box now gets morning sun.

One of my ideas about why things did poorly in that box the last couple years was that the soil was too silty and mucky, without enough air spaces, since it was formed of 100% municipal compost when it was first put together. So as soon as the soil was thawed, I broadforked up the bed. This action was too much for the 2x timbers of the box, which being untreated framing lumber and something like 7 years old, are punky and rotten in many places. I didn't really feel up to totally rebuilding it, so I tried putting on some braces in hopes it would postpone the rebuild for a few more years. Utilizing some pieces of red cedar and stainless lag screws from my fence project, I braced the corners and the middle of the box.

Next, I applied 40kg of construction sand which had previously been weighing down plastic sheeting on a leaky roof, and a big bag of perlite from amazon. These were worked in to the soil a bit with the fork, then I planted the greens seed. Spring plants did extremely well in that box, so I think the rejuvenation of the soil was a success. Just the thinnings gave us this much greens.

One aspect I need to work on my succession planting planning. I don't find this easy, since I am usually trying to get things in an out in the minimum time so I can plant something else where they were. For instance, I wanted to plant potatoes in between the rows of brassica greens, such that as the potatoes were coming up and starting to get bigger the greens would be finishing up and ready to come out. You can see the potatoes coming in between the Red Giant Mustard and the Tokyo Bekana in the below pic, about when I took out the Tokyo Bekana. At that point I had already taken out the Tatsoi, behind the TB.

For the optimal greens harvest by convenience I would have staggered the planting of the greens to not be overwhelmed when they were ready. But that would mean the last of them wouldn't be done until weeks after I wanted to have the potatoes in and growing up. If I had more space this wouldn't be an issue since I could just use different beds. Trying to optimize things for my small growing space involves a tradeoff between total harvest and convenience. Like I can get more total greens out just planting them all as early as possible, and this also opens up the space for the next thing at the earliest possible time. But then I end up with shopping sacks full of greens all in one week, which is less convenient. Here is Millie washing some Tokyo Bekana when we cut the last of it down.

We ended up giving some greens away, which is a fine use of garden produce after all, also blanched and froze some, and I packed some into a few jars of brine fermented spicy veg.


Easter Egg
These come up and mature so fast that we didn't have any issues with them. They are small and don't grow a ton of greens, but they are just about the first thing we can eat out of the garden in spring so are welcome in that way. The kids don't like to eat radishes, but they sure love to pick and wash them.

Shunkyo Long
I grew a little patch of these last year with good results in the back terrace bed. This year I planted about a 4 meter long by 30cm stripe in the grain maze, along with the easter eggs. Here is a pic of them growing, mid-spring. In back are some Favas, in front is Spinach.

These take longer to mature than easter eggs, but make significant quantities of greens and a nice root too. We pulled up everything and washed it off.

Unfortunately nearly all the roots were wrecked by what I think is root maggot. But we did get an OK harvest of greens.

Green Wave
This variety of mustard greens seems like a winner. It grew better than anything else in the grain maze beds, which have less than great soil and some shade. It is shown in the center of this row.

Didn't need a lot of attention for thinning, and was strong enough to outcompete weeds and clover. I think it is good cooked, provided you like mustard greens. Form factor wise, I prefer a flatter leaf like the one on Red Giant. Even when cooked the wavy mustard, or curly kale for that matter, is sort of spongier in the mouth. Becky is not really into mustard greens but she will eat them under duress.

Tokyo Bekana
Hands down favorite for this year, growing in the improved front box. I didn't have to do much to thin them to a good density, and they grew fast and robustly. They are tender enough to use for salad in place of lettuce and have a more interesting flavor than lettuce while still being fairly mild. We ate many salads with these greens, which went wonderfully with a lemon tahini dressing Becky started making this year. But they are also strong enough to use as a cooked green, though they are not going to act like kale or collards of course. We had so many at the end that we gave a few shopping sacks full of them to neighbors and friends. This was from one row about 2.4m long! Here is maybe 1/3 of the total harvest.

Red Giant
This grew poorly in the back terrace in 2014, but did well in the front box in 2015. A very nice looking plant; leaves are attractive in shape and with their reddish green hue.

We harvested quite a bit of it, but it made less than half the volume from the same sized planting of Tokyo Bekana. Being at the very front of the box, it was a great crop for Buster to harvest.

Red Komatsuna
Tried this out in the grain maze bed, but it did not do too well. It was overcome with growback clover and weeds. Probably would have done well in the front though. Here it is to the right of some Green Wave.

Tended to grow too densely without annoying thinning, and were not up to the size and speed of Tokyo Bekana. Here is Buster with a bouquet of Tatsoi and Red Giant.

But they do make a nice cooked green and can also be eaten raw. The leaves are a handy size to pickle.

Grew pretty well out front, yield very low in the grain maze. Nice shot of them growing in front at the top of this post.

Garden Cress
Fail. Couldn't grow faster than clover and weeds in the grain maze, which I picked out before planting, but the regrowth from the clover took over and crowded out the cress. A bunch of hay was piled on when I planted the potatoes, and some of these plants grew out the side. Enough to have a taste, but not enough to bother picking. They did have a good flavor, but seem like they would take more care to grow well. In picture below it is in the front of the bed. See how the Green Wave in the middle beat the pants off it?

Spigariello Liscia
Eh. Didn't grow fast enough to succeed in the grain maze before I wanted to get the potatoes going (shown to the left in the pic below.

But I didn't bother pulling the plants in there and some grew out from under the hay. Now in late fall, long after the potatoes were dug, there is a meager harvest of greens ready for me to cut; the last thing in the garden except the leeks.

So not a complete fail, but not good enough to do again probably. Definitely a cooking green, but it tastes good that way.

This plant is great in many ways. It reseeds itself readily, but can be smothered easily with compost in areas where you don't want it to volunteer. It makes lovely blue flowers all season long, and has neat looking foliage in the spring. The bees go bonkers for it, and it is one of those plants that is thrumming with bees nonstop all day long.

When we went strawberry and pea picking at our CSA farm (Red Fire), they had a huge area planted all in Borage. What in the world were they doing with all that Borage?

On the downside, starting mid-season it starts getting floppy and the plant itself soon looks unsightly, getting too tall and flumping down on whatever you have next to it. For me this was potatoes in the front, strawberries in back. Here it is to the left in the front box, in fall after everything else is out.

Doesn't really do much harm, but looks messy. Many of the seeds sprout in fall and look weedy, but they don't have enough time to make seeds themselves so it is not an ongoing issue once they get winterkilled. Anyway, I like borage enough to keep it in a few places.

I have a new Somerville friend, Joshua, whom I met on the forum. He says he eats Borage leaves raw. They do have a great cucumber like flavor, but the texture! It's like putting a hairy caterpillar in your mouth!

Don't care much for the greens, which are in fact edible, but this is another great garden flower. They are super easy to grow, make lovely flowers all season, and reseed readily. They also seem to attract aphids, maybe pulling them in away from veggies. I'd like to try the flowers for fabric dye sometime. This year I had the calendula in the front box with Borage.

Tang Hao
An interesting green because it is in the chrysanthemum family and thus can be useful for rotation. The most attractive greens to me are all in the brassica family, or chenopodium (spinach). So I thought if I don't want to plant brassica in the same place for two or three years, I could fill the early spring slot with tang hao. It has a pretty strong and distinctive flavor, but it can be good. I've ordered it as a side dish a number of times for hotpot at Shabu-zen. Unfortunately it couldn't compete with regrowth clover and weeds in the grain maze bed and didn't grow that fast, so wouldn't have been done by the time I needed the bed again.

We tasted the greens, but there were not really enough to bother harvesting. Might give it one more chance in the front bed to see what it is capable of. They did make some nice flowers.

Bought some Early Wonder Tall Top seed from Carol Deppe, who sells it as an eat-all greens plant. I put it in to the front where I grew pod radish, and in the back where I had garlic.

An early maturity, big greens variety was appealing since they were getting a late start. When I have tried in the past to plant root variety beets when the garlic comes out in July, they don't have enough time to do their thing before it gets too cold in fall. The Early Wonder did well though. Despite a lot of damage from leaf miners and a munch down from a baby bunny, we got a meal or two worth of greens, and even a few roots.

Another failure. It was planted in in the grain maze next to radishes, but got outgrown by clover regrowth. I picked out a little bit, but it was hardly worth it. Here it is on the left, with radishes in the middle and favas on the right.


This was the second season for most of the perennials. One issue I have with a number of these is that they make tons of easily germinated seed, and thus are something of a weed issue. I feel like the perennials fall into a bimodal distribution: the ones which are struggling or dying, and the ones which are doing too well and thus getting too big.

Perpetual Sorrel
Bulking up nicely, and a wonderful source of flavorful greens. Here it is in early summer.

The kids call it "lemony lettuce" and often take a leaf to chew on when we are in the garden. It is one of their go-to plants when they are gathering little bits to make us a salad.

I think I'll divide these next spring to better fill out the area I had planned for them to occupy in my micro-orchard plan. These are the non-seeding kind of sorrel, originally from the Paradise Lot guys.

An excellent grower, and starting to crowd the Sorrel. This is German Chamomile, which is supposed to be shorter than Roman Chamomile.

Harvesting is somewhat tedious, but not so hard to pick a bowl full of flowers once a week. We let them dry on a cookie sheet inside, then put them in a jar to use for tea later in the year.

Sylvetta Arugula
This stuff went nuts in 2015. Despite starting out looking modest in the spring (in center next to egyptian onions):

I had to cut it back a number of times since it was forming a bulky hedge which was crowding out everything around it and spilling over the retaining wall.

Finally I cut it back to the ground in most spots, so it is ending the season once again modest in size.

We ate a lot of arugula in salad and on pizza, but we could have picked about 10 times as much as we did. Becky is not the biggest fan of arugula in general, and the sylvetta is stronger tasting than the annual type, especially as the season progresses into summer.

The olive leaved sylvetta is easier to harvest since there is more leaf area per leaf, compared to oak leaf type.

It is hard to keep the flowers cut, so it ends up making a ton of seed and spreading it everywhere.

Becky was annoyed at all the arugula weeds that came up in the asparagus bed, which is just below their location. Next year I'd like to plant more of the wasabi type annual arugula in the space cleared by this year's cutting, since it is not as powerful a grower and the flavor is very exciting.

Sea Kale
Made a good showing, coming up strong in spring, later than many other plants. Notice how much growth the strawberries have already put on.

Rapidly increased in size. Garlic and leeks in background to left.

We ended up taking one plant out (we had two initially) because it got so large. The leaves are pretty, but tend to splay out and flop down on the strawberries on either side. It made some beautiful sprays of tiny white flowers this year, in early June.

The comfrey, sage, and strawberries were all flowering too, so it made a pleasant scene in the northwest corner of the garden.

Here it is in fall.

Sea Kale tastes great in spicy ramen soup. It is even not bad as a minority component in salad, and is decent as a cooked green. The younger leaves toward the center are more tender than the huge old ones around the outside.

Another plant that is exceeding the bounds I set for it, though it looked reasonable enough in spring. Nice purple flowers in early summer.

I chopped it nearly to the ground but it recovered and is now too big again.

We don't really use much sage, but it is a nice looking plant and good for the occasional leaf. Anyone know of a dwarf sage?

Another herb we use very little of, but wants to take up more space than I am giving it. Great for making pasta sauce or pizza sauce. A tiny bit in a salad is tasty. It was partially overrun with arugula.

Winter Savory
I'm pretty sure we've never actually used this herb. Erica, a friend through a work colleague, says it is good in soups. A rare plant that is not either dying or getting too large; figures that it is one we don't use!

Came up like a rocket in spring and got a meter tall before lots of other things were even showing leaves. Actually it got too tall and started making a bunch of seeds, which I didn't want turning into weeds in the asparagus bed. Becky's friend Sandra's mom said she uses the fresh cut stalks as a flavorful straw to put in a cup of tomato juice. Wonderful idea! The kids quickly got the growth of the lovage in check by cutting straws from it every day. We may have used a tiny bit in soup. You can see it at the end of the (unfortunately) barren bed of asparagus here in late spring.

Given how little we use it and its unruly nature, we decided to go down to one lovage rather than two. The one on the east side of the terrace got dug up at the end of the season. Here is the remaining plant in fall:

Good King Henry
Languishing for it's second year. I'm giving it one more try, but if it doesn't come up strong in the spring I'm going to dig it up.

Salad Burnet
Getting out of control and spreading unwanted seeds.

So I cut it back harshly and pulled some up. It looks cool (when kept under control), and tastes nice, but is too hard to harvest leaf by leaf. Ate a bunch in salad, on the few occasions when I moved myself to pick some. The kids like eating a leaf now and then.

Has a bad boy reputation when it comes to taking over an area. Kids really wanted to grow some mint, so we got them each a pot and they put a few varieties of mint in. Buster got Apple Mint, but put the pot way over on the side of the yard where the hose won't reach without a bunch of trouble, so it got dried up. Violet's big pot with three types of mint in it fared better since she watered it, though it did try to send runners down to the ground to spread. This is Violet's pot in fall, next to a nanking cherry and in front of a hardy kiwi.

I planted several mint varieties (got a 10 variety pack from someone on ebay) up in our front sidebar under the maples. This is an area where nothing grows very well, so I figured it would be a relief if the mint took over. Instead it died.

We used a tiny bit when we had it in a pot on the front steps, but it proved stronger than mint and took over the pot, then died. I put some in the dreaded maple sidebar and it is not totally dead, but looking like it is on the way. The couple alpine strawberries and egyptian onions I put here with it are doing a little better.

I got a handful of roots of Czech horseradish from a guy on the forum, and put a couple in the micro-orchard and a couple up in the maple sidebar. They took a long time to come up, and I planted them incorrectly; vertical instead of horizontal. The ones in the micro-orchard exploded with huge growth. They looked dainty but strong in spring. Here they are growing next to apple trees, with leeks in front and potato onions, iris, and red clover to the sides.

They soon became enormous, falling over and shading everything around them. Later I had some pole beans climbing up a bamboo pole to the left of the horseradish.

I'm going to move them next spring since they are too big for that spot. The greens are actually pretty tasty and the plant puts them out in great quantity. The leaf is deceptively thin though so it takes a lot of them to amount to anything after the ribs are cut out. They wilt quickly too. I trimmed the plants a number of times and used the big leaves as chop-n-drop mulch around the apple trees, à la comfrey.

Interesting and beautiful foliage in spring when it makes a fluffy gray mound (hence the name of this variety, Silver Mound).

Intriguing scent when crushed; I wanted it to be an aromatic herb to maybe keep insects away. In it's second year it has gotten too large and floppy, despite some efforts at trimming mid-season. I'll probably cut it back heavily next year.

This was also imagined as an aromatic insect repeller in the micro-orchard. It too got rather big. Here it is behind a winter squash I tried to grow up a pole in the orchard (Rue has the little yellow flowers). Later the squash suddenly died, I think from vine borers.