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Making the most of garden bounty

November 3, 2010

I know it seems like a weird time to post this, being Spring where I am, but actually come this time of year half of everything in my garden is flowering and going to seed and I always find myself feeling a little guilty pulling out greens that are flowering. Some are left in to attract bees to my tomato and bean plants, but most of the time I really just need to make space (I would save the seeds but I reaaally don’t need to considering the size of my seed collection!) in my tiny plot. However I thought I’d share a few tips about using “old” plants – ones that are going to seed, or have started to get quite tough or bitter (in the case of greens, for example). The tips are in a rough sort of order, where the last tip is a last-resort for things you really can’t use for eating. After all, you put a bit of effort into your garden, and you may as well reap as much as you can! Gardening can also provide parts of plants that you can’t buy, a major bonus.

Going to seed/flowering

When leafy veges start going to flower, this is often an indication that the plant is getting “old.” However the leaves are still totally edible, and the ones near the tips are actually still quite tender, so hone in on those. When the plant just starts to develop flowers (known as “bolting”), you can pinch them off and the plant will redirect its energy toward making the leaves. However after a while this will become a futile effort as the flowers grow every which way (but hey, don’t let me stop you pinching off those flowers). For herbs like spring onions or sage, you can still use the leaves, but they will require a bit longer in the cooking process. Spring onions especially can get a little woody but after some extended cooking they’re fine. Remember that the flowers are often edible and add a pretty splash of colour to salads. They also do a good job of attracting bees, which helps if you have plants requiring pollination (like tomatoes or peas). I prefer to use flowers as garnishes rather than as a main component as the stalks can be a little tough sometimes, but feel free to experiment. The yellow flowers pictured above appear on most brassicas (members of the cabbage family, but include heaps of leafy greens that don’t really resemble cabbage at all).

When the leaves start getting a little too strongly flavoured

This is usually only an issue for mustardy or bitter greens, like arugula (pictured above)/rocket, or some types of watercress. The easiest way to deal with this is to mix with other milder leafy veges in a salad, or to cook the leaves in a stir fry. I also like to pop them in my pan-toasted cheese sammies, just a pinch is nice, especially with spring onions. I also make arugula pesto but immerse the greens in just boiled water for a few seconds before chopping and mixing with other ingredients.

When the leaves do weird things!

Pictured above is some spinach which has grown all gnarly (it’s not the seed, which has flourished elsewhere – I think this variety resents smallish pots). Instead of throwing it out, I still snap off leaves and cook them instead of using them raw, and this way you can’t really tell what shape they used to be. Just be careful when washing!

Sometimes when my carrots turn out to be too old, I freeze them to use in my next batch of home made bouillon.

Using as many parts of the plant as possible

When I discover a snowpea or two that has cunningly hidden itself for a long time and the peas are getting too huge, I get rid of the string-y bits and shuck out the peas (which are absolutely divine when cooked) and throw them in a stir fry along with the rest of my perfectly picked snowpeas. Still fine – they don’t all have to look supermarket-perfect! Other examples of things you can eat but generally people don’t: green tomatoes, marrows, male courgette/zucchini flowers…the list goes on.

I have a special fondness for the leaves of the snowpea plant. Use the new bits  that aren’t about to develop into flowers (the leaves almost look like a fern) and add to salads, brothy soups or stir fries. They taste especially delicious stir fried with bok choy (just with a teeny bit of oil and some salt). Other examples are carrot tops, radish leaves (very refreshing with bok choy), the green part of leeks (especially when young – when old I put them into my home made bouillon), garlic leaves, and broccoli/cauliflower leaves (use like kale – only when they’re little, the large leaves will be tough unless you’re throwing it in a stew or something). If you have a grape vine whose grapes are being devoured by birds, the leaves can still be used to make delicious dolmades, and it’s not as hard as you think! I can’t wait until my parents’ grapevine gets a little more excited with leaf production!

The last resort: mulching

Mulching is less fun with bigger plants as you have to chop the stalks up with some garden shears, but if you’re just getting rid of little leafy plants (like miner’s lettuce), then rip up the plants roughly and cover your soil with it, arranging around the bases of established plants. This is especially important to do in warmer seasons, as it saves you having to water as much, puts nutrients back in your soil, prevents your soil from being obliterated by the sun, and hides it from weed seeds. It’s a win-win-win-win-win! Remember to face the roots of unwanted plants toward the sun so they don’t creep back into the soil (gosh I sound cruel!).

What are your garden-bounty-saving tips? Leave a comment if you have any other suggestions, I love to hear them.

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