A Lifestyle Expert's Vegetable Garden
In the past few years there has been a growing interest in edible gardens and the entire garden to table movement among gardening communities across the country. Part of this phenomenon is due to the encouragement and education of edible gardening techniques from such celebrated lifestyle experts as P. Allen Smith. On his syndicated television series, P. Allen Smith’s Garden to Table, he demonstrates not only how much fun it is to grow your own food but also the practical and creative aspects of edible gardening.
In an interview with Smith in November, we discussed what is growing at Moss Mountain Farm, his home in Little Rock’s historic Quapaw Quarter. At the time, he was harvesting the last of his summer vegetable crop. “We had planted about fifteen varieties of peppers. You get these glorious yields of peppers and we had a mother lode of eggplant. In fact, I cooked some last night with some of the peppers. Simply roasted them in the oven.” He also had an abundance of green onions. “We have a heirloom variety of green onion that some people call a 'walking onion' but it’s really not a walking onion. It doesn’t fall over with the seed head and hit the ground. It’s just a great clumping onion and I always give it to friends because you’ll never be without green onions. You never have to replant them. They just multiply.”
Even though the season had ended for many summer vegetables, Smith still finds a use for some like okra. “After a certain point,” he notes,” we just let it go to seed. We use the big seedpods in holiday decorating. We harvest the entire stalk, hang them upside down and then use the okra pods for projects and things.”
Among the fall vegetables he was growing and preparing to harvest between November and early winter were a number of greens (collards, mustard greens and several kale varieties), beets, parsnips, sweet potatoes and kohlrabi, a root vegetable that is relatively new to me but Smith states, “I’ve grown kohlrabi ever since I was a little kid. It’s like a turnip. It sits on top of the ground and it’s beautiful in the garden. The way I like to prepare it is to do a puree. Just a little butter and salt and cracked pepper. The other way I like to prepare it is to roast it along with other seasonal root vegetables.” Smith also recommends chopping up kohlrabi into small pieces and cooking with lentils or shaving it very thinly and adding as an ingredient in, for example, an arugula salad with some goat cheese and pine nuts.
Root vegetables, he says, tend to thrive in the Arkansas River Valley climate. “They’re protected and continue to grow as long as they don’t get really cold temperatures. We have a nice, big crop of radishes which are really great around Thanksgiving. I like to do a shaved radish slaw. You know, radish greens are good in salad too. I also love parsnips. They’re a great substitute for potatoes. I’ll do a cauliflower-parsnip puree. Very good, very light in flavor. I use a little walnut oil or truffle oil with them. Gives a little earthiness to the flavor with cracked pepper and salt.”
As someone who is completely immersed in the farm to table process, Smith likes to try new varieties of vegetables and edible plants along with well established favorites in his garden. Regarding heirloom seeds, he says, “we grow a lot of the old varieties. I’m really about the flavor. Some of the old varieties are good. I think what we run into sometime is that some of them might not be that disease resistant, the yield might not be as high, the flavor might not be as good. I think we always associate better flavor with old varieties but I don’t know that that’s always true.” He is currently experimenting with several varieties of sweet potatoes and plans to try some new types of berries in the spring.
Before the last of the fall vegetables are harvested, Smith will be busy with garden maintenance chores. “The winter is a good time to do a lot of things for your beds,” he recommends. “I like to take the manure on the farm and manure all of the beds. Then we apply some lime to the soil and just let it sit there until time to start sowing the first seeds which would be English peas and setting out some young plants which would be broccoli. We typically do that in February and March.”
Manure is also added to the rows of asparagus that he grows on his farm but that usually occurs earlier (in mid-January). “Those nutrients seep into the ground and provide those asparagus with a wake-up call. We grow three types of asparagus. We grow one called Atlas, another one called Purple Passion and one that doesn’t have a very sexy name but is a great producer called UC157 from the University of California.”
Looking ahead to the new year, Smith feels that the garden to table movement is only going to get bigger. “People are becoming more interested in food and where it’s grown and how it’s grown,” he states. “Things that I’ve been doing the last couple of years and plan to do in 2015 is to give people inspirational ideas for using edibles in their traditional landscapes like their front yard. For example, a row of Top Hat blueberries instead of Yaupon hollies or boxwoods. Looking for edible substitutions for that foundation planting rather than just planting all flowers. Fix it up with something that is edible to eat. There’s nothing more beautiful than rainbow chard and mixing that in with lantana or some ageratums, which are beautiful alternatives to mums.”
The other thing Smith has noticed in recent years is an increase in home grown speciality food products such as pickled vegetables, salsas and chow-chows. “People who are getting into gardening for the first time and really love food gardening are discovering these recipes they can come up with and create their own signature gifts. They grow them and give them away. There’s a lot of pride in that. I love to see people do that.” And this is one of the great community benefits of being able to share your knowledge of gardening on television shows like P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home and P. Allen Smith’s Garden to Table. For more information on the award-winning designer, gardener and lifestyle expert, visit his website.