Friday, May 7, 2010

"Sauna Season Veggies"

Below is an article I wrote for 'Florida Gardening' in 2006. To the list of crops mentioned I would add: Katuk, Currant Tomato, and my new favorite, Molokhiya (Corchorus olitorius), a heat NEEDING leafy vegetable from Egypt that thrives in summer here. While this article was written for Florida gardeners who think summers are too hot here to grow food crops, it should be helpful to gardeners anywhere where summers are long and hot and humid. John


What passes for winter in central Florida is already a cool memory many will long for this upcoming "Sauna Season" of tropical muggy heat, and our cool weather veggies will soon be showing signs of heat stroke too. So March through May are excellent times to plant some classic Southern crops, plus "alternative" ones, that glory in summer’s excesses, crops that dislike cool temps and can be killed by frosts and freezes. Just think of the gardening year as a 6 month Hot Season spanning April through September followed by a 6 month Cool Season…October through March. Luckily, there are food crops that thrive in each season. Northern transplants embracing this concept will have their chronic failures replaced by success once they get over that old habit of planting everything in spring!

Try tucking some of these Hot Season veggies as seeds and seedlings right in amongst your maturing Cool Season crops for a steady and productive transition. Scatter a 2 inch thick layer of horse stall sweepings all over the garden before or after you plant those transition crops to insure good growth for the entire garden. Don’t have a nearby horse stable? Scatter a one half inch thick layer of dried sheep or poultry manure sold in bags at garden shops, or a sprinkling of "menhaden fish meal’ from a feed store about as heavy as you’d sprinkle parmesan cheese on spaghetti. Or if you are an avid composter what could be better than top dressing that garden with an inch or two of rich moist compost! No need to turn these nutrients sources under the soil… do so would destroy your cool weather crops! Just let earthworms and rain and your occasional hoeing incorporate those nutrients into your soil. My favorite mulch for the veggie garden is those horse stall sweepings, but bags of oak leaves, pesticide-free grass clippings or free wood chips mulch from a tree trimming service work fine too, especially the fresh green grass clippings from an organic lawn as they are teeming with beneficial bacteria and vital nitrogen. Each March is also a good time to give acidic inland soils a Parmesan cheese-style sprinkling of dolomite limestone to "sweeten" the soil….get your soil tested or check for a predominance of acid-loving weeds like dollarweed, sandspur, goats beard, or sedge. Most veggies like the soil only slightly acid, but often our soil is very acid. South Florida and coastal folks fighting high alkalinity can lower their soil’s pH with a heavy sprinkling of cottonseed meal each March, July, September and December when they feed their soil. Those decaying mulches will release natural acids to help too.

An easy way to start is to buy a bag of Black Eye Peas from the grocery store for cheap seeds…plant them 1 inch deep and 5 inches apart in a garden row for a very reliable summer crop that originated in tropical Africa. Neither a pea or a bean they belong to the Vigna Family (as does the just-as-easy ‘Chinese Yard Long Bean’) and offer edible young new leaves that can be snipped into stir fry. The orchid-like flowers are lovely and edible in salads.

Buy a generic‘Calabaza’ squash from a Cuban grocer, or a Kabocha squash from an Asian market, and save several of the seeds when you bake it and plant them in a big pile of compost off by themselves as the rampant vines will swallow up a veggie garden. The lush tropical-looking vines bear huge golden yellow blossoms that make lovely edible plate garnishes, and young newly unfolded leaves can be diced into casseroles and stir fry. Late each summer you’ll have a bounty of deep green or tan squashes with nutty tasting orange flesh…they keep for several weeks, can be baked, chunked and added to Cuban and Jamaican and Thai stews, used in "pumpkin pies" or cut raw into strips and dipped into salad dressing. Or buy on-line selected varieties of Calabaza from central America, southern Mexico or the Caribbean for variations in flavor, size and productivity. ‘Seminole Pumpkin’ is a native squash from the Everglades that glories in summers here and was the Seminole Indian’s favorite crop.

Originating in tropical Africa, okra is the archetypal Southern summer veggie, bearing huge numbers of those protein-rich pods that are deliciously crunchy (not slimy) if eaten raw fresh from the garden. Once again, the young newly unfolded leaves may be diced into cooked dishes for color and nutrition, and the beautiful pale yellow and maroon flowers look beautiful in the garden and as an edible garnish. "Clemson Spineless" is an old standby and my favorite variety, but this year I am trying the purple podded varieties that turn green when cooked just for the heck of it. A wonderful heirloom okra is "Fife Creek" sold by the great folks at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (

Get cuttings of cassava (Manihot utilissima) from Cuban or Filipino neighbors and root them easily for lush, 8 foot tall tropical-looking beauties that about a year later yield the richly textured and flavored tubers you may have savored as "yuca" in a Cuban restaurant. The young leaves may be cooked with spices as a summer "green".....Google African recipes for this cool use of the vitamin and mineral and protein-rich leaves produced in abundance all summer.

Cucusa, or Cucuzzi, seeds were once rare, traded amongst us gardening nuts but are now showing up on seed racks. Another rampant vine great for covering arbors and fences, this member of the true Gourd (Lagenaria) Family has the characteristic white blossoms and oddly scented leaves. Each June and July it bears large numbers of 2-4 foot long pale green "squashes" shaped like baseball bats and that taste like firm nutty zucchinis; they are best when the length of your forearm. It grows like a weed with no real pest problems till midsummer when the stink bugs take it out.

Eggplant is a "love it or hate it" vegetable, but if you love ‘em you can’t get enough. Yet another African tropical, it can reach 6 feet in height so that the semi-woody stems can bear the weight of oodles of shiny back fruits free of the bitterness of store bought ones. The purple and yellow blooms add needed color to the veggie garden and make the plant look at home in landscape beds. "Black Beauty" bears heavily and reliably, as do the long slender Asian types.

Watermelons, cantaloupes, Japanese melons the size of apples and eaten whole add something sweet to your garden’s bounty if given very rich soil amended with high nitrogen materials like compost, fish waste, or horse manure. As the fruits form set them up on a small pile of wood mulch or an old clay pot to keep them off the soil and avoid rot. Melons are a great "kids crop".

Sweet potatoes are neither potatoes nor yams but tuberous-rooted members of the Morning Glory Family whose leaves have been eaten steamed and stir fried in Asia for centuries…they taste very much like spinach and are loaded with vitamin A and iron and lack the oxalic acid in spinach many women try to avoid as it leaches calcium from the body. The vines create a beautiful groundcover and look right at home in a landscape bed, allowing you food production right along with flowers and shrubs. Just buy an organically grown sweet potato (the lack of chemical growth suppressants will let it sprout much more quickly) and plant it 3 inches deep in rich soil and full sun. That one tuber will multiply into many by harvest time each late fall, plus others will form where the vines touch and root. As you snip off the leaves to cook as a hot weather spinach substitute, keep your eyes peeled for the lovely white or lavender-pink morning glory blossoms that form in the autumn. At harvest time be sure to try one sliced and eaten raw if you never have before…tastes like a very sweet and crunchy carrot!

The true Yams (Dioscorea family) are never sweet, bear INedible leaves, but produce large starchy tubers that make hearty entrees if baked, boiled or fried. Buy one at an Asian or Hispanic grocery, or now even mainstream grocers under the Hispanic name of "Name’ " (pronounced nah-may) and plant it at the base of a fence so the rampant vines can climb. Each January dig up the newly formed tubers as you need them and replant the top you cut off to make new plants for free year after year. My favorite is the Purple Yam, Dioscorea violacea.

The Hyacinth Bean (Dilochos lablab) is perfect for covering sheds or henhouses with its lush vines and beautiful lavender flower spikes that soon transform into easily shelled bean pods that may be green or maroon. The flavor reminds me of a cross between pigeon peas and edamame’ soybeans.

Buy and plant a Chayote(Sechium edule) from the produce section and let it sprout on your window sill, then plant it where the Jack-and-The-Beanstalk vines can consume a dead tree or long fence. The crunchy pear-sized fruits are produced in fall and winter if not nipped by frost, and both the flesh and large pit inside are delicious sliced raw and drizzled with Key Lime juice, or baked, fried, boiled or pickled. Be sure to save one for planting each year though the perennial starchy root may bear for years to come....some folks dig IT up and eat it too.

Need a temporary summer privacy barrier you can eat from? Buy a bag in spring of Gandule Beans or Pigeon Peas (Cajanus cajan) in the Cuban section of your store and plant each seed 2 inches deep and 2 feet summer’s end you’ll have 6-8 foot tall dense plants screening a hot tub or pool from view and yielding many hundreds of pods that if shucked release a treasure of tasty fresh green "pigeon peas" considered a mainstay in the Caribbean. The plant is a perennial that will bear for years if spared hard frosts. Pet chickens love to feed on the foliage if offered them.

Cherry and roma tomatoes both resist summer’s muggy heat better than do large fruited types so be sure to add a few. Both bear heavily in rich soil if fed fish emulsion or fish meal but will likely be exhausted by the end of summer. Sprinkling a handful of Epsom salts around each plant as the flowers form can give you a healthier greener plant and better production. Crushed eggshells or seashells beneath each plant in acid soils will help prevent blossom end rot by releasing vital calcium.

Thai gardeners rely heavily on Surinam Spinach as it grows like crazy all summer, produces oodles of succulent leaves that are tartly delicious raw in salads, or tossed into stir fry and soups. Native to Borneo, it loves Florida summers, reseeds freely, and roots amazingly easy from cuttings you may be lucky enough to get from Thai neighbors.

Say "luffa" to most people and they think of an exotic sponge for the bath....but the beautiful vines with yellow flowers bear a gourmet item; the young luffas harvested with 6-7 inches long and still tender. Prepare them as you would summer squash or use in Asian cuisine.

Another ethnic staple are the edible elephant ears, whose stinging calcium oxylate crystals are destroyed and leached out by boiling or frying. Hispanic culture embraces varieties of Yautia or Malanga (Xanthosoma species) while Asian cuisine relies on Eddo, also known as Dasheen and Taro (Colocasia species). We’ve always been told that elephant ears are "poison", but these two types have been staple crops of tropical people for centuries. The tubers are rich in starch, protein, and minerals, and the leaves of Eddo, if boiled once and the water discarded before a second brief boiling, may be used as spinach or blended with coconut milk and spices to make a glorious creamy healthy soup. Both prefer wet soils so grow them in your boggiest areas.

The Amaranth species produce leaves that are often colorful and useful raw in salads or added to stir fry. And the protein rich seeds produced by the feathery flower heads can be added to muffins, pancakes and other baked goods due to their nutty taste. Even the "decorative" Amaranths like "Summer Poinsettia" and " Love Lies Bleeding" have edible leaves and seeds. All love the hot months here and many are seen in Thai and Vietnamese gardens.

By adding hot weather veggies to the empty spaces in the winter garden each spring, then incorporating them into our landscapes, we can enjoy fresh, home grown, pesticide- free produce 12 months a year for a welcome taste of self sufficiency in unsure times…just one more reason to live here as our northern friends spend half the year waiting to garden!

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