Did you hear the show about urban kitchen gardening on Kojo Nnamdi yesterday? If not, you can listen to the archived version at Kojo’s website. We covered a lot of ground–so to speak–including spring garden prep, how to garden in an apartment, rats, and scavenging the neighborhood for composting materials.
There’s never enough time for all of the subjects that come up in a half-hour segment. The one thing I came prepared to talk about was my list of vegetables that have worked best for me, our garden and our kitchen here in D.C., two miles from the White House. I was able to say a few words about okra. And a few more words about sweet potatoes. But most of the list fell by the wayside. It would be a great thing if District of Columbia kitchen gardeners could get together and compare notes on this subject. We could develop not only a list of best vegetables, but even the most desirable varieties of those vegetables for our particular growing conditions.
My list comprises those plant varieties that have impressed me the most over the years. Obviously there are many other vegetables you may want to grow–legions of stellar candidate, in fact–that I did not include. Let me just tell you why I think the ones I selected deserve special consideration. Where appropriate, I’ll also link to recipes that you can find on this site.
Okra: Some people are put off because they think it’s slimy. I’ve never had that problem, except when I tried to prepare okra raw. Okra loves heat and humidity. It seems to thrive in temperatures that make tomato plants wilt. A fairly compact, erect and pest-free plant, it takes up very little space for the amount of edible pods it produces. And as the season wears on–and the plants get taller–okra just produces more and more. At a certain point, we have to check the okra twice a day to harvest the pods. We grow Clemson Spineless, an extremely reliable variety.
Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes, tropical by nature, are extremely easy to grow. Ours were never bothered by any pests. Watching them come out of the ground at harvest is such a kick. I mean, wow! Sweet potatoes just like you see at the supermarket emerging right in your urban plot. They are a great source of calories (too starchy for me anymore, unfortunately) and loaded with essential vitamins and minerals. Sweet potatoes rank high on any list of healthful foods. Besides all that, the leaves are edible. I’ve used them with great success in our okra stews.
Ruby Swiss chard: Any kind of Swiss chard grows like a champ through all kinds of climate here in D.C., producing a ton of leafy greens and edible stems. It requires zero maintenance and yields to no pests that I have seen. A few plants keep us all season long. It dies back in winter, but comes right back in early spring to provide more food when the garden is otherwise bare, before going to seed. We like the ruby variety for its beet-like flavor.
Green Swiss chard. Everything I said about ruby chard goes equally for the green variety. We had not grown it until fairly recently, so I did not have experience cooking it until a friend gave us a bunch while we were vacationing in Maine. I thought it needed something herbal, and the best thing I had on hand was a bottle of gin. Turns out chard and gin go extremely well together. Otherwise, it’s widely used in creamy casseroles and gratins. Do plan to eat the stems.
Recipe: Green chard braised in gin.
Green Beans: I know this sound terribly prosaic. But I’ve been totally impressed by how green beans thrive in our heat and humidity and without any pests that I’ve noticed. We tend to prefer the bush varieties. They produce an incredible amount of beans. But we also like pole beans for their ability to grow vertically, taking up so very little space. The trellis system we use creates a wall of beans. But you do have to harvest them assiduously when they are young, lest they get stringy. We especially like the flat, Italian heirloom varieties.
Eggplant: This is another vegetable that seems especially well-suited to our hot summers. A single plant can produce a tremendous amount of food with little maintenance and disease-free. Last year, however, we were visited by a family of field mice who enjoyed boring into the fruits of our eggplant and hollowing them out. If you encounter such a problem, I would not bother planting eggplant until you deal with the mice. We love incorporating eggplant into our okra stews. Our recipe for eggplant preserved in oil is one of the most sought-after on the site.
Heirloom Italian summer squash Costata Romanesca: Gardeners aren’t supposed to go away on vacation. You never know what you’ll come home to if the vegetables have been left unattended. That’s certainly true of this squash. It will grow as long as your arm, weighing four pounds or more. At this trophy size, I decided to scoop out the seeds, cut the squash into pieces and pickle it. My sweet pickled squash won “Best D.C.-Grown Food Product” in the first-ever D.C. State Fair last year. Otherwise, we love this squash for its lovely yellow stripes set against a deep green. We have had problems with blossom end rot, which may be because we switched seed suppliers. Lesson: stick with what works.
Lacinato kale (aka Tuscan kale):Food gardeners should also care about the aesthetics of their garden and planting things that look good. Lacinato kale is at the top of my list of vegetables that are also ornamentals. Fully grown, it looks like a little palm tree with long, fairly norrow leaves that are deeply etched and a handsome, blue-ish green color. But of course the leaves are also edible, and I like the idea of being able to grow them in profusion on a compact plant, rather than devoting a large space to loose kale plants that at some point will be interspersed with weeds. If you only have room for one type of kale, give Lacinato kale priority.
Fava beans: These are the traditional Old World beans, the one bean variety that does not have roots in the Americas. You can easily recognize them by their huge, bulging pods, which have a fur lining and seeds that develop their own secondary shell that is typically removed before eating. I include them here because I find them easier to grow than other spring legumes, such as English peas or snap peas. Between these latter two, I prefer snap peas because the pod is edible. But you do need to erect some kind of trellis system for them to climb.
While they take up more space in the garden, the fava bean plant is an architectural marvel, with a very angular, Art Deco look to it. The blossoms are extraordinary: long and silvery white, with a big black dot on one end. When the favas are in bloom, it looks like a flock of butterflies have landed.
Favas would appreciate a longer, cooler spring than the one here in the District of Columbia. Our’s heats up pretty fast, and by the time the fava beans are ready to harvest, the plants look exhausted. If climate continues to warm, I wonder how much longer we’ll be able to grow favas at all. Try planting them in the fall as well.
Dr. Carolyn heirloom cheery tomato: Tomatoes are everyone’s favorite vegetable, so I’m not going to open a can of worms by trying to argue which is the best. In fact, last year, the hottest on record here in D.C., was really bad for our tomatoes. We didn’t get much production, and what I kept hearing from my wife was, why no tomatoes when we had a $150 water bill in July? We saw plenty of blossoms, but they just seemed to fade without making fruit. We had a similar problem with our cucumbers. But one tomato variety we like in particular in Dr. Carolyn, named for a famous tomato expert, Dr. Carolyn Male. This tomato produces a profusion of sweet, golden tomatoes that we’ve incorporated into a number of recipes.
Hakurei turnips: Our favorite radish is actually a turnip, and it comes from Japan. A friend turned me on to Hakurei turnips, which grow into a snow-white globe and have none of the bite of an ordinary turnip–or a radish, for that matter. They are the smoothest, creamiest turnip you will ever come across. We frequently serve them as an hors d’oeuvre when guests arrive. I can hardly get enough of them. Some people like the spiciness of a traditional radish. Me, too. But if you’re looking for something a bit different in the radish vein, try Hakurei. It loves growing in our garden all season long.
Leeks: Kitchen gardeners, especially those with limited space, should prioritize planting things they particularly like to eat, and those that are costly to purchase elsewhere. Leeks fit perfectly in that category. Until recently, I wasn’t aware how easily they grow here in D.C. I always seemed to have a packet of seeds that kept getting pushed to the back of the pile, never used. But finally I was inspired to dig a trench about six inches deep the length of our longest garden bed, into which I sowed a row of tiny leek seeds, not knowing quite what to expect. What eventually emerged was dozens of tall, incredibly robust leeks, all marching in single file. At one point I did thin them out a bit and moved some around to give each enough room to grow.
I was prepared to pile compost around each plant to get the white stems leeks are known for. But it wasn’t necessary. They came out perfectly without any further effort. So whereas we’ve had spotty success with onions and garlic in our garden, I am now sold on leeks. I’ve yet to start a real search for leek recipes. For now, we continue to use them as an aromatic, especially in the boiled beef tongue that I make on a fairly regular basis. The cooking liquid, made with plenty of leeks, yields an incredible broth that I like to drink out of a coffee mug.
Recipe: Boiled beef tongue (with leeks).