The grocery store closest to our house and my office is closing in the next week or so. The shelves are mostly bare, and what’s left is deeply discounted. It will leave the city I grew up in (population 12,000) without a grocery store until at least the end of summer when a new store is supposed to move in.
The next closest store is a 25-minute drive from our house. We can get there and we’ll adjust our shopping habits (which is to shop almost daily) to avoid the drive as much as possible, but hundreds of people who get around town as pedestrians and many more elderly people who simply won’t make the drive to the next city over will be in tough shape.
We will live in a food desert, at least for several months. The USDA classifies a food desert as “at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, or more than 10 miles in rural areas.”
I have been privileged to be in a position where I have grown food mostly for the pleasure of growing, the ability to know how it was grown and to choose the varieties I want to eat. But this summer, for the first time, I will grow food to eat.
OK, perhaps I’m being a touch dramatic because I have the luxury of being able to get in my car and drive (a long way) to store if I need to and I recognize that’s not an option for a lot of people. But the point is this: My purpose for growing food is changing. This year it will matter to me what my yields are or whether I lose an entire tomato plant to blight. It mattered before because I was unsuccessful. It will matter this year because our hope is to live off our garden produce as much as possible, if only to save trips to the store and the environment from more driving.
So I need to pay attention to succession planting a little more. Bare ground in the garden plot is not acceptable. I’ll need to work to extend the harvest and make every square inch of soil count. I’ll need to grow nutritious food that will satisfy us. And, most of all, I need to learn to eat more of what I’m growing. Do you know that I’ve never eaten beet greens? I just compost them and eat the beets. I’m embarrassed by my wastefulness, but such is the nature of gardening when it’s mostly a hobby and the food is just a nice side benefit.
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That’s why I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Niki Jabbour’s new book Veggie Garden Remix. This book is a treasure trove of interesting and even oddball vegetables that not only shows new ways to make the most of every bit of garden space, but also how you change up your garden repertoire. This appeals to my grow-it-for-fun side as well. Sometimes I like to grow strange things just to see if I can. Not only is it fun to shake things up, it’s also a fabulous way to seem very intelligent, worldly and foodie-esque with your friends. “Tonight we’ll be having gai lin stir fry, deep fried daylilies and a hablitzia salad.”
Formatted in a “If you love this, try this” format, the book walks you through a sea (224, to be exact) of vegetables with odd names that you’d probably normally skip right over in the seed catalog. For each vegetable there is the growing and habit information you would expect along with ideas on how to use it and in some cases, most charmingly, how the author came to know it. These stories often involve Jabbour’s Lebanese in-laws who craved the vegetables of their culture. From there, Jabbour started growing a truly international garden, filled with the plants and flavors of many cultures.
These vegetable back stories are the charm of the book, but the outstanding design and stunning photography are what make it really useable. In a book about plants most of us have never heard of the point would be lost without the excellent images.
I try to grow one vegetable that I’ve never grown before (and often never tasted) each year. So I reached out to Jabbour to ask her to do the near impossible: pick her favorite from her book. (Full disclosure: I told her cucamelons were out because I’ve grown them and I’m apparently the only person on Earth who doesn’t love them.) She came back with these three:
- “Ground cherries, which for some reason aren’t widely grown. They’re easy and productive to grow and have a very unusual flavour; pineapple with hints of vanilla and caramel when fully ripe. Plus, they’re super kid-friendly.”
- “I also love Tokyo Bekana, a loose-leaf Chinese cabbage with lovely lime green, crinkly leaves that make a perfect lettuce substitute. And, it’s great in both garden beds and containers.”
- “I also love growing Piracicaba broccoli, a variety that produces a long harvest of large side-shoots. Each one has large beads which looks so cool and the flavour is excellent. Even if you don’t like broccoli, you’ll love this Italian variety.”
I’m going to try the Piracicaba broccoli. And as a many other new veggies as I can fit in my garden. Because I’m going to need them.
I’m giving away a copy of Veggie Garden Remix to one read. Enter below.