Foraging for Wild Plants in a Domestic Garden

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picWhat is a weed? A witty gardener will tell you it is any plant growing in the wrong place at the wrong time. What makes a time and place wrong is when multiple plants are competing for the same small patch of soil nutrients, water and sunlight. If you are trying to grow a row of beans, and an ambitious brigade of sow thistle decides that bean patch is just what it has in its botanical mind for putting down thistly roots, well – you’ve got a plant conflict. A sow thistle is just another green product of nature, but in this context, the gardener sees a weed and yanks it out. Poor sow thistle.

But a gardener who is not only witty, but also savvy, will tell you to prepare the kitchen when you are pulling out some of those weeds. If you’ve been a good steward of the soil and have not used chemical herbicides anywhere in your garden, then you can explore the potential edibility of everything in it. You can go foraging in your garden.

Right now in the Robb Garden is a particularly good time for reaping a windfall harvest of weeds you didn’t plan. The word “windfall” applies quite literally here, since Nature uses the wind to sow her serendipitous crops, sending seeds aloft to seek a cozy patch of soil. Of all the wrong-place-wrong-time plants we have in the Robb Garden, we are lucky to have one that is wonderfully nutritious: purslane.

2018-05-22 16.10.13Purslane (Portulaca olereacea) is a low-growing plant with small, rounded green leaves and thick, reddish stems. The leaves are slightly succulent, and taste a bit tart, similar to sorrel, with a tang like lettuce. Both the leaves and the stems are perfectly edible, a crisp little snack you can pop in your mouth right in the garden. If you collect a handful of purslane, you can chop it up into any sort of salad; it’s especially good in mustardy potato salad. If you have enough of it, you can fry it up with onions as a side vegetable. It is a common ingredient in cuisines of the Mediterranean region.

Not only is purslane tasty; its nutritional benefits are remarkable. Purslane is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids: 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of purslane contains 300-400 mg of alpha-Linolenic acid, which is one of the two essential fatty acids (essential because our bodies cannot manufacture it, so we need to obtain it from nature through the foods we eat). Purslane also contains higher amounts of melatonin than other fruits and vegetables. Melatonin is a hormone manufactured in the pineal gland in your brain, and it plays an important role in regulating sleeping and waking cycles. Melatonin also scavenges the free radicals in our bodies that can otherwise cause damage to our cells, which may play a role in the development of cancer. And melatonin  has anti-inflammatory properties. So ingesting some extra melatonin in a mouthful of purslane is not a bad idea.

Is there a cultivated garden in your life? Take a closer look at the weedy companions in the garden beds and see if you can identify a friendly purslane plant, waiting to offer you its juicy crunch.

Sources used for this post:

Artemis P. Simopoulos, Dun‐Xian Tan, Lucien C. Manchester, Russel J. Reiter. 2005. Purslane: a plant source of omega‐3 fatty acids and melatonin. Journal of Pineal Research Vol. 39, pp. 331-332.

Gift, Nancy. 2011. Good Weed Bad Weed: Who’s Who, What To Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance. Pittsburgh: St. Lynn’s Press.

Madison, Deborah. 2002. Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. New York: Broadway Books.

Giving Thanks for Gardens

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picNature is a gardener. When we leave it alone, Nature produces perfectly sustainable gardens – nothing is brought in, nothing is taken out. Nature’s gardens are not static; they ebb and flow along with patterns in weather and fire and the serendipity of animal visitations. Nor are Nature’s gardens wildernesses – humans have been walking through them since time immemorial, harvesting their bounty, learning from them, imitating them with cultivated gardens.

There was a time hundreds of years ago when humans were pretty good stewards of Nature in this land we now call California, but today humans of that sort seem to be overrun by humans who don’t value Nature, either willfully obliterating it for their own short-term gain or simply being ignorant of how absolutely essential it is to life.

pie pumpkin 1

Photos by Alaya Hubbard

The more I see Nature’s gardens being eaten away by development, the more I want to cultivate imitations of Nature’s gardens in urban and suburban spaces, and encourage others to do the same. The willful short-termers may be lost to this cause, but fortunately I think there is a much larger share of humans who simply have not yet had their connection to nature activated. That’s an opportunity.

So if I give thanks for anything this week, it is for gardens. I am feeling grateful for what they teach us, and how they begin to transform us the minute our fingers touch the green of their myriad plants. This week I am going to walk into the Robb Garden at the University of the Pacific, I am going to pluck out pumpkins and sweet potatoes, and then I’m going to make pies. I wish for you the pleasure of preparing something from a garden this week, and sharing it with someone you care for.

 

Gardening with Purpose

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayAs part of the University of the Pacific’s “Leading with Purpose” campaign, Pacific students, staff and faculty have been asked to reflect on the question, “What’s my purpose?” and answer it in a single statement. Exercises like this can easily slip into the superficial, but I like the way Pacific’s promotional video about this caught people in the act of not being able to answer the question right away. There’s an appealing honesty and informality in this that rings true and resonates with my experience since joining Pacific less than a year and a half ago.

All of this inspired me to think about my own purpose as Garden Program Director at Pacific. Here’s how I would put it:

As Garden Program Director, my purpose is to connect people with the green, growing world, to find people (especially students) who would never in a million years think of themselves as gardeners, and help them have an experience in nature that transforms their understanding of where our food comes from, and transforms as well the way they think about their capacity to grow at least some of the food they eat.

All of this purposeful reflection is part of a campaign to demonstrate that Pacific is a worthy beneficiary of the generosity of our donors. The support we receive from donors is hugely significant at Pacific, and this is particularly so for the Pacific Garden Program. The Ted & Chris Robb Garden and the Bon Appétit Native Plant Garden would not exist if were not for the generosity of two donors: Walter Robb and Fedele Bauccio. But I know that not everyone who supports these gardens has the capacity to donate on the scale of these two founding donors.

So I love what Pacific is up to this month: next week, on November 15-16, we will be having a 24-hour marathon called the Day of Giving. It starts at 11:15am on the 15th and ends at 11:16am on the 16th. The focus is not on the size of the gifts, but on the number of people we can involve in giving gifts of any size. If you’ve taken a stroll down that walkway with the Robb Garden on one side and the Native Plant Garden on the other and felt a sense of happiness that comes from being surrounded by nature’s beauty, this is an opportunity to express your appreciation through direct support.

What you’ll be supporting is more than the aesthetic beauty of the gardens – it’s the capacity of the gardens as special natural spaces of experiential learning for students, as well as the whole community. The size of the gift doesn’t matter – we’ll make it go far, just like a single packet of seeds can bring a whole garden bed into bloom. If you’ve got a particular idea of how you’d like your gift to be used, we’d love to hear it – and we’ll make it happen. You can stroll by anytime and see. Come on over!

Gardens, Prisons, Connection, and Community

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayEarlier this year, I had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life when I followed Amy Boyer, Program Manager with Insight Garden Program, through the gates of the California Health Care Facility (CHCF), a prison located just south of Stockton. Along with two other visitors, I was undergoing a trial visit to see if I might be a good fit as a regular volunteer with the program. Insight Garden Program has a constant need for volunteers; and so if you are looking for a challenging and inspiring volunteering opportunity, this post is for you. Further down I share ways to get involved, including meeting Amy in person at an event on Pacific’s campus next week.

Insight Garden Program (IGP) transforms the lives of people who are incarcerated by creating garden spaces inside prison grounds and then connecting inmates to the plants in ways that help them to see themselves as worthy beings who can thrive if they become deeply rooted and reach for nourishing influences, just as plants do. Founded by Beth Waitkus 15 years ago, IGP now has gardens inside eight prisons in California. At the time of my visit, CHCF was next on their list for establishing a garden.

Our little group was heading for a small chapel deep inside the prison grounds, but first we had to make a progressive transition from ‘outside’ to ‘inside’, passing through a couple of checkpoints and several rattling metal gates, and trekking across the barren grounds of the prison. Amy has done this more times than she can count, and she led us calmly, coaching us along the way about what to expect. I did not see so much as a weed anywhere as we walked, let alone any verdant green landscaping – just tall chain-link fences, guard towers, pavement, and desolate expanses of gravelly, sandy-colored ground.

For Amy, bringing a bit of garden green to such bleak and barren spaces is only a small piece of the transformation. The program is really about building community – and not just among IGP’s participants, although that is of course important. But even more important is for people both inside and outside of the prison to recognize that they are members of the same community. The checkpoints and fences that so severely mark the difference between “inside” and “outside” can make a prison seem like an island; but the community is one whole, and it helps people on the inside to know that those on the outside know about them and care enough to connect. It can make a tremendous difference for them when they finally step outside the prison gates to freedom.

We finally reached the small chapel, situated inside its own fenced enclosure and surrounded by a yard just as barren as the rest of the prison. The people enrolled in Amy’s course were waiting for us outside, and they greeted Amy with genuine warmth – she had already worked through one semester with them and was well into the second. She coaxed everyone to move out into the yard and form a circle, and then she began to lead us through a meditative grounding exercise, starting by asking everyone to imagine they had roots extending deep into the earth, seeking out nutrients and cooling moisture.

As we stood there in the chapel yard, I noticed that there was, in fact, a bit of vegetation there, exactly three types of plants: Bermuda grass, bindweed, and cheeseweed – all prime examples of invasive weeds that were the bane of my existence as a tender of the Robb Garden on the campus of the University of the Pacific. I delighted both at the irony of finding only these tough customers growing on the grounds of a prison, and also at the glorious audacity of green growing things: what we consider an unwelcome weed in the garden is an inspiring example of the capacity of life to find a way in the seemingly most inhospitable of conditions. And in this place, these weeds were welcome harbingers: within a few weeks, a cultivated garden would be carved into this tough, dry ground, and the IGP’s participants could begin to observe not only the life of plants, but plant visitors, such as hummingbirds and magpies.

Eventually we went inside the chapel to sit down for the more formal instruction of Insight Garden Program’s curriculum. The prisoners were more talkative than any group of college students I’ve ever taught, and their comments were thoughtful and articulate. More than once I heard a profound observation that challenged or inspired me to deeper reflection. I came away having gained far more than I gave.

approach-1038x400

This remarkable classroom dynamic was no fluke: Beth Waitkus explained to me how she worked with educators with neuroscience backgrounds to develop a curriculum that roots learning in practice. She also has grounded the work in appreciative inquiry: providing the opportunity for people to recognize their assets rather then dwell on their deficits. The program encourages them to identify strengths that can be valuable to the community when they return home. Amy says that many people inside have to think about what is really important to them, what really matters, how they can contribute to society – because they have to go before parole boards and convince them they are ready to be released. This work is not trivial, she says, and it can be really illuminating for everybody in the conversation.

Volunteers are an important part of this dynamic. Volunteers offer program participants an opportunity to hear about what is going on outside and to learn about other people’s lives. By the same token, program participants get to tell their own stories of their lives on the inside. As one young man told me, it meant a lot that someone from the outside came and looked him in the face and saw him as a fellow human being – in spite of our differences, in spite of the sharp markers of “inside” vs. “outside”.

I had desperately wanted to volunteer with the program, which is why I went on the prison visit in the first place – and the visit only confirmed for me that nothing could be more worthy of my time and effort. But I finally had to admit to myself, and to Amy, that my all-consuming job as Garden Program Director at University of the Pacific would not allow me to make the kind of commitment that was needed, even if it was only once a month. Then I realized there was one thing I could do: in the program’s own spirit of connecting people, I could help Amy to connect with potential volunteers in the Pacific community.

If you are over the age of 21, are comfortable in encounters with different cultures, are a good listener, and love to learn from other people, then volunteering with Insight Garden Program could be an extremely rewarding experience for you. You have a chance to find out first hand from Amy Boyer when she comes to give a talk at Pacific on October 26, 2:30pm, in the University Library’s Community Room. Join us!

Biointensive Instensity

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayOur student Garden Planning & Planting Lead, Laura Navarro, has returned to Pacific’s campus and to the Robb Garden like a dirt-churning whirlwind. If you stop by the Robb Garden these days, you’ll see mounds of freshly-turned soil where compacted earth had been, as Laura transforms what used to be a barren patch of the garden into soft, tidy beds. She has tenderly tucked seedlings of broccoli, kale and lettuce Into these fresh garden beds, as carrot seedlings and single-leafed grain seedlings spring up alongside.

Laura spent her summer at two Ecology Action gardens in Northern California – the Golden Rule Garden in Willits, and the Victory Gardens for Peace in Mendocino – learning biointensive gardening techniques. Now in her Junior year at Pacific, she is registered for internship credits in Environmental Science, advised by Dr. Lydia Fox, and she is applying what she learned in the Robb Garden.

2017-09-18 17.47.23There’s no doubt about it: biointensive gardening is intensive – labor intensive. New beds are carved into soil by hand through double-digging – as in doubly deep. Insect pests are picked off by hand or sprayed with a biodegradable soap solution and then gently washed off. Weeds – many of which are desirable vegetables and flowers that simply managed to seed themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time – are plucked out by hand.

For Laura, it is a labor of love, never mind how cliche that may sound. She loves the work, and she loves the plants – she talks about them as if they were her children. She built her own wooden flats for starting her seeds, which she keeps in a makeshift nursery on a table in the Robb Garden, sheltered from the sun’s full intensity behind a screen of tall tomato plants. Watching her hunched over her seedlings in a garden bed, I have seen her straighten up, sigh, and declare beatifically, “I’m so happy,” with an unmistakable expression of bliss on her face.

Laura blisses out

But this is anything but mere hippy-dippy dabbling for Laura. She has brought scientific precision to the planting practices of the Robb Garden. The seeding of each vegetable variety is timed by counting back from the average first frost date in our area, and she created a spreadsheet to track the timing of pricking out the seedlings and later transplanting them to garden beds. If you look closely at the beds she has planted, you will see small labels for each vegetable variety with a set of codes that she developed. If you understand her coding system, you can instantly know the history of each plant starting from its seedhood.

Lauraa's flats  Laura's labels

It is an absolute joy to hand over responsibility to a Pacific student and watch her grab onto it and unfurl it like it was a set of wings carrying her aloft and not a weight dragging her down. The Robb Garden is designed to be a space of ‘experiential learning’ for students; that’s become quite a buzz word in higher education these days, but Laura makes me believe in it. We can stand back and watch her learning and growing through direct experience of nature in the garden.

Come see.

Comfort with Complexity

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayThere is a fascinating body of cancer research that, oddly enough, has relevance for the health of the garden (see Siddhartha Mukherjee’s article “Cancer’s Invasion Equation” in the Sept. 11, 2017 issue of The New Yorker).

Research increasingly demonstrates that cancer cells are always present in our bodies to some degree; they are never completely eradicated. But they also may never manifest in harmful ways if the proper environmental conditions to suppress them are maintained – the health of the body’s immune system. One way to treat malignant cancer is to use chemotherapy, which knocks back cancer cells – but it is also toxic to the whole body, damaging the very immune system that fights the cancer cells.

As I was reading about this, I was reminded of weeds in the garden (not that it takes much to remind me of the weeds in the Robb Garden – I have a much more intimate relationship with them than I would care to admit). Weeds and their reproductive parts – seeds, rhizomes, etc. – are always present in the garden. We pull and pull and pull weeds, but there are always more popping up behind the ones we got rid of. Of course, we could treat the weeds with a systemic herbicide, but that would be like treating a cancer with chemotherapy: it would knock back the offending weeds, but it would also damage, even kill, the plants that we want in the garden (I won’t even go into the damage that the herbicide residues could do to the bodies of the humans who ingest them).

Both approaches – chemotherapy on humans, herbicides on plants – address an invading organism by making the entire environment toxic. And yet, neither method will ever completely eradicate the presence of the invaders. Every Gardener knows that weed seeds are always present, perhaps unseen, but nevertheless lying dormant beneath the soil surface.

The agricultural methods we’ve come to take for granted involve mechanically tilling the soil – which brings those weed seeds to the surface where they delight in the sunshine, water, and ideal growing conditions created for them – and then spraying chemicals to kill the weeds. When the chemicals threaten to damage the desired crops, the crops are genetically modified to resist that damage. Rather than working with the natural conditions of soil and plants, we’ve worked against them.

There is another way, of course, and that is to accept the perpetual presence of weeds, but to encourage the environmental conditions that create balance and prevent weeds from taking over. Minimal tilling of the soil (which not only keeps weed seeds way down under but also preserves the structure of the soil), keeping the soil covered at all times with green plants (crops or ground covers), and pulling weeds to weaken their photosynthesis mechanism – these are examples of techniques that work. But it requires one to feel comfortable with complexity – to be willing to figure out how all the parts of the intricate environmental system work together, and to work with that system and not against it.

 

Tomato Woe

by Patty Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director

PattyGray

“Sack-a-tomatoes”.

That’s how I always thought of Sacramento and the Central Valley when I was spending part of my childhood here. In my memory, tomatoes were everywhere, always ripe, always perfect. I later had good success growing my own tomatoes in Southern Illinois, but then my travels took me to much cooler climes, first to Alaska, and then to Ireland. After spending the last eight years struggling to grow the juicy orbs in cold, damp, mostly-cloudy Dublin, I thought growing tomatoes in Stockton would be fool-proof.

So does that make me a fool? Because here in the Robb Garden at University of the Pacific, we had practically no tomatoes this summer. Out of twenty plants, only about half produced any fruit at all, and most of those were cherry varieties. The big, plump, sun-ripened beauties I had imagined – and hankered for – never materialized.

Legend has it that Dr. Mark Brunell, when he served as faculty garden director in the Robb Garden 2012-2014, had 100 varieties of tomatoes planted, with the vines groaning under the weight of abundant fruit. When I arrived at Pacific a year ago in July, the Robb Garden sported a bumper crop of ripe tomatoes. We harvested basketsful every week, well into Fall.

This year we are already preparing to yank the plants out in mid-September, in an admission of defeat.

Just about the time I was ready to conclude I’m not the gardener I thought I was, I started getting reports from other gardeners in Stockton that they’ve been experiencing similar tomato misery. Commiseration is a wonderful resource for gardeners. It’s a chance to engage in mutual reassurance that it isn’t us, it’s Mother Nature conspiring against us. Even local Stockton gardening heroes were functionally tomatoless this summer.

When the average temperature of your hottest month is 60 degrees, as it is in Dublin in July, all you can think of as a remedy for your ailing tomato plants is more heat. It just never would have occurred to me that you could have too much heat. But of course you can. Stockton experienced a perfect storm of adverse tomato weather this summer.

Tomatoes grow best when daytime temperatures are anywhere from 65 degrees F to 85 degrees, and when nighttime temperatures do not fall below 55 degrees. If temperatures get above 95 degrees, fruit will not set on tomato plants. What’s worse, if nighttime temperatures fail to drop below 85 degrees, fruit that has set won’t ripen.

So Stockton’s weather this summer was basically a tomato disaster. During the critical window for tomato plants to flower and set fruit, temperatures were way too hot – a look at the Weather Underground historical pages for Stockton shows that we had 13 days above 95 degrees in June, 28 such days in July, and 19 such days in August. And many of those days were well over 100 degrees. The records show that low daily temperatures were plenty below 85 degrees F, but I wonder if in the Robb Garden – situated as it is amidst heat-radiating pavements and concrete buildings – does not experience warmer nighttime temperatures than the local averages.

Next year we will be ready. There are ways to place tomatoes so as to shade them during the hottest part of the day, and we can do a much better job of mulching and making daily checks of soil moisture. We cannot control nature, and our beloved tomato varieties cannot adapt to these heat extremes, but we can mitigate the effects to some extent.

We’d better start honing our mitigation skills if we want to keep enjoying ripe local tomatoes, because we might have those summer heat extremes with us for some time to come. Believe it or not.

 

Potato Love

My Love Affair With Potatoes
By Patty A. Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director

PotatoesI recently dug out my first harvest of potatoes from the Robb Garden: a little clutch of warm-hued Yukon Golds huddled atop the soil, ranging from ping pong ball-sized to fist-sized, promising a couple of tasty meals at least. As I began to gather them up and toss them into a canvas bag, something in the motion, and the feel of the smooth skins, and the thunking sound of potato against potato in the bag triggered a memory.

Russia, 2001. A potato field in the Republic of Mari El, in the rich and fertile Black Earth region. I’m walking a row alongside members of the family I am staying with, picking up potatoes that their tractor just churned up, dropping them, thunkety-thunk, into a large canvas bag standing at the end of my row. The potato field was this family’s mainstay, supplying their own needs as well as a surplus to sell at market. Eating potatoes day after day, year after year, did not diminish the family’s enthusiasm for these “earth apples”. When it came time for a lunch break, they eagerly started a small campfire right at the edge of the field and roasted a few potatoes by snuggling them in around the coals and setting a metal bucket over them. The anthropologist in me relished observing and participating in this example of social behavior; the hungry human in me relished the taste of freshly-roasted potatoes, and the satisfyingly full feeling in my belly.

I think that was the moment when I became infected with potato-love, and the first chance I got, I started growing my own potatoes. That chance was when I moved into a small house – a glorified cabin, really – in Fairbanks, Alaska. The gardening season is brutally short there – the last spring freeze happens in mid-May, and the first fall freeze can be expected in early September – but the extreme day length makes gardens burst into action almost overnight. I planted a raised bed full of German Butterballs, a mouth-wateringly savory little tuber that is unmatched if you favor waxy, salad-type potatoes (which I do, voraciously). After planting, I had a few seed tubers left over, and I decided to just dump them in some leaf litter along the side of my driveway. Let them take their chances, I thought. The raised bed produced a bumper crop, which I found pleasant enough; but what amazed me was that the potatoes sprouted up even in that leaf litter, and yielded a respectable amount of creamy potato flesh. At that point I became convinced that you could grow potatoes anywhere, and I resolved that I would never be without a potato patch in any garden I tended.

Imagine my amusement some years later when it became clear I would be moving to Ireland, seemingly the ancestral land of the potato (which of course it isn’t: potatoes are a quintessential New World crop, hauled back to the Old World by travellers who knew a good thing when they saw it). I grew a bed full of potatoes each of the eight years I lived in Dublin, and never once had a speck of blight – the Irish are of course potato experts by now, and blight-resistance is built into pretty much every variety of seed potato you can buy. My problem, however, was that I disagreed with the prevailing Irish opinion on which potato varieties are the best to eat. Irish tastes run to those big, floury potatoes, which I find bland, unless you slather them with butter and salt – which is, as it turns out, what any eejit (idiot) should know you are supposed to do. I remember trying to convince one Irishman of the merits of my beloved waxy/creamy varieties, and he actually had a gag reflex right in front of me. Alas.

So of course upon taking up my current position as Garden Program Director at the University of the Pacific, I knew I would grow potatoes in the Robb Garden right here on campus. Potatoes had so far not been among the crops planted in the Robb Garden, and when I shared my plans, some asked incredulously, “Isn’t it too hot?” Ah, but that is the beauty of the California climate: there is a growing season for everything. Planted in early February, during a rare break in the torrential spring rains this year, our two small beds of potatoes are now yielding their golden treasure.

Any potato-love out there? We’ve got tubers to spare!