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.

White Hot Gardening

by Kara Talbot, University of the Pacific Student

Talbot mug shotFrom a young age, Dr. Mark Brunell was connected with gardening. His parents were plant lovers; they always had many varieties of flowers planted all over their property; as well as tomatoes that arose from seeds in wine barrels that produced some of the largest, reddest tomatoes Dr. Brunell had ever seen. He grew up and lived in Livermore, California until 2002 when he moved to Stockton to start his teaching & research job at University of the Pacific. At his first home in Stockton, he gardened out of a few planter boxes; but his real passion for gardening began in 2010. By that time, Dr. Brunell had moved into another house in Stockton with a much larger yard, and he also started the University of California Master Gardener program. His enthusiasm for gardening become “white hot” as he endured the “most intensive learning” of his life.

During 2010, Dr. Brunell teamed up with Ecology Action founder John Jeavens to start a large garden spanning five acres at the Methodist Church in Jeavens’ hometown, called the Garden of Hope. The project at the church was a “veggie boot camp” for Brunell when it came to starting his own garden in 2010 and later the Ted & Chris Robb Garden at the University of the Pacific in 2012. After successfully establishing the Robb Garden, Dr. Brunell stepped down from his position as Faculty Garden Manager and turned to focus on expanding his own home garden.

In all of his gardens, Dr. Brunell uses the bio-intensive method when planting in his plots. Talbot at plotHis home garden is packed together closely in a raised bed with the plants in a hexagonal pattern, but all of the plants have plenty of space for their roots to collect enough water, nutrients, oxygen, and sunlight. He grows a variety of vegetables and fruits on his property, which shifts with each plant’s growing season. One of the greatest issues he faces is that, due to California’s Mediterranean climate, the growing seasons of some plants overlap with another variety of plant that needs to be seeded. Dr. Brunell’s solution to this overlapping issue is to partition his garden beds into sections that correlate to different seasons, which allows the plants currently growing to continue growing without impacting the time at which the new plants are seeded. He only needs to periodically tend his garden, mainly on weekends, because he has a drip irrigation system in place and his garden is fairly low maintenance due to the types of plants he grows in his garden. The only intense care that goes into his garden is when the transition period comes: the old plants are taken out and the new seed is sown.

Veggie boot camp had prepared Dr. Brunell well when it came to what to plant and how in his own garden. He also implemented the practice of edible landscaping, covering his property with seven beds and many varieties of fruit trees. As he has grown older, he has reduced the number of beds to three and increased the number of perennials along with fruit trees to make his garden even more low maintenance. During the cool season, Dr. Brunell tends to grow vegetables such as lettuce, bok choy, mustard, leafy greens, and fava beans. In the warmer months, he tends to grow fruits and vegetables, including peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, squash, and watermelon. He also hosts an herb garden filled with sage, basil, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, and much more.

Gardening has become a large part of Dr. Brunell’s life and diet ever since he gained that “white hot” passion for it back in 2010. His garden supplies most of the vegetables he needs in his diet, which means fewer trips to the grocery store and more money back in his pocket. Tending to his garden is therapeutic for Dr. Brunell because he enjoys taking care of it as well as sitting and observing the environment he helped to create. His garden is also a bit of a family endeavor when it comes to harvesting time. They often work together to harvest produce, such as tomatoes, and then later they all pitch in to preserve half of them and make homemade tomato sauce out of the other half. Dr. Brunell’s garden endeavors have brought him great knowledge and joy in many aspects of his life as he continues to enjoy tending and being in his garden, as well as planting new varieties.

 

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!

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.

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.