Weary of tomatoes and bell peppers getting zapped by frost? Want to give unique growing gifts this holiday season?
Our cooler winter months allow Floridians to grow — cheaply and easily — a whole chef's blend of vegetables and herbs that can transform a simple meal into a feast. All you need is fertile soil in a garden or flower pot, full sun and the knowledge that your crops get even better after a frost. Any of these gourmet treasures in a decorative 1-gallon pot filled with mushroom compost make a charming living present that friends can enjoy for months.
• Long treasured in Europe and only now getting noticed here is mache, also known as corn salad. I grew this leafy green in Denver early each spring when up to two months of snow threatened, so any frosts here will help it grow. A member of the valerian family, it is easily grown from seed yet commands an astonishing price in the few produce sections that carry it. You'll swoon over the crunchy texture and sweet, nutty taste that put lettuce to shame.
• Asian cooking isn't complete without the crispy crunch and color of mustards like boy choy, pai tsai, Chinese cabbage and Osaka giant red mustard, which is fiery when raw yet mild when cooked. We rarely see these fine veggies in the store (although mizuna is showing up in bagged mixed salads), yet they grow easily from seed in a healthy garden or patio planter filled with compost and fed with diluted fish emulsion from a garden center. The cool winter months allow them to prosper with few bug or disease problems, and they enjoy cold snaps and frosts.
• Both Mexican and Thai cuisine demand fresh cilantro. But a tiny wilted bundle from the produce section can be a couple of bucks. Buy a cellophane packet of coriander seeds from the Mexican spice display and plant them 1 inch apart and ½ inch deep. Coriander seeds are the same thing as cilantro seeds, which will set you back a couple bucks for a tiny packet from a garden center. Cilantro is a short-lived cool-weather plant, so sow a new crop every two to three weeks for a steady supply. Ever wondered why cilantro plants nearly always fail? It's because they're so far along in their growth cycle, they're just weeks from dying.
• Pricey gourmet salad blends contain the French herb arugula, also called roquette. This potent member of the mustard family has a love-it-or-hate-it flavor, and I love it. Expensive and rare in stores, it grows like a weed each winter in west-central Florida. Like all mustards, the small seeds sprout quickly and soon mature in fertile soil and bear until the return of summer heat. Buy the seeds at garden shops and plant them from November through February for an exotic herb served raw in salads or flash-sauteed with onions in bacon fat.
• Chopped shallot, scallion and garlic leaves give baked and mashed potatoes, soups, stir-fries and omelets a chef's blessings, so just plant a garlic bulb, several small shallot bulbs, and onion sets from a garden shop about 4 inches deep in rich soil. Within a month you'll be snipping off warmly flavored greens, and they'll keep regrowing till summer.
• Plant a packet of Chinese snow peas or sugar snap peas, which thrive on cool nights. Their crunchy pods and edible leaves make a stir-fry both lovely and authentic. And there is nothing like the pods and leaves raw in a salad.
• Candy mint, spearmint, chocolate mint and peppermint leaves snipped fresh from a potted plant kept damp in a tray with 1 inch of standing water are superb in delicious Indian dishes, plus in spring rolls, iced tea, or as a garnish for chocolate holiday desserts. Widely available in garden shops, they tolerate summer here, but glory in winter.
John A. Starnes Jr. is a Tampa-based organic gardener. He can be reached at JohnAStarnes@aol.com.