Summer crops can satisfy Florida locavores

With the cost of gas and groceries rising as quickly as the temperature, lots of us are looking to our gardens to grow our own food. Add in concerns about salmonella and pesticides, and a desire to lighten our carbon footprint by eating locally, and a vegetable garden is an obvious alternative. It's a myth that Floridians can't grow edible crops during the summer. No, we can't grow the cool-weather crops that we should save for our fall gardens, such as snow peas and broccoli. But plenty of crops thrive in the steamy heat.

PEAS THAT PLEASE

Buy a small bag of dried black-eyed peas at the grocery store and plant a seed 1 inch deep every 6 inches, either in a long row in a vegetable garden, or just tucked in empty spots between shrubs and other landscape plants. (This assumes that you don't pour pesticides on your lawn or shrubbery. You don't want those to get into crops you plan to eat.)

Mulch the area with an inch of the chipped limbs you can get free from tree-trimming services. Water deeply right away, and weekly until our summer rains settle in. You'll be amazed at how quickly they germinate and emerge from the soil. Their tender young leaves are great snipped into stir-fries, soups and casseroles. I like to add some of the lovely blooms to salads too. But the real treasure is the tender young stringless pods. Pick them when they are 4 or 5 inches long and eat them raw or chop them into a stir-fry.

Any pods you miss that ripen and turn tan at the end of summer can be picked and shucked to be cooked as a dried bean or saved in a paper envelope in your produce drawer to plant the following spring.

HOW SWEET THESE ARE

Another heat-loving tropical crop is the sweet potato, an edible member of the morning glory family. That becomes obvious each fall when they bear lovely, lavender-pink, funnel-shaped blooms. Just buy a couple of potatoes at the store (organic ones will sprout more quickly), cut them in half and let them dry in the shade for a few days. Then either plant them right away 6 inches deep, or let them sit on a shady windowsill until they sprout, and then plant them. My favorite varieties are Garnet and Puerto Rico Gold. A Cuban boniato will give you a white-fleshed sweet potato with especially plentiful vines.

In the tropics, people grow sweet potatoes mainly for their tasty and very nutritious cooked leaves and tender vine tips, which are free of the oxalic acid in spinach that many people avoid to reduce the chances of kidney stones or leaching calcium from their bones.

The leaves are rich in vitamins A, C, D, K, E and the Bs too, and they offer some protein and the vital minerals phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc, selenium and copper. Add omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and you have some mighty nutritious cooked greens! They are edible raw but to me are a little tough and acrid, so they always get cooked in my kitchen.

I love to serve them to skeptical friends, cooked about 10 minutes in a little water with butter or coconut oil and sea salt. All agree the flavor and texture matches or exceeds that of fresh spinach. I also chop mine into omelets, stir-fries and soups. Plant them in a landscape bed for a lovely edible ground cover.

In late autumn the vines will bear those lavender and pink morning glory blooms, then yellow and wither, signaling time to dig up a harvest of fresh, crisp sweet roots far better than any in the store. I rarely cook mine. I cut them into long strips and put them in salads I take to dinners and potlucks. People exclaim about the wonderfully flavorful, sweet "carrots." Then I tell them they've been raving about raw, freshly dug, organically grown sweet potatoes.

TREAT FROM EGYPT

A new summer favorite of mine is the most widely grown and eaten vegetable in Egypt, spelled "molokhiya" or "melokhiya." Its botanical name is Corchorus olitorius, and its main central stem is the source of the jute fiber that some twines and burlap and macrame are made from. But it is the small, tender leaves and its love of heat that make it a perfect choice for a summer garden. The graceful, airy plants boast tiny rich yellow blooms that, upon close examination, reveal their distant relationship to okra and hibiscus. The Internet abounds with traditional Egyptian recipes in which the leaves complement chicken and rabbit stews. Dried and powdered, they yield a gumbo-style thickener called "nalita" that I'll use in winter soups.

Few greens can match its whopping nutritional content: protein, calcium, iron, potassium, beta-carotene, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, plus vitamins C, K and E! I've grown fond of using the leaves raw in place of lettuce on sandwiches and salads or tossed at the last minute into a soup or stir-fry. You can find it frozen (and expensive) in Middle Eastern grocery stores, but it's easy to grow from seeds available at www.evergreenseeds.com.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.

Summer crops can satisfy Florida locavores 06/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 12:42pm]

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