Posts Tagged ‘edible weeds’

Food Independence Day

Gardening is a pleasure and a labor of love, and it’s also part of a bigger picture of resilience. I think about resilience a lot these days, on every level from national and international to personal. Much of the time there is little or, arguably, nothing that I can do for those larger systems, but on any average day I can attend to my own household system. I can make reasonable plans for the future and remain as flexible as possible about things that can’t be predicted.

One thing that can be predicted is aging. We can do a lot toward aging well, but *spoiler alert* we will still age. I realized this when I had a few years of orthopedic issues that made it painful to walk and impossible to dig. It made me start shifting toward a permanent mulch system in part of my yard, so that as long as I can kneel to plant and can spread some straw around, I can harvest food. I started the mulched beds by heaping animal manure and bedding a foot thick over the whole area, but this was a one-time job and the labor involved can be hired.  Straw bales can be delivered and set where you need them for a small extra fee, and spreading them is light work. Let the whole setup mellow for several months if the manure was fresh, and start planting the following spring. Straw breaks down quickly and has to be replenished a few times a year, which is great because it builds the soil and creates an incredibly active layer of worms and tiny critters of all sorts. It also holds water tenaciously, which is critically important in my desert area.

Some perennial weeds come up through thick mulch, so there is some pulling to do. In my area, silver nightshade is the chief invader. I have started letting it flower before I pull it, because bumblebees love the flowers.

Other perennial weeds are far more delightful. Common milkweed was my favorite perennial wild edible when I lived in the Northeast, and I’m creating a few patches of it here to feed us if there are years that I can’t plant annual vegetables. As the seedpods mature I’m moving them to new parts of the yard. This spring I noticed that some seedlings struggled up through thick mulch, saving me the usual labor of weeding around the tiny plants for a couple of years while they get established, so this fall I will try just “planting” seed pods here and there under mulch to see if I can start new clumps that way. Once well established a clump of milkweed takes care of itself, and it’s pretty hard for other weeds to get a foothold. The delicious shoots emerge late in the spring, so be careful not to dig them up by mistake  when the early-spring digging fervor hits you.

Nettles are a perennial vegetable that I have yapped on and on about until there’s little left to say. So all I will add here is: site them where you can control them and not get stung, cook them in spring when young and tender, whack the plants back aggressively to keep them in place, and harvest more shoots later on. I freeze the young leaves in large quantities to eat all year.

I’m always experimenting with things that may save work later on. I don’t eat potatoes very often but do like a few treats of new potatoes in season. I’m trying out the Chinese yam or cinnamon vine, a robust perennial vine that has sprays of cinnamon-scented flowers and then, on established vines, a large crop of tiny bulbils borne from the leaf joints that are said to taste like new potatoes. My vine is three years old and hasn’t formed any bulbils yet but I am hopeful that next year will be the year. The vine also forms a huge underground tuber that I can dig up and eat if I ever get that hungry. I understand that it tastes good, but digging is no longer my favorite thing.

Old established hops vines produce huge quantities of edible and delicious shoots in spring. They are much less work than asparagus, which tends to need a lot of weeding, but they are big heavy vines that want to romp away 20’ high if they get a chance, and require a really sturdy fence. I don’t brew beer anymore because we no longer drink much of it, but if you brew, there’s another clear advantage to growing them.

A deep permanent mulch creates a living and lively ecosystem and you can watch its capacities change over the years. I’ve tried for years to grow blackberries, but in my very alkaline clay in broiling sun they were a no-go. Now, in mulch with some shade, they are thriving.

European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, are another desired plant that I was never able to grow until the mulch provided a more hospitable habitat.

My fruit trees appreciate the even moisture under a deep mulch. In our hottest summer so far, after our driest winter in memory, my apricot tree was loaded. I had to fight my local squirrel family for them but I don’t mind a little healthy competition. I made Indian pickles out of some of the unripe fruit, rather like the ones made from green mangoes, and they were good enough that I wish I had made more. I also roasted a lot of apricots for use in savory dishes. They are very delicious in this form, and freeze pretty well. Below, they harmonize with roast chicken in saffron cream sauce.

My old friend lambs-quarters is still everywhere. There is no leafy green that’s any better or any easier to grow or any more nutritious. I wish that some ambitious breeder would get to work on it and create a form that held longer without shooting to seed, but it’s just fine as it is. It can be seen somewhere in nearly every photo taken on my place, and is my living daily assurance that I’ll never starve. If I can’t grow anything else, I’ll rake the mulch off a patch of earth, add some water, and reap the resulting harvest.

Perennial onions are another food that will never desert me. In fact, I’m having to weed some out to make room for other things. Besides the usual ways to use scallions, they are awfully good sliced finely, stewed in butter with some salt until they sweeten, and eaten as a vegetable.

Animals can add greatly to your resilience and they help “close the loop” in keeping nutrients on your property. It’s amazing how much garden waste and food scraps they will eat and relish, and their manure passes on the left-overs to your plants in a form that they can use. If legal in your area, a rooster increases resilience by making it possible for you to grow your own chicks if you ever really have to, or want to.

I am no survivalist and don’t want anything to happen to society. We need each other. But if our current overly lavish food supply should be threatened, the ability to grow something to eat might once again become a necessary skill. And even with every grocery store crammed with food, growing your own is satisfying on a far deeper level than shopping.

A happy and healthy Independence Day to all.

 

 

 

My Life With Invasives

I’m reading Beyond the War on Invasive Species, an interesting book by Tao Orion that, among other things, recalls some of the horrors that the native plant ecomovement fell into, such as “nuking” large areas repeatedly with Round-Up so that they could eventually be replanted with “pure” native species. The whole issue of how to think about invasives is complicated, and I will not approach it here. But the role of invasives in my own yard is one that I feel able to tackle.  My yard is happily multicultural and can absorb almost any invasive that has a use to me, my livestock, or our local pollinators. Over the years I’ve been surprised by plants that came with warnings about their aggressive nature, but in my yard struggled or even died.

There are lots of invasives here, mostly introduced by me and mostly cherished. To have dandelions, I had to pay good money for seed and then wait impatiently as they took three years to get large and lush and edible. Now they are finally self-seeding a bit and are welcome almost anywhere they appear.

Gojis took a while to settle in but now come up everywhere, which is fine since I like the leaves and young shoots as well as the berries.

Nettles, shown at the top of this post,  are my favorite spring greens, and it has turned out to be very possible to manage them for a fall crop of greens as well. They aren’t found in my high desert area and I had to buy plants to get them. They are probably my favorite invasive.  The first nettle patch was located in an area that has concrete walkway all around it, to foil its dreams of world domination. I have started a couple of other nettle patches this spring in large containers. I’ll report back on how this works out.

Arugula  comes up everywhere, and is welcome almost everywhere it appears. It is one of my favorite salad greens, and makes a fairly good cooked green as well, best with stronger seasonings like garlic and cayenne. The flowers are very attractive to bees  and open at a time when little else is flowering, so I always let plenty of it go to seed.

At this point I would have to classify elephant garlic as an invasive, because no matter how much of it I pull up, I always seem to have even more the following year.  When I threw an arm full on top of straw mulch just to get rid of it, it sent roots down  through the mulch and took off as you see above. I don’t mind it, though. It isn’t much use as a bulb and does not compare to true garlic, but I like the early shoots for green garlic, so it does have a use, and the bees enjoy any flowers that I allow to form.

Speaking of attractive to bees, cardoon has become quite an invasive in my yard but one that, as you see above, has its admirers.  I loved cardoons when I ate them in Italy, and brought back seeds from there to make sure that I got the edible kind and not the florist kind, but I have never been able to eat my homegrown cardoons. No matter how carefully blanched, they are inedibly bitter. They do provide one wonderful vegetable, the peeled top of the bloom scape before the buds swell, but that is one small serving per very large plant. I still let them seed themselves around though, because the bees and my goat adore them and even in my desert climate and alkaline soil, they come up in odd corners and require no care or attention whatsoever. The huge jagged silver leaves are strikingly ornamental.  When they come up in the middle of garden beds, I let them reach a good size and then pull them for the goat. I have read that the large parsnip-like root is edible, but when grown in my yard it is as bitter as the leaves, and is a flavor that only a goat could love.

Scrawny little Phyllostachys dulcis “invading.”

I love bamboo shoots and can seldom  find fresh ones locally, so growing them seemed obvious.  I planted  clumping bamboo and the famously invasive running sweet shoot bamboo.  The latter is famous for overrunning its boundaries and forming 30 foot high jungles, so I sited it in a part of the yard up next to the goat paddock, figuring that I could always turn her loose on it if worst came to worst.  Three years later, each plant now has two or three wimpy looking canes about 5 feet high, and I have eaten exactly one bamboo shoot. It was very good, and I was glad to have it,  but I am still waiting for the abundant shoots that I was told would pop up absolutely everywhere.  The aristocratic clumping bamboos took one look at their pedestrian setting and refused to go on living.

Burdock bloomscape at right stage for peeling and cooking.

Burdock has done a better job of becoming an invasive. I don’t care for the roots that much, and planted it because the peeled bloom scape is a fair vegetable, and I assumed that since I was eating it before the flowers formed, I would be able to keep the plant from reproducing. It fooled me. If you keep cutting off the bloomscape, it forms little short bloomscapes down under the huge leaves where you don’t see them, and seeds itself thickly all around the parent plant.  Dogs wandering through the patch pick up the burrs and plant more elsewhere.  Still, the leaves are a favorite goat treat, and I don’t mind having it around.

Common milkweed is one of my favorite wild edibles, as well as being a great bee plant and the chosen food of the monarch butterfly larva, and for years I have been trying to get it to become invasive, but in my yard it remains as fussy as orchids.  Ordinarily I run a Darwinian garden and will not make great efforts to keep any plant going when its natural inclination is to die, but I have really gone out of my way for the milkweed, and it has not reciprocated. Finally, this year it is beginning to spread a little bit, but there is still not enough to eat any.

Silver nightshade is the only invasive plant in my area that I truly despise and can find no use for, which is a shame because it’s everywhere. If you think it looks pretty, you haven’t gotten to know it. The roots lie several feet underground and are invulnerable. The plant comes up everywhere, and is covered with small prickles that are not only painful but break off in your skin with any touch and cause irritations that last days. The leaves are poisonous to livestock. There is no argument to be made for its existence except that, unfortunately, it does exist.  It does not seem possible to have less of it. I blush to admit that once, many years ago, I was so infuriated by it that I tried spraying some with Round-up, and I must say that it shriveled up over the next several days in a very satisfying way. Unfortunately, within a few weeks it had rebounded and was growing up happily and thickly from the roots, seeming invigorated by the experience.  So do not bother sacrificing your organic credibility, because it won’t work anyway.  Every now and then I run its scientific name through the medical databases, hoping that somebody somewhere will have found a chemical in it that treats a rare cancer or something like that, so that I will feel differently about its general uselessness. But so far, it remains one of nature’s blights. It seems to be highly aggressive in dry soils and doesn’t compete well in damp areas, so maybe as humus and moisture increase in my soil, it will be less of a problem.

Read the book if you are really interested in a different way of thinking about invasives.

Green Odds and Ends

On my occasional staycations I have time to interact with my garden and kitchen in a leisurely way. I have time to notice things. Unfortunately, some of what I notice is at best a call to action and, at worst, a problem unfolding itself.

Take lambsquarters. This  weed is a real nutritional powerhouse, and also is happy to take over your world if you allow it.   I have written in the past about how to make it behave itself, and I do wish that I had followed my own good advice this year. But I foolishly let some plants go to bloom, which means that the leaves are scant and seeds will shower on my garden soon.

Well, all is far from lost, because Chenopodium album is still producing something edible. Notice the branch tips and you will see the clustered buds ready to pick and cook. This common weed is a true nose-to-tail vegetable.

To the right above, you see tightly packed buds, perfect for cooking. The single branch to the left shows looser formation and tiny little yellow stamens, indicating that it’s gone to flower. It’s still edible at this stage but the stem is tougher. A little later the seeds start forming and, to my taste, a slight unpleasant bitterness develops and the stems get noticeably tough, so I try to eat it up before that point, but the seed clusters look a lot like the initial bud clusters. Chew a bit raw if you want to be sure. If it tastes mild and green but not bitter, and the stem can be snapped in your fingers without undue effort, it’s kitchen-ready.

Steam or cook in a skillet in a little good olive oil until done to your taste, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and eat. I steamed a batch for dinner and had some leftovers the next day, enough for one but there were two of us, which is how I came to use the cooked leftovers as the basis for a thick pesto to eat with halloumi and eggs.

The lambsquarters buds are very mild, so I chose a handful of fresh dill leaves to be the dominant seasoning, and some young carrot leaves chopped finely for the bright fresh green element (my parsley didn’t do well this year.) I put a clove of garlic in the mini-prep, added 1/3 cup of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, ground in the cooked lambsquarters buds, and then turned it into a dish and stirred in the chopped dill and carrot leaves to avoid too fine a texture. Add more olive oil or lemon juice if called for, salt and pepper to taste, and it’s ready to serve alongside nearly anything. If you don’t like dill, use something else. Only fresh herbs are appropriate for this type of vegetable-relish.

After frying the halloumi in olive oil, I decided to fry an egg apiece in the remaining hot olive oil. To add a little pizazz I dropped two generous pinches of chopped dill leaves in two places in the hot skillet, then immediately broke two fresh eggs on top of them. Flip the eggs after a minute and cook to preferred doneness.  Those who are only familiar with the fusty-musty dried dillweed may be surprised how much they like fresh dill in this context.

I’m curious about the nutritional content of this lambsquarters-broccoli but there isn’t any available data. So I can only say that the leaves are powerfully nutritious and the buds probably are too. And wherever you may go in your life, short of prison, lambsquarters will be there. At times when I worry about the future, it’s comforting to think that if I’m ancient and beyond digging and planting, lambsquarters will grow just fine and will be on the menu as long as I can totter to the kitchen.

 

Wild Lettuce

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Wild lettuce is everywhere. I see it all over the downtown area of our city, growing in cracks in pavement and against buildings.  Wherever you are right now, there is probably a plant of it growing nearby. Its endurance is extraordinary and there is no getting rid of it, which suits me fine. A green that will grow in unwatered parts of my desert yard is an unusual thing, and I’m not likely to turn down a gift like that.

It’s quite variable in leaf shape and a few species are common in the U.S. In my area I mostly see Lactuca serriola, which is covered with small spines. I borrowed the photo above because the spines show more clearly than in my own photo. Accounts online and in foraging books differ, some reporting that the young leaves are delicious, others considering them a very poor food, and all commenting on the bitterness of the adult plant. In my area they don’t seem to get very bitter, not half as bitter as dandelions or chicory, and I love to eat the growing tips regardless of the age of the plant. This may relate to soil or temperature factors. I have noticed the same thing with sow thistle that grows in my yard, which lacks its characteristic bitterness, while dandelions in the same area seem even more bitter than those found elsewhere. Nature always has the last word and does not have to provide us with explanations. You have to get to know your home area.

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I pick the tips as shown on the right, but if I find a plant growing in shade I will pick larger leaves because they remain more tender than when grown in sun. They exude sticky white sap, which washes away easily. I toss the tips in boiling water for about 90 seconds and drain and squeeze, which renders the spines soft and harmless. Proceed as desired. With greens that have any tinge of bitterness, I like to sauté with garlic, olive oil, and pepper flakes, preferably the deep earthy Turkish Urfa pepper flakes or smoky chipotle flakes. A ten minute sauté creates a lovely vegetable.

The rest of the plant is a favorite treat for my goat, who is totally unbothered by the spines. It’s one of the few plants that she never seems to get finicky about.

There are some very weird things to be found online. Wild lettuce has  acquired a strange internet reputation as “lettuce opium” and there are places that sell the seeds and tincture and swear it will cure insomnia and/or get you high. I have no idea where this idea came from. I was startled to learn about it when I searched for a good photo, and overall I would disregard the whole idea. So do the people who have actually tried it; customer feedback includes comments like “very mild,” “placebo buzz only,” “nothing going on here,” and “useless.” One commenter who thought it was great admitted to being “crazy drunk” when he tried it, which no doubt makes a difference. Some think it is a useful mild sleep aid if smoked or brewed as a very strong tea. I don’t advise smoking anything at all so I wouldn’t know. For those interested in soporifics I can only say that when I eat it at dinner I feel sleepy at bedtime, and when I eat anything else for dinner I feel sleepy at bedtime.

Integrating Your Weeds II: Amaranth

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Amaranth is the second of my Holy Trinity of super-nutritious edible weeds. It is a creature of hot weather, and in my garden it’s appearing everywhere right now. Like lambs-quarters it will get huge if allowed to, and unless you have limitless room, your job is not to allow it to.
Consult any good wild-foods guide to identify it, and then assess how much of it you have. If your response is “OMG, it’s everywhere!” then don’t worry about propagating it. Your soil has plenty of seeds. If there are only one or two plants, proceed as for lambs-quarters the first season, and you will have amaranth in perpetuity. I have two varieties, one with smooth stems and one that forms small but unpleasant spines at the leaf joints, and I try to keep the spiny kind from ever going to seed.
Pick them when they’re about a foot high and have a nice large umbrella of leaves on top. I have no interest in eating stems, and I pull off the topmost part with all the largest leaves and add the rest of the plant to the mulch, taking care that it’s completely uprooted.
The greens are fairly mild but have a slight touch of the earthy flavor that’s so pronounced in beet greens. When grown in prime soil the flavor verges on meatiness in a delicious way, and my favorite way of cooking the greens adds other meaty umami flavors.
Wash a mixing bowl full of loosely packed leaves well and wilt them in a small amount of water, stirring frequently over fairly high heat until the leaves all look “cooked.” Drain them, saving all the cooking liquid. Return the cooking liquid to the pot and boil hard to concentrate it to a very small amount, maybe a couple of tablespoons (don’t turn your back on the pot or it will scorch.) Pour into a little bowl and save.
Chop 6 big green onions. Make a basic separation between white and green parts, but don’t get obsessive about it. Separately chop 6 big cloves of garlic. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in your largest skillet and cook the white parts over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. When they begin to look a little translucent and “cooked,” add the green parts, cook another couple of minutes, add the garlic, lower the heat to medium, and cook a few minutes more. Meanwhile, put the lump of blanched greens on a cutting board and chop fairly finely in both directions.
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When the garlic looks cooked but has not colored at all, add a handful of pitted chopped oil-cured olives to the sautéed mixture and cook another minute.
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Add the cooked chopped greens, the tiny amount of cooking liquid, a teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika or, if you like heat, the same amount of ground chipotle chile. Add a small handful each of chopped parsley and chopped fennel fronds. If not cooking for vegetarians or vegans, add a smashed anchovy fillet or a dash of fish sauce. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat for at least 20 minutes, periodically turning it to get it all completely cooked (a spatula works well.) Taste it, salt to taste, and cook a few more minutes to let the salt blend in. Serve drizzled with good olive oil as a side dish, or fill an omelette with it and add some feta cheese, or bake in phyllo to make a hortapita or little spanakopitas, or do whatever else you fancy with it. Back when I ate bread, I used to love to smear this stuff on slices of grilled baguette and put some grated Parmesan and pine nuts on top. I can remember once baking it in thin bread dough with a raw egg on top, so that when baked in a hot oven the egg came out cooked. You can add cooked chickpeas and bits of cooked meat for a real peasant dinner. It freezes well in vacuum-sealed bags to keep you healthy all winter. When served next to beef or pork, I top each serving with a bit of butter to add to the general animalic savor. I like to have it in the refrigerator for a super-healthy lunch, and it seems to taste best at room temperature.
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Incidentally, the main reason for a poor result is not cooking it long enough. If it tastes grassy, keep going until it tastes good. Undersalting is another problem. Add salt cautiously because of the salty olives, but add enough.
If you don’t have a wild good guide that you like, get John Kallas’s “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate” and you will be glad you did.

The Cook’s Treat: Lambs-quarters

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I am the cook in our household, and one of the reasons that I love my kitchen work is that I can have cook’s treats, little experimental dishes that I cook up while working on something else and eat standing up in the kitchen. They are something like impromptu tapas for one.

Recently I was preparing large quantities of tender lambs-quarters tips for the freezer, and began to speculate about how a handful of the tops could be turned into a cook’s treat. I have been very happy with some recent experiments that involved pan-frying hops shoots or scorzonera shoots over medium-high heat with just olive oil and salt, but hadn’t tried it with a leafy green vegetable.

I was delighted with the results. I chose about a dozen small tender tips, maybe three inches long on average, and washed them but didn’t make any special effort to dry them beyond setting them on a towel to drain.  While washing them, I set my little 7 inch skillet over medium high heat to heat up. When the pan was hot, and my greens were washed and drained, I put in a glug of good olive oil. I never measure olive oil, but I would guess that the glug that looks right in my small skillet is about 2 tablespoons. You do need enough oil in the pan for the greens to be able to fry in spots. Wearing an apron and standing back a bit from the stove, I threw the greens into the skillet. They spat and hissed ferociously. After a minute, I sprinkled on a generous pinch of salt and turned them roughly. After another minute I turned the heat down to medium and continued to turn them over every minute or two until the stems were tender enough to eat and many ( but not all) of the leaves were browned and crisp. I turned them out onto a small plate, sprinkled on a bit of Fleur de Sel, and ate them hot in between other kitchen tasks. Yum. The flavor is fuller and maybe slightly more bitter than mild lambs-quarters can usually reach, and the crisped leaves crunch delicately between your teeth, like very thin ice.
They have to have enough space in the pan to crisp up and not steam each other into softness. I think that my large skillet would probably hold enough for three people, but not more. To serve more people, possibly one batch could stay hot in the oven while the next was frying, but I haven’t tried it yet. I do know that from thought to finished cook’s treat took about seven minutes, and that the cook, thus treated, returned to her kitchen tasks very happily.

Addendum: I did try making it for more people, and the hold-in-the-oven idea doesn’t work, I regret to say. The greens rapidly go soft, and taste fine in a toasty way but the delicate crunch is lost. So this is a treat for one or two people. But then, it’s very romantic to have a special treat that simply can’t be shared with a larger group.

Integrating Your Weeds I: lambs-quarters

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I’ve written a lot at various times about the Holy Trinity of edible weeds: lambs-quarters, amaranth, and purslane. In this post I don’t plan to say anything much about harvesting and cooking lambs-quarters, Chenopodium album,  since I’ve said that already and the short version is “harvest them young, collect as little stem as possible, and use them like any other mild-flavored leafy green.” Personally I dislike the texture and mouthfeel of the raw leaves intensely, and only like them cooked, but others see it differently. This is their great season; after midsummer they are very eager to make seeds and are no longer very usable as a leafy green.

The focus today is on how to have them in your garden without losing everything else. They are highly competitive. First, don’t just let a nice big plant go to seed in your garden, unless you have a lot more space than I do, because they get six feet tall and nearly the same across and tend to flop around, and nothing else in that bed will survive. Instead, look over your self-sown lambs-quarters (which you almost surely have,) choose one right at an edge or corner of a garden bed, cut it down to an inch from the ground, and keep hacking at it until late summer, allowing it to make exactly one branch which lies out horizontally over the ground of the bed. This branch is allowed to go to seed, and everything else is clipped off. It helps if the planned plants in that bed are large and robust. All other lambs-quarters in that bed are pulled out by the roots after harvesting. Your mother plant will dry out in early fall, very unattractively I might add, and when you are sure that it’s dropped its seed, you can dig the husk of the mother plant out. This will take a lot of effort and a good shovel.

Next spring, you will see a fine mist of seedlings on that bed. Keep them watered for tenderness, harvest them at 6-8 inches tall, and be sure to pull out the roots. If you are growing other things in that bed, be sure to give everything else a head start. In the bed shown above, I hoed up the ground when the seedlings showed and planted collards and onions. Don’t worry about hoeing the seedlings. There are millions more to come.  Then I let the second wave of lambs-quarters seedlings grow up among my plantings. Today I’ll harvest the lambs-quarters, and mulch around the remaining veggies and let them take over.

No doubt this decreases the total yield of collards and onions, but if you use a rich mulch like stable bedding they will make up for the slower start, and overall you are getting remarkable yields for the space. The returns are especially remarkable if you consider nutrient density, since lambs-quarters are among the most nutritious greens that you can eat.

You should only have to do this once, or maybe once every several years. You will then have millions of potential lambs-quarters in your soil and can grow a crop of them at any point in late spring or early summer that you have a bit of empty space. Just water the ground and stand back.

The marvelous foraging guide by Dr. John Kallas called “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate” will enable you to identify and cook your bounty.