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Marin IJ Articles

Native edibles from plot to plate

  • Anne-Marie Walker
  • You acknowledge you don’t anticipate being a botanist stranded on Mars. Nor do you wish to homestead in Alaska. So why, one asks, would you want to learn about growing edibles? What about reducing our carbon footprint, enjoying the satisfaction of growing it yourself, preserving diversity with heirloom varieties, growing unusual vegetables and fruits as well as keeping “in the moment” with voluptuous garden offerings nurtured by the honest work of your hands?

    In 2016, the U.S. imported $17.6 billion of fruits and vegetables, 44 percent from Mexico, 12 percent from Canada and more coming i from Chile, the European Union, China and Costa Rica. The major imported fruits and vegetables were tomatoes, peppers, bananas, tropical fruits, potatoes, onions, garlic, cucumbers, melons, citrus, grapes and tree fruits. Here in Marin, we can grow everything on this list except tropical fruits and bananas, which thrive best in latitudes between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. At the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, you can experience conditions favorable for growing tropical fruits in the tropical house. Particularly interesting are cacao trees (look for the seed pods growing on the trunks from which we make chocolate) and the vanilla orchids (look for the pods from which we scrape the fragrant seeds). Don’t miss the wonderful display of many fruits and vegetables native to the Americas.

    The big surprise of the tropical house is that you can grow many of these tropical fruits and vegetables here in your garden in nontropical Marin. These American natives include corn, amaranth, quinoa, tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, beans and peanuts. We call these warm season crops because in order for the seeds to germinate, soil temperatures must range from 60 to 80 degrees. Seeds of cool season crops like lettuce and kale germinate in the 40 to 60 degree range. While many of these edibles are perennials in the tropics, we grow them as annuals in nontropical Marin. Check out the perennial corn at the UC Botanical Garden where it is easy to see that corn is in the “grass” family. Undoubtedly, you will not select this perennial corn variety to grow because it has very small ears. The varieties we grow as annuals have been bred and selected to produce big, sweet, juicy ears.

    You might decide to grow amaranth, also in the grass family. It is a striking, lovely plant to add to your vegetable garden and harvest of the seeds can be quite fun. It can be eaten as an alternate grain or “pop” the seeds and eat like popcorn. Quinoa also thrives in our Marin gardens and is a delicious source of protein — especially when stuffed in eggplant with a tomato sauce.

    If there is only one edible plant you choose to grow, it has to be the tomato because nothing beats the taste of a homegrown tomato! Fruits and vegetables grown for market, are invariably harvested before they attain full flavor and sugar content. That’s why homegrown surpasses market bought. Squashes are another great homegrown crop, both summer and winter squash. Summer squash is harvested young and eaten tender. Winter squash is planted at the same time as summer squash but ripens longer on the vine developing a thicker skin and hard flesh which extends its “shelf” life. You can feed yourself through winter until the soil warms once again to permit seed germination.