The 2018 Annual Conference of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) was in Atlanta this past week. Bus tours of local community gardens were part of the conference. The bus tour option I chose (there were several – all looked good!) was for community gardens in Clarkston, which is a little Southeast of Atlanta.
Our bus tour guide, Bobby, said he’d heard Clarkston called both “the most diverse square mile in the U.S.”, and “Ellis Island South.” One organizer for a garden we visited told us that students from 65 nations attend the local high school.
Our bus stopped at the North Dekalb Mall Community Garden, the Community Garden at Clarkston Community Center, the Clarkston International Garden at 40 Oaks Preserve, the Friends of Refugees Garden at Jolly Avenue, and the Community Garden at Columbia Theological Seminary.
Gardeners at these gardens mostly do not speak English. Many are from countries in Southeast Asia and in Africa.
Uncommon garden crops
One member of our tour group lives in New York now, but he grew up in Ghana. Luckily, he recognized the cocoyam that we saw in the gardens. Otherwise, I would probably still be trying to identify it! According to the cocoyam description at Plant Village, there are two kinds of cocoyam. The leaves of one type are edible at maturity, in addition to having an edible root. Leaves of the other kind are edible only when young.
Thai basil and lemongrass are not totally unfamiliar (unlike cocoyam), but I don’t normally see them in community gardens. BBC offers many recipes that use Thai basil. In general, the leaves are used in pho (soup) and curries.
We actually saw more than one kind of amaranth. Some, I think, were grown for the leaves (cook them like spinach), and others for the seeds. I have grown a grain amaranth before, but my experience was that separating the seeds from the rest of the plant bits was not easy. Will Bonsall (Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening) wrote about his amaranth experience, saying:
“Looking at my first amaranth crop I was somewhat disappointed to see that, although the yield of biomass was impressive, the grain yield seemed much less than, say, wheat, although they are said to yield comparably. When I hefted the bucket of grain, however, I was far more impressed. It was like lead, and I had to conclude that such a dense grain must really be as nutrient packed as they say.”
He had winnowed his crop on a breezy day, and he grinds the grain (passing the tiny seeds through a hand mill four times) to use in pancakes and waffles.
I have actually read about tree collards before, but it seemed likely that they would be attacked by caterpillars just like other cabbage-family plants, so I never looked into growing them myself. Maybe I should change that! The tree collards growing at the Clarkston Community Center garden looked great.
This is another crop that I had read about and then dismissed as one I would not be interested in. The bright red calyxes (flower parts) are used in teas like ‘Red Zinger‘, and I have never liked those teas. They seem slimy to me. However, while at Community Garden at North Dekalb Mall, I was offered a leaf to taste.
The flavor was tart, like sorrel (sheep sorrel in the yard, or French sorrel planted on purpose). Looking it up when I got home, I found that another name for roselle is sour leaf. Apparently, the plants are grown just as much for the leaves as for the calyxes.
“Roselle became and remained a common home garden crop throughout southern and central Florida until after World War II when this area began to develop rapidly and home gardening and preserving declined. Mrs. Edith Trebell of Estero, Florida, was one of the last remaining suppliers of roselle jelly. In February, 1961, I purchased the last 2 jars made from the small crop salvaged following the 1960 hurricane and before frost killed all her plants.”
The book chapter also describes using the red calyxes to make a dish that tastes like cranberry sauce. Since cranberries do not grow well in north Georgia, this could be another reason to grow some roselle.
Plenty of people grow hyacinth bean as an ornamental plant. It is beautiful! however, most of us have not eaten the amazing purple beans. Green Dean at Eat the Weeds offers this caution about hyacinth beans:
“Mature and dry beans have got a high amount of cyanogenic glycosides in them. Not good for you.”
But, he offers this hope:
“Mature or dry beans must not be eaten raw. They have to be cooked. That means boiling soft raw mature beans or roasting as heat drives away the toxin. If they have dried — read they are hard — that means soaking overnight then boiling them a long time in a lot of water. Or, boil unsoaked dry beans in a lot of water twice. “
More hope: he says that young beans, leaves, and flowers can be eaten without all that extra work. Read his linked article find out how to prepare these other plant parts.
This vegetable seemed to be very popular at the gardens we visited. The vines covered many of the fences used to separate the garden plots. We were told that the fruits truly are bitter, but that the bitterness could be reduced.
Tennessee State University has published information about bitter melon, including its food value, which may explain why anyone would eat such a difficult fruit:
“Bitter melon has twice the beta carotene of broccoli, twice the potassium of bananas, and twice the calcium of spinach. It also contains high amounts of fiber, phosphorous, and Vitamins C, B1, B2, and B3.”
In addition, the fruits are used in herbal medicines in Asia, Africa, and India, for a wide range of complaints, from gout, to cancer, to graying hair (see TSU’s linked publication for fuller list).
Any uncommon crops in your garden?
My most “uncommon crop” is chicory (many kinds). I do snack on garden weeds while in the yard, which might count for something, but I am not an adventurous eater. When I was a child, the foods I was most likely to eat were peanut butter sandwiches, Cheerios, and canned green beans. These many years later, my list of acceptable foods is still not super-long.
The good news about chicory is that, like so many of the uncommon crops I saw last Saturday at the refugee gardens, chicory is unbothered by pests, and it is drought tolerant. Also, if I put chicory on pizza or in bean soup, I can eat it.
Next year, though, I might try roselle.
Hope your gardens are growing well!