By Jeeni Criscenzo
Ever since I read the book Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein, I’ve taken a more laissez-faire attitude toward gardening. While I haven’t let my garden return back to its pre-human-intervention state, I’ve stopped being so controlling about what gets to grow where.
One of the best features of the home we rent is the big flat, unshaded yard overlooking the Tecolote Canyon. While the soil needed a lot of amending, it’s otherwise a perfect place for a vegetable garden. The 5-foot cinder block wall isn’t pretty, but it’s kept the coyotes out (so far)–the other critters – not so much.
I noticed this morning that something (most likely a squirrel) had polished off every leaf on my zucchinis, cucumbers and sweet potatoes. All of that in one night! They must have had a helluva full-moon bash! Just the day before, those plants were thriving in big plastic gopher-proof containers. But apparently they were just a tub-o-fun for squirrels.
These incursions of wildlife used to get me steamed. How dare those critters eat the plants I worked so hard to grow!
Rodents have been known to drive San Diego gardeners to drink. Or in the case of my peace-loving father, they turned him into a pellet-gun shooting lunatic! My raised beds are all lined with hardware cloth – the expensive stuff, because gophers just laugh at chicken wire.
On the side of my house where I have a wonderful labyrinth where succulents line the winding paths of reused burlap, everything is in pots to keep out gophers. Everything, that is, except the butterfly garden. I thought milkweed didn’t appeal to gophers because it seemed to be thriving planted directly in the ground. But I noticed it hasn’t been rebounding from the latest caterpillar “trimming”. One plant in particular was looking brown – actually it looked dead. On closer examination, I saw that the stems were just sort of hovering over a hole – a gopher hole! So apparently gophers like milkweed roots. I hope it gave them agita.
These incursions of wildlife used to get me steamed. How dare those critters eat the plants I worked so hard to grow! But now, I just don’t work that hard at it. Whatever I can get before the bugs or powdery mildew or raccoons get it, that’s good. I chalk the rest up to the fact that critters gotta eat too. We all have an important part to play in the cycle of life. I’m thankful we haven’t reached the point where we are depending on my harvest to survive. Besides, I’ve been getting plenty of stuff from my yard that doesn’t take any effort at all on my part. I call it “lazy fare”.
The trick to lazy fare is to just let it be. When I see something popping up in my garden that I don’t recognize, I give it a chance to reveal itself. A couple of years ago something showed up in the lettuce that didn’t look like any lettuce I ever met. But it sure grew fast, with no attention on my part. Best thing is that nothing except the chickens seemed to be interested in eating it.
Anything that grows itself is worth the time to find out what it is. Turns out it was amaranth – an ancient plant that the Aztecs used to cherish and the Spaniard tried to destroy. The young leaves can be braised like spinach and the tiny seeds are actually a grain that I add to bread and scones, or smoothies or just about anything where you want to add a protein punch.
That first amaranth plant must have come from a bird dropping, or maybe it was carried on the coastal breeze we get here on the canyon. Now they pop up all over the place. When I winnow the seed heads, separating the grain from the chaff, lots of the tiny seeds get blown around the yard. The chickens like to peck for them, but some manage to sprout and grow. And grow and grow and grow. So I let them. And then I enjoy them.
Same with purslane. Gophers don’t seem interested in this weed and it’s a nutritional powerhouse. I put the nutty leaves in sandwiches instead of lettuce, toss them in stir-fry and add them to smoothies. I love getting delicious, healthy food for free.
Another gift from our canyon is cactus. My husband introduced me to prickly pear cactus. The Latin name is Optuntia biglovii – how can you resist something that sounds like Opportunity Big Love! Juan described how his mom used to prepare the young plant paddles, called nopales, by flicking off the spines with a small sharp knife. I have to admit that it’s an art that took me a few pricks to acquire. But it was worth it, because nopales roasted with tomatoes, onions and cilantro is delicious, especially added to eggs.
But the best part of Paddle Cactus is the fruit—prickly pears—which also come weaponized with prickles. Picking prickly pears doesn’t actually qualify as “lazy fare” because although you don’t have to grow it, harvesting is precarious. In another few weeks I’ll start peering over the wall to the canyon to check on the status of the fruit laden cactus plants. One plant right on the other side of the wall is looking good! The trick is to get the fruit just when they turn red, before some canyon creature with a prickly-proof digestive system gets them first. Also, since many of my neighbors are of Mexican heritage, and the canyon is public land… well it’s first come, first served.
As soon as the pears start ripening, I head out to the canyon dressed for battle, wearing hiking boots to protect from rattlesnakes and heavy gloves to protect my dainty fingers from the prickles, weilding my barbeque tongs like Zorro, snapping off the fruit and dropping it into a big old pot. Back at the homestead (doesn’t that sound so Little House on the Canyon?) I use a long-handle lighter to burn off the hair-like spines. There’s a trick to getting at the watermelon-ish fruit. You cut off the ends, cut a slit lengthwise and peel back the thick skin. Mmmm, it’s really worth the effort!
Another free fare that packs a prick is Stinging Nettle. But the benefits and uses for this weed make it worth the bite. I let a patch of it grow in my front garden, much to my neighbor’s amusement. The leaf loses it sting when cooked so you just need to wear gloves while picking it. I usually hang it to dry for tea, which has wonderful healing properties, including relieving arthritis.
For some gardeners, those uninvited garden guests, like dandelions, chicory and chickweed, are meant to be plucked and tossed in the compost pile. But I let them have their day in the sun, as long as they don’t overstay their welcome. If I don’t care for them, the chickens usually do. If the chickens don’t want them, maybe the bees or butterflies or hummingbirds find them delicious.
Speaking of chickens, I should include them in my lazy fare list, even though they are neither weed nor pest. They more than earn their keep and are hardly any trouble at all and we sure do enjoy those fresh organic eggs every day.
There’s only one weed I don’t welcome. Even though I’ve heard that it’s edible, I won’t give any quarter to Lamb’s Quarter (also known as Goosefoot). That’s one ugly weed! And each plant can release up to 75,000 seeds! Those babies get pulled the second I see them!
With my basket brimming with harvest that didn’t require any more effort than to pick it off the produce aisle in my own backyard, I have plenty of time and energy left over to go make myself a delicious smoothie, take a stroll in the labyrinth and watch my garden thrive.
(All photos by Jeeni Criscenzo)