Archives for posts with tag: garden

Guess what food craze doesn’t even crack the top 10 super foods?

Kale. That’s right – the chewy green stuff that chefs and foodies have been swooning over for far too many years.

You may have guessed: I am not a fan. I have had kale many different ways and only found two to be even remotely palatable. My sister’s kale stir fried with garlic and a Whole Foods salad in the Santa Monica branch that had about a dozen ingredients so the chopped kale didn’t overwhelm the dish.

So with glee I noted the CDC’s list of “Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables,” ranked by density of nutrients packed into each bite. Here’s to a healthy New Year!

#10. Collard Greens. One of our garden neighbors plants collard greens in the fall, along with another healthy but often badly-cooked leaf, the mustard green (#12).

#9. Romaine Lettuce. Big winner at our house, almost always the leafy green of choice.

#8. Parsley. Though I typically use parsley as a herb, ie sparingly, I do pack my gazpacho with lots of chopped parsley. Need to find a few more recipes that use it as a main ingredient. Ideas anyone?

#7. Leaf Lettuce. This is our garden mainstay in the spring.

#6. Chicory. Hmm, need to use this more often!

#5. Spinach. Love it, in almost any savory concoction. Still have a couple frozen packets of our garden spinach. Note to self: Find the Malabar varietal again. It was a tremendous producer in 2014.

#4. Beet Greens. CRR scores on this one. His favorite preparation involves steaming the beet greens and flavoring them with a little vinegar. I prefer the beet itself.

#3. Chard. Maybe we will try growing it this year, to elevate our super-food-iness quotient.



#2. Chinese Cabbage. Who knew?

#1. Watercress. It’s on today’s grocery list. Love the peppery taste, so why don’t I buy it more often? It scores a perfect 100 percent nutrient density by the CDC. Call it Mother Nature’s multi-vitamin.

And the evil kale? #13.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening


“And don’t think the garden

Loses its ecstasy in winter.

It’s quiet but the roots

Are down there riotous.”

My sister Sonja posted this on Facebook, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Look at the vibrancy beneath the surface, which is the kind of thing that she would actually notice and say.

CRR likes to walk over to our dormant garden plot and simply look at it. I’ve never been a big fan, other than for the exercise. To me, the garden in winter is just dirt, punctuated by a couple herbs struggling valiantly against the cold, and maybe a few weeds that CRR stomps out.10647151_819459994779772_2839438141352384331_n

But my sister’s post reminds me of what lies beneath. All the beautiful organisms that enrich our soil over the winter months and create a bed of promise in the spring.

Just as CRR sees it now, this is likely how my father and his father saw the soil. Not dead, not barren – full of potential for growth, for nurturing, for sustenance. For life.

Wish I could see, wish I could watch, what lies beneath. Until next spring, I will observe and wonder.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening


It took three trips to the Gothic quarter of Barcelona before I found La Boqueria. Granted, the first two were evening dinner forays where I simply explored the old city and enjoyed tapas and gelato and cava with a wandering eye that did not land on the market.

I knew I had to make a dedicated trip to find the ancient market because my friends were insistent that it was a must-see on my trip to Barcelona. So glad I made that third foray!photo (44)

La Boqueria is simply astounding, a covered market with hundreds of vendors. It dates to the year 1217 when farmers sold their produce on the outskirts of the old gated city. The current structure was built in1840.

Today’s vendors artfully arrange their goods, a feast for the eyes to tempt the belly. Each vendor has its specialty. Spices sold by the kilogram. Eggs sized from tiny quail eggs to softball-sized emu. Iberian ham stalls where the butchers patiently explained the origins of the much-coveted pork while carving paper-thin slices. Pate stands. Beautifully packaged salt flavored with provencal herbs or chilis or lemon. And of course more veg and fruit stands than you could count.

These vendors know their tourist audience. They package many items for people on-the-go: papayas halved and wrapped with plastic with a tiny spoon, paper cones filled with jamon ham slices or cheese wedges, plastic cups of colorful fresh-squeezed juices chilled on ice, skewers of all combinations, and empanadas to eat out of hand.

At 10 am, people were bellied up to a handful of tapas bars within the market, sitting at counters to watch the creation of their small plates.

And what I really loved was the little old Spanish ladies doing their daily marketing, nimbly navigating the narrow passages and towing a small cart to stow their purchases. La Boqueria is a ‘supermarket’ for the ages.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I’m not much given to hyperbole (a lifetime of journalistic training) but I am head over heels crazy about this year’s garden discovery: Malabar spinach.

My friend Kyle told me about Malabar two years ago when we were exchanging garden gossip. I haven’t had much luck with regular spinach in our organic garden – the bugs chew it up whether we plant it in early spring or fall. I hadn’t been able to find Kyle’s elusive Malabar spinach until this summer, when I stumbled upon a package of seeds at our local nursery.

Malabar spinach vines

Malabar spinach vines

I planted six seeds in a large container in our garden and topped it with a 4-foot pillar for its vines to wend around. Fast forward to today: We have spinach vines growing every which way out of that container.

What is this stuff? Malabar spinach is of Indian or Ceylon extraction, so it loves the hot weather here in Virginia. As the Cornell University website says, “It creeps when temperatures are cool, but leaps when the mercury hits 90 F.” Indeed.

This spinach has a slightly different consistency than cool-weather spinach. The smaller leaves are fine for a salad, but the bigger ones are best used in dishes that require chopped spinach. So bring on your creamed spinach or Indian spinach recipes – we are deliciously flush with Malabar !


Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

As we begin the 90-90 season in Washington (90 degrees, 90 percent humidity), it’s an appropriate time to introduce a refreshing drink from the Middle East.

When I visited Sam in UAE, we toured an ancient neighborhood of Dubai. After several hours we were hot and sweaty and parched. He suggested a local drink, mint lemonade, as a sure pick-me-up. I wasn’t so sure, but readily agreed. Getting out of the sun was my priority.

We sat silently in the late afternoon shade while the waitress slowly made her rounds and eventually produced our drinks. The mint lemonades in tall icy-cold glasses were curiously green. Herbaceously green.

Mint Lemonade

Mint Lemonade

I took a sip. Mmm. It was so refreshing. The mint, the lemon, the ice all combined to create a drink that washed away the heat. After a few sips, we were alive again, talking, enthusiastic about our evening plans.

Since we have an abundance of mint (ie, the worst winter in half a century didn’t make a dent in it), I decided to figure out why this drink was so restorative.

A quick Google search brought these qualities to the fore:

Mint: astringent, antiseptic, antibacterial, antimicrobial, decongestant, expectorant, antiviral.

Lemon: antibacterial, antiviral, immune-boosting, digestive aid, liver cleanser.

I decided to give a home version of mint lemonade a try. I chose a warm Sunday when Chris and Jeff were visiting, after a walking tour of the super-cool Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria.

A purist would make the lemonade from scratch. I took a shortcut and bought a no-bad-stuff lemonade, Newman’s Own Virgin Lemonade, which is made of filtered water, organic sugar and lemon juice/pulp. I harvested a bunch of mint, plucked the leaves and chucked the rest. Here’s the basic recipe:

Mint Lemonade

Pack a blender container with a handful or two of mint leaves. Add enough lemonade to cover. Whirl for a minute or two until the mint is pulverized. (This is no muddled julep!). Spoon a teaspoon or two of the mint pulp into the bottom of a tall glass, add ice, fill with lemonade. Top with a twist of lemon. Serve with a straw, which you use to stir and sip.

Ratio is the tricky part. CRR likes less mint puree; I like more. It’s a personal thing. You’ll have to find your bliss.

The four of us sat on the patio, slowly sipped and felt the antibodies (see above) take effect. Jeffrey declared himself relaxed. You had to be there to believe it.

If you troll Mideast foodie websites, some make the lemonade from scratch, others add a teaspoon of orange blossom water (which has a heavenly smell) or perhaps top it off with sparkling soda. Others whirl it into a frozen drink, and the racy ones suggest a splash of rum or vodka.

After experimenting for several weeks, I think I’ll freeze some mint puree in ice cube trays. Then I’ll plop a mint cube into a glass of lemonade at the end of the languid summer nights to come. And dream of Arabian nights.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.


It is a sad fact of urban gardening that thieves will sometimes pilfer your produce. Usually the crime is committed just as the fruit or vegetables are turning fully ripe, after you have nurtured the produce along for weeks or months.

We had a crime wave a few weeks ago, and the garden listserve lit up with reports. Blackberry nets sliced open and the berries taken. Ripe tomatoes snatched from the vine. Someone ventured that it might be deer. But deer wouldn’t cut open netting. Others said they saw young men (boys?) hanging around the edge of the garden, though that’s a not uncommon site since our community garden plots are located at the edge of a high school campus. But it was summer recess. Someone else reported seeing a family methodically picking through the plots.

We lost a few beets. Irksome mostly because some of the smaller ones were cast side and left to dry in the sun. A couple tomatoes and peppers. (Notice the thieves never take the zucchini)

I was at a lunch today in DC and community gardeners there reported the same problem. The thieves started with spring flowers, like the peony thieves reported by The Washington Post. (The Post’s selection of local stories to cover can be truly odd) My friend Lynn had a full crop of edamame snipped from the bushes.

The thievery is annoying and exasperating. But we all hold one small hope: that perhaps the garden thieves are truly hungry. In this land of plenty, 21 percent of Virginia kids struggle with hunger. If that’s the case, we’re happy to share.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

I just got off the phone with my mom, who asked about this week’s blog post. I told her I was just too dispirited to write about the garden, which is shaping up as the worst we’ve ever had.

We’re normally tired of tomatoes by now, and this year we’ve barely eked out enough for us and a handful of select friends (you know who you are). I’ve put away exactly three pints of tomato sauce for the winter. It appears we’ll be buying 99-cent canned tomatoes like the rest of America.

Those fancy grafted tomatoes we bought from Oregon? No better than anything we bought locally, and in fact, one has already gone belly up. It might be a sign – why buy tomato plants from Oregon, where the climate is far different from ours, rather than tomato plants hardened locally. Never again.

I bought some broccoli seedlings while CRR frowned – and sure enough, they’ve turned brown and dried up.

Even the horseradish is suffering.

It hasn’t been a complete bust. We had a decent beet crop. The peppers have dutifully produced (though not a single jalapeno yet!). The “mystery” volunteer plant turned out to be pumpkin, which has produced two promising fruits. We’ve got a second beet crop coming along, about two inches tall.

Come to think of it, there are still some promising signs. And maybe next weekend, we’ll sow some lettuce and spinach for a fall harvest.

A gardener, like a farmer, is ever the optimist. The next best crop is just around the corner.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

We planted parsnips for the first time this year, on the theory that we had known success with every other root vegetable. The parsnips are a happy sight, their greens growing tall (greens are toxic, sadly) and flourishing beneath the soil as well.

They’re not an uber vegetable, like kale – one blogger called parsnips “an ingenue waiting to be discovered in this country” — but they’re a good source of potassium, vitamin C and fiber. Our crop is the varietal Harris Model, from Jung.

I love parsnips as a component of a roasted vegetable medley: beets, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, and parsnips. Roasted slowly, the natural sugars come out and create a multi-colored dish that I can make an entire meal of.

But that’s a little johnny-one-note, and we’ve already had several rounds of roasted veg this summer. So I started looking around for other parsnip recipes. My mom used to cut them in half and sauté them in butter until they were crisp around the edges, sprinkled with a little salt and pepper. A yummy memory from my childhood. If you have a favorite parsnip recipe, send it along!

I found several parsnip soup recipes that looked appealing. Parsnips were the dominant item, but some called for a potato, a sweet potato, carrots or leeks. I decided to go the potato route to preserve the bright white color.



Parsnip Soup

Several large parsnips, peeled, cut into 1” chunks

One potato, peeled, cut into 1” chunks

Chicken/veg stock


1 onion, roughly chopped

1-3 cloves garlic

Saute the onion in a little knob of butter, 1-2 Tablespoons, in your soup pot. When it’s softened, add the garlic and sauté for another minute or two. Then add the parsnips and potatoes, and a mixture of chicken stock and water, just enough to cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer til tender, 25-30 minutes. Puree the mixture in batches in a food processor, or use your immersion blender in the pot. Puree until very smooth (this will diminish any fibrous bits of parsnip). Add ½ c half-and-half or milk for creaminess. If it’s still too thick, add a little more stock.  Season with salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne. Reheat to desired temp. Serve in bowls, topped with a sprinkle of minced chives. Or a scattering of bacon bits, for a slightly heartier dish. Serves 2 as a meal, 4 as an appetizer.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Beguiled by its beauty, we planted two Indigo Rose tomatoes this year and they clearly are going to be the most prolific tomato plants in the 2013 garden.

Oh dear.

A gardening neighbor wandered by last weekend and asked about the little dark-purple fruits. I told him the jury was out, and offered him one to taste.

His polite response: “Hmmm. Novel.”

That’s kind of how I feel too. Because of the unusual dark coloring, I went online to figure out when to harvest them and also to get a sense of what other people say:

“The taste is how I think grass clippings probably taste.”

“No acid, no sugar, not much flavor at all. Very prolific producer–maybe 150 2-ounce fruits, but unless the skins appeal, little to recommend it.”

“They have a plum type flavor.”

That last comment was the most positive in the online chat, and I’m trying to be brave since we (obviously) are going to have scores if not hundreds of the little charmers.

Indigo Rose

Indigo Rose

Indigo Rose was developed in the 1960s when two scientists cross-cultivated tomatoes with wild species from Chile and the Galapagos Islands, seeking the magic antioxidants that promote good health. So: My new attitude is that I’m going to promote the “super food” aspect and exotic coloring of these tomatoes.

This definitely is a cautionary tale. If you’re going to experiment with an unknown tomato, buy ONE and let it prove itself.

P.S. I whirled some Indigo Rose tomatoes into the first gazpacho of the season, and they were delicious in concert with cukes, parsley, garlic, scallions, V-8 juice and seasonings.


Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Oh my aching back. That’s a sure sign that Garden 2013 is underway.

The Black Seeded Simpson and Mesclun lettuce went in first, along with Teton spinach. The first lettuce should be on our dinner plates in 30 days. The spinach will follow in two more weeks. My calendar is marked.

After that, we settle in for the Long Wait.

We planted two kinds of carrots. Yaya and Sweetness III are variations on Nantes carrots, the hybrid that we like for its sweetness and long cylinder shape (none of that tapering tip!)

We planted a whole row of Detroit Supreme red beets, a traditional deep red varietal with a high yield. Then we threw the dice with a blend that promises Golden beets as well as Chioggia, the beautiful magenta and white striped beets. Close your eyes and visualize the gorgeous salad these three beets will produce.

beet salad

beet salad

For the first time, we planted parsnips, the Harris Model, which Jung vows will be “heavy-shouldered” and creamy white.

We aren’t giving up on cucumbers, bewildered at our inability to produce crunchy cukes when our gardening neighbor enjoys a bonanza. This year we went with Muncher. “Strong vigorous vines are prolific yielders.” We shall see. I planted nine hills next to steel posts and netting, in hopes they will climb away from whatever ailed their predecessors.

We’ve put in about 20 percent of the peppers and tomatoes. More about those next week.

Meanwhile, I hope my back heals enough in the coming days to allow the flower gardening to commence next weekend! Our perennials are looking great, but there are annuals to plant and mulch to spread. A gardener’s work never ends…

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.