I’m willing to argue that gardening is one of the first geeky hobbies. I mean, before the advent of television and video games, botanists and hobbyists alike have been categorizing seeds and experimenting with the plant world for time out of mind. There’s just something really captivating about the combination of science and aesthetics—not to mention culinary possibilities.
I started gardening along with my mom, who’s one of the most talented gardeners I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t garden by the book, but by what she likes—every one of the flowers in her garden has a story and a reason to be just where it’s placed. Suffice it to say, people often stop by her house just to view the landscape (in the summertime it really looks like a professionally landscaped park!).
But, for me personally, nothing quite gets me as excited as useful plants. Oh, I love flowers (peonies being among my favorite), but but right about the time I graduated high school I started learning about herbs and vegetables, and it literally transformed the way I viewed gardening.
While I’m by no means an expert on the subject, I thought I’d share a few unique and (in my opinion) geeky useful plants for your garden. Think of them as little green multitaskers!
Eggplant – Eggplant is awesome–it’s also technically a berry. A huge, huge berry. A member of the nightshade family, but mild and harmless in comparison to its poisonous relatives, the eggplant was a staple of my diet when I was a vegetarian. I quickly learned that roasting before cooking adds to flavor and, thanks to my sister, a quick soak in saltwater before frying for eggplant parmesean cuts bitterness. I’ve found eggplant easy to grow—having been one of the only veggies that lasted through our drought two years ago—and outright fun. It always looks a bit like something aliens might eat. Come on, how can you say no to that?
Dandelion – What, you say? That’s a weed! Oh, but it is so much more. This is the kind of plant addition you don’t even have to, well, plant. Dandelion, or taraxacum, is a plentiful flower that has a myriad of uses, including eating as parts of a salad, fermenting into wine, or sauteing or frying (it’s usually best to do this in the spring, as later in the season the buds go a little tough). Plus, its roots can be also be roasted into coffee. If none of those sounds appetizing, consider that dandelions are chock full of vitamins and minerals and may be able, thanks to an abundance of Vitamin K, to aid in weight loss. My three year old also can’t stop eating them… what can I say, he’s got an elevated palate.
Okra – I really had no idea what okra was until I moved to the South, but have since fallen in love with it. In the same family as hibiscus, okra is the seedpod of a lovely flowering plant that can be eaten a thousand different ways. It’s central to a good gumbo and is absolutely divine when deep fried (um, what isn’t?). But okra’s not native to the New World—in fact, it’s believed that slaves brought it from Africa. Okra, while still not widely known outside the southern United States, features in cuisine from around the world. My favorite application: pickled. Oh, the joy of a crisp, spicy, okra pickle is unparalleled! Also? It’s lusciously slimy inside and has a wonderfully unique texture. There really is nothing like it. Oh, and also, just like dandelion roots, Okra seeds may be roasted and ground to create a caffeine-free form of coffee.
Heirloom tomatoes - No, I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill red tomatoes. I mean luscious rainbow delights—striped, spotted, small as cherries and big as canteloupes! The joy of heirloom tomatoes is not just in their looks, however, but in their flavor as well. Last year we made the switch to heirlooms and we are never going back. Sure, they aren’t as picture perfect—at least not in that classic round red tomato sense—but they more than make up for it. Heirloom (or heritage in the UK) just means they are not hybrid. They also have fun names like Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Big Rainbow, and Mortgage Lifter! (Almost all the names have stories behind them, too, if you are so intrigued)
Herbs – Herbs, in general, may be the best place to start for the fledgling gardener. You can grow them easily even if you don’t have a garden. My favorites include basil, oregano, and lavender. Basil and rosemary are also excellent but often struggle in chillier climates (I could never get rosemary to grow happily when I lived in New England, but here in North Carolina it grows into bushes). Sometimes all that’s standing between a mediocre meal and a fabulous one is a few sprinkles of fresh herbs—and you can’t get fresher than your own little garden (or container).
Any geeky gardeners out there? Share your harvest ideas with us.