The Gardener’s Dilemma… Yes, Again. Week Ending 11/03/2019

Fall has finally arrived in Maryland, all at once. Throughout October, very few nights had even frost; now we’ve experienced several nights of freezing temperatures in a row. The gardening season is “officially” over. Well, for most folks. I still have a few beds with cold hardy veggies, and garlic and perennial onions left to plant.

I’m supposed to be planting Austrian winter peas in my empty beds to grow as a green mulch over the winter and turned under in the spring. But my empty beds? Aren’t. They are full of weeds that are edible and medicinal and I can’t bring myself to pull them. Yes, this is the same problem I had in the spring when trying to prep my garden for planting. Now it is fall, and all the usual suspects have returned, replacing the summertime weeds I tolerated (mostly purslane (Portulaca oleracea)).

I have a healthy crop of dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) from which I will (eventually) harvest for the roots for dandelion “coffee”. Since they are in the garden I hope the roots will be a decent size, growing in the loose soil filling my raised beds. Any chunk of root left behind may lead to the plant regrowing, so we’ll see if I have more dandelions in the same spot next year.

Dandelions to harvest for roots
Dandelions to harvest for roots

Once harvested and cleaned, the dandelion roots will be allowed to dry, and then roasted in the oven at 325 F until dark enough. I don’t really know how long that is – I usually judge based on the smell. A lot of wild edible roots are better flavored after a few freezes, as the cold makes starches convert to sugars, so after a few more cold nights I will finally harvest these “weeds.”

Wild lettuce (Lactuca spp) has also taken up residence in several garden beds. After multiple experiments, I have decided my local wild lettuce falls into the “edible but regrettable” category. I must only have Lactuca biennis growing in my yard; Lactuca canadensis is allegedly quite tasty.

Wild lettuce for medicinal uses (I hope)
Wild lettuce for medicinal uses (I hope)

But wild lettuce apparently has medicinal benefits, for pain relief and mood improvement. After doing some research (including reading this detailed description of harvesting the sap) I decided to try a tincture with the leaves that grow so abundantly where they aren’t wanted. The best time to harvest them for this use is actually in late summer, when they have tall flowering stalks that produce a significant amount of sap (the most potent part of the plant). However,  I’m not going to let the ones in my garden grow to several feet tall before harvesting – that would render the garden beds useless. Hopefully there will be enough sap in these leaves (or a large enough quantity of leaves) to make an effective tincture.

Cooler weather also brings the return of chickweed (Stellaria media), my favorite wintertime salad green.

Sweet, crunchy chickweed
Sweet, crunchy chickweed

This “weed” I particularly value and allow to run rampant in my garden beds (much to the dismay of the actual plants I mean to grow).  I don’t know why I even plant salad greens in the fall, when I have so much chickweed to enjoy!

Wood sorrel  (Oxalis acetosella) also grows in quantity, which is a plus, because otherwise the leaves are small and tedious to harvest. Wood sorrel got away from me this summer and completely carpeted the bed in which my blackberry canes grew.

Wood sorrel
Wood sorrel

You could add wood sorrel to salads for a bright lemony flavor or use it as a garnish, but personally, I like to harvest wood sorrel to use in herb butter for basting chicken while roasting. 

Last, but certainly not least, is my dead nettle dilemma (Lamium purpureum). It is growing EVERYWHERE right now – in my garden beds as well as in the pathways between.

Not-yet-purple dead nettle
Not-yet-purple dead nettle

Dead nettle does such a good job rounding out a dish of cooked greens if there isn’t quite enough veggies – or if some of those veggies are very strongly flavored and bitter (like dandelion). But right now they are mostly small-leaved and annoying to work with, and I still have plenty of cooking greens (mostly of the Swiss chard and turnip greens). Do I let the dead nettle stay and grow until it is worthy of eating? Except by then, they will be even more firmly entrenched!

And this is how weeding my garden gets postponed for yet another week… or two…

What wonderful wild edibles are growing (in a garden or otherwise!) where you live?

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