IMG_20150409_133855262What do Kale, Tomatillos, and Nokatta-Ya (a Japanese green) have in common? They were all happy experiments in our garden.

Our first meetings here at ASPI are filled with the dreams of fresh tomatoes, shelves lined with cans of sauces and pickles, and corn that tastes like Grandpa’s. We love the tastes and memories of childhood.

But let’s not forget the experiments. Sometimes we want to grow everything at once, but sometimes we just want the old favorites. In our garden-planning and seed-starting classes, ASPI encourages all gardeners to try a few, limited-edition experiments. There is no need grow rows of something you have no idea if your family will like, but a few experimental plants will either leave you wanting more or more informed of your family’s palette.

We try an experiment every year. Seven years ago I had green salsa in a Mexican restaurant and noticed such a difference from red salsa – what was it? Tomatillos! So I bought a package of seeds – around a dollar. We raised and planted two dozen tomatillo plants. Have you ever seen how much a tomatillo plant produces? Somewhere along the line, I must have thought about it – incorrectly. We had jars of salsa in the freezer. We ate them fresh from the vine, in salads, on fish, on the grill, in tomato sauce, and finally I resorted to drying them. Quarts of them. My daughter ate them like candy. My mother-in-law who does not like vegetables as a general rule, took to them. I saved seeds for the next year. Turns out – didn’t need to do so. Tomatillo plants shot up around our garden. We haven’t saved or bought seeds since. Last year, we gave out 50 plants to other Grow Appalachia participants. This was the happiest of accidents.

“Kale is the new super-food” I read over and over again. I have to admit, I was past 30 before I’d had a bite. I got some from the grocery, but figured that it’s so-so taste was something like grocery-store tomatoes, so I bought the smallest package of seed. It was good in the spring, so I seeded the other half of the package in the fall. It didn’t get as good of a start, so I covered it until the next spring. The first warm day, I pulled back the covers and beautiful crinkly kale shoots stretched toward the sun ready to grow into gorgeous, edible bouquets – for about 6 hours. When I came home that evening, every single shoot was nibbled to the ground. In the house I sighed, “Something ate the kale down to the ground. It looked so good after the winter.” My husband looked up, “Was it supposed to grow longer? Kai said you planted it last fall to eat this spring. He got down on all fours and ate it like a bunny.”  Kai was three.

No matter how much I plant, we never have enough. I brought some in last week, and my family eyed it. “Where did you get that?” I have a secret planting place on the side of the house – I have to, or they’ll eat it all before it can make it into the house! Don’t tell.

Eating at a restaurant with my in-laws, I thought my now 6 and 8 year old could handle a simple salad bar by themselves. I gave them instructions in both salad-bar manners and hygiene and sent them on their grown-up mission. They came back and were about to scoot into the booth, when I looked at their plates and laughed. “Where did you get the kale?” Both plates had heaping helpings of the dark green leaves.
The following conversation ensued:
“It was in between the bowls of vegetables.”
“So, do you think it was supposed to be for eating?”
“Why else would they put kale on a salad bar?”
“Some people thinks that it looks pretty – like a decoration.”
“It looks a lot better than that lettuce they have up there.”
“I don’t think most folks look at it and think to eat it.”
“Why not?”
“Good question. I don’t know if it’s been washed and all. . .”

At our GA conference this winter, I was talking to my neighbor about my happy accident of kale – and how we cannot grow enough at our house. They said they grew a lot in their community garden, and no one really wanted it. Then they asked, “What can you do with it?”

We talked about salads and sautes, chips and soups. They agreed that if they had given their participants more ways to use it, participants would be more likely to try it. I agreed. Last year’s experiment – kohlrabi – was so-so. Of course, I only tried to fix it one way – we only planted 3 plants given to us. Votes in its favor were mostly for color. We’ll try again – I’ve been collecting recipes. Maybe it will earn permanent space in our garden or give way to more experiments.

We can’t grow everything the first time out, but it’s good to experiment in moderation. After kale success, I looked for something similar and found Nokatta-Ya. Didn’t do well in the spring, so I let some go to seed and threw out a few more seeds in the fall. Oh my, it is beautiful and tasty – cooked and raw. Most importantly, it takes some of the kid-grazing pressure off the kale.