I recently invited a retired entomolgy professor, Bob Gara, from whom I had recently taken several courses at the Anacortes Senior College, to tour my garden. He had previously identified from a photo the flying beetles on a Russian thistle plant next to my Skagit Valley plot of shallots and garlic. The beetles, whose rectangular black wings resemble military epaulets, weren’t infesting my alliums; they were much too interested in each other and whatever other small insects they were feeding on. I had also called on him earlier this summer when my artichokes were infested with black aphids, as opposed to the usual green aphids I deal with. Yes, black is a normal variant, and I had controlled them somewhat by sprays of a mild solution of dish soap and water. Finally, though, the insect cavalry showed up — the lady bugs, who devoured any remaining black dots, and then celebrated their feast with active bouts of mating to produce more always-welcome lady bugs.
On approaching my garden gate, with its heavily laden grape arbor, he exclaimed, “It’s just like upstate New York!” He had taught at Syracuse, close to where I had grown up and first learned to garden. A characteristic element of New England and northern New York are the grapevines: long vines of wild grapes climbing the trees, ancient backyard arbors of hardy Concords, and, of course, the vineyards of the Finger Lakes. The Vikings, the first European voyagers to touch the northern part of the New World, accurately called it Vineland. I can sit under my Thompson seedless grape trellis and, through the hopefully ripening clusters, see in my hoophouse ripening tomatoes and eggplants, sweet peppers and cucumbers, and even small French canteloupes. With a stand of tassseling corn nearby as well, I have reconstituted in the cool Maritime Northwest a typical vegetable garden of the hot and humid Hudson Valley. Sometimes one’s garden DNA is an open book.
Moving on, we did find a few green aphids (“All females!”) on the Russian Kale and two white cabbage butterflies circling the re-sprouting spring broccoli. There used to be clouds of these dancing butterflies, but now I rarely see more than a couple. He agreed that the insect Armageddon that is happening worldwide is worrisome. It was first discovered in a simple test by citizen scientists in Germany, tracking over the years the rapidly declining number on insects caught on automobile windshields and radiator screens. When was the last time you had to scrape off a thick layer of splattered bugs? Insects as pollinators, predators, food for birds, and a host of other biological functions, are vital to the earth’s biome. It’s not just the honey bees that are declining. He also didn’t find any cinnabar moth larvae, introduced to control the tansy ragwort, or thrips on the miniature field daisies, but noted leaf miners on the chard. Seeing one’s plants through the eyes of a dedicated scientist is to gain new lenses.
Since my visitor had spent many years working in Chile, I was able to give him some fresh Peruvian purple potatoes, whose blue flowers I had recently seen in photos taken high in the Andes near Machu Picchu. Supposedly grown exclusively for ancient Inca royalty, purple potatoes were formerly used by modern potato seed growers only as markers between plots, and were then discarded. Now, with the discovery of healthful antioxidants in blueberries, purple is hot. You can see it in the massive new blueberry plantations in the Skagit Valley. I had never eaten purple potatoes until this year. The blue color that comes through even after boiling is truly a deep indigo that makes for a visual culinary challenge, even as they taste just like potatoes. Maybe with red salsa and a fried egg for a red-white-and-blue plate? Or blue fries? English “bangers and blue mash?”
I also grew other new purple vegetables over the past year. Over-wintering Valentine and Cape Verde purple broccolis headed up even in the heavy snow of our mid-February cold spell, followed then by my usual early spring purple sprouting broccoli, with its little Lego-sized flowerets. Last autumn I set out an Italian heirloom artichoke, Violeta de Provence, which this summer produced deep purple chokes with tastier and thicker leaves than the usual green variety. I just planted starts of January King winter cabbage, which has purple-tinged outer leaves on top, like a ski cap against the frost.
In my hoophouse, there are purple sweet peppers and a long row of heavily producing eggplants, both Oriental and Mediterranean types. After years of frustration battling verticilium wilt, I now can explore all the ways to prepare eggplant: Japanese and Italian pickling recipes, as well as French ratatouille. My current favorite is from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” — slice the eggplants in half vertically with the stem on, make crosshatched cuts into the flesh without piercing the skin on the bottom. Coat the flat surface with olive oil, salt and pepper, roast at 450 degrees until the flesh is soft and brown. Make a topping of sliced, salted, and drained cucumbers mixed with Greek-style thick yogurt spiced with chopped garlic and mint. Sprinkle with za’atar seasoning and eat the delicate purple slippers, charred skin and all. Middle East heaven.
Finally, I took my garden guest to see the garlic harvest drying in the barn. “It’s just like the Alpine-style houses of the descendents of the early German immigrants to Chile, with dried herbs and garlic hanging everywhere.” That we grow a lot of Music, a German garlic strain, made it all come full circle.
Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.