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Archive for July, 2014

Red Malabar Spinach

Red Malabar Spinach

Malabar spinach is the plant to grow to fit the niche for “summer greens” in your garden. I grow kale and collards through the winter for greens to harvest fresh for our dinner table from fall to spring, but they don’t do well in hot weather. Neither does regular spinach, which likes the same cool temperatures as kale and collards. Despite its name, Malabar spinach (Basella alba or Basella rubra) is not related to regular spinach (Spinacia oleracea).

I first saw Malabar spinach growing in my daughter’s garden. She only had a few plants and they were crawling prolifically along the top of a fence that supported other crops. It was abundant, provided a cooking green for summer meals, and was colorful with its glossy green leaves and red stems. Last year when I put up the trellises over my paths I thought that was just the thing to try there. (You can read about those trellises I made from livestock panels at https://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/trellis-your-garden-paths/. )

Green Malabar Spinach

Green Malabar Spinach

When ordering seeds in early 2013, I saw Malabar spinach offered in a seed catalog and ordered it. What I didn’t know is that there are two types of Malabar spinach. What I bought was green Malabar (Basella alba). What I was anticipating was red Malabar (Basella rubra). My 2013 crop of Malabar spinach had thick green stems and didn’t climb well. In fact, it was slow to grow at the beginning of the summer. Later in the summer it was abundant, but it never grew as tall as the red variety. I’ve had the pleasure of taking a sneak peek at David Kennedy’s upcoming book Eat Your Greens: the surprising power of homegrown leaf crops, published by New Society and due to be in the bookstores about October 1. Kennedy, who refers to this crop as vine spinach, says the red variety produces best in early to mid summer and the green variety produces best in late summer to fall. Both varieties will succumb to frost. That explains why not much was happening with my Malabar spinach early in the summer last year when I was anxious to have it take off up the trellis.

Red Malabar spinach on a trellis.

Red Malabar spinach on a trellis.

This year I am growing the red variety of Malabar spinach and am pleased with it. I planted the seed at the base of both sides of my trellis, but something happened to keep it from growing on one side. Many things this summer have kept me distracted and failing to replant when necessary, so that side never got replanted. The side that it is growing on looks great! I can pick the leaves from a standing position as I walk through my garden, harvesting this and that for dinner. Those red stems are edible, also. The path between two sections in my garden is behind the climbing spinach you see in the photo. As you can see, it climbs the trellis well, providing shade to the path, and is colorful. I just have to smile when I see it. If I would have given this crop any attention at all, other than putting the seeds in the ground one time, I would have had Malabar spinach coming up over the top of the trellis from the other side.

My friend Brent tells me that it reseeds readily, so to expect volunteers to pop up next year. In his book, David Kennedy says the red variety will do that, but the green variety often flowers too late to produce viable seed before frost. Malabar spinach is an easy-to-care-for crop in my garden. The only attention I have given it is to redirect the vines to the trellis when they stray into the path. This crop doesn’t have the tendrils to reach out and grab the trellis that squash plants have.

If you want to add a tasty addition to your garden that thrives in hot weather, I encourage you to plant Malabar spinach.Homeplace Earth

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Collection of strainers and colanders to clean seeds. Find these in your kitchen or at yard sales-BLOGIt is easy to talk about saving seeds and what a good thing it is to do. In fact, I wrote a whole book about that—Seed Libraries and other means of keeping seeds in the hands of the people. You will be able to read it when it becomes available in late January/early February 2015. I’ve been working on it all year and have now submitted it to New Society Publishers. In the coming months it will be going through the editing process and everything else involved in bringing a book to fruition. In Seed Libraries I give some tips about saving seeds, but it is not about the ins and outs of seed saving. Rather, it is about how to establish a community seed saving project and keep it going.

I thought I’d give you a preview of the photos that will appear on one of the eight color pages in my new book. You can read all you want about when to harvest the seeds, but when it comes right down to physically doing that, I’m sure you will have some questions. When saving seeds you need a way to separate the seeds from the chaff and you can do that using seed screens. As you will see, there are seed screen options to fit all budgets. The first photo shows my collection of colanders and strainers. You probably have these items in your kitchen already. When I visit yard sales I keep an eye out for ones that might have different size holes than what I already have. These work great and the price is right. However, the holes are not always the size I want to work with.

Homemade seed screens-BLOGThese two wood-framed screens were made with scrap wood and hardware cloth. The smaller one has ¼” holes and the larger one has ½” holes. The smaller one is borrowed from a friend. I made the larger one to facilitate working with beans and cowpeas. I can thresh the beans from the dried pods in an old pillowcase by hitting it with a piece of old broom handle. Everything gets poured out of the pillowcase onto the screen. The wood sides keep things contained so I don’t have pods and beans all over the place. When we moved to our five acre farm thirty years ago, I found an old screen like this in a shed. I made my new one to the same dimensions. I added the wooden blocks in the corners to strengthen the frame and to keep seeds from getting caught in the corners, and made a box to fit under the screen frame to catch the seeds.

With half-inch holes, some chaff comes through with the beans. Chaff that is smaller than the seeds can be quickly dispelled by pouring everything through a screen that is slightly smaller than the seed, holding the seed back and letting the chaff and dust through. I usually use this system for cowpeas and you would think that the quarter-inch screen would do that job for me, however I need something just a little smaller. Some of the cowpeas pass through the quarter-inch spaces. If I was trying to sort the seeds to save the largest, that would be an advantage.

Interchangeable sieves found at an Indian grocery store. Cost less than $15-BLOGThanks to my friend, Molly, I discovered the 4-in-one sieves that are available at Indian grocery stores. There is one stainless steel frame that is 8 ½” in diameter and four interchangeable screens—the holes in the largest are 1/8”. My interest in these screens is in working with the small seeds. Currently I have kale seeds to thresh with these screens. The screens are lightweight, don’t take up much space, and have the size holes that I want. For home use, this does well and should last a good while, but it is not going to stand up to the abuse that the screens in the first two photos will. At a cost of less than $15, these screens are a good deal.

Seed cleaning screens. Cost about $190-BLOGBy contrast, here is a professional set of eight screens that will take much handling for years to come. With eight different sized holes, you could surely find the size you needed. The price for these screens is about $190. With the other options available, you would have to be a serious seed saver to invest in something like this. Or maybe you just have more money than I do. These screens would be good for farms with many different people handling them and lots of seeds to thresh.

kale seeds-BLOGMy last photo is not in the book. It shows threshed kale seed put through the small yellow plastic strainer, with the pods left behind in the strainer. It works just fine! I acquired this strainer when my mother was going through her cupboard to give me a few things. I asked about the strainer and she said she didn’t think I would want it because it was plastic. She was right—I avoid plastic in my kitchen, but this strainer stays with my seed saving supplies. I like it because the holes are small rectangles, rather than circles. If you are a seed saver, take a look around your kitchen before you spend money on seed cleaning screens. What you need might already be there—at least to get you started.Homeplace Earth

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