A Bit of Dirt – Spring 2008

The full pdf copy of this edition is available here.

By John Atkinson
The Master Gardener Program is about learning and giving back to our community and this is a fun way to get involved. Most of our planting, cultivating, and harvesting times are Wednesday mornings. Watch for Kathy Parent’s weekly announcement about working as a volunteer at the  park. We usually have a halfdozen Master Gardeners (McDaniel Mulchers) turn out which helps make the project work less strenuous.

It’s easy to find McDaniel Farm Park. Go to Old Norcross Road and Pleasant Hill and turn left at the second intersection on Old Norcross Road  (McDaniel Road). Proceed about a half a mile to the Farm. The address is 3251 McDaniel Road, Duluth. It is behind the Gwinnett Place Mall.

We planted row crops to demonstrate a garden from the 1930′s. Last year we had tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash, eggplant, peppers,  greens, broccoli, corn and pole beans growing on the corn stalks.

Park employees also had a pumpkin patch (prize winning giant pumpkins) and an herb garden. We found that the local deer harvested most of the
pepper and broccoli plants before they could produce.

The produce we harvest goes to our “feed the needy” project at Annandale Village in Suwanee where we also have a landscaping project with the

McDaniel Farm Park, a former cotton farm covering about 130 acres, has been restored to depict a typical 1930’s tenant farm operation in  Gwinnett County. One of the original tenant farmhouses on the property has been restored, as well as the barn, well house, chicken coop, buggy shed and blacksmith shed. The McDaniel Farm House features displays for viewing in several of the rooms that can be viewed.

Other articles in this issue:
Benefits of a Rain Barrel – By Karen Alexander
An Edible Landscape: Wild Mustard – By Dan Willis

An Edible Landscape: Wild Mustard

For many years I have had fun surprising my gardening friends by inter-planting my shrubs and flowers with vegetables such as tomatoes, sweet peppers, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and others. That is until I moved to a house located in a heavily wooded area where sun was a valuable commodity. That’s when I discovered that many wild edible plants, like mayapples and fiddlehead ferns, happily grow in partial shade. Since some “noxious weeds” also like the same habitat, I thought it might be interesting to attempt growing some edible “weeds” in my garden.

My maternal grandmother would always gather wild greens in the spring from farm fields and woodlots. She made them into a “spring tonic” and, as I recall, they had the same effect as a good dose of castor oil. She did teach me, however, to appreciate the value of these wayside plants both from an edibility and medicinal standpoint. I recall specifically as a kid when my older brother ended up with blisters after a poison ivy encounter. My grandmother went out into a damp section of the woodlot,brought back some Jewelweed, and in no time my brother’s itchy  complaints were history.

Since then, I have tried to learn more about these curious plants that some people today look upon as “noxious weeds.” I have tasted such weeds as Jerusalem artichokes, burdock, cattails, chickory, daylilies, dandelion, lamb’s quarters, shepherd’s purse, mayapples, pigweed, purslane,  sassafras, acorns, milkweed, mustard, watercress, and of course all sorts of fruit such as crab apples, persimmons, elderberries, blueberries, and blackberries.

Being a mustard connoisseur, Wild Mustard has always caught my attention. It’s hard to discuss this member of the Brassica family because so many different plants are called wild mustard. There are about 10 different species of wild mustard. Fortunately all are edible. One of the best is Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) that inhabits many cultivated and uncultivated fields, waste ground, and roadsides. It is very similar to field mustard or turnip rape (B. rapa). I enjoy the strong, pungent flavor of black mustard. If you have any doubts about picking the right plant you may use a reference book on weeds or just ask any farmer and he will point you in the right direction.

The stems of black mustard can be smooth or covered with scattered hairs. The lower leaves have a large terminal lobe with several pairs of  smaller ones, all having fine teeth around the edges. The alternate leaves further up the stem have almost no leafstalks, lack lobes and have edges that are not toothed. The bright yellow flowers have 4 petals in the form of a cross and have 6 stamen; 4 long ones and 2 short ones. While the upper flowers are coming into bloom the lower ones are being replaced with elongated 4-sided seedpods containing small, dark brown seeds.

Wild mustard is a great vegetable and an excellent source of vitamins A, B1, B2, and C as well as many trace elements required for good nutrition. To be at their best, mustard greens should be gathered during the first warm weather of spring. They make a great boiled green with the right  combination of bitterness and pungency. You need plenty of greens since they shrink while cooking. These are not like spinach and are a poor dish when half cooked. Starting with cold water, bring them to a boil and boil for at least 30 minutes, drain, season with bacon drippings, and serve with a vinegary pepper sauce. The vinegar will help mask some of the bitter flavor.

As the weather warms up, the leaves become bitter and inedible but the buds soon begin to form. These buds are richer in vitamin A than the leaves and are loaded with protein. Like their cultivated cousin, broccoli, the buds make a delicious vegetable. The buds can be gathered until the flowers start to bloom but avoid gathering any of the very bitter little leaves. The buds should be boiled in salted water for about 3 minutes (do not overcook), drained, and seasoned with butter and a little vinegar. The taste and texture is reminiscent of broccoli except with a pungent,  mustard flavor.

The yellow blooms are soon followed by little four-sided seedpods. Just when the lower seedpods are beginning to burst open, gather up the
whole plant, strip off the seedpods and lay them on sheet of newspaper or a plastic sheet to dry for a few days. Once dry, the seedpods can be
cracked and the hulls separated from the ripe seed by a simple winnowing process.

The dried seeds can be ground in a food mill and will give you “Dry Mustard” just like you buy in the grocery store. To make “Prepared Mustard” requires a little more effort. Place some flour in a pan and toast it in a slow oven, stirring occasionally, until it is evenly browned. Mix equal parts of the browned flour with the ground mustard seeds. Moisten the mix with a mixture of equal parts of vinegar and water until you get the desired consistency. The browned flour/mustard seed and vinegar/water ratio can be adjusted to your own particular taste. You may give some zip to the prepared mustard by adding some grated horseradish.

A lot of people have forgotten about the drug store mustard plasters that were used to soothe aching muscles or relieve chest congestion due to a cold. To make a home made mustard plaster, mix equal parts of the ground mustard with raw flour and moisten with water to make a paste. Smear this paste thinly on a cotton cloth, cover with another cloth, and apply to the sore muscle. Leave it on for only about 20 minutes or until the skin becomes red. The patient will surely let you know when they cannot stand it any longer since the heat increases with time.

Wild mustard can be used as a healthy cooked vegetable from spring through summer. In the fall, the ground ripe seeds made into a wonderful condiment and even used medicinally. When my children were young, they thought it way cool to eat this “noxious weed.”

Benefits of a Rain Barrel

rain barrelRainwater harvesting is always beneficial, whether the water is used to water one houseplant or an entire garden. Also, the act of collecting rainwater can be an inspiration to other water conservation activities around the house.

When deciding on a rainwater harvesting system, you will want it to be as large as you can afford and your location will allow. Most homeowners use 55-gallon rain barrels. There are containers that are 300 gallons or less that are affordable and small enough to fit on most residential or  commercial lots.

The photograph shows Gwinnett Master Gardener Sue Shaw’s 55-gallon rain barrel that she installed at her home.

Although one 55-gallon rain barrel may not provide all the water needed to sustain your plant material, it can certainly supplement any rain we may or may not receive. Planter beds, vegetable or flower gardens and potted plants can easily be irrigated with the water from a rain barrel. Rain barrels can easily be linked together to increase your water storage.

The water savings from using stored rainwater rather than municipal or well water can be substantial over a period of time. A rain barrel can also help reduce the amount of water that may settle around the foundation of your home. Currently Gwinnett County offers a rebate on the imposed storm water fee if you have rain barrels installed at your house. You can visit their website for more information.

Last, but not least, with a rain barrel you are helping the environment by preventing excess water going to our storm drains and your plants are receiving chemical free water.