Foraging for Wild Plants in a Domestic Garden

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picWhat is a weed? A witty gardener will tell you it is any plant growing in the wrong place at the wrong time. What makes a time and place wrong is when multiple plants are competing for the same small patch of soil nutrients, water and sunlight. If you are trying to grow a row of beans, and an ambitious brigade of sow thistle decides that bean patch is just what it has in its botanical mind for putting down thistly roots, well – you’ve got a plant conflict. A sow thistle is just another green product of nature, but in this context, the gardener sees a weed and yanks it out. Poor sow thistle.

But a gardener who is not only witty, but also savvy, will tell you to prepare the kitchen when you are pulling out some of those weeds. If you’ve been a good steward of the soil and have not used chemical herbicides anywhere in your garden, then you can explore the potential edibility of everything in it. You can go foraging in your garden.

Right now in the Robb Garden is a particularly good time for reaping a windfall harvest of weeds you didn’t plan. The word “windfall” applies quite literally here, since Nature uses the wind to sow her serendipitous crops, sending seeds aloft to seek a cozy patch of soil. Of all the wrong-place-wrong-time plants we have in the Robb Garden, we are lucky to have one that is wonderfully nutritious: purslane.

2018-05-22 16.10.13Purslane (Portulaca olereacea) is a low-growing plant with small, rounded green leaves and thick, reddish stems. The leaves are slightly succulent, and taste a bit tart, similar to sorrel, with a tang like lettuce. Both the leaves and the stems are perfectly edible, a crisp little snack you can pop in your mouth right in the garden. If you collect a handful of purslane, you can chop it up into any sort of salad; it’s especially good in mustardy potato salad. If you have enough of it, you can fry it up with onions as a side vegetable. It is a common ingredient in cuisines of the Mediterranean region.

Not only is purslane tasty; its nutritional benefits are remarkable. Purslane is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids: 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of purslane contains 300-400 mg of alpha-Linolenic acid, which is one of the two essential fatty acids (essential because our bodies cannot manufacture it, so we need to obtain it from nature through the foods we eat). Purslane also contains higher amounts of melatonin than other fruits and vegetables. Melatonin is a hormone manufactured in the pineal gland in your brain, and it plays an important role in regulating sleeping and waking cycles. Melatonin also scavenges the free radicals in our bodies that can otherwise cause damage to our cells, which may play a role in the development of cancer. And melatonin  has anti-inflammatory properties. So ingesting some extra melatonin in a mouthful of purslane is not a bad idea.

Is there a cultivated garden in your life? Take a closer look at the weedy companions in the garden beds and see if you can identify a friendly purslane plant, waiting to offer you its juicy crunch.

Sources used for this post:

Artemis P. Simopoulos, Dun‐Xian Tan, Lucien C. Manchester, Russel J. Reiter. 2005. Purslane: a plant source of omega‐3 fatty acids and melatonin. Journal of Pineal Research Vol. 39, pp. 331-332.

Gift, Nancy. 2011. Good Weed Bad Weed: Who’s Who, What To Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance. Pittsburgh: St. Lynn’s Press.

Madison, Deborah. 2002. Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. New York: Broadway Books.

White Hot Gardening

by Kara Talbot, University of the Pacific Student

Talbot mug shotFrom a young age, Dr. Mark Brunell was connected with gardening. His parents were plant lovers; they always had many varieties of flowers planted all over their property; as well as tomatoes that arose from seeds in wine barrels that produced some of the largest, reddest tomatoes Dr. Brunell had ever seen. He grew up and lived in Livermore, California until 2002 when he moved to Stockton to start his teaching & research job at University of the Pacific. At his first home in Stockton, he gardened out of a few planter boxes; but his real passion for gardening began in 2010. By that time, Dr. Brunell had moved into another house in Stockton with a much larger yard, and he also started the University of California Master Gardener program. His enthusiasm for gardening become “white hot” as he endured the “most intensive learning” of his life.

During 2010, Dr. Brunell teamed up with Ecology Action founder John Jeavens to start a large garden spanning five acres at the Methodist Church in Jeavens’ hometown, called the Garden of Hope. The project at the church was a “veggie boot camp” for Brunell when it came to starting his own garden in 2010 and later the Ted & Chris Robb Garden at the University of the Pacific in 2012. After successfully establishing the Robb Garden, Dr. Brunell stepped down from his position as Faculty Garden Manager and turned to focus on expanding his own home garden.

In all of his gardens, Dr. Brunell uses the bio-intensive method when planting in his plots. Talbot at plotHis home garden is packed together closely in a raised bed with the plants in a hexagonal pattern, but all of the plants have plenty of space for their roots to collect enough water, nutrients, oxygen, and sunlight. He grows a variety of vegetables and fruits on his property, which shifts with each plant’s growing season. One of the greatest issues he faces is that, due to California’s Mediterranean climate, the growing seasons of some plants overlap with another variety of plant that needs to be seeded. Dr. Brunell’s solution to this overlapping issue is to partition his garden beds into sections that correlate to different seasons, which allows the plants currently growing to continue growing without impacting the time at which the new plants are seeded. He only needs to periodically tend his garden, mainly on weekends, because he has a drip irrigation system in place and his garden is fairly low maintenance due to the types of plants he grows in his garden. The only intense care that goes into his garden is when the transition period comes: the old plants are taken out and the new seed is sown.

Veggie boot camp had prepared Dr. Brunell well when it came to what to plant and how in his own garden. He also implemented the practice of edible landscaping, covering his property with seven beds and many varieties of fruit trees. As he has grown older, he has reduced the number of beds to three and increased the number of perennials along with fruit trees to make his garden even more low maintenance. During the cool season, Dr. Brunell tends to grow vegetables such as lettuce, bok choy, mustard, leafy greens, and fava beans. In the warmer months, he tends to grow fruits and vegetables, including peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, squash, and watermelon. He also hosts an herb garden filled with sage, basil, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, and much more.

Gardening has become a large part of Dr. Brunell’s life and diet ever since he gained that “white hot” passion for it back in 2010. His garden supplies most of the vegetables he needs in his diet, which means fewer trips to the grocery store and more money back in his pocket. Tending to his garden is therapeutic for Dr. Brunell because he enjoys taking care of it as well as sitting and observing the environment he helped to create. His garden is also a bit of a family endeavor when it comes to harvesting time. They often work together to harvest produce, such as tomatoes, and then later they all pitch in to preserve half of them and make homemade tomato sauce out of the other half. Dr. Brunell’s garden endeavors have brought him great knowledge and joy in many aspects of his life as he continues to enjoy tending and being in his garden, as well as planting new varieties.