This is a collection of thoughts encompassing the last twenty years of slowly growing our patio garden of useful plants for our location northeast of Houston, Texas. We are located in Zone 9 that has long hot and humid summers, with maybe, a night or two each year below freezing. We sometimes cover or protect the pots or plants from freezing temperatures. Maybe the solar minimum will change all that, I don’t know. As all SurvivalBlog readers do, I will continually adapt and modify my approach for my location. I do not claim expertise on any of the topics below and the opinions are my opinions, not right or wrong, just opinions. We all know everyone has one.
Some of the plants are heirloom variety and we maintain seeds, cuttings, and roots to keep that variety going. Some are from the big box store and are used mainly for large quantities of produce; peppers, for example, seem to provide huge quantities from one small purchased plant, sometimes for multiple years. I hope to eventually replace all the non-heirloom with self-sustaining varieties. It seems to me that the heirloom varieties are more susceptible to pests and require greater care and produce less produce. Produce less produce, I like that!
We have a large food dehydrator, 15 x 15 inches with 9 trays. It sits on top of an upright freezer inside the house. I do not turn it on; I just place the plants and whatnot on the trays and let them dry naturally. It works very well with the AC going in the summer months and the cool lower humidity days in the winter months. The harvest is protected and the dried plants retain the color, and hopefully, the nutritional value of the live plants. We call it The Dryer.
After many failures and learning what worked and what didn’t, and what we actually use medicinally and in the kitchen, we evolved the concept of a patio garden. In addition to the regular garden, which has its own set of issues (bugs, animals, watering, weeds) we keep a thriving patio garden. This is for convenience, enjoyment, teaching, and aesthetics. Here in Zone 9 we have 2 air conditioners for the main house which produce enough water to keep the whole patio garden watered. These units create condensate as the warm air blows over the cold coils. The water drips into pans and runs out in pipes to drain outside. I use two 5-gallon buckets under each AC drain and dip out water or carry the buckets around to pour on the plants. In the winter, or in a grid-down situation, these buckets and larger containers are positioned under the many downspouts around the house. In a worst-case scenario, water can be brought up from the pond that is on the property.
Unless otherwise noted all these plants are on the patio, which faces south and has a porch riddled with columns and large planters with 4×4 posts set in the middle. I have attached small shelves, hanging pot hooks, etc. to these columns and posts to increase the vertical footprint of the patio. Cherry tomatoes, in a pot high up on a column will drape down all summer producing cherry tomatoes until even the grandkids can pick them without needing help. We rarely get cherry tomatoes after this as the grandkids eat them all.
Originally, I had planned to list out summary nutritional values for each plant and assorted medical benefits, both proved and unproved. The article became too large, so I leave the research and discernment of that information as an exercise for the reader. There are many, many sources for this information, some here on this blog.
Recently we had a freeze here in Zone 9 that was very damaging to plants, pets, properties, and people. At the end of each plant section in this article, I have updated that section based on the rare and extreme cold weather. For two and a half days we were below freezing, at one point it was 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15C). This type of cold weather is/was an anomaly, however, we are exploring ideas if it turns out to be more normal than we would like.
Green Onions – purchased and heirloom plants
Green onions are one of the easiest vegetables to grow, with few pests other than the crazy puppy digging up the whole pot, to get to the bottom, or to China, I suppose. We have a couple of rectangle shaped pots, not very tall, that we continue to rotate green onions through; a rotating never-ending green onion planter box. We got started by leaving an inch on the bottom of the plants we purchased from the grocery store and just stuck them in the dirt. They grew like weeds. Our 3-year-old grandchild loves to go out and rip a few out of the pots to bring into the kitchen. We cut the bottom inch off and give them back to her to replant in another spot in the same pot. Occasionally, one of the plants will form an actual onion bulb. At this point the cycle on that onion is completed and we just consume that onion.
Some plants will form flowers and create seeds. We save some seeds and plant some to keep the rotating onion planter going. I also mix in heirloom green onions seeds. Green onions from seeds are very delicate plants and need regular tending until they get larger. Having fresh green onions for use in the kitchen all year round is fun and easy. When the pot gets really thick with plants we will harvest them all and replant with the one inch cuttings. The harvest is then chopped up and placed in the Dryer, some of it crumbled. Crumbled dried green onions add a nice flavor to our taco seasoning and Italian seasoning recipe. We also put a half a cup chopped onions into sandwich bags in the freezer. The bags then go into a quart freezer bag. Just grab a bag of onions from the freezer and dump it into the pan with the oil of your choice, very easy to cook with. I left the pots outside during the freeze completely uncovered. A random selection of smaller green onions froze and rotted and died. Others did just fine and are still growing strong. I suspect I have multiple varieties, of which some are more freeze tolerant. I will have to research that topic when I run out of every other thing I have to do on my list.
Cilantro – Heirloom plants
Some love cilantro, others, less so. My mother use to tell me that Cilantro smells like a dirty dish rag that hadn’t been washed in months. I come down on the side of loving it. There are only a few dishes that can compete with homemade street tacos with corn tortillas, goat cheese, raw onions, and finely chopped freshly harvested Cilantro. Mmmmm delicious! Just squeeze a little lime from the limes off the lime tree. I plant a whole row of cilantro in the big garden, but also have a couple of pots up on the patio. I also sneak cilantro seeds into other pots, like the peppers. In Zone 9, cilantro is a “winter” crop. I start them in September and they grow until March or so, then they go to seed. Cilantro going to seed can become quite bitter, and I do not eat it fresh when the seed stalk forms. A pair of scissors cuts right through the plant. Usually the plant will continue to grow.
In addition to eating it fresh, I dry a little to keep the jar full, but dried cilantro leaves pale in consideration to fresh. I also give cilantro the green onion treatment, chop it up, measure it, and put it in sandwich bags in the freezer. It is very good in soups, gumbos, and whatnot. Once it goes to seed, I wait until maybe half the seeds on the plant are mature and turning brownish. I cut the whole plant and stuff it upside down into a paper bag. I can get 20-30 into each bag. I put the bag in the temperature-controlled woodworking shop to dry out, usually until the next season. If you grab a handful of stalks and rub your hands back and forth going downward on the stalks, like starting a fire with a stick, the seeds fall easily into the bag. On a windy day, or just using my breath, I winnow the chaff away from the seeds. I usually end up with a half-gallon plastic bag of seeds. I label each bag and when it is time to plant I make a mix of seeds from different years, using most of the seeds from the oldest year forward. During seed harvesting I pick out a few plants that are particularly exquisite and dry them separately for grinding the seeds into Coriander. I have not seen any pests on these plants on the patio. Most, if not all, of the large cilantro plants froze and did not come back. The smaller plants seemed to do fine, possibly because the larger ones fell onto and protected the smaller ones.
Rosemary – purchased plants
I have found that having two rosemary bushes going all the time is plenty for our needs. We use fresh rosemary for baking chicken and many other dishes. These are in two different pots that are tall and tubular in shape. The bushes like a deep pot with deep soil and grow into a nice topiary shape. We regularly harvest rosemary to go into The Dryer and the Admiral (my lovely wife) takes fresh cuttings as she needs them. Rosemary has a couple of pests that show up each year. The first is some tiny critters that live under the leaves and cause the nice pretty green rosemary leaves to become white spotted and grayish. When this happens I take the hose sprayer and set it to flat or jet and spray upwards through the bush. I go around and around a couple of times and just try to hose the bush out of the ground by spraying up. It does not hurt the bush and I do this until the new leaves go back to a nice pretty green, usually about three times over the course of a week. The other pest is a small yellow wasp that likes to make nests inside the bush. I catch them early, hose them down with water and remove the nest with gloved hands. After six to ten years in the same pot I trim the bush way, way back, uproot it and replace the soil with fresh dirt. One rosemary bush got covered during the freeze and the other one did not. The covered bush lived and is doing fine. The uncovered bush died.
Sage – purchased plants
One small Sage plant is plenty for our needs. I add extra sage to pan sausage and in our dirty rice recipe. This plant never seems to die and does not have pests that I have noticed. We harvest it in late spring once it has had a chance to grow strong after the winter months. It grows right back and the cuttings go into The Dryer. It takes a very long time to dry Sage cuttings without heat. After drying, the crushed/crumbled leaves are a little powdery and have a unique texture. Once, I put the “dried” sage into the jar too soon and some really strange stuff grew in that jar. I pitched the whole thing out and started over. Patience while waiting for plants to dry is not my strong suit. I pick out a few larger cuttings and try to crumble them and tear them up. If they have any moisture I put them back in The Dryer. It is very satisfying when the plants are fully dry and they crumble into the beautiful herbs and spices that really enhance our food. The sage plant was not protected during the freeze and made it just fine.
Basil – heirloom plants
I grow a couple of pots of basil each year. In early spring I sprinkle basil seeds on the top of the cleaned dirt in the pot and rake it around a little. We use fresh basil leaves for Pesto, Caprese salad, and in green salads. I cut many sprigs to place in The Dryer and, once dried, I rub them through a medium metal strainer which makes a nice-sized crumble for the jar in the kitchen. In the fall seed stalks form and shoot up. After three quarters of the flowers/seed pods have turned brown on each stalk I cut them off and place in a bowl on the fridge. I put a loose dishcloth over the bowl to keep out dust and gnats.
I have discovered that gnats are Quantum Insects. They just “pop” into being from the quantum noise around us and if there is food they eat and reproduce until they exist in every room in the house. If there is no food they either die or “pop” back into the quantum ether to show up in a different space and time; a pox on gnats. Once the seed stalks are fully dried, I strip the seed “containers” from the stalks backward down the stalk, they come off easily. The bowl of seed pods is then rubbed between my hands to crumble it all up and release the seeds. I usually winnow the chaff off over the pots where I grow it and sometimes I do not have to plant the seeds as they just volunteer to grow.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)