Laboratory backyard

MANDY EVANS
Last updated 08:54 24/02/2013

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While some people replace their vegetable plants the minute they go to seed, I'm more relaxed. It's partly the chooks' fault, partly because I like to save seeds and partly because I'm not averse to plants self-seeding as it saves me some effort!

Why I say the chooks have to take partial responsibility is because they get a variety of garden greens daily. Throwing out what might be the equivalent of a weeks' worth of chook food in one day just because it's gone to seed seems a waste, so I pull the plants out in chook-sized feeds.

When silver beet goes to seed, I just chop off the seed shoot and let the plant come away again and we get a second crop. We recently had a patch of silver beet that was about a year old. I decided that over the course of the next week we'd feed the plants to the chooks, thus clearing the ground for another crop. The first two I pulled out had large, parsnip-shaped roots. I got curious. Surely, I reasoned, they'd be edible. Silver beet is in the beet family, after all.

Given that the plant had gone to seed, I expected the roots to be fibrous and tough. Still, I took them inside, peeled them and, as is my tendency, tasted a slice raw. It tasted very similar to beetroot.

I threw a couple of chunks in with the roast veges that night to get the other half's verdict. He was reasonably impressed, so much so that when the next day I was pickling a small crop of beetroot, I also pickled the remainder of the two silver beet roots - to all intents and purposes, it's just white beetroot now.

Still on the beet theme, last weekend I harvested the first of a new crop, well, new for me, anyway; sugar beet. While I'm not the type to walk into a store and impulsively buy an expensive pair of shoes, I have to admit I am the type to get a little carried away when browsing seed catalogues. Consequently, I often end up researching what to do with a crop when it's ready to harvest, rather than before I buy the seed. That's OK by me; as a vice it's not an expensive one and I like the surprise factor. While seeds take a while to grow to maturity, researching what to do with a crop when it's ready for harvest feels a bit like instant gratification - if I see a great idea or recipe, I get to try it straight away. One of the luxuries of having a big garden is that there is room for this kind of experimentation.

The leafy tops of sugar beet can be cooked and eaten, but the main part of the plant is the root, or tuber, which has a high concentration of sucrose. The sugar beet is mainly grown for commercial sugar production and as stock feed but it's fun as a novelty crop. Cooked, it also tastes a bit like beetroot - but without the earthy flavour of beetroot that I have never quite developed a taste for.

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You can make sugar beet syrup at home. It involves chopping the beet finely and boiling for about an hour, after which you strain off the liquid and boil until it's the consistency of thin honey, which, trust me, takes some time. This tastes quite sweet and out of curiosity I added some to a cup of pineapple sage tea. It tasted OK, and while the whole process was a lot of effort for a sweet fix it was satisfying to know all ingredients in the tea were from my garden.

Even after an hour's boiling, the chopped up beet still had taste and some texture, so I've added that to a couple of dishes so as not to waste it.

Next weekend I think the peaches will be ripe so when I'm preserving I'll try adding slices of sugar beet to a couple of jars as a sweetener. It's been fun to experiment, but I think the biggest use of sugar beet in this household is as another form of beetroot. It's easy to grow, roasts well and tastes good boiled too.

What to grow now

Garden Guides recommend sowing beetroot, carrot, mustard greens, rocket, asian greens, lettuce, parsnip, and turnip seeds. Grow seeds of cabbage, cauliflower, kale, leeks and onions in trays to transplant in a few weeks. 

mandyevans.co.nz

- The Marlborough Express

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