This is Coleus Henna, part of the foundation plantings in a shady courtyard outside the Farmhouse at Tower Hill Botanical Garden. It’s beautiful but can you eat it? We were at Tower Hill to take a guided tour of the Vegetable Garden and vegetables were on my mind. Turns out you can eat some Coleus and it is actually a member of the mint family. It is also used as an herb in some eastern medicines.
The tour was conducted by Dawn Davies, Curator of the Vegetable Garden. She has the fun job of planning the garden and selecting the varieties, based on an annual theme. The Garden pays for the seeds and provides her interns to do the dirty work of weeding and picking insects. The garden theme this year was Cultivating Taste. Good taste in vegetables is certainly important and gardeners learn to do it by selecting cultivars, adjusting growing conditions, and timing the harvest.
The tour through the garden was very thorough, with Ms. Davies stopping at each of the beds to discuss what was planted and pointing out the characteristics of each plant and why it was selected for the garden. She even did what we couldn’t do but wanted to, she pulled beets, carrots and radishes out of the ground and picked some of the fruits for us to inspect. Since this is a demo garden and appearance is important, many of the varieties chosen for the garden were very colorful and attractive, just like the coleus.
Their garden is behind where it was last year, just like mine. One of the fruits she showed us was a Summer Dance cucumber, which I also grow. Here it is mid-August and that was the first cucumber from the Summer Dance vines at Tower Hill garden, run by a professional horticulturist! I’m happy that one of my vines has finally set a fruit, but unhappy to note that the vine right next to it just died from bacterial wilt.
What I particularly like about visiting Tower Hill is the chance to see new and interesting plants actually growing in a realistic garden setting, unlike the picture-perfect vegetables displayed in the seed catalogs, For example, unlike the catalog photos, every single Cherokee Purple tomato I have grown has been butt ugly, but I don’t mind because of their taste. The curator of this garden is always looking for new and attractive varieties to try and you get to see the results in the field.
I mentioned some plants that I found really striking in an earlier post here. Below are some additional vegetables that Ms. Davies showed us that I particularly liked, with sources for the seed. I apologize for the lack of photos but we were in a large group and I didn’t have the opportunity to take any.
- Radish Bora King (Territorial) – A radish is a radish and not particularly noticeable when you just stroll around the garden. But when she pulled one from the ground, it was a stunner. Bora King is a very large, elongated, plum-colored radish. She says it remains juicy and pith-free even at its large size and has a mild radish flavor. She was excited to find seed for it because Roger Swain used to grow these on Victory Garden but she could never find seed. This is a new offering from Territorial in 2013.
- Onion Shimonita (Territorial) – This is a bunching onion from Japan. It is striking because it looks like a leek, short and squat with a thick white stem and blue-green tubular foliage. It is very mild and can be pulled young for scallions. Or, given enough room and left to mature, it produces a thick white leek-shaped onion.
- Tomato Absinthe – This is a green-when-ripe tomato that was grown next to an Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato. It was by far more robust than ARGG and the fruits larger and more attractive, which caught my eye. Turns out this tomato was bred by Alan Bishop about 2000, a cross between Emeraude, Aunt Ruby's, and Brandywine tomatoes. From the reviews I’ve read the flavor is great and productivity good. You won’t find this one carried by the large seed vendors. Look for it among the small companies that specialize in heirloom tomatoes.
- Garlic Leningrad – Their garlic was harvested in mid-July but we were shown examples of some of the garlics grown. The knockout was a variety called Leningrad. It produces huge white bulbs which she said were even larger last year. Leningrad is a porcelain garlic with white wrapper and purple-striped cloves and excellent flavor, starting out hot and mellowing at the finish. Ms. Davies said you could spot it from a distance because the very large plants towered over the other garlics. A number of garlic vendors carry Leningrad.
- Lemongrass – Ms. Davies showed us lemongrass planted in among lemon basil and eggplants. It was grown from seed, which surprised me. I thought lemongrass had to be grown from divisions, but you can indeed buy seeds from Baker Creek and other vendors. I’m not sure it survives winters here but if you can get it to useable size during our growing season, it may be worth trying. The trick is going to be getting it to germinate and grow. The seeds require heat, humidity and light to germinate and can take 10-90 days to germinate.