Life Cycle Gardening: Maximize Your Harvest

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by William Rubel
During different growth stages, fava plants offer various edible options, including shoots and tender pods.

In spring, my vegetable garden is awash in color. Vibrant yellow broccoli rabe and mature fennel flowers contrast with the deep yellow of bolting collard blooms. There are white and deep-purple flowers on the fava beans, a deep blue from borage’s star-shaped flowers, and the lovely lighter blue of lacy, daisy-shaped chicory flowers.

When a vegetable plant sends up a flower stem, it’s described as “bolting.” While most gardeners consider bolting to be the end of the line for their plants, it’s often just the beginning for the life cycle gardener.

The overriding concept behind life cycle gardening is that the point at which we tend to harvest a plant is just one stage in the plant’s life cycle, and that stage isn’t the only one that produces good food or something else of value, such as flowers.

Vegetable flowers may be the easiest way to segue into life cycle gardening. Even if the thought of leaving anything to bolt sends shivers up your spine, you can ease yourself into it by setting aside a few plants for flowers. When you see honeybees, bumblebees, and other pollinators visiting your garden, I’m sure your heart will melt. And if you sell to farmers markets, you’ll find that some vegetable flowers are worth harvesting for sale.

While I love all vegetable flowers, my current favorites are cilantro blooms. If you only know cilantro as a small plant from which you harvest leaves, you won’t recognize the plant when it transforms into a 3-foot-tall bush of small, white flowers. The flowers start at ground level, growing on umbels surrounded by tufts of feathery leaves, each umbel its own bouquet. The flowers add a nice flavor to salads.

Last year I planted many yellow onions and allowed a few dozen to bloom. Their flowers rise on long stalks in proper rows, each stalk topped by long-lasting balls of white stars. A few onion flowers sprinkled on salads offer a delightful oniony surprise.

Butterfly on a flower of onions

My garden is friendly to wild greens, so I also have a couple of magnificent sow thistles (Sonchus oleraceus). You may think of this plant as a parking lot weed, but it’s beautiful. Sow thistle has small dandelion-like flowers and glossy, pointed leaves that enfold its stem in an interesting way. A few sow thistle leaves added to a salad are always a welcome guest from the wild.

Vegetable flower buds are almost always edible and delicious — think artichoke and broccoli. And bolting stems, such as those of lettuce, may make a tender vegetable in their own right or have a flavorful pith. The buds we tend to eat, such as broccoli, are from brassica cultivars selected for a mild taste. As you venture into life cycle gardening, you’ll move into a world of stronger flavors and richer character. If you try something and it’s stronger than you prefer, try blanching it in lightly salted water to lessen the flavor.

Here are some easy vegetables to get you started with life cycle gardening. Try a few to begin with, or go all in. Either way, life cycle gardening is a great way to maximize your harvest.

Artichokes and Cardoons

For the life cycle gardener, cardoon flower stalks are the glory of the vegetable garden. Their multi-branched stalks rise 6 feet. Loved by bees and butterflies, their blue flowers glow in the late afternoon sun. Both artichoke and cardoon flowers can be picked for the kitchen or grown as a long-lasting florist crop. I leave the stalks to dry in place, and plant peas at their base the following year.

Cardoon Flower

The underutilized edible portion of artichokes and cardoons is the flower stalk. When still flexible, the stalk just below harvested chokes, or the cardoon flower, are tender and delicious. Split mature artichoke stalks in half. The pith, which is slightly smoky in flavor, is good raw or parboiled and served with butter. The common cardoon preparation is to make a gratin with the central rib of blanched stems. (Wrap stems with straw or newspaper several weeks before harvesting to blanch.)

After you harvest the central artichoke bud, the plant will then produce numerous smaller buds as side shoots. These smaller buds are a delicacy. Harvest when they’re no more than 2 to 3 inches tall. To prepare, remove the outer leaves to reveal leaves of a lighter green, cut off the top third of the bud, slice thinly on the vertical cross section, and fry in hot olive oil until crisp. Salt before serving.

Artichokes

Fava Beans

If you give favas space, they’ll tiller (that is, put up many stems). For the life cycle gardener, this means the fava offers up its tender axillary buds – more deeply flavored than pea shoots, and more plentiful. A bed of fava beans will produce pounds of shoots.

Flowers. Red and white fava beans.

Fava bean pods are edible whole and raw when very young. They can be cooked, pod and all, when the beans are halfway to maturity. When mature, the beans are best removed from the pod. Favas can be dried and, like dried peas and beans, be rehydrated for use in soups and other dishes. After blooming, you should cut plants back to a few inches above the ground; they’ll often re-sprout to offer a second crop.

Beets and Chard

If you plant beets that you purchased from the grocery store, they’ll immediately start producing leaves, which you can harvest as a cut-and-come-again salad crop. Depending on your climate, a beet plant may continue to produce for several years. Both beets and chard, to which beets are closely related, produce racemes of tender flower buds when they bolt. In my experience, leaving plants alone and seeing what happens will yield happy surprises more often than not. If you leave bolted beet stems to overwinter, the following spring they’ll be lined with small florets of edible leaves that offer a dramatic addition to salad.

Cut and come again beet planted from grocery.

I harvest beet buds, but have found chard plants to be more productive. Until I discovered chard’s flower buds, I wasn’t much of a chard eater. Now, I tend to grow chard for the flower spikes that radiate off of the main stalk as it bolts. Bolting chard takes up less room in the garden than most brassicas. Plants can grow to 5 or 6 feet, and may need staking.

Red Chard Beginning to Bolt

Plants produce dozens of stalks with edible flower buds. Harvest when the buds are tight and beginning to show a little yellow. They’re delicious any way you cook them, but I recommend parboiling them in lightly salted water and then dressing with an aromatic olive oil. I also often cook them in tomato sauce. The thick rib of the leaves can be isolated from the leaf and cooked as well.

Chicories

When chicories bolt, they go from modest 12- to 18-inch plants to 6-foot towers. These huge plants produce lots of edible buds with plenty left over to blossom into delicate, light-blue flowers. Leave at least a few plants to go fully to seed, and you’ll have dozens of young plants the following spring.

Chicory flower.

These hardy perennials are the life cycle gardener’s dream plant. An Italian immigrant once told me that gardeners in the Liguria region parboil the buds and add them to crumbled sausage in a frying pan. The father of an Italian friend digs up young roots in the springtime for salad. Young leaves are mild enough for salad, while mature leaves may benefit from parboiling. Belgian endive is sprouts from a chicory root dug out of the ground and then grown indoors in sand. Chicory coffee is just coffee ground up with roasted chicory root. A highly productive chicory with a flavor I love is Radicchio pan di Zucchero ‘Sugar Loaf.’

Cilantro and Coriander

If summers are hot where you live and you hesitate to grow cilantro because of its penchant for bolting, fear no more! Grow it for the green seeds and exotic flowers. The plant is traditionally harvested in two different stages of its life cycle — the leaf cycle (cilantro) and the seed cycle (coriander) — but the leaves, green seeds, and roots can all be used as well. The roots, which you can add to salads, are a little milder than the leaves. Green coriander has a fresh, lemony flavor that I enjoy with chicken. The lacy, white-to-pink flowers grow on umbels, like dill and fennel, and are lovely enough to grow and sell as cut flowers. The leaves growing around the flowers are feathery, and as aromatic as the broader leaves used in cooking; add them to salads.

Flowerw. Square. Radish.

Collards and Kale

When a healthy collard bolts, it expands to become a reasonably sized shrub. I’ve had plants grow 6 feet high, and just as wide. Plants produce lots of small, tasty leaves, but the stars of the bolting collard are its sprouts, flowers, and young seed pods. Collard buds are the sweetest of the brassicas (I prefer them to broccoli), and the flowers are gorgeous. A large, blooming plant at its peak is a spectacular bee magnet.

Collard seed pods are my favorite life cycle gardening discovery. Picked tender, they’re a ringer for the finest French haricots vert. Like a young string bean, they can be boiled whole and served with melted butter. I also like to fry them in very hot olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and serve as an appetizer. They become stringy if left too long, so pay attention to them. For me, collard seed pods are an archetypal home vegetable crop — something delicious that can’t be bought.

Collard buds in hand.

If you sell at a farmers market, collards offer lots of options after the main leaf crop is no longer of economic value. A single plant can produce armfuls of flower stalks, and sizable quantities of pods and sprouts.

Kale, a close relative of collards — both are varieties of Brassica oleracea — has yellow flowers and richly flavored edible sprouts. It’s as productive a sprout producer as collards.

Bolting kale flowers

Lettuce

Peel the stalks of bolting lettuce — younger stalks are best, before the buds emerge — and what you have is something akin to cucumber. On a hot day, the kind of day that triggers bolting, you’ll find the stalks to be delightful. A pile of stalks with all but the top few leaves peeled off makes an enticing display at a farmers market.

Cross section bolted lettuce. Note milk.

Onions and Alliums

For a different approach, plant some bulbing onions, including garlic, as cut-and-come-again greens. Left alone to overwinter, bulbing onions will divide and naturalize. Leeks produce bulbils at their base; leave these to grow in place to produce an ever-expanding clump of thin leeks, or separate and transplant bulbils to create a standard crop.

Onions. Plant sprouted kitchen onions.

In their second year, all onions put up a cluster of long-lasting small flowers ranging from white to pink to lavender. If you sell at farmers markets and it works with your production schedule, you could find a crop of onion or chive flowers more valuable than the onion bulbs themselves. A few onion flowers on a salad will add color and flavor.

Blooming chives.

Radishes

Rather than grow radishes just for their roots, let your plants flower out. The four-petaled radish flower shows lovely tonalities of white, pink, and mauve, and is host to the Sara orangetip butterfly on the West Coast.

Flowerw. Square. Radish.

Radishes tend to grow into open-flowering plants that can reach 18 inches or more in height. The seed pods are edible and can be harvested when tender. Slice them into salads, cook them whole as a side dish, or pickle them.

Tomatoes

Contrary to the widely held belief you shouldn’t eat them, tomato leaves are, in fact, edible, and contain some of the same aromatic compounds found in the fruit. A few finely chopped leaves added to tomato sauce during the last few minutes of cooking provide depth and enhance freshness. Try adding two or three leaves per pound of tomatoes.


William Rubel lives in Santa Cruz, California. He’s the author of The Magic of Fire and Bread: A Global History, and the founder of Stone Soup magazine. He has written for MOTHER EARTH NEWS on building and using an outdoor oven, homemade bread, home distilling, and other topics.