Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gardening and cooking

Rainbow carrots from my garden

I was struck by a comment CEN made in response to a recent post: Growing Vegetables.

Among other interesting points, she wrote:
'It's hard to work up much of an interest in vegetable gardening if people don't cook or enjoy a variety of foods or have a curiosity about them-- economic reasons or no. If all people know is to microwave packaged stuff, what's the point of growing vegetables?'

Hmm, of course, she's right. But how could you resist these rainbow carrots?

Why spend any time growing vegetables unless you enjoy eating them, first and foremost?

Sharing and preserving the harvest, as well as the pleasure in gardening itself -- those things are nice, but vegetables and fruits almost nudge you towards harvesting them, no matter how much you might be enjoying their appearance.

Thomas Jefferson reportedly took great pleasure in his vegetable garden from an eater's perspective, focusing on vegetables as the primary part of his diet and waiting for the early peas, growing sesame for oil for his salads, planting fruit trees, etc. (My Esopus Spitzenburg apple sapling from Monticello's Center for Historic Plants is now planted in a sunny spot in the NC mountains, BTW).

A basic vegetable gardening 'rule' is: grow what you and your family like to eat.

I was a cook before I was a gardener, although I have fond childhood memories of picking wild blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and salmon berries. As a grad student in California, the abundance and diversity of produce available in local produce markets (eg. the Monterey Market) was eye-opening -- fresh mushrooms were a revelation to me at the time (late 70's, early 80's).
Another revelation were the wonderful Hunan and Szechuan dishes produced by local restaurants.

My parents were neither cooks or gardeners, although they certainly were interested in fitness and health.

But I remember buying a book in those graduate school years about 'Growing Vegetables the Chinese Way' which showed beautiful raised beds of attractive well-maintained vegetables, similar to the one we saw many years later near Hoi An, Vietnam. This gardener was pleased to show us the results of his effort.

And I also bought a book by Rosalind Creasey, called 'Cooking from the Garden' -- a fabulous book describing different sorts of food gardens and the kind of vegetables that were grown in each. I still have both books. Creasey's books were instrumental in launching an edible gardening trend (micro as it may have been). And there are many more since then.

I read a recent piece in Eating Well by Ellen Ecker Ogden about how she founded Cook's Garden Seeds some years ago (which she sold recently to Ball Seed Company), and how she started providing recipes to encourage customers to try something new.

And a comment by a keen vegetable gardener who isn't the primary cook in his family has got me thinking about this, too. He said he'd like to learn to be a better cook so he could use more of what he grew.

There's a total connection between what I cook for dinner and what's in the garden in the primary growing season. Fresh brussel sprouts were the vegetable for today (thanks to Kathy and the walled veggie garden next to the visitor center). Fabulous.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

A last evening song

It's almost dark, and a mockingbird is still singing. Their song cycle is lovely, and now a familiar voice almost year-round.

It's an expectant time, songs and calls encouraged by longer days marking territories and prompting notice by potential mates. I saw a bluebird pair at the Garden yesterday morning investigating one of our nest boxes. It's not one of the most desirable, so I don't think they'll set up residence. But, it was fun to watch them ducking into the box in turn, seemingly trying to decide if THIS box might be suitable.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

The National Trust

I've been fortunate to have had many excellent (if not downright wonderful) visits to National Trust properties in Southern England (U.K.) during two recent trips. I visited many other places, too, mostly gardens and nurseries, but especially enjoyed the Trust properties.

Preserving gardens, historic houses, natural areas, scenic coastlines, and other special places, The National Trust is a rough equivalent to the U.S. National Park Service, albeit with a different feel.
Harting Down

Receiving a member's magazine (as a Royal Oak member in the U.S.) a couple of days ago, I was reminded of what a very well-done publication it is, and the diversity of places that the Trust preserves.

As a Royal Oak passholder on recent trips, I visited many smaller places that I probably wouldn't have visited otherwise, from Harting Down, Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters (wonderful) to Bateman's (Rudyard Kipling's home), and Petworth House (in beautiful countryside).

Seven Sisters

I enjoyed poring over their maps and guides, too, reading the descriptions of all the places I could visit, if I'd had more time. I tried especially to visit natural areas, balancing my somewhat determined garden visiting.

I've been reminded of these places by working on an upcoming talk and revisiting some of these places through the images I took.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Groundhog habitat

My gardening companion reported that he saw woodchuck holes galore along the railroad tracks behind our eye doctor's office this afternoon. The kudzu is leafless, so the burrows are visible. He said it reminded him of Matera (and the cave dwellings) in southern Italy.

Hmm, I'm sure that they're not that prominent, but I'll have to go look! He thinks they like the young kudzu shoots as they leaf out later in the spring. We'll see.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What fruits should we grow?

Amid the enjoyment of robins singing, and the general increase in morning bird activity, I've got vegetables and fruits on my mind. We had an excellent presentation last Saturday by our state peach expert, essentially telling us to grow the easy, no-spray fruits at home (many of which are native like blueberries, blackberries, paw-paws and persimmons), and leave the peaches, etc. that basically need life support (my words, not his) to the experts.

Not bad advice, at all, actually, although I continue to be hopeful that my Esopus Spitzenburg bare root transplant that's on its way (for our bit of mountain space) won't turn out to be a donation to Monticello. Esopus Spitzenburg was supposedly Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple, and surely he wasn't spraying on a weekly basis? But maybe he was using copper sulfate, and some of the organic materials recommended today for those of us unwise enough to attempt apples in the Eastern U.S.

We'll see!

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Growing vegetables

I had an interesting conversation today with a very experienced vegetable gardener. She grew up in a rural community in NC where seeds were saved and shared, vegetable gardening was a regular activity, and putting up vegetables was part of summer life. Her journeys have taken her to European cities (where she saw lots of vegetable gardening first-hand), to Detroit, where she helped organize a community garden, and now to Clemson as part of the Sustainable Ag Initiative and the Student Organic Farm. We share a love of vegetable gardening, clearly.

She was surprised to hear that SC Master Gardeners are now becoming enthusiastic about the idea of growing vegetables (when I started at the Garden 15 years ago, there were maybe 5 MG's in our local group of 60+ that I knew who grew vegetables). She thought that that was the point of the MG program (I wish!)

I've done several programs over the last year to different MG organizations in SC with a 'Creative Vegetable Gardening' theme. It's been definitely a 'new' interest. But I'm thinking this is only the beginning. I sent off a revised piece about vegetable gardening today for the SC Nursery and Landscape Association's publication -- the editor replied it was a 'hot topic'-- hooray!

I'm planning to be more focused on producing and storing vegetables for later use (I'm totally inspired by fellow gardening bloggers like Rob and Kathy), rather than just current consumption. It's sounding like fun at the moment, as well as tasty and nutritious.

Organizing the programmatic part of our Garden Fest in April this year, for the first time, I'm feeling a strong sense of community and interest in vegetable gardening, which is most welcome.

I didn't grow up in a family of gardeners, by any means, being a city kid, but my maternal grandmother was an excellent and keen gardener (by early necessity), and I was entranced by her berry patches, stores of home-canned beans and tomatoes, and preserves. And one set of my paternal grandparents were farmers, too, and a visit to their farm was a wonderful experience when I was maybe 8 years old.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hepatica americana

Hepatica americana

We saw the first Hepatica in flower this morning. It was expected; it's one of the first of our native woodland wildflowers to flower. We'd actually made a detour on our walk to see if flowers were open in a spot we knew and we weren't disappointed.

I checked for a post about seeing Hepatica last year (it was on February 29) -- I couldn't remember if I'd made one, but of course, I had. This is an image that my gardening companion took last year.

Hepatica flowers open in late morning and close at night. I love retelling the story about the entire lab group in Germany (where I studied after graduate school) making the trek to see the first Hepatica nobilis flowering in the snow.

beloved symbol of spring in Northern Europe, I'm also reminded of the graceful Hepatica logo for an International Botanical Congress in Berlin years ago.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Winter hardy cyclamens

I've always enjoyed cyclamens, especially as a Valentine's Day flower, but haven't seen any in their natural habitats. We'll have to visit Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, North Africa, etc. some day!

Florist cyclamens have always struck me as gorgeous, but difficult plants to keep indoors in the winter (they don't seem to like heat, drafts, or excessive water). But I knew about hardy cyclamens (we have patches of them in the Garden) -- they're C. hederifolium, although a relatively unassuming variety.

seeing beautiful window boxes full of cyclamens in Southern Italy this December was surprising. They were one of the most abundant winter 'bedding plants' -- and definitely striking and in colors ranging from red to white.

A question in a program yesterday (about winter interest in the garden) got me thinking about the hardiness of cyclamens, and what species the ones we saw in Italy were, and why we aren't using them here in the Southern U.S. (it was certainly cold in Southern Italy, although I'm not sure about how common frosts are, etc.) My program participant had seen them used extensively in Houston, Texas, which must have a few freezing days each year.

In poking around the vast library that the web represents, I learned that there are ~ 20 species of Cyclamen, which vary a good deal in their hardiness. And I just now noticed that C. hederifolium is found in native habitats in Apulia (the region where Lecce is located). C. hederifolium is apparently quite easy to grow, and is certainly a winter-hardy species here.

An addendum--
there are LOTS of C. hederifolium varieties, which are commonly grown throughout Europe, as this book excerpt suggests.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Seed swaps

Seed swapping wasn't something I thought about until some months ago; giving away extra seeds, well yes, but swapping saved seeds in an organized fashion is definitely (major) fun, as well as being an important part of perpetuating vegetable varieties.

I came across this website about a seed-saving event in Toronto; hmm, if snowy climate places encourage seed swaps, why not us warmer climate folks?

There was a nice seed sharing booth at the Carolina Farm Stewardship's annual meeting last fall. We were invited to take samples of seeds (in small manila envelopes) to try -- what a great thing to offer up. I haven't saved seeds myself yet -- but it's an excellent thing to save open-pollinated varieties, many of which are 'pass-a-long' or heirloom varieties.

It's traditional (and vital) in most of the world to do so.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Seed potatoes

Hooray, my potatoes arrived today! It's way too early to plant them (I was definitely optimistic when I sowed the first round of greens last weekend).

But gardening is about expectation and hope and looking forward to potential harvests. And each season is different in what the weather brings.

These potatoes have arrived in time to be 'chitted' (that is, sprouted), before planting in early March.

I could have searched out seed potatoes at a local seed and feed place (not that I've ever seen any available), but it's much more exciting to get these from a family farm in Maine -- Wood Prairie Farm. I've grown potatoes for the last several years with seed potatoes from them and have been happy with their choices and enjoyed the harvest. I haven't grown enough to store in a root cellar (I need to create one), but have harvested enough for us to savor the diversity.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Cold frames

If I were handy with tools (or my gardening companion was), I'm sure I could build a lovely and inexpensive cold frame. But since I'm not handy, and he's not, and we don't have any power tools, I've had to resort to trying to purchase decently sturdy ones.

My first was an aluminum framed one, with flimsy poly panels and top. That didn't last long, even after I replaced the top with glass (hmm, one season's worth there).

So, I ordered this one last fall, which required some assembly (I CAN screw in bolts and fasteners, although it's not my favorite activity). It seems quite sturdy, easy to move around, and I'll see how it works.

Of course, a rectangle of hay bales with an old window top would have worked fine, too.

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Spinach, lettuce, mustard, and mache

In the main vegetable garden this winter and spring, I'm avoiding planting brassicas (kale, collards, arugula, mustards, etc.) to dampen the root-knot nematodes (even though I have a few overwintered collards).

I'm also only going to plant nematode-resistant tomatoes and peppers when warm weather comes.

So, garlic, onion sets, lettuce, mache, and spinach are what I've planted so far. The garlic went in last fall, with the onion sets being stuck over the last couple of weeks, and the greens just sown.

I also sowed a couple of flats of spicy mesclun and radicchio, as well as large containers of spinach and mesclun. These can all be protected if a hard frost threatens. It's been mild for the last few days; not as warm as last week, but pleasant in the afternoons.

I've got all the beds ready to sow greens and early cole crops in the satellite garden, and hope I'll be able to snag the woodchuck who will be undoubtedly hungry as s/he emerges on warm days!

And my seed potatoes should arrive soon.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Emerging tulips

These tulips have barely made it above ground. The former owner of this house said he'd added them last year on a whim; I'm not sure what sort of soil they're growing in, but it will be interesting to see how they do!


Friday, February 13, 2009


I've always loved red tulips, even though they're not very useful, at least from an ecological perspective, in their domesticated form.

But, they were one of the first things I planted (in front of a white picket fence) as a beginning gardener. I think I planted them in a triangle, not knowing much about design. Domesticated tulips don't attract insects, have a nice scent, or last long in our warm climate, but they're certainly lovely.

Tulips (or cyclamens) have been our Valentine's Day flowers for many years. The morning light was lovely on this year's flowers.

Happy Valentine's Day!

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Flower visitors

Sorting through garden images for a talk, I came across these impressive-looking flower visitors. They were visiting what appear to be asters in a Portland garden last September.

This one seems to be some sort of unusual bee or hornet relative.

And this one looks more fly-like. Let me know if you know their real identity! I'm looking forward to spring, and watching more flower visitors....

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Planting times and sowing seeds

It can seem hard to figure out when to start transplants or sow seeds outdoors. You certainly can't rely on when transplants become available in local garden centers (it's usually WAY too early to put warm season vegetables in the ground).

But the best starting point advice (in the U.S.) is information from our state networks of the Cooperative Extension Service, and their equivalents in other places.

In my state, I can rely on fact sheets from Clemson University (our state's land grant institution, which through its Public Service Activities includes in its mission to provide science-based agricultural information to end-users.) Our CU Home and Garden Information Center's factsheet, Planning a Garden, is a great reference for sowing and planting times in the Piedmont, Midlands, and Coastal Plain of South Carolina. Our neighboring states (and states through the U.S., for that matter) have similar useful information distributed through their equivalent Cooperative Extension Service activities.

Another useful device that I'm using is a downloadable Excel spreadsheet for seed starting times, distributed by One of their readers (I think) created an extremely useful chart to determine (based on date of last frost) when to start transplants, sow seeds, and transplant seedlings. Check it out!

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Heirloom apples

Apples are one of the more time-consuming home garden fruits to grow, according to one of my favorite gardening podcasts, Gardening Conversations, coming from North Country Public Radio in Upstate New York. I download it through iTunes; their Jan. 19 podcast talked about apples (I listened to it this morning while walking).

But I also just received an e-mail notification of heirloom apple availability from Monticello's Center for Historic Plants for 'Esopus Spitzenburg', 'Albemarle Pippen, and 'Hewe's Crab Apple.' Hmmm.

And I've been eyeing the wonderful list of heirloom apples available at Big Horse Creek Farm in Ashe County, North Carolina. Some of the first things I planted as a VERY newbie gardener many years ago in SE Georgia (uh, not apple country) were apple trees - one of them, a Stark golden delicious, was just starting to bear fruit when we moved to South Carolina.

And, now being near apple country in the Piedmont, and having a bit of space in the mountains to plant a few trees -- I'm going to try some apples again. I've ordered some from Big Horse Creek Farm, to be grafted in March and ready to plant in fall. They include Sugarloaf, Carolina Pippin, Ashemeade's Kernel, and Cox Pippin. And maybe I should try the 'Esopus Spitzenburg,' in spite of the variety being a bit difficult. I had some in a heirloom apple sampler box once that were delicious.

And, I really LOVE apples.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Quiet winter nights

I tried a full moon night hike (at the Garden) for the first time yesterday. It was unusually warm for February, but a break after the cold weather last week.

What was remarkable was how quiet it was. Without the nocturnal symphony of crickets, katydids, and cicadas, the sounds were those of human habitat, cars in the distance and a faint bagpipe at dusk.

And the lights visible in winter -- apartments towards the highway, student apartments the other direction, security lights -- yikes! In spring and summer, night hikes in the Garden feel like you're out in the woods.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Growing vegetables

I'm so delighted that people are interested in growing vegetables again, even if it's encouraged by a combination of wanting to know where some of your food comes from (driven by scares produced by our industrial food system and regulatory difficulties), but also spurred by difficult economic times. Here in the U.S., vegetable gardening been a dormant activity for way too long.

I just read an excellent article by Barbara Damrosch in the current AARP magazine about 'Dirt Cheap Eats' extolling the benefits of growing (some) of your own vegetables. Unfortunately, the online version doesn't have a link to her piece, or I'd provide it.

Damrosch is an accomplished garden writer and gardener, and along with her spouse, Elliot Coleman, are totally inspiring with their gardening endeavors in Maine. Coleman's 'Four Season Harvest' transformed my thinking about vegetable gardening here in a mild winter area.

She suggests, quite wisely, starting small, but points out that a small plot (12 ft x 12 ft) can produce up to $500 worth of vegetables for a modest investment in soil amendments, organic fertilizer, and seeds (approximately $50), if you don't have to fence out critters (add another $150).

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Time to plant the first peas

It was a perfect late winter day here, temperatures in the upper 60's (°F), sunny and warm. It felt more like spring. The winter honeysuckle was covered in honey bees foraging for nectar.

After a weekend away largely spent on indoor house activities (yuck), it was nice to return home and spend an hour or so turning over the remaining beds, sowing a first series of snap peas (Sugar Sprint) and garden peas (Wando and Maestro), a round of arugula, and a flat of mixed lettuce, to go in the cold frame when the weather turns cold again.

I replanted some favas (broad beans), too, mainly as an experiment, since I think there may not be time for a crop to mature before it gets too hot. My fall planting of favas had a few blackened survivors still with healthy-looking roots, but it was really way too cold this winter for most normally winter hardy greens. Even collards show signs of frost damage.

This week looks like it will be mild; I'm going to continue to put in onion sets and sow more early greens.

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Friday, February 6, 2009


I was searching around for beginning vegetable gardener layout plans for awhile today, thinking about what might be best encouraged (how big, raised beds?, start small and expand, what to grow?)

But I happened on a wonderful piece from the Herb Companion about a step by step approach. How nice. But what perked my interest is that one of the first things he includes are apples, espaliered in the back of the garden.

I love apples and would definitely enjoy adding them to my garden (if I didn't have to spray and coddle them too very much) either here in the Piedmont or in the mountains. I'm going to poke around investigating good apple varieties-- maybe I'll find something suitable!

And in my searching around the web, I was reminded that the Royal Horticultural Society is doing a GREAT job with their Grow More Veg and Grow More Fruit website. They actually have informative and interesting videos about growing techniques -- check it out!

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

What does a beginning gardener need to know?

I think this is maybe the question that I really had in mind (in my post yesterday).

A question like that, though, makes it seem like all you need is the short list of topics or the top Ten list.

Isn't learning about plants, gardening and the natural world (anything you're interested in, for that matter) a lifetime (or continuing) pursuit?

I like to end presentations about wildlife gardening, or gardening with native plants, or vegetable gardening with this quote from Thomas Jefferson. It's often quoted, as it deserves to be.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What do you need to know to be a good gardener?

I've been mulling over this today.

There's a traditional horticulture approach that includes soil science, basic botany and entomology, fertilizers and composting, learning about ornamental, herbaceous, and woody plants, integrated pest management and pesticide safety.

In the U.S., many of our Master Gardener programs coordinated by land grant universities follow a curriculum based on this approach. Some states have diverged into sustainable gardening (Oregon, Illinois, Maine, and others) or EarthKind gardening at Texas A&M.

But as a passionate gardener, who was 'trained' as a plant ecologist, I'm not sure that this is exactly what you need to know to be a good gardener.

Do you really need to know about soil chemistry and cations, and how that works?

Of course, understanding your soil's characteristics, building soil food webs, increasing soil health, and adding organic matter is important to any garden. If you want to grow plants that require nutrient-rich soil (think vegetables, which are seasonally harvested), soil enrichment is incredibly important, whether it's from organic cover crops or fossil-fuel dependent 10-10-10. But adding mulch and compost, along with organic fertilizers, takes care of these needs without learning about cation balance.

So what about Basic Botany and Entomology?

Understanding how plants grow, reproduce, how they're related, how they spread -- these are all important topics within 'Basic Botany.' Ditto for 'Entomology' and insects of all sorts.

I DO wish I had taken an enlightened Entomology class somewhere along the way in my 'formal' training. But there's an awful lot of dull stuff that masquerades as Basic Botany out there; trust me, I've had to teach it. And Entomology is equally dreadful, if mishandled.

And not to mention plant pathology (all the things that can go wrong) and often do, if your garden isn't in balance or has had pests introduced (root-knot nematodes, in my case).

Uh, pesticide safety? Excellent idea, but I think I'll just say no. I'm frankly relying on pest control from my wildlife-friendly garden.

What do you think you need to know to be a good gardener? To grow vegetables, flowers, shrubs, trees, etc.?

Let me know.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Winter light

The clear air sharpened the edges of reflected light, at sunset this evening. Gray-blue tones tinged with rose and orange surrounded tree branches with a sudden brightness when the sun found a break in the clouds. Lovely, even if the camera didn't quite see what I did.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Eat the View campaign

It would be fabulous if the Obamas diverted part of the White House lawn to an organic vegetable garden. Why not, really? Lawns are fine, in moderation, but huge expanses don't make a lot of sense, ecologically or otherwise.

Kitchen Gardeners International has been using blogging and internet power to encourage this idea since WAY before our US election in November. And this idea won a non-profit contest for best initiative from

And why shouldn't we try to grow more food in the city, as this link suggests? And those of us in rural and suburban areas, with available space, certainly why not?

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Cabbages and their kin

Cabbage is a crop with many relatives. They include broccoli, kale, collard greens, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, broccoli rabe, and kohlrabi, in addition to other variations. Brassica oleracea, or Wild Mustard, has given rise to an impressive diversity of crop plants, illustrating the selective possibilities in a single species, to be sure.

A keen and experienced local (near where I garden) vegetable gardener (CEN) mentioned cabbages in a comment on a recent post. She mentioned a large cabbage with a pointed top, that was so large that it's chopped off in pieces for sale.

It got me thinking about cabbage variations, and the HUGE cabbages that we saw in northern Vietnam.

An early morning outside of Sapa found us poking around in nearby vegetable and flower gardens. There were the largest cabbages I'd ever seen growing in the understory of a forest canopy. This photo doesn't really reflect how LARGE the cabbages were, without a relative scale to compare.

We were certainly off the tourist route, having taken a downward path from the main road, very early in the morning (the flash reflection on the photo shows that).

As we continued to walk down the valley, a young woman overtook us, loaded with giant cabbages for market.

The other crop here was roses, destined for flower markets in Hanoi, and maybe elsewhere. They were grown with protective paper cones around the buds.

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