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posted: 7/4/2014 6:00 AM

Six great backyard plants for garden-to-table use

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  • Use branches of fresh rosemary as skewers to hold vegetables or small pieces of meat for grilling.

      Use branches of fresh rosemary as skewers to hold vegetables or small pieces of meat for grilling.
    Courtesy of Burpee

  • After hop cones ripen and are harvested and dried, store them in airtight plastic bags and freeze until brewing time.

      After hop cones ripen and are harvested and dried, store them in airtight plastic bags and freeze until brewing time.
    Courtesy of Burpee

  • Goji berries are rich in antioxidants and great fresh on cereal, in salads or blended into healthy drinks.

      Goji berries are rich in antioxidants and great fresh on cereal, in salads or blended into healthy drinks.
    Courtesy of Burpee

 
By Erin Chan Ding
CTW Features

Back in the day, an ambitious homeowner might set out a sturdy row of marigolds, add a mound of petunias, toss in a few gaudy gladiola bulbs and call it a garden.

That was then.

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Today's weekend warriors have grander plans. They start gardens in order to grow food and eat the harvest, sharing with friends and family.

Backyard vegetable gardens are thriving "because people want good food, nutritious food, and they want to know what their children are eating," says Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Garden, a seed company based in Felton, Calif.

The biggest trend? Younger people are rolling up their sleeves to plant and till. Says Shepherd: "Twenty years ago, gardening was something you do when you retired."

Chelsey Fields, a product manager at W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the Warminster, Pa., seed company, believes home gardeners are motivated by the desire to create something that's beautiful and useful. "People want their land to double-duty -- be pretty and produce food," she says.

The rewards accrue well before harvest time.

"It's really fun to be self-reliant and watch your food grow," Shepherd says. "It pleases human beings. To have a garden is something that will give you a lot of joy."

Here, six fun plants and tips for how to serve them, chez you.

Spring Mix

A combination of lettuces and greens, spring mix, or mesclun, thrives in cooler weather. An 18- to 20-inch container that's at least a foot deep can provide enough for a baby leaf salad that feeds four, Shepherd says. Start early and sow sequentially throughout spring and early summer, then later in the fall to keep the harvest going.

Serving tips: These delicate, sweet greens are especially delicious as a simple salad with a light dressing; Shepherd's favorite: a quart of mesclun combined with 1 cup grapes and 1/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts, dressed in a homemade olive oil-balsamic dressing spiked with orange juice, orange zest and fresh tarragon.

Hops

Hops are a basic ingredient of beer. What better ingredient for a home-brew than homegrown hops? Home-brewers can grow and dry their own hops by planting hop vines, also called bines. You'll need well-worked soil in a large area that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun a day and a trellis structure or poles to hold the bines. The bines "take off when the soil and air temperatures warm up," says Burpee's Fields, growing more than 15 feet in the first year and as much as 25 feet once they're established. The plants can produce up to 2 pounds of cones.

Usage tips: After hop cones ripen and are harvested and dried, store them in airtight plastic bags and freeze until brewing time.

Rosemary

Rosemary thrives in sunny, dry conditions, so find a well-drained spot for it. In mild climates, this perennial returns each year and can grow to shrub size.

Serving tips: Use rosemary to season roasted meats and vegetables. Flavor a roast chicken by placing branches of rosemary inside the cavity, with lemon halves, salt and pepper. Use branches of fresh rosemary as skewers to hold vegetables or small pieces of meat for grilling.

Use a fresh stalk as a garnish to perk up a cocktail. Use fresh rosemary flowers on salads. Cut a bunch and place it in the center of the dining table for a fragrant centerpiece.

Goji Berries

Be the first on your block to grow these raisin-sized, antioxidant-rich berries native to Asia. The deciduous shrub can grow to 12 feet. Purple summer blossoms turn to bright red berries in the fall. To encourage more fruit, train the berries onto a trellis or fence. They also can flourish in large flowerpots.

Serving tips: Eat them fresh, on cereal and in salads, blend them into healthy drinks, and use them as a dessert topping. Use fresh or dried goji berries instead of raisins in muffins and cookies.

Green Beans

Green Beans are virtually unstoppable in the garden. Keep them watered, pick the beans regularly, and you're in business.

Serving tips: Season with olive oil and roast for about seven minutes, then serve with chopped nuts. Or, steam and serve at room temperature, drizzled with butter and lemon.

Gourds

Give a gourd plant some elbow room, and watch it grow. The vines can stretch 10 to 12 feet. Start planting the seeds when night temperatures are consistently in the 50s. When the shells harden so that you can't pinch them with your fingers, harvest them and let them cure for a couple of weeks.

Usage tips: Use gourds to decorate your fall home. The crafty among us dry and clean gourds and turn them into serving bowls and vases for the harvest table.

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