King Henry Was, And Is, Good

The good king has gone to seed. Good King Henry, that is. A plant. But no matter about that going to seed. The leaves still taste good, steamed or boiled just like spinach.

The taste similarity with spinach isn’t surprising because both plants are in the same botanical family, the Chenopodiaceae, or, more recently, the Amaranthaceae. Spinach and Good King Henry didn’t change families; their family was just taken in by, and made into a subfamily of, the Amaranthaceae.Good King Henry

Whatever its name — and it’s also paraded under such common names as poor man’s asparagus and Lincolnshire spinach — Good King Henry is a vegetable that’s been eaten for hundreds of years, except hardly ever nowadays. While spinach, beet, and some of its other kin have been improved by breeding and selection over the years, Good King Henry was neglected.

But the Good King, besides having good flavor, has a few things going for it lacking in spinach. It’s a perennial plant, it’s edible all season long, and it has no pests problems worth mentioning. This Mediterranean native made its way to my garden over 20 years ago, from seed I purchased and sowed. I haven’t had to replant it since then.

Which brings me to one possible downside of Good King Henry: It keeps trying to spread beyond the far corner of the garden where I originally planted it. Every spring I yank out errant plants, and eat them.

One of my favorite things about Good King Henry is its species name, bonus-henricus, making its whole botanical name Chenopodium bonus-henricus.

Another Perennial Oldie

Another perennial vegetable that I’ve enjoyed this spring is seakale (Crambe maritima), a relative of cabbage, broccoli, and kale. This also is an old-timey vegetable, one whose popularity peaked in the 18th century; Thomas Jefferson was a fan.

The origin of the name may trace to the leaves (kale-like) being pickled to bring aboard ships (the “sea” part of the name) to prevent scurvy.

Seakale, though perennial, does not spread. I started my plants from seed a few years ago, which is tricky only because the seeds have a low germination percentage. I’ve seen a few seedlings pop up a foot or so from the mother plant, which I welcome as an easy way to multiply my holdings.Seakale, blanched

Seakale tastes very good either cooked or raw, something like a mild cabbage with a refreshing touch of bitterness. Either way, blanching is needed to make it tasty, and that entails nothing more than covering it for a couple weeks or so, more or less depending on the weather (more warmth, less time), to keep out light and make the shoots more mild and tender.  I invert a clay flowerpot over the whole plant, with a stone or saucer over the drainage hole to keep light from wending its way in. Like asparagus, new leaves eventually need to be set free to bask in the sun to fuel the roots for the next year’s early shoots.

One more plus for seakale is that the plant is a beauty, so much so that it’s sometimes planted as an ornamental. The wavy, pale bluish green leaves have a silvery pallor reminiscent of the British seascape to which they are native. Later in the season, a seafoam of white blossoms rises from the whorl of leaves.Seakale in flower

I Give Up

Now for an about face, from European plants enjoying cool weather and sometimes dry conditions, to a tropical American plant. Awhile back I wrote about my efforts to grow avocados here in New York’s Hudson Valley. Not on a large scale; just one or two plants from which I could harvest a few fruits of some special variety.

I grew two plants from seeds I saved from locally purchased avocado fruits, and grafted onto those seedlings the stems of two varieties a gardening buddy sent up from Florida. Ungrafted, the seedling plants would bear fruit of unknown quality, if they bore at all. Grafted plants would give me improved, named varieties that would bear quickly.Avocado grafts

avocado about to flower


I failed. Only one graft took, yet two varieties are needed for fruiting. As expected, the grafted stem on the successfully grafted plant flowered within a year of grafting. For days I tried to get the pollen from the male to pollinate the female parts of the flower — to no avail. And then, for some reason, the grafted stem started to darken and turn black, and died back.Avocado with dead graft

I give up on trying to grow an indoor-outdoor avocado plant — for fruit — in a pot.


Anti-Weed Tools

    Recently sown vegetable seeds that have sprouted are growing slowly; weeds and lawn are growing fast. Give weeds an inch, and they’ll take a mile. Ignore growing lawngrass, and soon you’ll need a tractor or a scythe to cut it down to size.Wire weeder and winged weeder
    But few people ignore their lawns. Dealing with the growing grass is straightforward: You get out the lawnmower and go back and forth or round and round until every grass blade has been sheared.
    Weeding demands more thought, technique, and intimacy with vegetation. Different weeds and different settings call for different approaches. In a vegetable garden, a hoe might be the tool of choice. My choices for hoes are the winged weeder, with a sharp blade that runs parallel to the ground surface and just slightly below ground in use, and the wire weeder, whose wire performs similarly.
    Mostly, though, I don’t need or use a hoe in my “weedless” (actually, “weed-less”) vegetable garden. Weeds are few enough and the soil is soft enough so that all that’s necessary is to bend over and pull out a weed, tops and all. Tap-rooted weeds, such as dandelion, need coaxing out with the aid of a trowel or hori-hori knife. That coaxing also helps lift a quackgrass plant gently enough to allow following its subterranean runner as far as possible until it breaks.Quackgrass with runner
    Along garden edges, my half-moon edger is very good at scouring out a dry moat that stops weed. Problem is that my garden has a lot of edges. And furthering the problem, any edges neglected for more than a couple of weeks during a spell of good growing conditions puts that edge back to square one.

Fire and Acid

    Just outside the glass sliding doors of my living room is a brick terrace that makes a nice take-off point to a short expanse of lawn and then, through an arbor, into the main vegetable garden. Or, turning, south, towards the greenhouse and meadow. You’d think that the brick surface of the terrace would be maintenance- and weed-free. Not so.
 Flame weeding   It’s a tribute to the tenacity of weeds how they manage to take root or sprout, and then thrive, in the small openings between adjacent bricks. Even in the small cracks between the bricks and the masonry wall of the house. Some of those “weeds” are actually welcome there — such as the wild columbines that send up thin stalks at the ends of which hover orange and yellow blossoms whose rear-pointing spurs gives the flowers the appearance of flaming rockets.
    Still, most of those weeds have to go. Pulling them out individually would be too tedious, and takes with them what little dirt or rock dust lies between the bricks. So I torch them, instead. A small, hand-held torch would be effective, but slow. I use the appropriately named Dragon Weeder, whose 3-inch diameter nozzle attaches, via a 10-foot long hose, to a 20 gallon propane tank. Fire roars out of this dragon’s mouth like a jet engine, and all that’s needed is a quick pass. No need to set plants on fire; just heat them enough to burst their cells. And this wet day is ideal to reduce the risk of fire spreading.
    Equally effective for an expanse like my terrace is to burn foliage with vinegar. Household vinegar, straight up (5 or 6% acetic acid), does the trick as long as the temperatures are above 70°F. Effectiveness is increased if 2 tablespoons per gallon of canola oil and 1 tablespoon per gallon of liquid soap is added to the vinegar, and if vegetation is not so large as to cause “shadows” where lower vegetation gets bypassed.
    Either fire or vinegar kills only the tops of plants. Roots might have sufficient stored energy to send up new sprouts, so treatments must be repeated until roots have used up all their energy.

Weed Food

    Corn salad is considered a weed in Europe. It’s borderline weedy in my garden, with its tufts of greenery clustering near the foot of some of my vegetable beds and occasionally elsewhere.
    No need to hoe it, hori-hori it, torch it, or vinegar corn salad. I let it be, even coax it along, in some areas, and weed it out in others. Corn salad and I can maintain this congenial relationship because I like to eat it.
    The same can be said for Good King Henry, another European import that could take over my garden if given free rein. It’s a relatively unknown relative of more familiar edibles like lamb’s-quarters (Cheno­pod­­­ium album), epazote (C. ambrosioides), and quinoa (C. quinoa), and, to me, the best-tasting of the lot. Even if you didn’t like the flavor of Good King Henry, you couldn’t help loving its botanical name, C. bonus-henricus. Eat it and weed.