Summer Harvest and Mantids
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
It was a fine day in the BGG yesterday. The plants were growing well. The annoying late starters were coming along, and best of all, we had our first summer harvest of the season!
To be clear, I've picked vegetables and herbs since May and either Mary Liz or I delivered them, but those were crops that were planted last year and managed not to die through the winter — a testament to Farmer Dave's brilliant stewardship. But yesterday's harvest was huge because those were from the crops we planted this season not last, so their harvest was reason to celebrate. I managed to harvest some rainbow chard, lavender, lots of thyme (that stuff doesn't quit no matter how much I abuse the plant), about a pound of very fragrant basil, and some parsley.
The rainbow chard to me was the top performer. I'm a huge fan of that stuff not just for culinary reasons, but also because it's just so darn pretty. The bunch I harvested was mostly red and green, but still growing are some yellows and oranges. Until the tomatoes get their butts in gear and start reddening up, the chard will be the only edible color we will see aside from green.
A Fine Leafy Green
A lot of people have asked me through the garden fence what one does with rainbow chard or any Swiss chard in general. Swiss chard and rainbow chard are the same overall plant and can be used interchangeably. The main difference is that rainbow chard has really colorful stalks. I must admit, chard wasn't something that I grew up with, and I only got into it after I started frequenting farmers' markets and began paying more attention to what I put into my body, which was somewhere around my early 30s, or more specifically about 25 lbs ago.
The first thing I say is to try it in salad along with all the other leafy greens to get the feel for its flavor. The closest way to describe the flavor is to say that it tacks toward baby spinach in taste but has a texture when uncooked like a very leafy lettuce. The taste can vary a bit depending on whether the chard was picked when the leaves were young or if they were left on the plant for longer — older leaves can have a slightly more bitter taste whereas younger leaves at least to me are a little more earthy and slightly sweeter. Some say that the crunchy stalks have a slight beety flavor, which makes sense because chard is related to the beet, but to me the stalks are still closer to spinach in lingering flavor but with more of a muted crunch like a stalk of celery that had been left in the fridge a little too long.
If you're into soups during the summer and fall (yes I like soup in the summer, but I also like ice cream in the winter so at least I'm consistent with my out-of-season delights), chopped up chard does quite well especially in chicken-broth based soups much in the same way that spinach does. Pretty much if wherever you use spinach, odds are you can use chard.
The way I prepare my chard the most is to cut off the main stalks, quickly chop it — not too fine, just a few hacks — and throw it into a pan with a few halved cloves of garlic and olive oil, give it a good fry until the garlic browns, and then serve it as a side dish. Some people may throw some toasted pignoli nuts in as well, which is also quite good, but I'm generally too lazy to bother with toasting anything, and I usually save my pignolis for pesto.
Another thing I will do is to throw maybe a quarter to a half cup of chopped up pancetta into a frying pan along with some chopped up onions, fry it for about 5 minutes at medium/lowish heat, toss in my chopped chard and a little salt, cook until the chard looks, well, cooked, then either serve it straight or throw it over some type of spirally pasta along with a little olive oil and Romano cheese. A bit of fresh black pepper to finish it off and you've got yourself a tasty dish.
Lastly, one could simply pick a leaf right off the plant, spray it down with the hose to wash off any bugs, and then just eat it there in the garden as I did yesterday. Although some reading this would probably find that a bit unsanitary and disgusting. Don't judge me.
My Friend the Mantis
After I was done harvesting the vegetables, I did a fair amount of pruning on the tomato plants removing yellowed leaves and other unnecessary branches that would have diverted nutrients from the fruit. I threw the pruned the branches into my red bucket and later took it over to dump its contents into Pete's Composter. When I looked in as I usually do after dumping a load of waste into the composter, I noticed crawling up from the refuse a tiny, green praying mantis. By the size of it I'd say it was no more than maybe 10 to 15 days old and was oddly cute for a bug that likes to devour prey head first.
Praying mantises are a gardener's best friend. They are skilled bug hunters that will rid your garden of a number of leaf-eating pests while leaving your crops alone. On the downside, they may kill ladybugs, which are also beneficial, however you're not likely to see a significant drop in the ladybug population due to the action of mantids.
If a mantis appears in your garden that means that there are bugs for it to feed on, which means there are bugs in your garden attracted to the food you're growing, which means that you're growing good stuff, which means your soil and water management is going well, which means that your entire garden is doing well. Prior to finding that mantis, I had seen a small green grasshopper trying to not look like it was munching on the eggplant leaf it was standing on, so the presence of a ravenous bug hunter was quite a relief.
Another great thing about mantids in general is that even though they look vicious, they're harmless to humans, and you can handle them without fear of bite. They're delicate so you've got to be gentle with them, but they're a great insect to show kids once you get over the initial urge to flick them away (the kids not the mantis). The one minor downside to handling a mantis is that many adult males in the Mantidae family can fly, so don't be surprised if you try to handle one and then it suddenly takes off with an unsettling buzzing sound. Happened to me more than once truth be told. Shocked the hell out of my boys one of those times.
The mantis I found was small and I didn't want to leave it in the composter so I managed to coax it onto my finger after which it immediately began to run up my arm. Mantids are not known for being fleet of foot but this one was surprisingly nimble as it ran up. I had to get it onto my other hand before it got higher than my bicep, otherwise it would have been a little too close to my head, which would have thrown me into a fit of heebie-jeebies. Then the little thing tried to do the same on the other arm but I was able to get it back onto my hand and place it onto a tomato leaf. It blended into the leaves so well, I ended up losing sight of it within minutes as it moved into the denser leaf cover likely to take up an ambush position. Hopefully as you read this, our new mantis friend is somewhere on the southern edge of the Giving Garden biting the head off some leaf-eating insect or another, thus maintaining order within its ecosystem.
The appearance of mantids is generally a sign that the garden ecosystem is doing well. I always insist that I don't build gardens, but rather I try to create and manage ecosystems that yield vegetables. That may sound like a big ol' pile of (compostable) dung to some and an overstatement of gardening to others, but I've always found that viewing the garden as a whole system instead of a collection of tasty plants has elevated my gardening game to much higher levels. The soil, the water, the plants, the sun, the birds, the chipmunks, the plants that make the bees happy, the bugs that eat the plants, the bugs that eat the bugs that eat the plants — everything in a vegetable garden is connected. And of course that vegetable garden is connected to the world and the people who consume its bounty. It also helps to think of the whole system when dealing with pests because sometimes the presence of a pest can be indicative of an imbalance elsewhere within the garden. I'll get into pests in a later post, but for now just know that viewing gardens as small complete ecosystems is what turns good gardeners into better ones. It also makes people like me ecstatic when they find a mantid on their compost.