Oh, the Things You Can Grow
The milkweed looked pretty much stripped of its leaves. “It’s a host plant for monarchs,” explained Jacob Martin, owner and grower at Old School Produce. As if on cue a beautiful monarch fluttered by. Jacob has grown an oasis of edible greens on a corner lot in Oak Forest, and the local populations of bees and butterflies know it. His many varieties of mint and basil alone are a pollinator’s paradise. As are the bright yellow flowers of the popcorn cassia, so named for the scent of fresh popcorn it gives off when you rub it. Or the blooms of the bushy lemon drop pepper plant, which thrives in Houston’s humid heat and bears its hot, lemony peppers all summer long.
The astounding diversity in Jacob’s garden attracts local chefs, too. From Roselle (edible hibiscus) to borage, some of the treasures that stand out are banana fig, chocolate habanero, curry leaf, root beer plant and even a peppercorn plant. Gotu kola, often dubbed the “longevity herb,” for its medicinal properties, is growing rampant behind the shed. Its clover-like leaves are tasty and firm.
Old School Produce’s main business is microgreens. Microgreens take only five days to grow, and pack an incredible punch of flavor. The tiniest leaf of a micro radish, for instance, has the same sharp and refreshing taste as a whole radish. Ever-popular are easy-to-grow sunflower sprouts. Jacob employs various gardening systems, including an “ebb-and-flow” system that looks like a kitchen trolley: The top tray is filled with pebbles, and underneath is a tub with a tube feeding into the top tray. The water and nutrients are pumped up to the point of flooding. It slowly drains back into the tub below, until the next watering is needed. Kept in a shaded spot, it helps plants thrive throughout the hot summer.
A biology major, Jacob tries to grow as much diversity as he can. Bring him a seed and he will do his best to bring it to fruition. It is how he came to have a healthy bush of curry leaves, not to mention chaya, or tree spinach. The leaves of this tree are packed with nutrients, and seeing how it grows so easily in Houston, Jacob would love to see chaya grow in everyone’s garden. “In this city, with so many people struggling with limited access to healthy food, a single plant like this can provide a family with the greens they need,” said Jacob.
Francine Spiering is managing editor for Edible Houston, and a freelance food writer with a culinary degree. Check out her blog lifeinthefoodlane.com