Beyond Tomato and Basil: New Plants for Your Home Garden

Here's how to get the most out of your garden—and how to use your bounty in the kitchen.

By: Sharon Stirling

Firefly chef Danny Bortnick likes what he can pick in his home garden. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Looking to plant something a little more exciting than tomato and basil? We asked local chefs with gardens of their own for easy-to-grow ideas.

Rob Weland, chef at Poste in DC’s Penn Quarter, suggests planting salad greens: “They’re extremely easy and come back quickly when cut correctly.” He especially likes the slightly bitter flavors of dandelion, kale, and geranium, and he grows mesclun and mâche for their softer textures.

When it comes to herbs, Firefly chef Danny Bortnick favors lemon verbena: “It smells great and adds great flavor to salads and even cocktails.” He tends more than 70 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs in his 450-square-foot home garden.

Perhaps the most avid gardener is Frank Ruta, chef/owner of Palena in DC’s Cleveland Park. He plants seeds he’s saved from year to year, with some strains dating back to his childhood. In early July, he plants shelling beans and Italian heirloom squash.

You can save and replant heirloom seeds by collecting them from ripened vegetables, washing and drying them, and then storing them in airtight containers in a cool, dark, dry place until you’re ready to use them next season.

Ruta suggests finding a sunny spot in your garden to make a home for wild fennel. In early summer, he cuts and dries its yellow flowers, then sifts and saves the fennel pollen, which adds a hint of anise flavor to marinades, breads, and fish dishes. “There’s nothing quite like it,” Ruta says. Use the feathery fronds in salads and the tougher stalks to flavor pickle brines and soups.

If you’re up to a challenge, consider starting celery seeds in trays to add to your fall garden lineup. It requires more tending than a tomato vine, but Ruta swears that homegrown celery is so flavorful “you will be spoiled forever from the grocery-store variety.”

This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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