Of matters related to social class and social conscience

Cardoon - the next trendy crop for basil sophisticates?

Cardoon - the next trendy crop for basil sophisticates?

I have fun with Twitter, the social networking stream where you have be very brief and succinct and most interaction takes place with strangers. Not that gardening tweeps (the lingo says a participant is a tweep, not a twit or twitterer) are generally inspiring, witty or memorable. But Twitter delivered me two gems this week of a horticultural bent.

The first tweet linked me through to a column from the Dominion Post discussing baby names – which has nothing whatever to do with gardening unless you draw the long bow and comment on the growing popularity of flower names such as Lily and Poppy. Goodness, maybe Daphne is due for a recall. Mark suggested when our daughters were born that we could go for Astelia or Aciphylla – the latter being a spiky native plant and his favoured option, even more so if we chose the botanical reference Dieffenbachii as the poor wee mite’s middle name. But I digress. That column by Dave Armstrong referred to the “basil growing classes”. I laughed out loud. As a definition of middle class, urban, somewhat leftwing New Zealand, the basil growing classes seemed wonderfully apt. There is a limit to how versatile basil is and there is only so much pesto one can eat. Salads of sweet tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella and basil leaves are equally delightful but the price of mozzarella (the white stuff cocooned in water, not the nasty long life stuff) limits how often this appears in our household. I can remember that there was indeed Life Before Basil in this country – a time when only those who had backpacked through Italy had been introduced to the seductive fragrance of freshly picked basil leaves. Now it is a defining herb of the middle classes here and to grow your own makes you trendier.

Cardoon flowers are showier than basil flowers

Cardoon flowers are showier than basil flowers

So, if your children bear names like Oliver, Samuel and Amelia, you probably drive an urban SUV but your husband bikes to work, you have tomatoes in a grow bag, a worm farm and pots of basil growing, consider yourself one of the basil growing social class. In which case I have a hot tip – cardoon is my prediction for the new basil. It is sufficiently obscure to be interesting. It is extremely decorative in the garden. It is edible. We have eaten it. To be honest, we weren’t blown away by it (not like Florence fennel) but it is fine. In case you want to know more, instructions for growing it are below.

But I was ever so slightly crushed this week when Mark asked me to Google burdock. He was debating about what to do with the small plants he had growing after being enticed to buy seed from Kings Seed Catalogue. In fact we decided on balance that burdock is probably not worth the garden space, has dangerous weed potential, does not sound particularly tasty at all and has a very low yield to space required. But there, amongst the burdock information was the one line: Burdock: peeled leaf stalks are parboiled and used as a substitute for cardoon.

Wow. Some have never even heard of cardoon. Some don’t know that cardoon is edible. Some are still at the experimental stage of determining how edible it is. It is not yet showing up in any cookbooks I have seen, even though I receive review copies of many of the latest publications. But it is already such a staple in some people’s diets that they have found a substitute for it? I am amazed. My advice is to not delay if you wish to catch the wave of cardoon as a fashion crop. I will try and be earlier with my next prediction.

The second tweet was not so much as a source of amusement as vindicating a stance we have been taking here for some time. An American tweep, @InkandPenstemon, posted the comment: “The static monoculture of a lawn is never more unattractive than when it is exposed in the winter.”

We prefer to talk about grass rather than lawns these days

We prefer to talk about grass rather than lawns these days

It has felt a little lonely at times, standing on our high horse bemoaning the obsession with the perfect lawn. At last I am seeing more talk challenging the high value we place on completely unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly lawn maintenance. There is a column in the latest NZ Gardener by Steve Wratten on this very topic. The author just happens to be Professor of Ecology at Lincoln University. He goes further than we do in that he eschews the motor mower in favour of an electric mower. I will own up to the fact that we use a pretty damn fancy lawnmower and we use it extensively. Because we have an open garden, there are standards we feel obliged to maintain and mowing large areas of grass is part of that. Perhaps we could offset that against the fact that our car usually gets to leave the garage only once or twice a week?

I make no apology for continuing a public crusade. We should not be embracing gardening values which are environmentally damaging and the worst one of all is the perfect lawn. A smooth monoculture of a single species of grass is a completely unnatural state of affairs which can only be maintained with chemical intervention. If you insist on killing off the earthworms as well (as some do to avoid the surface being pocked by worm casts and tilled by birds), your crimes against nature are compounded exponentially. It is time we questioned this particular gardening value.

The irony is that it is probably the very same basil growing classes who are likely to wise up to this situation and act upon it in the first wave of concern. Clearly there is a lot to be said for basil as a defining social measure.

Earlier articles on lawn care here include “What does your lawn say about you?” from 2011 and “The lawn as a political statement” from 2006.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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