Lauterbach: This year's novel experiment is an unusual Italian veggie

Special to the Idaho StatesmanMay 24, 2013 

For 41 years, I've been growing at least one crop each year different than I've grown before. Sometimes the newly tried vegetable or variety new to me is such a success it becomes a "must-grow"; other times it's been interesting to see how it grew.

This year one of the new crops I'm growing is agretti, grown and especially savored in southern Italy. Seeds have a short viability, and the new owners of Seeds from Italy dropped the price this spring to sell out. A friend bought a seed packet of agretti and shared them with me.

I haven't eaten it in a recipe yet, but I have learned it's a relative of Russian thistle (our tumbleweed). Agretti botanically is Salsola soda, and it tolerates salty soil but not hot weather.

It's commonly known as opposite-leaved saltwort or opposite-leaved Russian thistle or Barilla. Immature plants of Russian thistle are edible, too. Oddly, the botanical name for Russian thistle is Salsola iberica, indicating it comes from Spain, not Russia. Other sources say botanic name is Salsola kali.

At a height of about 3 inches, agretti has grasslike "branches" extending out from a short red trunk that I've read will become woody. The annual plant may grow to nearly 30 inches in height, but is usually used in Italian cooking when much smaller.

Apparently it's savored all over Italy, Spain and England, but is mainly grown in southern Italy. In Italy it's also known as barba di frati (monk's beard) or roscana. It's often steamed and used as a bed for poached or baked fish. It has been known to become invasive, but I doubt that will happen here in our heat and parched soil. It grows readily in salt marshes.

Historically it was burned to create an ash used in glassmaking.

FRUIT SUFFERS IN COLD

Late frosts reduced my fruit crop this year, but I hope commercial orchardists were protecting blossoms better than I. I lost peaches, cherries and some plums, perhaps some of the pears too. This is the "off" year for my biennial-bearing Gravenstein apple.

We do have tiny pears and plums on the trees, and neither quince nor mulberry have bloomed yet. Apricot trees are too small to bloom. I will have fruit on the Saskatoons, and that's not surprising since they're native to this general area. We'll just have to beat the birds and our dogs to them.

I do love spring, but I prefer it to come gradually. That fast shot of hot weather in mid-May will shorten the life of my lettuces and spinach. Alas, the leaf miners are already into the spinach.

If you started your tomatoes early and now have tall spindly plants to set out, either dig a hole so deep only about 6 inches of the plant will extend above ground or dig a trench and lay the plant in the trench, gently tipping the top of the plant upward so it will grow in that location.

Either way, roots will form all along the trunk of the plant.

MULCHING TIP

If you plan to use wood chips, use them on top of the soil as mulch. If you dig them in, you should add extra nitrogen, for when organic matter decays, it uses nitrogen until it's thoroughly composted, then it gives nitrogen back. If chips are lying on top of the soil, the N (nitrogen) loss in the soil is very small.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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