- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007

Finally, a salad. And a celebration of sorts.

A number of salads have come out of Kristen Mosbaek’s front yard in East Bethesda through the years. At times she has harvested such wholesome ingredients as fresh tomatoes (up to six varieties), cucumbers, peppers, herbs, greens, squash and occasionally melons.

“I’ve been in the house about 12 years, and every year the garden changes,” Ms. Mosbaek says.

This summer’s yield included arugula plus edible weeds such as purslane and sorrel, all of which were in the colorful dish she prepared recently for a family dinner.

The purslane is wild, as is the wood sorrel. In the past, melons have responded well to the warmth of the asphalt driveway, but shade trees on the property keep them and a number of other summer fruits and vegetables from thriving.

Even so, she manages to have an edible garden where other people might have only grass. She puts flowers among the vegetable plants for both aesthetic and practical reasons. A bank of sunflowers that borders the street adds color and also helps with pollinating the vegetable plants.

Her garden is small, taking up only about one-fifth of the yard. More fervent front-yard gardeners devote their entire lawns to plants and ground cover, but she doubts that the edible-landscape movement, as it’s called, has taken root in the Washington area with as much enthusiasm as it has in California. One reason is the much longer growing season in that Western state. An experimental project called Edible Estates was begun two years ago in Los Angeles by architect Fritz Haeg, who wants to replace lawns around the country with native plants.

Ms. Mosbaek is unusually conscientious about her relationship to nature and the world around her. Her recipes are filed by the season to take advantage of what is fresh. If she likes a certain kind of pepper, she will save the seeds and plant them. She collects rainwater in barrels. She keeps a compost pile and practices what she calls “companion planting,” such as using marigolds to help repel bugs.

“I put as much compost on as mulch in the fall, and then worms take nutrients into the soil,” she says.

Each year is different, she says: “Every year is a new problem.” This summer, being so dry, definitely wasn’t good for tomatoes.

Normally she starts seedlings indoors in February under a grow light so that some plants can go into the ground by mid-May.

“The rule is Mother’s Day,” she says.

Lettuce goes in as soon as the ground is warm enough, even in March, and one or two other things in April. She also makes a tiny greenhouse known as a cold frame out of old wood and glass — “whatever I find at a construction site” — that has enabled her to eat mesclun and Swiss chard in winter.

She buys “local” as much as possible, meaning, in her words, “not using [much] gasoline to shop,” and she prefers shopping only at the nearby Bethesda Farmers Market to acquire what she doesn’t grow. “If it isn’t there, then I don’t cook with it,” she says.

“Of course, if you want to eat locally and healthily, canning is the answer,” she notes, but she has yet to go that route. (Lack of time is one reason. She has a family; runs a graphic design studio, Kristen Mosbaek Communications, out of her home; volunteers at a day care center; and is a substitute teacher one day a week at an elementary school.)

Freezing is next best, though she calls it “double-edged” — a fallback method that is convenient but risks losing the food’s fresh taste. However, in her view, freezing is better than using packaged or convenience food that often contains large amounts of sodium and preservatives.

“We [Americans] won’t work on the obesity issue until we have more time to cook,” she declares while cutting up small yellow tomatoes picked from the garden just minutes before.

The salad that day would be a Nicoise, so she also boiled some eggs and potatoes and added olives and lightly cooked green beans to the mix. The dressing would contain some of her homemade herb vinegar.

Taking the view that “we all know more than we give ourselves credit for — we all have clay and we all have shade,” she started a neighborhood garden club by putting a notice in a community newspaper.

“We are really all good cooks,” she says.

Members have monthly meetings to share recipes and tour one another’s gardens. In November she hosted a meeting whose theme was making herb vinegar.

One of the club’s outside speakers included Kevin Kraus, an East Bethesda resident who is a professor of philosophy at Catholic University and something of an expert on wild plants — chiefly edible grasses and weeds — that he harvests in his own yard. Most of his property is edible, he says, including precious chanterelle mushrooms in the back yard. In addition, he grows strawberries and tomatoes, plus the usual herbs. He even has fig and banana trees. The banana trees are members of the ginger family and are dug up and stored indoors for the winter, then replanted in the spring.

“I eat a lot of what people term weeds,” he says. “Dock is one that is quite delicious, in taste much like spinach but finer — lemony. They have big broad leaves and grow year-round. Shiso is a type of nettle that has green leaves.”

Another he favors is lamb’s-quarters, which he describes as “tasty, like asparagus” when they are still green. Japanese knotweed, too, he says. It “grows like bamboo,” and “when you cut the stalks a foot tall, they are a bit like asparagus.”

“Nature takes care of itself,” Mr. Kraus says confidently, adding that it isn’t wise to interfere too much. “Come by our house at the end of September, and you will see thousands of yellow flowers 10 and 12 feet high. These are Jerusalem artichokes. The tubers are edible. I only planted a few several years ago, and now they replant themselves.”

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