Carolina Gold Part 3: Magnolia Community Garden
Charleston Parks Conservancy was founded to inspire the people of Charleston to connect with their parks. In addition to park revitalization projects and community events, the Conservancy’s community garden program provides a way for citizens to engage with their parks and neighbors–all while growing food for their families and for donation to local food pantries. The Conservancy’s three community gardens serve as functional, friendly, and educational spaces for local neighborhoods and a complete park-to-table experience. Some of our gardeners might be familiar with Carolina Gold rice from our growing/harvesting series in 2014, or from viewing the now (almost) fully grown rice stalks in one of Magnolia Park’s community beds. Carolina Gold has significant cultural and historical value to the Lowcountry. In this series of blog posts, the Conservancy’s Olmsted intern Tim Housand will explore the history of Carolina Gold and learn how to grow it, charting its path from seedling to harvestable grain. Through this series, the Conservancy hopes to demystify a local food legacy and inspire community pride in Charleston’s gardeners. Read Part 1 here and Read Part 2 here.
This series was written primarily to explore the deep cultural ties that Carolina Gold rice has to Charleston’s regional history, and how individuals can enrich their personal or community gardens—and their kitchens—with a unique crop specific to the Lowcountry. But as our gardeners can attest, the Conservancy’s community gardens grow far more than just a few rice crops. In Magnolia Park alone, our 14 community beds and 60 individually-leased ones produce all manner of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. From asparagus to wonder berries, the diverse array of culinary plants grown at Magnolia reflect the creativity and dedication of our gardeners. Through conversations with Leslie, our Community Garden Coordinator, I found three different crops that, when viewed together, provide an overview of the important work the Conservancy has done to bring local gardeners together. The white currant tomatoes and fairy tale eggplants are charming, colorful, and create high yields; those of us working in the office see these on Gather and Garden days, when Magnolia gardeners volunteer to harvest them for local food banks. The luffa will seem a bit weirder to many in our audience, but it’s a fascinating, multi-purpose plant that shows how a species endemic to India can thrive in Charleston’s rich climate.
White Currant Tomatoes
Named for their unique color—a near-yellow shine that one of my coworkers described as “kind of like white wine”—this is a popular variant of an heirloom tomato. White currants are a fast-growing species that usually germinate one to two weeks after seeding and fully ripen after around 75 days. Individually, white currants are very small, but they can grow in dense clusters which provide high yields. Depending on the size of the vines, they might need to be staked or put on trellises.
When picked, it is best to keep these tomatoes outside the fridge; they lose some of their taste when cooled. I’m going to make a slightly-embarrassing confession: despite my love of all things cookery, I have never cooked with these before. To be quite honest, they work quite well raw as a midday snack. The white currant has a rich, sweet flavor when freshly picked that is unlike any other tomato I’ve eaten. On a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, with my pantry running critically low on edible goods, I combined some of my leftover white currants with baby carrots, naan, and red pepper hummus to craft a makeshift lunch, an experiment that tasted great and left me feeling way better about my body than if I had indulged in the pizza bites lurking ominously in my fridge.
Fairy Tale Eggplants
Of all the vegetable species grown at Magnolia Community Garden, nothing to me is a visual match for the charm of the Fairy Tale eggplant. Bright purple, striated with white and slightly shorter than your palm, fairy tales are leagues different from the standard globe eggplants you’ll find in supermarkets and grocery stores. These are classified as perennials (in more tropical zones), and can be grown and picked over multiple seasons, although they yield best in summer. Their compact size makes them well-suited to garden beds and they are fairly easy to grow, requiring a basic level of weekly watering of about an inch, soil maintenance, and pest control. They also bloom quickly, taking around 50 days to reach maturation. This can be shorter depending on the season they are planted.
As with store-bought eggplants, Fairy Tales are pretty forgiving and can be cooked in a variety of methods. Most recipes I found suggested grilling as the best method, but stir-frying and baking can yield delicious results too. The first time I brought a handful from the garden back to my apartment, I sliced them into thin rounds and cooked them in a thick vegetable curry with red potatoes, red onion, carrots, shishito peppers, and a serrano I also picked from Magnolia Community Garden. If you want to make the eggplant the star of the dish, roasting brings out Slice in half lengthwise, scour the flesh in a criss-cross fashion and drizzle with a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice and minced garlic and roast in the oven on 425 for about 10-12 minutes.
You also see this spelled as “Loofa.” Yes, it sounds weird but it’s true; the source of that rough sponge you probably have in your shower is also a sweet, versatile vegetable.
Luffas are a hot-weather crop and cannot handle cold snaps or frost. They belong to the gourd taxonomic family (Cucurbitaceae), which also contains cucumbers and melons. Growing a luffa is similar to growing the above-mentioned gourds. They should be seeded in trays in April, and watered frequently. Germination will take about two weeks. Once the seedlings have sprouted, they should be transferred to a garden bed, making sure to be planted alongside a fence or trellis. Luffas require at least an inch of water every week and new fertilizer every two to three weeks. Luffas should be ready to harvest by the end of Fall, although this will depend on what you plan do with it (read on for details).
Luffas are similar in shape and appearance to cucumbers, but a little softer. The rough, spongy form with which most people are familiar comes near the end of the Luffa’s natural lifespan, once the gourd has fully matured. Luffas in this stage have a dark, brittle peel and are long–sometimes in excess of two feet. If you want to make a sponge, break off the peel and thoroughly wash off any sap or remaining skin with soap and a hose. Leave the fibrous inner structure outside in the sun to dry. Dried luffa sponges have antimicrobial properties and can be used for years.
Edible luffas are babies compared to their sponge brothers. Luffas in this stage have not fully ripened. They are green in color with a thicker skin, and usually between six and twelve inches in length. In this stage, luffas are very similar to their cousin the cucumber in taste, only a bit sweeter. When prepping, chop the ends of the luffa and slice the skin off; these can be steamed whole or cut into smaller chunks for stir-frying or boiling.
For the last and final post of our series we’ll be getting back to Carolina Gold rice, only in a new environment—the kitchen! Continuing off of this post’s focus on the culinary applications of Magnolia’s plants, I’ll be getting my hands dirty while I try my hand at recipes designed with Carolina Gold in mind.