Traditional plants, newly grown

10 September 2012

Mombacher Winter, Gonsenheimer Treib, and Hunsrücker fava bean – the Kitchen Garden on the premises of the Botanic Garden at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has all these and many other rare agricultural crop plants and regional varieties that have been almost forgotten. An immense variety can be found on only 100 square meters, providing a number of surprises: flowering lettuce over here, and an onion watching the carrots over there.

The large leaves are a shiny green, with the stalk a glossy yellowish orange in the bright sunshine. The plant appears moist, it seems to have been varnished. It is almost too good to eat.

"With chard you can do practically anything you would normally do with lettuce," says Dr. Ute Becker. "It tastes a little like spinach. There are also people who say that you can prepare the stalks like asparagus." "At least the washing takes less effort than washing spinach," adds Dr. Ralf Omlor.

Rare agricultural crops, regional varieties

The custodian of the Botanic Garden and the head of the Green School at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) are both involved in the Kitchen Garden project. This group meets every Friday afternoon to look after its special little garden. The group emerged from the Friends of the Botanic Garden in 2010. About two dozen professional and amateur gardeners have joined forces to cultivate rare agricultural crops and regional varieties in an environment reminiscent of a centuries-old farm.

"A kitchen garden was used to feed the farmer’s family, but also provided flowers," explains Becker. "It was supposed to be only little work."

The site – barely 100 square meters in size – is protected by a chestnut paling fence. A round herb bed lies at the center of the garden, with a Damascus rose bush at its heart. "This rose has tended to be forgotten a little," says Ingrid Tim, who is weeding an adjacent bed. "It was formerly found on estates and in monasteries." This prestigious decorative flower was later adopted by farmers. It was a little bit of luxury in medieval times, a type of status symbol.

A carrot in exile in East Germany

The herb bed is surrounded by other beds, each only a few square meters in size. This is where the real treasures grow. The Gonsenheimer Treib, for example, extends its green shoots towards the sun. This carrot was once cultivated in the Mainz suburb of Gonsenheim – the premier place for fine vegetables. For a while, it went into exile, only being cultivated in East Germany. Now it is back home.

"We like mixed cultivation," says Becker and points to some onions between the carrots. "They drive away the carrot flies, because they don't like the smell of onions." Becker pulls out a carrot. It is short and fat – very different from those found at supermarkets. This is, after all, what the kitchen garden is all about. It is meant to open the viewer's eyes to the great variety of agricultural crops not found in supermarket vegetable sections.

A bean for a different taste experience

The Kitchen Garden project does not need much help to maintain its 100 square meters. The Friends of Mainz University helped out with start-up financing amounting to EUR 2,500, but, in the meantime, a few hundred euro per year are quite sufficient. All work in the garden is done on a voluntary basis. The plants themselves often hail from the gardens of the dedicated members.

Gabriele Gröll, for example, has contributed the Hunsrücker Puffbohne, a regional type of the fava bean. It now grows next to the Mombacher Speck, another local type of bean. "Many of these plants provide a taste experience that people are quite unfamiliar with," says Omlor. There is a little irony in his voice. After all, the taste experience is not always positive. "Mombacher Speck, for example, easily tastes stringy." There may have been a reason why some of these plants went out of fashion among farmers and their customers.

Lettuce from the gene bank

A rare treasure in this garden is the Mombacher Winter, a regional type of lettuce, the seeds of which could only be obtained from the Gatersleben gene bank of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research. "This lettuce is very robust. It survives the entire winter," says Becker.

The project group has managed to obtain fresh seeds from it. Becker shows what they look like: One bed contains three tall plants. To a layperson they look like shrubs. This is supposed to be lettuce? "At first, lettuce is just a short stalk with very close-growing leaves." This is the state in which it is harvested. At some time, however, the stalk shoots up. We refer to this as sprouting. It then discards its typical lettuce leaves, becomes slender, and starts to flower.

"These examples are to show how important it is to cultivate your own seeds. This is usually not even difficult." The Kitchen Garden at Mainz University also plays a role in the adjacent Green School. Becker frequently brings school classes and curious adults here to find out what flowering lettuce looks like or to smell the aroma of the herbs in the round bed. This is where we grow lemon balm, peppermint, and many others.

The highlight is the stew

"Two years ago, our garden was still in a very orderly state," Becker remembers. In the meantime, the little site has become home to a surprising variety of plants under the summer sun. Marigolds are flowering, knobbly little tomatoes are growing, and the chard is glossy.

"In the autumn we all meet up for the end of the season," Omlor recounts. "This is when we make a stew out of everything growing here." Until then, however, there is much to do. Even though the university’s Kitchen Garden itself is not much work, Becker and Omlor and their friends still work up a sweat when they meet on Fridays to cultivate their unusual plants.