Nan K. Chase thinks you should be making your dirt work for you. She’s the author of Eat Your Yard: Edible Trees, Shrubs, Vines, Herbs, and Flowers for Your Landscape, and took the time out from a busy book tour to answer some questions for CHOW.

Are lawns going out of style?

I actually like lawns. They look good, they make a nice cool space around the house. I’m not of the school that says to rip out the front lawn. But there are many things you can plant around the edges of your yard, or in the side yard or in the backyard. There are plenty of plants that don’t take up a lot of space that will look beautiful and produce food for you to eat, to can, to dehydrate, to make wine and jelly.

Such as? Lots of people with tiny yards out there.

Shrubs, small trees. I’m a fan of a company called One Green World; they send you plants by mail, and they have something called the Columnar apple. It’s bred to be one big stalk in the middle, with the apples close to it. It doesn’t take up a lot of space, and the apples are just perfect. Everything you’d want an apple to be. Golden, juicy, and crisp. I also like sunflowers, because they just go up. Swoop! One big stalk and so many sunflower seeds on the stalk.

But the birds always get them! You’re watching them, thinking tomorrow they’ll be ripe. But then the birds get them just before you do.

Well, you have to put a paper bag over them the last few days. The birds can’t get them then. Or you pick them a couple of days early and dry them out; they’ll ripen on the counter. (See a recipe for Nan’s salty roasted sunflower seeds below.) If the birds are really a problem for you, think about planting currants. They are a rather compact plant that doesn’t spread out and makes beautiful and delicious fruit that the birds don’t get, because the stems are prickly.

Any other suggestions for people with small spaces?

I’m always working with grapes. They’re vertical. They don’t take up much space at the bottom, but you can train them all over the place, up on your porch, over the railing. Then you have grapes. And I’ve been canning grape leaves lately.

For dolmas? How do you prepare the grape leaves for canning?

Sure, whatever you want to make with them. What you want to do is pick them tender and young. About the size of your hand or smaller. You don’t want them big because they’re too tough, you don’t want them too small because then you have nothing to work with. Pick the grape leaves and blanch them. That softens them up a little. Then you roll them up and put them in the jar. I do about 20 to a jar and fill the jar with hot water and lemon juice. Then I boil them to process them, get the vacuum seal going. They have to sit for a couple of weeks before you eat them. They are really good. The ones I’ve made just melt in your mouth; they are so much better than the ones you buy at the grocery store.

What if you don’t have a yard?

Grow in pots! You can have Meyer lemons in a pot; if you live in a place that has a hard winter, you just take your lemon tree inside. You can also grow bay trees in a pot, which is really special if you’re a cook. I use bay leaves all the time! And you can treat your tree like it’s a little topiary and do a design, or just keep it pinched back so it stays a couple of feet tall. Then it’s always there for you when you cook. Also, keep herbs in mind. Just about any herb will work in a pot. Chives, basil, parsley. Herbs will also grow in tiny places. Maybe you want some thyme growing between your steps. Herbs like mint are good in pots, so they can’t take over your yard, mint grows like crazy. Of course, if you get a bumper crop, you can always do something interesting with it. I’ve gotten interested lately in herb wines, and I made some mint wine. (See recipe below.)

Mint wine? Does it taste minty?

No, it tastes like Pinot Grigio. Herb wines, or wines made from fruit or flowers, are ancient. They were made in China and Rome. There’s a pretty standard formula for wine. Sugar plus yeast equals alcohol, so it’s a matter of making that solution and putting in your other ingredients, dandelions, mint, whatever you’re using. You let it sit and ferment and when it gets to 14 percent alcohol the yeast dies, and it’s wine. You can use all different types of herbs; my son is getting really into it and getting a lot of recipes off the Internet. I’m relatively new to winemaking but I’m always looking for new ways to use garden produce.

You also seem to champion a lot of lesser-known fruits, like pawpaws and quince.

Pawpaws are wonderful. They taste like tropical custard. They’re soft, which is why you don’t see them in stores. They can’t be transported. And their habitat, which was the big, sprawling, rolling hills of the East, has been covered up by housing developments. But they’re starting to come back as people are rediscovering them and planting them. Quince is one that you can’t eat out of hand. It’s too hard to bite into it. You cook with it, you can flavor baked goods, and there’s a quince paste that’s really popular in the Middle East.

Your book also suggests that gardeners should think about what appeals to the eye as well as what we like to eat.

Yes. Scenic beauty is important for me. Basically, you have to think about what works for you, in your yard, where you live. Not just the growing zone, but your microclimate. Where is it shady? Where is it sunny? Where do you need color? Where do you need something to fill in a space, or for seasonal interest, something that will bloom first in the spring or be colorful in the middle of winter? And then think about that in terms of what you can eat. You could plant a flower in that place where you need color, but why not Swiss chard, with its beautiful red stalks? Or why not an artichoke? It has elaborate fringey architectural foliage, and you can either let it go to seed and it looks like a giant thistle, or you can cut off the globes every time the plant produces one, and it will make another one.

In the same spot? It’s like the gift that keeps on giving.

That’s nature for you.

Mint Wine

1 packet regular yeast
7 pounds sugar, depending on sweetness desired
3 gallons water
3 quarts tightly packed mint leaves, cleaned of stems and dirt (start with twice that amount)

1. Begin with a clean 5-gallon glass carboy for fermentation and scald any utensils you need.

2. Fill the carboy with a solution of 1 tablespoon household bleach per gallon of cold water. Let this stand 20 minutes, empty, and then rinse the carboy three times with cold water.

3. In a quart jar, combine 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water (114 ° Fahrenheit) with the yeast, and set in a warm place as you prepare the other ingredients. It should be frothy.

4. Make a syrup of the sugar with 3 gallons of water, and boil five minutes, or until the sugar is completely dissolved. Meanwhile, bruise the mint leaves and stuff them into the carboy; then pour the syrup over the leaves and let the mixture stand until it cools to lukewarm.

6. Add the yeast mixture to the carboy and swirl it to distribute. Seal the top loosely with a piece of plastic wrap and a rubber band, or with a brewer’s S-shaped “water trap.” Store the carboy in a dark place about 65 ° Fahrenheit and let it ferment undisturbed until all bubbling stops, about 2 to 3 months.

7. When the mint leaves fall away and the wine is clear, gently siphon the fermented wine into clean bottles that have been sterilized 20 minutes in a 1 tablespoon to 1 gallon bleach and water solution. Consult a home-brew supplier about capping options. Let wine sit another few weeks for further clarification.

Recipe adapted from Folk Wines, Cordials, & Brandies by M. A. Jagendorf (1963, the Vanguard Press, Inc.).

Nan’s Salty-Roasted Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower heads
1/2 cup salt
4 cups boiling water

1. Harvest ripe heads of Mammoth Russian or Russian Giant sunflower as they begin to dry but before birds eat the seeds.

2. Continue air-drying the heads indoors on paper until seeds (actually the seed husks) are completely dry; then rub individual seeds from the flower disk.

3. Rinse seeds in water to remove dust, and soak overnight in salt brine, 1/2 cup salt to 4 cups boiling water. Drain.

4. Bake at low temperature (180 ° Fahrenheit) on cookie sheets or in baking pans, 2 to 3 hours, turning seeds every half hour to ensure even baking. Do not overcook.

5. Cool and store in clean jars.

Image credit: Sunflower: Jerusalem artichoke, a wild sunflower, has nutritious tuberous roots with a nutty flavor and can be enjoyed raw or cooked. Photo by Paul Fenwick, Coburg, Victoria, Australia.

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