Last Spring we planted our first ever water chestnuts. It’s a long wait between planting and harvesting but it’s certainly been worth it.
The Water Chestnut, Eleocharis dulcis is a sweet round edible corm highly valued by the Chinese as a nutritious food source. For those of you who’ve never tried them, they have a texture similar to coconut and are quite sweet and as I’ve recently discovered taste absolutely nothing like those things in a can!
For the home garden, it’s recommended that water chestnuts be grown in an old bath or laundry tub but they can also be grown in ponds or any pot as long as it’s about 30 cms deep. You also need to be able to retain the water because as the name suggests, water chestnuts are grown in a water environment. The larger the pot, the bigger the harvest so while a small pot will be suitable to stand in a pond, you probably won’t get much of a yield.
We don’t have a lot of space in our garden so we used a couple of plastic 1 metre planters which we stood on our deck and as the plants grew, they became quite an attractive balcony feature. To start the corms off, we put about 15 cm of sandy soil and well composted manure into the base of each pot and planted 4 certified organic chestnuts in each. Much like our potatoes, we went for certified corms as I’d heard of people trying to grow shop bought corms only to find that they never sprouted which makes me wonder whether, like shop potatoes, they too are treated with some sort of growth inhibitor.
The recommended spacing for planting corms in a bath tub is about 60 cm so in theory you’d only need 3 to get a decent yield. But as this was our first attempt we decided to put a couple of extra ones in, just in case some of them were duds. We needn’t have worried because they all sprouted and before we knew it, the plants were about 20cms tall and ready to be covered with about 15 cms water. And this is how they had to stay for the next 7 months.
We had so much rain last summer and the mosquitos in Sydney were horrendous so naturally our pots became a haven for mozzie breeding. But Chris already had a plan….White Cloud and native Bass!
Both of these are very small fresh water fish that love to eat mosquito larvae and because of this they’ve been our preferred pond fish for many years.
As White Cloud are an introduced species, it’s important to make sure they don’t get washed out of ponds during heavy rain ending up in local creeks as they have to potential to have a detrimental effect on our native fresh water species. However, in a controlled environment, both of these species are the perfect Permaculture solution to control pests without pesticides so Chris tossed a couple into each of the water chestnut pots and ‘hey presto!’ no mozzie larvae.
Over the months, the water chestnuts grew beautifully reaching about a metre tall at their peak. They became quite dense through summer and due to a bit of evaporation required the odd topping up with water.
In Autumn, the stems started to slowly die back and turn yellow and this is when the chestnuts really start to form. At this point we removed the fat fish from the pots and then slowly drained all the water away leaving the corms to mature and darken in the remaining moist soil.
We left them this way for about 6 weeks while the long stems continued to brown off and die. When it was time to harvest the chestnuts, we removed the dead stems before digging into the soft muddy soil with our hands so we didn’t damage the delicate skin.
At our place we’re always thinking about ways in which we can apply Permaculture so re-using the dried stems as mulch for our potatoes was a simple way of applying the principle ‘reduce no waste’. But there are so many things you can do with those stems….use them as fodder, compost them or feed to the worms, use them as twine for crafts or to tie up plants. I’m sure there are many more.
After bandicooting through the two planters we ended up with 84 water chestnuts: 31 from one pot and 53 from the other. Not bad for our first attempt in relatively small planters and only 8 original chestnut corms. We washed the mud off, dried them, ate a few and wrapped the rest in paper towel and stored them in a container in the fridge.
In a nutshell – absolutely delicious!
We’ll be saving some of our corms for the next Spring planting but the rest will be devoured in curries and stir fires or just plain raw. Not a lot of effort or work to maintain the pots and yet another new and exciting skill to add to our ever increasing list of successful edible back yard food.
Stay tuned for my next post when I’ll show you how to make a simple cheap recycled chook feeder.