Grow Your Own

Making Lemonade, Salads, and Pesto from Your Garden

by Virginia Hayes

“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” A tall glass of freshly squeezed lemonade can bring the familiar taste of summer to any picnic or meal. This year seems to have blessed us with a bumper crop of lemons, so if you have a tree or two in your home orchard, you may be looking for ways to use the surplus. Nothing could be simpler than adding water and sugar to that pucker-inducing juice for a refreshing beverage.

Lemons to Lemonade

The basic recipe goes like this: One part lemon juice to one part sugar to 4 parts water (all measurements by volume). Some people like to make a simple syrup by boiling the sugar with an equivalent measure of water, but it really isn’t necessary.

For something a little different, you can add any one of a number of different herbs to the basic formula. For example, basil lemonade would include ½ cup of fresh basil leaves. Bruise the leaves and sugar with a wooden spoon, then add the lemon juice and water, and stir to dissolve the sugar and release the basil flavoring. Strain as you pour over ice into glasses. Try mint, lavender, or fenugreek to completely change the character. Hibiscus flowers, sold as jamaica in the Latino spice section, make a lovely red, tangy punch. Bring half of the water to a boil and steep ⅓-½ cup of the dried flowers until the water cools and add to the rest of the mixture.

Many kinds of fruit also make a nice addition. Sliced strawberries, whole raspberries, blueberries, or blackberries lend their flavors and colors to basic lemonade. Float sliced peaches, nectarines, or apricots in the pitcher and add a can of corresponding fruit nectar to lend the appropriate bouquet for a great taste of summer.

Of course, alcoholic versions of lemonade have also found favor. Vodka, gin, and tequila will turn this old-fashioned soft drink hard. Another twist (pun intended) is to give it some bubbles. Fizzy lemonade is the norm in France, by the way, and just as easy to make. Substitute part of the still water with club soda or other sparkling water and the result will seem even more refreshing on a hot, thirst-inducing day.

Garden Greens

Whether you eat it first, last, or as the main course, salad is also quintessential summer fare. With all the possibilities, it is a shame that most dining out experiences still feature a middle-of-the-road salad based on lettuce with a few colorful additives. Your garden could and should hold much more exciting choices to build tasty and nutritious salads. Lettuces are, of course, tasty and nutritious, and they are simple to grow. This makes them an obvious choice to sow and harvest. Happily, the number and variety of different colors and types that are available as seed and in six-packs has greatly increased during the last few years. Seed of just one type or mixtures such as the popular mesclun mixes and formerly gourmet-only lettuces are easy to find. Grow them in rows, intensive plots, pots, or hanging baskets — whatever you have room for — and harvest them when they are young and tender and full of vitamins and minerals.

There are some other great salad ingredients that you may not have considered. Young seedlings, sprouts really, of many vegetables are delicious and healthful additions to salads. Seed is so cheap that it is just good practice to sow thickly and then thin to the proper spacing later. Those thinned-out sprouts can go right into the salad bowl. Think greens such as beets and chard, spinach, arugula (one of my favorites); even carrot seedlings can be harvested for the table and leave the garden in better shape for the main crop, too. It’s best to take your scissors with you and snip the little plants just above the soil; pulling them could disturb the root systems of adjacent plants you want to keep. Herbs such as cilantro, dill, basil, oregano, and chives can also be thinned and used to spice up salads or as a milder version of the mature plant to garnish your plate. Give them a nice bath in the kitchen sink and then spin dry before use. This method of sowing thickly and thinning where needed works for other areas of the garden, too. Sunflower sprouts are delicious in salads and sandwiches. Young leaves, stems, and flowers of nasturtium provide a peppery bite to your mix. Bean sprouts are one of the most ubiquitous sprouts to have hit the market; imagine harvesting your own from the garden, not a sprouting jar. In the garden, the new sprouts will have begun to photosynthesize almost immediately and will have many more healthful compounds than those pale ones in the supermarket bin. Sow any type of pole or bush bean and be sure to snip off the young seedlings when they are just a few inches tall. If you don’t, they will soon be too tough.

Herbs into Sauces

There is another wonderful use of those summer herbs. Classic pesto is that great Italian innovation that pairs fresh basil, fragrant olive oil, sweet pine nuts, and salty, aromatic parmesan cheese. But, for innovative souls, substitutions in almost every ingredient can produce unique and delicious alternatives. The basic recipe:

4 cups fresh basil leaves
½ cup olive oil
⅓ cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
Combine first four ingredients in blender. Blend until paste forms, stopping often to push down basil. Add cheese and salt; blend until smooth. Transfer to small bowl. (Can be made one day ahead. Top with ½ inch olive oil and chill.)

This formula, though, is also so flexible and universal that, while you may not choose to call it pesto at some point, the method for combining the vibrant taste of fresh herbs, smoothed into an emollient concoction of oil, nuts, and cheese ready-made to slather over pasta, bread, rice, or vegetables, is irresistible.

If you replace basil with cilantro in the classic recipe, you get a dressing with a Latino or Asian flair. Substituting other nuts, like walnuts or even macadamias, can make subtle, but delicious changes as well. Try another savory oil or a different dry cheese with a distinct aroma and the resultant “pesto” will be distinctive and flavorful. Your garden produce is just the beginning of your culinary experiment. Parsley makes a very mild version, but one full of vitamins. Add other savory herbs such as rosemary or thyme to spice it up.

Salad and pasta with a glass of refreshing lemonade — sounds like the perfect summer meal.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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