A harvest measured by the spoonful is worth the effort


Sesame was my garden experiment this year and the time has come for the harvest. I don’t have an industrial, no-crack variety so the process may be a little prolonged. But so far I have a crop, and at times this summer that outcome seemed in doubt.

My sesame field started with 12 plants divided between three large black plastic pots that I lined up along our driveway. It’s the best spot I have to grow warm weather plants since the concrete stores heat and warm them on chilly summer nights. Sesame needs 70 degrees during its one 100-odd-day growing season, so some years temperature would be a problem. But it’s been a sultry summer, and I worried more about the plants burning up than chilling out.

Four 6-inch tall plants went into each pot. They immediately produced abundant light lilac flowers that resembled the blossoms on a foxglove. My seed packet said the plants would be between 18 and 24 inches tall. I expected them to be single-stemmed like a grass, but sesame is a broadleaf plant like cotton or soy beans. My plants quickly branched and several have soared to 4 feet with woody stems about half an inch in diameter. As each flower was fertilized, a pod about the size of a large jelly bean formed. Most of the plants are still flowering on the top, and pods line the stems from top to bottom.

Growing sesame hasn’t been without its issues. One of the pots seems cursed. Just as the four plants climbed to the 3-foot level, the trash bin flipped and crushed one. The remaining three plants seemed to thrive, but a curious squirrel dug one up and it died. The final blow came when the flooding rain poured down and the pot refused to drain. One plant was salvaged but the larger of the two bit the dust.

Sesame pods have four internal chambers, and the flat seeds sit in columns inside each one, stacked like poker chips. As each pod ripens, it splits the top. The seeds on top of the stack then spill out. The trick is to pick each pod when it’s ripe but still holds most of the seeds.

Of course my pods decided to wait until we were out of town to start splitting, but I’ve still managed to pick enough to gather a couple of tablespoons of ripe, black sesame seeds. That’s my yield — about a dozen pods. I picked another 20 that had split but hadn’t completely turned brown and dried. I’m not sure any of them will ripen completely on the counter, but it’s worth a try. There are more than 300 pods still on the plants.

Chipmunks also savor sesame seeds, and we’ve had some run-ins over their pilferage. But my sesame experiment has been successful enough to rerun it next year. I’ll be sure to place the pots out of the reach of errant trash bins and jettison the pot with lousy drainage.

The harvest may be small, but there’s nothing to build gardening confidence like trying to grow things you never imagined you could. In my experience, the taste of homegrown anything is sweeter than its counterpart from the store. I’m sure homemade sesame crackers, hummus and sumac chicken will be even tastier with my own sesame seeds, even if it takes some effort to harvest them.


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