Archive for March, 2015

An Unexpected Vegetable: Hops Shoots

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When I first started gardening at my current property, I was an enthusiastic brewer and it seemed natural to plant hops vines where they could climb on my fences. Now I have been low-carb for three years and no longer brew beer, but this winter I learned from a British cookbook that hops shoots could be cooked and eaten like asparagus. They don’t taste like asparagus, of course, but they have their own wild, slightly bitter taste that I thoroughly enjoy. I wouldn’t start picking at them until the vines are about three years old. Then start watching for the shoots to emerge from the ground in the spring and, when they are about a foot high, snap off the top six inches. Rinse, sauté in some good butter, and enjoy.
They are small and slender and it’s hard to get enough to serve at dinner unless you have an awful lot of hops, but a handful of them cooked crisp makes a lovely “cook’s treat” to eat in the kitchen while you’re doing other tasks.
By the way, if you are a brewer you will still be able to harvest hops for your brewing, because as long as you leave about six inches of each shoot intact, they will branch within a few weeks and continue growing.

A Succession of Lettuce

Gardeners tend to love the first salads of spring, and many of us long for greenhouses so that we can harvest all winter. But until I get the greenhouse of my dreams, I scheme about ways to have lettuce and salad fixings as early as possible.

This year I bought a roll of frost-blanket fabric from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and on a bright day in early February I dug up my lettuce beds and pots, composted them heavily, and planted them with various lettuces, planting broadcast-style rather than in rows. Half of the garden bed of lettuce I covered with a double layer of frost-blanket, secured with stones as weights. The other half was left open to the elements, and some was planted in big black pots about 2 feet high but wasn’t protected in any other way.

I supplied them with water (no need to remove the frost-blanket to sprinkle that bed) and otherwise left them alone.

On March 28th, about 6 weeks later, here’s what the beds look like:
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This bed was under the frost-blanket. The little lettuces are over 4 inches high, and harvesting can begin.
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This one is in one of the large pots. The lettuce is about 2 inches high, and won’t be ready to harvest for a few weeks.
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These are planted in the open ground. They have survived hard freezes and an 8″ snowfall and are very small, but undaunted.

From one afternoon of planting, I will be able to harvest lettuce from late March through May, with minimal effort. I will be doing this again next year, and will also plant a bed in October and try to hold it under frost blanket through the winter, to get a jump-started bed in the spring. We urban yard-farmers have day jobs and minimal free time, and this is one way to make the most of it.

Filling the Hunger Gap

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Our recent sunny warm days have brought the happy little Crysanthus crocuses up, and when they bloom I know that I’ve survived another winter and we are well on toward spring. But we are still in the time of year called the “hunger gap,” when in leaner times you would have eaten most of your preserved and stored food and fresh food would be a distant memory. In those days, just about the time that scurvy threatened, there would be a precious few fresh foods that would come through for you. I am no longer that interested in eating preserved foods, so the fresh greens of the hunger gap are increasingly important to me.
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Stinging nettles are not just a fresh green in earliest spring, they are a nutritional powerhouse. Vitality and well-being seem to course through your body as you eat them. Also, they’re delicious. They don’t occur naturally in Albuquerque, and I had to buy plants in order to have them, but I have two nice patches now. They need some water and mulch in our desert area, but given those they spread rapidly, so be ready to control them by digging out excess roots when they spread too far. They sting fiercely at any age, so don’t plant them near paths and have good heavy leather gloves (they sting right through fabric) ready for harvesting. Pick any time after they reach about 5-6 inches high, harvesting the top 2 or 3 inches. You will have about a month to harvest before they get tough, gritty, and nasty. Keep your gloves on while you wash them and drop them into boiling water. Once blanched for 1-2 minutes, their spines are softened and their venom is broken down, and you can treat them like spinach or any other mild green. I love them in omelets or just blanched and chopped with some butter and cream. Be aware that the raw nettles can sting animals as well as people, and severe allergic reactions to the sting are possible, so please do site them responsibly.
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Bladder campion is another weed that doesn’t occur naturally in central New Mexico. I bought seeds from an herb supplier. Sprinkle them in a place that you can keep watered in late winter. In hot sunny areas they will appreciate a little shade. They will be scant and spindly the first year, and there won’t be anything to harvest. The second year you can pinch off the tips when they are 6-8 inches tall to add to salads, and by the third year you should get enough to cook. They are among the tenderest and mildest of wild greens, and I prefer them in salads, but a quick sauté in a little good butter is nice too.
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Tronchuda is not a weed, but a Portuguese kale with a cabbagey but mild flavor and enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to make you crow. I bought my seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery a couple of years ago, and am selecting the ones that live through the winter for my Hunger Gap crop. You plant them in the spring, harvest the huge leaves for greens in summer and fall ( my chickens appreciate them too), and then leave the stem and the tuft of leaves at the top over the winter. They won’t survive if you don’t leave some leaves on. Those that survive will begin to leaf out again in February and provide you with thick, substantial leaves for stir-fries and cooking by early March. They are biennial and begin to shoot to flower by late March, and you can harvest the buds as a broccoli-like vegetable. Do bear in mind that if you want to save seed, you have to leave plenty of clusters to go to flower. Bees love the flowers and they are a nice early source of nectar. Collect the seed, dry them, and start the cycle over again.

Admitting What Didn’t Work

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As a gardener/ farmer with a city lot, my rate-limiting step is space, and things that don’t work need to be given up and the space given to something else. This time of year, I’m often busy dealing with things that didn’t work and freeing up their real estate for other purposes.

Take my effort to create an asparagus bed with minimal work. The spot where I wanted to establish this long-lived perennial was awful, not to put too fine a point on it. The workers who built the house parked their trucks on it and used it as a dumping spot for leftover cement and other choice debris. The ground was packed hard as concrete, weeds wouldn’t grow there, and it promised hours of backbreaking work.

I decided to use less laborious methods to heal that area, and I planned to take two years to do it. In year 1, I built a long, low compost heap on my future asparagus bed. I used straw and chicken manure, layered it up about two feet high, and it heated well. I ended up with about four inches of pure finished compost over the entire bed, which I left to cool off completely over the winter.

Year 2, I stirred the surface of the compost and planted daikon and oats. The idea was that the oats would provide organic matter and the daikon would pierce and break up the hard pan beneath and make drainage channels through it for the plantings to follow. I supplied water, and the mixture grew well and looked healthy. Again, I left it over the winter to break down.

This year, year 3, I ordered my asparagus starts. On the first warm day in early February, I went out to the bed-to-be with my spading fork, to gloat over the results of my strategy.

What I found was a thin mat of organic matter, bound together by roots, over impenetrable hard stuff. The oats had made a thick mat of roots a few inches thick, and the daikon had turned at right angles when they encountered the hardened mess beneath and grown sideways
along the bottom of the compost.

So, finally, I did what I had to do and double-dug the bed, using a pick to break up the hard conglomerate and incorporating organic matter 18 inches deep. It took an entire back-breaking weekend. Now my bed is mellowing, ready for the asparagus roots to be planted in March.

Does this mean that labor-saving methods of gardening don’t work? No, it just means that everything depends on the situation. Study your situation, and be aware that some areas can’t be repaired without putting in a lot of sweat equity. Is it worth it? If you want fresh food and want to leave a piece of land better than you found it, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”