Archive for the ‘front yard gardening’ Category

Fall Renewal

 

It’s been an unusual growing season at my place, with the strangeness in the larger world reflected in strange events that affected my gardening. First, a hard freeze two weeks later than I have ever had at my property before. Then after things were replanted, a heavy hailstorm in late spring that tore all the vegetable plants to tatters, shredded the tree leaves, and knocked little green fruit off the fruit trees. Then lots of clean-up and a new round of replanting. Then, about five weeks later, an even worse hailstorm. This one had hailstones an inch in diameter, and was followed by flooding rains. Replanting was a real issue this time, because there were lots of supply problems and many seed companies were out of the seeds that I wanted.


All this was followed by the hottest driest summer that I have experienced, so hot that I couldn’t water enough to keep things growing and no amount of mulch kept plants from desiccating. Broccoli and sugar peas and all my other favorite early-summer crops were lost completely. And in late summer when the fruit, even though scarred and pockmarked by hail, did start to ripen, squirrels moved in. These were intense, driven squirrels, with the focus and aggression of shoppers trying to score the last pack of toilet paper. My European plum tree was loaded with fruit and one day I tasted one and decided that they were almost ready to pick and I would start picking the next day. By 9 o’clock the next morning, there were exactly 5 plums left on the tree. I have never seen anything like it. I think that the squirrels were running a wholesale operation somewhere. If I knew where, I would’ve bought my own fruit back rather than lose it all, but that did not seem to be an option. I did get a few peaches and apples, and they left the quince tree strictly alone, but everything else was gone.

Sometimes I think really hard about moving to a more garden friendly climate zone, but then October comes. October in New Mexico would make a convert out of anybody. Long walks along the acequias in cool crisp air under the gold cottonwoods make me intensely grateful for where I am, and we get gorgeous sunsets year round but especially in fall.

So I gave up my musings about moving and started thinking about what did work this year.

The bramble fruits were a loss but the small fruit like elderberries and pie cherries bore abundantly, so I made lots of crisps and fermented lots of wine. The perennial greens like nettles and scorzonera were unfazed, and the collards lost all their leaves to hail but grew a new crop despite the heat. Mulberries bore beautifully all over town. Fennel’s threadlike leaves just giggled at the hail. Butternut and Tahitian melon squash   lost their leaves to hail but kept growing, and by the end of the season some 30foot vines had climbed the apple trees and large squash hung among the apples. I picked some immature ones to use as summer squash.  Potatoes held onto enough foliage to grow a beautiful crop of tubers.
I also learned some things. In the southwest, if you want to have dandelions you have to water them. All but three of my cherished dandelion plants died because I had underestimated their water needs. This is good information for next year. The local edible weeds like lambsquarters and amaranth are adapted to our seasons, so if you just give them a reasonably fertile piece of ground, water some, and don’t disturb them, you will get a good greens crop and can put enough in the freezer for winter. Always order more seeds of your favorite varieties than you think you need, in case you have to replant once or even twice. Be prepared to be flexible about what you eat. When a really bad season comes along be glad of what it does produce, because it could be worse and may yet be. If you eat meat, please seek out and support your local farmers.

Do less of what doesn’t work and more of what works, and plan your meals for the conditions you’re in and not the conditions you wish prevailed. Right now, the three surviving dandelions have grown to a huge size, and with a few late sprigs of lambsquarters and some Berkshire bacon from the freezer, they’ll make a delicious meal.

 

Passing pleasures: Hops shoots

I decided to re-up this post on hops shoots without change because this is their brief season and because I still think that this is the best way to cook them.

Many years ago I planted hops vines along my fences, planning to use the flowers for brewing. Not long afterwards, I gave up beer for weighty reasons, but in my difficult climate I’m not likely to get rid of plants that grow lustily with no attention. There was also the delightful bonus of hops shoots every spring. Gather the young shoots by snapping them off at the point where they snap easily. This is usually about the terminal 6-7 inches of the vine.

When it comes to cooking them, I’m very opinionated. After trying other ways, I’m convinced that this way suits their rich-bitter flavor best. Rinse the bundle of shoots and cut them in cross section, 1.5-2 inches long. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. You don’t want to crowd the pan too much. A 12” skillet is right for one large bundle of shoots.  When the pan is hot through, add a glug of good olive oil, swirl it around, and add the shoots. Toss them around, sprinkling them with a good pinch of salt. Toss the shoots every couple of minutes.

Here’s the part that many find difficult. When they look like this, keep going. Taste them at this stage and, if you like them you can stop here, but I think that you haven’t yet tasted hops shoots at their best. Instead add a pat of butter, at least a tablespoon, and keep cooking.The butter will brown a bit and is important to the flavor.

This stage, in my opinion, is their point of perfection. They have shrunk considerably. The stems are browned in spots and many of the little leaves are brown and crisp. Taste for salt and serve. I find them delicious. They are especially good alongside ham or bacon, and I like them with fried eggs for lunch.

Hops plants are known to contain an estrogenic compound and chalcones. The latter are an interesting group of chemicals with anti-tumor properties, and you can read more about them here. What this means in practice is anybody’s guess, and my own opinion is that it means very little, since the shoots are only in season for about 3 weeks and no one person will eat enough of them to make much difference one way or another. They are a springtime gift of the earth, thrown up exuberantly in great quantities with no effort on the gardener’s part except providing them with something to climb on, and I cherish them as such.

If you plan to grow them, remember that hops are intent on world domination and need a sturdy support. Also, they spread and come up in unexpected places. This is fine with me, since I keep a very untidy yard anyway, but if you like things to stay neatly in their assigned places, the bold independent nature of hops may not be to your taste.

Early Spring: Collards

My yard is full of perennial greens ready to harvest, but the first greens I harvest every year are last year’s collards. Kale may be a good winter green in snowier areas, but in my nearly snowless windy desert, kale has desiccated to death by mid-December. My winter stalwart is collards, and I’ve never had a year in which they didn’t live through winter and produce a good crop. I plant in summer, harvest the majority of the leaves in late summer and fall for chicken greens but don’t remove the topmost leaves or the growing crown, and leave the stalks in place. By late February each stalk is crowned with a cluster of leaves like a loose cabbage. The leaves are thick, crisp, meaty, and sweet. Nothing tastes quite as good as late-winter collards. I often cut the leaves in strips and sauté them with green garlic, which appears around the same time, and a little salt. I seldom get any fancier than grating a little top-quality Parmesan on top. At this point in the year I haven’t had fresh greens for a couple of months, and gorging on them in their simplest form tastes best. If I have leftovers I toss them with homemade egg noodles, good olive oil and Parm, and a generous quantity of freshly ground black pepper.

In my area, by April aphids have moved in, so I make sure to eat them up while the nights are freezing. Any that I don’t eat go to ecstatic hens.

 

Semi-Permaculture Garlic


Glorious spring is here. There are no leaves on the trees yet, but the fruit trees are starting to bloom, and the perennials are starting to show up. 
Green garlic is always the first vegetable of my gardening year, and it’s one of the most welcome. I have seen “green garlic” in stores and farmers markets that was an elongated stalk with an actual bulb of garlic, and that isn’t what I’m talking about. At that age, the green parts are too tough to be of any culinary interest. The green garlic that I relish is tender and sweet. 
I grow my garlic in permanent beds that  are enriched every fall with top-dressings of manure but are no longer ever dug. There are three sections. The first and largest section is planted in fall with seed garlic of whatever type seized my fancy when the catalog arrived. The cloves are pushed down through the mulch into the rich earth below. Spacing is about 8”x8”. Once planted, the bed is topped with some mixed alfalfa and manure from the goat and chicken areas, about an inch thick, with a thin cover of grass clippings or similar over the top. By mid-March it looks like this:

This bed will be harvested as fresh bulbs in summer and replanted in fall.

The second bed, shown at the top of the post, was created by planting whole bulbs in late summer one year when I had a ridiculous excess. They were spaced 8” apart each way, and top-dressed with rich stuff as described above. In mid-March I start harvesting big luxurious bunches of green garlic from this bed. I dig each clump carefully with a thin-bladed trowel as I need it, taking care to leave one large plant with its roots undisturbed and tucking the dirt and mulch back in around it and water it to resettle the roots. This stalk will produce a garlic bulb, which will be left in place to become next spring’s clump of green garlic. There is technically a bit of digging with the trowel in this patch, which is why I call my methods semi-permaculture; I am not interested in tedious arguments about what constitutes “true” permaculture, I’m just interested in good food and good soil.

The third patch is truly perennial and the roots are never disturbed. It was started by planting a few whole bulbs of garlic in fall and just leaving them in place for a few years. Treated this way, they produce thick clumps of tender thin leaves every spring.

I cut the leaves and slice them finely crosswise to make “garlic chives,” sweet and delicious with a sublime essence of garlic. When I sauté’ chopped green garlic stems and leaves from patch #2 I often add a handful of chopped leaves from patch #3 after cooking is completed for a “pop” of garlic flavor to freshen the effect. The flavor is mild overall, and I love sautéed green garlic as an omelet filling, maybe with some crumbled feta if I’m especially hungry.

Green garlic is wonderful in early spring, tougher as the days grow warmer, and by early summer is not of culinary interest. I harvest pounds of it in its glory season, sauté in olive oil with some salt, and freeze it to eat later. It’s delicious in greens mixtures and terrific tossed with homemade egg linguine and some very good Parmesan. You can click “greens” in the sidebar for other uses, and there is a little more about it here.


I have been asked if viruses will kill my permaculture garlic beds eventually, and I really wouldn’t know. So far they’re doing fine. I guess if that happens I’ll start over in another part of the yard, but meanwhile I’ll have enjoyed years of largely effort-free harvests.