Archive for the ‘front yard gardening’ Category

Living in Interesting Times: Spring Greens

This is a very strange time for everyone. As a healthcare provider, I know how much there is to worry about. I know that not everyone can isolate themselves from exposure, and not everyone has the luxury (and it is a luxury) of the money and space to store some crisis supplies. Not everyone has the luxury of a job right now, by a long shot. If you do, appreciate what you have and help others if you possibly can.

At this as at other tough times, I find myself thinking back to growing up in Louisiana. In hurricane country people were used to regular interruptions of basic services and kept on hand what they needed to get through 2-3 weeks. They helped each other and they followed the hurricane directives. So respect the restrictions we operate under right now and do the best you can not to be part of the problem.

Narrowing this down to the garden, there is nothing as comforting as being able to get some food from your own yard. There’s an egg shortage, but my chickens are laying, supplying us and a few colleagues and neighbors with at least some eggs. Rice and beans and seasonings are in the pantry, and if you always keep herbs in the garden and a few ham hocks in the freezer, you have the means to make things taste good.
This is a great time to learn to use your weeds if you haven’t already. I actually had to buy seeds to have dandelions, but once you have them they are faithful kitchen friends every spring. If you don’t care for bitter greens, mix them with milder greens like nettles, scorzonera, bladder campion, and salsify, all growing lustily in my yard right now and all perfectly delicious when cooked. If you don’t know these unstoppable weeds, learn about them and plant them now or learn where they grow. Then spring will be a time of abundance, regardless of what’s going on in the greater world, and the less need you have for outside groceries, the more there are for someone else. Seal and freeze the extra to eat another time. If you have a patch of Egyptian or other perennial onions, you’ll always have seasoning on hand, and a handful of chopped oil-cured olives adds delicious umami.


Mixed cooked greens in the refrigerator can be eaten in tortillas with cheese, used to top rice with some butter and meat juices, or (most deliciously, in my view) spread on toasted sourdough bread and topped with fluffy grated flakes of good Parmesan.
After that will come the meaty delicious leaves from last year’s chard plants, mulberry sprigs, hops shoots, and who knows what all. This may be the year that I finally try cooking the newest Siberian elm leaves, instead of feeding them all to the animals. I’ll comb my foraging and permaculture books for other things I haven’t tried yet.

The reason to do all this is not that there is no food in stores. There’s lots of food, with strange exceptions currently caused by hoarding more than any actual lack of supply. The reason is to take yourself out of the hoarding mentality and into a frame of mind to nourish yourself well and realize that you will act responsibly and do as well as you can. Life is uncertain and COVID-19 even more so. Everyone is at risk right now, but if we are staying home responsibly when not working and minimizing risk to ourselves and others we’ll feel better. If we feel that we can get things for elderly friends and relatives so that they can isolate more effectively, we’ll feel better. And staying home to garden, tend animals, and forage in the yard feels a lot better than sitting around watching television.

Dressing Up the Greens

My fanaticism about leafy greens is no secret,  and I have said in the past that if you keep them prepped and ready and preferably pre-cooked, you will eat a lot more of them. In the summer I try to keep horta, the Greek cooked greens mixture, in the refrigerator and see how many ways I can use it.
Although in general I eat low-carb, I do sometimes bake sourdough bread because I have a very good starter and it would be a pity not to use it now and then. Well, actually, I do it because sourdough bread is one of my favorite things and I allow myself an occasional relapse. The last time I made sourdough, I put a lump of dough about the size of a softball in the refrigerator, and a few days later I got the urge to use it.
If you have the dough and the horta ready, a greens calzone is a very easy thing to produce and looks rather spectacular. Pat the chilled dough out into a large thin circle, pile horta on half of it, top with generous layers of grated Parmesan and torn-up mozzarella, fold the bare half over the top, brush a beaten egg over the top dough and sprinkle with coarse salt, cut some slits in the top, and bake at 425 degrees until cooked through and browned. Ten minutes of actual hands-on time and some oven time when you can do other things.

If you don’t happen to have bread dough in the refrigerator, many stores and pizzerias now sell fresh pizza dough.

Species in my current batch of horta: lambsquarters, chard, walking onions, green garlic, broccoli leaves, mulberry shoots, wild lettuce tips, parsley, thyme.  Really a tiny number of species this time, but still awfully good.

Pollinators And Their Current Buffet

It’s no secret to anyone at this point that our pollinators are in trouble.  There are a lot of things that individuals can do, including never using neonicotinoid pesticides,  and feeding pollinators as well as possible and providing habitat for them.  One important factor is that some native pollinators thrive best when a number of different kinds of pollen sources are available to them:

https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/bumblebees-need-diverse-diet-too

With that in mind, I began looking around my yard to see what all is available to my resident bumblebees and other pollinators right now.  All the bees in my area seem to be quite mad for poppies, but the poppy season is drawing to a close. Still, there are lots of other things. Exhibit A, above, is milkweed. It has taken me four years to finally have a thriving blooming patch of milkweed, but the bees definitely appreciate it. The picture above shows honeybees, but the bumbles visit it regularly too.  I haven’t seen any monarchs yet, but I remain hopeful.

The elderberry bushes are in bloom and they seem to be attractive to all kinds of bees and other pollinators, as well as being attractive to me when in fruit.

I grow scorzonera largely for food use and had never heard of it being a significant pollen producer, but the bees and butterflies love it when in flower.

Next to milkweed, the most thronged plant in the yard right now is perennial arugula, which tends to bloom just after the annual arugula,shown below,  finishes. Both are wildly attractive to bees. The honeybees can light on the slender stalks without too much trouble, but when a bumblebee lands on them, they bend over double.  Interestingly, this does not seem to deter the bumbles. They just sort of ride the stalk down and mine the flower of pollen while hanging upside down.   These are cruciferous plants, and I have noticed that when collards, kale, or broccoli are allowed to go to flower, the bees are crazy about them too. I am not sure what makes crucifers so attractive to bees.  But there is no arguing with the fact.

If you absolutely do not want to grow any vegetables in your front yard, it can still be used as a pollinator garden, with fruit trees, berry bushes, and any number of flowering perennials and annuals that bees enjoy.

Nettle Ale, and notes on the Drinkmate

One of the nicest things about having an active permaculture garden is that you have strange plants around you in all phases of growth and you’re led to read and to experiment. A couple of months ago I found myself eyeing my healthy nettle patch, where the nettles were almost three feet tall and well past the greens phase, and wondering what could be done with them. I got on the Internet and came across British recipes for nettle beer. I was curious about it because the cooking water from nettles has a strong and distinctive taste that I don’t find exactly pleasant, yet people reported liking the ferment. Well, no harm in trying. I started with three gallons of water in my huge stockpot, and picked (with sturdy leather gloves) about 75 nettle tops. I also added 10 large hops leaves and 10 large Concord grape leaves on grounds that, if the brew was revolting, at least it would contain some resveratrol and chalcones. I boiled all this at a full rolling boil for fifteen minutes, and then let it cool. I fished all the plant material out with a strainer scoop, pressed all the residual juice out and returned it to the pot, and gave the pressed mass of leaves to the chickens. No sense in wasting those nutrients.
I brew by instinct and not by recipe, and I think the next step is the most important: TASTE THE COOLED JUICE AND THINK ABOUT THE FLAVOR before sweetening the liquid. The sweetness will be fermented out, so it’s important not to think of it as part of the finished flavor.  Don’t think in terms of a recipe that you’ve read. Think about what it needs to improve the flavor, and try to supply that.  This juice was not promising, with a strong nettle taste and little other flavor. It lacked any acidity so I added the juice of four oranges and one lemon, giving it a light but pleasant acidity. I decided to go with the strong herbal flavor and added a large angelica leaf and stem, which would remain in the fermenter during primary fermentation.  I also added back the squeezed rind of one of the oranges. Use organic if you do this. Next, I needed to give the yeasty beasties something to eat. I sweetened with one pound of organic sugar per gallon of water, for an eventual alcohol level of 4-5%, just above near-beer, and pitched a yeast intended for hard cider. This all went into the primary fermenter, where it bubbled merrily for a couple of weeks. When the bubbling slowed, I racked it into a clean fermentation bucket, leaving the angelica leaf and rinds behind with the sediment. I tasted  the brew at this point,  and to my surprise the distinctive nettle taste was completely gone.  I could taste the aromatics from the oranges, a slight and becoming touch of bitterness from the angelica and hops leaves,  and an overall mild herbal flavor, and while the brew  still tasted raw and unfinished, it was pleasant.  After another two weeks, it was racked into a keg and put under carbonation.   Chilled and  carbonated, it has become one of our favorite choices for a quick glass of something-or-other in the evening.  It is blessedly  low in alcohol and good with light meals like salads. It tastes best sweetened slightly with a drop or two of liquid stevia or similar added to a glassful. We like it so much that I promptly started another batch dubbed Stinger Brew II,  but this time I left out the oranges and just added the juice of one lemon to a 4 gallon batch.  When primary fermentation is finished and I rack it off for secondary fermentation, I will taste and see if it needs any more acidity, and I plan to dry hop it at this stage because my hops should be in full bloom at that point. Where Stinger I is more like a light herbal wine, Stinger II will be more like a light true ale.  If you really want it to taste like a beer rather than a wine, you could use malt syrup  or malt extract  to sweeten the juice, but I like the more winey  quality that comes from using sugar.

So, as I am always saying, embrace the experimental nature of cooking, brewing, gardening, and life.  If I did this commercially, I would have to keep very exact measurements for consistency between batches and would have to try to maintain each batch exactly like the one before, since that is what customers expect.  But my ingredients are variable, my process is variable, I am variable, and I do not want two batches that taste the same.  This is very freeing.  Liberating yourself from the tyranny  of the recipe is one of the nicest things that can happen to a cook and brewer.

Beer, wine, and mead can be carbonated by charging with some sugar, bottling in swing-cap bottles, and waiting. But there are easier and surer ways. If I want a large quantity carbonated, my husband oversees a kegerator made for refrigerating and carbonating 5 gallon kegs, and then the bubbly stuff is dispensed via a tap. It’s very handy, but needless to say, you don’t necessarily want 5 gallons of any one thing. In those cases, I use the Drinkmate. It’s a sleek carbonation device that uses smaller CO2 canisters and special bottles to carbonate a liter or less at a time in just a couple of minutes. There are a number of carbonation devices on the market, and they all work just fine for carbonating water. The Drinkmate is different because it will carbonate any liquid. Carbonated juice could be delicious if you drink juice, and it occurs to me that sparkling mint tea would be delicious in the summer.You can read more about the device here. If you want to buy one, you can get it here. Replacement CO2 cylinders are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, and empties can be traded in there for half-price new cylinders. Order a few extra bottles when you order your Drinkmate. I’ve noticed that when plain carbonated water is available in the fridge, I drink more water in total, and sparkling water is better with meals than plain water. Carbonation also brings out the flavor of water kefir, which I make in large quantities. With or without a drop of sweetener, it’s delicious.

The Greens of Early Summer

I love leafy greens and consider them one of the healthiest foods in the world, as long as they were raised in a clean fashion.  If you are lucky enough to have a garden and an active permaculture property, you can nearly always eat some greens but the source of your greens changes throughout the growing season.  Right now, we are in the glory season for lambsquarters, and they are everywhere and are at their tender best right now. I eat huge quantities of them, but I have written so much about them elsewhere that in this post I will say very little except: for the sake of your health and your palate, learn to identify them, harvest them, prepare them, and eat them.

Today I decided to write about some uncommon greens which are unique to the season.  Americans don’t think very much about eating the leaves of trees, but some of them are very appealing, and my favorite “tree green“ is the young sprouts of mulberry trees.  It is almost never possible to gather good edible leaves from mature trees. The best mulberry greens are the tips of actively growing shoots from trees that have been cut back, and I am lucky because on the walking trail near the river in my area, several mulberry trees have been cut back to keep them from impinging on the trail. They produce a forest of new growth, and it is the tips of that new growth that are good to eat.   Harvest only as far down as the stem can easily be snapped with your fingernail. If it bends or creases instead of snapping, go further up toward the tip.

Incidentally, there is some pretty ridiculous stuff on the Internet to the effect that mulberry leaves will get you high or the water from cooking them will. Utter rot.  This is one of those unfortunate cases of one writer printing a piece of misinformation and dozens of others picking it up as gospel.  I have been eating young mulberry tips for decades, and nothing remotely interesting has ever happened as a result. Euell Gibbons ate them, Samuel Thayer eats them,they are used as a tea throughout Southeast Asia,  and there is no reliable report anywhere of them causing hallucinations. You must always do your own due diligence and make your own decisions, but I simply don’t worry about it.

For a quick lunch for two, I gathered a double handful of mulberry tips. I washed them and cut them in fine cross sections of less than a quarter inch, chopping a large bunch at a time.     Then I considered what else to add.

I could’ve used sorrel for a tart element, but since the leaves on my petit syrah grapevine are young and tender, I decided on several of them.  Wash them, stack them, roll them up like a cigar, and sliver them very thin with a sharp knife.

For flavoring, garlic is always a favorite of mine, and right now the garlic is forming bulbs but they are small and the skin is still young and tender. I pulled an entire head since they are mild this early, peeled off just the toughest outer layers, and sliced the rest finely in cross section and chopped it. The material that would later become the skins is full of allicin, and is very desirable.  But I also wanted some herbal flavor, so I grabbed the top of one of my bronze fennel plants. At this time of year, when it is getting full and bushy, bronze fennel is so ornamental that I can hardly stand to use it, but it tastes good so I try to overcome my scruples.

I decided that I wanted a texture element, and this time of year my favorite crisp texture is the scapes of last year‘s leek plants.

Cut them before the bulb on top begins to open, peel off the very tough outer skin, and then use a vegetable peeler to get all stringy bits off.

As I got ready to cook,  I decided to cut the stalks in quarter inch  cross sections because it would go better with the other textures. The taste of leek stalks is soft, oniony, and sweet.

First heat a skillet over medium heat.  Then add your oil of choice. I used a mixture of olive and avocado oil.  When the oil is hot, put in the chopped garlic, leek stalk pieces, and fennel.  Sauté until the garlic looks cooked. Add the chopped mulberry leaves and grape leaves, and because the texture of mulberry leaves tends to be dry, I added a quarter cup of water at this time.  Add salt to taste, and sauté until the greens are cooked to your liking and any added water is cooked away but the greens aren’t too dry. Personally, I like tree greens a bit on the done side, since they tend to be a bit chewy when cooked al dente.   Taste for seasoning, and then set your greens mixture aside in a bowl, reheat the skillet, put in a knob of butter, and scramble whatever you think is the right number of eggs for two people.  When cooking for my husband and myself, I always use a mixture of three eggs and three additional egg yolks, beaten together with about a tablespoon of cream.  When the eggs are scrambled and have less than a minute left to cook, return the greens to the pan and stir the mixture up together, but you want discrete lumps of egg to remain among the greens.   Serve onto plates, grind over fresh pepper to taste, and salt as needed.

Besides mulberry and  grape leaves, I’m giving thought to other climbing perennials or trees that might be useful for greens.  I have a linden tree that I planted specifically for greens, however the texture turned out to be somewhat mucilaginous and if there is one thing I dislike, it is what my husband calls the “mucoid food group.“  They are fine in a salad when young, but I don’t care for them cooked at all.  I am beginning to eye the shoot tips on Siberian elm trees that have been cut back. My goat and chickens eat them in huge quantities, and maybe I could too,  so I have been searching for data, especially because this is an enormously prolific trash tree in my area.  According to the website Eat the Weeds, run by the prolific and reliable Green Deane, the very young leaves of both Siberian elms and Chinese elms are edible and can be used interchangeably with each other. So I will be trying that in the future. I’ll report back.

Passing pleasures: Hops shoots

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.

A Quickie on Soil, and notes on quixotic planting

In the area of my property called the Perennial Paddock,  I have been doing a deep mulch for about six years, undisturbed except for topping it up with straw and pulling some of the worst perennial weeds.  When I can hire help to dig the waste alfalfa and manure out of the animal paddock, it goes on this mulch. The result, to my intense delight, is that where previously I had compacted clay and tumbleweed, now I have dark black soil about 12 inches deep.  This area has allowed me to observe that if you have time for the soil to build itself, and keep an endless supply of mulch to spread as needed, you do not really need to do any other soil amendment. You also don’t need to correct pH or any of the other maneuvers commonly recommended for soil improvement.  The year that I started mulching this area I invested in a bag of Thorvin kelp meal and spread that around, and since then all I have added is the straw and animal bedding. Lots of it. More than seems to make any sense when it’s dry and fluffy, but it will pack down to a surprisingly thin layer and have to be topped up a few times a season.

The first thing I ever planted here, way back before it was mulched, was a black locust tree. The little twig is now about 40 feet high, and when it is covered with blossoms in April, the entire tree through arms with bees.  It provides shade, and I think its  widespreading roots are part of what has broken up the soil so thoroughly.  In other areas of my yard I have actually had to break up hard packed areas with a pick, but in this paddock the locust tree has done all the hard work for me.

Now it is the matriarch of a wildly varied colony of perennials, and because of the soil quality and moisture level, this is also the place where I experiment with difficult plants. Oca, for example.  This member of the oxalis family is a sharp-tasting tuber available in a wild variety of colors.  It is native to the high Andes, and a sensible person would realize that it does not want to live in my flat baking high desert area with its  brutal summers.  But it is so pretty that I can never resist buying 15 or 20 tubers and experimenting.  So far I have tried them in a garden bed and in a berry row. In both locations, they grew until about July, then withered and died back, and the tubers that they produced were about the size of a pea or smaller rather than 1-2 inches long as they should be.

This year I ordered my usual optimistic packet of tubers, and decided to plant them almost directly in the shade of the black locust tree, in the deep cool soil that now exists there.

It will occur to the reasonable  economist that at this point I have spent a total of about $70 on tubers, and have not yet reaped any return.  But no garden is entirely reasonable.  If I were only going to grow things that “pencil out,“ I would do fine to just let my entire property come up in lambsquarters, which cost nothing to plant and give an effortless harvest of nutritious greens.  But I feel that I would be worse off for having missed the joyous expectation of putting beautiful little earth-jewels in the ground and hoping for them to multiply.  If I get enough to harvest, I don’t even know if I will like them, since I have never had a chance to taste them. But I’m not sure how much it matters. Hope is the point.

I get my oca tubers from Cultivariable, a fascinating source for little known Andean food plants.  They are usually sold out of the choicest selections by late February, so bookmark them for a look next winter.  I have read that oca foliage is also edible, so this might be a nose to tail perennial, but I don’t know yet.