Archive for the ‘home food production’ Category

Food Independence Day

Gardening is a pleasure and a labor of love, and it’s also part of a bigger picture of resilience. I think about resilience a lot these days, on every level from national and international to personal. Much of the time there is little or, arguably, nothing that I can do for those larger systems, but on any average day I can attend to my own household system. I can make reasonable plans for the future and remain as flexible as possible about things that can’t be predicted.

One thing that can be predicted is aging. We can do a lot toward aging well, but *spoiler alert* we will still age. I realized this when I had a few years of orthopedic issues that made it painful to walk and impossible to dig. It made me start shifting toward a permanent mulch system in part of my yard, so that as long as I can kneel to plant and can spread some straw around, I can harvest food. I started the mulched beds by heaping animal manure and bedding a foot thick over the whole area, but this was a one-time job and the labor involved can be hired.  Straw bales can be delivered and set where you need them for a small extra fee, and spreading them is light work. Let the whole setup mellow for several months if the manure was fresh, and start planting the following spring. Straw breaks down quickly and has to be replenished a few times a year, which is great because it builds the soil and creates an incredibly active layer of worms and tiny critters of all sorts. It also holds water tenaciously, which is critically important in my desert area.

Some perennial weeds come up through thick mulch, so there is some pulling to do. In my area, silver nightshade is the chief invader. I have started letting it flower before I pull it, because bumblebees love the flowers.

Other perennial weeds are far more delightful. Common milkweed was my favorite perennial wild edible when I lived in the Northeast, and I’m creating a few patches of it here to feed us if there are years that I can’t plant annual vegetables. As the seedpods mature I’m moving them to new parts of the yard. This spring I noticed that some seedlings struggled up through thick mulch, saving me the usual labor of weeding around the tiny plants for a couple of years while they get established, so this fall I will try just “planting” seed pods here and there under mulch to see if I can start new clumps that way. Once well established a clump of milkweed takes care of itself, and it’s pretty hard for other weeds to get a foothold. The delicious shoots emerge late in the spring, so be careful not to dig them up by mistake  when the early-spring digging fervor hits you.

Nettles are a perennial vegetable that I have yapped on and on about until there’s little left to say. So all I will add here is: site them where you can control them and not get stung, cook them in spring when young and tender, whack the plants back aggressively to keep them in place, and harvest more shoots later on. I freeze the young leaves in large quantities to eat all year.

I’m always experimenting with things that may save work later on. I don’t eat potatoes very often but do like a few treats of new potatoes in season. I’m trying out the Chinese yam or cinnamon vine, a robust perennial vine that has sprays of cinnamon-scented flowers and then, on established vines, a large crop of tiny bulbils borne from the leaf joints that are said to taste like new potatoes. My vine is three years old and hasn’t formed any bulbils yet but I am hopeful that next year will be the year. The vine also forms a huge underground tuber that I can dig up and eat if I ever get that hungry. I understand that it tastes good, but digging is no longer my favorite thing.

Old established hops vines produce huge quantities of edible and delicious shoots in spring. They are much less work than asparagus, which tends to need a lot of weeding, but they are big heavy vines that want to romp away 20’ high if they get a chance, and require a really sturdy fence. I don’t brew beer anymore because we no longer drink much of it, but if you brew, there’s another clear advantage to growing them.

A deep permanent mulch creates a living and lively ecosystem and you can watch its capacities change over the years. I’ve tried for years to grow blackberries, but in my very alkaline clay in broiling sun they were a no-go. Now, in mulch with some shade, they are thriving.

European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, are another desired plant that I was never able to grow until the mulch provided a more hospitable habitat.

My fruit trees appreciate the even moisture under a deep mulch. In our hottest summer so far, after our driest winter in memory, my apricot tree was loaded. I had to fight my local squirrel family for them but I don’t mind a little healthy competition. I made Indian pickles out of some of the unripe fruit, rather like the ones made from green mangoes, and they were good enough that I wish I had made more. I also roasted a lot of apricots for use in savory dishes. They are very delicious in this form, and freeze pretty well. Below, they harmonize with roast chicken in saffron cream sauce.

My old friend lambs-quarters is still everywhere. There is no leafy green that’s any better or any easier to grow or any more nutritious. I wish that some ambitious breeder would get to work on it and create a form that held longer without shooting to seed, but it’s just fine as it is. It can be seen somewhere in nearly every photo taken on my place, and is my living daily assurance that I’ll never starve. If I can’t grow anything else, I’ll rake the mulch off a patch of earth, add some water, and reap the resulting harvest.

Perennial onions are another food that will never desert me. In fact, I’m having to weed some out to make room for other things. Besides the usual ways to use scallions, they are awfully good sliced finely, stewed in butter with some salt until they sweeten, and eaten as a vegetable.

Animals can add greatly to your resilience and they help “close the loop” in keeping nutrients on your property. It’s amazing how much garden waste and food scraps they will eat and relish, and their manure passes on the left-overs to your plants in a form that they can use. If legal in your area, a rooster increases resilience by making it possible for you to grow your own chicks if you ever really have to, or want to.

I am no survivalist and don’t want anything to happen to society. We need each other. But if our current overly lavish food supply should be threatened, the ability to grow something to eat might once again become a necessary skill. And even with every grocery store crammed with food, growing your own is satisfying on a far deeper level than shopping.

A happy and healthy Independence Day to all.

 

 

 

Another Quickie


Yesterday I wrote about a quick light snack/meal made mostly from stored staples and fresh greens, and today it happened again that we weren’t terribly hungry at lunchtime but wanted something healthy and good. It was the work of ten minutes to chop up some lambs-quarters tops and a clove of garlic and sauté them with some salt while I peeled a few hard-boiled eggs out of the refrigerator. If you don’t have any already hard boiled, you can cook the number you want and chill them in ice water and eat them still velvety-warm in the center, which is delicious.

The finishing touch for the dish is a good glop of Mayonaisse. I make my own with the glorious deep orange yolks of greens-fed chickens and a mixture of olive oil and avocado oil. With a little salt and lemon juice and seasoning of your choice, its creamy unctuousness is quite superb and elevates a commonplace snack into something special. This particular batch was seasoned with some puréed canned chipotles in adobo, and finished with a sprinkle of ground chipotles.

Green leaves are the most active and extraordinary solar collectors in the world, and ideally they nourish you directly and nourish any animals that you eat. If you don’t want to garden or don’t have space, there is probably some foragable lambsquarters not too far away. You will invariably eat more greens if you make it convenient for yourself to eat them. Washing and cleaning them before they go in the refrigerator helps a lot, and sautéing them lightly before they hit the fridge can be even better. Better to compost some that you don’t use in time than to not eat them because they aren’t ready and waiting for you.

Perennial Edibles: input from my blogging friend Luke

Thomas Jefferson wrote toward the end of his life “Though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.” Today I’m writing about Luke of the Mortaltree blog, who, though a young man, is an old, experienced gardener.

Quite some time ago I wrote a post about the lack of genuine permaculture cookbooks to tell people what to do with unusual perennial vegetables if they were to grow them.  Luke took me seriously and started writing exactly such a guide.  It will be developed more and come out as a book later this year, so follow his blog if you want a notice when that happens, but he was kind enough to publish the preliminary material on his blog. Here are the introduction and Part I, with brief excerpts. Both Luke and I would love to hear reader’s thoughts. The photos here are mine; his are much more artistic.

Permanent Harvests

“Perhaps we could say yield is a ratio of utility to effort. In permaculture, we want everyone to utilize everything to the fullest. It’s reducing waste. It’s increasing pleasure. It’s making more of less, by realizing what we already have.

For the plant-crazed gardener, the efficiency-crazed gardener, the wild-plant forager, or anyone that eats with ethics, here is one look at obtaining your permanent harvest.”

Part I: The Primacy of Perennials

“Many of the best perennial vegetables are weeds that grow in quite inhospitable conditions. They only thrive all the more if given fertile sites. So much effort is put into the art of encouraging a plant to grow. Why shouldn’t we just find the plants that grow themselves. Then we can take our preference of tearing down and removing what we like just to keep the population of weeds in check. Perennial vegetables seem to be the perfect match for how we dream of managing natural resources.”

Part one goes on to describe a number of unusual perennial vegetables and a few annuals that are available very early in the year, during the hunger gap, and gives delicious-sounding  recipes for them.

The Perennial Paddock: Mycelial Madness

Nothing made me more joyously certain that I had created a real, albeit tiny, ecosystem in my suburban yard than when the first mushrooms grew among perennial plants rather than in a grow-bag or other artificial arrangement. Last year two kinds of mushrooms spread from spawn I had introduced and appeared far from the original “planting.” I was ecstatic; the mycelial Internet was forming! And this spring I was even more gratified to find a big cluster of Stropharia rugosa-annulata pushing up through the mulch months before I had expected to see any mushrooms. By perfectionist standards they were  overly mature when I discovered them, as evidenced by size, lightened cap color, and the cracks in the cap. But I am no perfectionist and knew that they were still perfectly good to eat.

So a few notes on introducing mushrooms, in no particular order:

1. Stropharia rugosa-annulata is the easiest mushroom  to grow in your garden. Even here in the high desert, it thrives in a deep mulch of straw and oak sawdust. In my opinion the almond agaricus is the most delicious, but it is more finicky and less productive. I have grown oyster mushrooms in containers, but this year I’m experimenting with introducing them into more unlikely spots. I’ll report back.

2. Get good spawn. Mine came from Field and Forest Products, and it was ready to grow.

3. Know how to indentify the mushroom that you introduced. Know its field marks and identify it before you eat it. When you create a good outdoor environment for mushrooms, you are not in complete control of what grows, any more than you are immune to weeds in your garden beds.

4. Be aware of how many commercial mulch products are treated with fungicides to prevent fungus from moving in. If you want select funguses to move in and thrive, you need to avoid these products.

5. Cook and eat with a sense of reverence and awe for the complex and extraordinary interactions of nature. If you want to learn more about this, Mycelium Running, Mycelial Mayhem, and Radical Mycology are useful books.

I sautéed my mushrooms in olive oil with generous additions of green garlic and fresh thyme, then removed them from the skillet, set aside in a warm spot, and scrambled some eggs in additional olive oil with a little salt. When the eggs were cooked, the mushrooms were folded back in. Simple as that. Scrambling is an underestimated technique. In this case I cooked the eggs fairly firm, for texture contrast with the softer mushrooms.  I framed the fragrant heap with a couple of slices of bacon. It made a quick delicious dinner, mostly from my own property, and was a culinary salute to the mycelial web that underlies, well, damn near everything.

The First Nettles of Spring

This year we ate all winter from the broccoli and greens growing under frost blankets. Even so, it remains a major spring event when the first nettles are ready to pick. They taste so good and give such an all-over glow of virtue.  There are people who think that nettles have special medicinal benefits. My own belief is that all dark leafy greens have medicinal benefits, and the important thing is to eat as wide a variety of them as possible. But that first meal from the uncovered soil does confer a special feeling that spring is finally and truly here.

If you aren’t familiar with them, consult a good wild-food field guide, and be aware that the sting is quite uncomfortable and can last hours. Have leather gloves handy for picking. They’re ready to harvest when 6-8” tall. I cut off the top 2” or so, including as much leaf and as little stem as possible.

I turn them into a big bowl of water and stir gently with a wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes to get dirt off.

My favorite tool for lifting them out of the water, leaving any dirt that was present at the bottom of the bowl, is a pair of “salad hands” that somebody once gave me as a hostess gift. A large slotted spoon would work too. I make sure to throw the water on a garden bed. We live in the desert, after all.

Cooking nettles is a breeze, but in my opinion chopping is a necessary step, to eliminate stringy stems. First I put them in the pan with about half a cup of water, and cook over high heat, stirring, for about two minutes or until thoroughly wilted. The water should be pretty much gone. Turn out on a cutting board, let cool for five minutes or so, and chop. The cooking has eliminated their capacity to sting, and you can handle them with impunity now.

The flavor of nettles is rather like spinach, but deeper and richer, with a slight feral twist. I especially like them creamed, and always eat the first ones this way. Slice up two big fat green onions, sauté them in butter until cooked, add chopped nettles, sauté another minute or so, add heavy cream just to cover, boil for a couple of minutes until the cream is thickened, and salt to taste. Serve with freshly ground pepper and nothing else, so that you can taste the true flavor of the nettles.  You can also use netales in absolutely any way that you would use cooked spinach. They are infinitely versatile, and I have never served them to anyone who disliked them.  After the initial cooking and chopping, they can be frozen for later years. Whenever I wash and cook nettles, I try to make about twice as much as I need for immediate use, so that I can freeze the other half.

They can be dried for tea, although I do not care for the watery tasting tea that results and don’t bother.  Adding a twist of orange peel or something similar would give more flavor. I am not much of a tea drinker, but if you are, this might be worth considering.

If, like me, you live in an area who are nettles don’t grow naturally, there are some considerations to growing them in your yard.  First is obtaining them. When I first started growing them in central New Mexico about 12 years ago, I could not get seeds to germinate and no herb nurseries offered them. I finally called an herb nursery from whom I was buying other things and asked if they could please find me some nettles.  The “plants” I received had clearly just been dug from the nearest roadside, and were little more than cut rhizomes in potting soil, but they grew just fine.  These days they are easier to find and a number of mail order nurseries have them.

Siting  must be done carefully, because of the sting and because they are invasive.  I have mine in an area surrounded by concrete, where they cannot escape to parts of the yard where I don’t want them.  My large dogs are readily able to avoid them, but I have heard that they could do real harm to very small dogs, so keep this in mind.   Growing them in areas where small children could get into them is an obvious no-no. They get tall and gangly and flop around, but if cut or mown back in summer, they stay neater and make a second crop in fall.  I hope that I am never without nettles in spring.

 

 

Food Diatribe II: Leafy Green Season

Medscape just published an article worth reading. The information is from a prospective study of older adults living in the community, and showed a direct linear relationship between consuming one or two servings a day of leafy green vegetables and slower cognitive decline. In fact, eating leafy greens daily offered the cognitive equivalent of being 11 years younger.

One expert neurologist asked to comment on the findings responded with confirmation: “This study adds to the rapidly evolving and convincing evidence that you are what you eat when it comes to brain health,” Richard Isaacson, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York City, said. “From a practical clinical perspective, regular intake of green leafy vegetables should be a standard part of a risk reduction paradigm to delay cognitive decline throughout the lifespan.”

Amusingly, another expert said that it was “too soon” to recommend leafy greens, and advised waiting for further confirmation from future studies, a typical recommendation for new drugs but not typically applied to foodstuffs that healthy people have been eating for millennia. I do of course see his point, which is not to jump into thinking of leafy greens as a cure-all, but really now. So here is my response as a gardener, a doctor, and an avid reader of research: don’t wait. Some of the longest-lived and healthiest populations in the world have had  markedly high  consumption of leafy greens. There is no downside and no dangerous side effect to worry about unless you are on warfarin. So just do it. You can read the article here if you want, and it contains a link to the study. Then, just do it. Grow them if you can. If you have a small garden patch, make an investment in your family’s health by filling it with greens. If you don’t garden, you can haunt your farmers market or start making foraging trips. If you prefer to eat salad, choose darker greens, not lettuce hearts or iceberg, and eat a big bowlful.

Right now I’m still eating last fall’s leafy greens from under frost blankets. The collards and Savoy cabbage held up best, and are uniquely delicious after exposure to cold. I harvested Swiss chard for people and chickens all last summer, and then put a frost blanket over half  the row.  The new leaves of spring are the meatiest and most delicious that a chard plant ever produces, and the protected ones are nearly eating size, while the unprotected ones will come in some time next month. Just be sure to get them before the central stalk starts to elongate, because they lose their sweet meatiness and get strangely dirty-tasting when the flowering stalk starts to form. Green alliums are coming up everywhere, and my nettle patch is sprouting strongly.

If you keep animals for food, feed greens to your animals (not nettles, but chickens do love the leftover cooked ones.) I have a carnivorous friend who eats supermarket meat and insists that he’s a secondary consumer of vegetables, and I keep trying to tell him that on the contrary, he’s just a secondary consumer of GMO corn. Unless you are buying animal foods known for a fact to be grassfed or pastured and not grain-finished, you aren’t consuming the nutrients of vegetables.  But if you keep your own, it’s astounding what quantities of greens chickens will eat if they get a chance, while cattle, sheep, and goats can be raised to butterball fatness on grass and greens alone if you have enough. The nutritional profile of the eggs and meat is enhanced and the animals are much happier. I’ll have more to say about meat in the near future.

Under the Frost Blankets

I have always tried to protect a couple of winter crops with frost blankets, but this year is the first time I got really serious about it at the right time of year. The right time of year is October, when you figure out which beds are going to be open during the winter and prepare them for planting.   Clean them of the debris of their previous crop, and fertilize a little more heavily than you usually would. Since I planned to grow mostly green things, I used blood meal and organic kelp meal.  If I had had more finished compost on hand, I would’ve used some of that too. Whatever you decide to use, fertilize, turn it in, water, and let the bed sit untouched for about a week.

Next, hunt your frost blankets. I cannot say enough good things about the heaviest weight of Agribon agricultural fabric, the one called Agribon 70. I got mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  After a couple of years of fooling around with lighter fabric or two layers of lighter fabric, I have concluded that nothing but the 70 is worth spending my money on. The others all tear in our desert windstorms allowing the plants I have tended so carefully to be dessicated and killed.  It comes in rolls of 12 foot wide fabric, and 100 feet of it is one of the best gardening investments I ever made.

This is a heavy weight fabric and will actually smother the crops if it is allowed to just lay on top of them, so you need some kind of support.  If you are even slightly handy, no doubt you could rig something up with thin PVC pipe hoops, which I think would be the best possible solution.  I am not remotely handy, and so I bought a package of bamboo garden hoops.  These seem flimsy when you handle them but actually will do the trick.

Put the fabric over them and weight it down all around. Don’t use fabric staples, because you will need to move it a lot for watering and harvesting. I use a small load of bricks that I bought from a neighbor. They need to be placed at least one brick per foot, because otherwise you will lose it all in a real windstorm.

Next, decide what to plant.  Broccoli was an easy choice for me because I love it and also consider it one of the healthiest vegetables around, and the leaves and stalks are as edible as the buds.  I had planned to start my own from seed to get a known cold hardy variety, however in late October I saw some plants in my local garden center and decided to buy them because it would save time and trouble. Most of the broccoli sold in my area is chosen for heat tolerance, not cold tolerance, so no doubt I could have had heavier yields with a different variety, but this one is working out well enough.  I put the plants in 18 inches apart each way, which is pretty close, but they are not going to get quite as big as those growing in the open in other seasons.

One of the joys of having a growing oasis in the winter is sticking your head under the frost blanket and just inhaling the scent of green growth. I also frequently break pieces off the broccoli leaves to eat while I’m watering. I try to restrict myself to the lobes at the base of each leaf, so that the overall appearance is a little less ratty, but as I see it nobody but me is really looking under there anyway.  Here, at the base of the leaf, you see the tiny little bud cluster that is going to become a side head after I cut the main head of broccoli.

A few of my heads got brown bud, as you see above. There seems to be no real consensus about what this is, except that it probably is not a disease caused by a pathogen but related to growing conditions. I did notice that the plants that got the least water developed this condition. It also happens sometimes with my outdoor broccoli in very dry conditions. When I see this, I cut that head off and I am sure to keep that plant watered, so that it can concentrate on growing large side heads.  Overall, I still get a fairly good yield out of those plants.

A delightful part of having a winter garden is that some of the things you let go to seed in the past come back around. Here you see a particularly healthy arugula plant that will go into a salad in the next day or two.  One of the reasons that I was careful to enrich the soil thoroughly is so that a lot of things could grow without hampering the broccoli very much

Here are a few interesting things going on. This is an area where a goji berry came up in the middle of the bed last year, and I cut it back hard before I covered the bed and I’m hoping to get some edible shoots out of it. You cannot get rid of gojis once you have them, so whack and eat them enough to keep them within limits.  This is a section of a few feet in the middle of the bed, where I planted Snow Crown cauliflower, and those plants died by November. I have done very well with the same variety in the open, so I don’t know what happened, but I do know that they did not like the conditions under the blanket. No problem. In the open space that they created by dying, you see leeks, garlic, arugula, chickweed, and celery coming up.  You might be able to spot tiny little leaks in the foreground from one that I let go to seed last summer, and then you can see larger leeks growing where I harvested last year‘s leeks  by cutting them off a few inches below the surface and leaving the base and the roots in the soil.  In each place that I did that, there are are two or three healthy leeks coming up from those roots. I am very pleased with this way of growing them, and I plan to keep experimenting with it.  The garlic is there because, after I planted my regular garlic beds, I had a lot of seed garlic left over and just stuck it in all over this bed before I covered it. My hope was to have green garlic earlier than usual, and it seems to be working out well.

A closer look at the celery seedlings. These are the offspring of a hybrid celery called Tango, and the offspring of a hybrid are not necessarily true to the parent. However, it is likely that some will be close enough, and I’ll weed out the rest.

A closer look of the green garlic, growing lustily. These are the same shoots that you will see in the picture below, prepared for cooking.

Above you see Shirley poppy, bladder campion, and chickweed joining the party wherever they can find room, next to a sturdy leek.

People who live in other parts of the country might be appalled to know that I planted chickweed on purpose, but it’s a tasty nutritious salad green and good edible ground cover that doesn’t grow here naturally. So whenever I see it seeding itself around a bit, I am quite pleased.

Mallow seeds itself around my garden, and I let some of it grow for greens and because the bees like the blossoms.  It will never be a favorite for greens, because it is just a touch on the slimy side, but as long as it makes up a quarter or less of a greens mixture you won’t notice that.  Behind the mallow you can see a small sow thistle, and I was hoping that these would get larger and more tender under the frost blanket than they do in the open ground, but so far this is not the case and I am not very impressed with them. Oh well.  The whole idea is to try things and see what works.

Lunch was a head of broccoli seasoned with the green garlic shoots above and fried eggs from the one valiant hen who is laying this time of year. Eating off your own property just feels good.