Archive for the ‘sustainable’ Category

Natural Chaos

A garden bed with edible weeds in glorious (?) array

For a brief period earlier this year I had a lovely young helper in the garden, and he was a sponge for any information about plants and animals and a joy to have around. At one point, as he talked about how much he wanted a “yard farm” of his own, he looked around my yard and said thoughtfully “But mine will always be neat as a pin.” He didn’t say “by contrast,” but the implication was clear, and quite true.

Well, if there is one thing my urban homestead is not, it’s neat as a pin. Nature grows and blooms. Nature also surges, intrudes, overwhelms, dies back, regrows,  creeps, climbs, and insidiously gets Her own way. The gardener plays a part in natural chaos too; all the photos of lovely front yard veggie gardens that you see in magazines are taken before harvest. The gardener cuts the glowing rainbow chard, harvests the multicolored row of lettuces, picks the crimson tomatoes, and plucks the shiny apples, and suddenly things aren’t so camera-ready. Admittedly, many are neater than mine, since many gardeners lack my taste for edible weeds and my belief that nearly any plant has a purpose.  But if you want to get the most that you can get out of gardening, a degree of chaos tolerance may be a useful asset.

My blogging friend Luke of the Mortaltree blog summed this up so superbly that, with his permission, I’m linking to his post on the subject. So please hit this link and read his post “Taste of Chaos,” which really sums up the land-healing experience:

Taste of chaos

Post 300: Magnolia

This is a poignant post for me to write, because one of my very first posts written on this property was about my new Sanaan doe goat Magnolia. Beloved Maggie is over nine years old now, and no longer  holding body weight well when she’s in milk, and I’ve concluded that for her own good, this is her last lactation. So I’m filling the freezer with goat cheese, and Magnolia will retire and live out the rest of her life in leisure. Goats are smart and interactive and, like dogs, incredibly painful to lose. I hope that Maggie will be with us for a few years yet. She is a big part of my daily life, and I can’t think of a better subject for my 300th post.
If you are interested in having a dairy animal, bear in mind that they need excellent nutrition and eat a lot of expensive food and occasionally have veterinary needs, so don’t even think in terms of producing economical food. Think in terms of having a lovely pet, with benefits. Do remember that periodic male offspring are almost inevitable and you have to have a plan for what to do with them, so if you are vegetarian yourself this may be a real issue for you. Female offspring can often be given to good homes, but can very seldom be sold at a profit.  Also, I trust it goes without saying that when in milk they have to be milked out every day, not just when you feel like making cheese, and have to be milked when you travel, which is not a job that the average pet sitter will take on. Be aware that excellent fences are required to keep goats out of your own shrubbery and trees or your neighbor’s, and in my area an 8 foot fence they can be secured behind at night is needed for protection from coyotes. All of this costs money.  If any of this discourages you, there is an abundance of excellent cheese including the superb Mount Vikos halloumi available at any upscale food store or co-op.

One of the reasons that I wanted a dairy animal in my suburban yard is that I like to make cheese, and currently it’s pretty hard to make cheese from most commercial milk. This is because milk is being pasteurized at increasingly high temperatures to extend its shelf life, and the milks in your local dairy case that don’t say “UHT” were probably still pasteurized at near-UHT temperatures. This affects the proteins, and such milk will not form a proper curd when rennetted. Therefore, unless you have access to fresh-from-the-animal milk, success is by no means certain with any cheese recipe except ricotta. Since it’s illegal or very difficult in most areas to sell raw milk, a dairy animal is your ticket to cheesemaking. If you don’t have a dairy animal or access to milk that wasn’t processed at high temperatures, I am very sorry to say that I do not recommend cheesemaking because it is going to be too disappointing. Personally, I find it absolutely weird to think that most commercial milk is so denatured that you can’t make cheese out of it. But these are the facts.

If you have access to  clean milk that was not pasteurized at high heat, go immediately to Ricki Carroll’s wonderful cheesemaking site and go to town. She has all the supplies and cultures as well as reams of recipes and advice.
My own choice has been to stick to fresh cheeses and halloumi, because they are quick and easy to make, can be frozen for later use, and do not require any special attentions as they age because they don’t age. I’m especially fond of halloumi because it can be grilled to such a wonderful crusty brown, and I do love a good Maillard reaction.
Rather than give my own haphazard procedure for making halloumi, which might not be perfect but fits into my kitchen routine and produces a good product, I am going to have you start off on the right foot by linking to Ricki’s recipe.  I will only add that I don’t use any herbs in finishing the cheese, because it is more versatile if it isn’t already carrying an herb flavor.  Any herbs that you want can easily be added at the cooking or serving stage, as the green onions pan-grilled with the halloumi in the top picture.  Also, a salted but unseasoned halloumi is an excellent stand-in for paneer if you feel suddenly moved to go Indian rather than Mediterranean.  And a wild greens saag paneer with your own greens fed cheese is as delicious a dinner as I know of,  and likely to contribute to your health and longevity as well as your immediate gratification.

A quarter cup of ricotta  is a byproduct of making halloumi,  and makes a nice Cook’s Treat to reward yourself for your enterprise.

Here,  fresh goat cheese serves as the bulk of a dinner, a strongly seasoned ground meat with sweet spices in the Arabic style is part of the flavoring, and an elaborate herb pesto is the other part.

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Feeding Our Pollinators

Sometimes I write a post that is a thinly disguised excuse for posting a bunch of pictures of flowers. However, it isn’t frivolous because flowers really matter. One of my gardening goals this year is to keep a fairly steady supply of flowers going for the pollinators and notice which ones they visit the most.

Starting in early spring, the Japanese plum trees were heavily visited. The next thing that bloomed was the black locust tree, and it was absolutely mobbed with bees. I could sit under the tree and listen to the loud hum.

Next, wisteria, which seemed to be especially attractive to bumblebees.

Turkish Rocket  proved to be a fair bee plant.

The olive-leaved sylvetta arugula is exceptionally attractive to pollinators of all kinds. It’s reliably perennial in my garden and can tolerate any amount of neglect.

The most wildly attractive of all my nectary plants are the poppies. Lavish Shirley poppies, unimproved cornfield poppies, breadseed poppies, Oriental poppies, the bees adore them all. They would be worth a lot of trouble to have, but they aren’t any trouble.

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This year I planted patches of bee’s friend, Phacelia tanacetifolia, which is supposed to be the best nectary plant going.  In my garden it bloomed at the same time as the poppies and is being somewhat ignored in the poppy frenzy, but bees do visit it and I enjoy having it around, so I will certainly plant some more next year.

Ornamental and edible alliums that are allowed to flower are a hit with honeybees.

I plant alfalfa all over the place and always let some flower, and my common yard hollyhocks are visited frequently by bees.  There are many unspectacular flowers that the bees like just fine. I  grew a lot of arugula around my yard and let it go to flower so that it will see that self, and the bees like the small nondescript flowers.  If you grow vegetables in the mustard family and don’t get around to eating them all, you can always let one or two go to seed and the bees will enjoy them. Edible weeds dandelion and sow thistle are liked by bees, making them nice  to have around on two counts.

Just don’t spray. Please don’t spray.

Milkweed, For People and Others


People who live in wetter climates would be surprised, and probably amused, to learn what efforts I’ve made to have common weeds like nettles, burdock, chickweed, and milkweed grow on my property. Common milkweed, Asclepius syraica, has been especially difficult because it really does like moist soil and doesn’t tolerate “dry feet” or alkalinity gracefully.  It took a couple of tries before I got any to germinate, and now I finally have a few plants, which have to be watered and tended and fussed over as if they were orchids until they get stronger. I had to borrow photos because my own milkweed is still a bit on the spindly side.

One might well wonder why I bother. One reason is that I like to eat milkweed, especially the young seed pods, but the shoots and buds are just fine too. It’s a true nose-to-tail vegetable. Another is that I am transitioning from annual veggies to perennial wherever possible, and A. syraica is a good useful perennial that doesn’t require soil disturbance to grow. A third reason is that the flowers are fairly ornamental and send out a cloud of perfume reminiscent of flowery vanilla.

A fourth reason can be seen on this map:

Monarch migration

Notice how the sightings in New Mexico just peter out, while the ones in wetter areas east and west continue northward. Compare this to the maps on the same site for larvae and for milkweed. The migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to the northern US is a migration of generations. The butterfly that arrives in Montana may be great-great-grandchild to the butterfly that flew north from Michoacon. All along the way they need breeding habitat, and their larvae feed on A. syraica and a couple of other closely related milkweed species. The leg of the journey through desert northern Mexico and southern New Mexico is a barren one, and a few milkweed oases along the way might help more monarchs make it to Colorado and further north. I can’t guarantee it, of course, but it seems worth a try. Adult monarchs will sip nectar from many flower species, but the fate of the larvae is tied to milkweed supply.

You can read more about monarch conservation here:

https://monarchconservation.org

Since my plants are still too young to pick for eating, I won’t be writing about milkweed in the kitchen until next year, but you can obtain the two wonderful field guides by Samuel Thayer, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden, and be prepared to forage and cook any common wild edible. I never tire of recommending Thayer’s books, which contain great detail about identification and culinary use at various stages.

A Quickie on Pollination

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There can’t be anybody left who doesn’t know about our pollinator crisis. I was saddened recently when an experienced beekeeper who is profoundly attentive to her bees told me that she lost a third of her hives over the last year. It can’t be overstated that our friend over millennia, Apis mellifera, is in deep trouble and therefore so are we.

This makes our remaining pollinators even more important. Everyone recognizes bumblebees and knows that they are active pollinators,  and in my area most people recognize the coal black stylish looking carpenter bee.  Unfortunately, they recognize it because they think it is a danger to their houses and tend to reach for spray the minute they see it.  Carpenter bees are active pollinators and adapted to our area and spraying them is a really, really bad idea under most circumstances, but when I did a search on them to find a photograph, I was horrified to find that almost all  the hits that I found were about exterminating them and advised application of “residual pesticides,” i.e. pesticides that leave residues which kill for a long time after they are sprayed.  This is sick stuff, in my view, especially since it kills large numbers of other species.  On the other hand, I own a house with exposed wood beams and don’t want my house bored into any more than anybody else does.  I have repeatedly noticed that the carpenter bees like cottonwood, and have decided to keep a pile of cottonwood logs and branches where the bees can burrow around at peace.  I read that they also will not attack painted wood. Clearly, I will be watching my beams closely for signs of invasion, and if I see carpenter bee activity I will consult an entomologist (not an exterminator, since they have a business interest in selling me their poisonous services) about what to do. But so far that hasn’t happened. And I guess that’s my real point: the mere sight of something that might potentially be harmful but that is minding its own business at the moment is not a reason to get reactive and act harmfully. The mindset of permaculture and homesteading is to avoid making a hazard out of something that isn’t.  This point is rather neatly illustrated below:

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Help our bees. All of them.

Backyard Mushrooms

For years I moaned and carried on about my inability to grow mushrooms as an integrated part of my urban homestead, and now I can’t stop them. All winter I grew oyster mushrooms in the garage on a substrate of recycled paper, and last month I put the theoretically depleted basket of substrate outside in the shade with the thought that when I got around to it, I would break up the broken-down paper and incorporate it into my mulch. Instead, the basket was within range of a sprinkler that I was using every other day to help some new plants get started, and produced another three pounds of mushrooms. So this might not  exactly be the Pacific Northwest around here, but the adaptable oyster didn’t care.

So my point is, as the Gangsta Gardener says, just plant shit. Plant what you would like to eat and don’t give up. Plants and fungi are resilient survivors and may astonish you at some point, even after initial disheartening failures.

The role of fungi in a healthy ecosystem is far-reaching and worth reading about. They are valuable beyond measure whether you can directly eat them or not. But my greed and gluttony makes me most interested in the edibles. Pleurotis ostreatus, the common oyster mushroom,  is vigorous and highly adaptable and also delicious, which works out well for my purposes. But I am experimenting with some other types. In an area of deep straw and mulch I put spawn of the wine cap mushroom, Stropharia rugosa-annulata, and it seems to be sending mycelia out through the straw. In August I’ll find out if it will fruit for me.

The mycelium above may grow into the mushrooms below:

DCF 1.0

Every year I make a new bed by putting down layers of cardboard and nontoxic paper recyclables and piling up a year’s worth of goat bedding on top. This is a mixture of goat manure and the alfalfa that she eats, and is as hot a compost material as you will find, so I do this in late fall or early winter, wet it down thoroughly, and let it compost in place over the winter. In spring, I start planting into it.  Generally, the first year I use hearty healthy unstoppable plants, such as mustard for greens and summer squash. They always flourish, and by the second year of the compost is finely broken down and will grow pretty much anything. This year I planted spawn of the almond agaricus mushroom, a compost-loving mushroom, into a first-year bed and will see what happens. But I was interested to note that a small shelf of oyster mushrooms poked out the side a couple of weeks ago. The oyster mushroom is not “supposed” to tolerate full sun or hot compost. To which I can only say, tell that to the oyster mushroom.

If you’re interested in learning more about offbeat ways of growing mushrooms, Mycelial Mayhem is a delightful romp through the casual side of mushroom growing. Mycelium Running is a classic about the role of fungi in ecology.

A Hundred Kinds of Chimichurri

I love chimichurri, the ground herb table sauce of Argentina, but I am by no means faithful to the Argentinian version. If you have an active garden, spring offers the first of infinite variations of chimichurri to accent any grilled meat or poultry. These savory herbal sauces also dress up baked and roasted foods, and are a great way to perk up hard-boiled or fried eggs. People who don’t have to stay low-carb may like them drizzled on bread or rice. Vegetarians will like chimichurri on roasted vegetables, and for that matter ardent carnivores would love it on roasted carrots, broccoli, and other meaty veggies. I can imagine it freshening and enlivening roasted or grilled oyster mushrooms.

The basic necessary ingredients are olive oil, garlic, an acid, salt, herbs, and embellishments. Variables are the herbs, the texture, and the embellishments and degree of heat, if any.

So here’s a menu for infinite improvisation:

Oil: I say very good olive oil is a necessity. If you choose to fool around with other oils, feel free. Plan on between a half cup and one cup.

Garlic: green in spring, mature cloves later on. 2-3 large stalks of green garlic or 3-4 cloves of mature garlic.

Acid: vinegar is traditional but lemon juice is delicious with the more delicate spring versions. Consider wine vinegar or sherry vinegar.  Plan on about 2 tablespoons and have extra available to add if needed. Please, don’t use sweet caramelized ersatz “balsamic” vinegars. Yech.

Salt: “Plenty” is the important concept here. Some chimichurris that seem like failures come alive when enough salty element is added. Remember, this is a seasoning sauce, not a main dish.Your salt element may be sea salt, but a good dab of anchovy paste or a glut of the salty-lemony fermented liquid from preserved lemons may attract you.

Herbs: parsley is traditional and great, but don’t feel bound. Cilantro is a great alternative for the “bulk” herb, of which you’ll need a bunch (from the store) or a large handful (from the garden.) Oregano, sweet marjoram, summer savory, thyme, and lemon thyme are great options for the subsidiary herb, of which a small chopped handful (combined if using multiple herbs) is plenty. Combos are potentially wonderful. I don’t recommend tarragon for this sauce, but feel free to prove me wrong, and I think rosemary should be limited to a chopped teaspoon or two if used at all. Some mint is a possibility if used judiciously. Sage is difficult to use and, in my view, not a good possibility.But suit yourself, as long as you are pursuing a coherent taste-vision. Wander your garden, be seducible, and work it out later.

Embellishments: Heat is an important possibility. Hot sauce, harissa, and ground dried chiles can all work wonders, and fresh chopped jalapeños (seeded or not per your preference for fire) can do real magic. Anchovy fillets mashed can add a savor and tang that are the making of rich meats like roasted  lamb or goat. Preserved lemon peel, finely chopped, is highly nontraditional but extraordinary in the right circumstances. A pinch  of toasted cumin seeds, finely ground, can give an earthy, sweaty, quintessentially masculine note that makes a simple grilled steak or chop memorable.

Texture: can be anywhere from medium-fine grind to as coarse as a chopped salad. It all depends on your mood and your main dish.

Procedure:

Chop your garlic coarsely or slice finely crosswise if using green garlic and put in a large mortar or small food processor; I invariably use my little stoveside Mini-prep. Chop or pound to desired degree. Add herbs, salt,  and embellishments and process only until you like the texture. Add the acid and salt, process briefly, and work in the oil. Now taste, and think. If you are sure it didn’t work, think about how to rebalance and save it. Sorry to harp, but insufficient salty element is a common fault. Increase the salt, anchovy paste, or preserved lemon juice, or add a bit of the latter two if you didn’t use them before. If overly salty or acid, add more oil to smooth it out.  If bland, add a little more acid. If just not that interesting, consider stirring in more chopped herb or some heat.

This sauce can be refrigerated overnight and may be even better the next day, although cilantro-based versions tend to lose freshness and pizazz and are best consumed on sight.