Archive for the ‘vegetable gardening’ Category

Broccoli Heaven

This year I made a real effort to have broccoli, my favorite vegetable, available in larger quantities than I could eat at once.  Every year I hope to have some to freeze, and every year I gobble it all up as soon as it is ready.  But this year I did succeed, by putting in 12 plants in late May that would mature after my earliest planting, and mature more or less all at the same time  so that I couldn’t just hog it all at once in one giant broccoli orgy.

Broccoli is a very heavy feeder, and when it is a bit established I pile a heavy mulch of alfalfa and a little chicken manure all around the base, a few inches back from the stem. This conserves moisture and provides nutrients in a steady fashion throughout the growing season, allowing my broccoli heads to get as big as 12” across.

The result is that my refrigerator is crammed with broccoli right now, with more sitting around or out in the garden waiting to be brought in. This is my idea of a really wonderful problem to have.

As far as what to do with broccoli, there is no question that roasting is my favorite technique.  Here is an excellent basic recipe, which is very similar to the way I do it, and there are endless variations that you can dream up on your own. This is, in my opinion, too good to be a side dish and deserves to be the very center of the table, but certainly it goes well alongside a steak, roasted chicken, or just about anything else you could name.  If you aren’t sure what else to do with broccoli, the wonderful food 52 site has great recipes and is worth a browse.

As far as health questions go, I think that green vegetables are vitally important to a long and healthy life. There is now a small dietary movement favoring pure carnivory, and the wacko fringe elements of that group believe that eating green vegetables will probably kill you.  It is my view that this completely ignores the demographic data that all the healthiest and longest lived populations in the world eat plenty of green vegetables.  So make your own decisions, but don’t ignore the data. Here’s one study:

And one specifically on ovarian cancer:

I won’t make extravagant claims for cruciferous vegetables, but it is at least clear from the data that they certainly won’t kill you.


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.

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 Perennial Paddock: Sea Kale

There is an area of my yard that is referred to as “the paddock“ because it was once intended to be an animal paddock. Over time, it has become the area where I move toward permaculture, with more and more perennial edibles accumulating there.  The whole area is kept in a deep mulch, and tends to stay moist enough for growth even in our desert summers.

One of the most decorative plants growing there is seakale, a maritime perennial that tolerates our alkaline soil.  It is very hard to start from seed, and the four plants that have prospered over years for me are those that I paid a small fortune for as plants from a specialty nursery.  If you want seakale, make the investment in getting good plants. Once settled, I am told that they can live 20 or 30 years or more.  They are very pretty in a quiet way, with nothing dramatic or show about them but pleasant to the eyes  in most seasons, except in the fall when mine get very bug-eaten. They are not recognizable at sight as a vegetable, and would pass muster with the strictest homeowner’s association.

There was a time when I thought it would take me 20 years to learn how to use them. The leaves  have a crisp succulent texture and mild flavor, and would be okay in salads, but each plant makes only six or seven leaves and if you take more than one the plant is likely  to die.  If you have 20 plants this might not be an issue, but if you have four, it is.

I read that the buds could be harvested as a broccoli like vegetable, and when I first tried this, they were tasty enough but very tiny indeed. From my four plants, I got enough for one small tasting dish, and no more. But this year I figured out that the bloom stalk is also tender and tasty.  Harvest the whole stalk as close to the base of the plant as you can get without damaging any leaves. Do this before the flowers open, and it will just snap right off. The leaves on the stalk are fine to eat. The lower part of the stem has a tough fibrous outer layer, but it peels off very easily. Everything you have left, stems, leaves, and buds, is good to eat.  Cut in half inch cross sections, cook in very little water until crisp tender, add salt and butter, and eat.  Treated this way, each plant provides a nice vegetable side dish for two people.

In British gardening books I have read references to seakale having a very strong and unpleasant flavor, but I have not experienced this at all with my own plants. The taste is mild, slightly herbal, and inoffensive. The texture is excellent.

One question to consider is whether perennial vegetables are really worth growing, when annual vegetables are so good. Broccoli fresh from the garden is one of my favorite vegetables in the world, and it would be pretty hard for anything to surpass it.   But suppose that you couldn’t plant the broccoli. Suppose that age and infirmity made it impossible for you to garden the way you used to, or that an accident of fate left you unable to garden in the usual way, either temporarily or permanently.  This has happened to me. Because of an orthopedic problem I was unable to do any annual gardening for two years, and even though I have been back at it full tilt for a few years now, I  remember that time and remain aware that a slip, a fall, or a careless driver can put quite a crimp in your gardening career for a while.  Fortunately, even at that time, I had a fair stock of perennial edibles and we still had things to eat from the yard.  Of course, perennials also help prevent soil erosion,  and undug  soil can sequester carbon in a big way.  The microbes and fungi that are so important in building and maintaining healthy soil will flourish in a perennial garden under mulch. But it’s also your insurance that, if fate deals you a blow that you weren’t expecting, your garden will go on producing.

Eating Up the Ground Elder

Ground elder is a famous invasive, and most sensible people would never dream of growing it on purpose. But I live in the high desert and tend to be fairly fearless about moisture-loving invasives, on grounds that if I get tired of them I can withhold water and watch them disappear. Therefore, I let some variegated ground elder grow under a plum tree and harvest it aggressively for salads.
It needs to be harvested young, before the leaves unfurl, and at this stage it has a strong celery-parsley flavor that I find appealing, and a lovely crisp texture. The furled young leaf at the top is pretty, but the stem is the real vegetable, so pick it as close to the ground as possible. Toss in a mixed salad, or arrange artistically on top.

When the leaf opens out it becomes tough and is no longer desirable eating. I have read that it also produces nausea in some people at this stage, so it’s definitely to be avoided.

If you live in a wetter climate, you may want to confine ground elder to a large pot, because it can get out of hand in a hurry.

Because each individual leaflet is small, I never get enough to cook, but I imagine that it would be good in stir-fries.

Be cautious with invasives, but don’t rule them out completely if your natural conditions will prevent them from spreading. And if you live in an area where it would be irresponsible to introduce ground elder, help solve the problem. Find a naturalized patch and start foraging.


Broccoli Sprouts, and a Good Green Gadget


I’m aware of the nutritional benefits of sprouts, but except for bean sprouts to use in some Chinese dishes, I am not very interested in them except in the winter, for a simple reason; my whole yard is full of things that I would rather eat.  But this winter I decided to see whether, when fresh food from the garden is limited, sprouts could fill in to a degree.

I decided on broccoli sprouts for my experiment  because of their rather remarkable nutritional profile, and since I already know that I do not care to eat them as they come from the sprouting jar (too stringy,) I was planning to grind them into green smoothies. I ended up with some definite opinions about the process.

First, I have tried pretty much every sprouting gadget out there at this point, and have returned to half-gallon wide-mouth mason jars with the specialized sprouting lids shown above. They are called Masontops and are available on Amazon,  and they are pretty much the ultimate in a low-tech inexpensive gadget that actually works really well.   I tried all kinds of fancy sprouting set ups and found this to be the simplest and the most mold proof.

Second, get seeds that will actually sprout. I buy the broccoli seeds from Food for Life.

Start in the jar in the usual way, soaking overnight to begin with and then being sure to rinse and drain twice per day. The phalanges on the Masontops allow you to sit the jar upside down in the sink to drain really thoroughly.

A point will come when the seeds begin to hang together in a mat the shape of the jar rather than being loose, as shown above. At this point, I move them out of the jar and into an 8” x 8” Pyrex baking dish. I keep them covered with a damp dish towel, and continue to rinse twice per day.

After another day or two the sprouting seeds will be forming a mat in the dish. Now, I set them out in the morning  sun for about an hour, turn the whole mass over, and sun them for another hour. This is so they can increase their production of sulforaphane and other antioxidants.  Then they go in the refrigerator, and can be used at any point over the next few days.

Green smoothies are not exactly a gourmet delight, but they are an extremely handy breakfast to carry off to a busy day at work, and they actually don’t taste bad if I put in some ginger and orange rind to take the curse off. For one breakfast I use a large handful of broccoli sprouts, a little fresh turmeric and two coins of fresh ginger, a few dark green outer lettuce leaves or cabbage leaves, and  a slice of orange rind.  By this I mean a slice of the outside of an orange that includes both the zest and the white pith underneath, but no orange flesh. The pith of orange rind is not bitter.  I like a good sprinkle of stevia based sweetener.  I throw it all in the Vitamix with half a glass of water, blend on high speed for about a minute, pour into a shaker cup, and top up with sparkling water.

I usually drink the concoction out of an opaque blender cup,  but here I have poured a bit out into a cordial glass so that you are prepared for the color, which can startle people who aren’t used to it.  Personally I have no problem with green food as long as the color is not artificial, and it can be used to keep you focused on the idea of leafy greens being a really, really good thing.

There is a nutritional rationale to most of these choices:

Broccoli sprouts,  because of their high sulforaphane content.  You can read here about a study showing down-regulation of inflammatory markers in overweight people ( i.e. already in a state of inflammation) who consumed broccoli sprouts daily.

Outer leaves of lettuce or cabbage because that’s where most of the nutrients are. Outer cabbage leaves, especially, are nutritional powerhouses but I don’t have time to cook them every day, so the Vitamix ensures that they get used.

Glass jars, because most plastic sprouting  devices are subject to mold sooner or later.

Sun exposure, because there is good evidence showing that two hours of exposure to UV light causes the sulforaphane  content to increase significantly.

Fresh turmeric and ginger because they are antioxidant powerhouses, and the ginger disguises the slightly cabbagey taste of the sprouts.

A slice of orange rind because the rind contains more vitamin C than the flesh or juice of the orange but contains little or no sugar, and besides it tastes good.

Green smoothies  because I start my day with two servings of green vegetables down the hatch,  but can consume the veggies in the car at stop lights or when I get to work, and don’t have to get sprouts caught in my teeth.