Posts Tagged ‘permaculture’

Living in Interesting Times: Radiant Moments


To sum up the pandemic news: daily life is strange and it’s going to be strange for some time to come. If you don’t have a garden, it’s even weirder and more disturbing. But if you do have a garden, there are moments of such transcendent beauty that you realize with a fresh shock how lucky you are to be alive. They make all the distancing and disinfecting seem worthwhile.

I had a moment like that this morning. My Italian plum is in full bloom, about two weeks later than all my other plums, and when I came out to feed the chickens this morning the whole tree appeared to be in motion. As I got closer, I realized that hundreds of fritillary butterflies were flapping around it, lighting briefly to drink nectar there and there. They moved so fast that I couldn’t get a very good shot, but the whole tree was covered with several butterflies per branch. The beauty and lively motion were such that I stood gaping at it for several minutes, filled with gratitude for this visitation.

There are plenty of other things to be grateful for. I have a job, and that alone makes me really lucky. I have chickens and as long as they’re fed, they lay. Giving them fresh green grass and edible weeds makes the yolks deep gold. Still exulting over the butterflies, I decided to make egg fettuccini. I have written about this before and will only add here that using all yolks in the dough adds another layer of deliciousness, and you can afford this extravagance  if you have chickens. I wanted something with a Southern Mediterranean feel and used sautéed green garlic, capers, pine nuts, a few rinsed and chopped anchovy fillets, some chopped grilled scallions left over from another meal, cherry tomatoes dried into wonderful “tomato raisins” in a slow oven, a good pinch of red pepper flakes, and floods of top-notch olive oil. Finished with shavings of good Parmesan, this makes a meal that isn’t quickly forgotten and came out of your garden, your pantry, and your freezer.

Be kind to those around you, take care of your health as well as possible, love your friends and your pets, and let gratitude flood you whenever possible. If you own a little bit of ground, put it to food production. Tend your pantry and freezer. Try to have enough to share. Survive, but survive kindly.

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.

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.

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.

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 Fall Summation I: Crosnes

In late fall, I begin reflecting on the gardening year and what worked and what didn’t. Some things are in between. This is the first year that I experimented with crosnes, Stachys  affinis, sometimes called Chinese artichokes.  This is a small tuber-forming perennial plant, growing perhaps a foot high in a somewhat sprawling fashion. It produces tubers that, as you see above, look strikingly like grubs.

Pros:

They are perennial, although you do need to dig over the patch every year so that they don’t choke themselves out. If you are moving toward permaculture, this is appealing.

They can grow as a ground cover around other plants, although not if the necessary digging will disturb the larger plant.

The tubers have a very smooth surface and are a lot easier to clean then they look. I found that a soak in cold water, followed by a rinse with a strong stream of water, did the trick.

They are quite tasty. I was seeking a substitute for water chestnuts that I could grow at home, and I will point out quickly that they do not have the exquisite perfect crunch, the sweetness, and the flavor of fresh water chestnuts, although they are a long way above canned water chestnuts.  They lose a significant amount of their charm when cooked. I harvested a small double handful, chopped them coarsely, and put them in hot and sour soup, and although they were quite good, they had lost their crunch after a 15 minute simmer. Next time, I will throw them in just a minute before serving.  I can also imagine them being very good in salads, in steamed Chinese meatballs or dumplings, and in a lot of other places.

Cons:

I dug over a 2 square foot area to harvest a small double handful.  This was in a good patch of soil that got a fair amount of water. So I can’t imagine that they will ever be a very productive crop, although I will need to look into the  yields that other people get.

They can be hard to find. I got mine from Food Forest Farm.

So overall, for me, crosnes are not a stunning success but certainly a minor pleasure and a plant that I’m glad to have around. If you are gardening intensively, and want to get a lot of food from every square foot, they might not be for you. But if you have a patch of nice dirt that isn’t doing anything in particular, they might be just the ticket.