Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harvest Meal: French Peasant Soup

Tonight we'll have our first serious frost.  Temperatures forecast below freezing, so no ambiguity.  October is the month of goodbyes to all the bounty of summer.  The last vine-ripened tomato.  The last eggplant.  The last basil and parsley and tender sage.  A last flurry of harvests, and a growing appreciation for the sturdy leeks and kale that will hang on a few more weeks through the early frosts.  We draw in, rummage through the freezer for ingredients, turn our thoughts to the canning jars in the cellar, full of preserved spring and summer.

So today I gathered huge fistfuls of parsley.  They will keep for a few more days in the refrigerator.  You know this trick, don't you?  Place them in a large drinking glass full of water, cover them with a plastic bag, and secure the bag with a rubber band.  Really, they'll keep beautifully for about a week if they're cut fresh.

But I've also been longing to prepare a recipe I came across in Emelie Carles' book, A Life of Her Own.  It's not a cookbook, but a sort of memoir, from the era before memoirs were fashionable to write and trivial to read.  This book is sturdy, like the peasant woman who wrote it.  Yes, she called herself and her neighbors peasants, and used the term matter-of-factly, with neither pride nor shame.  This endeared her to me immediately.  I like the word peasant, and feel an affinity for it in the sense of being tied to the land.  I recommend the book to anyone interested in how people lived in a isolated mountain valley from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century.

In the Claree Valley, where Emilie Carles lived all her life, wild greens and herbs were available for the picking for more months out of the year than any cultivated crops.  She sketched a simple soup made with an evenhanded mixture of many of these foraged foods, plus a bit of garlic, and potato or rice.  It sounded far too good to resist.  So I also gathered all the herbs and greens I could find today.  Madame Carles stressed that the key was to balance all these green ingredients, so that no one flavor predominates in the soup.

"Wild" arugula - Though in fact it was something I planted deliberately once upon a time.  Now it simply shows up all over the property.

Dandelion - Began reappearing in the cool fall weather after a summer hiatus.

Sage - Only the tiniest leaves now meet my fussy standards.  The bigger ones have toughened up too much in the chill.

Nettles - A transplant put in before our long hot summer.  Apparently thrives on utter neglect.

Chives - Because the recipe doesn't call for any onion, and how could I resist?

Parsley - Surely the backbone of any herb and potato soup.

Thyme - Two tiny sprigs of regular, plus one tiny sprig of lemon thyme.

Oregano - Barely hanging on through the early frost.

Rosemary - So as not to overpower the other flavors, only the merest clipping from the top of one stem. (This one's potted up and sitting winter out in the living room.)

Altogether my herbs and greens came to 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces.  The parsley and chives were finely minced, the rest well diced.  I started the soup with a generous hunk of butter to saute the minced garlic.  I debated the authenticity of this fat however.  Would an Alpine peasant more likely cook with lard, or butter?  Lard seemed more likely to me, and I could have started the soup with some of my home cured lardo.  But I didn't feel inclined that way today, so butter it was.  Once the garlic had sizzled a bit, the finely minced parsley and chives went in to sizzle for a couple of minutes as well.  The rest of the greens and herbs went in along with a double handful of our potatoes, cut up onto bite size pieces. I added a good pinch of kosher salt and several twists of white pepper.

I added just barely enough water to cover, wanting to test how much flavor the ingredients would give a simple water broth.  There was always the possibility of adding some chicken stock later, if it needed a little sumpin' sumpin'.  So keeping the liquid minimal at this stage was important to preserve that option.  I let it simmer gently for 15 minutes and tasted.  The broth was very flavorful, but I still thought the chicken stock would benefit it.  I added 1 1/2 cups of that and another pinch of salt.  This is probably an unforgivable deviation from authentic French low cuisine.  But you know what?  It's really fantastic!  Green tasting, with a straightforward integrity, and yet also a complex interplay of flavors among the greens and herbs. And everything but the salt and pepper were produced right here.

This may well become a late October tradition on the homestead.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sowing Dragon's Teeth

I'm not sure how it happened, exactly.  With one thing and another, I ended up with well over 300 cloves of garlic, from seven different varieties, to plant this year.  It's been an unusually mild fall, as our spring was unusually early and warm.  Climate change?  Perhaps.  In any case a late garlic planting.  It took me a lot longer of course to plant these 300-odd cloves than it does to get in my usual crop of around a hundred cloves.  More time for woolgathering in the garden.

I felt like Cadmus.  You know, the mythical Greek hero and founder of the city of Thebes.  He had rather a detailed history, with the usual Greek peregrinations, interferences from the gods, and a generous share of the misfortune that generally attends those mortals who attract their attentions.  Not that I felt unfortunate; not in the least.  It was a beautiful day in the garden, and the rich soil made me feel rich as well.  What resonated from Cadmus' story was the occasion of him sowing the teeth of a dragon he'd slain. The teeth then sprouted and grew into an army of bloodthirsty soldiers, who attacked one another immediately. 

Garlic cloves look somewhat like teeth.  In Russian the word used for a garlic "clove" is in fact exactly the word for tooth.  And if the fiery heat of garlic can be ascribed to any mythical creature, it seems only fitting that it belong to the dragon.  A garlic dragon.  So there I was sowing my dragon's teeth, and imagining the trim ranks of slender soldiers that would spring up in that place after the winter snows have passed.  My green soldiers will not fall violently upon one another until only five remain alive.  They will however betray their military bearing by the lances they wield.  I will disarm them all, and turn the scapes to peaceful culinary purposes.

Three hundred-odd heads of garlic next year...!  The dehydrator notwithstanding, I may have to find a market for them.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ridiculously Cheap - A Minor Rant

Last Thursday I went to the market to pick up an order of pumpkins and kabocha squash from one of my farmers.  I've been to this woman's tiny farm on the opposite side of our county.  I know how she operates and what's important to her, though I can't recall if she bothered with organic certification or not.  I'd emailed her to ask for half a dozen pumpkins, and half a dozen smallish winter squash to replace the crops that failed for us this year.  I had purchased a single pumpkin from her two weeks prior to that, so I thought I had an idea of what to expect in terms of cost for my bulk order.

When I arrived to pick up my order, it was all put together in a large cardboard box, and the farmer showed me a little receipt with the weights and totals for the two different crops.  She wanted something like $16 - total - for the dozen orbs in the box.  At first I didn't understand, thinking that was the charge for either the pumpkins or the kabocha.  But no, that was all she wanted for everything.  Thirty cents per pound, she said.  I pulled out $30 and told her she wasn't charging nearly enough money for her vegetables.  I was serious. That's about what I'd arrived expecting to pay, and I was shocked that she was asking so little for the fruits of her labor.  Of course she protested, but finally consented to take $20 for more than fifty pounds of her produce.  But only after adding a pepito pumpkin to the box.  She said it was a seed pumpkin, and then added apologetically that the flesh was not edible and that sadly, the pumpkin was a hybrid, so I couldn't save the seed.

Now I know my blog is ostensibly about frugality, and hey, I'm all for the stocking of larders with wholesome, local food purchased in season, when it should be cheapest.  October is certainly the time to stock up on winter squash if you have any storage space and didn't grow your own.  But this was ridiculous, and it has nagged at me ever since, even as I lugged my purchased bounty down into the root cellar.  I really feel this farmer should be charging more for her food.  I want her to stay in business and contribute to my foodshed more than I want to supplement my homegrown food for the lowest cost.  If she can't make a profit from her farm, she won't be around to help feed us in the future.

I suppose I should see this as a good thing, especially for those that are really struggling in this economy.  $20 for a dozen winter squash will give me the basis for at least 48 individual servings; less than 50 cents per serving.  For some people, the lower price per pound might mean the difference between kids going hungry or being fed.  But we can still afford to pay more.  I'd be happy to pay on a sliding scale for the few kinds of produce I still need to buy.  Last month I paid over $1.50 per pound for onions produced at a local farm incubator project, and was happy to do so.  So why should the squash cost so much less than the onions?  In fact, when I was in our local supermarket to buy tofu and some kosher salt the day after my farmers market purchase, I saw a whole display table of non-organic squash in the produce aisle.  You know what they were charging for winter squash?  79 cents per pound - more than 2 1/2x what the local farmer was asking.  The really big and impressive hubbards and pumpkins were going for $1/pound.

I feel like going back to the market this week and telling her about the supermarket pricing.  I don't know why this riles me so much.  Maybe it's because I know how much work it is to raise vegetable crops.  I certainly wouldn't sell my winter squash to anyone for thirty cents a pound.  It would seem downright insulting to accept that little.  I'd feel better about giving it as a gift than valuing it so cheaply.  I'm going to take that farmer a loaf of my bread the next time I have a big baking day.  It seems only fair to me.

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure where I was going with this rant.  Bottom line is, if you're worried about food security in the near term, now is an excellent time to ask a local grower about a bulk purchase of winter squash.  They are among the easiest vegetables to store.  Make sure those you buy for storage have stems intact, and don't pick them up or carry them by the stem.  Put them in a cold part of your house, (55-60F/13-16C is ideal) and use them up by spring.  For those of you concerned about long term food security without any immediate personal economic crisis looming, you might consider paying top dollar to your local farmers for what you need to get through the winter.  Food security is, after all, both personal and regional, both immediate and long term.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Counting Lemons Before They're Hatched

The Meyer lemon tree I ordered early this year is blooming.  Actually, it first bloomed during the summer, and while I noticed it, there was a ton of other garden stuff occupying my mind.  So much so that I forgot that lemons need to be hand pollinated in my part of the world, since whatever insect normally performs the service for lemons doesn't live where I do.  When I remembered that I was supposed to be a proxy in plant sex, it was too late, and I was sad to see that no fruit had been set.

So I was pretty psyched to notice little buds all over the tree when it was time to pull it inside for the winter.  The tree was giving it another go!  Now I'm servicing the blooms once a day with a tiny paintbrush.  They are amazingly fragrant and sweet-smelling.  Being a novice at sex surrogacy for lemon trees, I'm not too sure of my technique.  Do lemon blossoms like it rough or delicate?  Are they chaste (prefer pollen from the same blossom), or lascivious (pollen from as many blossoms as possible, thank you)?  I'm hoping that what I lack in finesse and experience I can make up in diligence.  Also, I'm pampering the tree with good nutrition by regular feedings with worm tea from our worm bin.

It's pretty thrilling to look at all the buds on the tree and imagine that even half of them may turn into lemons.  Which reminds me of the old adage about unhatched chickens.  Still, it's hard not to be a bit giddy about the prospect of homegrown Meyer lemons.  It also makes me think about seasonality.  I think lemons normally ripen in late winter.  So strange to think of a fruit, especially the lemon, ripening at that time of year.  I associate lemons so much with lemonade and summer drinks.  Just goes to show you how out of touch we are with the food we eat.  Lemons in winter?  Guess that'll mean lemon curd. 

I'll definitely let you know if we get any fruit from the tree.  In the meantime, if any of you have lemon trees I'd love to hear any tips you have for keeping them happy and productive, and what time of year you get a harvest.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fig Trees Have Come Along Well

Remember the fig trees in containers I posted about back in early April?  I got them as one-year-old plants, and they were all just a bit more than 12" high.  Well, they've been roaring right along this year.  Just thought I'd post a picture to show you how much their pampered existence in the self-watering containers has agreed with them over the last five months.  (Click above to see what they looked like in April.)

Although I was told that small harvests of about a dozen figs per tree were possible this first year, we've yet to eat our first homegrown fig.  As you may recall, I bought three different varieties of fig.  The Verde set no fruit whatsoever.  The Neri began growing exactly one fig rather early, and it looked like it was going to a big one.  Then the fruit dropped off long before it ripened.  The Sicilian teased us by setting more than a dozen little figs rather late.  But they too all dropped off without ripening.  Sigh.  At least all the trees grew an impressive amount.  I wasn't really counting on any harvest at all until next year at the earliest.  From that perspective, even one ripe fig would have been an unexpected bonus. 

Fig trees can take light frosts.  These plants were outside from early April onwards, and we had several frosts that month.  They didn't even notice so mild a chill.  It's possible that the containers themselves provide enough retained heat to keep the leaves from frosting over.  Or perhaps it's the slight elevation that keeps the top of the plant above the coolest layer of air.  Our first frost of the fall usually comes in the first half of October, and these frosts can be harder than our late spring frosts.  So far we've dodged the frost bullet, but tomorrow night looks likely for our first.  I plan to pull the trees into the garage by the end of the month at the latest.

For most of this year the potted figs sat out where they got plenty of sun all day, but they weren't sheltered from any wind.  Now that our passive solar thermal system is finally completed, we have them snugged up to the south-facing wall of our garage, which does shield them from the wind. This will be their permanent home during the growing season from now on.  The shelter of the wall, the southern exposure, and a little extra reflected light will make them as happy as they can be in this climate.  We should see a decent crop next year if all goes well.

So far I'm pretty pleased with the fig tree experiment. They've been low maintenance, survived the heat, and have done well in containers.  I don't plan to allow them to much more than double in size from their current state.  And I imagine they'll reach that size by this time next year.  At that point the highest branches will still be within arm's reach for me.  So I think we can count on having three productive fruit trees in a very small space, and in a colder climate than would normally be possible for fig production.  If next spring isn't excessively crazy, I'll try starting some new saplings from the cuttings I make (plus the willow branch rooting hormone) during spring pruning.  It would be a kick to be able to offer fig seedlings to friends and family.

I'll update again next year, in spring if I try the seedling experiment, and certainly when we get our first harvests.  I can hardly wait!  I would certainly encourage others in the cooler hardiness zones, and those for whom only container gardening is possible, to consider the potted fig.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Poultry Schooner in Action

After a decent interval, I'm running this as a cross-post here on my personal blog.  You may have already seen this over at the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op where I post occasionally. If not, here's the skinny on what we're doing with the simple poultry tractor we made earlier this year.

Over the summer we built a highly mobile pen to house poultry with the help of our first WWOOF volunteer.  It was intended for the turkey poult we ended up with, without much planning.  When I designed what we now call the poultry schooner, it was with multiple uses in mind.  It wasn't to be just a place to keep our poult, but also a means of allowing our laying hens to to a great deal of our fall garden cleanup.  This spring we reorganized the garden so that all our beds are three feet wide.  The poultry schooner is exactly three feet wide.

This means that it fits neatly over the beds where we've been ripping out our tomato plants as the first frost approaches.  The growing turkey was moved to the pen normally occupied by the hens, and the hens were set to work under the schooner in the garden.  Scratching through soil, tearing small seedlings from the ground, and eating insects in every stage of development is what chickens want to do.  The poultry schooner facilitates them doing it to our benefit.

Not only do the hens perform the service of weeding the beds, but they also add their manure to the bed at the same time.  I wouldn't be keen to add manure to a bed in the spring, when I was about to plant my crops.  But now, in October, planting is at least five months away, and longer for most crops.  I can't refer you to any science on pathogens in chicken manure, nor their breakdown.  I know I have healthy living soils in the garden, and I trust the hugely diverse microbial populations there to process a light topping of raw manure by the time I'm ready to plant.  The hens only occupy any part of the garden for two days, so we're not talking about an excessive build up of raw manure.

On the first day the chickens decimate any weed seedlings, and work the top few inches of soil.  This light and superficial working of the soil would pass muster with living soil enthusiasts as no harm is done to the structure of the soil, mycelium or (many) earthworms.  The chickens also are eager and happy to help me with the work of breaking down half finished compost.  I don't turn my compost pile but once per year. This year about ten gallons of the stuff on the bottom of the pile was tossed in to the hens on their second day of occupation on each garden bed.  Their excitement with this material was abundantly clear. They showed more interest in the half-finished compost than in their morning grain ration.

The plan was to lasagna mulch over each bed as the chickens were moved on to the next newly cleared area.  But through procrastination, I discovered yet another benefit of using my hens in the schooner.  Just days after the hens were removed from a bed, a whole new crop of seedlings sprang up in the lovely, loose soil.  Of course most of them were weeds.  When I was finally ready to do the lasagna mulching, it occurred to me that I could make the hens happy, save myself some work, and deplete the store of weed seeds in my garden by placing the hens back on the beds they'd already worked for just an hour or two.  I was able to rotate the hens over four beds in the course of a day's work, and they cleared all of them of weed seedlings with chilling efficiency.

It seems to me that this technique could be used to great effect to combat the worst weeds.  Even if chickens have no interest in eating a particular plant in the seedling stage, their scratching will decimate the seedlings anyway.  The fact that four hens can clear a 30 square foot area of such seedlings in a matter of hours suggests that the process could be repeated several times in the weeks of waning sunlight in autumn.  Come springtime there would be far fewer seeds left near the surface capable of germination.  Add in a good lasagna mulching job, and the weed pressure is bound to be minimal.

I'm looking forward to spring 2011.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Just an Idea...

Have you become accustomed to doing much of your food shopping at your local farmers' market? Is the market closing down soon for the year as winter approaches? Do you happen to live either in a densely populated neighborhood, or near a few major crossroads in a more rural area? If so, I have an idea for you.

See, our farmers' markets finish up after Thanksgiving here. Fruit and vegetable producers are pretty thin in the cold months of the year. But farmers producing eggs, meat, and dairy still have food. And they'd still like to sell direct to the consumer rather than a middleman, so as to keep more of the profits in their own pockets. Who can blame them? But with the markets shutting down until spring, these farmers have trouble connecting with their customers. Some will schedule on-farm pickup days. Some customers though don't want to travel that far, even when they know the quality is excellent.

In late 2008 I was speaking with a farmer I knew slightly who farms two counties away from where I live. My county is more densely populated, so he regularly attended markets in my immediate area. He said he was looking for drop-off sites for pre-ordered meats, cheeses, eggs, and other dairy products in my area. I immediately volunteered my home, and specifically, my garage. I live near a big hospital which is the largest employer in the area. Our home is also less than 10 minutes from two major highways that run through this region. That made my offer very attractive to the farmer.

The way it worked was that every other week, a few days before the delivery date, the farmer would send out an email to customers who signed up for his distribution list. He would let everyone know what he had in stock, and at what prices. He listed his own meats and eggs, and the raw milk dairy products and a few baked goods from the separately owned farm adjacent to his own. Orders from customers came back to him, and on delivery day he knew that everything that left his farm was already "sold." There was no guesswork involved for him. He headed home at the end of the day with an empty truck. Along with the delivery at my home, he made three other stops at delivery sites in other counties.

At our place, he put all the ordered food into one of his large coolers. This was kept in one bay of our garage. I simply opened that door on the day of delivery and he put the stuff in the cooler. Since it was winter time, there was no risk of food spoiling, even if the customers didn't arrive for a few hours. He also left a self-addressed and stamped envelope. All the customers who had ordered left their checks in it when they picked up their purchases. I put the checks in the mail to him the next day. There was little risk of theft, since he knew exactly who had ordered what and only had to compare the checks to his orders to reconcile. There was never any issue with that. Only once did we have a no-show, and that was for some beef jerky, which never spoils. So I just left that in the cooler until the next pickup date, and the customer got it then.

This was a hassle-free arrangement for us. All I had to do was make sure I was home at some point the day of the delivery, and open that bay of the garage. After all the orders were picked up, I closed the garage door, collected the envelope, and put it in the mailbox. For that little bit of effort, I got the benefit of local, pastured, organic meat and dairy delivered to my door for four months out of the year. It was a great arrangement for both us and the farmer.

At the PASA conference in early 2009 I spoke with another farmer about this arrangement. He was intrigued by the idea and thought it made a lot of sense. He said he'd think about replicating it with his own customers.

If you live where farmers' markets are seasonal and you have a home in a suitable location, why not run this idea by some of your favorite farmers and see if this idea might work for any of them after the markets shut down? If they've been collecting email addresses from their customers, they've already got a distribution list in the making. You might get free home delivery of top quality foods and help your local farmer at the same time!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Garden in Review 2010

The garden is winding down after another year of extreme weather.  Time for a round up of observations and speculations on what I grew this year.

We tilled our main garden bed for the last time this spring, laid out permanent beds, and lasagna mulched like crazy in an effort to get ahead of the weeds.  I'd say we've done well on the weed front this year, and both the regular permanent beds and the lasagna mulching will pay dividends for us going forward.  Not least because we've been able to situate the hens on individual beds in the poultry schooner for garden clean-up duty.

The Sungold cherry tomatoes I tried for the first time this year were a very mixed bag.  They grew like absolute monsters, and produced well, but I found that in weeks with no rain they managed to split even when I didn't water them.  At least half of their production went to the chickens, who seemed oddly not thrilled with them.  The Peacevine, which I didn't grow this year, has been my mainstay cherry tomato for years and years.  Now the Peacevine is a rampant producer itself.  It splits far less often and the hens are crazy about the fruits that do have blemishes.  In terms of flavor I don't think the best of the Sungolds have anything on the best of the Peacevines.  But the bottom line is that the Sungold is not a good cherry tomato for drying.  We smoke and dehydrate a good portion of our cherry tomato crop so as to store them for winter polenta, stews, and pasta.  When dried down, the Sungold is pretty much all skin and seed.  There's not enough flesh to give it substance.  The Peacevine has far more "meat" to it, which is another reason I'm going back to that variety next year.

The Speckled Roman impressed me again, in this, my second year of growing it.  In fact, it impressed me so very much that I'm considering making it my primary tomato in future years, perhaps dropping the beefsteak varieties entirely.  Neither the Brandywine nor the Cherokee Purple did very well for me this year.  I saw a lot of splitting on those varieties too.  The Speckled Romans never split.  While they are not hugely abundant producers, almost all of the fruits they set matured without blemishes.  I also appreciate that it doesn't try to take over the entire neighborhood as it grows.  A lesser producing tomato plant to me just means that the soil is not being so heavily taxed, which is a good thing.  I certainly have room to put in more plants to get the yield I want.  I very much like the flavor and texture of this tomato, and enjoyed it frequently as a slicing tomato.  It also seemed to resist blight the best of any of the varieties I grew in 2009.  This one is a winner in my book. 

We had a winter squash failure this year, which I chalk up to the combination of intense heat and prolonged periods without rain, plus my inability to get out there and water while I was laid up with an infection and then out of town for a funeral.  I managed to harvest only a very few mature squashes, and all of them were experimental oilseed pumpkins planted as part of my three sisters arrangement.  This would be a serious loss for our larder this winter, my husband's ambivalence to squash notwithstanding. I've made arrangements to buy a dozen winter squash from a local organic farmer.

Piracicaba (say: "peer-ah-SEE-kah-bah") was another experiment this year.  It's a "non-heading" broccoli developed in Brazil, and grown mostly for its leaves.  It does actually form small heads, which are just as tasty as any full sized broccoli heads.  There are two incredible standout attributes of this plant.  Firstly, it couldn't have cared less about the heat that fried so many other things in the garden this year.  Few brassicas can take heat like that.  And secondly, it was utterly ignored by the cabbage moths.  This is an even rarer attribute among the brassicas.  I will definitely be growing this broccoli again, and in larger numbers.  I love small broccoli leaves and tiny heads in stir-fries.  Plus, it's a fun word to say. 

I grew six eggplants in this year of dry heat, three each of two different types. The Listada de Gandia is a globe type with a purple and white "graffiti" pattern, and the Pingtung Long is an Asian type, long and thin variety, great for stir-fries. Six was about the right number of plants.  Both varieties seemed to produce their fruits in two main batches.  But the Pingtung Long took a longer hiatus in mid-summer.  I almost decided it was a bust compared to the Listada de Gandia, but it came back strongly in September, and still has fruits to harvest on it now.   If we'd had more than six plants, either of the two waves of harvest would probably have overwhelmed us this year. In cooler years, six plants probably would leave us still hungry for eggplant.  Of the two varieties, I think I prefer the Asian type by a small margin.  I find them easier to cook with in summer when I don't want overly involved cooking projects.  They fit into stir-fries so well, while the globe type begs for eggplant parmesan, or stuffing, or grilling.  We only grill every so often, while we stir-fry a few times a week in summer.  Both types are extremely pretty, but both lose their beautiful color when cooked.

I had some limited early success with snow peas this spring.  I really love this vegetable.  I'm sure I could eat it several times per week for basically forever, without boredom.  But snow peas do not love the heat, and they finished very early with the early warm spring we had.  I tried sowing a fall crop in August, without any information on whether or not it would work.  The sprouts came up, but were severely stunted by the heat and I got nothing.  It's possible that in a less severe year, or with some help from a sun shade, they might have made it. They certainly don't mind the cold, so if I'd been able to get them up and running I suspect they'd produce decently about now.  These are definitely on my list to plant more - a lot more - of next year.  As an early crop, it has my respect.  The fact that it doesn't seem to have any pests associated with it and that it produces over a long span of time is all the more to its favor.  Since they are fairly low growing, I plan to try them very early next year in the cold frames, once all the carrots are harvested.  By the time they get tall enough to press against the glass, it'll be warm enough to uncover the frames.

We also had a parsnip crop failure this year.  Actually it was a germination failure.  The heat started early here this year and never let up.  Parsnips are the Siberians of garden crops.  They shrug off cold and will not germinate if the soil is warmer than 75 F. The lesson for me is to get them in the ground early.  This of course requires that I have my garden in good order and ready to plant quite early.  That didn't happen this year, but with our garden re-organization we should be better set up for next spring. I also tried an experiment with summer- and fall-sown parsnip seeds under very light lasagna mulching.  It occurred to me to try this when I saw the seed from a few overwintered parsnips maturing in early August.  If the seeds mature at that time, well, in nature they'd fall to the ground and hang around until it's a good time to germinate.  I figured it wouldn't be much effort to try to help that process along.  I did one experimental sowing as soon as the seeds matured, and another just this month.  The few layers of newspaper in the light lasagna mulching should be broken down enough by early spring to present no barrier to any seeds that do germinate. We'll see whether either experimental patch produces anything next year.  Whether they do or not, I'll be planting more next year.  Parsnips are so much fun to prize out of the ground with a pitchfork during a January thaw.  -Yes, I'm serious.  So this is another loss for the winter larder, not to mention Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.

Our young Colette pear tree produced its first crop of about six large pears this year. They were absolutely heavenly. Truly, this tiny harvest bumped the pear waaay up the short list of my favorite fruits.  I am so happy we planted this tree, and frankly, a little relieved to see some of the perennials we busted a hump for over the last few years start paying dividends.  In this year when most everything was ahead of schedule due to the early spring, the pears should have come off the tree by mid-August.  The Colette is considered a late pear, so in a more "normal" year (if we ever have one of those again) I think they would come a bit later.  Because so much fruit was set in spring, I "helped" the tree along by thinning many of the buds just after the blossoms dropped off.  But not even half of all those I left on the branch made it to full sized fruits.  In future I think it will be wiser to let the tree sort this out for itself, and only intervene if there is still too much fruit after they have bulked up a bit.

Since I managed to produce some homegrown, homemade ancho chili powder this year, I think more plants are in order for next year.  Even in the unusual heat that the plants loved so much, three plants took their own sweet time maturing the chilies to full colored red maturity.  Many of them will remain green and never achieve the color that so distinguishes one of my favorite spices.  Having more plants, especially in years cooler than this one, would give me a better supply of the mature chilies.

I think I've given up on spring-planted cabbages.  The cabbage moths inevitably get the early ones, while the fall cabbages do just fine.  I think I'll just save myself the trouble from now on and give that space to other crops in spring.  I very much doubt my ability to get cabbages seeded in starter pots for transplant at the appropriate time, but fortunately I can rely on a local Mennonite nursery to offer me some interesting heirloom brassicas at just the right time.

My leeks are a bit late this year as I was late getting them into the ground.  I consider leeks a late fall and winter crop, though I like to see them hanging out in the garden all year long.  I didn't start my own favorite blue de Solaize leeks this year, but put in some started shoots from the nursery.  I suspect they won't stand up to the cold as well as the Solaize, and they're small besides.  So I plan to pull them all out of the ground before it really freezes hard.  Next year, it's back to the blues for sure.

Onions continue to defy me.  I used to have this problem with root crops in general, but I think I've figured out beets and carrots pretty well now.  It was largely a matter of amending our clay soil I suspect, to give the roots a little elbow room down there. One of these days I'm really going to have to apply myself to learning how to grow onions.  We use so many of them that it's a shame we haven't managed to produce them with any great success.  The hole in our supply of homegrown vegetables was so obvious that even my husband could point it out.  Of course, if we do produce our own onions, I can't think of what will propel us to the grocery store in the dead of winter.

Well, that's my garden wrap-up for the moment.  What sort of year did you have, and how did your garden handle it?  Experiment with anything this year?  How'd it turn out?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Scrap Cedar for Squash Vines

It seems my reputation for welcoming stuff other people regard as useless is now well established.  My parents refurbished their deck over the summer, replacing the old boards with rot-resistant cedar planks.  My dad had set aside all the end pieces he trimmed off, none of them more than about 12 inches long.  There were about two dozen of them.  He asked me recently if I wanted them.  I said yes immediately and with such enthusiasm that he asked me what my plans for them were.  With this year's winter squash crop failure much on my mind, I'm already dreaming of a bumper crop next year.  Good pieces of rot-resistant wood will be ideal to place under next year's developing squash fruits.  They take such a long time to reach ripeness that moisture from the ground has plenty of opportunity to hasten spoilage.  These little pieces of cedar wood will be just the right size for tucking under next year's crop as they grow.  Redwood would do nicely too if you happened to come across it.

Cedar is expensive, and I'd never buy a new piece of wood just for the purpose of cutting it up into short lengths.  But the chance to put this scrap wood to good use was far too good to miss.  I love all the many ways that the garden turns trash into treasure.

Converted any trash to treasure lately?  Do tell.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Turkey Update

It's been almost four months since I accepted a three-week-old, one-eyed refugee turkey poult from farming friend.  I thought an update might be in order.  To make a long story short, when the turkey first arrived, it was a pale, shy little thing... 

And now it's grown into a shy, bigger thing that shows the full colors of its heritage breed - Bourbon Red.  (Sorry there's not much there for scale.  It's exceedingly hard to take even a decent picture of this turkey.)  If you want more detail, read on.

We had hoped the suggestive power of the male pronoun would influence it to grow into a large tom turkey.  Turkeys are evidently not biddable that way: it looks as though we've got a hen.  When we called her anything besides "he," we've called her Thanksgiving.  But between her sex, the slow growing habits of her breed, and the fact that she was a runty sort of bird to begin with, she's almost certainly going to get a Thanksgiving reprieve.  We're hosting the high holy day for extended family this year, and there's no way she'll begin to feed the 17-23 people who will likely be attending.

This doesn't mean of course that she's now a pet.  No, the plan is to have her on the table for New Years.  We considered Christmas, but I hold my holiday meal traditions dear.  Very dear.  At Christmas it has to be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  That leaves only New Years, which, in our house, to this date, has no traditional meal associated with it.  The problem which presented itself when we realized Thanksgiving wouldn't be ready for Thanksgiving, is where to house her when the weather turns really cold.

The chickens will go into their winter quarters sometime between mid-November and early December, depending on weather, and when we get our act together to rebuild their pen in the shed.  Then we have to decide whether to put the turkey in with the chickens, or keep her out in the cold weather on her own.  I tried a few times over the summer to introduce the turkey to the hens.  She certainly wanted to be near them, and when her pen wasn't in viewing distance of them, she would start up her distress peep, and keep it up for an hour or more.  But the few times I introduced her physically to the hens, they pecked at her viciously and immediately.  So those attempted introductions didn't last more than a few seconds.

But the turkey's slow growth has nonetheless been steady, and just recently I tried introducing one hen at a time into her pen.  The visiting hen immediately tried to assert herself with Thanksgiving, but Thanksgiving is now having none of it.  Up went the tail feathers and out stretched the wings.  Thanksgiving still doesn't weigh very much, but she looks mighty big when she puffs herself out like that, and it doesn't take much to outweigh a laying hen.  She went right after the hen's comb and kept after it as well as a one-eyed turkey can.  (Which is to say, only moderately well. It was actually a tiny bit comical how Thanksgiving would momentarily "lose" the hen anytime the hen was to her left.)  Each visiting hen quickly discovered the utility of hiding under the hanging watering can, and no serious harm was done.  Now that the fear of turkey has been put into each hen individually, methinks that if I do need to house them all together, the hens will have a healthy respect for Thanksgiving.  And Thanksgiving will promptly be a little overwhelmed by trying to track four darting chickens with only one good eye.  That's the hope anyway - that detente will be reached due to instilled respect and a natural handicap.

If it doesn't work out that way, well, something I heard not long ago from a turkey hunter makes me think she might fare outside in the cold weather just fine.  Did you know that hunters aim for the turkey's head when hunting them?  I was astonished and asked why in the world they'd aim for such a tiny target on such a large bird.  Apparently the .22 is the rifle of choice for turkeys, and the bullet cannot penetrate the turkey's feathers.  They act as armor!  Now if I hadn't seen the feathers developing on Thanksgiving as she grows, I wouldn't find this remotely plausible.  They are awfully impressive feathers, thickly layered and tough.  So maybe it's true.  I know there's no logical parallel here, but I figure if those feathers can stop a bullet, they can probably keep a turkey pretty warm through early winter as well.

Anyway, that's the plan: to have a minor turkey feast about five weeks after the major turkey feast.  I haven't decided yet exactly how to handle the slaughtering.  Novella Carpenter swears by branch loppers for the killing, which we have.  On the other hand, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall hangs his birds, both domestic and wild, for up to a week.  As I understand it, a bird for hanging shouldn't have any exposed flesh, which would rule out the loppers, though I could be wrong. I must admit the idea of hanging intrigues me, particularly since it's going to be a very cold part of the year when we slaughter Thanksgiving.  There won't be any flies to worry about, and the outdoor temperature will be roughly that of a refrigerator.  We could hang inside the shed, so no animals to worry about.  I like gamey meats, and hanging is said to enhance the flavor of game, so it all sounds good in theory.  Still, I have no experience at all with hanging birds, which makes me cautious.  I wouldn't want to ruin our very first bit of home-raised meat.  If you have any input about techniques for slaughtering a turkey, or experience in hanging game birds, please chime in with a comment.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

First Frost Warning

We had our first chance at a frost last night.  It came on a day of such autumnal sweetness that we couldn't bear to spend much of it indoors.  We divided the day between attending to frost-prep chores and lazing on the hammock in sheer worship of the glorious weather that will soon be only a memory.

There were things to pick from the garden and an urgency about the harvest that surpassed even that of the summery days of glut.  Eggplants, cherry tomatoes, chili peppers and cuttings of tender herbs came in.  It was a tough call which to incorporate into our dinner.  In the end we opted for the last of the tender sage leaves with a lovely winter luxury pumpkin given to me by one of the farmers at our local market.  She claimed she couldn't sell it because the stem was missing, and added that the seed would breed true because the pumpkin patch was set back from all the other squashes.  "My" farmers just rock.  (And yes, I did buy some of the same pumpkins from her, with stems intact.)  We dined on pumpkin-sage pasta, most welcome on an evening with a nip in the air.

But before that there were bed sheets and row covers to excavate from the shed.  I chose the basil to cover up with the bed sheet, reckoning it the most tender of our herbs.  The sage still looks green, but the older leaves have already started to toughen up, so it lost out.  The peppers and eggplant each got a row cover cloth laid over it, though the plants are so large that we couldn't make the cover reach the earth on both sides.  We did what we could for them and wished them the best.  I rummaged around in the garage until I found the storm windows that fit our two cold frames, and laid them over the frames just as they slipped into shade.

I watched from the hammock as the last sunlight to reach our garden played over our sole remaining colony of honey bees.  The golden ladies were illuminated by the slanting light as they winged homeward from their last foraging flights of the day.  The cats came and threw themselves down under my suspended body.  It was a good feeling to lie on the hammock and look at my homestead.  There are so many things yet to be done here. But I felt I had earned a moment of luxurious idleness on a glorious afternoon.  And I could see the beauty my hands had created all around me.  The lovely honey bee commute ended just as the last sunbeam winked away from our yard.

Then it was time to bring in the potted rosemary, lemon grass, and our lemon and lime trees.  The living room now looks a bit like a nursery.  We'll see whether I have any luck keeping the rosemary alive through the winter this year.  I'm hoping to use it on many loaves of focaccia all through the baking season.

I woke this morning to find the temperature two degrees cooler than predicted, but no frost.  It feels like a lottery win to have dodged this first brush with winter, and if the forecast is remotely accurate, we have at least another five frost-free nights ahead.  The plants we pulled indoors will stay inside till warm weather returns in spring.  I don't fancy moving them again any time soon.

This will probably be the most gorgeous weekend of the whole year.  Two days of clear skies, light breezes, and temperatures in the low 70s.  Autumn is just too short.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Potato Bucket Results: Disappointing

This year I tried a variation on the potato buckets that did so well for me last year.  But 2010 was a very different growing season than 2009.  In fact, you could say the two years were opposite extremes.  And the method that worked well in 2009's conditions performed poorly in 2010's.

June of 2009 was a month of rain that was nearly Old Testament in its lack of moderation.  That led to all my potato plants in the ground developing late blight in early August.  But the potatoes in buckets, with their better drainage and higher elevation leading to better air flow around the plants, resisted the blight for an additional month after all the others were finished.  I saw pretty good yields out of those buckets. 

Not so this year.  We had hardly a drop of rain all summer, which is quite unusual for this area, plus heat that was higher than average.  I discovered that potatoes don't particularly love the heat.  The ones in buckets fared especially poorly.  In the beginning of the growing season I had situated them on the driveway.  My thinking was that I would be getting some production out of an otherwise unusable space. Of course, I couldn't know at the time what sort of summer was in store, but this was a bad move.  And I should have corrected the mistake by removing the buckets from the blacktop once the heat set in.  But - and I won't bore you with excuses - I didn't.

The yields I saw from these buckets were too embarrassing to report here.  Really abysmal.  Suffice it to say I'm glad that we had potatoes in the ground as well.  That said, I don't think the new design of my self-watering buckets was at fault.  I suspect the water reservoir was the only reason I got any harvest at all.  Had I avoided the foot infection that kept me from watering for several of the hottest days of the summer, yields might have been a bit better.  My feeling is that my real mistake was keeping them on the blacktop when it was clear that they were struggling with the heat.  Chili peppers or tomatoes might have fared better there.

I will certainly try potatoes in buckets again next year.  The harvest remains as easy as ever: tip the bucket into a wheelbarrow and pick out the spuds.  It's even possible that I might position the buckets on the driveway again if we were to have another atypically cold and wet year.  But in an average or hotter than average year in this region, my observations suggest they'll do better somewhere else.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Acorns as Chicken Feed, Revisited

Last fall I gathered acorns from a single oak that straddles our property line and used them as a feed supplement for my hens over the winter months.  This year I made it a formal goal to be a bit more ambitious about gleaning acorns.  So far this year I've collected over 65 pounds of them, and they're still coming down in my area.  I do think of them as booster fuel for hens during the coldest and harshest months of the year, so most of what I've gathered has been put up in buckets where they will, I hope, escape the notice of rodents who would love to help themselves to this caloric feast.  But I've also been feeding the less prime acorns to the hens as they come in, so I thought it would be a good time to post about some points that have come up for me as I've been gathering them and using them for feed.

First off, I've become rather selective about which acorns I pick up and bring home.  I gleaned a little factoid from the coverage of the recent recall of factory farmed eggs.  Namely that salmonella is carried by rodents, which can introduce the disease to previously healthy poultry flocks.  Squirrels are rodents, are abundant in my region, and show a famous interest in acorns.  Many of the nuts I find bear evidence of nibbling by squirrels.  I do not gather these acorns.  Some acorns have broken shells that may or may not be due to squirrel nibbling.  They may have taken the damage when they fell on a hard surface.  I err on the safe side and don't risk collecting such acorns.

Another type of damage common to acorns is a shell that has split along its grain.  This is clearly not caused by rodents, but it still presents a problem.  Acorn nutmeats are very high in fat, and they will turn rancid fairly quickly once exposed to air.  So acorns with split shells are not candidates for storage.  I do bring home a number of acorns with reasonably small splits in the shell and feed them to the hens very quickly.  It's a way of using up what I can, even if they can't be kept for storage.

The last type of damage that causes me to reject an acorn at collection is a small hole that indicates a weevil has penetrated the shell and is currently feasting on the nutmeat.  If you see two holes (rare when the nuts have just fallen) the weevil has been and gone.  Now these nuts too could be collected for the hens if I were willing to segregate the ones with such holes.  Laying hens, after all, will just as happily eat weevils as they will acorns.  But if the infested acorns are stored with the pristine ones, the weevils will eat their way from one acorn to the next, and there is a net caloric loss with each step up the food chain.  So it's either segregate, or don't collect.  Mostly I opt not to collect those acorns.

Last year I used a small burlap bag to crush the acorns.  Each day I placed a couple handfuls in the bag and crushed them on a flat rock by using a 5-pound hand sledge.  The problem with that setup was that the burlap didn't hold up.  Fairly quickly I found that a glancing blow from the hand sledge could propel an acorn straight through the fabric.  This year I've upgraded to a denim bag crafted from a tattered pair of my father's jeans.  I just cut one of the legs off and sewed up the cut edge with some sturdy hand stitching.  So far it looks as though the denim is going to answer nicely.

A note on oak trees - Quercus is a big family, or more properly speaking, a genus.  (Isn't Quercus just about the best word, ever?)  I'm not going to tell you than I can tell any of the 600+ oak species apart by name, because I can't.  What I can say is that the size, shape, quality, and drop time of acorns varies considerably from one species of oak to another.  Acorns started falling here in August, and there are still oaks dropping their bounty now in October.  It pays to look around and keep looking.  If you don't find acorns of good quality from one particular type of oak, you may well find them from another type a few weeks on.

Storage was a problem last year.  Mice are quite happy to help themselves to any sort of seed or nut kept in our garage over the winter months.  I've taken steps to prevent this this year and recommend you think about how to keep any acorns you collect away from rodents, particularly in light of the risk they might transmit salmonella to your poultry.

I did a little poking around to find out what the value of my acorn gleaning might be in terms of feed for the hens. I have no clue what they do or don't contribute in terms of nutrients.  But the average laying hen needs - at an absolute maximum - 350 calories per day to maintain optimum laying rate.  Presumably this is for hens who live in Siberia and lay jumbo sized eggs.  Even so, let's say my hens need that many calories in winter.  After all, they don't get any supplemental heat, only shelter from the wind.  The other factoid I turned up is that acorns have 1700 calories per pound.  Now I don't know if that figure is just for the extracted nutmeats, or what.  Clearly the acorn cap and shell contribute nothing to the hens' diet.  So let's say that of the 65 pounds of acorns I've gathered so far, we have to eliminate a whopping 25% of that weight to account for the unusable portion. That leaves about 49 pounds worth of acorn nutmeats, which have an astonishing 82,875 calories.  Divide that by the maximum caloric needs of my four-hen flock (1400 calories per day for all four of them) and speaking very conservatively we're looking at a two-month supply of feed from gleaned acorns.

Now, as mentioned, it's not at all clear that acorns alone would give the hens what they need in terms of vitamins and minerals.  But I did lay in a supply of comfrey, dried from our own production earlier in the year, and I know that's a highly nutritious feed for poultry.  Between these two "free" feeds, plus our kitchen scraps, some recycled eggshell for calcium, and whatever mystical stuff chickens find in deep litter bedding, I would bet they're pretty well on their way to a complete laying hen diet.  I plan to use the acorns only as supplemental feed in combination with the locally grown and milled organic grains they normally get.  But it's clear to me that if it were absolutely necessary, we could probably get the hens through the winter with aggressive acorn gleaning (provided of course that the oak trees didn't take another gap year as they did in 2008).  If that were the case, we almost certainly wouldn't light the hens to maintain their winter laying quota, so their caloric needs would go down, which would make the acorns stretch even further.  And that's without even touching on hickory nut gleaning.

Aside from musing about strategies for maintaining my mini-flock in a worst case scenario, I see this as a social justice issue.  We in the industrialized countries "go to the table" ahead of citizens in the developing world.  We eat first, because we can afford to.  Not only can we pay more for the most basic foodstuffs, such as grains, but we choose to eat animal products which are produced at the cost of a huge amount of grain - further driving up global market prices for these commodities. And after we've eaten our fill of grain-intensive meat or dairy or eggs, we then feed our pets with meat produced in an identical fashion.  Thus we consume first, and consume more than the poor.  My flock and my pets are no exception to this reality.  Though they are pastured on our lawn, and we supplement what feed we buy with all sorts of food that would otherwise be wasted, our hens nonetheless eat grain that could have gone to the world market and contributed to lower prices for grain.  My hens compete with impoverished families and hungry children, and they win by virtue of the money I have at my disposal.

So whatever I can do to come up with free food  for my hens not only saves me money and makes my homestead less dependent on a fragile distribution system, it also brings a little more balance to the relationship between rich and poor countries.  That's a real motivation.  Gleaning acorns is fun for a while.  But when it gets a little boring, or my back starts to ache, I push on just a little longer with the acorn hunt.  Because I believe that actions - even small, imperfect, insufficient actions - have consequences.  Even if I never see the results, I know that gleaning this food is the right thing to do.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rerun: Fall Compost Trick

I'm re-running this post from late last year as a reminder, so that some of you can take advantage of this quick-composting method. If you have a lawn and deciduous trees that will be shedding their leaves in about a month or so, you might want to stop cutting the grass right about now...

We live where green lawns are not capital crimes against nature. Rainfall can be relied upon year-round, at least in "normal" years. If you can say the same for your area, and you have lawn plus deciduous trees on your property or nearby, then I have a composting trick to recommend to you. Sadly, it may be too late for you to use it this year. If so, apologies, but keep it in mind for next year.

In late summer or early fall, stop mowing your grass. Let it grow out for at least three weeks, (preferably more) before the autumn leaves start falling. The grass probably won't grow rampantly in this late season. Let all or most of your leaves fall on the long grass. Don't rake them. Wait for a day when the leaves are as dry as possible, at least a few days after any rainfall. Cut the lawn using a lawnmower with a bag, running right over the fallen leaves so that they get chopped up, mixed with grass and saved in the bag. Dump this mixture in your garden, compost bin, or anywhere you'd like a new bed for the spring.

I've always been a lazy composter, and this tendency only got worse after we got hens and a worm bin, which took care of more than half the material that would otherwise be composted. So I've never fussed over the temperature of my compost pile, nor bothered with watering and turning the pile. Compost chez nous happens in its own time, which is to say, very slowly.

But the neat thing about the fall leaves and grass trick is not that it saves a good deal of leaf raking. No, the coolest thing is that dried leaves (carbon, or "brown" matter) and green grass (nitrogen, or "green" matter) are pretty close to the perfect combination of materials needed to make your compost pile decompose rather quickly. A pile of leaves alone will hardly decompose at all over a year's time. (Ask me how I know this some time.) The shredding action of the lawnmower blade helps break down some of the leaves, at least, into smaller pieces, further speeding decomposition. This mixture is ideal for the compost layer in a new bed that you plan to lasagna mulch (aka sheet mulch).

We keep a portion of our property in lawn for the benefit of our laying hens. All through the summer we cut that lawn without bagging the clippings. They sit on the ground to replenish the soil. But the manure from our chickens is also enriching the lawn month after month. A once-per-year harvest of that high-nitrogen content grass in the interest of the garden proper seems a good practice to me. While I'm sure that some of the nitrogen from the hens' manure can make its way from the grassy surround of the garden into the garden soil itself, it doesn't hurt to facilitate that transfer once in a while either.

We have only a very small bag on our push mower, so this is a tiring and time consuming task at a busy time of year. Even when I dump the contents into the wheelbarrow to make fewer trips, the wheelbarrow fills up very quickly. In all honesty, if I remember it in time, I may look to barter next year for a one-time lawn cutting with someone who owns a large mower with a bag, preferably one of those fancy mowers that practically pulverizes the clippings. However it gets done, adding all that organic matter to our garden is worth it.

Today I made the third of such piles in our garden. I stuck my hand into the middle of the one I made two days ago. It was too hot to comfortably leave my hand in there very long!