Posts Tagged ‘organic gardening’

Fresh Herbs Through the Winter

January 10, 2010

My brother in California has the luxury of a year-round herb garden.  For those of us in the Midwest, this is not a possibility.  Our short growing season leaves us either freezing and drying a crop of herbs in the summer for use throughout the winter months or heading to the grocery store once the snow covers the parsley.  These are not the only options, though.  With good timing and a few tricks, one can keep fresh herbs coming through a good part of the winter.  I still freeze ice cube tray after ice cube tray of basil pesto every August, but a few other herbs play a bigger part in my fresh winter eating.  I should note that I’m not a particularly sophisticated cook, so I’m only going to discuss the few herbs I use regularly; it shouldn’t take too much experimentation to apply some of these strategies to your favorite herbs.

Herbs as Houseplants
Though West Michigan’s sandy soil is ideal for most herbs, there are a number of major herbs that won’t survive our low winter temperatures.  The only solutions are to grow them as annuals or to over-winter them indoors.  I try to keep a rosemary plant alive every winter, and have made it as far as March, but I’ve got a good feeling about this year.  I started it as a seed in the early spring, and have it in a pot on the windowsill now.  It’s not too big, as you can see from the picture above, but it’s good for the occasional snip of piney flavor.  If it survives this winter, I’ll replant it in the garden, then re-pot it in the fall.  I’ve also heard of people growing bay laurels (for bay leaves) in pots, and over-wintering them indoors.

An ideal candidate for this sort of treatment is mint—in a yard as small as mine, I can’t just plant mint in a border—it’d creep across the yard (and the neighborhood) in a single growing season.  To prevent this, I keep it in a pot to contain the invasive underground shoots.  In the fall, the pot comes indoors for midwinter juleps or tabulleh.

A slight variation works for parsley.  It’s a biennial, so in its second year, the leaves get tough and it flowers.  It’s inedible the second year, so usually, gardeners dig up their parsley every year and start over the following spring.  You can get a few more months of production from your parsley by potting it up in fall and bringing it indoors.  If you wait until it gets too cool, you run the risk of your parsley going into second-year mode, so do it early.  Don’t bother saving the parsley to replant the next year—compost it when it goes dormant or sends up a flower stalk.

Herbs as Bulbs
The only bulbing herb I grow is chives, but I imagine this would work for any bulb.  I use the same method as you would to force flowering bulbs—pot up the bulbs in fall, subject them to a few months of “false winter” (cool weather, either in a garage/crawl space/attic or in the fridge), then bring them into a warm, sunny room to re-sprout.  The chives send up new shoots within a few days, and can be clipped for several weeks before the bulbs start to wear out.  I always have several pots waiting out in the garage to keep a supply going all winter.  In the spring, I usually give the potted bulbs to friends who are starting an herb or ornamental garden.  Of course, any landscape could always use a few more spikey purple chive blossoms.

Fresh Herbs, in Situ
Finally, some herbs retain enough of their flavor compounds through the winter to be dug up and used as it.  Thyme is especially good for this.  We have some along the house, and whenever I’ve got a pot of stock going, I can dig down to it, clip off a few stems, and throw it in.  Oregano will also put up with this treatment.  Think of it as “winter pruning” if it makes you more comfortable.  The flavor isn’t at its peak, but it’s probably comparable, if not superior, to home-dried leaves that are a few months old.

Whether you’re eating locally year-round (and getting sick of roots and squash) or just looking for a little fresh flavor to get you through the winter, coaxing your herbs into providing a crop for you in the winter is a great way to bolster one’s faith in the spring.  If you have success with any herbs not mentioned here, please let me know in the comments section.

Scouting the Wild Asparagus

November 6, 2009

I’ve been building up a patch of asparagus in the backyard, but lately I’ve been seeing it growing wild just about every time I take the highway.  I started out taking mental notes of where each patch was, but I’ve given up—it’s all over the place, so I’m assuming I’ll be able to find some come spring.
This is an ideal time to locate a patch, though.  In the spring, the sprouts are just a few inches tall and impossible to find without coming within a few feet of it.  In the summer, when it has bushed out, asparagus blends into the other greenery.  In autumn, however, it turns a particular hue that stands out from the bleached-out stalks of the other roadside plants.  It’s hard to describe, and doesn’t really photograph well, but it’s a bit yellower than the straw-colored grasses.  It also has what Euell Gibbons (author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the inspiration for this article’s title) calls a “Christmas tree shape”—kind of a lacy pyramid.  If you don’t know of anyone who grows asparagus who can give you a peek at the full-grown plant, I’d seek it out.  You might even be able to convince a farmer’s market vendor to let you take a look at their fields.  Once you get a look at it, it’ll be easy to spot, even from some distance.  I’m hoping that the bushes are as easy to identify in the spring, after they’ve been under the snow for a few months.
Lately, I’ve been seeing it along highways, with one patch growing literally at the intersection of the two biggest highways on this side of the state.  In the past, I’ve found it growing along rivers, and friends have told me of patches near the Lake Michigan shores, but the highway side is the best place to start looking.
I’ll put up a proper post once I’ve found, picked, and prepared some in season, but I’ve been seeing it all over and thought I’d spur my regular readers to start seeking it out.

Black Walnuts: Tedious but Delicious

September 21, 2009

Foraging will always take more time than preparing store-bought food, but black walnuts may be the most time-consuming wild food I’ve tried.  Finding and collecting them can go quickly, but the prep work (and the eventual yield) give walnuts one of the highest time-to-food value ratios.  For me, it’s worth it, but you might want to try these out on a small scale before you commit to bushels and bushels of walnuts.

Finding Walnuts

I’ll find walnuts while hiking now and then, but when I’m looking to harvest them, I’ll drive through some of the older neighborhoods in town.  Black walnuts are generally despised as shade trees, but a few people still have them in their yards.  You can usually see their driveways and patios littered with the blackened husks, and all but the most paranoid neighbors would love to have you gather a bushel or two of nuts.  I’ve also had good luck asking on local online message boards.  The greasy, round, rotting walnuts can pose a serious safety risk, so a lot of people are grateful to have someone come over and pick them up.

Harvesting Walnuts

Harvesting is easy.  I bring a bucket, bushel, or basket and start picking them up off the ground.  I’ve never tried to pull them off the tree, as they generally fall off when they get ripe.  I try to be selective, and just get the freshly-fallen, completely green fruits.

Preparing Walnuts

This is where it gets difficult.  First, you need to remove the husks.  The walnut juice will stain your clothes and skin, so wear gloves and grubby clothes.

I start with a patio stone and a sturdy pair of boots, grinding each walnut under the heel until the green part falls off and I’m left with the familiar-looking nut.  I’ve read accounts of people spreading them over the driveway and driving over them, but I find the monotonous and violent boot method soothing.  It’s important to get the husks off as soon as possible, as they begin to decompose, which causes the nuts to spoil.  The husks will be really wormy.  The grubs are disgusting but won’t affect the nut.

Once they are husked, the nuts need to be rinsed.  Dump them in a bucket of water.  I’ve read (but not confirmed) that the ones that float are spoiled.  I discard them, but only after making sure I’ve removed all of the husk–every so often, a bit of the especially-bouyant husk will be holding up a nut that would otherwise sink.

After they’ve been husked, I hang them in a mesh basket from the clothesline.  Squirrels will seek them out extremely aggressively, so be sure they’re secure.  Once they’re dry, I put the nuts in the freezer, or in a cool place if the freezer’s full–The nutmeat is really oily, so low temperatures keep it from going rancid.

The nuts need to be broken up to remove the meat, and black walnuts are far harder than the commercial (English) version.  A nutcracker won’t do it, but a hammer will.  A solid strike at the pointy end will split it in two, but they’ll need to be busted into quarters or smaller to get the nuts out.  If available, a bench vise works way better than a hammer.  I put them in so that the seam of the nut is perpendicular to the face of the vise and crank down until it cracks.  I’ll crack nuts until the vise handle starts to hurt my palm, then put it all back in the freezer until I want to get back into it.

When they’re cracked, the last step is getting the meat out.  If you’ve cracked the nuts into the quarters, you should be able to pull out fairly big chunks of nutmeat with a nut pick, awl, or toothpick.  I put all of the meat in a jar and put it in the freezer.

Eating Walnuts

Black walnuts have a much stronger flavor than commerical walnuts, which makes them ideal for baked goods.  I treat them like a precious commodity, having gone through a lot of work to procure them, but they work well in zuchinni bread, carrot muffins, and brownies.  They are better the sooner you use them, so be generous.  I love the flavor, and they are one of the few nuts available that are locally grown, but they are an aquired taste.  My wife tolerates them, and others don’t like them at all.  As I said, try out a few before investing the time.

Cooking from the Garden, 9-13-09

September 13, 2009

We had a very cool summer, so a lot of the stuff in the garden took a long time to ripen.  Tomatoes and peppers are just coming in now, about a month late.  On the other hand, I was able to harvest broccoli all the way through August, so maybe it’s a wash.

Tonight’s dinner featured a lot of vegetable produce, and I haven’t been posting much, so I thought I’d put it up.  I started with pizza dough in a cast-iron pan.  Topped it with sliced fresh tomatoes, green peppers, yellow Swiss chard, red onion, garlic, herbs, cheese, and turkey sausage.

Garden Pizza

It was really good, but as far as presentation goes, I should have put more of the vegetables on top–all those colors, and nothing to show for it.  The tomatoes kind of steamed under the cheese, rather than roasting, so they were wetter than I’d like, but it was still delicious.  The cheese, dough, sausage, and onion were store-bought, and all the vegetables came from the garden.

More on Mayapples

August 22, 2009

I expressed my love for mayapples last year, when I first tried them.  Since early this spring, when their umbrella-leaves first started to appear, I began plotting my harvest on a massive scale.  I’ve picked about a bushel of the fruits (not including a false start noted in the comments on my previous entry), but now I don’t know what to do with them.  I’ve got them in a plastic bag, and I eat a few out of hand for breakfast as they ripen.  It’s an inconvenient ordeal–I cut it open, suck out the pulp, then use my teeth and tongue to filter out the seeds, which I spit out.

I’ve tried chopping the fruits and running them through a food mill, but this pushes through a lot of the bitter rind, which gives the resulting pulp an unpleasant taste.  I’ve also tried running just the pulp through the food mill, but the pulp sticks to the seeds, and very little goes through.  This is where I’m stuck.  They are a delicious fruit, but I can only eat a few of them at a time, and it’s hardly worth the effort.  If anyone has any suggestions, I’d like to hear them.  All of the internet sources I’ve looked at recommend running them through a food mill, but no one mentions how to deal with the rind.

Mulberries

June 23, 2009

I thought eating mulberries was a universal childhood experience, but my wife and I found a mulberry tree on a walk, and it had never occurred to her to eat them.  With that in mind, I submit this entry.

Finding Mulberries
I don’t remember ever seeing a mulberry tree “in the wild”—they’re always along sidewalks, in backyards, etc.  They are medium-sized trees, topping out around 15-25 feet tall, with a weirdly lobed leaf.  They are most easily identified by their berries, which look a lot like raspberries and start out white, then turn pink, and wind up nearly black.

Harvesting Mulberries
I read (I think in Stalking the Wild Asparagus) about a method for harvesting mulberries.  By placing a big sheet under a tree and shaking the tree, all of the ripe berries will come loose and land on the sheet.  I did not have this option available, as the tree I was picking from was growing alongside a parking lot.  I brought a bowl, picked berries by hand, and put them into the bowl in a shallow layer.  If they get stacked up too high, the ones on the bottom get crushed by the ones on the top.

Preparing Mulberries
When picked, the little stem stays on the fruit.  You can leave it on.  Although they can be eaten out of hand, or right off the tree, they are best mixed with other fruits.  Smoothies, fruit salads, and cobblers are all great uses for mulberries.

Eating Mulberries
My copy of The Joy of Cooking suggests that mulberries are best left for children, and I’d agree that they aren’t great by themselves.  They have a bland sweetness that is easy to get sick of.  Mixed with other fruit, though, they’re delicious.

Home-grown Vegetables Hall of Fame III: Garlic

June 21, 2009

I covered the process of growing garlic last year, but recently saw the garlic flower buds for sale at the farmer’s market.  I had been putting them in floral arrangements (the pointy curlicue shapes make for a beautiful, if pungent, addition to bouquets), but didn’t know they were edible.

These flower buds, called “scapes”, come out in June here in Michigan,.  I cut them off above the top leaf.  The pointy, swollen flower head is too tough to eat, so it’s really just the stems that are edible.

The online recipes I’ve found for scapes advise that I “cook them like green beans”.  For my first attempt at cooking them, I just steamed them for a few minutes at ate them out of hand.  They were delicious–garlicky, but much milder.  They were also very difficult to eat, due to the spiral shape.  Since then, I’ve chopped them and added them to stir-fries or pizzas.  They were not quite strong enough to substitute for garlic, but they are good on their own terms.  I’m still looking for ideas for how to use them–send recipes if you’ve got ’em!

Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame II: Leaf Lettuce

June 1, 2009

Sometime between when I was a child and the present, the world at large made a leap from iceberg lettuce to romaine.  Back then, every family had a volleyball-like, pale green head of iceberg lettuce in the refrigerator crisper.  Nowadays, the only times I see iceberg lettuce is at the Taco Bell or in a wedge salad.
This shift is understandable–iceberg lettuce is devoid of nutrition and flavor.  Romaine is able to hold up to heavy dressings and gets great ratings as  “leafy green”, one of the foods most people don’t eat enough of.  However, this shift in lettuce preference skipped over my personal favorite–leaf lettuce.  It’s easier to grow than either iceburg lettuce and romaine, and offers a far greater variety in form than either.  I can see why it doesn’t work as well on a commercial level–each head is a lot smaller than either iceburg or romaine lettuce, and it probably doesn’t transport as well, but for the home gardener, it’s ideal.

Growing Lettuce

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, and will flower and set seed when it gets too warm.  In Michigan, I can usually get lettuce from my full-sun garden until the end of June.  If I start it in a cold frame, I can put it in in March, and start getting some thinnings in April.  A 4 x 4 area provides a few salads every few days through May and June, depending on weather.   This year, I’ve got some transplants and some grown from seed in the same bed, and they’re pretty indistinguishable at this point–next year, I’ll probably direct-seed them all.

Mulching is beneficial on two fronts–it keeps the soil moist and keeps the soil from splashing on the plant.  Lettuce likes a damp soil, and will wilt in hot, dry weather.  A good coating of mulch keeps the water in the soil from evaporating.  Mulch also keeps the soil in place through sprinkling or rain, as the leaves can get sandy otherwise.  Mulch with caution, however:  slugs love to eat lettuce, and too much mulch will give them the cover they need to destroy your crop.

Lettuce works well when planted in combination with other plants.   I’ve interplanted it with carrots, as the long and narrow carrot roots do not interfere with lettuce’s more shallow roots.  I’ve planted it between rows of corn, with the corn protecting the lettuce from the summer sun and extending its season.  I’ve also planted lettuce in a spot where I intend to plant a hot-weather vegetable–tomatoes or peppers, for example–as the lettuce will get pulled out when the hot-weather plants need the space.  There is some overlap in growing seasons, but the peppers/tomatoes don’t really get growing until the lettuce is past its prime.

I’ve had mixed results growing a fall crop of lettuce.  Timing is crucial–if you get it in too soon, the hot weather causes it to “bolt”, get bitter, and go to seed.  Plant too late, and the seedlings never develop.  I haven’t got a foolproof technique yet–I try it every year, and some years I have better luck than others.

Eating Lettuce

The first time I have to buy lettuce from the store (usually around November) is the most disappointing trip of the year.  After several months of right-out-of-the-ground lettuce, even the freshest grocery store offerings look tough, wilted, and bruised.  Fresh, home-grown lettuce is truly a luxury.  There are recipes for lettuce slaw and lettuce soup, but I’ve never needed them–a frilly leaf or two on a sandwich and a big salad are the only ways I’ve used lettuce.  We always offer to bring a green salad to the early-summer, bring-a-dish-to-pass events, too.  A few green onions, a shredded carrot, and a hardboiled egg, all topped with chive blossoms or pansy flowers, make for a very impressive, I-grew-it-myself salad and seems to go over well with most audiences.

Stinging Nettles

May 15, 2009

Finding Nettles

Although nettles have a fairly distinctive appearance—they are very mint-like, with dark green leaves sprouting off of squarish stems—they are by far most easily identified by their sting.  When I thought I found a patch of nettles, I brushed the back of my hand over them and waited to feel the sting.  Sure enough, a warm, throbbing pain confirmed their identity.  I’m not sure where it is usually located, as I don’t see it often, but the patch I tested was located in a forest along a path.  It is best harvested when it is young, in spring, but, according to my field guides, the new growth at the tips can be harvested through the summer.

Harvesting Nettles

First off, some protection is called for.  I tried to use a plastic bag to grab the plant while I cut it with my clippers.  This did not work in the least—I inevitably brushed against other leaves while moving in with the clippers, and got stung routinely as I harvested.  Next time, I’ll use gloves.  Since I knew I’d be cooking them down, I harvested a lot—a plastic grocery bag full.  I stuck with harvesting the top of each sprout, cutting down 8-12”.

Preparing Nettles

The stingers need to be disarmed before cooking the nettles.  Fortunately, this is an easy fix.  I boiled up a big pot of water, and dunked the nettles in long enough for them to wilt—just a few seconds.  I use the boiling water to kill weeds in the cracks of my driveway, but that part is optional.
Once they’ve been dipped, the nettles are ready to go.  I dumped them on a cutting board, chopped them up, and added them to a palak paneer with some home-grown spinach and home-made cheese.  I imagine it could be used in any sort of recipe calling for cooked greens.

Eating Nettles

I’ve never really figured out how to cook proper Southern greens, though I try every few days throughout turnip season.  If I had a good recipe, nettles would be my greens of choice—they stand up to a good bit of cooking without getting slimy.  In the relatively low-fat palaak paneer, they even came out a little dry.  I wrung them out after dipping them in the boiling water, and that was probably overkill.  Apart from the dryness, the texture was great, though.  The flavor was, well, comparable to any other kind of greens.  I’ll definitely be returning to my new nettles patch, and probably freezing a bit before it gets too tough.

Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame I: Asparagus

April 22, 2009

Even if you don’t like asparagus, it holds a special place in the in-season/local eating diet.  After a winter eatng cellared roots, squash, cold-frame greens, and frozen or canned vegetables, asparagus is the first real vegetable of the season in Great Lakes states.  It’s an especially fun vegetable to grow, as it sticks out of the ground looking exactly like itself.  Unlike, say, tomatoes or cucumbers, which grow for months before they yield the familiar fruits, asparagus is recognizable from the moment it sticks out of the ground.

Growing Asparagus
Asparagus is a perennial—it regrows from the roots every year—which makes it a lot more work to get started.  The easiest way to get started is to purchase crowns in the spring.  Soak them in a bucket of water while digging a trench about 8” deep.  For best results, dig some compost into the bottom of the trench—you won’t be able to till this area in the future, so make soil improvements while you can.  It’s recommended that you spread out the roots at the bottom of the trench, but in my experience, the roots tend to break off.  I usually put them in on their side, as the crowns will grow into a position they are comfortable in.
When the crowns are in place, backfill the trench about half way and water well to settle the soil.  When the asparagus begins to peek out of the soil, continue backfilling and watering until the trench is filled in and the asparagus is growing above ground.  Keep it well watered and weeded for the first year while the asparagus gets established.
It’s generally recommended that you let the asparagus grow for two or three years before harvesting so that the plants can build strength and focus on root growth.  I was able to get a few spears in my second year (last year), but this year (year three) is the first time I’m reaping a real harvest.  I get a few spears (enough for a meal) every two or three days.

Through the harvest season, the spears will get thinner and thinner as the plant weakens.  When they get to be about the thickness of a pencil, leave the plant to grow out into a bush so that it can spend the summer “recharging” for next year.
My less agrarian friends are always surprised to see asparagus that has grown out—I don’t have any pictures ready to go, but it grows into what looks like a bush, 4’-5’ tall.  It’s a beautiful specimen plant, with a few disadvantages as a landscaping element.  First, it dies back to the ground every winter and, if consistently harvested, doesn’t fill in until June or so.  Second, being a tall plant, it can cast some dense shade on neighboring plants.  In the vegetable garden, it should be situated on the North side of the garden whenever possible so that it doesn’t shade out shorter plants.
In the fall, after the asparagus has faded to its golden autumnal color, cut it down at ground level.  Mulch it well to add nutrients for next year’s growth.

Eating Asparagus
Home grown asparagus compares favorably with the store-bought variety, with the added advantage of not having stood in a tray full of tepid water for a week or more in the grocery store.  You also get a lot more of the thick, fleshy sprouts, as compared to the straggly store-bought stems.  I’ve been rolling it up in sushi, stir-frying it, and making a risotto with it.  The less time it spends cooking, the better, and it’s pretty good raw, as well—the store-bought stuff isn’t so good this way.  It’s got a unexpectedly nutty flavor.

I’ve started some asparagus from seed, but that adds yet another year to the prep period before it can be harvested.  That will be entering year two this year, so I won’t be able to compare seed stock to root stock for another several years.  Planting asparagus is a commitment, but a well-established asparagus plot can yield for decades, and there is really nothing that can compare to the first fresh vegetable of the year.