Friday, December 28, 2007

Edible Flowers

I received as a gift Lasagna Gardening With Herbs by Patricia Lanza. Ordinarily, I would have been too concerned with vegetables and compost to buy a book about herbs, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable gardening books I've read. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was that there are many edible flowers. My inner chef found that part intriguing.

I have eaten a few flowers. Off the top of my head I can list: battered and fried squash blossoms, borage flowers, and artichokes. But there are some I’ve eaten that I wouldn’t have thought of, namely saffron, capers, and dill. But these make up only the tip of the iceberg.

Flowers are used for flavorings, garnishes, candies, pickles... the list goes on. I'll list just a few ideas that sound good to me, but I highly recommend this book for further reading.

Basil flowers, she claims, are just as flavorful as the leaves (does that mean I can leave trimming the basils off the list of chores?!) Lanza recommends using them in much the same way as you do the leaves, but also mentions something that sounds really tasty, basil flower butter. I can imagine using that on garlic bread along with a nice pasta meal.

Another flower butter that sounds good to me is bee balm butter. Her recipe is 1/2 cup of petals mashed into 1 lb. of softened butter. If you don't already grow bee balm, you should. It's attractive, but better yet, it's attractive to bees!

Apparently, the flowers of peas and beans have flavors resembling what is to come from them. This could be an interesting way to get the same flavor in a prettier package. Lanza suggests using Scarlet Runner Bean flowers on new potatoes.

Imagine the possibilities with the delicate flowers of chives or garlic chives. They'd make a great topping to a salad drizzled with vinegar and oil.

Daylilly flowers are another exciting possibility! I quote the following from page 125: "After a good shaking to dislodge any insects, I wash the flowers, remove the stamens, and fill them with herbed cream cheese. The flowers are crunchy, with a pleasant, subtle flavor." Now doesn't that sound fancy? And who knew the daylillies just outside my front door could be used in the kitchen?

Hibiscus flowers are edible also. What beauties! I learned on the IDigMyGarden forums this summer that okra leaves are edible - okra is a type of hibiscus, so I assume okra flowers are edible. You can bet that I'll be trying them next summer!

Without going into detail, I offer a short list of other flowers that appeal to me for use in the kitchen: chrysanthemums, dianthus, elderberry, hyssop, lavender, mint, nasturtiums, oregano, and to top it off, roses. You have to remove the white part at the base of the rose petals, which is bitter.

It is important to note that not all flowers are edible. Please make sure they are before you eat them, as some are deadly! Also, it's a good idea to know where they came from and if they were sprayed with chemicals, etc. Me, I'll only be eating the ones I grew myself or found in the deep wild.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Meeting Gardeners

These days, the most interesting people I meet, I find in gardening forums. But then, I don't get around much anymore... But last spring was different - two days a week I manned the helm at the Heirloom Seed Shop in Norfork, Arkansas.

It's not an ordinary seed shop. It's very small, one 12' x 16' room. Even so, it's in such a small town that you can't miss it. But what's really unusual is that all the proceeds go directly to the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas. It serves the purpose of feeding the hungry, of whom there are many, but the real thought behind it is enabling them to feed themselves. "Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." With heirloom seeds, one need only make a low initial investment, from which may come generations worth of food. Just save your seeds!

In fact, it was in 2002, if memory serves me, that my father and I wandered into Gene Boyd's office to talk rabbits, and came out with a few packs of heirloom seeds. It was the first time I'd heard the term [heirloom seeds], although I was already aware of the serious global loss of genetic diversity of crop seeds. I learned that from good old Dr. Kinser at the UCA science department. But I digress...

As I understand it, the Heirloom Seed Shop was Gene's brainchild. He had just started the program, and was still selling seeds out of the office closet. Well, I was hooked. I have grown heirloom vegetables ever since. At some point, Gene and a volunteer carpenter built the little shop from green wood. It turned out really nice, I wish I had been a part of that.

Gene's wife Sharon ended up working the little shop. As my garden grew, I became a regular, stopping in to buy seeds a few times each year. Once as I was apologizing for such a small purchase (one or two packs,) Sharon laughed and divulged that I was their best customer. This alarmed me - surely I wasn't the only one planting this meager amount of seed? I wished that I had the time to volunteer and help educate the public about heirlooms, or at least do my part to feed the hungry. I was hungry, once, and it was miserable.

As fate would have it, I lost the ability to do the only work I know how, so I found myself with the time to volunteer. I had big plans, but needed volunteers to carry most of them out. Volunteers are in short supply in this day and age, and luck isn't always on our side... But I did accomplish a few things, like the small Three Sisters display garden. Also, I grew dozens of tomato and pepper seedlings to sell.

Coming full circle, I met a few really interesting people selling those seeds.

One was a gregarious fellow named John, who is a market grower. He stops by the Food Bank on Farmers Market days to donate any unsold produce. Sometimes he just stops in to talk or buy seeds. His business selling heirloom veggies at the farmers market is booming, and he now has customers paying in advance!

One was an extremely talented tattoo artist I had been trying to track down for 11 years, Wild Child. What a strange way to finally meet. It turns out she had set up shop in the town I was born in. Small world.

Two were a couple of gringos from Mexico, Rosanna and Kelley, who enlightened me on various and sundry subjects.

One was a generous Master Gardener, Barbara, who donated plants for us to sell, and beautiful wildflowers to put in our flowerbed. She had the idea that someone from the Heirloom Seed Shop should give a talk to the Baxter County Master Gardeners about heirloom vegetables. I passed this up the line, and it was passed back to me. Gulp. Public Speaking terrifies me. But I'm scheduled for an upcoming meeting. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be a speaker at the June festival at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds last summer, so I broke through my fear and did it. It was an hour-long talk, and after I got warmed up, I could have talked forever. Now I have the experience and confidence to educate and entertain this somewhat intimidating crowd of experts. As an aside, I'm looking for a wide array of Hubbard squash varieties to gift to Barbara, if anyone can assist with a few seeds.

Somewhere in there, I met a dynamic duo from the local newspaper, reporter JoAnne Bratton and photographer Kevin Pieper. They did a story on the Heirloom Seed Shop, and it was a great opportunity for me to help educate the public. They both did a great job! Kevin even drove out to my house to take photos of the heirloom plants in my garden.

While I was disappointed in the low local interest in heirloom seeds, I believe I made a difference. Many of the folks who did stop in said they read about it in the Baxter Bulletin. Hopefully next year will be even better. There's talk of expanding.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Winter Veggies

In the picture to the right, you can see the outline and location where my greenhouse will be built. You are looking at the eastern half of my garden as it appears in the end of November. The structure will be just to the left of center as you enter the garden.

Beds of cover crops are visible in the background. These will be either tilled in or removed and composted before planting next spring. Meanwhile, I graze on some of them, particularly mustard greens and Swiss chard.

With only minimal protection, there are several vegetables that can be grown in winter. I'm in climate zone 6b. If you are in a colder zone, you may need to provide more serious protection, perhaps an insulated cold frame - or none at all if you're in a warmer zone.

Lettuce and snap peas are more likely to suffer from frost than mustard or kale, so be ready to cover them with reemay or similar, or grow them in plastic covered low-tunnels. Root crops like parsnips and carrots tend to store very well left right where they are - just pull them up when you need them.

Heirloom Lettuce Mix

Florida Broadleaf Mustard

Garden Peas

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Greenhouse Project

Back to the greenhouse...

My original plan was to build a 1 1/2 story octagon. Planned it down to the last square inch. Something wasn't right, though. There wouldn't be enough light for the amount of floor space, not to mention that the cost for the roofing materials was, well, through the roof. Back to the drawing board.

So, I designed a simpler one based on recycling the materials at hand. It will be 15' long by 11' wide with a simple 12 in 12 roof pitch. Very traditional. Not exactly my taste, but easy and cheap to build.

I have two sets of glass patio doors that are about the same size - they will make up most of the south-facing roof (south by southeast if you want to get technical.) [There's a third set, but they don't match. I might use them to make a pair of passive solar air heaters, one for the greenhouse, one for the residence.] Then I have a stack of used windows. Four of them are fairly large, 30" x 60", as I recall. They will make up most of the south ( by southeast) facing wall. The remainder of the windows, along with some other glass, will be used on the two end walls. I think I have a storm door somewhere for getting in and out... The North wall (and north facing roof) need to be insulated and reflecting.

Framing could be simple, but that's no fun. I like to celebrate wood. Why use a perfectly functional 2x4 when you can use an oversized log? This wouldn't be practical for many of you, but I live in the middle of a forest. Frankly, it's easier for me to thin out a couple of cedar trees than to go pick up a load of lumber. I choose cedars because I want a rot-resistant wood for the greenhouse, but it also happens to be that they are quick and easy to cut down and de-limb. Well, they used to be. Now that I'm disabled, one is all the work I can handle, on a good day.

Hewing flat sides on the timbers will likewise be a slow process for me. But I do what I can, when I can. It will get done eventually.

Hopefully that will be sooner rather than later, because I need to begin working on 2008 seedlings by February. The 2007 lot filled the master bathroom before it was all said and done. And I do mean "filled." I had seedlings all around the tub, all around my sink, on the floor - I even had a tray of seedlings on the back of the toilet. My wife is 100% behind my greenhouse project.

I think I mentioned before, my neighbor came over and helped dig the footing. I use the term footing loosely. It won't be a footing exactly, but more of a drainage area filled with rocks and gravel. The framing is basically the same as a pole barn - the cedar posts will be set in post holes in contact with the ground. All the weight will be transferred to the posts, so a load-bearing footing isn't necessary. The wood in contact with the ground will rest on this drainage gravel, extending its lifespan.

So far there hasn't been much progress. I do have the ground pretty much ready to accept the building, and I've cut one tree down. It's ready to drag across the lawn to the worksite, where I'll prepare the timbers. I have the truck today, so I will probably go outside later and drag the pole up with a chain. Like I said, slow and steady.

Building this greenhouse out of hand crafted timbers will pay off later when I'm spending lots of time in there. There will be a nice ambience between the mix of natural curves and hand-hewn sides - sort of Japanese styling. I can sit and work on the logs when I'm letting the dog out for a walk, or whenever. I hope to inspire some of you readers to build your own, in your own style, of course. More updates and photos will be on the way intermittently, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I know the true meaning of Thanksgiving, but I can't help associating it with food. I think of all the toothsome dishes: roasted turkey, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, pecan pie... and everything in between. I feel stuffed and sleepy already. Blissful indulgence.

The side dish (dessert?) that really does me in is my sister's Sweet Potato Casserole. If you have a sweet tooth, you really have to try this:
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled, boiled, and drained, and mashed with 1/3 cup oleo
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tspn vanilla
1/3 cup milk

Topping Ingredients
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup melted oleo
1 cup pecans

Bake at 375 for 25 - 30 minutes, until bubbly and sugar is carmelized.

Try it, you'll love it! It's too good for words.

In the past several years, I've come to favor fried turkeys. On Thanksgiving, it just wouldn't be right. Roasted is the only way to go. I love how it takes hours and hours of careful attention and basting, and the whole house is filled with that wonderful aroma.

In my family tradition, we always have mashed potatoes and gravy with turkey. (Yeah, and sweet potatoes. You need lots of carbs with that turkey to get a really good nap afterwards.) I've seen a lot of people make mashed potatoes in my day, and every one of them has a slightly different take on it. Brown potatoes, red potatoes, gold potatoes. Skin on, skin off. Gobs of butter to only a pat. Whipped, creamy, chunky. Some folks even fold eggs into them - I plan to try that next time. The variations for such a simple dish are astounding.

And lets not even get started on gravy... That's as controversial as cornbread stuffing vs. bread stuffing. Or politics and religion.

Which reminds me, I almost forgot my mother-in-law's Cornbread Stuffing for Turkey:
Double batch of cornbread, unsweetened
3 - 4 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tbspn butter
3 slices bread, crumbled
3 - 4 eggs
1 tbspn sage
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup water

Crumble the cornbread and place in large bowl. In a skillet, saute onions and celery in butter until glossy. Add to cornbread. Stir in additional ingredients. Texture should be moist and can form a ball, but not too sticky. Stuff some into the turkey and cook according to directions. Place remainder in 9 x 13 pan and bake at 350 until golden brown.

How's that for compromise?

Something I discovered on my neverending adventure of growing heirloom vegetables is the Seminole Pumpkin. I bought the seeds from Baker Creek Seed Co. a few years ago. This is truly a Native American pumpkin. It comes from the Seminole Indians of Florida. It has very long vines, so the Seminoles would plant them at the base of dead trees. The plants would climb the tree, and the little pumpkins hung like ornaments. Seminole pumpkins aren't very large, but they have BIG flavor! It is unquestionably the richest pumpkin or squash I've ever eaten, having nutty aftertones. They keep for up to a year. What I like to do with them is cut the top off and hollow them out as you would a Jack O' Lantern, bake them until nearly done, and stuff them with Thanksgiving dinner leftovers, especially sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce. Then I finish baking. One serves 2 or 3 people.

I enjoy growing squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, sweet corn, and anything else that could possibly be eaten at Thanksgiving dinner. Heirloom varieties offer a wide range of flavors, textures, and colors. I was amazed to discover the wide array of heirloom sweet potatoes - I counted 80 in the Sand Hill Presevation Center poultry and seed catalog (they sell exotic turkeys as well...) Colors range from white to orange to purple to red, both flesh and skin. Some are gigantic, some are small, some are rough, some are smooth. That's the beauty of heirlooms - diversity.

Well, now I'm working up a proper appetite for tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Not such an industrious gardener? I fall into that category myself... We still have work to do.

Garden cleanup is important. Plant diseases lie dormant in last season's plant matter. Left undisturbed, they will come back to haunt you next year. It is easy to compost them, and if you turn the pile every three days or so for a couple of weeks during warm weather, it can destroy most of the undesireable microorganisms.

In my case, there are other chores as well. One such is gradually raising the lower beds to a desired level. (The garden is on a slope, and I have an innate desire to level dirt... don't ask me where it comes from.) I want to terrace sections of the garden, roughly20' x 20' each. Instead of buying topsoil, I import it from elsewhere in the two acre yard - preferably from very near. I add a little every year if I have the opportunity.

Recently, my neighbor was kind enough to bring a tractor and dig the footing for a greenhouse I want to build. The location for the greenhouse-to-be is in the garden, so there is now a pile of fresh soil (notice I didn't say "dirt") right where I want it. I've been sifting it through a 1/2" x 1/2" screen, directly into a wheel barrow. The resulting gravel and rocks go into another pile, which will eventually be used to backfill the greenhouse footing. The wheelbarrow goes straight downhill about 12' to its final destination.

This is a chore I can do a little at a time, a few days a week, or whenever. Yeterday as I was sifting out some gravel, I found half an arrowhead. I slowed to an even more leisurely pace after that, keeping an eye out for more of them. I've found three more broken pieces. This land borders a creek, which in turn empties into the White River not too far away. Another neighbor between here and the river has a field of mounds, left by Native Americans at some point. It's not uncommon for locals to have several buckets full of arrowheads and other stone tools that they've found in fields or caves. It is conceivable that I could find something of value during this garden chore.

Whether I find more arrowheads or not, I always try to accomplish more than one goal with every action. The pile of dirt, er, soil needs to be removed, the raised bed needs filled with sifted topsoil, rubble will be needed to backfill the footing... and I could stand to find some valuable archaeological artifacts. All four of these things are coming to fruition from little more than sitting on a bucket and sifting some soil.

According to my soil test results, I have another chore ahead of me. The garden needs to have high amounts of nitrogen added before next spring. Being an organic gardener, I have a few choices, and a big truckload of manure is one of them. I have one goat and three chickens producing manure for me, but it's not enough. I'll have to import some. One of the advantages of living in a rural community is that just about any kind of manure I'd want is available - often cheap, sometimes free. The question is, what kind do I want?

Starting with the obvious choice... I can get rabbit manure for free. Rabbit manure has a number of advantages over most others. Rabbit food is mainly composed of alfalfa, which is not only high in nitrogen, but also contains plant growth hormones. Do the hormones survive the rabbit's digestive system? I don't know, but it seems that way. Besides, a fair amount of the uneaten food ends up falling into the manure. And worms just LOVE rabbit manure. They turn it into vermicompost, which is literally perfect topsoil, complete with beneficial microorganisms.

What I like best about rabbit manure is that it is virtually free of weed seeds, so it can be used as a top dressing and mulch. Its dark color draws heat into the beds when it is used in this fashion. Especially when it has aged a bit, seeds can be sown directly in it. Great stuff.

So, when I use rabbit manure, I like to put it on last. By organic standards, fresh manure should be applied 3 to 4 months before anything growing in it is eaten (90 days for above ground vegetables, 120 days for those in contact with or near the soil.) So, if the first spring greens are ready to eat in, say, March, then fresh manure should have been applied in November! Use composted manure if you can (because it can be put off until much later in the winter...)

Moving soil, spreading or composting animal manure, managing cover crops... yes, there are still plenty of things to do for some of us.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Almost Thanksgiving. It's a sad time of year for gardeners. No catalogs yet. This year's plants died from frost. If you're an industrious gardener, you've already cleaned last year's debris and collected leaves for compost or mulch. Now what?

Take a break! Yeah, right... Well, then, it's time to start planning ahead. New raised beds? A water feature? Maybe something as simple as crop rotation (or is it so simple?) There are endless possibilities to rationalize the way you spend your time planning next year's garden.

What about planning some things that can be done in the EARLY spring, like starting seedlings indoors, or wintersowing?

Maybe you don't have room for all your seed starting indoors, maybe you need to build a greenhouse - there's something worthy of planning! You could have a little one, or a big one. It could be attached to the house, as a solar heater to save on your home's energy consumption, or it could be free standing. It could be a simple cold frame, or it could be a hot house, where you could grow tropical plants. (Just think of the headstart you could get with your tomatoes!) It could be made of thin plastic and pvc, or wood and glass, or maybe aluminum and polycarbonate. I say dream big, then scale down. Figure out what you really want, then scale to what is realistic.

What about planning a theme garden? More endless possibilities...

One example of a garden theme is Native American. Did you know that tobacco and tomatoes are native to the Americas? Even if you don't smoke, you might enjoy the visual and olfactory pleasures of the tobacco flower, aka nicotiana. No vegetable garden would be complete without at least a few tomato plants. If you have more than a little space, you could follow tradition and create a Three Sisters garden, consisting of a symbiotic interplanting of beans, corn, and squash. This was done by several Native American cultures across the continent. The arrangement varied by region, but the one I find most convenient for the modern home garden has beans growing amongst the corn, and squash planted around the perimeter to deter raccoons. Consider using heirloom varieties to deepen the connection to the past.

Your garden structures could also reflect this continent's past. A garden tipi can serve as a morning glory trellis in the summer, and a greenhouse in the winter. You might even consider arranging the beds or rows in a circle instead of a square, with a tipi at the center?

So get yourself a cozy place to plan. You might be "working" from your laptop, or the drafting table, or by the fire with an extra number two pencil, a ruler, and a pad of graph paper. Make sure it's comfortable, wherever it is, because you'll be spending a LOT of time there in the coming months!