"The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves." - Bill Mollison

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Full of Beans Part 4 - Musings on Kabouli & Delinel

I promise to stop talking about beans after this post or at least until spring when I might actually have something of interest to say about them. The last two types of beans we grew this past summer were Kabouli Black Garbanzo and Delinel bush beans. They both performed well and were an excellent addition to the garden.

I've read that Kabouli beans were discovered in Kabul Afghanistan and have been cultivated for thousands of years, a true heirloom. Now Baker Creek, whom I bought my original seeds from, states in their 2008 catalogue (pdf) that "This unique heirloom variety was collected in Kabul, Afghanistan. The 2’ plants produce unusual dark purple beans (mine were definitely black). The purple color comes from a pigment called anthocyanine, which enables seeds to sprout in cool soil, making this variety good for short season areas. Perfect for hummus and other Middle Eastern dishes."


FEDCO states in their catalogue that although garbanzo beans in general originally hailed from Afghanistan "Black Kabouli was developed at Washington State University to be tolerant of cold soils and light frosts. The 2' plants with ornamental purple flowers bear abundant two-seeded pods resembling beach peas with black medium-sized beans."


As legend has it this bean is supposed to attract thunderstorms when blooming so I suppose inconsistencies regarding whether it is anthocyanines or WSU that brings out their cold heartiness is of little importance when one has to worry about being struck by lightning. Regardless, we not only grew them because of their cold tolerant nature but the fact that they are so small we should be able to use our hand powered grain grinder to pulverize them, saving us lots of time on quesadilla night as powdered beans are much quicker to prepare. I have not tried this yet.

The Kabouli beans were as productive as can be expected from a bean that only produces two seeds per pod.

The Delinel bush beans were very vigorous, providing us with numerous fresh green beans throughout the summer months. We did not save any for dried beans or seed (I forgot) so I have no pictures of the of the little black beans that reside in the mature pods.

Thompson Morgan insists that I must never eat these beans raw because they may make you sick. I was not aware of this and did indeed eat many of them raw without consequence. I was not sure if that was supposed to apply to all green beans or just my Delinels.

In all seriousness, I have never heard of this raw bean issue before so I looked up some information regarding the potential toxicity of raw green beans and found that they supposedly contain "Prussic (hydrocyanic) acid," aka Cyanide, which is rendered safe by cooking. Apparently some people can become quite sick after eating raw beans or bean seeds and may suffer from declining blood pressure, vomiting, stomach ache, circulation problems, convulsions, or even heart palpitations. It appears that the susceptibility to these reactions is hereditary, much like "Favism" is in Fava beans. I knew about Favism.

This may indeed be true, I am just surprised that I have been oblivious to the possible toxicity of raw beans. How very interesting. Going forward I think I will continue to "push the envelope" and risk eating raw green beans as I have done since a child. Some people climb mountains and others sky dive, I on the other hand, being the adventurous spirit that I am, eat green beans...raw.:) Please tell me that I am not the only person that was unaware of this?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sweet Tea

A couple months ago our grandson came down with some sort of stomach ailment, perhaps the flu. On a whim, his grandmother prepared a concoction of various dried herbs that included echinacea, mint, our favorite clovers, lemon balm, elderberry flowers, and various other herbs. Steeped on the wood stove for 30 minutes with a heaping teaspoon of honey added before serving and voila!...she had created the boys new favorite beverage, "Sweet Tea." Thusly named by the lad himself one day while attempting to request it, we've been calling it that ever since. His old favorite, hot chocolate, is now a thing of the past and no longer even asked for. We both feel much better with this choice of beverage and have noticed a significant decrease in both his colds and stomach ailments this season. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

Two ingredients that are always included in this sweet tea are echinacea and elderberry flowers. Echinacea, often referred to as a "natural antibiotic" is supposed to stimulate the immune system thus helping the body to fight off colds, flu, and viruses. We use the fresh & dried roots, leaves, and flowers. It did take a couple years for the roots to develop enough to use, but once a nice clump was established we found them easy to divide and transplant. The matured flower heads are fairly easy to collect seed from and between the seed and transplanted roots we should have an excellent medicinal source going forward.

Second year echinacea roots ready to be transplanted, the best roots come from bigger three year old plants.

Containing small amounts of essential oils elderberry flowers have have also been used in the past as remedy for colds, helping to ease sore throats and congestion. We try to pick them while still white and fresh, before they begin to yellow. My wife simply cuts the branches directly below the blossoms and allows them to dry someplace out of the sun until the tiny petals fall off or are easily removed.

We also pick a variety of different clovers for our tea that are kept in quart jars after they have been thoroughly dried. Clover, especially red clover is known to contain high amounts of phytoestrogens, which imitate the action of female hormones in the body thus helping with menopausal issues. I asked my dear wife just what this means to me and the boy, she said not to worry about it and focus on the fact that clover is also a good source of natural calcium and that the dried blossoms work as an expectorant and are a fitting addition to her infusion. OK honey, but if I start cross dressing...

I must say I have never been a huge fan of tea, it's been a flavor issue, but I am quite taken with this particular brew and drink it regularly. We all agree, sweet tea is the beverage for us. I just wish it was caffeinated so I would be more inclined to give up on coffee all together.:)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Our Dirty December Garden

I cannot remember the last time, if ever, I've had the good fortune of being able to work in the garden in December, December 20th at that. What an absolute treat for me to not have any snow this time of year. Last year we had a historical record of snow for this month (60'), starting December 16th I believe. So yesterday I was out and about in the garden prepping the soil for next season by adding composted chicken manure mixed with bean pods and straw to our rows. The ground had thawed and with the days rain had become a mucky muddy mess but I will take that over numerous feet of snow that make any gardening impossible. Perhaps we will enjoy an El Nino after all.

Row mulched with manured bean pods under which are the remains of our parsnip bed

I am once again focused on enriching our soil through a form of sheet mulching. Before winter I pulled up all of the remaining plant materials, broke them up a bit, and distributed amongst the garden rows. According to Emilia Hazelip, whose superb gardening video I have recently listed under a picture on my side bar, plants synthesize from light and only receive a small portion of their mass from the soil. The rest comes from air and light and if left in the garden to decompose will give back much more to the soil then they take out.

Is this true? I'm not sure but it certainly worked for us this past season and is a method that fits nicely into our garden scheme. Will leaving the plants remains in our garden cause a carry over of disease? I don't know, but I do know that so far we have never had any disease issues in the garden. Bugs yes, disease never. We usually follow this procedure by adding compost in the spring but I am more then happy to use this snow free Christmas present to get started a little early giving the bean pods and straw extra time to break down in the soil.

In this section we had corn that was diced up and left. It will eventually be covered with compost that will aid in its decomposition.

The below rows were home to cole crops. We chopped up and left any bad leaves and roots behind and have begun to cover with a straw chicken manure mulch.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Full of Beans Part 3 - The Three Amigos

...and to continue my ramblings about beans I thought I might share a few thoughts on some of our pole varieties. Among the new additions to our garden this past season were Purple Podded and Rattlesnake pole beans. Even with spring conditions conducive to bean planting ours got off to a slow start but come August they were growing like gangbusters, surprising us with a decent amount of dry beans by fall. Luckily, the weather graced us with an extended summer without which we may not have been as fortunate.

I planted a 55' row comprised of the aforementioned two plus my old favorite, Kentucky Wonder. We strung a tall trellis of fencing wire down the row and planted the beans on each side. For whatever reason many of them, especially the Rattlesnake and Kentucky, had to be replanted numerous times due to poor germination. I even waited extra long to plant this year, making sure the soil was warm and the rains had passed. Of the three, I was most impressed with how the purple beans turned out, especially considering they were stuck at the shady end of the garden and took the longest of the three to produce a sizable bean.

I also grew some of the Rattlesnakes up my tomato cages, planting about three per tomato plant. That worked out quite well and was a great way to obtain a couple more buckets of (un-shelled) beans from the garden. They even helped hold the tomatoes up a bit...sort of.

In the end, Kentucky Wonder was my worst performer, normally it's my best. For more years than I can remember we have been saving their seed and growing these beans in a somewhat shady location in another garden plot. However, this year they were granted a prime location in the main garden. I almost wonder if the sun was too much for them, while this is highly questionable I'm at a loss as to what may have caused their less than usual beaniness.

Something I did notice this summer was how harsh the sun was on many of our plants, even burning and drying some of the leaves...and our garden is pretty shaded as it is. The eggplants, although they put out a superior product, looked less than lovely because of this and many of our brassicas also suffered from the dry leaf issue only recovering after the weather had cooled. Fewer aphids on the cole crops and a whole lot of ladybugs helped make up for the ugliness, that was nice for a change. Each year is so very different from the last. I suppose these challenges and occasional frustrations are what help make gardening such an interesting experience for the two of us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Glimpse Into the Future

You can see more of Novella at Ghost Town Farm blog.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Full of Beans Part 2 - My Favorite Fava

I was origionally introduced to the fava, also called broad bean, maybe five years ago. At first we only used them for a most delicious hummus that was spread over freshly baked breads but over time we have been treating them more as a dried bean and really enjoy the flavor they impart as an addition to soup or simply cooked and added to a salad. A most versatile bean.

This member of the pea family is quite possibly my very favorite bean...hmm, my favorite bean is a pea of sorts, very interesting. Anyway, they are my favorite not only because of their tantalizing flavor but cold hardy and enduring nature. When all other beans are still struggling to germinate in spring's often still cold soil, favas are already well under way. They will easily tolerate frost and below freezing conditions.

Planted early enough, and if the weather is not too hot, a second late fall crop is also a possibility from a new planting or the original that has been cut back after harvest, producing an influx of new beans. We have never replanted them, but have had some success with cutting them back and being rewarded with a much smaller second crop if the weather holds long enough. Mostly, we focus on the original crop that always seems to exceed our every expectation come hell or high water. Literally, this bean has managed to provide for us not only during the hottest summers but also thrives during the cold harsh wet ones.

The mature pods can be picked for fresh beans that we use in hummus and stir frys but most are simply left to dry on the vine.

The roots themselves fix nitrogen into the garden's soil making them an excellent cover crop. Notice the little round nitrogen filled nodules on our fava roots.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Full of Beans Part 1 - Runner Beans

I love my beans, especially when they are done. Not done in the sense of "well done" but done as in "finished done," meaning I am finally done processing them done. One of the nice things about our beans is that we dry most of them and I can put off the shucking of beans for, well, for as long as I really need to. So the bean dance seems to take place a little later every year. A couple weeks ago the grandson and I finally finished working our final tub of beans. It was a good year, and we ended up with more than we had originally thought, certainly more than enough to see us through the winter months with plenty of soup.

Doesn't grandson look like a thrilled participant? He suggested that perhaps we shouldn't grow any beans next year. I think he is praying that this chore will soon be over.:)

A couple of the varieties we grew were our long standing favorites, Painted Lady and Scarlet Emperor runner beans; provided with proper support they can grow upwards of 15'. I grew most of them along an 11' high fence and also set up a couple very tall poles which all of the plants where able to summit before fall...not so easy to pick that way. Apparently you are supposed to pick runner beans very regularly in order to keep the pods from reaching maturity as this will prevent flowers from forming. We don't, as our runner beans are used for dry soup beans and we still seem to get quite a few per plant.

Not only are the cooked beans edible but the flowers, leaves, and roots can be eaten as well, I have never tried any of these but supposedly it is popular to do so in South and Central America where this bean originated. Of course I have also read that the roots are poisonous so I will probably shy away from dining on them until I better understand the edibility aspect. I suppose that as with the mature bean itself, cooking removes the toxins.

Runner beans twine upwards in the opposite direction of most other pole beans. Would that be clockwise or counterclockwise? Got me, I guess it depends upon how you are looking at them.

The runner beans were picked a few at a time as they matured and set in the greenhouse for a few weeks to finish hardening up. I've heard this perennial's root can be dug up and overwintered to be replanted in the spring, I might have to try this sometime just to find out. All in all, they performed nicely this year. I was a little nervous early on as hummingbirds were actually fighting over the flowers, knocking many of them to the ground. Such an interesting little bird, we have never seen so many, chasing each other around squabbling and playing like a bunch of happy little children.

I think the mottled brown ones are Painted Lady and the pink and black are Scarlet Emperor?

A friend recently gifted us with a plethora of new bean varieties to try in next year's garden and hopefully many of these new additions will become welcome standards. I can't wait to try growing them.

Winter has barely started and I am already anxious for it to conclude. My wife and I both agree that it is much more enjoyable to play in the dirt than the snow....brr, -6° F this morning. You know it's cold in Idaho if chicken poo bounces after hitting the ground.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Drying Kefir Grains

Some time ago, a good friend of my wife generously shared some of her kefir grains with us. These grains, also called granules, are used to make a healthy fermented milk drink, we have been enjoying this probiotic beverage in the form of morning smoothies ever since. Months ago we performed a little experiment with our grains, drying a small portion for storage. Drying the grains was as simple as straining away the fermented milk and allowing the remaining grains to sit out in a warm dry area for a few days. We then deposited the little treasures into a small muslin bag that was set aside in our cupboard for a couple months.

We recently rehydrated those same grains and after being reactivated in milk were happy to find them as healthy and alive as before. To reactivate, we placed them in a small amount of milk for 12-14 hours, strained and added fresh milk. This cycle was repeated a few times until the grains appeared soft, white, and begin to ferment and thicken the milk allowing us to combine them with our original batch. Kefir can also be frozen or stored in the refrigerator for extended periods of time but we were more interested in seeing how dried kefir would hold up if kept in a muslin bag without any type of refrigeration.

I find these remarkable "living" fermented foods to be quite fascinating. It's somewhat strange to think that only a few years prior I had never even heard of, much less consumed, fermented foods like kimchi, (real) sauerkraut, and kefir that have now become such a standard part of our everyday diet

Freshly strained kefir grains, they look just like cottage cheese

Some of the same grains a few days later drying in a dish on the kitchen counter

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Contemplating Sunflowers

Sometimes you come across a plant that is so eager to carry on that it practically demands to be part of the garden, our traditional variety of large "volunteer" Mammoth Gray sunflowers are just such a plant. They re-seed so readily and prolifically that we no longer bother planting them and simply thin the volunteers down to the choicest seedlings which are then either transplanted or left to grow where they have germinated. By fall, the stalks on some are so broad and the plants themselves so lofty that I must feign a lumberjack and cut them down with a hand saw as if in a small deciduous forest of giant flowers. Stalks are often used as pea or bean poles during the following season, given their height they serve as exceptional supports for runner beans if tied into a tepee type formation.

My wife in amongst some of the late July, still young but burgeoning, volunteer Gray Mammoth sunflowers

However, we did deviate from the previous years norm and try a new variety called Mongolian Giant that are best known for their extraordinarily large seeds. With heads that are supposed to reach 18" across and seeds around 1.5", ours averaged about 10-14" across with some seeds almost as big as was suggested. The plants, though somewhat smaller than the giant volunteers, differed in that they had extremely uniform heads that allowed for much easier processing. Mongolian seeds themselves also seem to be a little more user friendly in that their size and elongated shape are an advantage when shelling.

The flavor being superb, I am considering growing only this variety next season, my dilemma being whether or not I should buy pure seed or rely on my own that quite possibly crossed with the other flowers. Sunflowers are insect pollinated and have a very heavy pollen that is not easily carried long distances, so perhaps the 50 or so feet of separation between the two varieties was enough...I really don't know.

As you can see, there is quite a difference in size between the Mongolian and volunteer seeds

As soon as the heads begin to yellow in the back and the now darkened seeds appear to be fully developed we cut the plants down and let the seedy heads dry in our greenhouse for a couple weeks making the removal of seed less difficult. They are not left to lie around for too long as our humid fall weather invariably causes the heads to rot from behind eventually infecting the seeds. Once the seeds are removed we finish the drying process next to our wood or pellet stove because the unshelled seeds also have a propensity to become moldy if they are not cured properly in a warm dry environment.

Tip - if your seed shells get a little moldy due to humidity they can be washed in warm water and strained before drying. I have done this and it works great, no need to waste good sunflower seeds.

Heads left to dry in the greenhouse for a couple of weeks before extracting the seeds

Removing the seeds and filling our bins...a slow arduous task to say the least:)

Drawn to the sun as in a hypnotic trance these colossal flowers provide us with a tremendous amount of health-giving seed. Ironically, this gift is not without it's drawbacks. A nightly ritual involves the laborious task of shelling a couple handfuls of seed that are tossed into salads providing us with an abundance of nutritional benefits. Considering the time consuming nature of this chore we have started experimenting with grinding the seeds, shell and all, in our little hand powered grain mill and adding the powder to either salads or morning fruit smoothies. A kind soul recently sent me some interesting pictures showing a homemade huller in operation and I may have to further explore the possibility of making my own one day.

Not only are these sustentative seeds a great source of protein and numerous other beneficial nutrients but also contain trace amounts of "natural" fluorine that can help one resist tooth decay, making them an excellent snack. I found the below highlighted article to be rather interesting in that it helps explain why these seeds are not just for the birds.

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