"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

Monday, September 28, 2009

Morelle de Balbis

On a whim, we grew a couple Morelle de Balbis also known as a Litchi tomato this year with great success. The hardest part was getting the darn seeds to germinate, but once a few finally developed into little seedlings they quickly went on to grow into six foot tall thorny giants.

In Early July, after flowering, the fruit slowly started to develop. I was a bit unnerved when a few of the leaves started falling off until I finally realized they were shedding their leaves as new growth emerged...at least I assume that is what was going on. It would seem that there is very little information available on this plant. So far I have collected about a quart of fruit off each of the plants, not a lot but more then I had expected. The fruit really does taste like a cross between a cherry and a watermelon but is a bit on the seedy side.

Right now they are loaded with still maturing fruit, but with frost close at hand I have little faith that it will ever fully develop. Will I grow this extremely thorny plant again? Yes! But only a couple plants as they do take up a lot of room and really do not produce all that much in our short growing season. I will also NOT grow it so close to our garden gate as both of us are in danger of developing bald spots from ducking under some of the thorny branches. Who knows maybe someone will decide this is the next "superfood" and I can sell the seeds for $1.00 a piece.:)

The thorns are pretty nasty, Brer Rabbit would feel right at home in a patch of Litchi.

Picking this fruit without a pair of clippers is not all that pleasant...I learned this the hard way.

Even the husks have thorns, what a fascinating plant this turned out to be.

From a prior post, New Acquaintances In The Garden - Litchi Tomato aka Sticky Nightshade (S. sisymbriifolium)- A large plant that can grow around 5' tall and is covered in thorns. The prickly husk covered fruit is the size of a cherry tomato and supposedly tastes like a cross between a tomato, tart cherry, and watermelon. This "Wild Tomato" can be grown as you would any tomato but may not be a very prolific producer, nonetheless it certainly piqued my interest.

October 11 2009 Update-

It would appear that the litchi plant is also very hardy, ours has now easily survived five 29-31° nights and three nights of below 20° weather. The coldest weather caused the remaining fruits to become mushy but the plant itself still looks great.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Saving Seed - Belgian Endive & Red Giant Celery

Saving your own seed often consists of many challenges, and can definitely test one's resolve...and patience. I was thinking about this late yesterday afternoon as I was close to finishing the seed processing of two of my biennial garden vegetables. A project whose inception begin in early spring 2008 and was just now, almost 20 months later, coming to a conclusion. I was able to reap ample rewards of Red Giant celery and green & red Belgian endive seed, but what an amazing commitment of time for the seed saver.

As both of these crops are biennials I had to plant, grow, overwinter, and replant them in order to see them through until seed. I overwintered the majority in buckets of dirt in our root cellar, but also hilled some into the garden to see if they could manage the winter outside. They overwintered successfully both ways. The Belgian endive did great in the the cellar and undercover of snow. While I did lose half of the celery left outdoors those that lived put out more copious amounts of seed than their cellared brethren. You can see how we overwinter some of these veggies in an earlier post Forced To Provide .

The Belgian endive forms seeds that are firmly encased in their pod and can be very time consuming to remove if working with large amounts of seed. I start by cutting the seed stalks after the majority have finished flowering and many of the seeds are dry and leave them in a safe place out of the weather to finish drying for a couple weeks. They are then placed in a wheelbarrow and the seed is pounded out of them, I used a garden rake but any type of flail would work. After they had received a good thrashing as punishment for taking so long to produce viable seed :) I removed the larger debris and sifted the remaining chaff and seed through a strainer. This still left me with a lot of smaller chaff and dust surrounding the seed.

The blue flowers of Belgian endive attract a variety of insects like this sweat bee
All endive seeds are tightly encased, and quite difficult to remove in large amountsPounding the dry endive stalks with a rake in order to separate the seeds from their housing
Straining the smaller chaff and seed from the larger debris

I find the easiest way to remove the finer chaff from a large amount of seed is to simply use a fan, set on low for these lighter seeds, and carefully pour the seed from one container to another letting the fan blow the chaff away. This works especially great with wheat and flax seeds. Keep in mind that sometimes the chaff outweighs the seed and both may blow away in the wind if you are not careful. The fan speed and distance from the seed being poured has to be adjusted for different types of seed.

The finished product ready to be stored away for next season's gardening adventures

Red Giant celery, like most of the seeds I collect, is easy to clean while being harvested. The hard part is the time involved in retrieving the seed as each seed umbel drys at different times. So every third day finds me collecting the dry seed before it shatters and falls to the ground. Again, very time consuming.

Red Giant celery, an open pollinated heirloom that does well in our garden
Our overwintered celery began flowering in late June and a few are still blooming
Once dry, the seeds will easily fall off the plant if not carefully removed every few days

Celery seeds picked last night, they are easily cleaned as there is no real chaff

We have been most fortunate to successfully save the seeds off a number of biennial plants this year: certain flowers, carrots, beets, endive, celery, kale, broccoli, and a number of plants that have slipped my mind as of this post. It has been a seedy good year.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Realization of Corn

I went to bed worried and woke up relieved as we missed the frost monster by all of 1° last night, talk about close. Normally it would not have mattered all that much since we do get frost around this time every year, but the next few days are supposed to be unseasonally warm bringing us back into the 90°'s and I am just not ready to part with my tender garden crops quite yet. Give me one more week for the end of summer to sink in and I will bravely trudge forward into fall with no regrets. Besides, we have too many tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants still on the vine and could use a few extra days in which to harvest them.

Last winter I blathered on about my garden nemesis, corn, in The Promise Of Blue Jade Corn. Well..."Yo Adrian, I DID IT!" Both my Painted Mountain and little Blue Jade corn not only grew up without falling over but actually provided us with numerous cobs of brilliant multicolored corn. Slightly mealy heirloom corn that we really do enjoy the flavor of and should make for an excellent corn meal.

We made sure the wind would not blow the corn over this year by running lines of cordage down the rows along each side of the stalks. This prevented the corn from falling over and provided such awesome fortification that even the wind was uncannily calm and only dared taunt us with few stiff breezes this summer. Ha!

I pulled most of the sun cured Painted Mountain corn and am allowing it to finish drying in the greenhouse while the Blue Jade gets another week in the field. Most of this corn will be used for cornmeal and next season's seed. I am even saving the husks to possibly weave as the original Americans did into baskets this winter. Don't hold your breath waiting for pictures of those, it will be a miracle if I even start on that project.

So I am quite pleased to actually have a crop of corn for the first time in three years. Between our new found successes with chickens and corn we may actually be getting good at this whole subsistence pattern lifestyle.:)

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Squash was originally known as askutasquash by the Narragansett Indians, but the Pilgrims, having difficulty pronouncing this word simply called it squash. Either way, it was an extremely valuable source of food for both peoples, and one that we also heavily rely on as a source of nutrition for a large part of the season.

This year's askutasquash grew pretty well for us considering the fact that the plants were not provided with very sunny locations to grow in, mostly due to space constraints. Last night we picked many of our smaller squash from an area of our garden that becomes shady and damp this time of year, not ideal conditions for squash. A couple had blemishes even though we put down boards to help keep them away from the soil. The majority had fully matured and still looked great, so we decided to harvest them while they were still in good condition. Our larger Hubbard, Kabocha, and some of the Spaghetti squash were grown in a different garden and have been left on the vine for a while longer as the plants still look pretty good.

Spaghetti and Kabocha keeping each other company

This vegetable is always harvested by us around mid to late September just before any fall rains or frost can damage the crop. Normally at this time of year the vines have begun to die back and the rind has hardened to the point that it can no longer be easily pierced by our thumbnails. I leave a couple inches of stem on the squash as they perspire through their stems, and any without may begin to rot. Those that lack stems or have soft spots are always used first, and are usually the ones that we steam and freeze to be used as soup or in mashed squash dishes. The squash is then allowed to cure on our porch until the temperature drops below 50° at which point it is brought inside and kept cool and dry, right around 50-60°. Our acorn squash never stores very long for us so we try to use them first, I only grew a few this year because of that.

Large and reliable Blue Hubbard

Over the years I have for the most part grown the same 8-10 types of squash, not really trying too many new varieties. I certainly do have my favorites though; Blue Hubbard, Spaghetti, Sugar Pie pumpkin, and Gold Nugget squash. I can always count on these four to outperform in the garden regardless of the conditions in any given year. That, and they hold up extremely well in storage, some a good 10-11 months. We are often still eating the prior season's perfectly good squash towards the latter part of June.

Cross between a Blue Hubbard and Gold Nugget

Same crossed seeds, slightly different look ↓

We started growing Sugar Pie pumpkins and the little Gold Nugget squash about four years ago and have been very pleased with their productivity, tolerance for bad weather, and ability keep in storage. These have both been wonderful additions to the food garden and are very easy to manage in the kitchen. The little 2-5 pound Gold Nuggets grow on very compact plants making them perfect for tight spaces and have a surprisingly small seed cavity and lots of flesh, an ideal meal for two. We sometimes bake our squash dolled up with spaghetti sauce, herbs, ground cherries, and even a few elderberries (we just picked a gallon of these off our bushes), but more often then not we just grate them raw onto our salads enjoying their natural flavors.

Gold Nuggets growing on a compact plant, these were in a different part of the garden and can wait a bit longer before being harvested.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Harvesting Onions

As summer winds down and it's lush green begins to fade into the dappled colors of Autumn we begin in earnest to harvest some of our crops before the nights become too cold and damp. This week we pulled our onions, the majority of which were planted from seed. In comparison to my bolting set onions July 22nd Garden Pictures the transplanted seedlings went on to perform extremely well this year despite their shady location amidst the volunteer sunflowers.

All but a handful of the Yellow of Parma, Borettana, Candy, Yellow Globe, Red Globe, and very productive Jaune Paille Des Vertus grew from seed into fine little onions that are sure to keep us teary eyed all winter long.

Oblate little Borettana onions

About two weeks after the onion tops fell into a brown stupor and before the bulbs began to rot in the damp garden soil we had the good fortune of pulling onions by the wheelbarrow load. There are always a few tiny bulbs that did not manage to mature, those are left behind to overwinter and provide some of next year's first spring greens. Once pulled, the onions are laid out on our porch to dry and cure for about a month. After they are fully cured we will put them into shallow baskets and store them in a cool dry back room. We always separate and use the thick necked bulbs (mostly our set onions) first as they never keep as long.

Every single meal we eat is homemade, so on average we use approximately two medium onions every day...that's a lot of onions! If they are even close to being as healthy as I made them out to be in a previous post Health By Allium we certainly should be reaping a plethora of nutritional benefits.

Nice round Candy onions↓

Once pulled, a small portion of the onion's plot quickly became home to a late planting of various cold hearty greens such as arugula, red mustard, Winter Density Romain, Tango, and Red Tinged Winter lettuces. These greens should help provide for us well into December at which point extremely hardy kale, turnip, and other winter greens will see us through until spring.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Safeway Yellow and Red Organic #1 and #2

Late last fall while picking up a few necessities at Safeway, a local grocery store in our area, my wife happened across a bin full of overly ripe tomatoes labeled "Organic Heirlooms." One must assume the produce manager was off for the day because those tomatoes were in pretty sad shape, some with actual mold on them. Beyond edibility at this stage, and marked down to almost nothing, she picked two big red and one yellow tomato out of the bin and brought the half rotten prizes home to me. She knew I would be delighted to have those big partially decayed tomatoes, and boy was she right. No, I was not going to make some strange fermented meal out of them or even feed them to the chickens...I was after their offspring.

Seeds from a few of our tomatoes drying on a screen. These are normally allowed to safely dry on our porch away from wind and children but for the sake of a picture I nervously set them outside for a brief moment.

Last October's spoiled heirlooms legacy now lives on in the form of this year's generation of appealing fruits. Some of our best pepper and tomato plants have developed from seed saved from interesting vegetables obtained from farmers markets and the local grocery stores organic food section. One obviously runs the risk of the seeds not coming true to form especially with peppers, but that has been an extremely rare occurrence for us so far. Last year we saved seed in this manner from six different types of peppers and three tomatoes all of which performed beautifully, only one tomato did not grow true to form. That one turned out to be a most pleasant surprise nonetheless.

Our "Safeway Red Organic #1", as I labeled it last year, turned into a unique bell pepper shaped tomato with orange and red stripes embelishing it's form, not at all similar to it's large, round, all red parent. So I'm wondering if this tomato is a replica of whatever the one we purchased crossed with or something altogether new. Has anyone seen this tomato that is striped much like a "Tigerella" before? The flavor is very nice and this thick walled fruit would seem to be a great candidate for pizza toppings or a stuffed tomato dish. I've already convinced a couple people that it is really a pepper.:)

The big yellow/orange tomatoes turned out to be similar to the parent and have a surprisingly sweet-tart flavor. Some are drying in our little Nesco food dehydrator as I write this...much too tasty to be preserved as a simple sauce. Our Safeway Red #2 turned out to be a nice brandywine type tomato, but alas, I neglected to steal it's soul.

Safeway Yellow/Orange #1 - It's a bit too late in the season to dry them outside. I really do need a more cost effective electric dryer or better yet to follow through on my plans for a better solar one...someday soon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hopi Red Dye Amaranth

You know you're obsessed with food when it keeps you awake at night. I tossed and turned most of last night with a racing mind contemplating all of the new things I want to try in next year's food garden. Sometimes my mind is so abuzz with crazy thoughts and ideas that it's impossible for me to catch even a wink of sleep. I have to remind myself to stay focused on this year and save thoughts of the next for those impending winter months that will soon be upon us.

One of the plants that has been on my mind of late is the Hopi Red Dye Amaranth that we are growing solely for its seed this year with the hope of raising it as a viable grain source next summer. The flowers of this type of amaranth were used by Hopi Indians as a source of red dye. Seeds or grain of various amaranth are much higher in protein (12-17%) than most other grains making it a valuable source of nutrition. Along with our Hopi seeds I will hopefully be able to purchase Orange Giant, an amaranth that reportedly puts out almost a pound of seed per plant and maybe one other type - Plainsman a short season productive variety that I am still researching.

Our goal is to grow enough to make a more traditional Mexican tortilla in place of the wheat ones we now consume, that and homemade pasta. The grain can even be popped (a couple tablespoons at a time so as not to burn it) like popcorn causing the grain to expand to about five times its size. Popped, it can then be eaten as a cold cereal or cooked without popping for a hot cereal. The seeds, like flax, can be used as a thickening agent for certain soups and stews and the young leaves added to salads bring nutrition and color to the plate. We are even thinking of using it to make some sort of homemade power bar using honey and dried fruit...stay tuned.

Next year we will dedicate a couple 4x60' rows to this plant as a test to see just how much grain can be produced. In addition to being a precious food source its beauty alone is beyond compare. The red tassels will even grow back if you are lucky enough to be able harvest the seed early on.

A closeup of this morning's popped amaranth

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Splendor, Pigs, and Berries

Last Monday found us escaping the garden for a day spent trekking into the mountains foraging for wild berries. We were lured up to the enchanting Snow Lake, one of our favorite high mountain haunts this time of year. This part of the Selkirk mountains is still remote enough to be officially designated as grizzly bear habitat. We were even able catch a couple of bears on film in this area a couple years back.

The huckleberries were beyond numerous as we spent a couple hours picking the heavily laden bushes around the lake. I think we were out for around seven hours and did not see another living sole not even a bear, what a treat. Sometimes it is nice to feel as if you have the mountains all to yourself.

My wife peeking through a remnant of the Great Burn of 1910 that ravaged much of north Idaho and parts of Montana

Besides all the huckleberries we also found Twinberries, a variety of honeysuckle who's yellow spring flowers are later replaced with a pair of shiny black oblong berries protruding from brilliant red bracts. We find these berries to be very sweet with an almost jelly like texture. Apparently they are deliciously edible if eaten in the mountains of the northern states but have been reported to be very bitter in other areas of the U.S.

We saw a type of Pink Flowering Currant (I think that is what they are called) growing everywhere, we just call them blue currants. They have an enjoyable flavor that is hard to describe, not in any way similar to the a common garden currant.

There were Black Swamp Gooseberries also called Prickly Currants that have shiny dark clusters of hairy berries adorning their thorny stems and are not nearly as pleasing to the palate as the aforementioned berries...actually they are quite disgusting, but nonetheless edible.

The Black Elderberries are also unpleasant when eaten raw but very tasty when added with ground cherries to some of our favorite baked squash dishes. Interestingly enough, when we were at the lake I swear these elderberries looked black, but my pictures reflect an almost maroon colored berry...perhaps they are red elderberries.

Our berry picking adventure was pristine and beautiful, but not devoid of the traces of man. It's too bad that we have to spend precious time filling our packs with the refuse of those who hold no regard for the land...filthy pigs.

My wife picking up after the thoughtless slobs that last occupied this area

The next day we made a wonderful hucklegrape syrup and a surprisingly thick huckleberry jam. For the syrup and jam we used apples for pectin and and a little honey for sugar, they both turned out great...our very first canned fruit preserves. Yay for us!

Healthy, natural, huckleberry jam fresh from the mountains of northern Idaho

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