"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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

One Thing Leads to Another...

You might see Spooky, the cat, in many of our photos, for the most part it's not that I'm trying to include her in the pictures so much as she includes herself. My sister-in-law found her as a small kitten roaming a busy city intersection on Halloween in 1995, and she has been our constant companion ever since.

Formal introductions aside, Spooky and I picked the last of our turnips yesterday. We saved out the best greens for the night's dinner, but as so often happens, instead of a simple salad the greens became the genesis, if you will, of another pretty darn good home grown meal. This is a fairly common occurrence around here. We will be working in the garden and a particular vegetable or part thereof will strike our fancy and even though it might only be the smallest ingredient of a meal the whole regale will be based solely around that one simple component. It's interesting how that tends to happen.

Pasta was made from last year's hard red spring wheat that included a secret ingredient that was the extra chaff. It can be hard to remove all of the chaff when winnowing grains but, once ground, you would never know it was there. We'll just call it fiber...

With this neat little contraption, a pasta maker that my better half picked up last year brand new at a garage sale for $3.00, I was easily able to turn that same wheat, ground and mixed with a few eggs, into thick delicious fettuccine noodles that made my wife laugh. She laughed because she knew, as is usual, that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. It took me a few tries to master the funny little machine but I was soon almost as accomplished as her at it.

Of course, we used leftover sauce from the previous day's canning adventures and into the same pot went diced eggplant, pepper, onion, and garlic. At the last moment I added the turnip greens and a few of the garden's remaining sprigs of broccoli. We had a most wonderful dinner and the best part was that every single ingredient minus the sea salt was from our own little garden. What more could a person possibly ask for in a meal? Thank goodness for turnip greens.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

We'll Work For Food

The southeast corner of our food production facility in early June

It's really pretty amazing how much time and effort goes into raising one's own food, vegetables that is. Take the common carrot for instance. We painstakingly plant thousands of seeds a few at a time in mid-April being careful to do so while the weather cooperates so the tiny seedlings are not washed away by harsh weather. Then there are always those few that need to be replanted for reasons usually unknown.

When June rolls around, we proceed to carfully thin and weed them for the first time. We weed and water, weed and water, continuously nurturing them until the end of August at which point there is often some rain and our constant battle with the weeds has been won...leastwise temporarily. We can then take a short breath before diving into the late September harvest, which requires us to pull, sort, and box them up for storage. A few months into storage they need to be checked. Is the soil damp enough for them? Are there any bad ones that might spoil those layered underneath? Carrots are a bit of work and they are also one of the most carefree crops we grow.

May carrots poking through the earth in our slightly raised beds

Same carrots, over five month later. We love the Lunar and Belgian whites.

So considering the amount of effort involved, why on earth would we choose to grow our own food rather than buying it from the stupermarket or better yet eating out at a restaurant or local fast food joint? Simple, we do it for the immense satisfaction of knowing that what we are putting into our bodies is of the highest possible quality. We do it for the pure pleasure of playing some small role in the development of these extraordinary edibles that nourish us body and soul. But mostly, for the empowerment that goes along with knowing that we can feed ourselves without relying upon others, having long since lost faith in the so called powers that be to do so for us.

My question is, why on earth wouldn't you want to know how to feed yourself? It's really not how much you grow so far as having the knowledge to do so if you ever had to.

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

-- Thomas Hardy

Is Thomas Hardy right, will simple daily tasks and passions outlast all else, or have we already forgotten how to fulfill our most basic needs? Surely as long as we live agriculture will continue, but in what form?

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Little Help Potting Endive

Penelope giving my lovely wife instructions on how to properly pack endive roots ↑

With a little help from our trusty assistant and self-proclaimed Master Gardener, Penelope, we were finally able to get some of the endive pulled and packed into pots for storage. Little red headed Penelope has been a step ahead of the rest of the flock since day one. We can take her into the garden without worrying about what she'll get into as she just likes to keep us company. This never works out too well with the other birds who immediately seek out the garden's forbidden fruits. They must be very jealous of her as they are only able to watch from afar as we dote on her. She is a very affectionate girl, the minute you kneel down she will hop onto your leg seeking attention...chicken love, it's a Northern Idaho thing.☻ If these crazy birds ever get setty I hope it's her as she is by far the most intelligent of the bunch, and that's not saying much.

After carefully pulling the endive so as not to break the roots, we cut all the greens off and put them into a large pile slowly feeding them out to the chickens over the next few days. Piled up like this the waste greens will stay fresh for over a week in fall's cooler temperatures and provide the birds with a valuable source of nutrition. The roots are then layered into small pots for storage. I finally figured out that if you lay the pot on it's side it is much easier to place the long rooted endive into them...it was Penelope's suggestion of course. I will take these pots out of our root cellar and into the much warmer upstairs one at a time and enjoy the forced greens in the middle of winter. The roots can also used as a coffee substitute - Poor Man's Coffee.

Forcing = the art of raising plants, flowers, and fruits at an earlier season than the natural one, as in a hotbed or by the use of artificial heat. In our case this applies to winter salad greens - Forced To Provide.

A substitute for this root, both for forcing greens and a sorry cup of dried root coffee, is the common dandelion.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Pepper Room

Adding a vivid montage of colors, the "pepper room" as we refer to it, helps to brighten up the normally drab root cellar. This is where we are able to keep the last of our fresh and soon to be dried peppers in good condition all the way into December...the smaller ones anyway. Larger bell and Italian pepper varieties will store fairly well down here for a good month and the smaller mini, pepperoncini, and banana will keep much longer than that. We simply make sure to pick the ones that have started to wrinkle a bit and use those first. Some of the peppers are left in their summer pots, their leaves will begin to shed in the dark but this will keep the peppers fresh longer than if they were removed from the plants.

These hanging peppers will be brought upstairs a few at a time to dry when we begin using our wood stove in November.

We string and dry some of our peppers in the greenhouse but never have enough warm dry weather to complete the task.

I try to maintain a cool temperature of around 40° with fairly high humidity as this seems to be about perfect for the peppers and apples stored in this room. This is also where we keep fresh tomatillos, cucumbers, and larger zucchini to use as needed for the next couple months. Most of our green tomatoes are ripening upstairs but a few, especially our Burpee Long Keepers, are kept in the root cellar to slow down that process. The Burpee tomatoes can be used well into February this way. The flavor dissipates with storage age but they are still a worthy rival for any store bought tomato. So as not to lead anyone astray, the Burpee tomatoes don't really taste all that great even in their prime and are grown solely for purposes of storage. Peppers on the other hand not only continue to ripen but also become somewhat sweeter with age.

We also froze a few gallons, and have made an incredible amount of zesty chipotle salsa since the ingredients include a large amount of peppers. One of my goals for next season is to grow jalepenos and make my own chipotles inspired by this great post on Smoking Chipotle Peppers. I absolutely love the smoky hot flavor but balk at the purchase price...it's past time we grew our own.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Good Clean Fun

So I go up to the house to retrieve my camera for a picture of some sunchokes, and what do I come back to? Two slackers fully engaged in a tomato fight instead of cleaning up the patch...surprise, surprise.

My wife was no match for the grandson's catlike reflexes, after all he did turn five this summer. Lucky for me, the camera man was off limits. Besides, they pelted me with deer apples last year, I deserved a reprieve from the fall garden war zone. Do you see what I have to deal with around here?

Thursday, October 15, 2009


This summer we once again grew Black Beauty and Long Purple eggplant. Both did great, the long purple always perform well in our normally cooler garden conditions and the black beauty does OK if it is warm enough, and it was this year. Newcomers included Thai Long green and Apple green, they were amazing. The round green eggplant came on extra early and produced numerous amounts of little apple sized fruits. The long green were my favorite, not only did they produce well but even the ones that got away from us, getting a little too large, still had the most tender skin. Both of these varieties are supposed to be able to withstand light frosts, although we didn't wait to find out if this was true or not.

We harvested them toward the end of September, just before frost set in. They now reside on our porch and should be good into late November or longer if the temperature is kept at around 40°. The skins will eventually start to wrinkle a bit but the eggplant themselves still taste great as long as we are diligent in weeding out any that might spoil. We love using them breaded and fried (baked) alongside zucchini, in omelets, stir fries, or even as a pizza topping as we did last night.

Breaded and baked zucchini and eggplant, I surely gained 5 lbs from eating these all summer.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Growing and Putting Up Celery and Celeriac

I love growing my own celery. In my opinion there is just no comparing it to the pale nutritionally defunct and often quite poisonous product found in the grocery store. Celery is one of those vegetables that is packed with pesticide residue, just looking at it on the store shelves makes me cringe. My celery will never be as large and crunchy as today's mono-cultured celery but I would be willing to bet, and I hate gambling, that it is by far superior from a nutritional standpoint. Many people might not realize it but home grown celery really is very healthy, packed full of vitamins and minerals. They say of non-organic produce that the good outweighs the bad. Me, I'm only interested in the good, so we grow our own...pristinely of course. Why compromise when it comes to your health?

We start our celery and celeriac indoors around the first of March as the seeds often take a long time to germinate, sometimes almost 3 weeks. A couple weeks after germination we introduce them to the much cooler greenhouse temperatures for about a month and then transplant the seedlings into the garden sometime in May depending upon the weather. They will handle light frosts once established but harsh cold can damage young seedlings. Celery and celeriac seem to do best in full sun, but prefer cooler conditions, and are heavy feeders that need a loose compost rich soil. Ours were much smaller this fall due to the unusual heat we experienced. It was a crazy hot summer, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes all did beyond fantastic while many of the root veggies were a bit on the wimpy side.

Both of these succulents require plenty of water, I will mulch ours with leaves and grass trimmings if I am planting them in a part of the garden that dries out quickly. Enough water makes for fatter more tender stalks and bigger roots in the case of celeriac, after all they are made up of mostly water. Celeriac also produces a tasty albeit smaller and stronger flavored stalk when compared to regular celery but it is still pretty good. If I had to grow just one of these two I would pick celeriac for its roots and stalks.

Nice size celeriac should be about 4-5" across, ours averaged about 3.5" ...not very big.

This year we grew the heirloom Red Giant and a hybrid celery as the heirloom tends to bolt more easily when subjected to extreme heat or cold for a number of days. The hybrid types seem to hold up better under these conditions but are of little use as far as seed saving goes. Our celeriac was Diamante, an open pollinated variety.

Running low on pots I stuffed around six celery plants into this garden cart for the winter.

For the most part we use these vegetables as a source of winter food and store both of them in the root cellar using them as additions to soups and salads. We carefully dig up and transplant our celery in October before the ground freezes or too harsh a frost sets in. I cut back about 15% of the stalks to compensate for any root damage and continue to make sure the soil does not dry out in storage. You can also cut all of the stalks off and force new growth in winter by bringing the plant into a warmer environment. The more light they receive the greener, and healthier, the stalks become.

Celeriac is treated a little differently as the tops are cut off and the root ball is stored in damp sand just like carrots and beets. Celeriac is a newer addition to our garden and we are still working on becoming familiar with it. Having first tried the roots I was surprised at the nice flavor, having a very subtle but unique celery flavor and a crisp crunch to them.

We left about 2/3 of both of these to overwinter in the garden. Before the ground freezes I will hill leaves and soil around the plants roots and hopefully enjoy early spring stalks before they bolt to seed. I also want seed off of the biennial Diamante celeriac...isn't that a great name for such an ugly root? Our root cellar is starting to look like a jungle with over thirty celery plants hiding down there. Does that make us a bit eccentric? I hope so.

What's in your celery - http://www.whatsonmyfood.org/food.jsp?food=CE

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Boy and His Turnips

Turnips the size of a small boy's head! It's a good thing grandson likes to eat his spinach.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Natural Process

There is an old apple grove not too far from where we live. Every year around this time we take our backpacks, hike into that old orchard, and almost always find our fill of these special fruits. They are special to us because in this long forgotten orchard there happens to be over twenty different varieties of apples and even a few pears scattered throughout the meadows. I'm sure that others must know of this place but we have never once run across anyone else picking apples. Nor does it appear that any apples have ever been picked by anyone other than the few black bears that inhabit this area. We have been gathering fruit here for over 10 years now.

These particular apples have an almost perfumy flavor to them, so very unusual.

Unfortunately, a family of beavers has set up camp in the meadows and has managed to flood the grounds around almost a third of the fruit trees so far, many of these are now dying. I suppose the good news would be that I have been saving seeds off these trees for several years now and have many of their offspring growing on my own property. Perhaps some of those trees will compliment our regular fruit trees and eventually produce delicious apples and pears similar to the ones in the flooded orchard.

Small, tart, golden crab apples. We had to wade through almost a foot of water to get to this tree.

Most of the apples we picked are being made into apple sauce as we can't help but bruise them. Between trying to get them out of sometimes 30-40' tall trees and hauling them around on our backs they never do make it home in the best condition. The huge variety of large, crab, green, gold, red, tart, and sweet apples make some of the best sauce. I will happily share this area with the beavers even if it means all the trees will be lost, anything would be better then losing it to another housing development, as we have many of our old stomping grounds. Progress, right?

Fully loaded and heading home with packs full of soon to be bruised apples.

So, for now, we will continue to enjoy these apples and this private place, perhaps we will need to search out new apple picking grounds while patiently waiting for our own little orchard to start producing. Nothing good lasts forever I suppose, we sometimes feel like the animals must, slowly being pushed farther and farther out as we attempt gather wild edibles.

This pear tree is almost 40' tall, and very thorny. I wonder how old it is?

The pears almost look like little apples, very small and very tart. I'll be planting a few of their seeds this fall.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Let's Eat Some Beets

So you don't like beets? Good news! You're probably in the U.S. majority - just not at our house. We absolutely love beets. We love the beet's fresh greens added to our daily salads or steamed with a dab of butter. We love to force a beet in the middle of winter on a sunny window sill and then cut the tops into a salad finishing it off with the grated root...yes, raw. Those roots are not too bad cooked either.:)

Your average disliked beet contains numerous vitamins (especially the greens), minerals, energy giving carbohydrates, sugar, fiber (most Americans could use a little more fiber), sodium, and fatty and amino acids that will help build the muscles necessary to raise your own beets. All of these compounds make your average homegrown, organically of course, beet a nutritional powerhouse that can single handily help stave off many of today's serious health ailments. How does that saying go "A beet a day keeps the Doctor away."...something like that.

We harvested well over 400 beets the other day and will easily consume them all before June of next year. Our beets are always harvested before carrots, parsnips, and Belgian endive as they tend to stick up out of the ground and too hard a frost could damage them. After cutting the tops off about 1" from the stem the beets are then layered in damp sand in coolers and totes in the root cellar. They will usually keep this way until late May sometimes June. The best of the greens are blanched and frozen and the rest go to the chickens. We grew cylindrical, bulls blood, albino, golden, red and yellow mangles, lutz, chioggia, and early wonder beets. None of our beets grew very big this year but most were of adequate size. Actually, the golden beets were once again pretty wimpy but I like them so much that I will continue to try and grow them in the future.

New to us, these yellow mangles seemed to do really well, although I have not tasted them yet.

Our two faithful standbys, cylindrical and chiogga. Chioggia is not my favorite but always performs well in our garden. I love cooking with the cylindrical beets, so very easy to work with.

One of my all time favorite beets - Bulls Blood. If hilled in these will often survive in the garden until spring, and the greens (reds) can be eaten all winter long. And because of the name our grandson loves to eat them raw and show off his "bloody" teeth.

Did you know that a simple way to make your own sugar is to simply cook your strained beets juices down until they are as thick as honey, cool to crystallize, and voila! Home grown sugar. I'm am going to try it this winter with my white beets.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Forgotten Cardoon

Last night we incorporated a couple cardoon stalks into the evening meal. I diced up eggplant, red pepper, blue corn, onions, cut in half and cored a few meaty little Turkey tomatoes (one of my new favorites). The cardoons were then peeled, diced, boiled in salted water and later added to the rest of the mixture. My wife was in charge of salmon, generously donated by my in-laws (thanks!), baked with tomatillos and dill. We topped everything off with a zesty salsa and side of warm cornbread...it was delicious.

Cardoons, a biennial and member of the artichoke family, grow fairly well for us as long as they are provided with plenty of water. These large prehistoric appearing plants have saw-toothed leaves and ribbed stalks similar to celery. I started growing them a few years back as we hope to eventually start making some of our own goat cheese. Cardoons contain enzymes that can replace rennet in the cheese making process. Since we have yet to try our hand at cheese and still don't have a viable source of goat milk, we decided to make better use of this rather unusual vegetable and have begun to include it in our diet.

Traditionally, the stalks are blanched in the fall by mounding dirt or straw around them and tying or wrapping the upper portions in paper or any material that will keep the light away, helping to tenderize the stems. We have not tried this, and find that if watered properly the stalks do not seem to get very tough, and the inner ones are often palatably delicate.

In the kitchen, the leaves are removed and the back of the stocks peeled of any fibrous strings. Immediately after peeling and cutting the stalks should be put in cold acidic (salt, vinegar, or lime juice) water to keep them from discoloring. They can then be boiled for about 20 minutes at the cook's leisure. With an almost bittersweet flavor and texture similar to celery I plan to use them in stir fries, soups, or any of the funky dishes we tend to make around here. They are not bad raw either, especially while still young.

While this vegetable may not be for everyone, we hope to make better use of it in the kitchen and will be attempting to overwinter some in both the garden and root cellar this year.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Spudlicious Endeavor

The potatoes have all been harvested and it didn't even rain! Usually when we harvest root crops around the last week in September and into October the weather is fairly miserable... rainy and cold. This time, for a change, we were able to pull all of the spuds in last weekend's sun, how nice.

This year's crop was not nearly as big or numerous per plant as in previous years due to the unseasonably warm summer and the fact that I used a lot less water...just to see what I could get away with. Fortunately, we planted quite a few more than normal with the hopes of supplementing our chickens winter diet with potatoes as well. So in the end we were lucky enough to get our biggest harvest ever, lots of potatoes just not really big ones.

We chose to grow 25 varieties this year because What Good is a Russet Without a Purple Majesty by it's Side!. I was happy with most of them but a few really underperformed: Red Lasota, Red Pontiac, and Adora. Those three will not be included in next season's garden as a couple are now perennial under achievers. One of my new favorite potatoes that we decided to try this year after reading about it on Throwback at Trapper Creek 's blog post Winter stores update is Viking Purple. All of them performed marvelously producing an abundance of uniformly sized potatoes. I will be growing many more of those along with my other two standouts Anna Cheeka Ozette and Russian Banana next spring.

We left our potatoes in the ground for several weeks to harden off after most of the vines had died back, this helps to thicken the potato skins which in turn increases the length of time potatoes can be stored. As we pulled our four rows the potatoes were placed in buckets to help keep the different varieties separate until I had a chance to go through and select the best looking ones for next year's seed potatoes.

The potatoes were then spread out in the dark of our basement to dry for a couple weeks and will eventually be moved into their permanent winter storage room where they will be sorted out on shelves to be used as needed. Our house was built in the 1930's and the basement has an old well in it providing the perfect combination of cold and humidity, good storage conditions for most root vegetables and tubers. We can easily maintain an average temperature of 35 - 50° in our basement from October through April of each year.

I'm looking forward to enjoying lots of potato and kale soup this winter and perhaps I will even find it in my heart to share a few, not as many as I had originally planned, with the chickens. They like their spuds served steamed and warm with no condiments on frigid winter evenings.:)
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