At the end of March, Mr. UpCountry and I started some of our seeds. We divvied up our packs based on whether we should transplant them into the garden or directly seed them. Some are waiting, perhaps huddled at the bottom of their seed packets, muttering to each other about how those hot peppers are getting all the attention.Read More
It's time. It's time?! Sure is.
In about a week, I'll place my seed order from three different suppliers. This past weekend, Mr. UpCountry and I spent a significant amount of time on the couch, flipping through glossy pages packed with bright photos of crazy-beautiful produce and flowers. It may have been the most excited I've been in a long while (and I've recently driven out onto lake ice and dug a foxhole right next to a sled dog racetrack).
We built our first garden last year: two 16x4 raised beds and a few containers. We had relatively great success (bumper crop tomatoes, few pests and weeds, adventures in sugar snap peas!), but of course we have some new ideas for this year's garden.
First off, we're going to have more of it. Just more. I tend to live by the philosophy "less is more," but when it comes to growing your own food, that doesn't apply until you've met your own needs. Also, you could preserve vegetables to last throughout the winter, or donate excess to your loved ones. If you're still left with baskets and boxes of turgid veggies clinging to their dirt, you could always start your own farm-stand. It's just like a lemonade stand. When life gives you veggies, make a veggie stand.
So, I'm all about more, more, more in the garden department (at least right now, in our period of homestead growth).
We plan to separate the existing beds into 4x4 squares and add another separated 16x4 raised bed, for a total of three rows of beds, with twelve 4x4 sections. We'd like to set up containers on the end of each row. Right now we're researching felt pots as containers and just how big we want them.
You want to see the magical list? (Magical because it contains the potential for bushels and bushels of good food)
Merlin Beets | Helenor Rutabaga | Traditional American Turnip | Quickstar Kohlrabi | Kossack Kohlrabi | Bolero Carrots | Nelson Carrots | Sugar Ann Peas | Bright Lights Swiss Chard | Valley Girl Tomatoes | Washington Cherry Tomatoes | Stevia | Mung Bean, Broccoli, China Rose Radish, Hard Red Winter Wheat, Brown Mustard Sprouts | Sparkle Bare-Root Strawberries | Organic Rosemary | Guardsman Green Onions | Mild Microgreen Mix | Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce | Chamomile | Flashback Calendula | Zohar, Buttercream and Strawberry Sunflowers | Big Smile Dwarf Sunflowers
Crystal Apple Cucumbers | Amsterdam Prickly Seeded Spinach (Thomas Jefferson grew it!)
Japanese Climbing Cucumber | Empress String Beans | Aunt Molly's Ground Cherries | Blacktail Mountain Watermelon | Globe Basil | Minnesota Midget Melons
These selections may change a bit throughout the week, and we'll likely add some more varieties as planting time nears. However, this is a pretty good snapshot of our vision and ambitions.
I'd love to hear from you - have you been wrapped up in seed catalogs? Have you placed an order for seeds? Are there any varieties that particularly excite you?
Last week I dropped off some co-op coffee at a friend's house and, on my way out, he asked if I wanted a sunflower head. He took a few steps towards the standing dry sunflowers in his front yard and cut off one of the heads with a utility knife.
When he handed it to me, I realized I'd never before held a dying sunflower. Sounds so poetically tragic, doesn't it?
But, get this - As I was looking more closely at the various textures of the head, I had this ridiculously silly and awful thought: Hey, those look like sunflower seeds!
Ahem. Go ahead. Feel awkward for me.
For some unknown reason, I never actually conceived of sunflower seeds literally coming from sunflower heads. Each sunflower head contains up to 1000 seeds. I never realized the magnanimity of a sunflower field. As many seeds on that plot as folks in Manhattan.
Holy jalapeno! That there's a lot of seeds.
My friend gave me a few pointers for how to harvest the seeds and I hopped back into the car with my new treasure in hand. I was going to eat sunflower seeds from a sunflower head and not from a blue plastic tube from Gas 'n Go.
Upon returning home, I immediately set to the task of cleaning up the sunflower head and working out those seeds.
As you grasp the head in both hands and push up towards the center, the head will start to separate and loosen the seeds.
Running your fingers on the seeds will remove them, but not just in any casual way. These seeds will literally pop out at you!
Well, they popped out at me. Call it chaos. Actually, controlled chaos, because I managed to keep most of them in the sink.
Removing the seeds from the head turned out to be one of the highlights of my life when it comes to play. I flat-out felt like a kid. This is better than video games. This is more fun than Words with Friends. I'm even more delighted than that one time I climbed that tree and didn't fall off.
It was brilliant. Like British-accent Brilliant.
I rinsed off the seeds and picked out those little yellow bits.
I then laid them on a cookie sheet and sprinkled them with salt. I let them dry uncovered for 48 hours, turning and stirring them around a few times each day.
One sunflower head yielded 3/4 cups of sunflower seeds. For the amount of time I put into it, it seems a little illogical as a viable form of providing myself with nutritive energy. But, throw that fun factor in there, and it doesn't seem so ridiculous after all. I was able to play and then I had a snack. Reliving childhood, one sunflower head at a time.
I hope you all try this out. It's right up there with skipping stones more than three times off the lake-top, making that garbage shot from across the room, and sleeping in past eight a.m. on a Saturday morning.
So, how about you leave me a comment? I'd like to know three things:
1. Have you ever harvested sunflower seeds? Will you?
2. Do you have your own fun food rituals? Are you willing to share the joy (c'mon, access those pre-school sharing lessons from yonder year.)
3. Do you eat sunflower seeds exclusively as a snack? Or do you add them to other foods?
(So I squeezed in six questions. Sneaky, sneaky!)
I had the pleasure of attending the workshop "Home Cooking with Herbs and Palate Awakening," hosted by Betsy Williams while at the Commonground Country Fair last weekend.
Here's what I learned:
When harvesting perennial herbs in your garden, don't cut them back more than half. On an equinox, don't cut back more than a quarter.
Air-dry your herbs until they are crisp. They should be easy to pulverize when you rub them between your fingers.
Something I didn't know before: keep your herbs on their stems until you use them. When stuffing the dried herbs in jars to preserve, don't remove them from the stems! Handling herbs breaks their cells and wastes culinary flavor and medicinal properties.
Once dry, store them in airtight containers. Ball jars work very well.
When using the herbs for cooking or healing, strip the stems of the leaves, but don't throw the stems away. They can be used for roasting or grilling. All parts of the herb have the same flavor!
Tender herbs like basil, dill, parsley, etc. can be placed in a bag and frozen. Betsy doesn't even wash them first, because she gardens organically and knows her herbs are clean.
For herbs that aren't as tender, add 2 cups of herb leaves to enough olive oil to blend and make a slurry. Pack the paste into a ziplock bag and freeze. Or, you can freeze the paste into ice cube trays first for portion-size use.
Basil stays bright green when freezing in a paste because the oil keeps it from turning black.
Always use the best butter: organic, fresh, and preferably local.
It should be room temperature and easily mashable with a fork.
For every stick of butter, chop up and toss in 2-3 teaspoons of herbs. You can use more than one type of herb, like rosemary/sage, rosemary/lavender, sage/basil.
Also, if it's to your inclination, you can add 1-2 cloves of pressed garlic.
Your final ingredient? Lemon. Add a few drops of lemon to the mix and it'll perk up the flavor.
Herb butter can be frozen for up to one year.
Betsy passed around a tray of Wheat Thins topped with her herb butter. I ate one. Then I immediately started thinking of ways to ask for more.
Fill a canning jar to the brim with your herbs of choice. Add vinegar to the jar until it reaches the top. Keep the jar in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Strain.
That's it! You've made herb vinegar!
You can also make something called Mrs. Thrift's "Garbage Vinegar."
Fill a canning jar to the top with your favorite vinegar (Betsy suggested white balsamic vinegar). While cooking and working with herbs, take all your extra bits and add them to the jar, covering it back up after every addition (you don't want to provide an awesome environment for fruit flies).
You can also add peppers, citrus, or anything that you want to flavor up your vinegar.
As Betsy said, "In all the odd bits go."
Once your jar is full of herbs, tightly cover and let it sit for 2-3 weeks in a cool, dark place.
Strain and discard what's left.
No two jars of Garbage Vinegar are the same!
Notes on vinegar:
White distilled vinegar is not ideal for cooking because it is not fermented. Fermentation is better for our bodies than distillation. Distilled vinegar can be used for cleaning, however.
Try raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar.
Always read the label on vinegar bottles to see what it's distilled in. In the last few years, vinegar producers have been required to provide this information. Some white distilled vinegars are actually distilled from wood chips!
Also, stay away from seasoned vinegar. You'll be adding flavor yourself and you want to start with an "unadulterated" product.
To make herb mustard, chop 2-4 tablespoons of herbs as finely as you can and add to your homemade mustard.
Homemade mustard is very easy to make! Buy whole mustard seed, measure out 2-4 tablespoons and cover it with liquid (any edible liquid you want: beer, rum, apple cider, fruit juice, wine, etc.). Let it sit overnight and, by the morning, all the liquid will be dissolved and you'll have your own homemade mustard.
In addition to herbs, you can also mix in some horseradish or garlic to your mustard.
Mustard cannot spoil, even if it's left in the pantry and is not refrigerated.
You can use mustard in cooking by:
deglazing pans with it
slathering it under chicken skin
topping steak with it and adding sauteed onions
pairing it with breaded fish
Pesto can be made with any herb (doesn't have to be basil!). Use olive oil and any mixture of herbs you want. Betsy uses Romano cheese in her recipes. Also, she uses walnuts instead of the "normal" pine nuts because they're much cheaper and keep longer. Once you've created your own signature pesto, you can freeze it in cubes or straight up in a ziplock bag. It will spoil after a while in the refrigerator, so freeze smaller portions to avoid waste.
Herb butters, vinegar, mustard, and pesto bring sass to cooking and always work well as gifts (wouldn't you know, gift-giving season is right around the corner!).
If you decide to make some vinegar (herb or Garbage), I'd love to know what you included in it.
Leave me a comment with your original vinegar recipes!
Pursuing hobbies and passions is therapeutic. Even at the beginning, when you're discovering that you love to do something, your thoughts and actions are elevated. You find a rare form of focus when you're feverishly chasing after new skills and finished projects.
I've read of blogging as therapy, writing as therapy, and exercise as therapy. Anything that you choose to do because you love it feeds your soul. Or your brain. Or whatever mysterious part of you digs certain things and pursuits. Something is sparked and it draws the energy away from your internal sadness, grief or anger.
"Time flies when you're having fun," but seriously - I question whether it exists at all when I'm hands-deep in dirt. I initially pursued gardening as a way of becoming more self-sufficient. I wanted to grow my own herbs and vegetables and learn the process of that growth. I approached it empirically. Within the first few weeks of gardening, I understood that there was a much larger process taking place and it was sneakily working its magic inside me (who knew planting seeds was so figuratively powerful).
Even though there are some rather un-glamorous, not-fun sides to gardening (picking off bugs, still gross) (watering the garden, still boring), the experience of planting, tending and harvesting has enriched my life this summer in a way I never expected.
This past week, I replanted some cold-weather crops like kohlrabi, beets and spinach. As I was fluffing up the soil in preparation of planting, I had a flash of thought - it's going to snow soon and I won't be able to come out to the backyard and play with my plants. I won't be able to run away from the bees and wasps that have claimed my cucumber blossoms as their territory. I won't be able to swat away the beautiful little white butterfly moth thing that is actually the patriarchal (or matriarchal?) culprit behind cabbage worms.
It'll all be under snow. It'll be "gone" until next year.
Stress! Fear! These things creep in when I think about "losing" a hobby that's fulfilled me for the past few months.
But, a part of growing up and into yourself is recognizing that change is natural. There is nothing more uncontrollable than summer ending and the chill of winter creeping in.
That doesn't mean I have to go all crazy. Gardening was only one of my therapies this summer. I'm still a diehard fan of reading, knitting, and good TV. I write all day long (it seems) and never get tired of it. Winter months are a perfect season for pursuing hobbies and passions easily-performed from the couch or kitchen table.
If there's ever a time to settle and learn, it's while the snow flies. Gardening therapy might be coming to an end this year, but the doc's always in. Instead of planting a row, I'll knit one, and it all works just the same.