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Signs and Portents

So when my husband and I were scoping around the property, we spotted this plant. It’s growing around the edges and all over one of the neighbor’s yards. My husband noticed that bees and other pollinators were practically swarming around the flowers, so I snapped a photo to look it up later.

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This, my friends, is Tōng Cǎo – 通草 , Tetrapanax Papyriferus, traditionally used to promote lactation. That’s right. There are Chinese medicinal plants already there. Not only is this a Chinese medicine, it’s also widely used to make paper. The translated name is “rice paper plant”. Did I look it up? Nope. I subscribed to a Chinese herb study group and was scrolling back through herbs, and this was the November 12th herb of the day.

Those kinds of things keep occurring. It’s kind of wonderful.

Welcome to the Jungle

We finally had our first big cleanup day at the incipient Springstead Herb Farm.

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This is the entrance- my property is on the right, with all the giant trees. And vines. And trash.

jungle2This is one of the trash piles we made after an hour of raking and digging cans and bottles out of the ground.

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A good percentage of the south end of the farm looks like this. People have been dumping trash here for decades. It’s possible that the original owner of the property dumped trash here before there was garbage service. We joked about being archaeologists learning about long ago cultures by digging through their middens.

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Yeah. 80% of the trash pile is Budweiser cans with pull tabs.

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I have the best family ever. What’s not pictured here is that about five minutes after this photo we discovered a large yellowjacket nest. My younger son and I both were stung, he much worse than I. Thankfully they left us alone after we moved out of their clearing and we were able to keep working. I am taking this as a clear sign to slow down and proceed carefully.

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 We did find some amazing things, like this beautiful little box turtle hiding in the trash. There’s a couple feral orange trees that I swear are twice as healthy as the ones in my yard. There is a high ridge along one side that faces east- a possibly perfect microclimate for several of the herbs I want to grow.

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This (rather unflattering) photo is a decent representation of the entire property. I got a little teary at the end- the property is so beautiful and overwhelming. I am cramming about forest agriculture, forest farming, wild-simulated herb farming, and alley cropping. Now that paths have been mown and enough has been cleared that we can get to all areas of the property, the next step is to go out there and just document everything- make a list of species found, take soil samples from different areas, start on a ground map.  This starts tomorrow!

Tropical Crops- Disappointment & Lessons

I harvested the rest of my tropical crops on Friday: Cassava, pigeon peas, and jicama.

Cassava

cassava 2014

This is the third year I’ve grown cassava. The first year was a complete bust. Last year was much better, I actually had enough cassava to make pasteles for a family Solstice feast. This year absolutely sucked. This is just under three pounds of trimmed cassava roots. I should’ve included something for scale- these roots are small. See how few long, straight roots there are? I think I’m crowding the polyculture. Cassava has large shallow roots. The cassava is planted next to ginger, elephant ears and pigeon peas- all of which have shallow roots. Siembra Farm grows fabulous, huge cassava every year. The next time I can get to the farmers’ market I’ll be grilling them about growing cassava as well as buying a bunch of theirs to shred and freeze along with mine.

Pigeon Peas/Gandules

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Last year I planted one decent-sized seedling tree from Edible Plant Project in a native flowerbed. It grew huge and we got a decent amount (about a pound) of dry, mature pigeon peas before the first freeze. This year I planted two  seedling trees from EPP in the back yard, thinking I’d get about double the harvest. Despite this being a year of more-normal rain (48.4 inches so far this year) the trees never reached the same size and didn’t start producing peas until very late in the year. Then we had a snap freeze and a week later it was 80. I missed the harvesting window entirely. By the time I harvested the pods off the trees the tree was long dead and the pods were covered in mold. After shelling that entire tray of pods we ended up with about a cup of dry pigeon peas. Most weren’t formed and at least half the mature peas were moldy and ruined. I almost cried.

Jicama

jicamabasket

Did you know jicama is a legume? I didn’t. It may be the only legume with an edible root. The plant part is a lovely large vine with large leaves and lovely purple pea-blossom flowers that drive the bumblebees mad with desire. The vines perished in the freeze (along with their unripe seed pods, darnit) so I dug up the roots. The first root (bottom if the basket) was very large but at some point it had split in the ground. The other three were very small, about the size of small turnips or apples. Again, after all the lovely heat and rain, I expected a good return. They are small but interestingly- they have ZERO insect damage. None.

What I’ll do different next year

Plant earlier. Try the pigeon peas in the forest garden, more sun and more pollinators. Plant the cassava in the same place- it’s literally the only place in the yard to grow something that big that isn’t already full of roots- but I’ll amend the soil heavily with compost and spread the plants out more. I’ll move some of the gingers and add something with a deep taproot instead. The jicama is the tough one. Knowing that I’ll only get one root per plant, and knowing now how bloody huge the vines get, will make it a challenge to grow in a greater quantity. Jicama may remain a treat.

These are “crops” that are passively grown. They receive zero irrigation or fertilizer after they’re planted. They never needed any pest intervention. There is a beetle that bores holes in pigeon peas after they’ve started ripening but they rarely ruin more than one pea in the pod so I don’t mind. That’s the only pest I’ve noticed. Not too shabby if I could increase the number of plants.

What was your greatest garden failure this year?

Darkness

I absolutely loathe the winter darkness. I don’t usually get off work until 6pm or later, which means it’s barely daylight when I go to work and full dark by the time I leave. In the winter, no gardening happens four days out of seven. I have to wait until the weekend to harvest, weed, plant, or most especially take pictures. If I make something delicious and want to share the recipe I have to take crappy fluorescent-toned photos in my dull kitchen. The gloominess of winter photos just adds to my general irritation level with winter dark in general.

So this winter I’m going to try something different. This weekend I’m going to move the dehydrator, baskets of winter squash, lingering mail, and cookbooks off my kitchen table and I’m going to set up a photo area with lights. I even have a light box! I’ve found some good tips on various food photography blogs and I’m going to give it a try. Wish me luck!

Simple Caribbean Stew Base

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We just experienced an early cold snap with two nights of freezing temps in a row. Many local gardeners spent hours constructing tents around their gardens with electric lights or sprinklers to keep their tender plants from freezing. Me? I just let it all freeze. I was ready to let the peppers and basil go, along with most of the other tropical food plants. I harvested all of the ripe peppers before the freeze, quite a good haul of peppers. I only grew a few kinds of peppers this year, mostly aji cachucha, a small Dominican mild pepper with thin walls and really nice flavor. They’re not as sweet as the thick-walled big red or yellow peppers, but a little sweeter than a cubanelle. More importantly, the plants survived an brutal onslaught of stem borers this year to produce quite heavily.

aji cachucha

Aren’t they pretty? I’m harvesting my subtropical crops like pigeon peas and cassava right now and we’ll be eating a lot of Caribbean foods this winter, so I wanted to make sofrito with these peppers. Unfortunately the peppers started going soft before I could gather all the ingredients for sofrito. I decided to make a quick recaito and freeze it, but then when I finally could go shopping everyone was out of recao/culantro, and you can’t make recaito without recao. Any self-respecting Puerto Rican would probably stomp on my toe for sharing a recipe for recaito with no recao. So this is not recaito (despite the label) but I think calling it “Caribbean soup base” is pretty safe.

recaito

Caribbean Soup Base

1 lb aji cachucha (or any combination of thin walled non-spicy peppers)

4 large cloves of garlic

1 bunch cilantro

Cut each pepper in half and carefully remove the seeds and stem. The seeds quickly become bitter when you cook them. Roughly chop the cilantro and garlic. Combine everything in a food processor and process only until the mixture comes together. Do not puree! Leave it chunky. Separate into small containers or 4 oz jars and freeze.

This base can be used to make ajilimojili sauce (just add some olive oil, lime juice, a Scotch Bonnet for some heat, and salt & pepper) or to cook anything from chicken & rice casserole to an omelet. Please note- the traditional preparation of this would include onions. My husband can’t eat onions, so I just leave them out.

Snake in the Ashwagandha

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This is a baby rat snake perched in the ashwagandha, probably stalking baby anoles. My son and I cheered when we found this baby snake… while we have quite a few avian predators around (Cooper’s hawks, red shouldered hawks, and at least one mated pair of owls) I have only seen two snakes the whole time we’ve lived here. I found at least a dozen snake eggs while I was clearing out the summer garden beds and pulling weeds earlier in the fall but this was the first baby I’ve seen.

The fauna I’m seeing on my property is steadily diversifying. I credit this to non-disturbance and diversifying the flora. I have planted so many new things! Now there are vast hedges of native flowering plants that never get walked through or mowed. We have a small “zone 5″ corner that’s almost completely undisturbed and full of birds. We have a lizard sex hotel (a pile of coquina in a sheltered spot). We found an armadillo burrow behind the satsuma trees a couple weeks ago, and we’re leaving it alone. We’ve seen mice in the compost and let them be. The wasps (mostly) live in peace. And because of this, we now have snakes and owls and hawks.

So Many Sweet Potatoes


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We got back from our trip to Texas and New Mexico late Saturday night. Sunday was a full day in the garden, a combination of being gone for 10 days and a freeze warning Tuesday night. We decided to harvest all of the sweet potatoes since we’d found a few with mole damage. Digging up the sweet potatoes with our hands was great fun. Most were small but a few large sweet potatoes survived mole damage. The white sweet potatoes fared much better than the orange ones- many of the orange ones were split or gnawed upon. The whites have less insect damage, no splitting, and were larger overall.

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After culling out the ones that were cracked, split, or had major insect damage, I packed away more than forty pounds of sweet potatoes! Not bad for a crop that was never irrigated after establishment, never fertilized, never needed spraying or pest control of any kind. There was some insect damage though, so I’ll either skip growing sweet potatoes next year or I’ll grow them on the farm. I don’t want any sweet potato pests to get established. I think I have found my forest garden groundcover crop rotation- sweet potatoes one year, pumpkins the next.

I decided to use a laundry basket lined with layers of newspapers for the curing. It’s supposed to freeze this week so I put the basket of sweet potatoes in the pantry to cure. I decided to leave the cassava and jicama in the ground. They’re both in protected spots and I think can survive a light frost.

And Sunchoke Bounty!

The fall root vegetable harvest has definitely begun around here. The day before I started harvesting sweet potatoes, I finally got my new machete sharpened and chopped down all of the withering sunchoke plants. I needed that bed for winter vegetables! So I pulled the first plant out of the ground.

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Look at all that food! So I kept going…

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That is one huge bucket of sunflower tubers! I haven’t weighed them yet, but it’s at least 15 pounds out of a small bed that was interplanted with several other things. This was the cowpeas bed last year that I sheet mulched over the winter. After these plants were established they never received any supplemental irrigation or additional amendments.

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After I was done raking and digging for sunflower tubers, I immediately added a bucket of compost, raked the bed back out flat, added some more wood to the edges, and planted mizuna and purple cabbage seedlings for winter. I also pulled out all the damn bermuda grass that had crept in over the summer. Today I’m following the advice of Masanobu Fukuoka and seeding clover everywhere there’s bare ground- especially in the garden paths.

So now I have an entire produce bin in my fridge full to the brim with sunchokes! What’s your favorite sunchoke recipe?

Sweet Potato Surprise

Record-keeping is an area of needed improvement for me. In the spring I planted a handful of sweet potato starts. I don’t remember exactly where they came from and of course, I didn’t write it down. The starts took a while to “catch” but once they did, they really went wild. Here’s a photo of the center of the forest garden completely covered in sweet potato vines.

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A couple weeks ago I was walking along the edge of the path (the rest of the path being swamped by sweet potato foliage) and pulling weeds. A weird shape caught my eye down in the path, and I reached down and pulled back the vines… to find a sweet potato as long as my foot heaved up most of the way out of the ground, and bright green.

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Thinking of green potatoes and freaking out that my sweet potato crop was ruined, I started clearing vines immediately around that sweet potato and pulled another five sweet potatoes, each at least a pound. Each one was at least partially green. They were all big and felt heavy but were strangely pinky-beige everywhere they weren’t green. I took some photos and posted them with a slighty panicked plea for advice on the local gardening group and then googled for another hour. The consensus was that they weren’t poisonous, but no one knew whether they’d still taste good. So I decided to let them cure and see what happened.

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My husband was baking some sweet potatoes from the store last night for dinner so I told him to pull a couple out of the crate on the front porch and throw them in the oven. They took a long time to cook through- longer than the store sweet potatoes. The skin was almost burned. When I cut them open I found out why. I somehow planted white sweet potatoes. This one was dry and dense, not as sweet as the orange-fleshed ones, more like a chestnut flavor. Really good. Comparing varieties, I’d say these are either Nancy Halls or O’Henry’s. I have only harvested sweet potatoes from one vine, so there may be some orange ones out there. If the area I dug up is representative of the whole bed, I am going to be pulling a whole lot of sweet potatoes.

Fermented Hot Sauce

The peppers are finally coming in! Earlier in the summer I had a serious infestation of Papaipema nebris, stalk borer. These moth larvae bore into the stems of all kinds of plants but in my yard they only attacked the chile peppers. They bore into the base of stems and live inside the stem, sucking out the plants’ juices and eating the interior pith, until they emerge to pupate. Even if I decided to use pesticides for some reason, broad-spectrum pesticides are useless against larvae inside plant stems and I didn’t want to invest the time or money into the only effective resistance, which is injecting each infected stem with Bt. I decided to wait it out. Almost all the plants lived and now are producing a bumper crop of peppers- thin-walled mild and fruity aji cachucha and bright and hot scotch bonnets and habaneros. I’m regretting planting the scotch bonnets and habaneros, frankly. They are producing like crazy and they’re too hot to do much with. I wish I had planted the mildly hot peppers I planted last year. I think next year I’m going to start the peppers late and see if I can break the pest cycle.

peppers

So I had to do something with the sudden bounty of extra-hot peppers. I found an interesting recipe for a fermented hot sauce but I can’t just use habaneros- none of us will eat it. The aji cachucha is for ajilimójili and sofrito but I decided to use them to tone down the fierce heat of the habaneros. I want this to be a hot sauce I will actually eat.

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The recipe calls for a sweet white wine like a Riesling. So off I went to Wards Supermarket to find a bottle of German Riesling. As my daughter and I are searching the shelves for Rieslings and finding nothing, this bottle of wine caught my eye. Why not? The wine is sweet, like the recipe specifies, the fruitiness will probably complement the fruity habaneros, and it’s local.

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 Here’s the mashed chiles and salt, before adding the wine. Isn’t it beautiful? I can’t wait to see how it turns out. See the link above for the recipe and instructions if you want to try it yourself. It’s autumn- ferment all the things!

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