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Florida Pear Honey

It’s sand pear season again! I was browsing pear recipes on Punk Domestics and found this crazy jam recipe including pears, pineapples and ginger! I don’t know where this recipe originated, but I bet if you tracked it back far enough you would find North Central Florida. This has to be the only area of the country that both pears and pineapples are being harvested at the same time. I looked at two dozen recipes for pear honey and only a small percentage include ginger but since I have ginger growing in the back yard and I love pears and ginger together, the ginger stays. This is probably the second-best jam I’ve ever made (this grapefruit campari marmalade is still #1) but I’ll be making this every single year from now on, and if I can get fresh sand pears on my next weekend off I’ll make another batch to give as gifts. For you locals, sand pears and pineapples are available directly from local farmers at the Alachua County Farmers Market on Saturday morning. The pear season is pretty short so get’em while you can.

pineapples and pears

Also, I broke down and bought a food mill just for this recipe. I’ve needed a food mill for a while- peeling and coring more than a few pounds of fruit kills my hands- and so I broke down and bought the second-nicest food mill at our local specialty kitchen-supply store. Once I figured out how to use it the pureeing went to quickly and easily I’m kinda kicking myself for not buying one years ago.

food mill

Florida Pear Honey

8 lb sand pears
1 small ripe pineapple
1 chunk of fresh ginger
10 c sugar, preferably organic Florida blonde unbleached sugar
1/4 c lemon juice

Cut pears into fourths and then in rough chunks, no peeling or coring. Peel and core the pineapple and roughly chunk it. Puree in the blender until you have 20 ounces of puree. Grate the ginger until you have a heaping tablespoon or so. Combine everything into a large enameled pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring regularly, and cook until the pears can be mashed with a spoon. Ladle the pears and syrup through the medium plate of a food mill- you want the holes large enough that the ginger and pineapple solids pass through, but not the pear seeds. When all of the mixture is pureed, bring the mixture back to a simmer and cook until thickened slightly. This is where I screwed up! Stir the mixture often during this stage because the bottom will scorch easily. When the mixture is thickened to the consistency of honey pour into hot jars and process in a water bath for 10 minutes. This recipe made 8 pint jars.

pear honey

My Garden is Poisoned

poisonedroselle

This is my poor roselle bush. See the stunted, twisted growth?

poisonedmulberry

This is a dwarf mulberry tree. See the cup-shaped leaves, that look like crumpled paper?

poisonedauritum

This is piper auritum, hoja santa. Note the same exact curling of the leaf edges and crumpled-paper appearance?

poisonedturmeric

And the final photo, this is turmeric. Same curled edges and stunted growth.

At first I thought this was leaf-curl virus because I noticed it in the mulberry first. I just planted that mulberry and I thought it brought a virus with it, and the virus was spreading. Then I started paying attention and realized that the plants that seemed the most affected were not from related plant families. So I started looking for other plant diseases that would affect these plant families and cause these symptoms and found nothing. Other plants were affected too- greasy beans, cucumbers, the persimmon tree, and all my chile pepper plants too.

Then I remembered seeing this article on The Survival Gardener. The only thing these plants all have in common? They’re all mulched with tons of hay. Farmers spray herbicides on their hayfields to kill pigweed (amaranth) and other broadleaf weeds. Then they harvest the hay and the herbicide is still there. I purchased a big roll of hay in the spring off of Craigslist. I asked the guy if he used herbicides and he said no, so I didn’t think anything else about it until now. Once I saw the herbicide-poison photos, I took all these photos and sent them to The Farm Doctor. She agreed that it looks like herbicide poisoning.

So tomorrow I get to rake up all the damn hay all over the garden and hope that whatever herbicide this is, it disperses quickly. The irony here is that the herbicide-laced hay mulch doesn’t seem to have affected the “weeds” in the garden whatsoever!

Top Five Native Plants to Attract Pollinators

Here are my recommendations for native plants to plant for the following conditions:

No supplemental irrigation needed
Attracts native pollinators like bees, butterflies and wasps
Either perennial or self-seeding annual
Pretty

beach sunflower

1. Beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis) This sprawling perennial will bring all the native bees to your yard. It’s also an excellent groundcover, will take light foot traffic, blooms from late spring to the first hard freeze, and produces a huge amount of biomass for chop & drop. It does spread from seed so it will hop around your yard but doesn’t seem to smother other plants. It needs relatively rich soil and full sun.

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2. Florida Pusley (Richardia scabra) Pusley is a really unfortunate name for a neat groundcover that also brings the tiny native bees. You probably already have this in your yard if you look for it. I let this “weed” grow freely in my lawn and on the edges of beds. Small native bees love the tiny white flowers and the plants are also host to some moths and butterfly larvae.

tithonia

3. Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) Give this plant room! It needs sun and relatively rich soil, but no extra water. The large orange flat blossoms are stunning. I grow this plant in my forest garden primarily for chop & drop and feeding the bees in the late summer. Since most fruit trees bloom here in the early spring, to keep the bees hanging around you have to provide them plenty of food all year.

ironweed

4. Ironweed, either Giant (Vernonia gigantea) or Common (Vernonia augustifolia) These lovely plants also need sun and room- they get large and self-seed prolifically. Excellent for chop & drop if you can catch them before they go to seed. Wasps love ironweed and so do butterflies and hummingbirds!

dotted horsemint

5. Spotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata) This one is included in the list because even though it has a shorter blossoming window, the bees, flies, small butterflies, wasps, and beetles make a cloud around this plant when it’s in full bloom. Self-seeding annual, mild medicinal herb for chills and fever, has a spicy taste similar to oregano but slightly more bitter.

These five plants can be found at the native plant sales in the Spring and Fall at Morningside, you can purchase seeds, or you can collect seeds in the wild and seed it yourself.

Chinese (and Ayurvedic!) Herbs in July, Part 2

Here’s some more of the herbs I’m currently growing.

ashwagandha july

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) grows easily and well here. Unlike many other medicinal herbs it does have some pests and diseases, but so far nothing too dire. I found out recently that the medicinal quality of ashwagandha roots supposedly decreases after one year, so the three year old plants I’m harvesting this fall might not be higher quality after all, but they sure smell and taste strong with no discolored core or soft spots. I may keep these to experiment with their medicinal action myself. I love growing ashwagandha and expect this to be a main crop for the farm.

jiang huang july

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is well known all over the world but few people realize how easy it is to grow. It’s easy to grow but tricky to grow well. I’ve been trying to discover the sweet spot with my turmeric patch and now that the rainy season is here I expect rapid growth. I think turmeric is probably going to be the farm money-maker.

bringraj july

Bringhraj (Eclipta alba) is a fun and easy plant to grow. I missed the time of highest quality to harvest it, which was apparently about a months ago, since it has declined rapidly with the onset of the rainy season. I don’t think this will sell well so I probably won’t grow it at the farm.

gotu kola july

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) This plant loves water. In fact, if you don’t give it enough water it will die back within a day or two. Gotu Kola cannot withstand drought at all. As easy as this plant is to grow, I don’t have any swampy areas at the farm and don’t want to commit to the amount of irrigation this plants prefers, so I probably will not try to grow it commercially.

gao liang jiang july

Gao Liang Jiang/Galangal (Alpinia galanga) this delightful plant is one of my favorite gingers to grow. It’s definitely more cold-hardy than some of the other gingers and thrives in deep mulch and morning sun. This fall I will be splitting this thick patch. This is a primary “soup herb” but is also used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.

zingibers july

This is my secret stash. I’m hoping gingers are going to be the backbone of the farm, and my collection of medicinal gingers is growing- Cao Guo/black cardamom, E Zhu/zedoary, Curcuma wenyujin/Yu Jin, and Alpinia katsumadai/Cao Dou Kou. The cao guo and cao dou kou are still up in the air, since the medicinal part is the fruit and I don’t know if the darn things are going to flower in this area, much less fruit. But I have high hopes.

Other herbs that have tested well in trials: Achyranthes bidentata/Chuan Niu Xi, Motherwort/Yi Mu Cao, Luffa cylindrica/Si Gua Luo

Herbs to test next year: Suan zao ren, Chuan lian zi, Ban zhi lian, Zhi zi, and a couple other vines and small trees.

Chinese Herbs in July

So we are halfway through the year and it’s time to check in on the herb test beds.

bai ji july

Bai Ji (Bletilla striata) This is an effortless little plant, well-suited to part-shade and rich free-draining soil. It’s multiplying slowly in this little patch but it is multiplying. I’m looking forward to transplanting this out to the farm and propagating it more aggressively.

ban xia july

Ban Xia (Pinellia ternata) is a new addition. It’s staying in a pot until I can find out if it’s as invasive in Florida as it in Pennsylvania and New York. Considering that the part you harvest is the roots, “weedy” might be a good thing.

dang shen july

Dang Shen (Codonopsis pilosula) is a plant I’d really like to grow but it really does not love the Florida sun. It’s easy to start from seeds but difficult to keep alive through our dry springtime and full sun anytime after noon fries it. These are the most successful plants yet, in pots with regular watering, fish emulsion, and about an hour of morning sun. I think Codonopsis will thrive in the forest farm.

gou qi zi july

Gou Qi (Lycium barbarum) This little plant has been another struggle. I originally had this planted as the bush layer in a full-sun polyculture with pomegranate trees and beach sunflower but it never grew and was often completely leafless. I moved it into an area with afternoon shade and it’s finally flowering and sporadically fruiting. After three years I’m confident saying that while Goji berries are fun to grow they aren’t productive enough here to be a commercial crop.

ginkgo july

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is the tree that produces Bai Guo, which is the fruit of the female tree. I planted this ginkgo about four months ago after an unhappy winter in a large pot. It survived and is finally stretching its legs a bit. I say “its” because I won’t know until maturity whether this little tree is a boy or a girl. If it’s a boy I can still harvest the leaves.

huang qi july

Huang Qi (Astragalus membranaceous) This is one test crop that is only a maybe. Poor astragalus does not love the heat and wanted far more water than I was willing to give it through the dry spring. It may be the lack of inoculant but the seeds germinated readily enough, the plant is just not thriving. I’ve just given this patch a good dose of composted chicken manure so I’ll be watching how it grows through the rainy season.

jie geng july

Jie Geng (Platycodon grandiflorus) is a definite yes. It grew easily and well, has beautiful blooms, seemed to thrive in the heat, and produced beautiful succulent roots. I was very happy with last year’s test plot and will grow it more intensively this spring to gather data on root yield, inputs, etc.

ku shen july

Ku Shen (Sophora flavescens) These little seedlings are being held in pots until I can plant them at the farm. They will grow to large bushes up to 6′ tall. Keeping plants like this in pots long-term is definitely teaching me about keeping a plant nursery- mainly, that potted plants in Florida need constant fertilizer because the rain washes the nutrients right through.

pi pa ye july

Pi Pa Ye (Eriobotrya japonica) is the leaf of the loquat tree. Loquats grow all over the place here so this is an easy choice. There is already a feral loquat growing at the farm but I grafted an improved fruit variety onto this one.

xuan shen july

Xuan Shen (Scrophularia ningpoensis) This plant has been an interesting experiment. I started a whole pack of xuan shen seeds back in February… and got close to 100% germination. I let the seedlings get too big in the germination tray and killed at least half of them transplanting them into starter pots. Then I held them in the starter pots too long, let them get too stressed, and gave them too much sun so most of the bolted and tried to go to seed before I got them in the ground. I decided to cut off the flowers and seed pods and plant them anyway and they have grown some but they’ve been stunted and twisted. I planted five in huge pots at the acupuncture school’s garden at least a month earlier and those plants are tall and gorgeous. I will probably pull these plants in the fall and start over. If I can get the timing right, I think this will be an easy crop to grow here.

xie bai july

Xie Bai (Allium macrostemon) is a gimme. This is an easy crop here in full sun and will be even easier in bright shade.

Whew! That’s about half. I’ll post the rest tomorrow.

The Monsoon Has Arrived

foodforest_rear

We have received almost 5″ of rain in the past week. The summer monsoon season has (finally) begun. The garden is growing by leaps and bounds. I swear I can almost *hear* the plants growing. This is the front forest garden from the back. Pomegranates, strawberry guava, greasy beans, duranta, plum tree, peach tree, peppers, sweet potatoes, daylilies are all visible from this angle.

summer butterfly garden

This is the front butterfly garden. This has gone from a carefully laid out garden to chaos as the natives self-seeded all over the place, especially the ironweed. This is my insectary. Visible is beach sunflower, wild white-flowered plumbago, ginkgo, ironweed, narrow-leaf ironweed, tropical milkweed, lanceleaf coreopsis. There’s much more behind this- monarda, tropical sage, black-eyed susans, echinacea, buckeye, coral honeysuckle, butterfly bush, camphorweed, a giant climbing aster, and several other things.

IMG_20150625_100624

The “fedge”. The blueberries are still struggling because I can’t get the pH down enough. Everything else is thriving: mayhaw, elderberries, milkweed, flatwoods plums, saltbush, simpson’s stopper, sweet acacia, beautyberry. I have some experiments to plant in here this weekend.

center ff bed

This glorious tangle is the center bed in the forest garden. The center is a Fuyu persimmon. Around it are sweet potatoes, astragalus, ashwagandha, dill, black-seeded callaloo, xuan shen, and cosmos. Surrounding it you can see the trees and large shrubs- plums, peaches, pomegranates, mulberry, duranta, and feijoa.

I’ve had some real successes and real failures so far this growing season. This weekend I’ll be taking a hard look at the Chinese herbs I’m growing, I’ll write up my findings next week.

Green Harissa

Y’all, condiments are important.

harissa_peppers

I never really thought about the importance of condiments until I started the low histamine diet. Now I realize that condiments actually make the food world go ’round. Condiments are often the signature flavors of cuisines, and the real test of how “deep” you go into a cuisine is the love of their condiments. Unfortunately, condiments are also mostly based on ingredients that are no longer part of my diet- especially the #1 condiment ingredient around the world, vinegar. Vinegar and vinegar based sauces, fermented sauces like soy sauce and fish sauce, sauces based on tomatoes… all off the menu. So I’ve been looking for condiments and sauces that I can eat without reaction, because a life without sauces and condiments is just… boring.

green_harissa

Green Harissa

3 fresh green poblano chiles
10 cloves of garlic
2 bunches of cilantro, with stems
1 tbl coriander seeds, whole
2 tbl cumin seeds, whole
1 tbl peppercorns, whole
1/2 tsp long pepper, whole
1/3 c good olive oil
1/2 lemon, juiced

Chop cilantro roughly, including stems. Take the seeds out of the poblanos and chop. Mince the garlic. Throw them all in the blender. Dig out your smallest skillet or pan. Pour the whole spices into the pan and place over medium heat. Stir or shake almost constantly until the cumin and coriander seeds darken and maybe crackle, and the spices start smelling toasty. If they start to burn, pour them out of the pan immediately onto a plate. Once the spices are nicely toasted, pour them into the blender. Cover and pulse until the cilantro is well-chopped and everything starts to come together. Add the olive oil and run for no more than 5 seconds at a time, pausing to let the mixture cool down. Add 1 tsp of lemon juice and 1 tsp of salt, and pulse again just until thoroughly mixed. Don’t let it get completely smooth. Put it in the fridge overnight. Taste it in the morning and adjust salt and acidity if necessary.

Eat on everything! Especially good with cold boiled new potatoes, roasted cauliflower, smoked chicken, or stirred into a bowl of hot jasmine rice.

The Farm Doctor Comes for a Visit

A couple weeks ago I hired The Farm Doctor, a UF plant pathologist who specializes in fruit trees, to come out to my house. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the fruit trees so I decided to hire a professional to diagnose the various ailments around the property and help me come up with an organic treatment and fertilization plan. I had been pondering this for a while but the sudden death of one of my largest pomegranates motivated me to do it sooner rather then later.

orange tree

In two hours she inspected every single fruit tree on the property, took samples, and diagnosed a bunch of diseases and problems on the spot. We talked quite a bit about pruning (which I am not doing very well) and fertilizing (which I am also not doing very well). I was happy when she suggested Joe Floyd for pruning help, he’s the guy who came out and pruned the citrus trees two years ago and he did a great job. We just let his work go to hell because I didn’t know that when you *start* pruning fruit trees, you have to *continue* pruning them every year, sometimes even twice a year. You can’t prune citrus trees once and then stop. That’s why some trees produced too many fruit and some trees didn’t produce much fruit at all.

There’s a serious lesson here. Having fruit trees ain’t cheap. Most fruit trees, especially variety citrus, need to be thought of more like a delicate pet than a wild animal. They need to be fed, watered, and cared for. If they’re left outside with no care then they’re going to get sick and die. The fruit won’t taste good or will be diseased. We have to fertilize, control pests, and prune. Our landlady paid $800 for the initial pruning but I’m not sure if she’ll pay that again. The pruning really must be done once or even twice a year and I have something like 20 fruit trees now- and some of them are 20 ft tall. Do we try and do the pruning ourselves? Do we pay someone else to do it and budget it as a household expense? We have to choose, and soon.

chinese tangerine before tx

The trees in worst shape were both citrus trees- the Chinese tangerine and the navel orange. She gave me a real talking-to about that navel tree and frankly I deserved it. It’s in really crappy shape. Then she looked at the Chinese tangerine, which has been struggling for years and is one of the only trees I’ve been fertilizing, and she said the words that strike terror in the hearts of all orange growers- “I think you have citrus greening disease”. I actually started to cry. She told us to take samples and take them to the plant pathology lab at the Division of Plant Industry for a positive ID. My mom took the sample a few days later and thankfully it was NOT Huanglongbing (Citrus Greening) disease, but a severe mineral deficiency.

IMG_20150520_184418

Finally was the pomegranate tree that had very suddenly died. I mean VERY suddenly, like over the course of a week. We dug around in the ground for clues and then cut through the branches near the base. There were dark streaks running all through the middle of each branch- clear sign of a lethal fungal infection. We dug out the root ball and crown to also take to the plant pathology lab. She cautioned me to burn the rest of the tree and the rose bush next to it, which had also died on the same side as the tree like it was cut down the middle. Plant pathology lab came back and said it was armillaria- honey mushrooms. Now, this is a mixed blessing. Honey mushrooms are one of the few edible mushrooms around here that taste good. So it’s bad that they killed a pomegranate tree, but that pom had never even attempted to bloom so maybe I am trading a non-food-producing pom tree for edible mushrooms. We decided to re-bury the infected crown, dump wood chips over the whole thing, and see if we can get the fungus to fruit.

If you need help with your trees, especially if you think your trees have something going on other than just pest damage, I suggest hiring Joyce Merritt, The Farm Doctor. She taught me a huge amount in a small amount of time and her help getting me on a schedule to care for all of these trees was worth every penny.

Growing Comfrey in Florida

Comfrey is permaculture’s darling for the herb layer- it’s a dynamic accumulator pulling minerals from deep in the soil, the leaves make a mineral-rich mulch or compost tea, the leaves and the roots are strong medicinal herbs, and bees of all kinds love the flowers. When it comes to stacking functions, comfrey is tops.

Comfrey was one of the first plants I wanted to introduce to my fledgling forest garden back in 2012 so I ordered some seeds soon after we moved in. I started those seeds in pots in the greenhouse. When they got big enough, I planted them out in the garden. The original idea was to have the plants bracketing each of the larger beds with fruit trees. That summer all but two plants died. The two that remained stayed about the same size for the rest of the year, a half-hearted spray of flowers and then a few leaves flattened against the ground. The first frost came and they both froze back almost to the ground, so I mulched them thickly with straw and waited to see what would happen.

comfrey3

That next spring, the plants exploded. They both flowered heavily and started producing the true comfrey leaves. Late in the fall I cut a bunch back for the first time and used them for mulch around the other plants. I hadn’t dared cut them back in the summer. What helped these particular plants survive? What changed? What helped them thrive? I really think it was a combination of factors:

  • The fruit trees grew taller and gave both plants some much-needed late afternoon shade.
  • The log borders they were both planted next to rotted significantly, making some rich humus that held water better.
  • Their roots got large & strong enough to withstand the late summer heat.

comfreypeach

This past winter was very mild. Neither of the comfreys died back completely and they both exploded in early spring. Then a few seedlings popped up around them, especially around the one that gets the most afternoon shade. I transplanted one of the seedlings to the base of a struggling peach tree.
comfrey2Notice that the seedlings are also tucked in next to the log border, where the roots of the comfrey are protected from the heat and the soil is especially rich. I do not irrigate anything past the establishment phase and they have received no extra nutrients beyond thick mulch and some spring compost over the entire bed.
comfrey1

Yes, you can successfully grow comfrey in my area of Florida without constant irrigation. Give them some shade. Plant them close to rotting wood so their roots have a cool moist haven. Most importantly, be patient- it may take them a year or so to really get established. I’m excited that next year I’ll have enough seedlings to trade or sell!

This all being said- I am not sure that comfrey is the best plant for our climate and needs. It does shade the soil. It does get big and come back strong so it can be chopped and used as mulch. It is a strong medicinal. The bees do love it. However, there are other plants which are easier to grow which might be a better choice than comfrey if you’re only looking for chop & drop and feeding bees. Tithonia diversifolia grows crazy fast, thrives in full sun, does not need irrigation past establishment, bring bees and other pollinators in droves, and can be cut multiple times per season for biomass. Another possibility for subtropical climates is ironweed, Vernonia gigantea, which has all the same benefits as tithonia and more readily self-seeds. If you’re just looking for a plant that produces lots of biomass quickly for c&d, then choosing something easier than comfrey is probably a better use of your space.

The Spring Garden

Keep your fingers crossed for me, ’cause this is the best spring I’ve had yet.

cucumbers_mugwort

This is an experimental pairing that is working well so far- cucumbers and mugwort with a thick hay mulch. I actually *mowed* the mugwort in the late winter- I didn’t cut it in time and it all went to flower. Mugwort is a tough perennial so can be cut over and over, so I cut it all down to the ground, built a trellis, mulched thickly with hay, and planted cucumber seeds between the rows of mugwort. The cucumbers looks so much healthier this time. Also, the growing tips of the mugwort are covered in aphids and lady beetles… but no aphids on the cucumbers. I am also not irrigating the cucumbers.

peaches

I lost one small peach tree over the winter but my remaining two peaches and two plums are all so loaded with fruit that I am culling fruit every time I check the trees. So far the only serious pest has been leaf-footed bugs. I’ve squashed and drowned at least a dozen so far. The fruit’s ripening quickly so I think we’ll get a decent harvest this year.

daylily

 I moved a couple dozen daylilies from the east hedge to the south side of the house and they’re starting to bloom just as the amaryllis petered out.

one_bed

I am always experimenting with combinations and moving plants around the yard to see what they like. This bed is south facing with decent shade under the plum tree and to the north of it. That big patch of comfrey in the upper right corner is in full sun, but it’s also planted in a hugel bed- ultra rich soil. The transplanted comfrey seedlings under the plum tree are doing well too. Soon the turmeric will be three-four feet tall and give the goji berries some much-needed afternoon shade. The eclipta is also thriving in the part shade under the plum tree and tucked up against the rotting log border.

So far this season is going well. I did start too many medicinal herb seeds that I thought I would be planted out at the farm but I’m just going to put as many of them into the ground here that I can. That means growing fewer vegetables but that’s okay too. I definitely had better success this year than ever before with direct-seeding. Now I just have to stay on top of it all!