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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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!

Wild Saag Paneer

ForageFest had a couple of potluck meals where you were encouraged to bring dishes including foraged ingredients. I had in mind to cook or bake something with the copious loquats all over Gainesville right now but waited too long. Just before we left I went out in the yard searching for inspiration and saw the copious Spanish needle everywhere. I picked a big bowlful of Spanish needle tips in my yard and the empty lot across the street in less than 20 minutes. I made a big crockpot of this dish for the potluck and it was gone within minutes.

saag paneer“Saag” is Hindi for a combination of greens, pureed together with onions and spices. Saag is a brilliant cooking method for wild greens which otherwise might be too bitter, strong, or fibrous to eat by themselves. Adding fresh, unmelting cheese to saag isn’t traditional but it sure is delicious. This rich dish is full of possibilities- use a combination of wild greens and cultivated greens, or a combination of cultivated greens when your garden is winding down or getting ramped up.

spanish needlesThe wild greens here are Spanish needle- Bidens alba- which is a pernicious native “weed” that is also a primary food for pollinators since it flowers profusely eight months out of the year. The young tips are quite tasty before the plants flower in early spring and if you keep a small patch pinched back constantly you can have a source of tender nutritious greens throughout the summer. They are so common that you probably have them in your yard but make sure to collect them in a place you know is safe from spraying, and always wash wild green thoroughly.

cooking onions

If I had one tip about Indian cooking, I would say don’t fear browning those onions. I read in an Indian cookbook many years ago that the authentic taste of Indian food cannot be reached without slightly burned onions. Deeply browning the onions in a sauce where the onions give the body adds a really necessary depth of flavor.

 Wild Saag Paneer

1 bunch curly kale
1 bag of fresh spinach
1 bunch of spanish needle greens
12 oz queso fresco or paneer
1 large red onion, sliced or chopped
1 tbl butter
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
2″ fresh ginger, chopped
1 tbl ground cumin
1 tsp red chile flakes
1/2 tsp turmeric
scant 1/4 tsp asafoetida
salt & pepper
1-2 tbl cream, raw if you can get it

The combination of greens should total about 1 1/2 pounds. Make sure to include at least half non-brassicas like amaranth, lambsquarters, spinach, watercress, or Spanish needles. Wash the greens thoroughly, like this. Put the dripping wet kale in a large pot with a lid and turn on to medium. Add 1/4 c of water. As soon as you see steam collecting on the lid, turn the heat down to medium-low. Steam the kale until the stems are tender. Then add the other greens and steam until wilted and tender but still green. Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat until it stops foaming. Add the onions and fry until the onions start to brown. Add the ginger and garlic and continue to cook, stirring regularly, until the onions are well browned and the garlic and ginger are golden. Add the cumin through asafoetida and continue to cook until the entire mixture is sizzling and smells cooked.
Scrape the onion-spice mixture into a large blender. Blend for a few seconds- enough to get it all chopped up. Add half the greens and puree the mixture until it is thoroughly blended. You want it really smooth. Pour the blended mixture back into the frying pan and set over medium-low heat. Then puree the remainder of the greens until smooth, adding water 1 tbl at a time if necessary. The puree should be thick like stew, not thin like soup. Add the remainder of the pureed greens to the frying pan and bring to a simmer. Stir and let everything simmer together for a few minutes. Cut the queso fresco/paneer into cubes and add to the simmering greens puree. Let everything simmer together, stirring regularly, until the cheese is hot all the way through- about 10 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. The queso fresco I use is quite salty so I do not add salt until after the cheese has cooked in the sauce for a bit. Add a tablespoon of cream just before serving.
Serve this with rice or flatbread, or if you’re grain-free it’s really great over a baked sweet potato.

ForageFest- Year 1

I started out from Sebastian at 6:15am, south on 75 watching the mist over the trees. Then turned west on 70 and BAM- one lunar eclipse, right in front of me. I watched that lunar eclipse until the brightening sky faded the moon from view. Not long after, I spotted a caracara on the side of the road and damn near wrecked the car craning my neck around to watch it. Then I spotted my first redwinged blackbird, and then I saw otters on one of the canals! It was a lovely drive to Arcadia and I arrived on site in great spirits.

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The first half of ForageFest started with a great lecture on local medicinal plants and bioregional herbalism from Emily Ruff, which was a great way to kick everything off. She’s a good speaker, very engaging, and makes herbalism seem super approachable. Then everyone chose between three leaders for weed walks. I chose to follow Andy Firk’s plant walk. I was proud that I already knew more than half of the plants he selected to talk about and he introduced me to a couple non-edibles I’ve never seen before- meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana) and a rare terrestrial orchid that I believe was Spiranthes vernalis. I snacked on tender smilax tips the whole way and managed to avoid the prolific poison ivy. Then everyone headed into the community center for a potluck lunch. Everyone was encouraged to bring dishes including foraged foods and I did see a few. I brought a crockpot of palak paneer made with spinach, kale, and spanish needle, which must’ve been as good as I thought it was because that pot was empty in five minutes. I will definitely make that recipe again, photograph it, and post it here.

meadow beauty

After the next workshop everyone moved down the road to Bamboo Gardens for the second half of ForageFest. Bamboo Gardens is hard to describe- it’s a combination of medicinal and edible subtropicals nursery, teaching garden, food forest, and homestead. I found his property profoundly inspiring- his live oak overstory and the way the space was laid out was so close to what I had envisioned for my own farm that I spent a long time wandering around and soaking it all in, and then spent much of the following workshop on edible mushrooms either mentally editing farm layouts or frantically scribbling notes and ideas in my notebook. Then came time to do what I drove down there to do- buy and trade plants! I brought an Alpinia katsumadai cutting, a few Vitex negundo, and some Scrophularia ningpoensis for Andy’s forest garden. I went there for Curcuma zedoaria but he only had one pot left, so I bought a few other plants and he shared several cuttings with me, including a lovely new Alpinia galanga. I left soon before dark and drove back to Sebastian.

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I’m glad I went. I met some really great people, soaked up more edible wild plants information and identification experience, but would definitely like to visit Bamboo Gardens again when there are fewer people.

Cassava Bread- A Food History Rant

I really wanted to title this “Cassava Bread is Not for Hipsters” but I don’t want to limit this to hipsters- it’s not all their fault.

Today I came across this recipe for Cassava Flour Tortillas, made with New and Improved Cassava Flour. New and Improved Cassava Flour is $18 for 2 lb. New and Improved Cassava Flour “is the very highest quality cassava flour available. Other cassava flours are hand peeled and sun dried. That sounds romantic, but unfortunately hand peeling misses small pieces of peel, resulting in grittiness or a “sand-like”crunch in the finished product.  If that’s not bad enough, sun drying presents its own issues. Because drying cassava in the sun takes so long, the cassava flour ferments and takes on a sour, musty smell and taste.  Otto’s Cassava Flour is thoroughly peeled and flash dried into a beautifully clean smelling and tasting flour you can count on again and again.”

You can count on it to make fake European baked goods that are supposed to be made with grain flours, maybe. Take a look at the recipes. What about all the traditional ways to eat cassava?

cassava 2014

Before Otto convinces you that he can improve on lowly and obviously inferior traditional foods, let’s learn more about cassava.

Did you know that cassava is the staple food for a huge swath of tropical and subtropical countries? Cassava was the main starch and staple food for the entire Amazon until the Europeans came, killed most of the native peoples and started trying to grow wheat, their native grain. They killed so many of the native people they had to import African slaves. Many of the African slaves escaped into the vast jungle and adopted native Indian customs, including the foods like cassava. Traders took cassava and introduced it to Africa, and then southeast Asia. It would be impossible for me to communicate the importance of cassava as a staple food without writing a very long essay. There are some better ones here and here. Cassava is important.

Cassava bread, called casabe, is also important. Cassava bread is made from ground fresh cassava and is the daily bread of millions of people in the Americas. Get that? Tortillas are made from nixtamalized corn and are the daily bread of the peoples of Mexico and Central America, before and after the Europeans arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Europeans wanted wheat, which was difficult to grow and therefore a status symbol. So native cooks started making tortillas with wheat flour instead of corn. So that “Cassava flour tortilla” recipe above is making a copy of a copy of a copy. It is re-inventing the wheel (or in this case, the flat bread) with a big side helping of cultural ignorance.

Now on to “gritty, sand-like crunch” and “cassava flour ferments and takes on a sour, musty smell and taste.” You’d better hope a Brazilian or Indonesian doesn’t read that, because that stuff is fermented on purpose. To imply otherwise is a lie. You don’t think people know how to prepare their traditional foods to make them taste good? There are countless ways to prepare cassava all over the world: simply boiledgrainy and dry like farofa, made into flatbread, made into dough for fritters, tamales, and empanadas, processed into starch and made into sago pearls for boba tea and tapioca for pudding, ground and dried for fufu, shredded and used in sweet desserts like cassava cake and singkong, and the starch makes incredible cheese rolls. And that’s just traditional cassava recipes! You can make just about anything with fresh cassava roots, which cost about $1 a pound. You can buy peeled frozen cassava in the freezer section at Walmart. You can buy tapioca starch at Asian grocery stores for like $3 a pound, and dried ground cassava of all kinds at any large Caribbean grocery store. If you live here in Florida you can grow it yourself.

Seriously people, if you really want a completely gluten-free flat bread, what about traditional corn tortillas? You can buy a pound of those for like $3. And who the heck pays that much for flour? If you’re doing the paleo thing, go find some fresh cassava roots and try some traditional recipes with cassava first. I promise you’ll love them.

Elephant Poo!

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This is 1.5 cubic yards of composted elephant manure. Yep, you heard me right. Elephant poop.

All that poop comes from Two Tails Ranch, an elephant sanctuary in Williston, about an hour away. Some of the gardeners on our local facebook gardening group recommended it because they will deliver small amounts. We can get compost delivered from lots of places but only 5+ cubic yards and that’s a hefty chunk of money all at once.  So we’re going to give the elephant compost a try.

Really, isn’t that cool?

Florida Herbal Conference- Year Two

So glad I volunteered for a work study position! Last year I didn’t know many people and felt disconnected. This year I had a great time, got to know many of the teachers and the other work trade volunteers, attended some great workshops, and made many more connections.

Some of the awesomeness, in no particular order:

1. Seeing Jeannie Dunn from Red Moon Herbs again. Her workshop on growing herbs for the wholesale market last summer at the Wild Herb Weekend was incredibly important to me- she made me feel like this wasn’t just a dream, that this was an attainable goal. It was more than inspiration, it was hard data. It was names and numbers and facts. It really took the whole project out of the fantasy dream realm and gave it shape and reality. Walking up to her on Saturday and telling her that the dream I had at the last conference is now happening, that I have in fact started that farm, was awesome indeed. I think she was happy that someone took her advice!

2. Hearing Juliet Blankespoor’s keynote speech. Her speech brought me to tears. She started her first herb business in a shack in Citra, FL in 1990. One of her first books, one of the books that inspired her the most, was Hygeia: A Woman’s Herbal. Want to know where I was in 1990? In Gainesville, 30 miles away, reading Hygeia: A Woman’s Herbal and considering becoming an herbalist.  The last third of her speech was about creating regional networks for medicinal herbs: herbalists, growers, and wildcrafters. My time is now.

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3. This. Steven Foster signed my copy of Herbal Emissaries!

4. Meeting Andy Firk from Bamboo Grove. I have been at events with him a couple times but never actually taken one of his workshops. At the conference I moderated his Edible Gingers class. There ain’t no geek like a plant geek! I liked him immediately. We were able to speak briefly about trading gingers, I bought one of his black cardamom plants, and gave him the contact info for a ginger taxonomist he did not know. I look forward to going down to his farm in April for a plant weekend.

5. Networking. Networking is not easy for me, I have a terrible time walking up and talking to strangers. Having a spiel that I practiced, business cards, and a sign-up sheet in my hands helped, but what helped most is that everyone I spoke to was welcoming and kind and interested in the farm.

I missed Earthskills to go to the herb conference, and I think I made the right choice. Such wonderful people!