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Herb Farm Update

I have planted the first trees.

Two weeks ago I walked around the property for an hour with the owner of Workman Forestry, Tom Workman. The land had been largely ignored over the winter, we had done some brush and small tree clearing but it hadn’t been mowed since October, and the vines were taking over. In Florida, any forest that has moderate soil fertility and doesn’t have a completely closed canopy, which is rare here, will have lots of vines. The majority of this property was mature trees, palms, and vines. (And poison ivy!) We’d been slowly, slowly making clearings by hand, cutting down small trees and brush, and the vines rushed to fill any space we created. I couldn’t clear land fast enough to plant before nature filled the space I had cleared. Mowing wasn’t enough, small chainsaws and machetes wasn’t enough.

zone three clearing

The answer is heavy machinery. Sure, I could’ve burned the whole property- Workman Forestry could’ve done that too- but there are certain things that rebound after fire or need fire to germinate. I don’t need things rebounding, I need them gone. So I sketched out two main planting areas and he pushed over and ripped out small trees, scraped off the topsoil, shallow roots, and forest duff, created berms to redirect storm water, and built up huge compost piles.

Zone three cleared

Two very large longleaf pines had fallen last winter, way too big for us to cut up with my medium-duty chainsaw. They cut up the trees and piled them up at the highest point on the property, and in the process created a more-stable curved path between the high area and the valley shown above. Now when I’m ready to use those huge logs I can just roll them downhill. Here are the logs, with my 18-year old son for perspective.

logs and james

It rained like crazy the day after this happened. I went out the day after, found out that the valley floor has a shallow clay pan (homemade pottery here we come!) and decided to plant trees anyhow.

first planting

One loquat and six Vitex negundo, finally in the ground! I also planted some rice paper plant in the back. It begins!

Ube Yam Potluck

A couple weeks back Michael Adler, of Edible Plant Project, harvested some huge ube yams and wanted to have a potluck so people could try different yam recipes together, but he needed a space with no dander-producing pets. I offered to host the event since I have a big dining room table and no pets. I met Michael at the downtown farmers’ market that week to pick up my five pound hunk of yam (about a third of the larger yam he harvested) and stuck it in the fridge for a week. I have to wonder- how did humans figure out that these giant things were edible? They don’t look edible- they look fearsome, like hairy stones. African yams are poisonous when raw, too- only the Chinese yams (Dioscorea polystachea) are edible when raw, though they may also have irritating oxalic acid crystals in the sap. The first human to try eating a yam must have been very, very hungry.


I had already bookmarked five recipes and that night narrowed it down to one savory dish and one sweet dish: A regional Hakka Chinese dish called Suan Pan Zhi and Filipino Steamed Ube Cake. It was surprisingly difficult to find recipes that used whole raw yam- many people buy frozen grated ube yams at the grocery store or powdered ube yam packets now, especially Filipino immigrants. I never did find savory dishes, specifically using ube yams, it seems that the purple ube yam (Dioscorea alata, not the Okinawa sweet potato/Ipomoea batatas which looks very different) is almost exclusively used for sweet dishes, so I substituted my ube yam for the Chinese yam (Dioscorea polystachea) in the Suan Pan Zhi recipe.

Making the Yam Dumplings

I was taken with the Suan Pan Zhi recipe because the technique to make the dumplings is very similar to gnocchi. First I scrubbed the whole yam with a scrub brush until I couldn’t see or feel any more sand. I found out quickly that the yam sap irritated my skin, so instead I just cut the whole monster into chunks big enough to fit in my pots and boiled it until I could pierce it with a knife. Then I dumped the pieces into a colander and they promptly fell apart. I spent the better part of an hour sifting through purple yam chunks, removing pieces of skin and rootlets.


Then I measured out 800 grams of boiled yam in a large bowl and 200 grams of tapioca starch (the 4:1 ratio suggested in the original recipe) and started mashing with a potato masher. That lasted about five full minutes before I pulled out the food processor. In small batches the dough came together in 20 seconds.


There is no better way to describe the texture of this dough than purple play-do, and I mean the old style play-do, the kind that bounced. If you try this recipe please be warned that I very nearly killed my expensive Ninja making the last batch- go slowly and give your food processor plenty of time to cool down between batches.  Then I sat down in front of the TV and made dumplings. The dumplings in this dish are shaped like the beads made for the abacus, and therefore are a symbol for good luck with money. The dough did start to dry out at the end, so I had to add a few drops of water.


Then I boiled the dumplings just until they floated. I drained them and tried a few… and was rather disappointed. The texture was good, starchy and a bit bouncy and not tough, but they had very little flavor.


I made the stir-fry and the steamed yam rice cakes the next evening as people were arriving for the potluck. The potluck was such a success! We had people bring yam oven fries, vegan ube yam rice pudding, and a spectacular Filipino-style ube cheesecake. I made the dumpling stir-fry and a steamed ube mochi-like cake, and threw together a batch of fried rice just in case. I got to meet some new people and try some new recipes and share them.



I changed the traditional recipe pretty significantly- I can’t eat dried shellfish. This was pretty darn good. I really enjoyed the starchy yam dumplings.

Yam Abacus Bead Stir-Fry

2-3 tbl oil
4 cloves of garlic, minced
Handful of scallions, chopped
bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 lb boneless pork, sliced thinly
1/2 lb yellow tofu, cut into matchsticks
1 packet of dried wood ear mushrooms, rehydrated with boiling water
1/2 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp honey
1/4-1/3 c water
Couple pinches of chile flakes
Full recipe of yam abacus beads

Heat the oil in a large wok. Stir-fry the shiitakes until they are nice and browned. Take the shiitakes out and cook the pork in batches until browned. Add the garlic, wood ear mushrooms, and shiitakes back to the wok and fry again until the garlic is sizzling. Add the soy sauce, honey, water, and chile flakes. When it starts to steam then add the yam dumplings, scallions, and cilantro. Toss everything together and cook until it’s all sizzling and boiling together, then put a lid on the wok and turn off the heat. Let it all steam cook together for a few minutes until the dumplings are heated through.

The Cassava Cuttings are Alive!

I harvested last year’s cassava in December and January. I cut the good canes and put them in a basket in the greenhouse.

In late February I pulled the canes out of the greenhouse and stuck them in a bucket of rainwater to soak, and then laid them out to sprout. Two weeks later, no sprouts. I posted to the local gardening group asking for advice, and several people thought the canes might be dead since it probably got below freezing in the greenhouse. I figured they were dead and threw them in a bucket.

While I was away in mid-March, we got several inches of rain, which ended up in the bucket.

I was cleaning up around the greenhouse on Sunday and LOOK


About half the cuttings had sprouted!! Now I am soaking them on purpose with just the bottom few inches in fresh rainwater, changing the water every couple days, to try and force them to root. I have six cassava plants that I successfully started myself! I’m so excited!


Aren’t they cute?

Man vs. Armadillo

Man vs. Armadillo

Well, woman against armadillo anyway.

We’ve had an armadillo on our property somewhere for about a year now. For a long time it’s been not too destructive. Now I think it’s either invited all its armadillo friends or it’s had a million armadillo babies, because my front yard now looks like a miniature bombing range.

armadillo holes

The armadillos have dug so many holes that we now can’t even mow, because the mower just sucks up dirt and gets caught in the holes. That tall grass is actually winter oats cover crop seeds that I scattered in the fall to stabilize old armadillo holes. I’m trying to live with the armadillos. In a forest, armadillos’ digging is important for turning over the soil and eating bugs. In my yard it’s just making a big mess.

armadillo holes2

I might even be willing to live and let live, but they’ve started digging in my herb beds. That cannot continue. So now my husband wants me to call a pest control company and have them trapped and removed.

So I’m looking for suggestions. How should I repair the lawn? My lawn has never been just grass- I love having all sorts of small flowering plants in there too. I just mow whatever. I can’t plant over any more lawn- according to the landlady, converting 50% of the lawn to native flower beds and a forest garden is enough. The soil’s pretty good. There’s too much foot traffic for perennial peanut (I’ve already tried). I’m actually considering tilling the whole thing and putting down sod! Any suggestions?

Homemade Wattle Fence

Permaculture Principle #6- Produce no waste

I have armadillos again. A whole family of them, if the number of holes they dig all over the yard is any indication. Fortunately they tend to stick to the pathways and lawn since they can’t jump or even climb very well but they do get into the beds sometimes, especially when there’s disturbed soil.

So when I planted my spaghetti squash seeds I wanted to make sure the armadillos couldn’t get into them. I have kept the trimmed branches from my peach and plum trees- hopefully to make baskets with. So I took some of the branches and wove them into a simple fence.

wattle fence

Sorry for the crap photo. But look at my fence! I will be doing this more often. Use what you have.

Spring is Springing

I’m seeing signs of spring and they just can’t come fast enough for me. Even though this winter has been mild, I’m read for everything to be green again.
My sweet peas are finally blooming, and I ate my first sweet pea yesterday.
My larger wild plum is blooming like crazy, along with everyone else’s wild plums in the neighborhood. The redbud trees are blooming, too.
The mustard greens are almost ready. This was my winter cover crop for the turmeric bed. I’m really looking forward to harvesting all these mustards, making a huge pot of sarson ka saag, and then planting this year’s turmeric crop.
Peach blossom! The peaches and plums are blooming like crazy too. I pruned them hard this year- I think I did it right and pruned enough. Next month it will be time to fertilize all the fruit trees with chicken manure and lay down the spring layer of hay. Hopefully this year I will ask the right questions and get hay that has not been poisoned with persistent herbicides. If I can’t find clean hay then I will rake pine needles and use pine needles instead of hay.

What signs of spring are you seeing?

Back Yard Sancocho

Sometimes in my fiddling with recipes I stretch a dish until it breaks, too far removed from the original flavors or technique to be covered by that name any more. I thought maybe I had done that with this dish, but after doing a bit of research on sancocho (and its culinary brethren, ajiaco) I think I’m still well within the boundaries. Sancocho is a thick, slow-simmered stew filled with tropical root vegetables. The base is always some variation of sofrito and whatever meats are available, usually more than one kind. There are fish versions, too! This is a dish with many regional and seasonal variations, and I think my “Floribbean” version fits just fine.
These are all subtropical/tropical root vegetables. From the top left: ube yam, boniato, yellow yam (called in our local grocery store nyame to not confuse it with sweet potatoes, which some people around here call yams), yautia/white malanga, sweet potato (in Spanish speaking countries also called camote and batata), and cassava/yuca. The cassava and sweet potato I harvested out of my back yard. The yautia I am also growing in my back yard but it’s not ready for harvesting. The yellow yam, boniato, and purple yam I am going to be growing in the coming year and are grown all around me. I bought extra roots for sprouting.
While I am disappointed with the size of my cassava harvest this year, I am pleased with the way the roots taste. See the pure white color? That’s because these were dug up and processed for cooking on the same day. I found out the hard way this year just how perishable these roots are. When you buy cassava in the grocery store they are dipped in wax to help preserve them and even then often have gray streaks and soft moldy spots. Let me tell you, fresh cassava really tastes different than the dessicated moldy wax-covered roots you buy in the grocery store. The frozen is much better if you must choose the grocery store.
Maricel Presilla says that “In the Americas, sancochar came to mean cooking by slow simmering until the meat comes off the bones and the vegetables practically melt into the broth”. That’s definitely what you want here. This stew is wonderfully flexible. Use whatever tropical roots you have. You can add chunks of calabaza/pumpkin, green bananas (guineos verdes) or green-to-yellow plantains. You could even add potatoes and carrots if you like. In summer slices of corn on the cob are traditional. You can definitely make a more traditional sofrito than mine- my hubby can’t eat onions so the sofrito used here definitely isn’t traditional. If you can’t find aji dulce or aji cachucha then you can use a mixture of sweet red peppers and cubanelle peppers, but whatever you do, don’t buy the recaito in a jar- it’s terrible.

Back Yard Sancocho

1 cup Caribbean soup base
2 tbl lard, infused with achiote if you have it
4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp dried oregano
salt & pepper
1 lb chicken legs and thighs, or boneless thighs
1 lb smoked pork ribs, or any smoked pork cut that’s not too fatty
6-8 c water or chicken broth
1-lb cassava root
1 yautia/malanga
1 sweet potato
1 boniato
1 yellow yam
Extra fresh culantro/recao or cilantro for serving

Melt the lard over medium heat in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot. When the lard is hot, add the soup base, chopped garlic, and cumin. While the sofrito is cooking, you can start to get the roots ready. Tropical roots oxidize very quickly. Get a large bowl of cold water ready. Peel the yautia, sweet potato, boniato, and yellow yam. Immediately put each peeled root into the water. Once they’re all peeled, take each out of the water and cut it into chunks and put it back into the water immediately. Now cut the cassava into narrow pieces, peel each piece, remove the vein, and cut into smaller pieces. (If you’ve never processed whole cassava roots, instructions and photos are here) Cassava cooks slower than most of the other roots, so cut the cassava smaller. Fry the soup base until it starts to dry out and sizzle. Add the meats, roots, oregano, about a teaspoon of salt, and enough chicken broth or water to almost cover the roots. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, turn down to low and simmer for an hour. Lift the lid, stir, and continue simmering until all of the roots are cooked through. Pull the chicken and pork out, remove the meat, shred it and add it back to the pot. Taste the broth and add salt, pepper, oregano to taste.

De-Seeding Peppers

I found a new technique to de-seed peppers in large batches!

I don’t like pepper seeds. They have a terrible texture, tend to get bitter after long cooking, and are sometimes the hottest part of the pepper. If you want to take the heat down a notch or two in anything with lots of chiles, you can remove the seeds. I got a huge bag of aji dulce chiles and wanted to make sofrito, but the chiles were a teeny bit too hot and I wanted to get rid of the seeds.


So many peppers! These gorgeous peppers were grown at Forage Farm.

I cut the stem off each pepper and cut them in half.


Now take the halved peppers and put them in the food processor. Process in bursts until the flesh is finely chopped but not pureed. scrape the minced chiles into a bowl and cover with water by at least an inch.


The pepper seeds float to the top! Isn’t that great? Stir the bowl gently to get all the seeds to float.


And then you just scoop them out with a strainer! Isn’t that cool? After you’ve removed all the pepper seeds, drain the minced chiles and proceed with the recipe. I was making sofrito.

seasoning base1

Winter 2016 Cassava Harvest


I had a crap cassava harvest this year. Seriously crap. No diseases or anything, but less than ten pounds of usable roots out of six plants. This bed is on the north side of the house and just doesn’t get enough sun. The soil’s good though, and it’s a very protected spot, so I’ll probably dig up the non-edible elephant ears and plant taro here.


I have learned my lesson though. The first plant I dug up, I left the roots attached to the root crown and outside for three days. Then I went out to cut the usable roots off the root crown and brought them in to cook them up and they were completely streaked with gray. The roots had already started to oxidize, and they’re no good to eat after they start to oxidize. They taste bad. So the rest of the small harvest I processed immediately. Cassava is much easier to peel when it’s freshly dug. What I couldn’t use within a couple of days I froze. In the spring I will be moving the cassava bed to the sunny front yard into a bed that I’ve been composting in place for a couple months already.

Farm Progress!


This morning the surveyors came! They said it would only take an hour, it took almost four hours because the property had not been surveyed since the 1940’s. Fascinating process. Now to start the fencing.