In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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If You See and Old Pea…

Leave it be!

Today’s post in the “How to suck at gardening and still feed your family” series: what to do with the old peas that you somehow overlooked while harvesting.

These peas are past their prime, but are still valuable to the gardener!

These peas are past their prime, but are still valuable to the gardener!

The pod is turning yellow and drying out. By this stage, this pea is still edible but the flavor would be more starchy than sweet.

I used to pick these and compost them, or toss them as a treat to our small flock of backyard hens. They love peas almost as much as I do, and don’t really care if they are a bit past their prime!

My backyard flock

My backyard flock

But then I learned that peas are self-pollinating. For the most part, any given flower on a pea plant is most likely to fertilize itself, meaning that it will produce seeds whose characteristics are true to the parent plant. (OK, technically this only happens for open pollinated rather hybrid plants … but there are a lot fewer hybridized versions of peas than, say tomatoes.)

So rather than tossing these too-old-to-eat-peas, now I leave them on the plant to the bitter end. As I am pulling up the dead, withered plants, I locate those peas and collect them to dry and plant next season. This year, I even plan to label them so I know which variety of pea is which! (Oops?)

(As an aside, I plant several cultivars of pea – and many of the other vegetables I grow –  because they each have slightly different conditions in which they thrive. For instance this has been an amazing year for the sugar snap peas, although it’s only been “ok” for the bush-size shelling peas.)

Once the peas are collected and dried thoroughly, they can be stored in envelopes until the next time you plant. Peas, in central MD, can be planted both in the spring and fall. By keeping your own pea seeds, you become more self-sufficient and less reliant on businesses that want to control (monetize) every aspect of our lives. Additionally, you can harvest seeds from plants that do especially well in your growing conditions, or that have a particularly good flavor, and continue those strains that work best for you!


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Delighting in Daylilies, Week Ending 6/23/2019

Daylilies are a forager’s delight, and early summer is a great time to enjoy these beautiful wild edibles in central Maryland.

Generally speaking, in this area tawny daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) grow along roadsides whereas yellow daylilies (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus) are more likely found in yards as part of landscaping. Daylilies can be harvested for different types of food at different times of the year. Right now, the focus is on flower buds and flowers.

Tawny daylily

Tawny daylily

Daylilies are not “true” lilies, which have leaves going all the way up the flower stalk; lilies are blooming right now too, so make sure you find and eat the correct plant!

Locally daylilies are considered invasive, but you still want to make sure you’re not encroaching on somebody’s property. Also be careful foraging along busy roads – the usual disclaimers apply about pollution, chemical run-off and cars driving too fast!

Yellow daylily

The early spring shoots can be harvested when they are just a few inches tall. I have not actually tried this myself yet because I have spent this year trying to make sure I knew where the stands of daylilies are, so I can return for the shoots next spring. I’ve seen plenty of photos, but still wasn’t 100% confident I was looking at daylilies rather than, say, irises like Yellow Flag.

Daylily shoots in spring

Daylily shoots in spring

Apparently the flower stalks are edible, but I haven’t tried that either for fear of preventing flower buds which are my favorite part of the daylily so far. Don’t pick all the buds though, because then there won’t be any flowers!

Daylily flower buds

I enjoyed the flowers stuffed last year, but the buds are tasty too and so much less work to cook! I harvested the buds that still felt relatively firm when squeezed. If the bud seemed to separate into the three sepals (which look like petals once opened), I passed over them. Some authors say to harvest the buds when they are still green, but they much smaller at that point.

Daylily buds cooking

Daylily buds cooking

The immature flower buds are phenomenal sauteed in butter with light sprinkle of sea salt.

The buds which are closer to flowering are dried and used in Chinese cooking as “golden needles”. You can purchase golden needles in Asian grocery stores. They are used in dishes like mu shu pork and hot and sour soup. If you have an abundance of daylilies, you could try this as a way to preserve the bounty for later in the year.

If you are worried about harming the natural beauty of this plant, consider collecting the open flowers in the evening. They only open for one day (hence the name), so the flower is already spent anyway. In addition to stuffing, the flowers can be used as a colorful garnish on salads or cooked dishes.

Daylilies have underground tubers which are also edible. If you know of someone with a patch who plans on thinning it in the fall, this is a great opportunity to help them and gather some edible tubers at the same time. I have not tried the tubers yet, but hope to once the colder weather returns.

Some people experience digestive upset when eating daylilies. There doesn’t seem to be a clear pattern as to who has trouble or when. Some authors say you must habituate yourself to eating daylilies – a few small servings to get use to them before you have more. This practice is repeated yearly. On the other hand, one author says there is a genetic mutation, undetectable by looking at the plant, which makes certain plants more likely to cause gastric distress. As with all new foods, remember to try a small amount to see if you have any reactions before tucking into a giant helping!


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Edible Landscaping Tour Updates

It’s challenging to blog about gardening and landscaping in Maryland in the summer. I find that by the time I take photos and write the post, a week or more has passed and everything has changed!

Just a few small updates to my edible landscaping post from last week.

1. I added more plants to the pollinator bed. We now have bee balm (also known as wild bergamot), purple coneflower (also known as echinacea) and borage. They are all either self-seeding annuals or perennials, meaning little to no planting work in subsequent years. (OK, weeding may become an issue if the bee balm takes over the whole bed!)

More flowers in the pollinator bed: bee balm, purple coneflower, and borage

More flowers in the pollinator bed: bee balm, purple coneflower, and borage

2. The area in front of our shed now feature New Zealand spinach. I started them from seed but apparently they have very low germination rates. I only had success with 1/4 of the seeds I tried to germinate.

The New Zealand spinach is finally large enough to plant!

The New Zealand spinach is finally large enough to plant!

I protected these little guys inside for most of the spring, and hardened them extremely slowly for fear of something happening to them. New Zealand spinach can be cooked and eaten like ‘regular’ garden spinach – i.e., either raw or cooked – but they do a better job surviving in the summer heat, after conventional spinach has bolted. While it can be grown as a perennial, I’m too far north for this trick! I’ve read some reports that the NZ spinach can be a self seeding annual, but given how difficult it was to germinate indoors, I’m skeptical!

3. Last but certainly not least, we added bird netting to protect the blueberries from the ravages of the local cardinals. Which works great … until one finds his way in anyway, and then gets trapped! Luckily this has only happened once so far!

Gotta protect the blueberries!

Gotta protect the blueberries!

I still plan a garden update post as well, hopefully in the next week or so. Maybe I will wait until I am done writing before I take the photos!


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Who Speaks for the Bugs? Week Ending 6/16/2019

I know I already mentioned this podcast by Chris Martenson titled Living with Integrity.

I was struck, not just by the analogy of eating spoonfuls of oil, but his observations about dramatic declines in insect and bird life in his area. It made me reflect on how unaware I am of what’s “normal” here in central MD. I’ve never paid attention to birds and bugs before, beyond railing against Japanese beetles killing my plants…

Japanese beetle laying waste to crops

Japanese beetle laying waste to crops

…and the cardinals destroying my blueberries.

Blueberry damaged by a sharp beak

Blueberry damaged by a sharp beak

Then just a few days later, I read Chapter 10: The Myth of Nature from 33 Myths of the System. All of Darren Allen’s writing is powerful, and this was no exception. But I was surprised by the claim of 75% of insect life gone.

Seventy five percent? Really?

Today I was rummaging through the milkweed in the farmer’s field across the street. Good news! I actually have permission to forage here now, and the farmer hasn’t yet mowed. I am hunting for milkweed buds to eat as vegetables, and some milkweed flowers for a batch of liqueur.

Milkweed flowers for liqueur

Milkweed flowers for liqueur

Harvesting the flower parts should be “okay” from a ecological perspective because the farmer will probably mow this field in the next few weeks, before these plants could set seed anyway. No milkweed cheese for me this year! Even if my own modest patch manages to produce flowers, I wouldn’t harvest them (as flowers or young seedpods) to make sure I could plants more milkweed so the monarchs have something to eat next year.

Milkweed flowerbuds

Milkweed flowerbuds

So I creep through the tall grass in the field, harvesting milkweed flower buds and flowers, getting sticky sap all over my gloves, trying avoid any poison ivy and praying there are no ticks. I approach each plant carefully, tenderly, so I don’t disturb any caterpillars happily munching on the leaves. In fact, I might even relocate a few to my own yard, to make sure some survive the inevitable mowing of the field.

Only… there’s no monarch caterpillars.

Milkweed flowers

Milkweed flowers

Everywhere I look, the leaves are smooth and untouched by little caterpillar mandibles.

At long last, I find one. One singular monarch baby.

Poor lonely monarch baby

Poor lonely monarch baby

I carefully evacuate it to my yard, and hope I can find more in a few days … and that rain postpones the inevitable mowing further to buy me more time!


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Edible Landscaping Tour

I truly believe that people need to take more responsibility for their own food production. I know this isn’t realistic for everyone, but if food production became more local – hyperlocal, in the case of the gardener or forager feeding themselves and their loved ones – it would do a lot to help heal the planet by reducing the demand for fossil fuels. The beginning of this podcast by Chris Martenson reinforced that for me. (Although I’ve also read a number of books that discuss the dependence of our industrial agricultural food complex on the continued supply of cheap oil – Omnivore’s Dilemma, Nation of Farmers, and Folks This Ain’t Normal, among others).

To that end, I may have gotten carried away with this year’s project: edible landscaping.

To show you what I mean, here is a tour of the edible landscaping in my meager 1.85 acres. I haven’t gone completely crazy – we still mow way more lawn than I would like. But I’m also still learning how to take care of all these various plants and trees so I’m adding to the layout gradually. I goal is to plant as many perennials and self-propagating annuals as possible, to make the landscaping easier to maintain over time. I will post a separate (but also photo-heavy) update about this year’s garden efforts as well.

Where to start, where to start.

We’ll begin our tour at the driveway, with the items you might see if you were coming to my house for a visit.

This photo shows the beginning of my food forest. A “food forest” is an engineered forest, modeling forests as they occur in nature, but planted with trees, shrubs, pollinators and other plants that primarily provide benefit to humans. (I have a lot more to say about food forests in a future post.)

The future food forest - elderberry, serviceberry, mulberry, hackberry, and hazelnuts

The future food forest – elderberry, serviceberry, mulberry, hackberry, and hazelnuts

As you can see, I have a ways to go until this reaches “forest” status! I planted primarily local fruit and nut trees. The mulberry and elderberry (on the left) were already growing on their own. There are also two hackberries and a black locust in the center (ish). I have added three hazelnut trees, two serviceberries, and another elderberry. You can’t really see them in this photo – they are in the green wire cages on the left. They are all plants mentioned in foraging books for this area, so I guess you could say this counts as reverse foraging too. The hazelnuts are particularly important to me to reduce my consumption of almond flour. Since I don’t eat grains like flour or corn, I use almond flour in a few recipes. But despite how trendy almond flour is, almond growing is actually very problematic from an ecological perspective. Unfortunately, it will probably take several more years until any of the plants I added actually produce fruits and nuts.

In additional to the food forest, we also built a little pollinator bed.

The pollinator bed

The pollinator bed

It has a ways to go. The plants here are primarily flowers to attract bees and butterflies, since they help pollinate food crops as well. I’m trying to pick plants with medicinal or edible value to humans as well. Johnny jump ups, for instance have edible flowers. I hope to add wild bergamot, echinacea, and milkweed (of course!) to this bed soon.

By the front door is my strawberry bed.

The strawberry bed

The strawberry bed

They are done for the year, so the photo isn’t nearly as dramatic as it could have been. Yes, my Junebearing strawberries are all tapped out of fruit by June. Go figure! We have discussed removing the existing shrubs from the house and replacing them with fruiting shrubs as well, but I want to do a little more research before making that change, given how expensive that project would be!

Around the side of the house we find my gooseberries and herb wall.

Herb wall with gooseberries beneath

Herb wall with gooseberries beneath

Honestly, I had never even tasted a gooseberry until my husband brought these two plants home from a local nursery! But all the edible landscaping books mention them, so I felt like I had to have them. They fit perfectly in this spot under the herbs on the shed wall, transforming this bare empty space with splashes of color and sweet-tart fruit.

If you turn around from admiring the gooseberries, you’ll see my leftover amaranth.

Amaranth among the weeds

Amaranth among the weeds

I germinated a lot of amaranth using a technique called “winter sowing” (which is a post I still need to write), and ended up with leftovers. I hate throwing away or composting extra plants, and couldn’t find anyone to adopt them. We carved out a space among the weeds next to the chicken coop, and planted the golden and purple plants there. You can barely see them for the weeds (look for the arrows); they have a little mulch around them but the pokeweed, grasses, lambsquarter, and even some wild amaranth are closing in!

Still with me? Great! There’s more to see! The edible landscaping continues onto my back deck.

Tomatoes and eggplant in containers, flanked by scarlet runner beans

Tomatoes and eggplant in containers, flanked by scarlet runner beans

I’ve mentioned my container tomatoes previously; I also have three pots of eggplants (two plants per pot). The flea beetles in my garden inevitably shred the eggplant leaves to the point where the plants die, but somehow they can’t find them safely tucked away on my deck! These eggplants produce a miniature variety of fruit, which is the perfect amount for me and my husband to enjoy periodically in a stir fry.

The deck railing supports several scarlet runner beans, which not only display stunning red flowers, but also feed hummingbirds and produce edible beans. Next year we’ll plant a few more, in order for better coverage of the railing. In some climates scarlet runner beans actually survive as perennials, but I suspect our winter temperatures plunge too low here.

On the back side of the railing are my blueberry plants.

The blueberry bed

The blueberry bed

They are all low bush blueberries, to fit into this small space. (If/when we replace the foundation bushes in front of the house, we may use high bush blueberries which have a bigger profile.) They get less sun in this spot than they would like, but they are hanging on despite the suboptimal conditions.

Our yard beautification project extended to the chicken run as well.

The chicken run beautification project: nasturtium and redvine passionflower

The chicken run beautification project: nasturtium and redvine passionflower

Here you see busy, thriving nasturtiums – edible flowers and leaves, folks! – with my poor little redvine passionflowers (see the arrows) planted in between them. I doubt the passionflowers will survive long enough to reach their full potential of climbing and vining along the chicken fence, producing edible fruit. (If you are wondering why I have such a dim outlook on their fate, you can read my tale of drama and woe here. Also, if you know of a source for maypops – the cold hardy variety of passionflower that WILL survive in my USDA zone of 7A – please let me know!)

There is also comfrey planted at the far corner of the chicken run, but you cannot see it in the photo because a cheerful nasturtium blocking the view.

We recently had a hand pump installed for our well.

Rhubarb around the well

Rhubarb around the well

Now if the electricity goes out for an extended period of time (which seems to happen more frequently each year), we can pump our own water instead of having to haul it from the creek – which is half a mile away, down (and then back up) a steep slope. This provided another great opportunity for edible landscaping in the form of rhubarb. I have been timid about harvesting the rhubarb though, so the crowns can get more established in the hard clay soil.

Several years ago, we had our hilly backyard partially terraced and hardscaped. We tried planting fancy, pretty plants but eventually everything was choked out by weeds. I sheet mulched the entire area over the winter (that’s another post I haven’t written yet), and this spring started fresh.

Jerusalem artichokes, amaranth and milkweed

Jerusalem artichokes, amaranth and milkweed

Currently this hardscaping features some pretty standard landscaping plants like liriope (to the left) and ornamental grass (to the right). But we also planted Jerusalem artichoke (the plants with pointy leaves), golden and purple amaranth (which are still too small to really see in this photo). Some random milkweed (the plants with rounded leaves) managed to grow through the sheet mulch and of course I let it go because that gives me milkweed I KNOW won’t get mowed by the farmer across the street.

You might have noticed that despite the variety, everything is on a relatively small scale. We don’t harvest a ton of rhubarb every year, or so many blueberries there’s leftover to preserve. I don’t think I’ll harvest enough gooseberries at one time to make a gooseberry pie! And It was a surprise earlier this year when we got enough strawberries to be able to freeze dry some. I’m still learning how to steward all these different kinds of plants, and what to do with the food they produce.

Stay tuned for the follow on post about how my little garden is doing this year!


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Missing the Mulberries, Week Ending 6/9/2019

As we cleaned out the side yard over the past year or so, we uncovered a mulberry tree (Morus rubra). Well, we actually discovered many mulberry trees because they are practically weeds in our area, much like black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia).

Now the mulberry is a proud member of my growing food forest. Carefully mulched and with the weeds cleared away, I am finally getting a bumper crop of mulberries … sort of.

The black mulberries are ripe and ready to eat

The black mulberries are ripe and ready to eat

The easiest way to find mulberries this time of year is to look down, rather than up into the trees. Especially where branches hang over roads. The pavement will be smeared darker than usual, as the blackest, ripest berries fall to the ground and passing cars crush them. Many people find mulberry fruit to be a nuisance. I find them to be delicious, especially in this lull between the end of the strawberry crop and blueberries finally ripening.

The problem / challenge / opportunity is leveraging the mulberries in my yard. Yes, I love it when the ripe fruit falls to the ground… but then it’s a hassle to scoop up the berries from the grass and the dirt. So, following advice I found online, I spread a blanket under the tree to catch the berries. Well, a floating row cover as the case may be. I worried a blanket would smother the grass.

A failed attempt to catch mulberries as they fell

A failed attempt to catch mulberries as they fell

But that just made it easier for the birds to find and eat the fruit too! And because the blanket was on a slope, the slightest breeze blew the fruit right off. After a few hours, there weren’t many berries so I left the blanket. Then forgot about the blanket. A few days later, when I tried to collect the blanket, the handful of fruit I “harvested” had molded and stuck to the fabric. Ew. I threw the whole thing away, grateful it was “just” a row cover and not an actual blanket.

My mulberry tree is young enough I can reach a few of the lower branches on my tip-toes. But even with diligent effort, I could barely harvest enough berries for any use besides eating right then and there!

A sad, small mulberry harvest

A sad, small mulberry harvest

What would I do with the mulberries if I ever gathered enough to “do” anything? I don’t know! I will cross that bridge if and when I actually reach that point!

(There are also white mulberries (Mora alba) growing wild in central MD as well. They are considered to be invasive in this area.  I don’t know how the flavor compares to our “regular” mulberries, but it must be nice not getting your fingers and face stained purple from eating them!)