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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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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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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Mother Earth News Fair 2019

This past weekend, the Mother Earth News Fair visited Frederick, MD. I enjoyed the event as much this time as I did last year, and managed to attend both days.

Each day was full of presentations on sustainability topics, permaculture, renewable energy, gardening and cooking. I actually had submitted a proposal for a session on foraging as an approach to defend Maryland ecologies from invasive plants, but unfortunately they did not decide to include it. Maybe the topic was a bit too “fringy” even for them!

(You, dear reader, have gotten to enjoy bits of my presentation-to-be in several posts this year, including those on garlic mustard, knotweed, and field garlic.)

In addition to the interesting classes, I may have splurged on some purchases for my own little suburban homestead.

I purchased clay watering stakes for some of our container garden plants.

Clay watering stakes for container plants

Clay watering stakes for container plants

Each year I plant twice as many tomatoes as I want for my garden, so if some don’t germinate or die during the transition from indoors to the garden, I still have plenty. I always grow eight – two romas, two slicers and four cherries all in different colors. Friends adopted several of my leftover plants, but I couldn’t bring myself to just compost the last three. They now live on my deck, but the pots are too shallow for thirsty tomatoes. Now I have a solution! The soil pulls moisture from the clay stake as needed, and the glass bottle lets me monitor the water level. Plus I clearly need to drink more wine for the other stakes I bought!

Plant nanny in action

Plant nanny in action

(Because the we suffer frequent high winds, the bottles need to be lashed in place.)

(Also, I clearly need to drink more wine because we didn’t have enough bottles!)

I also bought a wicked new weeding tool which will get used in some weed-infested beds.

My new weeding tool

My new weeding tool

The hot dry weather in late May made the weeds go absolutely crazy. I found that my claw tool missed too many weeds, and the dandelion fork takes too long removing a single weed at a time. With this new “batwing” shaped tool, the wide blade and sharp corners provide a variety of ways to wage war on weeds. The bad weeds, I mean. The good weeds are of course allowed to stay put!

But wait, I like this weed...

But wait, I like this weed…

The lions mane plugs I bought last year never produced any fruiting bodies. (Yes, that’s what the edible part of a fungus is called!) Too many beginner’s mistakes I suspect – wrong type of wood, not enough plugs per log, possible infestation of other fungus by the time we inoculated the wood…there’s really no telling. I contemplated buying new plugs, but I don’t feel like I have learned enough to assure success just yet.

Last but not least, I bought a book. Yes, a real actual hardback book. I didn’t mean to buy this book from Marie Viljoen at 66 square feet.  I have been on a book diet for several years, after realizing that most books I buy sit unread on the shelf, awaiting the magical day when I have enough time to read them. Now I only get books through the library. That way when I never get around to reading them, at least I didn’t spend any money! I have checked out a few books often enough, I decided to buy my own copy for future reference. I didn’t find any of them at the MEN book fair, but I did find Forage, Harvest, Feast.

Forage, Harvest, Feast

Forage, Harvest, Feast

Marie’s book is everything I hope for the foraging book I will write some day. Informative, beautifully photographed, and full of delicious looking recipes. Only my book will be focused on Maryland foraging and local eating. I bought this book as much for inspiration as the actual content. (I coulda gotten it a lot cheaper on Amazon, apparently. Oh well.)

There were different vendors from last year, and fewer of them; and a lot fewer attendees as well. I overheard a few vendors discussing how much lower their sales were this year, compared to last year. I don’t know whether the low attendance was due to conflicts with other local events, or because the Frederick Fiber Fest wasn’t colocated with the Fair this time like it was last year. I’ll be curious to see whether they have a MEN Fair in Frederick again next year. Since I have only attended this one, I can’t compare attendance with other venues. (No, I never did make to the session in Seven Springs, PA last September.) On the other hand, last year I also speculated about whether it would be hosted in Frederick again, and it was. So I guess time will tell!


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How to Suck at Gardening and Still Feed Your Family

I am not the world’s best gardener, but I think I have unlocked the biggest secret to achieving some kind of success at growing and harvesting your own food.

Perseverance.

Last year, my strawberry crop was decimated by storms of Biblical proportions that flooded cities and washed away roads. Honestly I was “lucky” that my biggest loss was a few gallons of strawberries.

This spring, the weather continues to be bipolar – running the heat a few days as temps plummet into the 40s over night, in May! And then flipping on the AC less than a week later. But the precipitation has remained at manageable levels. With a little supplemental drip irrigation, my strawberries have flourished.

(Although I always found it strange that my Junebearing strawberries produce fruit in May… possibly due to their location on the warmer side of the house.)

Strawberries galore!

Strawberries galore!

So far, I have harvested enough strawberries to be worth sorting them. Unheard of. Normally we eat whatever we can, and freeze whatever remains before they can go bad. The frozen berries get used in smoothies and baked goods throughout the year until the next crop. This abundance despite the fact that a skunk has taken up residence under our shed (sigh) and helps herself to several berries each night (deeper sigh).

When sorting, I save the biggest and ripest for eating. These sit out on my kitchen counter, where they lure the children into eating something healthy. (Yay, fresh fruit!)

The smallest and lumpiest berries I put aside for the freezer. Berries with too many seeds as well. Since these will get cooked into desserts or blended into smoothies, their size and awkward shape matters less.

Strawberries for Eating (left), Freeze Drying (center), and Freezing (right)

Strawberries for eating (left), freeze drying (center), and freezing (right)… the lighting really doesn’t do justice to the colors!

The third category – new for me this year! – includes the berries of decent size which just aren’t quite ripe enough. Picked when not quite at their flavor peak… picked a day or two early to ensure the skunk doesn’t get them first! These are getting sliced then processed in our Harvest Right freeze dryer. Because the freeze dryer removes all moisture from the fruit, the weak, watery flavor of less ripe fruit becomes concentrated into delicious thin, crispy wafers.

Half the batch gets saved for long term storage (up to 25 years, if the ads are correct) and the other half gets scarfed down even faster than the fresh berries. (While drinking plenty of water, of course.)

Point being, if I had let last year’s disaster discourage and derail me, if I had quit following the loss of the whole harvest, I wouldn’t be enjoying the bounty now. Of course, who knows what next year will bring! Good ol’ Maryland!


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Buyer Beware

This was supposed to be a victory post, celebrating the final stages in this year’s edible landscaping experiments.

Instead, I am writing a cautionary tale of purchasing plants from online sellers.

Back in early March, I went on a buying spree and purchased edible perennials from a variety of dot-coms based on availability and price.

I was most excited to order Maypops from DirectGardening.com. I had previously tried to buy passionflowers from a better known website, but had to cancel the order when I realized most passionflowers are NOT cold hardy to USDA agricultural zone 7A. (AKA my yard.) Maypops are a special variety of passionflowers that can withstand bitter winters in addition to climbing ugly fences, and producing stunning flowers followed by edible fruits.

FINALLY I received the shipping notice, and the plants FINALLY arrived today.

Except… these weren’t the plants I ordered.

red_vines

Apparently, Direct Gardening was sold out of Maypops. And rather than putting my order on backorder, or heaven forbid, contacting me about the situation, they sent me a substitution.

Of red vine passionflower.

Don’t get me wrong, these are very beautiful, and apparently also have edible fruit. But they are NOT cold hardy. They will not survive the bitter winter winds and ice and snow. The poor plants might survive in Maryland, on the southernmost parts of the Eastern Shore. But not Central MD. Not the greater Frederick area.

No one notified me that this substitution would be made. I could have saved everyone the trouble by explaining that these poor plants will die in the winter conditions my yard experiences. I am horrified that no one bothered to ask or even check if this was an appropriate substitution.

When I tried calling customer service, I got the run-around and no information at all about why an inappropriate replacement was shipped, or why I wasn’t notified of the change. It was clearly just a call center, and I could not reach anyone at the actual company for an explanation, nor could they return my call. This is a horrible way to run a business.

I finally learned that I can ship the plants back for a full refund, but the return shipping is at my own expense. Since I already paid $10 for shipping to get them, I’m sure it will cost at least that much to return them, meaning I have lost half the value of my purchase. No doubt once they arrived, I would be informed they were in damaged condition and I would have nothing to show for the trouble.

I will NEVER buy from this company again, and I am sharing this information to warn others who may be lured in by their low prices.

So I am going out now to plant these poor three vines in the ground, and enjoy them until their untimely deaths this winter.

(**Yes, I realize I could theoretically keep them in pots and overwinter them inside. But passionflowers can grow up to 20′ in a year, and pruning them enough to bring  them indoors seemed like just a different form of cruelty.)


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The Gardener’s Dilemma, Week Ending 3/31/2019

I’m late kicking off my garden this year. It’s been cold, the wind still blustery across my yard, and I don’t want to be outside. Plus I tried using “green mulch” last year, and frost bitten Austrian peas languish across beds and into the walkways. But company is coming, so I must get the garden and the yard to the point where they look presentable, even if they aren’t entirely productive.

But see… there’s these weeds.

Edible weeds.

And the weeds are growing now, when it’s still too cold for, well, almost anything accept weeds.

Best yet: they are growing without any work on my part.

But … they are weeds. They are thrive where they do not belong. And I need to remove them so I can grow the “real” food.

Chickweed (Stellaria media), my go-to replacement for salad lettuce in late winter:

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Johnny Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor), aka wild pansies, with their fragrant, edible flowers:

Johnny Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor)

Johnny Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) with its tart flavors providing a counterpart to the more stolid flavors  of other greens:

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

Miniature greens with the unflattering name of hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta):

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), an unassuming green for general cooking purposes:

Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Dead nettle’s frilly cousin, henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), also a green of generic utility:

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Common burdock (Arctium minus), whose roots will make a lovely addition to a stir fry when the ground has thawed enough to dig it up:

Common burdock (Arctium minus)

Common burdock (Arctium minus)

Field garlic (Allium vineale), the skinny, pungent relative of our domestic garlic and onions:

Field garlic (Allium vineale)

Field garlic (Allium vineale)

What I don’t have: peas, turnips, kale, lettuce, spinach, or any of the other spring crops we’re “supposed” to grow this time of year.

Maybe next week I’ll start gardening. Maybe.

P.S. – I did not include photos of wintercress (aka yellow rocket, Barbarea vulgaris) in this post, because the majority of my household considers it inedible. Boo.