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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Burdock Adventures, Week Ending 6/2/2019

Common burdock (Arctium minus) regularly infiltrates lawns and fields in central MD. I first noticed burdock in our yard last year, and once I knew what to look for I saw it everywhere.

This year, we cleared out an area in our yard choked with weeds and overrun by poison ivy and honeysuckle. In the midst of this mess, I uncovered several second year burdock plants. I carefully marked them with flags so they wouldn’t “accidentally” get mowed with the other weeds.

Since burdock is a biennial, these burdock plants were already large and have since grown even bigger. They would make nice show pieces in an edible landscape, if they weren’t randomly located in our front lawn! In late spring, the second year roots are too big and tough to harvest for food. Plus, with the size of these plants I can’t fathom how big the roots must be. When we harvested first year plants for roots last year, we invested a lot of effort for the amount of food we got out of it.

First Year Burdock Roots

First Year Burdock Roots

(I apparently never posted about eating burdock roots, oops? Rest assured, the julienned roots nicely complemented the other flavors in a stir fry.)

Like other biennials, second year burdock sends out flowering stalks. Before they flower, the immature stalks can be harvested and many sources said they were the best part of foraging burdock – no digging required! Timing is everything; as you wait, the stalks get bigger, but as they grow they become more tough and bitter.

Second Year Burdock Patch

Second Year Burdock Patch

Apparently, when you topple the flowering stalk, the burdock plant sends up a new one to try producing flowers and seed. I’ve read that one plant can produce as many as three harvests of immature stalks. Sounds like a great food source to me!

Each flowering stalk had several side-shoots as well. I wasn’t sure if they were worth collecting too, so I harvested everything to be sure. Since this little experiment – just a few days ago! – I read that if a burdock stalk has laterals, it is already past its prime. Oops again?

Burdock leaves allegedly have medicinal properties, but I know even less about foraged medicine than I do about foraged food! I just composted the leaves I cut from the stalks.

Harvested Burdock Stalks

Harvested Burdock Stalks

Honestly, I struggled to efficiently and quickly peel the stalks. I used a paring knife and kept working until I only had the smooth insides. The fibrous outer portion seemed to take forever to clean away.

A cross section of a large burdock stalk

A cross section of a large burdock stalk

The smaller stalks from the side shoots were easier to peel, but had a much smaller core for the amount of effort required to get to it.

A cross section of a small burdock stalk

A cross section of a small burdock stalk

I eventually gave up on peeling these smaller pieces.

Also, the burdock ended up staining my hands slightly brown. None of the resources I’d researched on burdock mentioned this side effect. Not as bad as black walnut, mind you, but still noticeable. You can just see the stain on my fingers in the pictures above.

At long last, we had a side-dish-worth of burdock stalks. It didn’t add up to much!

Finally... Peeled Burdock Stalks

Finally… Peeled Burdock Stalks

I microwave-steamed the stalks with two tablespoons of water for six minutes, stirring partway through. I dressed the stalks with butter and salt. The flavor was OK, but nothing remarkable. Certainly not worth all the attention they garner as a wild food. One book I read compared the flavor to cardoons, but I have never eaten a cardoon – I actually had to research what a cardoon even is – so I cannot offer an opinion there.

One of my kids bravely nibbled a bite, and claimed it tasted like artichoke hearts. And so it did! In this family, steamed artichokes are enjoyed with mayonnaise – hey, don’t judge! – and indeed we all enjoyed the burdock stalks a lot more after dipping them in mayo.

The real question is: would I do it again? I only harvested what I thought we would eat, so several stalks linger in my yard. Plus, the three plants who sacrificed their stalks ought to produce new ones as well. Maybe I will try slightly younger stalks next time… stay tuned!


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Flavorful Foraging, Week Ending 5/26/2019

There’s so much going on wild-food-wise right now in Maryland! I could fill this blog with pages and pages of photos of the amazing bounty out there, in the woods and in the fields.

However, I am realizing more and more that knowing “what” is edible is useless if you don’t know what to actually do with it. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, not only can you eat garlic mustard, but you really should eat it to remove this exotic invasive species from delicate native ecosystems.”  But what does one do with this knowledge? Not much, without knowing how to eat garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

A lot of foraging books toss out suggestions, but few actually provide recipes. Garlic mustard pesto gets mentioned frequently, so I decided to give it a try.

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Luckily the internet provides recipes that the books don’t. I used the recipe here as my starting point, substituting toasted hazelnuts for the walnuts since that is what I had. Plus, I am actually growing hazelnut trees (although I still have years to wait before they produce nuts) and I like to adapt recipes to use as much of my own harvest as possible.

Also, rather than using leaves from the second year stalks as in the original receipt, I used first year plants.

Garlic Mustard Pesto In Progress

Garlic Mustard Pesto in Progress

Wait, haven’t I written previously that first year garlic mustard isn’t worth eating?

One key to harvesting garlic mustard greens is timing. In Nature’s Garden, Samuel Thayer shares the secret: the “meristem”. The meristem is the part of any plant where growth occurs. Because it is growing, the meristem is often lighter colored, softer, and milder flavored compared to established parts of the plant. In other words, it’s the most edible part.

Delicate, tender garlic mustard in the spring

Delicate, tender garlic mustard in the spring

Which explains why first year garlic mustard leaves are unpalatable in fall – they have finished growing for the season, and the leaves are tough and bitter. In spring, however, new first year plants are coming up, with young tender leaves that are much more enjoyable. To some people anyway. Others will find garlic mustard to be too intense no matter how early you harvest it!

Personally, I found the garlic mustard pesto a delightful change from the typical basil-based version. Although if you are serving it to guests, you should warn them to sample a small amount before diving in!

Three more notes:

  1. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but the flavor is still too pungent for your taste buds, next time substitute 1 cup of the leaves for a milder-flavored green. In the photo above, you can see young lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) in the lower left corner. That’s a great candidate, and adds a nutritional boost as well. Spinach would also work. I wouldn’t recommend another plant with a strong flavor – like basil, for instance – because it could clash with the flavor of the garlic mustard rather than simply taming it.
  2. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but just … you know … never eat crackers or toast to put the pesto on, blend two parts pesto to one part white wine vinegar. Poof! Instant pesto vinaigrette to enjoy on a salad.
  3. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but don’t seem to eat very much at a time, you can always freeze the leftovers for later.