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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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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101 Uses for Butternut Squash

With the official end of winter (at least according to the calendar), the time has arrived to clean out our cold cellars and other over-winter food storage solutions.

I don’t have a “real” cold cellar, myself. I have cardboard boxes scattered through the basement, where I tried keeping winter squash, garlic, and onions through the coldest and darkest months. I also co-opted an extra fridge (much to the dismay of my electric bill) to stash leeks, cabbages, parsnips and salsify when the ice and snow closed in, making it impossible for them to remain outdoors.

On this day, two days after the spring equinox, one sole item remains, having lasted for  almost, I KID YOU NOT, seven months since I harvested it. Beginning of September to almost the end of March. (Counts on fingers again.) Yep, almost seven.

The produce item in question is a mutant. I suspect it is a hybridization of a butternut squash and a trombetta, both of which are cultivars of Cucurbita moschata – which means they can cross-pollinate. And apparently did! If I am correct, the parent plants crossed in 2017; a fruit – which could have been from either parent, as far as I understand – ended up in our rubbish heap; and in 2018 this monstrosity, and several others like it, flourished.

monster_squash

See that guy on the lower right in the Instagram photo below? Same. Squash.

The squash weighs over 8.25 lbs.  I think its amazing survival rate in storage was thanks to its skin-to-flesh ratio, for lack of a better phrase. Most of the “real” baby butternut squash (as shown below) caved in quickly – literally – because they lost more moisture due to their small size compared to surface area.

Given how much winter squash we ended up with last fall, everyone. Is. Sick. of. Squash.

Well, except me, but I can’t eat this whole thing by myself! So here is a list of ideas for using excess butternut squash. And no, I don’t *really* have 101 uses to offer, but I must be VERY creative in feeding it (or its mutant offspring) to my family. Also most of these recipes would probably work with other winter squash as well, not just butternut.

By the way, I wanted to make this a “fancy” blog post – you know, where all the recipe links displayed a photo from the original websites? But good grief, all those photos made the post go on FOREVER. I had to keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling… and that annoys me on other websites. So I ditched all the photos. Trust me, if you visit the original pages, you will see gorgeous, mouth-watering photos of the recipes in question!

1. When in doubt, roast it

This Cinnamon Pecan Roasted Butternut Squash is to die for. (Well my kids want to die each time I serve it, anyway.) You could also add some butternut squash into a roasted root vegetables recipe.

2. Stuff It

Although for this approach, you need a “normal” sized butternut squash, not the baby sized squash we mostly grew, nor the monster squash I’m dealing with now!

3. Mash It

I would suggest leaving some chunky texture in the mashed butternut squash, by the way, rather than pureeing it completely smooth.

4. There’s Always Soup

Yes, I know the “lazy squash soup” recipe calls for acorn squash, but I always use butternut squash instead. This is a great use for red onion or an apple that might be past its prime – once it has been roasted then pureed, no one can tell the difference!

5. Or Slow Cooker Soup

Which is just as lazy, in my opinion, but takes longer to cook.

6. Or Exotically Flavored Soup

Assuming you like curry, of course. Not everybody does. Especially my kids. Who thought this was the most unholy soup, combining both squash AND curry.

7. Top a Pizza with It

I mean, unless you have the sort of family that will stage an open revolt if you put vegetables (or fruit) on pizza!

8. Like Lasagna Noodles

Monster squash is a perfect candidate for this approach, by the way, because of its large size.

9. Or Even Spaghetti Noodles

OK, personally I am not likely to try this one. While I do own a Spiralizer, cleaning it is more work than I care for.

10. As a Substitute for Pumpkin Puree

I actually find this trick works well with pumpkin bread as well!

11. As a Cheese Replacement

Butternut squash lends both color and texture in replacing some or all of the cheese in recipes. I have even started using squash to replace part of the cheese in my go-to broccoli cheddar soup recipe. (Three cups is a LOT of cheese!)

12. As a Partial Sweet Potato Replacement

Butternut squash has fewer calories and carbs per cup than sweet potato, so it’s a great way to lighten up a sweet potato side dish. I wouldn’t use it for all the sweet potato in a recipe though because the difference in taste and texture may be more noticeable. Best not to tell your family if you’re pulling this trick at Thanksgiving Dinner!

13. Remember to Save the Seeds to Roast

For the record, this works MUCH better with large winter squash than my little baby butternuts. The seeds were too thin to bother with.

There you have it! 101 uses (or thirteen, as the case may be) for butternut squash. Now I have too MANY options for how to enjoy this squash… especially since it will be just me eating it!

What garden successes do you find yourself struggling to use up?


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Garden End, Winter 2018-2019

In the face of arctic cold, with snow blanketing the ground, I brought my 2018 – 2019 winter garden to a close.

This year, I coddled three different beds with a variety of cold-hardy crops, all the way into mid-January. We’ve never made it this long.

In exchange for my diligence in covering the beds when the cold- threatened, and peeling back the protective layers when the sun returned, yesterday I harvested:

  • Several small daikon radishes
  • Broccoli rabe
  • A singular carrot
  • Two parsnips
  • A variety of kale and chard leaves
  • Three small cabbages
  • More salsify than I know how to use
  • A few random hakurei turnips
  • A teensy little spinach

Winter gardening lessons I learned this year:

  • These crops all survived when temps unexpectedly dropped into the nid-20s one night. The straw tucked around them kept them alive even though the beds were exposed. (The forecast only called for lows around freezing… that’s what I get for believing the weathermen.)
  • Temps in the upper 20s / low 30s barely phased these plants.
  • Daikon radishes and hakurei turnips actually germinated and grew despite the cold.
  • I need to plant only in the centers of the boxes because the soil freezes at the sides.
  • I need to invest in better cold frames and low tunnels.
  • Winter gardening is tricky because most cold weather plants won’t germinate in the summer heat; but by the time it’s cold enough to germinate, it’s too late for them to reach a decent size to survive into the winter months.
  • I hope I like salsify! I planted it because I couldn’t find any grocery stores that carried it – now I have a ton of it! And by a ton, I mean around a pound. Which is a lot when you don’t know how a vegetable tastes!


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Complete Organic Fail

Well, I shouldn’t say “fail”. But using COF – “Complete Organic Fertilizer” – didn’t exactly go according to plan!

So Beautiful, So Unwanted

So Beautiful, So Unwanted

As I mentioned a few months ago, this year I opted for a more proactive approach to my garden’s health. Rather than waiting for pests and disease to strike, and then doctoring the plants to restore their vitality, I am trying instead (or more correctly, in addition) to fertilize my garden on a consistent basis.

I used the “complete organic fertilizer” recipe from Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts. Here is a copy of the recipe online. Problem was, not all the ingredients were available in my local DIY hardware stores. I had to order bat guano and cottonseed meal from Amazon. And the box of cottonseed meal was really small. And I am trying to purchase less if I can, or purchase locally if I must buy something. I mean, is eating from your own garden really “local” if you had garden amendments shipped to you from Amazon?

I called the local feed stores to see if anyone had seed meal. Seed meal is what remains after squeezing oil out of the seeds; the leftovers get fed to livestock. Buying seed meal bulk is more cost effective, if you can find it.

I couldn’t find it.

Everyone I called knew what I was talking about, but nobody still carried seed meal. Finally on the third try, the voice on the other end said, “You might try the farmer’s coop in town.”

(I guess this area still counts as the “country” if there is a farmer’s cooperative located downtown.)

Sure enough, they had seed meal in 50 lb bags, for less than $30. Versus the $50 for a 20 lb bag from Amazon. Flax seed meal, to be exact. Like you open the bag, inhale, and it smells exactly like the flax seed meal you buy at the grocery store. I don’t think it’s “graded” for human consumption though.

I schlepped the bag home, whipped up a fresh batch of COF, side-dressed my veggies and kicked back with a cocktail to await the amazing results of a healthy garden.

What I got was … flax. Everywhere.

Flax Says Hi

Flax Says Hi

I checked the label on the bag. According to the label, rather than flax seed meal, it was ground flax. Apparently viable seeds lingered in the mix, and flax loves the growing conditions I’d carefully cultivated for the vegetable garden. I mean seriously. I learned that flax might as well be a weed, it grows so vigorously in locations it isn’t wanted.

Flax Seedlings Everywhere

Flax Seedlings Everywhere

Other things I learned from this experience:

Flax seedlings can be turned under like a green mulch. Sometimes that’s the only way to combat them.

Flax seedlings are edible raw, and make a nice garnish on salad or fried eggs. Yes, really. Don’t judge.

Mmmm Flax Garnish

Mmmm Flax Garnish

I also learned that when you give up on weeding all the flax, and just let them grow, the flowers bloom a beautiful blue. Also, you can harvest the seeds … yay, just what I want, more flax seeds! But flax seeds are edible by both humans and livestock (isn’t that what got me into this mess?). I might even have a few friends crazy enough to process the flax plants for fiber, although apparently if you let the plants mature for a good seed harvest, the fiber will be very coarse.

And most importantly, yes – your garden really does perform better with regular fertilizer. I know that should be obvious, but it took me eight years to really grok this.

Will I keep applying COF, despite the hassle? I think so, although maybe I will rename it to “Complete Organic Flax”!


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Learning From Nature, Week Ending 7/29/2018

I fear the time is coming – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon (within our lifetimes) – when increasing numbers of us will have to grow increasing quantities of our own food.

Supermarket shelves are fully stocked at the moment, but just one major weather event massively disrupts distribution chains … and lately, “once in a century”-strength storms occur with increasing frequency.

More and more food crops which underpin grocery items are grown overseas, subjecting the supply to possible disruption by global political events that we cannot control.

Gas prices continue to creep higher, with the resulting ripple effect at every level of the industrial food production system.

And how many of us are already living paycheck-to-paycheck? Where will we get food if we lose our jobs, especially with grocery prices on the rise?

More of us need to start gardening, with all the associated painful learning curves. Taking clues from nature can help us understand planting cycles and environmental effects that impact both wild plants and their domesticated cousins; paying attention to nature can help shorten the learning curve. Here are a few examples from late July in central Maryland.

The wild amaranth (also known as pigweed, Amaranthus spp.) growing between my backyard and the farmer’s field has already grown to four and a half feet tall. The top of the plant reaches my chest!

Wild Amaranth

Wild Amaranth

The Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) I planted this year, by contrast, is a foot and a half tall at best. It should be seven to eight feet tall when full grown; I don’t think it’s going to make it!

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Lesson? The two plants photographed experience similar growing conditions – they are separated by around 60 feet. Maybe the soil is better closer to the field, but I doubt it. Most likely, I waited too late to plant. In 2019, I will try a month earlier and see how it goes.

My blackberries, while productive, have started looking worse for the wear. The leaves are turning yellow and brown, developing spots, and even falling off altogether. What on earth have I done wrong?

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

And then I realized wild blackberries look just as awful!

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Probably some environmental factor is impacting the wild and domestic varieties equally. Perhaps they are succumbing to an unseen infection following weeks of soaking wet weather, followed by weeks of excruciating heat and aridity, followed by another week of damp. Or – maybe it’s just what blackberries endure in mid-summer, having sunk all their energy into growing this year’s fruit and next year’s canes at the same time.

The last three examples all concern the timing of fall garden planning. In central Maryland, we are lucky to have a relatively long growing season. In my location, average date of last frost is April 15; average date of first frost is October 15. That’s six months (only counting half of April and October); plus at LEAST another month on either side (eight total) if you grow frost-hardy crops and use season extenders. (A twelve month garden is still my ultimate goal.) While no one wants to dwell in the garden in summer’s heat and humidity, now is definitely the time for planting fall crops!

The earliest Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) flowers have already started setting seed.  If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! Now is the earliest opportunity to plant carrots for harvest later this year.

Queen Anne's Lace Seeds

Queen Anne’s Lace Seeds

Field mustard (Brassica rapa) has also gone to seed, although conditions aren’t quite ready yet for the seed to disperse. Still, we can determine that soon we should plant Brassica crops like radishes, turnips, kale, cabbages, collards, and kohlrabi.

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Last but not least, wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has bolted and flowered – it no longer even resembles lettuce as it towers over neighboring plants.

Wild Lettuce Flowers

Wild Lettuce Flowers

In a few more weeks we should begin planting lettuce … assuming we haven’t already … because we’ve been suffering without home grown lettuce in our salads since everything in the garden long since bolted … I mean, just saying.

Also, a correction to some previous posts. Twice I have identified local weeds as upland cress (Barbarea verna), when they were actually the closely related yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). (Which is sometimes called winter cress, just to keep things confusing.) I have corrected the ID in both posts: Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8 and Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27. Whatever it’s called, it’s still super tasty!


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Berry Grateful

Welcome to my new series: how to suck at gardening and still feed your family!

One of the greatest disappointments we face when producing our own food is a scrawny, mangled harvest.

Mangled berries are still edible!

Mangled berries are still edible!

It’s important to keep trying, and not let your spoils, well, spoil.

Those mangled berries are edible, so use them! They are great in shakes, fruit leather, jams and syrups.