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!


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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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.


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!


Knotty Food, Week Ending 4/21/2019

Last Japanese knotweed post, promise! At least for this year. The knotweed has mostly grown to the stage where it is too mature to eat. I may be able to get one more harvest; we’ll see.

We recently found another patch of knotweed, only a few miles from our house. We are  watching this one even more carefully to make sure it stays there and doesn’t creep any closer to here. We speculate that last year’s rain storms washed knotweed roots to this location from somewhere further upstream.

Foraging Japanese Knotweed

Foraging Japanese Knotweed

Apparently once the knotweed grows tall, as shown in this photo, you can still harvest the leafy tips. You look for where the stem snaps off (like removing the woody parts from a spear of asparagus), then discard the leaves. I haven’t tried this myself; I am content to wait until next year’s shoots.

(For my previous posts on Japanese knotweed this season, you can read here and here.)

I took SkyeEnt’s excellent suggestion to use knotweed for chutney.  I halved the recipe which I found in the comments here, and still ended up with almost four cups. Everyone enjoyed it at a birthday party we hosted, but there is enough leftover I may need to freeze it. Or can it, if I am feeling extra motivated … although probably not. (Knot?)

Japanese Knotweed Chutney

Japanese Knotweed Chutney

I also started a batch of knotweed liqueur, using this recipe. Several months must pass before I can tell you how it turned out. Someone remind me later this summer! I used the thicker stalks for the liqueur so I didn’t have to worry about whether they were tough, or needed to be peeled.

Japanese Knotweed Liqueur

Japanese Knotweed Liqueur

I love the faint pink tinge, already present after a few days of soaking in the vodka. (And if you must know, I used high proof vodka so this will be an especially boozy liqueur.)

I decided to skip the knotweed pickles, because it didn’t make sense to invest time and energy into them when  my family won’t even eat homemade cucumber pickles!

The other recipe in which I did knot use knotweed was strawberry rhubarb pie.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

While many authors suggest using knotweed anywhere a recipe calls for rhubarb, I wasn’t ready to make that swap in this classic dessert. Maybe next foraging season!

Plus I have a whole year to dream up other ways to eat this very invasive plant. Eat the invaders!


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.


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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Salsify Bisque

One of the themes I am exploring this year is “localizable” recipes. Or maybe I mean “localable”. I’m not sure what the word is/should be yet because I am still inventing it.

Basically, the goal is to find, try and publish recipes that can be made with local, in-season ingredients for central Maryland. So even if they aren’t ACTUALLY local because I bought the ingredients at massive grocery store which is diversely stocked thanks to a global supply chain enabled by cheap oil, the  ingredients could be sourced locally if that same global supply chain came to an end. (Not speculating on the “why”… there are other blogs for that conversation.)

Since I recently brought my winter garden to a close, I thought I would take this opportunity to try a “localable” / “localizable” meal. Turns out I harvested just enough salsify to try this soup recipe.

Salsify Bisque - a local-able/in season winter soup

Salsify Bisque – a local-able/in season winter soup

You guys. It was SO good. I am very sorry I don’t have more salsify, because the soup was amazing. I substituted sliced shiitake mushrooms for the oysters, and added them after blending the soup so they would retain their shape and texture. (Local mushrooms could be used instead easily enough; dried if needed to be available in January.) I garnished the soup with cajun-spiced pumpkin seeds, cheddar cheese cubes, and minced carrot greens. (I didn’t have any parsley.)

One important note about the original recipe: it serves four if you are having an appetizer-sized bowl of soup! For the main (or only) course of dinner, it serves two. Two who were very sad that the pot was empty and there wasn’t more.

(And I know wild/feral salsify grows locally, but I have been unable to identify it except when it’s already too late to eat it!)


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!