Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Interview with a Guerrilla Grafter

Gardening is a very profound activity in many ways, and I believe that gardeners have the power for positive change for the greater good.

When I interviewed one of the Guerrilla Grafters recently, I learned that it’s not all about the grafting. This founding member of the Guerrilla Grafters cares deeply about the society in which we live and our relationship with public spaces. Their grafting experiments are a proof of concept for connecting residents with their city.

Read my post at: Eat Drink Better

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ten Essential Herbs for Your Edible Landscape

Herbs planted in and around a planter box used for growing vegetables

I can’t say enough about the benefits of edible landscaping with herbs. A huge benefit for my husband and me is purely culinary: we love to cook. Fresh herbs are expensive at the grocery store and not always available. Having fresh herbs just outside our door for picking at a moment’s notice is a perk we have come to take for granted; hardly a day passes where I’m not out picking fresh rosemary, parsley, or tarragon, for our meals.

But there is another equally important reason for incorporating herbs into your edible landscape.


Companion Planting with Herbs

Herbs do double-duty in the garden. They are essential to the home chef, but they also contribute to a healthy garden ecosystem. Companion planting is the old (some say ancient) technique of planting certain herbs, vegetables, and other plants in close proximity so that one or both benefits from the presence of the other.

Sage and thyme

The benefits come through different mechanisms: through the root system by sharing nutrients, or through beneficial secretions, (exudate), by stimulating microbes or bringing nutrients up to the soil surface, attracting pollinators with flowers, and deterring pests through herbal scents.

Some benefits that have been observed are still mysterious, for example, the observation that basil improves the flavor of tomatoes when grown together. Companion planting can be complex and highly technical, but it can be distilled to a few basic herbs that will benefit your garden and kitchen.

A Calendula flower

10 Favorite Beneficial Garden Herbs

The following is a short list of popular culinary herbs that are reputed to be broadly beneficial in the garden. A good strategy would be to plant these in several spots near and among your vegetables. You'll have to plan on semi-permanent locations (edges of planting beds) for the perennials which will grow year-round in climates with mild winters, or will die back and sprout anew in spring if protected from freezing. Try growing the annuals from seed; many of them self seed for the next year.

1. Basil (Ocimum basilicum)- an annual; companion to tomatoes, improves growth and flavor; flowers attract bees.

2. Borage (Borago officinalis)- an annual with edible blue flowers  that attracts bees; companion to tomatoes, squash, and strawberries, and deters tomato worm.

3. Calendula (a.k.a. pot marigold; Calendula officinalis)- annuals and perennials; a good companion for tomatoes but is said to be good for the garden in general to deter pests, especially tomato worms and asparagus beetles. Flower petals are good in salads and used as an antiseptic in ointments.

4. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)-a perennial; companion to cabbage and onions; the tea useful against "damping off", a fungal disease.

5. French Marigold (Tagetes patula)- an annual; a garden standard for deterring pests, including nematodes; the Mexican marigold (Tagetes minuta)is toxic to many plants but highly effective against many nematodes).

6. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)- an annual related to watercress with colorful edible flowers, leaves, and buds; use as a decoy for aphids, deters some beetles. Climbing and mounding forms (I prefer the mounding type).

7. Oregano (Origanum vulgare)-  a perennial; highly aromatic;has beneficial effect on surrounding plants.

8. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) - a highly aromatic woody perennial with bush or sprawling forms; in mild climates will grow all year-round and the small blue flowers attract bees and provide forage in winter; deters cabbage moths, bean beetles.

9. Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)- a frost tender perennial herb; mulch during winter; beneficial throughout the garden.

10. Marjoram (Origanum majorana)-  a perennial that has a beneficial effect on surrounding plants, and improves flavor.

Thyme, rosemary, and lavender drying on our dining table
See the following reference for more information on companion planting (used as a reference for this post):
How to Grow More Vegetables, Jeavons, J., 7th ed., Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA., 2006

This post was also published at Eat Drink Better
Photos: Urban Artichoke

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Jerusalem Artichoke Recipe: Creamy No-Dairy Vegetable Soup

Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, are outstanding for making silky, thick creamy soups in combination with a variety of winter vegetables. Adding cream or milk is not necessary to achieve a satisfying, delicious, elegant soup.

Easy to Grow, Easy to Eat
Last spring we planted Jerusalem artichokes and this fall and winter we have been creating recipes to enjoy the tasty harvest from our garden.  Jerusalem artichokes, or  sunchokes, are native to North America and were first eaten by Native Americans. They are hardy and easy to grow and produce abundant sunflowers and edible tubers.

You can find them at farmer's markets, select grocery stores, or from your CSA, but for a reliable supply throughout the fall and winter try growing them yourself. They have a mild nutty taste, and are perfect for growing along a sunny fence as part of  your edible landscape. See my previous post for more details and a recipe for sunchokes and sautéed mushrooms.


Creamy Sunchoke and Carrot Soup
Cooked sunchokes have a creamy texture and earthy flavor that makes for really delicious pureed soups. You can make the soup with different veggie combinations. Try potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, winter squash, or even spinach.

You Will Need

  • 2 cups Sunchokes, cleaned and cut into ½ inch pieces, about 4 – 5 sunchokes

  • 2 cups carrots (or other vegetable), cleaned, peeled and cut into ½ inch chunks, about 3 – 4 carrots

  • 1 medium onion, diced (or 2 leeks sliced thinly, or 2 -3 shallots sliced thinly)

  • 1 large clove garlic, peeled and chopped

  • 4 cups of vegetable broth

Olive oil to saute the vegetables
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon curry powder, if desired
To Prepare Sunchokes
Scrub any remaining soil off of the tubers with a vegetable brush under running water. If you have trouble cleaning between the bumby parts just break them up. It's not necessary to peel off the thin skin. Slice the tubers about 1/2 inch thick.

Cook the Vegetables 
Warm up about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in large heavy bottomed soup pot. Add the diced onion and garlic and cook on medium to low heat until they soften and begin to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the sunchokes and carrots pieces and stir to coat with the olive oil and onions. Add 3 cups of the broth so that the vegetables are just beginning to float but still crowded (you don’t want to end up with a thin soup) and simmer covered for about 20 – 25 minutes

Puree the Soup
Add more broth if needed. Season with salt and pepper and the curry powder, if desired. Using an immersion blender (stick blender) or conventional blender, puree the soup until all of the vegetables have been processed into a silky, smooth, thick soup. Add more broth or water if it is too thick.

Serve or Store
Serve warm immediately or store in the refrigerator in an airtight container to use within a few days.

 This post was also published @ Eat, Drink, Better
Photos: Urban Artichoke

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Buddha's Hand Lemon Preserved in Simple Syrup

I couldn't resist buying one of these curious and spectacular citrus (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus) at our farmer's market. It looks like an elegant sea creature! Hamada Farms has been selling them last fall and winter in our area (SF Bay Area). Known as the Buddha's Hand Lemon or Buddha's Hand Citron, it grows on a frost-tender small tree. Apparently the fruits take a long time to develop, and easily weigh about a pound each. The tree is quite a sight with several of these hanging from it.

The Buddha's Hand Lemon has no juice or pulp
The Buddha Hand Lemon is surprisingly fragrant, and that's what makes it popular, in addition to its unusual form. It's also unique in that it is filled with white pith and no pulp or juice, but the pith is only slightly bitter and the rind is wonderfully citrusy.  Use the zest in recipes calling for lemon zest, or preserve it for use in baking, ice cream, or yogurt.

After displaying it on my dining table for a week I preserved it in a simple syrup to use in baking and other recipes, but you can also make candied lemon pieces.

Buddha's Hand Lemon in Simple Syrup

1 large Buddha's Hand Lemon, scrubbed and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces or smaller
3 cups of granulated sugar
3 cups of water

In a large sauce pan, heat the water and stir in the sugar. Keep stirring the sugar until it is all dissolved- being careful not to burn it. Add the chopped lemon pieces and let them simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook until they turn translucent as shown in the photo below. It will take about 20 - 30 minutes, or more.
I added finely chopped  preserved Buddha's Hand to my granola recipe- yummy!

Let it cool until you can pour it safely into a clean quart size canning jar. Store in the refrigerator with a lid on the jar when it has completely cooled. It will keep for several months.

Photos: Urban Artichoke

Saturday, February 4, 2012

An American Farmer's Lament, a Poem by Hilary Hodge

Hilary Hodge, a young farmer-poet and bee-keeper, captured the struggles of the organic farmer in this compelling poem she wrote and read at the 2012 EcoFarm conference on organic and sustainable agriculture. She generously gave me permission to post it:

It’s hard to open up, to display my sad depression.
But indulge me for a while, as I share this history lesson:
During the birth of this fair nation, in 1790, just for measure,
90% of us were farmers, a new-born nation’s treasure,
And when someone went to congress then, it was a deal of sacrifice,
They had to leave their stock behind, say goodbye to beans and rice.

But now our system’s shifted: the cause for my lament,
By 1950 in this nation, we were only 10 percent,
Today we stand together, but quite alone we stand,
Today 1% are farmers across this dusty land,
As we work to give this nation, the nurture they deserve,
We are sadly undermined by the people that we serve.

There’s more paperwork than acres, more hoops than there are plants,
We fear our public policy more than aphids, more than ants,
We used to cringe at thoughts of gophers, we used to shudder at thoughts of blight,
Now it’s fear of regulations that keeps us up at night.

We pander to our buyers, tally daily what’s been spent,
We fear the strangers at our door are from the government.
We keep faith that one day congress might value things that grow,
And find a way to value farmers even much more so,
Where once we all were central, we now sit down in the back,
We hope that we can conquer, picking up the slack,
Yet they wage wars in troubled nations due to scarcity of oil,
And wash pollutants into waters from our agri-business soil.

While we give to local systems, and are stewards of the earth,
They undermine our efforts and undermine our worth,
They take our money for Monsanto through tax austerity,
But true homeland protection needs food security.

Farmers have enough to fight with, the truth of climate change,
We’ve yet to see a winter here, this weather’s very strange,
Last June our dear tomatoes were underneath the snow.
We can’t hire willing workers, who want to learn and grow,
We live in fear that regulators will come knocking at our door,
We have had to tell our neighbors we can’t sell them eggs no more.

Front-yard gardens on our streets, face the fear of fines,
Money’s being siphoned from our farms into our mines,
Our seeds are all but tainted with GMO contamination,
Our trees struggle to bear fruit from a lack of pollination,
Our bees are disappearing; our birds have all flown south,
And millions in this country have no food to feed their mouth.

The amber waves of grain, are all but gone and lost,
And it’s happened all so quickly, we can’t tally up the cost,
We give to warring nations, weapons that serve ourselves,
And we import berries for our grocers to line their winter shelves.

And we subsequently wonder why resources are gone,
Looking for new ways to pick up and carry on,
We have taken mass production to the standard of our trade,
Small farmers stand and watch, saddened and dismayed.

Our officials wonder why there are problems they can’t manage,
Are they too busy playing golf to see the awful damage?
I have a message for our nation; I’m not trying to be rude:
But when you destroy your farmers, you destroy your food.

We can no longer plant our seeds and just hope that they will grow,
Putting our last dream into the vegetables we sow,
We are facing great demise, perhaps a mass starvation,
But we care enough about our people and enough about this nation,
That we put into each gesture a prayer that it might spout,
We are a group of faith: That’s what farming is about.

And it’s not about religion but it begs a higher power,
That we’ve committed all our lives to wish upon each hour,
To put seeds into the soil, and keep our fingers crossed,
To keep growing year by year, witnessing what’s lost,
We continue planting pumpkins in a world of chocolate bars,
We see a light that shines before us, under a sky devoid of stars.

We have dirt beneath our nails and a problem on our hands,
But we are working towards solutions for the providence of lands,
And when we hold each other up, we hold the world as well,
We have come to wage our peace with the produce that we sell,
We are still the sacred backbone, it’s not broken, but it’s bent,
We are our nation’s farmers, we are the one percent.

Hilary Hodge is an organic farmer from the tiny and amazing town of North San Juan in Nevada County, California.  She graduated with a degree in English Literature, and after 7 years in social services, quit her job to return to the land.  She blogs about sustainability, sharing her passion for farming, social justice and localism.  You can read her work at her web site here.

Photo of Hilary Hodge: Stevie Ellis
Other photos: Urban Artichoke

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Plan a Gorgeous Heirloom Garden

Imagine what your personal garden might be like if you were the co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange. I had the opportunity to find out recently at a talk given by Diane Ott Whealy at Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center in Palo Alto, CA. After spending the bulk of her life working hard to build the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange, she now enjoys being a gardener again without the responsibilities of feeding a family and growing an organization.

She maintains a display garden at the Seed Savers headquarters, Heritage Farm, the Whealy’s former home in Decorah Iowa. Her approach is informal and loaded with enthusiasm.

Here are her top tips for creating a beautiful, naturally lush garden with heirlooms:
  • Grow vegetables, flowers, and herbs together (interplanting)
  • Let annuals reseed themselves for the next season, including vegetables (at least in part of the garden)
  • Learn to appreciate each stage of plant growth (lettuce gone to seed is strikingly attractive)
  • Plant bulbs (tulips, daffodils, etc.) for spring flowers, then interplant with lettuce for a dramatic effect
  • Let a flowering vine intertwine with a less showy plant, for example scarlet runner beans with sweet potatoes

The effect is a lush riot of texture and color with foliage and flowers to attract pollinators, and a feast for the senses. This technique of interplanting and companion planting creates a garden ecosystem that birds and insects love- the birds help control the insect population which will be a mix of beneficial insects as well as pests. Her display garden has about 500 species that include heirloom vegetables, old fashioned flowers and herbs. Some of her favorites are: Grandpa Ott's Morning Glory, Bees Friend (a flower from Germany), Scarlet Runner Bean, Moon and Stars Watermelon, and Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard, among many more.

Ott Whealy explained that the mission of the organization is to inspire people to grow the seeds: Seed Savers Exchange can save seeds but they cannot maintain gardens everywhere, therefore home gardeners are the key to keeping the thousands of useful plant varieties alive as they propagate them and share them with each other.

As she noted:
"the definition of an amateur is one who loves and cares"
You can order seeds directly from Seed Savers Exchange without a membership, or you can join and become part of the network of gardeners who exchange seeds and support the organization and their programs.

This post was also published here: Eat, Drink Better

Photos: Urban Artichoke