Creating a Forest Garden

For years I’ve been fascinated by the concept of forest gardening. Elderberries grow in our woods, along with nut trees. But we’ve had little luck seeding logs with mushroom spores, getting ginseng to grow, or fostering the growth of berry bushes in partial shade. Now, faced with the heart-wrenching uncertainties brought by climate change, the importance of exploring this permaculture-based possibility seems every more urgent.

Throughout time, people have relied on forests for an abundance of foods. The practice of forest gardening imitates the forest’s nature structure to grow an abundance in a sustainable way. It avoids the inherent instability of monoculture agribusiness and can be done on a small-scale in yards, community gardens, school lots, and parks without tilling, weeding, fertilizing, or irrigating (although a few paths covered with wood chips or stone are helpful).

You can find this concept in active use around the “developing” world today (despite the agribusiness lobby, with Bill Gates’s help). Wisdom passed down in tropical regions continues as tall mango and coconut trees loom over plantain and papaya trees, partially shading smaller plantings of cassava, with fruit vines climbing over all of them. Chickens (sometimes goats or hogs) may range freely through, eating thick weeds and contributing fertilizer. This is forest gardening, tropical style.

It’s possible in more temperate climates too. Robert Hart, from the UK,  spread the idea in the 1980’s with his book Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape  As he wrote, “Forest gardening offers the potential for all gardeners to grow an important element of their health-creating food; it combines positive gardening and positive health… The wealth, abundance and diversity of the forest garden provides for all human needs – physical needs through foods, materials and exercise, as well as medicines and spiritual needs through beauty and the connection with the whole.”

Although monoculture and backyard gardens typically rely on annuals, that’s not the way nature works. Annuals are a small segment of what makes up the natural landscape. Annuals in nature typically take over disturbed ground (turned up by migrating hooves or barren after fire). Annuals are high-energy, short-lived, get-it-while-you-can plants. In one season they germinate, grow, ripen, then die. (See a metaphor for our “developed world” diet based on annuals?) Perennials, in contrast, don’t require tilling. They preserve the soil structure, prevent loss of topsoil, and maintain the essential soil microbiome. Perennials dig deep into the earth, making it more drought and flood-resistant, shading more tender plants, and keeping everything more lush in sustainable forest ecosystems.

Robert Hart began his forest garden experiment to provide a healing environment for himself and his brother Lacon, who had some learning disabilities. Robert initially tried to maintain annual vegetable beds and an orchard while raising livestock. This proved too much work. But he noticed that a bed planted with perennials was thriving without intervention. And interestingly, these same plants were the most useful in promoting health. His investigations drew him toward nature’s lessons.

Robert adapted a small orchard of pears and apples into an edible landscape using what he called nature’s seven dimensions.

Although we’re not accustomed to a “productive” garden arrayed in what appears to be forest-like disorder, a tiny plot can produce all sorts of bounty when we’re attuned to what it yields. This means we need to look beyond the limitations of today’s crops. All sorts of plants are edible and useful, well beyond the few cereal grains, fruits, and vegetables that make up our limited diets. Robert Hart found that it took little more than an eighth of an acre to put out prodigious yields including apples, plums, pears, cherries, gooseberries, Jerusalem artichokes, grapes, currants, raspberries, sorrel, ramps, herbs, lovage, almonds, hazelnuts, mushrooms, and more. Plus medicinal herbs, basketry materials, firewood, and building materials.

A wisely planted forest garden provides nourishment, building materials, and medicinal stock. It also creates a wildlife habitat and attracts pollinators. It takes notice of naturally beneficial relationships between plants as any woodland ecosystem does, resulting in a productive space for the wise gardener.

The canopy, or top layer, might be made of full-sized fruit and nut trees such as apple, pear, plum, chestnut, pecan, chestnut, walnut, and pine nut trees.

The short tree layer might include some of the same fruit and nut trees in dwarf and semi-dwarf stock as well as peach, apricot, nectarine, filbert, almond, fig, elderberry, black mulberry, persimmon, pawpaw, and hazelnut.

The shrub layer might include blueberry, serviceberry, currant, and rhubarb.

Herb layer includes shade tolerant, non-invasive herbs such as fennel, chamomile, chives, ginger, cilantro, and cardamon.

Ground cover layer might include strawberries, comfrey, and nasturtium.

Root layer might include onions, potatoes, beets, garlic, and wild yam.

Vine layer might include kiwi, grape, squash, and hops.

Check out this wonderful video by Martin Crawford.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/video/shorts/1438178883749/

I’m excited to explore these possibilities, probably starting on a very small-scale. Here are some of the books we’re reading as we plan.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway

Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel

The Food Forest Handbook: Design and Manage and Home-Scale Perennial Polyculture Garden by Michelle Czolba and Darrell Frey

Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops by Martin Crawford

Posted in agribusiness, gardening, permaculture | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Wild Duckling Survival

Mallard Mom And Ducklings. original oil painting by Marcia Baldwin

Wood ducks and Mallards* regularly visit our little pond. Many years they hide a nest in the willows at pond’s edge or in the rushes along the creek. We observe as the mother duck carefully tends little ones and then, in a week or two, they are gone. We tell ourselves those little families have waddled off to the lake down the street, as we’d rather not consider that the ducklings didn’t get a chance to grow up.

The last week and a half we’ve been watching a small dark Mallard care for four tiny ducklings. She walks them to feast on seeds under the bird feeder, walks them to the creek and the pond, hides them in the thick stand of Jerusalem artichokes. She is on high alert every moment, scanning for danger, calling the babies back to her or hurrying them onward.

Danger is ever-present. A great blue heron often stops at the pond. There are other duckling-eating birds in view every day including crows and hawks. Add in our resident snapping turtles, snakes, weasels, and yes, cats and it’s hard to imagine how this little mother duck has kept her brood safe on land or water.

Every time she comes into view I can’t help but check to see if all four ducklings are with her. Today, again, I sigh in relief to see them all present.

As I watch her I imagine how extraordinarily difficult it is for her to be a mother, how much food and rest she sacrifices to raise these babies. Years ago, in a parkland pond, I saw a mother duck frantically quack and flap in an attempt to drive away a bird that was swooping down to snatch up her babies. She did not succeed. Each wild duckling that survives to adulthood is surely a testament to its mother’s vigilance.

Although I am concerned about the safety of these tiny creatures, I also consider what’s lost when animals are caged and domesticated. Cosmologist Brian Swimme uses the example of a hawk and a mouse to demonstrate that resistance is a primary force that shapes each species. A hawk is defined by flight, acute vision, and deadly precision. It requires all those skills to see a mouse from as far as a mile away and swoop down for the kill. Its prey is shaped by those sharply honed traits. If the mouse weren’t so hard to see and to catch, the hawk wouldn’t have developed such elegance. A mouse is, by definition, evasive, fast, and ever vigilant. What makes the mouse so alert, so nervous, so quintessentially a mouse would disappear if it weren’t shaped by the stresses of predation. What makes the hawk a hawk would also disappear without those stresses of hunting that prey.

I remind myself to unwind my thoughts, to simply watch. I notice the mother’s distinctive muted coloring and the utter beauty of her ducklings. I notice the pond’s water rippling in the breeze, and as it does, the cloud’s reflections shaping and reshaping into equations beyond my understanding.

Waterlily Landscape, original oil painting by Marcia Baldwin

*Here are some useful word nerdly musings on whether or not to capitalize ornithological names.

Posted in animal relations, ducks and geese | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gathering Dandelions: Celebration plus Recipe

“You EAT them?” a little boy new to the neighborhood asks. He leans forward for the answer, his face ready to constrict in doubt.

Children already well acquainted with our family’s springtime ritual stop picking.

“Yeah!” they eagerly assure him, “They’re really good.”

They aren’t referring to a new vegetable in our garden. They’re talking about dandelions.

Herbalists tell us exactly what we need grows nearby. Those plants we call “weeds” may in fact remedy what ails us. They are so common that their properties are easily overlooked in a culture searching for packaged wellness. Plantain, mullein, comfrey,mint, mugwort,St. John’s wort, chicory, and purslane spring up wild in our untreated lawn and gardens. Weeds, but also powerful healers.

Today we’re picking dandelions in full flower. It isn’t about finding a remedy. For me the harvest is has to do with celebrating spring and affirming the beauty around us. For my children and our neighbors it’s about fun. I wait until the blooms are at their peak. Then I call friends and neighbors to announce, “Today is the day!”

Children spread out across the yard holding little baskets. A girl squats in front of each plant, pausing a long moment before she reaches out to pluck a flower from its stem. The  oldest boy in the group walks by many dandelion plants to pick only those growing in clusters. And the newest little boy falls silent, as the rest of the children do, taking delight in the seriousness of the harvest.

European settlers brought the dandelion plant to this continent for food and medicinal purposes. The perennial spread easily across most states. It’s a testament to the power of herbicide marketers that such a useful plant became so thoroughly despised. Standing under today’s blue sky, I look at exuberant yellow rosettes growing in bright green grass and feel sheer aesthetic pleasure.

After the children tire of picking we sit together on the porch and snip off the dandelion stems right up to the flower. We mothers look over their busy heads—blonde, brown, black—and smile as we watch them stay at this task with the kind of close attention children give to real work. One girl remarks that the flowers look like the sun. Another child says her grandmother told her that in the Old Country they call the plant by the same name as milk because of its white sap. The newest boy chooses to line the stems neatly along the wide porch planking, arranging and rearranging them by length.

Every aspect of a ritual holds significance so I pay attention to the warm breeze, the comfortable pulse of friendship, and flowers so soft against my fingers they remind me of a newborn’s hair.

When we’re done the flowers are rinsed in a colander, then it’s time to cook them. I’m not a fan of frying. There are better ways to preserve the flavor and nutrients in food. Consequently I’m not very skilled. But this is easy. The children, their mothers and I drop the flowers in a thin batter, scoop them out with slotted spoons and fry them a dozen at a time in shallow pans.

After the blossoms cool slightly on paper towels they’re put on two platters. One is tossed with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the other sprinkled with salt and pepper. Handfuls are eaten in the kitchen while we cook. Then we carry the platters outside. Children run off to play in grass polka-dotted with bright yellow flowers. We adults sit on the porch laughing and talking.

It’s suggested that we should be eating healthfully prepared dandelion greens and roots rather than indulging in delectable fried blossoms. That sentence fades into a quiet moment as a breeze stirs new leaves on the trees and lifts our children’s hair. I feel enlivened. Everywhere, around me and inside me, it is spring.

Flower Power Recipe

Gather dandelion flowers from areas free of chemical treatments or fertilizer. Pick in a sunny part of the day so the flowers are fully open, then prepare right away so flowers don’t close.

Cut away stem, as this is bitter, leaving only the green part holding the flower together.

Douse briefly in salt water (to flush out any lurking bugs). Dry flowers on dish towels while you prepare batter.

Ingredients

3 to 4 cups dandelion flowers, prepared as above

1 cup milk (dairy, soy, almond, coconut, any variety)

1 egg (or equivalent egg replacer product)

1 cup flour (slightly smaller amount of any whole grain alternative)

½ teaspoon salt

oil (frying is best with healthful oils which don’t break down at high temperatures, try safflower oil, coconut oil or olive oil)

Method

1. Combine milk, egg, flour and salt in wide bowl. Mix well. Heat a few inches of oil in skillet (350-375 degrees).

2.  Drop a dozen or so blossoms into the batter, stir gently to coat. Lift out with slotted spoon or fork. It’s best to hold the bowl over the skillet as you drop each blossom into the hot oil.

3. Turn flowers over to brown on both sides. Remove with slotted spatula to drain briefly on towels. Continue to fry remaining flowers using same steps. Toss cooked dandelions with sugar and cinnamon. Or toss with salt and your choice of savory flavoring such as garlic, pepper, or chili powder.

4. Making flower fritters is a speedier method than frying individual flowers. Simply drop flowers and batter into the oil by the spoonful, then turn like a pancake. Serve with jam, maple syrup or honey. Or try savory toppings like mustard, ketchup or barbecue sauce. These fritters are endlessly adaptable. Try adding sunflower or sesame seeds to the batter and serve with either the sweet or savory toppings.

What You May Not Know About Dandelions

The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinalhas been used in traditional medical systems around the world to boost nutrition as well as treat conditions of the liver, kidney and spleen; slow abnormal growths; improve digestion and more. Recently science has taken a closer look at this often scorned plant. No surprise, traditional wisdom holds up under scrutiny.

~Dandelion root stimulates the growth of 14 strains of bifidobacteria. This is good news, because bifidobacteria aid in digestion. Their presence in the gut is correlated with a lower incidence of allergies.

~Dandelions appear to fight cancer. Researchers testing for biologically active components to combat cancer proliferation and invasion note that dandelion extracts have value as “novel anti-cancer agent[s].” Their studies show dandelion leaf extract decreases growth of certain breast cancer cells and blocks invasion of prostate cancer. The root extract blocks invasion of other specific breast cancer cells  and also shows promise inhibiting skin cancer.

~Dandelions work as an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving agent.

~Dandelion extract lowers cholesterol. This, plus its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities leads some researchers to believe that the plant may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

~The plant’s leaves are an effective diuretic.

~Dandelion shows promise in diabetic treatment. It slows the glycemic response to carbohydrates, thereby helping to control blood sugar.

~Dandelion extract increases the action of estrogen and progesterone receptors. It may prove to be a useful treatment for reproductive hormone-related problems including PMS.

~ Leaves, roots and flowers of the humble dandelion are fully edible. USDA National Nutrient Database analysis proves that a festive array of nutrition awaits any lawn harvester. One cup of chopped fresh dandelion greens are extremely rich in vitamins K, A and C as well as good source of vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6,  calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.

~The flavonoids found in dandelions are valuable antioxidants and free radical scavengers.

References 
1 I. TROJANOVA, V. RADA, L. KOKOSKA, E. VIKOVA, “THE BIFIDOGENIC EFFECT OF TARAXACUM OFFICINALE ROOT,”  FITOTERAPIA VOL 75 ISSUE 7/8 (DECEMBER 2004), 760-763.  HTTP://WWW.NCBI.NLM.NIH.GOV/PUBMED/15567259  (ACCESSED 8-29-09)
2  BENGT BJORKSTEN, EPP SEPP, KAJA JULGE, TIIA VOOR, MARIKA MIKELSAAR, “ALLERGY DEVELOPMENT AND THE INTESTINAL MICROFLORA DURING THE FIRST YEAR OF LIFE,” THE JOURNAL OF ALLERGY AND CLINICAL IMMUNOLOGY VOL 108 ISSUE 4 (OCTOBER 2001), 516-520. HTTP://WWW.JACIONLINE.ORG/ARTICLE/S0091-6749(01)96140-8/ABSTRACT  (ACCESSED 8-29-09)
3 S.C.SIGSTEDT, C.J. HOOTEN, M.C. CALLEWAERT, A.R. JENKINS, A.E. ROMERA, M.J. PULLIN, A. KORNEINKO, T.K. LOWREY, S.V. SLAMBROUCK, W.F. STEELANT, “EVALUATION OF AQUEOUS EXTRACTS OF TARAXACUM OFFICINALE ON GROWTH AND INVASION OF BREAST AND PROSTATE CANCER CELLS,” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ONCOLOGYVOL 32, NUM 5 (MAY 2008), 1085-1090.  HTTP://WWW.SPANDIDOS-PUBLICATIONS.COM/IJO/ARTICLE.JSP?ARTICLE_ID=IJO_32_5_1085  (ACCESSED 8-30-09).
4 M. TAKASAKI, T. KONOSHIMA, H. TOKUDA, K. MASUDA, Y. ARAI, K. SHIOJIMA, H. AGETA,  “ANTI-CARCINOGENIC ACTIVITY OF TARAXACUM PLANT,” BIOLOGICAL & PHARMACEUTICAL BULLETIN VOL 22, 6 (JUNE 1999), 602-605.  HTTP://WEB.EBSCOHOST.COM.EZPROXY.CPL.ORG/EHOST/DETAIL?VID=1&HID=108&SID=B7CE94B0-1484-4AEF-A5A8-73E1EFDDB194%40SESSIONMGR104&BDATA=JNNPDGU9ZWHVC3QTBGL2ZQ%3D%3D#DB=CMEDM&AN=10408234  (ACCESSED 9-1-09).
5 H.J. JEON, H.J. KANG, H.J. JUNG, Y.S. KANG, C.J. LIM, Y.M KIM, E.H. PARK, ANTI-INFLAMMATORY ACTIVITY OF TARAXACUM OFFICINALE,”  JOURNAL OF ETHNOPHARMACOLOGY VOL. 115, 1 (JANUARY 2008), 82-88.  HTTP://WEB.EBSCOHOST.COM.EZPROXY.CPL.ORG/EHOST/DETAIL?VID=1&HID=108&SID=4B56DD3A-F9B3-4444-B85D-80D79EB1F3CE%40REPLICON103&BDATA=JNNPDGU9ZWHVC3QTBGL2ZQ%3D%3D#DB=CMEDM&AN=17949929  (ACCESSED 9-1-09).
6 JINJU KIM, KYUNGHEE NOH, MIKYUNG CHO, JIHYUN JANG, YOUNGSUN SONG, “ANTI-OXIDATIVE, ANTI-INFLAMMATORY AND ANTI-ATHEROGENIC EFFECTS OF DANDELION (TARAXACUM OFFICINALE) EXTRACTS IN C57BL/6 MICE FED ATHEROGENIC DIET,”  FASEB JOURNAL VOL 21, ISSUE 6 (APRIL 2007), 1122.  HTTP://WF2DNVR17.WEBFEAT.ORG/ANUIM141/URL=HTTP://WEB.EBSCOHOST.COM/EHOST/DETAIL?VID=1&HID=5&SID=A168BE9F-0A5C-41C6-B86D-2A9C3677C6F4%40SESSIONMGR4&BDATA=JNNPDGU9ZWHVC3QTBGL2ZQ%3D%3D#DB=APH&AN=25598840   (ACCESSED 9-1-09).
7 BEVIN A. CLARE, RICHARD S. CONROY, KEVIN SPELMAN, “THE DIURETIC EFFECT IN HUMAN SUBJECTS OF AN EXTRACT OF TARAXACUM OFFICINALE ROLIUM OVER A SINGLE DAY,” JOURNAL OF ALTERNATIVE & COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE VOL 15, ISSUE 8 (AUGUST 2009), 929-934.  HTTP://WF2DNVR17.WEBFEAT.ORG/ANUIM14/URL=HTTP://WEB.EBSCOHOST.COM/EHOST/DETAIL?VID=1&HID=9&SID=A26346E7-F010-44FC-88EA-891214F7539A%40SESSIONMGR10&BDATA=JNNPDGU9ZWHVC3QTBGL2ZQ%3D%3D#DB=APH&AN=43671001     (ACCESSED 9-1-09).
8 SECIL ONAL, SUNA TIMUR, BURCU OKUTUCU, FIGEN ZIHNIOGLU, “INHIBITION OF A-GLUCOSIDASE BY AQUEOUS EXTRACTS OF SOME POTENT ANTIDIABETIC MEDICINAL HERBS,” PREPARATIVE BIOCHEMISTRY & BIOTECHNOLOGY VOL 35, ISSUE 1 (FEBRUARY 2005), 29-36.  HTTP://WF2DNVR17.WEBFEAT.ORG/ANUIM141/URL=HTTP://WEB.EBSCOHOST.COM/EHOST/DETAIL?VID=8&HID=104&SID=982FD009-501C-4A90-9CE3-7D5475B2ED05%40SESSIONMGR4&BDATA=JNNPDGU9ZWHVC3QTBGL2ZQ%3D%3D#DB=APH&AN=16133864    (ACCESSED 9-1-09).
9 ZHI XU, KEN-ICHI HONDA, KOJI OZAKI, TAKUYA MISUGI, TOSHIYUKI SUMI, OSAMU ISHIKO, “DANDELIOIN T-1 EXTRACT UP-REGULATES REPRODUCTIVE HORMONE RECEPTOR EXPRESSION IN MICE,” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MOLECULAR MEDICINE VOLUME 20, 3 (2007) 287-292.  HTTP://CAT.INIST.FR/?AMODELE=AFFICHEN&CPSIDT=19007317   (ACCESSED 8-27-09).
10 USDA AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH SERVICE, USDA NATIONAL NUTRIENT DATABASE FOR STANDARD REFERENCE, RELEASE 21, (2008) NDB # 11207  HTTP://WWW.NAL.USDA.GOV/FNIC/FOODCOMP/CGI-BIN/LIST_NUT_EDIT.PL  (ACCESSED 9-1-09).
 11 HU C. KITTS, “DANDELION (TARAXACUM OFFICINALE) FLOWER EXTRACT SUPPRESSES BOTH REACTIVE OXYGEN SPECIES AND NITRIC OXIDE AND PREVENTS LIPID OXIDATION IN VITRO,” PHYTOMEDICINE 12, 8 (AUGUST 2005), 588-597. HTTP://WWW.NCBI.NLM.NIH.GOV/PUBMED/16121519?ORDINALPOS=1&ITOOL=ENTREZSYSTEM2.PENTREZ.PUBMED.PUBMED_RESULTSPANEL.PUBMED_DISCOVERYPANEL.PUBMED_DISCOVERY_RA&LINKPOS=2&LOG$=RELATEDARTICLES&LOGDBFROM=PUBMED  (ACCESSED 9-1-09).

This article first appeared in Natural Life Magazine

Posted in appetizer recipe, spring | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Importance of Enunciation

I don’t normally chat about my movie preferences without being asked, but recently a neighbor walked over with our Netflix envelope in hand.  It had mistaken arrived in his mailbox. I thanked him cheerfully, saying we still get DVDs mailed because my husband and I watch a lot of foreign films that are otherwise unavailable.

That innocuous sentence instantly wrought some sort of reaction. He turned his head ever so slightly to the right, his eyes looking up as if confused. I’m pretty sure his nostrils flared as he took in a deep breath. Then the charming older gentleman said carefully, “I didn’t know those were available on Netflix.”

Something was indefinably weird about our conversation but I had no idea what it might be. I assured him, in a far more cheery voice than usual, that we’re particularly fond of films from France, Denmark, and Sweden.

There was a long pause. I’d uttered two sentences about our fondness for foreign films and he was reacting as if I’d revealed a highly personal secret.  He looked at the plain red envelope and said nothing. His discomfort must have been downright contagious because I tossed in one more sentence, hoping to find some closure to the topic so I could say goodbye and retreat. I said, “Some people really hate subtitles but it’s totally worth it.”

Understanding broke out on his face like a rash. A red rash. He said, “Oh, foreign films.”

Then my face turned red. I speak with what we in upper Ohio consider to be no accent at all and it didn’t occur to me that he’d misunderstood. But he had. He thought I’d said my husband and I watch a lot of porn films.

The moral of the story? Enunciate!

This piece is shared from my main site, where I post weekly. Here, not so much…

Posted in humor | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Make Sugar Out of Apples

I love autumn’s beautiful bounty of apples. I’ve made apple pancakes, apple pies, and applesauce. I’ve added apples to our smoothies. I’ve eaten many a lunch consisting entirely of apple slices and almond butter. And I’m eager to store as many local organic apples as possible until next autumn.

Which brings me to apple sugar. Yes, you can turn apples into a sweet brown granular substance that can be used like sugar in SOME ways. It’s certainly better for you than sugar because it’s made out of apple flesh and skin, still as packed with fiber and nutrients as the whole apple it came from.

If you’ve got an apple glut, this process can reduce a peck basket of apples to a jar or two of apple sugar by the next day.

I have not tried to use this as a substitute for sugar in baking, and don’t suggest it. Apple sugar is, however, excellent when combined with cinnamon and added to goodies. Try topping baked goods after they’re done cooking—sprinkle over still-warm cookies, pies, pancakes, or raisin bread. You can mix it in it right before eating yogurt, granola, or a nut butter sandwich. You can add it to smoothies and kefir. Experiment!

Apple Sugar Recipe

Wash apples well and allow them to dry.

You may notice a dichotomy between the recipe heading and this picture. Mystery revealed at the end of the recipe.

Core each apple and cut into pieces, then add them in small batches to your food processor or blender.  Add only enough water to allow the machine to reduce the apples to a smooth puree (hopefully only a tablespoonful or less for each batch). The more water you use, the longer it will take to dry the puree.

Spread a very thin, even layer of apple puree on your dehydrator’s non-stick drying sheets. (The ones used for fruit leather.)

Perfect smoothing isn’t possible.

Dehydrate at 140 degrees. It may take 24 hours or longer to reach the correct stage of dryness. Your apple sheets are done when they’re very dry and crispy, not flexible like fruit leather.

Dry as the Sahara. Or the bottom of your feet, whichever is driest.

When they’re ready, allow the apple sheets to cool.

In a completely dry blender or food processor, grind pieces of your apple sheets into a powder.

Store in airtight containers. You may choose to store it with food-grade silica packs to ensure it remains dry.

Okay, this doesn’t look as powdery as earlier batches.

Confession. I just so happened to have included pictures from a recent experiment making Pear Sugar. That explains why the fruit pictured at the beginning of the recipe, next to my knife, is not an apple and why the finished sugar is a little darker than usual. Hey, what can I say? We had a glut of pears from our tree that had ripened to perfect sweetness. As you might expect, pear sugar is quite a bit grittier than apple sugar. I’m sure we’ll still use it. Happy dehydrating!

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Free Range Chickens: Safety vs Freedom

Bit of Earth Farm Chickens ranging freely over a few acres is a peaceful sight. Our chickens rush eagerly from the coop each morning to spend the day as they choose in the pasture, woods, and barn. On hot afternoons we see them in the shade, fluffing in cool hollows where they give themselves dust baths, then rest. Some like to socialize under the hay wagon. Some hang out on low branches of bushes and trees. They eat insects, greenery, sometimes a hapless toad. It’s clear many of them pal around with the same chicken each day. Some of our birds are pretty geriatric, 7 or 8  years old at least. The two youngest, Scritch and Scratch (named after the sound of Mr. McGregor’s hoe in The Tale of Peter Rabbit) hatched just this spring and their mother still keeps them close. None of the hens seem to care for the rooster’s attention but he guards them, mates with them, and clucks in a distinctive way when he’s found a tasty morsel to share.

Chickens are, like all prey animals, in danger when they roam freely. We lose a few each year to hawks. It is a loss we mourn. Such losses also don’t improve the tenuous economic venture of making enough money selling eggs to continue raising chickens. But hawks are part of the ecosystem. And when we weight the chickens’ freedom versus their safety, we come down on the side of chicken freedom.

We can see the value of this choice in their calmer behavior. We know they’re foraging for a range of nutrients because they eat a great deal less purchased feed and the egg yolks they produce are brighter orange.

But dogs are not part of this ecosystem. When a dog gets loose and attacks chickens it doesn’t kill one and eat it. It kills every chicken it can, leaving corpses behind. This is what I found the other day.

Feathers near the pond.

A trail of feathers by the barn.

More feathers close to the woods.

Ten killed and one badly injured. Feathers up the hill and on both sides of the creek show how desperately these birds tried to save themselves. Scratch is dead. So is our rooster, and many of our youngest and most productive hens.

I feel so sorry for what the birds must have gone through. And now, somewhere out there is a dog who had the time of his/her life chasing and biting, wanting nothing more than to get loose and do it again. I don’t blame the dog. I’m sure all that squawking and warm blood activates motivations far older than “sit, stay, come.” What I can’t understand is people letting their dogs run loose.

Such a dog kill has happened here two other times in the many years we’ve been raising chickens. A few years ago a neighbor’s dogs got loose, injuring some of our flock and killing others. Tragically, one of the dogs spent so much time chasing chickens in the heat that it died (we assume heat exhaustion) and was found in a dry creek not far from a pile of feathers. The worst attack was about 12 years ago, when 23 of our chickens were killed by a single dog. We’ve never been reimbursed for these losses.

This time we have no idea whose dog is responsible. Some of my neighbors insist this was the work of coyotes, but coyotes don’t kill so many animals and then not eat their kill. The attack happened, best we can estimate, in early afternoon. We can’t see the chicken coop or barn from the house, often can’t hear what’s going on out back either. Even if we were home we could have missed the whole thing.

So for now our chickens are penned up.

Their accommodations qualify as free range by all industry standards. They have a roomy coop, an anteroom with a roof and partially covered sides, plus a 21′ by 20′ outdoor enclosure topped by avian netting. Plenty of room for three dozen chickens. Still, every morning they cluster by the gate, remembering all that lies just beyond. They can be distracted by a pail of kitchen scraps but it’s not remotely the same as foraging on their own. My hand hovers on the latch each time. I want to swing the gate open, choose freedom over safety, but I’m not ready yet.

What choice would you make— freedom or safety?

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Grape-Flavored Endeavor

Talk about a long-term project.

Last August, construction on our 30 x 72 high tunnel began.

A team of Amish workers put it up in two days.

As soon as they were done we put in a cover crop of winter rye.

Early this spring we tilled rows and put in locally milled locust posts, with high tensile wire for supports.

Next, hand-digging 54 holes.

Finally we put in the plants. Initially they looked like sticks but within two weeks they were growing rapidly.

Now to tend, watch. and wait. It’ll be two years or more until we’ve got a harvest large enough to sell. We’re looking forward to tasting that first grape…

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Sure Feels Like Summer

 

I know the solstice hasn’t yet arrived but I’m convinced it’s summer. Today’s thermometer reads 92 degrees. The humidity feels a bit like standing above a boiling pot of soup. And I’m a toasted itch grump full of poison ivy. I’m not a fan of summer’s heat but have to admit, things are lovely around here.

 

Fragrant elderflowers are in bloom — some of them on bushes we might actually be able to reach, out there in brambles and underbrush, when it’s time to pick the berries.

Water lilies are again clogging up the pond, both white

and pink. Many mornings a great blue heron stands pondside looking for breakfast, but I’m not sure the pickings are great with all these lilies in the way. (I keep trying to give lilies away. If you want a few or 100, come on over.)

Trees seem to be heavy with fruit this year. Our pear tree is loaded and we’re already eating cherries.

We always assumed this was a crab apple tree but my daughter suggested it might be a heritage cider apple tree. Commonly used to make hard cider, many old varieties were lost during Prohibition and after, when hard cider fell out of favor.

A clutch of eggs hatched a few weeks ago. These nearly grown chicks are still a little wary of leaving the coop without mom.

We’ve had such massive rain this spring that our new hoop house wasn’t dry enough for planting until this week. Today is the day that grapevines are being planted!

After years of cattle and now two years without animals on our pasture, new fencing is going up. Already I can picture sheep here. And maybe a miniature donkey or two. Every new post put in gives me hope.

I hope too that my son’s truck will get fixed before it becomes part of the forest.

Best of all is this outdoor girl. She speaks the secret language of stones, sticks, and puddles. She’s teaching me to love everything summer has to offer.

 

 

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Indoor Seed Starting Set-Up Extraordinaire

I save many of our vegetable seeds year to year, but give in to flower seed splurges.

Every year our indoor seed starting ritual seems to get just a little more elaborate. Years ago we planted a few seeds in egg cartons. Then we planted trays of seeds in repurposed tp tubes. Then we bought grow lights and warming mats. And this spring my husband built me a substantial seed starting set-up that will last for many decades.

It measures four-and-a-half feet tall, four feet wide, and nearly nine feet long. The whole contraption comes apart for easy storage.

The “roof” can be raised to move the grow lights up as plants get taller and the sides of the roof can be held open with hooks suspended from the ceiling to tend seedlings.

For a few weeks each spring, our basement eco-system is a fertile place indeed.

 

Cautionary reminder: I heard from many readers who had major difficulty or total failure starting seeds using NK products and Jiffy products including “peat” pots, soil mix, and dehydrated soil disks. (Jiffy has been bought out by NK.) Here’s more on this.

 

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Seeds from Cyprus = Heavenly Squash

 

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Our friend Chris is from Cyprus. There’s a sorrowful story behind why his family left their beautiful Eastern Mediterranean island when he was a child. But they keep fond reminders of their homeland alive in the food they cook, including a unique winter squash they eat prepared with garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice.

A few years ago I was honored when Chris shared some of those squash seeds with us.

I started the seeds indoors, set them out when it was warm, and with little attention they grew into vigorous plants, blossoming  with zeal.

We ended up with squash in several gardens.

We ended up with squash in several gardens.

All summer long we picked immature squash and used them in dishes meant for summer squash. They were tender and delicious. They continued to grow past the first few frosts. The leaves were so large that it was hard to see the squash lurking below, looming like Cucurbitaceae whales. This explains why some of them grew to outlandish proportions.

Squash so huge a wheelbarrow is necessary to move them. Thankfully there's a two-year-old conductor on board.

Squash so huge a wheelbarrow is necessary to transport. Thankfully there’s a conductor on board.

Even at such ridiculous sizes, the squash is somehow still tender and flavorful. And it’s amazingly hardy — perfect to store and use throughout the winter. I use every single part of the fruit, scooping out the guts and cutting away peels for livestock to eat. (Goats and cows can eat them raw. Chickens are more likely to eat cooked root vegetables. — Yes, I cook for chickens.)

Every spring since Chris shared the seeds, I’ve started the plants in March and every winter I’ve gratefully used up our storehouse of squash by the next spring. The seeds he shared and the harvest that results reminds me how every generation has kept their families alive, relying on nutrients locked into forms that can be unlocked months later when nothing grows outside. In the tradition of immigrants who arrived on our shores with seeds sewn in their hems, I’ve done my best to pass along a few seeds when I can, letting friends know these Cypriot squash seeds have a story.

When I went through my seeds this week to plant under grow lights, I discovered my precious stock of Cypriot squash seeds, despite my careful preparation, appear to be moldy. I cut open one of the last few squash I have stored to use in cooking, hoping the seeds were still viable. The seeds were no longer plump and full, clearly depleted of life force. Disaster!

That same day, my dear friend Christie said she was starting some of the Cypriot squash seeds I’d given her. Of course when she heard my seeds were no longer good she said she had enough to share. Disaster averted! And another of the many good reason to share seeds —- you may need some back.

I’m deeply relieved that Chris’ family squash seeds will grow here again. And this fall I’ll dry the seeds more carefully in our dehydrator and store them in the refrigerator, hoping to keep that legacy alive, hoping to be worthy of the memory embedded in those seeds.

~~~

In the spirit of sharing, here are three of my favorite winter squash recipes. They are perfect for Cypriot as well as other winter squashes like butternut, acorn, kabocha, and delicata.

(I had photos of each recipe, but would you believe I’ve got so many pictures of kids and livestock that my phone memory threw a tantrum? I had to delete an entire file just to appease it.)

 

Roasted Winter Squash

This is more an open format plan than an actual recipe. Start with a normal, non-monster-sized winter squash. Peel, remove seeds, and cut the flesh into consistent chunks — one or two inch cubes are good. Toss them with a good glug of olive oil. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, flop the squash in a jellyroll pan, then consider your options. (Overall, it should take 30 to 40 minutes to roast. Remember to scoot the pieces around in the pan a few times.)

~You can roast plain squash, it’s quite a friendly dish. Simply sprinkle with about 2 teaspoons salt and add others seasonings as you choose.

~You can make a somewhat sweet version, good for breakfast or a light supper. About ten to fifteen minutes before it’s done, toss in some raw nuts to roast with the squash if you want some crunch. If you want to add seeds, toss them in the last five minutes or so. In the last few minutes of roasting time you can add apple chunks, pears, or other fruit if you like. Eat as is, or serve it with maple syrup, cream, or a side of cool applesauce.

~Roast it with plenty of halved garlic cloves and add other vegetables of your choice. Brussels sprouts work well here, so do rutabagas, cauliflower, onions, pretty much up to you. If you add more vegetables, little more olive oil helps the process along. Watch the garlic to make sure it doesn’t burn.

 

Curried Squash Soup

This is a lovely creamy soup. Don’t worry about chopping the vegetables perfectly, you’ll be blending everything except whatever ingredients you add as options at the end.

Ingredients

  • one winter squash, baked until tender with skin and seeds removed (I bake them on a parchment-covered jellyroll pan at 350 for about 60 to 90 minutes. Stab them in the neck to see if they’re tender. You can add horror movie sound effects if you like.)
  • olive oil or coconut oil, a few tablespoons
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 or 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 fresh jalapeno, chopped (or a dash of crushed red pepper)
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, chopped (or a pinch of dry ginger)
  • a handful or two of Brazil nuts or other unsalted nuts (walnuts or almonds work well)*
  • 2 cups milk, cream, or unsweetened alternate milk like soy or almond
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, may need less
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • optional add-in vegetables– pick only one or two: a handful of peas is classic, for some reason a handful of frozen corn works well, it’s amazing how many others work beautifully such as chopped greens like spinach or arugula, some cauliflower florets, some roasted eggplant, minced sun-dried tomatoes, you might want to raid your fridge and try different bowls of soup with different add-ins

Method

Saute onions and celery until soft, add garlic and jalapeno and continue sauteing until tender. Put these in the blender with ginger, nuts (if you choose to use them), and milk. Blend until smooth. Add squash. You may need to do this in two or more batches. Return to pan. Add curry powder, salt, and pepper. Stir in as much stock as you choose to make a smooth, flavorful soup. Now mix in whatever optional add-in vegetables you’ve chosen. Heat thoroughly, until those veggies are cooked through.

To serve, you can sprinkle with roasted pumpkin seeds or fresh chopped parsley.

*If you don’t have a powerful blender like a Vitamix, a teaspoon or so of unsweetened creamy almond butter is a good substitute for nuts. Or skip the nuts entirely. 

 

 

Butternut & Beans in Creamy Tahini 

This is loosely based on a recipe by Molly Wizenberg, memoir writer and chef who blogs at Orangette. Preparation can be speeded up, depending on how you prefer to roast garlic and caramelize onions. I brought this to a gathering of friends recently along with a friendly little loaf of bread. There are usually leftovers I can offer the host but this time every bit of the dish had been gobbled up!

Ingredients

  • 1 butternut or other winter squash, about 3 pounds before cooking
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil, divided use
  • one 15 ounce can chickpeas, navy beans, or other firm white beans drained and rinsed (1 1/2 cups cooked beans)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons tahini
  • 1/4 of water or stock, more as needed
  • pepper (Aleppo pepper is fantastic here)
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

 

Method

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and seed squash, cut into 1 or 2 inch cubes. For the fast method you simply toss the squash with the oil, garlic, and onions, roasting it all together on a jellyroll pan for 25 to 35 minutes, moving pieces around occasionally and scooping out garlic that’s in danger of burning. The squash and onions should have some nicely brown sides and smell heavenly.

OR, if you’re fussy like me, you can roast the squash on its own. I tuck the garlic into a little foil-lined ramekins with a bit of oil, close up the foil packet, and stick it in the oven along with the squash as it cooks. It’s far creamier and has a smoother taste as well. Then I toss the onions in a pan on the stove with some of the oil and caramelize on low heat for 20 minutes or so, which takes very little attention. You have another pan to wash but I’m partial to the taste of onions prepared this way.

Anyway, back to the recipe. Into your blender container put the cooked garlic, lemon juice, tahini, sea salt, and some stock or water. Blend. If the blender balks, add more stock. Throw in pepper. Taste. It should be marvelous. If not, add more seasoning.

Mix with the roasted squash and caramelized onions. Stir in beans. Warm through. Top with chopped parsley.

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