On year-round harvests

salsa fixings, Aug 2011

We ate our last potato last night.

It was a huge Red Norland, a “spooky” potato (according to the eight-year-old) with finger-length sprouts emerging from it; it was added to a soup of leeks, celery, parsley root and cream, blended smooth and served hot with fresh bread and herbed butter.

That last potato got me thinking about staples and seasonality.

After one hangs one’s garden hat on providing a year’s worth of (name your vegetable), there are logical next steps that a gardener usually takes.  What else is out there, what else can I put away?  Are the items destined to be eaten in the same form as they’re harvested, like the potatoes or apples and winter squash, or do they have to be canned or frozen, dehydrated or picked?

And what about the year-round availability that the grocery store provides?  Can I compete with that, ever?

Can I produce FRESH food year-round?  And if so, is it stuff we’ll actually eat?

Those last two items have been THIS gardener’s holy grail.  As time and our tastes have allowed, I have shifted away from preserving my harvests and have instead moved to Fresh Is Best.  The greenhouses have been key to this, of course, but there are other methods out there, like low tunnels or even  basement/cold-storage of items like celery, chard, and chickories.  These items are dug up, roots and all, and potted and placed in one’s dark and cool storage area.  The leaves and stalks, though blanched from lack of light, are eminently edible.

But I am a slacker at heart, so I leave things in the ground year-round and rely on my greenhouses to provide the bounty.  Still, many things, like that potato, have an off-season, that period of time between the last wrinkled sprouty stored spud and the digging of the first thin-skinned earth-warmed baby spud.  The wait makes you want them more…but the more you work at it, the better you are at shortening that off-season.  I expect my first potato harvest in mid-June, in the greenhouses.

Here’s a list of my year-round, same-form items:

  • Leeks, onions, scallions, shallots; kale, mustards, collards, chard, chickories, lettuce, celery, beets, carrots; button mushrooms; parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay, garlic; eggs, chicken, milk and milk products.

Here is a list of almost-year-round goodies:

  • Cabbage, broccoli, parsnips, potatoes, fennel, kohlrabi, celeriac, turnips, rutabaga, daikon radishes, skirret, scorzonera, and

And here’s a partial list of the things that get harvested once, no matter how hard I try:

  • Asparagus, artichoke, cardoon, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, okra, peas, beans, corn, cantaloupe/melons, cucumbers, tomatillos, brussels sprouts and cauliflower; honey, maple syrup; apples, blueberries and strawberries.

So when people ask me why I wish for another greenhouse, I think of my lists, especially this middle one.  Year-round fennel and kohlrabi would seem to be laudable goals, but year-round potatoes?  Score!  Gotta just dig more dirt to figure out how I can do it.

It keeps me busy.  And the grocery store doesn’t get our money!

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On spring progress

Old” greenhouse (built 2007)

I have to laugh though because I felt so proud after a morning’s work in the old greenhouse above.  We cleaned out 2 of 9 beds!  12 bags of salad from 2 beds!  But certainly you can’t tell–at all–in this picture.

I always wonder what I am thinking when I take on a new task.  Is all my sparse free time going to simply reappear when I do something eventually worthwhile like build a third greenhouse on the property?  Is that laundry ever going to get done?

Greenhouse #3–or its beginnings, anyway–is located outside the garden proper.   Sod’s a-busted, base frame set (and dug, which is not terribly obvious by the photo) but not assembled; this one will be 16’x32′.  Those are 2x8x16′ untreated #1 pine boards.  My poor brother gets to pick rocks.  The chickens are pleased with the earth-turning, and I have no idea what Penny is doing:  supervising?  And Ruby the hen turkey is sitting on 14 eggs within the doghouse under the chicken tractor at right.

Actually, I truly enjoy these bouts of frenetic activity.  The winter was mild enough to keep me in fine digging form so I do feel like the other two greenhouses and all the outdoor beds are on schedule, maintenance- and plant-wise.  (The freak-warm weather enabled me to do infrastructure repairs and a bit of ground work much earlier than normal thus I avoided the usual early-spring work overload.)  So technically I can build a new greenhouse and not worry about the rest, right?

Part of this new greenhouse is located atop an old roadway, so my brother’s picking its old stones, lucky guy.  Tom’s on the year’s first Grand Mow beyond, and the chickens help dig.

But then I realize we’re where we should’ve been last week.  Eeps!

On greenhouse #3

These are the steps taken thusfar to have a third greenhouse (hoop house, polytunnel, etc.) on this property:

  • Stake site for the final location and size with husband; argue a lot but eventually get your way confirm that a 16’x32′ model is the best size for the space
  • Order greenhouse
  • Order wood and buy hardware for the base frame, end walls, door, and raised beds from the local lumber yard
  • Mow
  • Till
  • Erect base frame.

A rainy weekend got in the way of accomplishing the last three steps (clay soil should not be tilled wet or you will forever have concrete-hard earth clods).  So we went foraging instead.  (If you want to understand the process of erecting a greenhouse, I did a play-by-play of putting up my mom’s small one here.)

About two miles directly north of us, our friends purchased 10 acres of duneland.  For whatever reason, the trees were never cleared on this or any adjacent property…there are some lovely old-growth monsters (poplar, cherry, white pine, oak) and quite a range of microenvironments (bog, creek, pine warren, dune) so it is a great place to see what one can see.

Small people love small frogs

Fiddleheads

But our search for the elusive morel was futile.  These came from a friend’s search.

On dogwood season

And it’s North Carolina’s state flower

If you squint, the forests around us trick you into thinking it’s fall and not spring.  The new leaves and buds and pollen anthers and blossoms are all quite colorful (and even if the color is green there are so many different gradients).  It’s the dogwoods that stand out now:  usually they’re understory trees and quite often they’re found at the edge of a stretch of trees.  I like seeing their pillows of white.

It’s spring, though, because my eyes are itchy.

A previous forage

My friends have found plenty of morels, but so far I have come up empty.  Wild asparagus is easily had, and we’re not tired of it yet.

It’s quite a nice time of year to go out for a walk, and even nicer to take a long bike ride (no bugs in the teeth).  Of course I need to make the time to do both, but…riding to go forage fits the bill.  As long as I remember to take my allergy medication first, that is.

(Next up:  Greenhouse #3!)

On hops “asparagus”

Good gardeners actually repeatedly trim the shoots or are otherwise overwhelmed.  Might as well eat the gleanings.

During garden cleanup last weekend, I considered my sprawling hops vines, dried and new.  They sprawl because I have not yet re-erected their trellis after last year’s windstorm.  (It’s on the everlong To Do list.)  And like any curious gardener and hungry person, I plucked and took a nibble of a new shoot.

Not bad, I thought.  Bright, even.  Surprisingly not bitter like its fruit.

And hairy.

Last year I grew them on trellis netting.  Smart people grow them on wires so they can unhinge them from the top and allow the fruit to dry.  This year, I will be a smart hops farmer.

Sure enough, they’re edible, and sure enough, some previous group of hungry gardeners, Europeans mostly, have figured this out…indeed, there’s a market season for the green ones in Italy (bruscandoli), and the Belgians blanch and even pickle them (jets de houblon).  So to tame their sprawl and fill my maw, I brought some in to the kitchen.

Like asparagus, they’re best fresh.  I have seen plenty of recipes for risotto con bruscandoli,  which sounded fine…but risotto’s a dish I make annually with the first big harvest of asparagus so I didn’t wish to upstage that primary vegetable.  I blanched them in a bit of water to knock the hairs off, then sautéed them with young leeks, the first of the green garlic and some olive oil…and then tossed the lot into a waiting dish of hot fresh egg-y pasta, spring herbs and about a teacup’s worth of new ricotta. A dash of chive blossom vinegar and a bit more butter, salt, and pepper…toss…mmm.

A fine quick spring repast.  Shared with a chilled glass of white wine and a large salad, this meal might just be repeated…next year.

Actually, I did repeat an eat:  the next night I braised some with asparagus and green garlic.  We had company for dinner and it was a hit.

On something from (almost) nothing

It must be Monday because my muscles are sore

Ah, Spring!  Newness everywhere:  new buds, new shoots, new babies, new sprouts.  It must be time to crack the spine of…an old book?  Indeed.  Late winter and early spring find the bedside table crowded with well-thumbed gardening books.  This year is no exception, and I have dug up (pun intended) one of my favorites.  It’s called Life in the Soil by James B. Nardi.

Seeds plus light, water, soil equals a July tomato

Every page is a revelation.  I highly recommend it.

Seeds plus compost and a trellis equals a June pea or three

IN the food web of life, I of course find most fascinating the producers:  those organisms that produce their own nutrients from only air, water, minerals and energy…the everyday wonder that is a lettuce seed, say, spouting and heading up for my eventual enjoyment on just the soil, rain and sun that falls upon it?  Awe, inspiring.

On rushed seasons

22 March is shockingly early for the first (measly) asparagus harvest, don’t you think?

The girl barges in through the back door Wednesday afternoon and announces “It sure is quiet out there!”  That morning’s trip with the dogcrate full of roosters guaranteed that the regular sounds of backyard bucolia have returned here.

My call to the butcher’s wife brought the usual guffaw from her.  “SEVEN roosters? You ARE a softie, honey.”

Jellybean and some of his wimmin.  What you can’t see is his torn-up wattle, poor thing.  Now he’s back to being #2 Rooster.

Er, not really.  The seven in question were late-summer chicks too small for the Thanksgiving turkey trip to the butcher in question.  We endured their presence until we just couldn’t (“we” includes the harassed hens and of course the now bloody and pissed-off Mary Ellen and Jellybean) any longer.  And since one guy was keen to “sleep” in the huge blue spruce which shades the henyard…well, let’s just say an early spring’s open windows and one obnoxious night bird are not exactly compatible.  It’ll buy you a trip to freezer camp, dude.

I envy those of you who are actively eating down the contents of your freezers.  I am somehow unable to ever see the bottom of a freezer (understandably, not a bad problem to have), what with the seasonal binges like a rooster harvest.  Things simply get replaced.

The new greenhouse:  I had planned on harvesting these greens by the end of April, not March…

One thing not easily stored is the lettuces.  My best-laid plans of harvesting one  older-lettuce-filled greenhouse and then moving on to the next baby-lettuce-filled greenhouse are crappy plans indeed with daily lows beating average highs here.  Three solid weeks of temperatures in the 70s/80s mean that the 100s experienced in the greenhouses are not good for anything currently in there…including the 100 cells seeded with tomatoes.  Sigh.  Time to reboot, clean out, reseed.  Weather, you know, just happens.  My plans would’ve been perfect in a normal year.

The routine on Sunday and Thursday nights:  gather ye CSA bags as ye may…

But what are we going to eat in May?  I wonder!  Better start seeding lettuce rows for the fickle world outside.

The nightly haul:  leeks, lettuces (Amish Deer Tongue and red romaine), atop bolting collards, asparagus and onions…with herbs.