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Another Reason to Love Dandelions

by Sandy Swegel

I may never pull another dandelion again.  Well, at least not in my yard.  But it was an utter joy to learn something new about dandelions yesterday while enjoying my morning coffee and looking out the window.  We’ve had a very late Spring with heavy snows and everyone is worried about the bees having enough food.  Dandelions started blooming seriously last week and I sat drinking coffee and watching at least forty bees feed on the patch of dandelions in pasture grass outside my window.  And then came the delight. A tiny house wren…one of those little birds that live by the hundreds in tree or thickets…flew down and delicately started pulling on the puffball of a dandelion seedhead.  With great industry, the bird pulled off two or three of the seeds at a time (and dandelion seeds are tiny) and teased them from the hairy chaff.  He stayed pulling off the seed and threshing them for several minutes.  Naturally by the time I got the camera he was back in the tree chirping away.

There’s so much beauty and bounty around us every moment.  All these years I’ve been gardening and I never noticed how much little birds depended on finding weed seeds.

 http://www.birdsinbackyards.neth

Quick Potluck Meals From Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Last night I went to our annual culinary gardener’s potluck holiday party.  When you have good organic produce you’ve grown yourself, the flavors are so much better than standard grocery store fare, it doesn’t take much work to make potluck meals everybody loves.  The vegetable provides most of the flavor!

Some of last night’s easy dishes:

Roasted vegetables.

Sweet potatoes cut in 1-inch chunks, marinated in olive oil and lots of rosemary and garlic. With the oven at 425°, bake on a cookie sheet (not a deep dish) 45 minutes. Turn halfway through.  The cookie sheet lets the heat slightly crust the pieces of sweet potato. This works for butternut squash too.

Beets, small quarters, marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, roasted to soft perfection. Oven at 350, about 30 minutes depending on your beets.

Kale, sliced in quarter inch strips, sauteed in coconut oil with sesame seeds, cranberries, cashews and lemon juice. Saute nuts first then lightly saute kale till tender.  Turns out a beautiful bright green color with red highlights.

Apples, small quarters or eighths, soaked in mulled wine and apple cider, then simmered to tenderness. Dust with cinnamon. Serve as a main course side, not as dessert.

Very thinly julienned beets and carrots, in a vinaigrette sauce with pomegranate seeds and tiny mandarin orange pieces.

Quinoa, cooked and mixed with well-sauteed thin slices of red chard, buffalo mozzarella cheese and blue cheese and bits of chopped pistachios.

All these great dishes were healthy and intensely flavorful. It’s really not difficult to cook good vegetable-based dishes for potlucks or for our nightly meals.  It’s the reward for a long season of gardening in a hot drought year.

Food Swap!

by Sandy Swegel

A group of people who really like to eat interesting food has gotten together with a group of people who really like to cook and preserve interesting food and they’ve come up with a simple ingenious way to make each other happy.  Host a Food Swap!

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the people who do the most cooking and food preparation often don’t eat that much?  By the time the meal comes, they’re not all that interested in the final product.  Either they’ve been nibbling along the way, or they’ve already mentally started their next menu idea.  My friend Julia is like that.  Her pantry shelves are filled with rows and rows of preserves or exotic liqueurs and vinegars that she creates from Farmer’s Market produce she buys each week or gathers while out foraging after she does her high-tech computer job all day. Food is the medium for her art.

Fortunately, her friend Eve knew a lot of people like Julia, and other people who had small market farms and other people who simply loved to eat.  So each month, Eve organizes Food Swaps in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. Everyone brings what they do best or what they happen to have.  Last month’s swap items included:

Preserves from Julia
Fermented summer vegetable preserves
Winter Squash and leeks from a market farmer
Homemade vanilla extract
Fresh lard from a pig farmer
Crusty artisan breads
Soups:  grass-fed-beef minestrone and vegetarian split pea soup
Chilies preserved in vodka
Homemade tamales
Honey
Eggs

Everyone gathers at a rotating local venue, spends the first half hour eying up each other’s products and swapping recipes or gardening secrets, then they decide what they want to swap.  If you want something from somebody who doesn’t want what you have…you find somebody with something they do want.  It’s a big but organized free for all….and amazingly everybody goes home happy with culinary treasures for the month.

Consider setting something up for your community or there might be something already going on.

Check Out:

Food Swap Network.
http://www.foodswapnetwork.com/

If you’re in Colorado, join us at Mile High Swappers.
http://www.milehighswappers.com/Mile_High_Swappers/Home.html

And here’s a video from an Indiana Food Swap. http://www.indyfoodswappers.com/2011/09/20/90-seconds-inside-the-indy-food-swap-2/

Apple Windfall

by Sandy Swegel

While I continue to have a good supply of huge zucchini from the four zucchini plants my neighbor is growing, the bounty and surplus this year is from apples.  Talk about a windfall.  Day after day there are dozens of apples that fall on the ground and they are starting to taste pretty good.  The first small immature apples aren’t really good for much besides the compost pile.  And the apples on the tree shouldn’t be picked until they’ve been sweetened by Fall frosts.  But the ones that nature is lobbing (wind, gravity, squirrels) on the ground every day are a true gift from above…if you process them every day.

The problem with a windfall is that the apples aren’t perfect, so you can’t just put them on the counter or in the refrigerator to use later.  These apples have split open when they hit the hard ground.  Or greedy squirrels ate one or two little mouthfuls before throwing them to the ground. Wasps are feeding on the juicy parts. Or, ickiest, codling worms ate through part of the apple leaving their brown crusty frass. Occasionally, there’s even still a codling worm in the apple.

One bad apple does spoil the batch.  One rotting place on an apple will soon spread to even perfect apples…so you have to keep processing the apples.

Here’s what I do:  I hold a formal apple triage whenever I have time.  Perfect apples without splits or bad spots get spread on a counter in the cool basement or in the refrigerator.  With a little humidity (a root cellar and a box of wet sand are traditional) the apples will last through late winter.

Not perfect but pretty good apples can be:

1. Eaten on the spot. Yum.
2. Have the bad spots cut out and made into sauce, cobbler or juice.
3. Pressed into cider.  Some people in town here had a big apple pressing last year where everyone brought apples and they pressed them all together.  That’s when I learned part of the rich flavor of apple cider comes from all the bad parts and cyanide seeds and occasional worms being pressed together with all the good apples.  The final cider is strained so there’s no chance of getting anything visible in your cider…

When I’m in a hurry and just want the apples not to go bad, I make the world’s simplest cider in small batches in my mighty Vitamixer.

I wash the apples.  I quarter them and remove the disgusting and rotten parts.  I start with one cup of water in the Vitamix and fill the rest of the Vitamix to the top with apple parts.  I pulverize the whole container…having to use the plunger to keep the process started.  Then, the secret to this quickie cider is to pour the entire blender-full through a sprouting bag into a bowl.  Actually, I’m too cheap to use the sprouting bag and I buy the five-gallon paint straining bag from the hardware store.  Then with clean hands, you squeeze the bag, not too unlike milking a cow, until all the juice flows out. Repeat.  The pulp goes to the chickens or earthworms. The juice is good to drink or freeze or even let ferment if you want some old-fashioned hard cider.

Now if only I could develop a taste for zucchini juice, I’d have both abundances of food taken care of.

Vitamix recipes

 

Ignoring what “they” say.

by Sandy Swegel

I visited a garden yesterday tended by my friend Lou.  Lou has gardened for other people for many years and the heavy shade garden I visited has lots of color despite being in shade and the fact that we’ve been in high temperature, drought conditions.

As we walked around and she told me some of the secrets of the garden’s success, I found myself thinking, “But “they” say not to do that.”  Things like “they” say native plants don’t want rich soil and shouldn’t be fertilized like other garden plants.  Hah. Her well-fed natives were twice the size of mine.  Or “they” say dahlias don’t do well in shade and need full sun.  She had twenty magnificent blooming dahlias that begged to differ.  And she used all kinds of plants the opposite of what the labels say:  Euonymous species, sold as shrubs, were tough interesting reliable groundcovers when kept short by pruning.

My favorite gardeners have always been the ones ignoring what “they” say and think about what might actually work.  My first experience was an older gentleman who had grown tomatoes for 70 years by the time I met him.  He had tried all the tomato techniques I ever heard of.  “Epsom salts,” he guffawed…”don’t do a thing except make the tomatoes taste salty.”  “Water has to be consistent.”  He had watered every day with soaker hoses since they had been invented.  So as I watched him fertilize, I expected some down-home advice.  Instead, I watched in horror as he just spooned tablespoons of dry Miracle Grow crystals right next to the tomato stem.  “But, but…” I stammered, “Aren’t you going to burn the plants and kill them?”  Nope….they just got watered in slow-release-like with each soaker hose watering and he had the best tomatoes in town.

That still didn’t match the shock of watching my friend Barbara.  She definitely walks her own path and is agreed by all to be the best gardener we know.  She never fertilized with fertilizers. She composts and mulches and puts goat manure and earthworm compost on everything, but she has never bought a bottle of something and put it on her yard. Geraniums bloomed in containers for fifteen years with only compost and maybe grass clippings in the bottom of the pot for the earthworms to eat. The most startling part of watching her garden was that she never treated pests.  Sawflies came two years in a row and ate every single leaf on her six-foot-tall gooseberries. They looked terrible.  She made sure the plants were watered and had lots of compost, but said the plants needed to figure it out if they wanted to survive. It was up to them to figure out how to defend themselves.  She just made sure the garden environment was good.  To my amazement, the plants survived and put out new leaves, and the third year the beetles didn’t return.  Who knew?

I still do lots of things “they” say because much is based on someone’s research and experience.  But I keep an open mind. Every time somebody gives me a lecture about the right way to garden or what “they” say I should be doing, I ask myself, “Who is this ‘they’?” “And who gave them all the power?”

 

What a Plant Knows

Back when I was a teenager, summer reading was all about pulp fiction and romantic novels, except for the summer when I read everything Arthur C. Clarke ever published.  Now that I use podcasts for pulp novels and nonfiction, I can spend summer on eccentric or unusual new books.  What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses is my latest extraordinary discovery.

Author Daniel Chamovitz points out that it has been over three decades(!) since Secret Lives of Plants was published and there has been lots of hard scientific research about plants since then.  Chamovitz emphasizes over and over that plants DON’T experience the world as humans do, but they do sense the world in their own ways.

Some tidbits from this provocative book:

Plants are aware of the world around them.

They can “see” in that they differentiate between red, blue, far-red and UV lights (better than we can, incidentally).

They can “smell” in that they are aware of aromas and minute amounts of chemical compounds in the air.

They can “touch” and respond differently to different kinds of touch.

They are aware of the past and can remember past infections and conditions and change their physiology based on those memories.

They can communicate with other plants and warn them of predators.

And my favorite:  plants dance…all plants move in a great spiral when they grow and when they adapt to their environment.Broccoli, Organic Romanesco

This book isn’t a metaphysical exploration of plants. It is a long scientific discussion of specific plant actions and reactions. For people like me who want to know why plants do things…why they thrive and survive sometimes and why they wither and die sometimes, ‘What a Plant Knows’ is a great treasure.

The Joy of the Garden Routine

by Sandy Swegel

Rifling through the garden in the early sunrise hour this morning, I paused to look up at the morning sky that looked just like the ones in Renaissance paintings.  Following the beauty to the earth, I saw for the first time this year my garden in full growth and fertility.  I got a glimpse not just of weeds and tiny seedlings but of orach in its vibrant purple color and arugula in bloom.  Peas and favas are reaching for the sky and putting out delicate blooms.  Re-seeded larkspur will probably open in just a few hours.  I did pull a few weeds and start some more chard seeds on a blank patch.  But I got bundles of fresh greens for my morning juice, leeks to put in the crockpot for dinner, and magnificent lettuce for an evening salad.  The garden today has begun to return much more than I have put into it.  Tomatoes are still in walls of water and many plants are tiny, but the lovely routine of the season has started.

From now, I’ll settle into my 15 minute morning garden routine, slightly amended with today’s revelation.

Look up at the big sky. Look at the vitality of life between the sky and the earth.
Pull the big weeds.
Harvest the food for the day.
Fill the empty spots with new seeds or plants.
Water what is dry.
Look once more in gratitude and wonder at the big sky.

There will be times I spend more time in the garden because it’s fun or an ambitious project is taking hold.  And there may be times when I’m not keeping up with the pests or weeds that sneak in and there will be some remedial work.  But for the most part, if I am consistent in my 15-minute daily routine, my time in the garden will never be a chore but will be invigorating and full of nourishment and inspiration for the day.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart?

by Sandy Swegel

One thing is certain.  The older you get, the more you understand the depth of this saying.  Too soon old, too late smart? Most of us finally get smarter –in gardening, in life, in work, and in love—but some of us are slow or stubborn learners and by the time we finally “get” something and understand with clarity, we’re already getting a bit crickety and reaching a “mature” age.  But it doesn’t have to be this way with gardening.  Gardeners are natural teachers and mentors and are generous to share the wisdom of their hard-learned lessons.

And sometimes you find someone who is a learner and collector of wisdom and who has taken the time to reflect on that wisdom and share it.  Jane Shellenberger, a friend of BBB Seed, is a gardener who does all of those things.  She has created and edited Colorado Gardener, a free print publication, that six times a year presents articles from the leading gardening minds in the greater Denver area.  Over the years she has been an avid learner from our scientists, nursery owners, the people who invented the word xeriscape, and our home gardeners. In her spare time, she writes about gardening for the Christian Science Monitor. (links at http://www.coloradogardener.com/)

So you could spend whole days on her free website and get a lot “smarter” about gardening without getting too old, or you could read the book she has just published: Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West.  I’ve spent the last week with this book and I’m surprised how many new things I’ve learned….and I’m a gardening research junkie who scours the internet and grills friends and strangers about gardening practices.  Jane has gathered the gardening wisdom of her lifetime and the life-long wisdom of stellar home and professional gardeners, scientists and entrepreneurs, and written a book that will teach you advanced gardening techniques but is still beautiful to read and easy to understand.  Sort of Acres Magazine meets Martha Stewart Gardening.

We all yearn to pass on the wisdom of our lives. We want the young not to struggle as we did to learn life-lessons.  We wish we knew then what we know now.  Jane has gathered many lifetimes of garden smarts (and she’s not even close to old) and written a good and useful book.  In a world filled with garden books with the same old beginner’s knowledge rehashed, this one stands out and will help make you garden-smart.