The Milkweed Diaries

Monday, September 29, 2008

Five Things to do with Beet Thinnings

Young beet leaves, various lettuce varieties, and baby chard

The fall beets that we planted are growing every day, and the time for thinning has arrived.

If you want your beets to make big, juicy roots, thinning is critical. This is because beet seeds, which look like little asteroids, are actually seed clusters of several seeds fused together. If all or most of the seeds in the cluster germinate, you'll end up with a little clump of beet plants growing closely together everywhere that you planted one seed. This is all well and good for the beet plants--the plants will survive just fine growing in little clumps, but it is not so good for those of us who want to eat beet roots. The roots of all of the plants in the cluster would compete for nutrients and space without thinning.

Some say you can break up the beet seed clusters by rolling them with a rolling pin before planting, but I prefer to just plant them and thin.

Even though I have grown vegetables for many years, I still experience a twinge of sadness pulling a tiny, plucky, baby vegetable seedling up by the roots and tossing it in the compost pile. So whenever possible, I try to come up with ways to use the thinnings.

Here are my suggestions for ways to use your beet thinnings so that you can avoid that twinge --and because it really is a shame to waste even a few sweet, young, nutritious greens!

1. Mix them in with salads. Young beet greens, or "beet reds" as a friend of mine calls them, add beautiful color to spring and fall salads (see photo above).

2. Add them to pestos. Raw beet greens add gorgeous color and nutrition to pestos made with basil or other greens. Just throw them in the food processor with the other greens of your choice, lemon juice, olive oil, and nuts or seeds. For more on making pesto out of leaves other than basil, see my previous post on pesto.

3. Throw them in the skillet with your cooked greens. Add beet thinnings to kale, collards, or chard and steam or saute with a little vinegar, lemon juice, or tamari.

4. Ferment them. Add young beet leaves to the mix when you make sauerkraut or kimchee.

5. Juice them. Beet tops of any age can be juiced with other veggies. My favorite juice combination is beets, beet greens, carrots, ginger, and apples.

*Extra Credit*
For hardcore beetgreen lovers only:
My favorite recent discovery in the world of beet-thinnings is eating them just straight up, raw, dipped in plain yogurt. This way you really get to taste the flavor, and the creamy tartness of the yogurt is a fabulous foil for the strong, slightly bitter, buttery-crisp beet leaves.

Let me know if you have other uses for young beet greens...we have a lot of thinnings to find uses for these days!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Yome Sweet Yome...And Announcing the Request Line

Dianne asked about the structure in the background of one of the pesto-making shots, so I'm posting today about our yome (pictured above).

I've been meaning to write about the yome for a while, and Dianne's request has spurred me to create a *Request Line* !

So here you go, dear readers: make blog subject requests, and I will blog by request at least once a month.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell y'all up front that I'm only going to take requests on subject matter that I have at least a shred of knowledge about and interest in. So don't even bother requesting posts on naval history, hot new hi-tech gadgets, or all-inclusive resort vacations. But alternative structures for simple living? Any day.

Which brings me to the yome.

What the heck is a yome?

A yome is a 5, 6, or 8-sided structure that is a cross between a yurt and a geodesic dome. Ours, the largest-sized model, is octagonal. Yomes were invented by Peter Belt (you'll see him in the photos below - he's the one with the grey beard), whose company Red Sky Shelters is the only manufacturer of yomes in the world. Fortunately for us, Red Sky is a locally-based company--their "factory" is just up the road a piece in the greater Woodfin area.

Here's how Peter describes yomes:

"From ancient principles to modern technology, our ultra stable triangular support framework combines the best of both yurts and domes. Like a yurt, the sides are nearly vertical, maximizing the usable space within. Inside, the tallest people can stand comfortably, even near the walls. The roof and walls are made of different materials; one of heavy-duty coated fabric to shed rain, the other specially-treated to be breathable, allowing excess moisture to escape. And both are fire, water and mildew-resistant.

The dome part of a Yome is based on the same principles pioneered by Buckminster Fuller in his famous Geodesic Dome. No fence-like latticework covers the walls and windows, as in a yurt. And the whole thing is portable, fitting easily into most vehicles and can be set up or taken down by two or three people in a matter of hours."

Buckminster Fuller actually began work on the geodesic dome right here in the Swannanoa Valley, during the time he spent at the legendary Black Mountain College just a few minutes away from the spot we call home. Because of the triangles (based on Fuller's design) that comprise the basic structure of the yome, the yome is actually much stronger and more stable than its cousin the yurt.

Building the platform

Christopher built the platform for our yome over about a month, mostly on weekends, with help from me and a few friends.

We used locust logs on flat concrete block for the foundation, with a frame made from sustainably- harvested lumber from our next-door neighbors on the Warren Wilson College Forestry Crew.

Above: the platform in progress; Lynn and Christopher celebrating levelness).

Christopher designed the platform with room for a foot-deep layer of blown-in cellulose (recycled newspaper) insulation (at left).

We used salvaged plywood for the underside of the platform, and storebought plywood for the topside. The new plywood was FSC certified, but still a compromise in terms of embodied energy and relative toxicity. The yome installed on a raised platform is a very low-impact structure in that it requires basically no disruption to the land.

Here's the finished platform (left) ready for the assembly of the yome itself.

The Yome Arrives!

One Spring day after the platform was built, Peter and Bruce came over from World Yome Headquarters to bring the yome frame, skin, and parts, and to help us set up our new home. Friends and family helped out and the structure went up easily in one afternoon.

First we put together the frame, then attached the roof, and then hung the walls.

From Basic to Posh

In the weeks after the basic setup was complete, we took our yome to the luxury level by adding a kitchen sink, cooktop, and lights. For heating, we bought a small, used woodstove for the bargain price of $50.

We lucked out and got free non-toxic carpet tiles from a local school that had bought more than they needed. These went down directly on top of the plywood floor.

As the summer heated up, we added a lining inside the roof, with reflective insulation in between the roof and ceiling (the "roof insulation package" purchased from Red Sky). Adding the insulation and fans in lowered the temperature in the yome by about 10 degrees.

Yome Living

We lived in the yome for about 7 months while we were building our house.

Christopher built shelves and we installed salvaged kitchen cabinets and still had room for a kitchen table, sofa, a queen-sized bed, and clothing storage.

Our cat, Frankie, never liked being inside the yome (although she does enjoy hanging out on the steps and hunting mice underneath), but we found it a cozy and comfortable living space.

Now the yome is our guest room, office, costume closet, and yoga space. It's been up for about 18 months, and we love it. It's snug and stable, and adds a whimsical, circus-like touch to our land.

The translucent walls let in tons of diffused light, making it feel like an airy, luminous treehouse. At night, it glows like a paper lantern, and you can see the stars through the roof hatch and hear frogs and crickets through the walls.

Total Pricetag

Setting up the whole yome, including platform, ended up costing about $4,500 for about 275 square feet of space.

The frame and platform will last virtually forever, and we can replace the roof and walls if they ever wear out, either with more fabric bought from Red Sky, or with something more substantial if we so choose at that point.

All in all, the yome was a great way to get out to our land quickly, simply, and relatively cheaply.

It's elegant, comfy, and fun!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pesto Extravaganza

Saturday afternoon we harvested all of the remaining basil in the garden and piled it in a huge aromatic heap in the yard. From this
luxurious pile of spicy green we made pesto over the next 36 hours or so...lots and lots of pesto.

Above: Love in the basil pile

At left: MT and Jonathan with the goods

We grew Genovese basil, the classic pesto variety. This is the third year we've had a big basil-harvesting and pesto-making event at Fall Equinox, which is also birthday season for both me and Christopher.

This year, MT and Jonathan and Christopher and I harvested and picked through all of the leaves, gradually filling and refilling a big plastic tub with basil.

At left: Picking leaves off of the stems, the most time-consuming and tedious part of the process, best performed with friends.

After we had enough leaves picked to begin washing and turning them into pesto, there was some enthusiastic garlic smashing (see below) followed by hours of chopping and blending in the food processor (thanks to Evaa and CP for stepping in to take the food processor controls when I was flagging).

At some point during the marathon of pesto production line activities, friends began to trickle in for birthday celebrations. Eventually, there was a sizable crowd, and good food (featuring pesto, of course) was enjoyed all round.

Shane brought an amazing pie made from wild berries and some fabulous mead from various fruits and honey from her bees, Paul and Jude contributed surprisingly delicious stewed tomatoes and green beans from their garden, Jordana made a downright delicious beet salad, and Dana brought paw paws and made mint chocolate chip ice cream on site with "milk squeezed from the cow's teat just yesterday morning" and
chocolate chips she claimed to have grown herself.

April & Mike contributed the entertainment in the form of 2-month old Nathaniel, who was much admired by all.

And we ate pasta with potatoes, peppers, and chard and copious amounts of ultra-fresh pesto.

Above: Smashing and peeling homegrown garlic

Here's the basic recipe (no measurements, sorry!) for classic pesto for freezing or eating fresh. We used sunflower seeds and no cheese -- the budget version.

  • Basil (Italian large-leaf or Genovese are the best varieties for pesto-making)
  • High quality olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Lots of fresh garlic, smashed and peeled
  • Sunflower seeds, walnuts, or pine nuts
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • A little bit of fresh parsley & thyme (optional)
  • Asiago or parmesan cheese, coarsely grated (optional)
Pulverize in a food processor, or if you are really old-school, with a mortar and pestle. Adjust proportions according to your taste (it is almost impossible to combine these ingredients in a way that is not pleasurable). Eat fresh or freeze!

We ended up with quarts and quarts of pesto -- we'll never know exactly how much because we ate so much right away and sent a whole lot home with friends.

There is nothing in the world like classic basil pesto. Besides its fabulous taste and smell, there's something about the green, green, savory, spicy, burst of flavor and color that just seems to capture the life-force of summer in a jar.

Basil is packed with chlorophyll, the magical substance that changes sunlight into plant energy, and also contains calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and Vitamins A, D, and B2. Google turns up some interesting studies of the nutritional and medicinal properties of basil, for example: "Recently, basil was shown to rank highest among spices and herbal crops for xanthophyll carotenoids, which are associated with decreased risks of cancer and age-related eye diseases." (Read more here.)

And it tastes so good and is so beautiful.

So all of our basil is now all converted into pesto, packed into jars and various other containers, and stored for later eating. It's quite satisfying to open up the freezer and see all of that bright green, sunny summer juju, packed in for winter.

Happy Equinox!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More on brine pickling

Jars of recently brined pickles: mixed vegetables on the left and summer squash on the right.

Earlier this summer, I blogged about one of my favorite old-fashioned, probiotic ways to preserve vegetables -- pickling them in salt water. (See the original post, Coming Home to Abundance for brine-pickling instructions, references, and background).

Brine pickling has been such an ongoing, everyday part of life at our house over the past few months of heavy harvest that I wanted to write a little bit more about it, with specific comments on various vegetables for brining.

This summer, I've brine-pickled cucumbers, squash, okra, onions, garlic, radishes, beets, carrots, and cauliflower, all with good results. Fresh dill, basil, and parsley all pickle well, too, and add great flavor to brine pickles. I have a crock going now of baby squash, the last of the summer carrots, and okra with dill flowers. I'm sure I've brined other things in summers past, but I don't remember them all!

I do remember that I tried fingerling eggplants once with disastrous results (mushy and moldy), so I don't recommend brining eggplant. Other things I DON'T recommend brining include: ripe tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and lettuce. I've known friends to brine watermelon rinds (very delicious) and green tomatoes successfully, too.

I've found that squash and cucumbers do great pickled whole and then de-brined (soaked in cold water), sliced, and stored in a 4-to-1 water/vinegar solution. They'll last almost indefinitely in the fridge that way.

You can store the pickles in the original brining liquid, which is cloudy and full of beneficial bacteria, but it's generally a bit salty for my taste. I like to pour it off and save it to use for other things, including just pouring a shot of it into sauerkraut or pickles when packing into jars for storage.

Okra is really tasty brined whole and either sliced and packed or just packed as whole pods (they look cool that way). This is an outstanding way to keep up with the okra overload when your okra plants are producing faster than you can possibly come up with clever ways to disguise okra for fresh consumption.

Small carrots are great brined whole, and are a surprisingly yummy snack - salty, crunchy, and crisp.

Onions do better quartered than whole, unless they're pretty small. Pearl-sized pickled onions are GREAT.

An easy way to get started with brine pickling is to fill a crock or big jar with all the brine-able veggies that you have lying around needing to be used. Make sure they're washed and prepped as described in my earlier post and then pour a strong brine solution over them (1/2 cup salt to 1 quart water). Press down (I use a plate weighted with a full jar on top), make sure they're submerged, cover, and wait. In warm weather, the pickles will be salty, sour, and pickled in as little as 10 days. It really is like magic!

Melon Harvest

In the photo at left is our entire melon harvest this year.

I had never grown melon before this year, and just gave it a whirl because some free starts were available from our Sugar Creek greenhouse class.

The plants did pretty well for a while, growing in the shade of a bean trellis. Eventually, they got hit with squash beetles, powdery mildew, and drought, and they just never really seemed to thrive.

In the end, these two little peach-sized melons were all we had to show for our attempts at melon-growing this year.

The variety is "Tigger"--an Armenian heirloom that the seed catalog says can weigh up to a pound--not ours!

Obviously, we welcome tips from you, dear reader, on getting a coaxing a bit more bountiful harvest from melon plants next time around!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hymn to Hibiscus

Earlier this summer, Dana-Dee posted a call for information about hibiscus on her highly entertaining and informative blog. What with the abundance of hibiscus blooms in my garden right now, it seemed like a good time to answer the call and sing the praises of this family of plants. So here you go, Dana, and anyone else who's interested.

First let me say that hibiscus is SO worth growing. It's beautiful, and at least in my garden has always been pest-free. As you will read below, there are edible and medicinal varieties of hibiscus, but I must admit that the main reason I grow it is for pure prettiness.

Here are some photos of various hibiscus plants in our garden, blooming right now.

The first is a hearty native hibiscus (above and at left). I bought this plant at my favorite local nursery, Reems Creek in Weaverville. Incidentally, they are also the only local garden center where you can buy all of the ingredients for the soil mix that I blogged about last month for starting seeds.

In any case, this hibiscus is my favorite in the garden. It's just a low-profile plant with gorgeous, subtle, funky buds (at left) that suddenly erupt into bloom right about now. Plus, it's a native perennial. I'm curious if anyone knows if this variety is edible/suitable for tea.

The next garden shot is of the "red zinger" hibiscus, Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as red sorrel (below).

I found a great article on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's website about this fabulous variety. The article is written not by a Brooklynite but by someone who lives the island of St. Croix, where apparently this hibiscus is widely cultivated and consumed.

According to the author of the Brooklyn Botanic article, red sorrel hibiscus was once a popular edible garden plant in the US too. It's easy to see why:

"Along with the fruit, calyces, and flowers, the leaves of red sorrel are also edible. They have a rhubarblike taste and are served in salads and curries. The seeds likewise may be eaten; they are best roasted or ground to make flour for baking. In the Sudan, the seeds are fermented into a meat substitute called "furundu." Red sorrel has a lot of nutritional value. The calyces, for example, are high in calcium, niacin, riboflavin, and iron."

If you are interested in this variety of edible hibiscus, I highly recommend the article snipped-from above, which includes a recipe, seed source information, and lots of interesting history and cultural notes.

I bought one plant of this variety on impulse at the farmers market one day in the spring, from a grower who only had 3 tiny starts, and 2 were already reserved by other customers. I paid $2 which is a bargain considering all I have gained from this plant--education, edibility, and beautification!

I'm saving some of the seed pods of Hibiscus sabdariffa for hibiscus tea, which will be a welcome burst of summer color and flavor some wintery day, I'm sure.

To return to the ornamental aspect of hibiscus for a moment, I must include a photo of the gigantic red variety in our garden (left), described by one garden visitor as "that giant red thing that looks like a pot plant." It sports highly ornamental red buds, and just keeps expanding its beet-red self all over the place.

I've enjoyed its presence, but I doubt it will return in the spring -- I think it's a tropical variety, alas.

The last hibiscus photo I'm including is of a flower on one of the varieties of okra we're growing this year. Okra is so ornamental, it really could be grown just for the flowers! But it's also such a heavy producer that it's a great plant for growing a lot of food in a small space. I've brine-pickled a bunch of okra already this summer, given lots away, and plan to make some classic Southern-style okra-n-tomatoes for my Dad this weekend.

To close with a final hibiscus tidbit: my friend Sandi Ford, a super-knowledgeable plantswoman and herbalist extraordinaire, came over for dinner tonight and answered some of my most pressing botanical questions, such as "is chinese cabbage a brassica" and "are marshmallows in the hibiscus family." While we were on the subject of hibiscus, she told me that hibiscus flowers are androgynous or hermaphroditic -- each individual flower contains all of the female and male reproductive parts needed for the plant to propagate itself. This kind of flower is also referred to as "perfect" or "bisexual." More here.

So to recap: delicious, hermaphroditic, beautiful.

There's my Hymn to Hibiscus.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Apocalyptic rhetoric, the power of a single action, and a beautiful homestead

After coming across this beautiful image on a blog I recently discovered (Future House Farm), I followed the internet rabbithole to the website for the family home in Wales that is the subject of the photograph: A Low Impact Woodland Home.

This beautiful little building seems to have "the quality that has no name" described in A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. In any case, this image makes my heart sing!

Here's a quick clip about why the people who live in this house are doing what they're doing:

The video asks questions about apocalyptic rhetoric and political action, and posits that all of our actions are political.

This concept has resonated with me since even before being introduced to the mantra "the personal is political!" by my 2nd wave feminist foremothers. I heard and read these words, "the personal is political" over and over again from "womentors" in my early 20s, until they were as much a part of my psyche as the golden rule.

Even before that, I was part of the generation that watched "Understand the Power of a Single Action" flash behind Michael Stipe on stage while we danced to the politically charged music we'd heard on dubbed cassette versions of the albums you couldn't buy in the mainstream record stores. In the rural South of the 80s and early 90s, copies of copies of copies of tapes passed from one person to another in the teenage underground, carrying with them secret information about the world beyond our small conservative towns.

The power of a single action, or a single line of a single song, or a single image (like the one above) was something that made intuitive sense to me from my early on. Single actions taken by other people were lifelines to me as a misfit kid in the pre-internet sticks. Growing up isolated from political "movements" I first witnessed and then experienced from within the power of single actions, conscious choices, making small connections and commitments.

In my life, single actions have grown in me as seeds: seeds passed from hand to hand until they were planted in me, seeds that sent down roots, roots that twined with other root systems deep underground and made me stronger.

So thanks to the builders of this little house and their philosophies for rekindling all of those thoughts. And thanks to all of those whose actions, however big or small, took root in me.

And speaking of actions big and small, a final thought on the "Low Impact Woodland Home" site: I also really like the list of small steps toward sustainability on the website of this house ~ anyone interested in a dialogue about this list? Additions? Subtractions? Elaborations? Discussions?

Local Protein

Yesterday we harvested the first big batch of dry black beans -- Cherokee Trail of Tears Black Beans
(see my previous post for more information on these beautiful and delicious heirloom beans).

I remember my amazement when I first discovered that to grow dry beans, you just let the pods dry on the vine and pick and simple and satisfying! We recently ate the last of last summer's dry beans, and are beginning to pick and shell beans from this year's garden now.

Here's what the pods look like drying on the vine (top photo) - they go from green to purple to purplish-black to black or brown. Here's a basket of harvested dry beans (above).

We could jar them up right away after shelling, but we are drying them on screens (below) to make sure no moisture gets trapped in the jars with them.

We bought a pound of seed from Seed Savers Exchange in the Spring, and had intended to save some beans for seed next year, BUT it appears that the seed is not pure (left). The white seed coat likely points to the seeds having crossed with another variety one generation back (the parent generation of the seeds that we bought). Since we have found one pod (so far) with beans with a white seed coat, so we'll have to contact SSE to let them know it appears the seed we bought was crossed, and we'll need to buy fresh seeds next year in order to preserve the heirloom variety uncorrupted.

Eventually, our goal is to have lots of these to give away and sell (local vegetable protein!) and to ferment these and other dry beans in tempeh and misos. We also hope to save seeds of this variety (once we are sure the seed is not crossed) to share and replant every year...stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

September Garden Pictures...

Polyculture in the keyhole bed (dill, strawflowers, okra, eggplant, marigolds, peppers, amaranth, black beans, and sunflowers)

Beans growing up various sunflower stalks and drying on the vine ~ these will be dry black beans for eating all winter. Cucuzzi edible gourds are mixed in, too, and okra and butternut squash...

Zinnias, nasturtiums, milkweed, and beans...chicory in the background.

baby okra!

ironweed & sunflowers in the background

Monday, September 1, 2008

Fall Beets

We just came in from planting a new bed in beets--3 heirloom varieties for late fall/early winter harvest.

We planted Chioggia (top photo), Bulls Blood (middle), and Detroit Dark Red (lower) beets in a raised bed amended with composted cow manure. We're hoping to harvest them before the ground freezes.

There's a lot of good info out there about fall gardening.

The image above of Chioggias is from a good article about Fall gardening in The Paper of Record, published a few years ago.

Here's some specific info on beets from Yardener:

"Beets will remain tasty and harvestable right up until the soil freezes hard which is usually 6 to 10 weeks after that first frost. Calculate when you think you will have the ground freezing hard, and back off 60 or 65 days for the date of the last fall succession planting of beets. Then move back another 3 weeks, and again another 3 weeks for the first planting of fall beets."

Beet greens are one of my staple foods. I also love raw grated beet roots as a topping for rice dishes and salads, and fermented beets are pretty fabulous too. Beets are an antioxidant-packed superfood; more here.

I cannot end this post any other way: the beet goes on.