The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The apple does not fall. . .

. . . too far from the tree.

I went to visit my mom & dad last week, and took some photos of the amazing garden installation that my dad has been creating for some months now, in which my parents have been growing herbs, vegetables, and fruits this summer.

The structure is a dodecagon, a 12-sided shape, made up of ten waist-high raised beds coming together in twelve angles supported by locust posts.

The project, which my mom refers to as "The Eighth Wonder" is not finished yet, but it is already very impressive. When my dad is done, there will be some sides left open for entrances into the lovely enclosed sitting area, and a grape arbor on top (you can see the locust posts ready to hold up the arbor in the photo above).

My dad has the idea that when he is "an old man with a cane" he'll be able to walk right up to the counter-height beds and tend his garden without any stooping or bending. It's so easy and convenient that it makes me want to build tall raised beds for now, not just for when I'm a cane-carrying oldster.

The sides of the beds are made of untreated wood of varying widths, colors, and textures-beautifully diverse boards that have been lying around in my parents' garage for 5, 10, or 25 years.

My mom's initial skepticism of The Eighth Wonder has turned to appreciation, and she and I visited the garden to check on the basil, tomatoes, amaranth,
sunflowers and okra one night before dinner.

We harvested what we believe to be a Small Sugar pumpkin, pictured at left.

The next morning, I had some of my mom's homemade blueberry jam from their blueberry harvest, swirled in yogurt. Yum!

I am so grateful to both of my parents for instilling in me a sense of wonder, a love and respect for the natural world, a knowledge of where food comes from, and a zeal for gardening.

I remember working in the vegetable garden with my dad and helping my mom weed her flower gardens from the time I was a very small child. From childhood onward, both of my parents have nurtured in me my natural curiosity, love of growing things, passion for food and cooking, and appreciation of the healing and nourishing power of plants.

It would be impossible to list all of the gifts my parents have given me, all of the ways that I am thankful for them, but I'll start here: thanks for teaching me to feel at home in the garden!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Black Spanish Round Radish

Black Spanish Round Radishes, size small. . .

. . . medium. . .

. . .and LARGE.

I've been growing Black Spanish Round radishes for three years now, with both Spring and Fall plantings. I love them. They are reliable, they last forever in the garden and in storage, and are one of the easiest things I've ever grown.

The Black Spanish Round is a very old heirloom radish, grown in Spain since at least the 16th Century and probably long before. It was brought to the new world by conquistadors and grown by early white settlers in North America.

The skin of the Black Spanish Round is so rough and thick that the black root almost seems inedible at first glance. But that craggy, tough exterior is what protects the tender, spicy, crisp, and pure-white flesh of the Black Spanish Round. The thick, tough skin protects the Black Spanish Round for months of storage in the ground, in the root cellar, in the fridge, and apparently even in the holds of ships crossing the Atlantic.

Inside the Black Spanish Round radish.

Our fall radishes are coming in fast these days. I'm at somewhat of a loss to know what to do with the radish abundance. I'm pickling the small ones whole in brine, and made a bunch of radish relish earlier this week.

I did find a farm website with some interesting recipes for Black Spanish Round radishes, but I'm still looking for radish suggestions. I'd be curious to hear if anyone out there has radish preparation and preservation experience. If any of y'all are doing anything interesting with radishes, let me know!

Small, medium and large radishes ready for action.

More about the Black Spanish Round on Foodista:

Black Spanish Round Radish on Foodista

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Anarcho-Southern Garden-Fresh Borscht

Fall beets are busting out around here, and so my kitchen is full of beet-derived concoctions.

Yesterday I made beet-basil pesto with red and green beet tops, basil, olive oil, garlic, and walnuts -- it turned out a strange, slightly unappetizing mauve color, but with an excellent tangy, spicy flavor.

Over the years since I've been shopping at farmers markets and growing my own food, I've developed a great love of beets--both roots and tops. And a deep devotion to borscht. Even if it didn't have such a unique and fabulous taste, the color alone is so beautiful that it makes a borscht-centered meal feel like a special occasion to me. How often do you get to put something magenta into your mouth, really?

My borscht does not include any cabbage, celery, or carrots, which from what I have gathered from borscht recipe perusing over the years, are traditional ingredients. I don't like to have too many ingredients distracting from the beets. Finely-chopped beet greens to add to the nutritional wallop of the soup, and are also a nice addition because if you grew the beets or bought them at a farmers market, you probably have tops to make use of somehow.

I have heard that the truly traditional way to make borscht is to ferment the beets first, and I want to try it one day, but this time I opted for a quicker time from dirt-to-mouth.

Beet roots contain folate, carotenoids, and flavoniods, and can help fight cancer and heart disease. Beet greens are chock full of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, all sorts of minerals (including magnesium and iron), and protein. A soup with both roots and greens feels like a good balance, nutritionally, energetically, and taste-wise to me.

I like my borscht creamy and tangy with a hint of sweetness to accentuate the natural sweet-tangy taste of the beets. I also like to roast the beets to bring out the sweetness even more, a trick I learned from my friend Shane.

So here's the recipe:

Anarcho-Southern Garden-Fresh Borscht
An extremely non-traditional spin on the classic Russian soup

  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 2 medium onions, quartered
  • 2-3 medium potatoes, thinly sliced (I used Garnet Chili potatoes,an 1853 heirloom variety that we grew this year)
  • A big pile of beet roots -- I used 9 cups whole beets, including Bull's Blood,Chiogga, and Yellow Intermediate Mangel varieties
  • A handful of fresh dill weed, finely chopped
  • A bunch of fresh beet tops/greens, including stems, finely chopped (about a cup chopped)
  • 1 quart of plain, whole milk yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon plus one pinch salt
  • Black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • Green onions for garnish
Making the pink purée

  1. Roast the beets and onions in a cast iron dutch oven or ceramic baking dish with 2 Tbs. of the butter at 300 degrees until tender. I do this the night before and refrigerate the roasted beets and onions until I'm ready to use them the next day.
  2. Puree the roasted beets in a blender, adding the yogurt as you go. If you need to add a bit of water to keep the blade turning, do so. You should end up with a smooth, beautiful, purpley-pink puree.
  3. In that same cast iron dutch oven that you used for the roasting, saute the potatoes in the other 3 Tbs. of butter. Add a little water when they start to stick to the pot, cover and cook until soft. When the potatoes are almost done, add the beet greens and saute for another 5 minutes or so.
  4. Add the pureed beetroot-onion-yogurt mixture to the potatoes and beet greens.
  5. Add dill, the tsp. of salt, black pepper to taste, honey, and vinegar, plus water to thin a bit if desired. Cook over low heat for 20 minutes or so until the flavors are well melded.
  6. Top with sour cream and finely-sliced green onions, and serve hot with crusty bread for dipping. Enjoy!
Borscht keeps for at least several days in the fridge (maybe longer -- it never lasts any longer than a day or two around here) and is excellent as a chilled summer soup.

The finished soup ready to serve. . .just add sour cream and other optional toppings such as sliced green onions or a chopped hard boiled egg.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Late August in the Garden

With the amount of rain we have had (a lot) and the time of year (dog days) the garden is feeling soggy, blown-out, overrun by pests, and overgrown.

But the gangly, bug-eaten plants are still producing a lot of food, and the zinnias, sunflowers, and marigolds keep on coming.

We're almost finished planting our fall garden (more on that later), but honestly what I feel like doing is throwing in the towel and going out for pizza. In the meantime, here are a few things that are still growing strong:

Stowell's Evergreen heirloom corn: the oldest known named variety of sweet corn, a cross of two Native American varieties.

Lots of tomatoes, but they're all still green. Rain is good for corn and for fall garden seeds coming up; not so good for tomatoes ripening. Since this photo was taken, late blight has appeared on the leaves of most of our tomatoes.

Cherokee Trail of Tears Black Beans: we planted 1,000 beans this year.

We interplanted the beans with Waltham Butternut squash.

Beans on the vine. . .

Onions, thanks to my seed-saving friend Trina from South Carolina. We've never met, but she sent me some onion seeds in the winter that produced these lovlies and lots more!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wild Blueberries fresh from the Commons

Blueberries, and a few blackberries picked yesterday on Black Balsam.

Yesterday, we took an afternoon trip up to Black Balsam on the Blue Ridge Parkway to look for wild blueberries.

You never know when the wild blueberries will be ripe -- it's usually sometime in August, but you have to hit the right place at just the right time to strike a rich ripe blueberry vein. We had tried Craggy Pinnacle a week ago, but the berries were still green. This week on the Ivestor Gap Trail, we were in luck!

Kelly in the blueberry thickets.

I love foraging on public lands - it feels like a way to reclaim the idea of the commons, places open to all for shared use, and collectively stewarded for future generations.

Stewardship means that while it's fine to fill a bucket or bag with blueberries, it's not OK to dig up a blueberry bush, removing the plant from the ecosystem and depriving others of future blueberries. It's important to make the distinction between foraging for things like berries and wild mushrooms on public lands, which is great, and removing plants or animals from wild lands, which is unethical and often illegal.

A bit more scenic than a trip to the super-market.

Wild blueberries are a native plant, valued in many native traditions as an important edible and medicinal.

Recent studies have confirmed the nutritional value and health-promoting qualities of blueberries, and in recent years blueberries have become a trendy health food. Blueberries are often referred to as a superfood, packed with antioxidants, good for your heart, your brain, your eyes, and your gastrointestinal system, and cancer-fighters extraordinaire.

Luckily, they are also incredibly tasty!

I find wild blueberries especially delicious, and I believe that nothing can beat the nutrition of food growing in the wild, picked fresh, and eaten as soon as

As we picked yesterday, I kept thinking of Blueberries for Sal, a beloved children's book which my mom must have read to me and my brother and sister hundreds of times throughout my childhood.

We loved the story of little Sal picking wild blueberries with her mother, and her surprise encounter with a mother bear and cub who are also foraging for berries.

I remember picking blackberries with my brother and sister in our neighbor's overgrown pasture (an informal commons) and bringing buckets of berries home to my mom, who would make a cobbler from them. Mouthwatering memories of those cobblers kept me picking yesterday, and bolstered my willpower to put at least some of the berries in my bag, rather than straight into my mouth (this was a difficult task for Sal, too).

Sal and her mother processing berries.

Me processing berries.

Sal and her mother canned their blueberries, to eat all winter long. We will use 3 quarts of yesterday's haul to make a batch of blueberry mead--another, more ancient way of preserving fruit. We'll pick more over the next few weeks to freeze, and the cobbler extravaganza has begun using the remaining quart of fruit we gathered yesterday.

In the spirit of childhood nostalgia, here's my mom's cobbler recipe, with a few tips in her inimitable style (my mom's tips in quotes):

My Mom's Summer Cobbler

(can be made with blueberries, blackberries, peaches, or any fresh fruit)

Dry Ingredients:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs. baking powder "make them FULL tablespoons"
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 cup flour
Stir or sift dry ingredients together.

Once they are mixed, melt a whole stick of butter in a baking dish in the oven as it preheats. "Make sure it gets good and hot and bubbly."

As the butter is melting, add 3/4 cup milk ("or rice milk or half and half or whatever") to the dry ingredients.

Pour the batter over the melted butter. Then pour on 3 cups fruit "or whatever you damn well please" (the exact amount of fruit is not important).

Bake at 325-350 for 40-50 minutes until golden brown and slightly crunchy on top.

More on The Commons:

  • Here's a good starting point website on issues related to The Commons:
  • Here's an interview with Vandana Shiva which includes a discussion of the commons. "The commons and the recovery of commons is vital to earth democracy. It's at the heart of sustainability of the earth and democratic functioning of society." -Vandana Shiva
Originally, the term "commons" referred to lands and waters where anyone could forage, grow food or hunt. In ancient Rome and Britain, and in indigenous societies around the world, these shared inheritances were held in common rather than privately owned.

Among the generally accepted modern commons are public lands, the oceans and the atmosphere. But today, the concept of the commons has expanded to include commonly held systems, places and even ideas: community gardens, parks, public libraries, radio waves and herbal lore. Participants at the 1992 Earth Summit defined commons as "the social and political space where things get done and where people derive a sense of belonging and have an element of control over their lives."

. . .

Historically, conquering empires seized the commonly owned property of indigenous peoples for private profit. Here in Western North Carolina, the Cherokee Nation held most land in common until the U.S. government forced it to establish a system of private land ownership just 150 years ago.

Today, battles are being waged around the world over ownership of and access to water, land, energy, services and even genetic material. Ecologist Vandana Shiva points to a "series of enclosures" of commons in the Third World under colonialism, beginning with land and forests, then water and finally biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. Seeds saved for generations and medicinal plants growing in the wild can now be patented by private corporations and sold on the global market. As privatization is imposed, the values that sustain commons as the center of community life are eroded.

This loss has had devastating ecological and social consequences. With multinational corporations and financial institutions like the World Bank leading the charge, what was once stewarded as common property is now plundered for private gain -- a major factor in the deepening global environmental crisis. And the enclosure of commons often happens at the local level.

You can read the full text of my article, which centers on the loss of a particular commons in Asheville, NC here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The harvest continues. . .

First of the butternuts

Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash with okra and summer squash

Creole garlic on its way to pickling

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Harvest Celebration...with Sparklers

Above: corn patch

Left: harvest offerings


The beginning of August is one of the four main festivals of the ancient Celtic calendar, variously called Lá Lúnasa, Lughnasadh, or Lammas. Lúnasa falls halfway between the solstice and the equinox, and honors the beginning of the harvest season.

In various pagan traditions, this time of year is a time to offer gratitude to the earth for the food we eat. At this time of year when gardens are overflowing and the earth is so abundant, it can be easy get caught up in the frenzy of the season without stopping to take stock and give thanks. I love the tradition of pausing in gratitude for the harvest.

Harvest Altar with snakeskin and sunflower

In Old Irish the name of the festival was Lughnasadh; in Modern Irish, the name for the month of August is Lúnasa, with the festival itself being Lá Lúnasa.

The modern neopagan festival of Lammas is another incarnation of this holiday: when Christianity came to Ireland and the other Celtic nations, Lughnasadh was renamed Lammas or 'first loaf.'

Huckleberry potatoes from the garden

At Lammas, the custom was to bake a special loaf of bread from the first grains of the harvest, to place on an altar as an offering, or to eat at a celebratory feast. The concept of “the bread of life,” rituals of communal breaking of bread, and even the honoring of bread as the body of the divine, can be traced to these roots. Although we did not break bread together, we did commune over some fine potato salad, fresh tomatoes, and all manner of other homegrown and locally-foraged foods.

Lúnasa is traditionally a time of community gathering, feasting on homegrown food, & reunion with loved ones. We celebrated last night by the full-ish moon with food, homemade wine, family, and friends.

Gratitude Floats

My friend Dana (who blogs delightfully over at Dana-Dee) has a tradition of launching a raft covered with flowers and vegetables down one river or another at this time of year as an offering of gratitude for the harvest.

Dana came over yesterday afternoon and whipped up a bamboo raft in no time flat. Later, she decorated the raft with marigolds from Susie's garden and we all loaded it up with offerings from our gardens--okra, cucumbers, basil, garlic, dill, carrots, broccoli, and all sorts of miscellaneous beautiful and delicious things.

Christopher's sister Kelly is in town, and she led us in some old-time religion, after which we all trooped down to the river to launch our outlandlishly lovely little boat.

The raft floated off down the dark river, festooned with sparklers, candles, flowers, and food, and with marigolds floating all around it, to the strains of "The Love Boat" theme.

We walked home in the dark and shared a feast from the garden, meads and various other beverages, a wood-fired hot tub soak, and chocolate. A whole lot to be grateful for.

Lúnasa blessings:

May you never go hungry.

May you always be nourished.

May all be fed.