The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Seed Sources: Let the Seed Hunting Season Begin!

As is typical for me on a drizzly day when I am looking for ways to procrastinate, I have been thinking about next year's garden. There is no better time than a cold, rainy day to sit inside by the fire thumbing through seed catalogs, either of the paper variety or in the vast seed catalog of the internet.

I came across this amazing list of heirloom seed sources while searching for heirloom pea varieties that we could grow for dry split peas. It's a detailed and dense listing of seed sources, including quite a few I had never heard of. One exciting example: The Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center -- a nonprofit organization that preserves Southern Appalachian heirloom varieties. Don't let their very low-tech-looking website deter you from exploring their bean catalog and checking out their articles on Southern Appalachian heirloom seeds. They apparently steward more than 300 bean varieties, including quite a few "Greasy Bean" varieties!

This is the sort of thing I get fired up about. If you can't relate to excitement over greasy beans, consider this: some experts say there is no commercial source for genuine heirloom greasy beans. Greasy beans are a distinct type of bean with a long Cherokee heritage. They have been a staple of the Southern Appalachian diet for countless generations and still maintain cult status in the mountains of western North Carolina. There are varieties specific to certain hollers, families, and communities that have never been grown outside those small circles. Bean seed experts and mountain old timers will tell you that true greasy bean seed is only available through seed swaps, passed from hand-to-hand by gardeners and farmers, and from people and organizations dedicated to preserving family and community heirloom seeds from this region.

I love growing Southern Appalachian heirlooms, particularly varieties that can be traced back to the indigenous agriculture of what is now western North Carolina. These are plants cultivated by pre-colonization Cherokee people and their ancestors in these mountains for thousands of years.

On a practical level, these varieties have an advantage in my North Carolina mountain garden because they are cultivars that evolved over generations to thrive in this particular spot on the planet, with its specific climate and conditions. On a more abstract level, it feels like a restoration or a homecoming of some sort to grow these seeds in this place. These are plants that came from here, and that were treasured, cherished, valued as part of the living wealth of communities in these mountains for thousands of years. Planting them in the soil of the Swannanoa Valley, where people have grown food for thousands of years, just feels right.

If you are growing in the Southeast, I recommend Southern Exposure Seed Exchange as another a great source of heirlooms from our region. If you're growing elsewhere, find the old timers and seed stewards that are saving seeds that came from the place you live. Wherever you find your seeds, if you've never saved seeds before, consider saving seed from at least one plant in next year's garden.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On food you can't buy at the grocery store

Baby butternut squash

Lately I've been thinking about the things I get to eat that I would never experience if I didn't garden.

Here's an example:

The afternoon before our first fall frost was expected, I went out and harvested the rest of the butternut squash, ripe and unripe.

I had read somewhere that winter squash could be eaten unripe, prepared as you would summer squash, so I sliced up the green butternuts and drizzled them with a little olive oil, sprinkled on salt and pepper and a little shredded parmesan cheese on top, and baked them. Worth giving it a whirl, I figured.

HOLY SHIITAKE* that squash was good. Better than summer squash. Possibly better than mature butternut. Green, salty, firm, and creamy. Really, really tasty. CF and my friend Pooma and I ate them with eyelid-fluttering, moan-uttering food ecstacy.

And if the taste weren't enough: they're so darn cute. I don't think you can tell from the photo how adorable these little squashitos were -- the smallest were about the length of my pinky finger and the largest about the size of my fist.

Tiny, unripe butternut squash are not something that you ever even see at farmers markets, much less at the grocery store. (Though I have vowed to change that: expect them around October 2010 at the Red Wing Farm booth at the West Asheville Tailgate Market.)

Baby butternuts are--like squash blossoms, green tomatoes, garlic scapes, beet thinnings, and other leftovers, by-products, and side notes of the garden--delightful foods mostly enjoyed by people who are growing vegetables for themselves.

There is a "waste not want not" spirit to eating things like beet thinnings, garlic scapes, and unripe winter squash -- but eating each of these garden extra-credit items is a delicacy in its own right. It's nice to savor little rewards like baby butternuts at the end of a long, hard-working season of growing your own food.

*With gratitude to Jonathan Safran Foer, genius author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, source of one of my favorite insults: "Succotash my Balzac, dip shiitake!" If that were the only sentence Foer had ever written, I would love him. But he is the author not only of searingly original and heartbreakingly beautiful fiction but of the new nonfiction book Eating Animals, about . . .FOOD, food traditions, and the ethics of food! More specifically: about meat, eating meat, and the meat industry. I can't wait to read it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Garlic, How I Love Thee

Garlic on our kitchen table, sometime in August after harvesting, curing, and processing.

Over a ten day period last month, we planted somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,300 cloves of seed garlic. The seed came from garlic we had saved from this year's harvests.

Garlic hanging up to cure, July

Garlic was the first thing we planted here on our land -- even before we had a place to live, we planted garlic. Ever since then, the garlic-growing space in the garden has been expanding every year. If I could only grow one thing, it would be a close competition between garlic and greens. I would guess that our household consumes somewhere between 300 and 500 heads of garlic per year, and the rest we sell, trade, and give to friends and family.

Garlic is easy to grow: we plant ours in October and mulch heavily with straw, and then there is nothing to do until harvest time in June or early July. It is one of the easiest crops for seed-saving, too: there is no cross-pollination to worry about, and saving and re-planting year after year will help fine-tune the variety to your particular growing conditions.

For the past four years we've been growing garlic in large quantities, and we've had a chance to see what varieties do well across a broad range of conditions, from long, hot droughts to humid, rain-soaked years like this one. The garlic varieties we're growing now are ones that have excelled in both drought years and wet years, and consistently produced tasty, beautiful heads of garlic.

Here are the ten tried-and-true varieties we're growing, in no particular order:

Killarney Red: Consistently the biggest, fattest, prettiest heads of garlic coming from our garden. Great, strong, classic garlic flavor. This variety is a hardneck rocambole, producing lovely scapes for spring eating.

Inchelium Red: My favorite garlic in the kitchen, bursting with huge, spicy cloves. Inchelium Red rivals "elephant garlic" in clove and head size, but the with the fabulous taste of true garlic. This variety apparently originated on the Colville Indian Reservation in Inchelium, Washington.

Chesnok Red This is an heirloom "Purple Stripe" variety from the Republic of Georgia that produces fat bulbs that are great for baking. It has been a great producer for us year after year, and also makes gorgeous and tasty curly scapes in springtime.

Georgian Crystal: A relatively long-storing porcelain variety with a mild taste and pretty, fat cloves.

Polish Hardneck: Another excellent porcelain strain. Filaree Farm, where we bought the seed garlic that beget our seed garlic, says that porcelains are "still relatively rare in North America, but are becoming much sought after as gardeners and garlic connoisseurs learn of their unique properties." What I like about the porcelains is that they have the fat cloves of the rocamboles but a longer storage life. Porcelain heads sometimes only have three or four cloves, but the cloves will be large and juicy, even months after harvest.

Silverwhite Silverskin: A svelte, spotless white, long-keeping garlic. Silverwhite's taste is less robust than some, but still sharp and garlicky. And the best thing about this variety: heads will last well into the winter months when stored in a cool, dry place. Silverwhite is an impressive keeper that helps spread garlic flavor throughout the year in our kitchen.

Nootka Rose: Another long-keeping silverskin variety. Nootka Rose is an heirloom from the Pacific Northwest with gorgeous red-streaked clove skins and great flavor. This variety and Silverwhite outlast all other garlics in terms of storage life, keeping for many months.

Idaho Silver: A lovely to look upon silverskin with creamy white bulb skin and pinkish red cloves. Keeps well and has a strong, hot flavor.

Spanish Roja: A pre-1900 heirloom rocambole garlic with great taste and fat cloves that seems to do well in our climate.

Siberian Marbled Purple Stripe: A flamboyant garlic with a giant head, thick purple stripes, and marbled and mottled purpley bulb wrappers. If that's not enough, Siberian Marbled Purple Stripe boasts a rich, deep garlicky taste and smooth texture.

As we planted, we set aside the cloves too small for planting, and I made pot after pot of garlic broth, a perfect base for miso soup at this time of year. You can just throw handfuls of whole cloves, skin and all, in a big soup pot with lots of water and simmer for a few hours until you have a super-garlicky broth, and then strain off the cloves. Or you can peel the garlic first, which allows you to incorporate the soft, mild, whole garlic cloves into the soup. Add some fresh grated ginger and finely chopped multiplier onions from the garden, and you have a fabulous warming, fortifying, immune-boosting fall tonic soup. I credit garlic miso with our avoidance of H1N1 infection so far. . .knock on wood.