Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stages of Seed Saving

Eventually, I wager, every gardener who keeps at it gets around to saving seeds from the garden. (From the start we all accumulate the unused parts of seed packets, but that's not real seed saving, that's just horticultural guilt.) We start saving the garden seeds because . . . well . . . there they are, by the hundreds and thousands. It all happens gradually. Once you have been working the same patch of ground for a while you can't help noticing that where last year's plants were left to go to seed, new seedlings are springing up. It's a thrill to get "free plants": kale you didn't expect, nasturtiums popping up all over the place, gratuitous parsley. We have a place by the fence where chard has been coming up on its own for more than ten years. Not remembering the precise variety, we call it "yard chard."

From merely noticing and marveling (and gathering the free goodies) it's a natural progression to start purposefully saving seeds to plant in a designated spot. That's as far as I have gotten. For example, this winter's Black Seeded Simpson lettuce comes from seeds I gathered last fall from a volunteer plant which grew from a previous season's nursery starts.

Over time, I've accumulated a couple of drawers full of seeds, including wildflowers collected from rural roadsides. It's been pretty haphazard until the past couple of years when I began to be more organized about it. Instead of dumping seeds in paper envelopes and scrawling a note or two, I made sure they were dried out thoroughly and stored in dark glass bottles (old vitamin bottles work well) with recorded sources, dates and varieties.

So it was with great interest that I read a fascinating article in Saturday's Press Democrat about the local movement to collect, save, and trade seeds among gardeners in this area. Trading seeds must be the next logical step in the process that begins with noticing volunteer seedlings. I wish there was a mail order component of these local seed exchanges, since I don't see the likelihood of attending the meetings where gardeners gather with their hoarded treasures. But is sure is nice to know that this is becoming more common. Sooner or later there will be one close by.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Neither Rain Nor Sleet . . . .

It's been raining hard for what seems like forever. Last week we had storms, one after another, with brief respites in between. Now a steady, cold rain is coming down.

But if the compost buckets on the counter by the sink are full, the compost chores must be attended to. This is where I start to feel like a farmer, not a recreational gardener! It's time to suit up and head out -- rain or no rain -- on my appointed rounds, carrying the clanging metal buckets full of gloppy earth offerings. The compost bins are underwired to keep out rodents, so I dump everything in without guilt: moldy cheese and spoiled oatmeal are just as welcome as the usual egg shells, coffee grounds, and produce scraps. A meatless lifestyle makes it easier too.

The secret is to have lots and lots of dry matter on hand to cover up the slimy stuff. Thus, the leaf pile is an essential component of our compost system. "Dry" means "high carbon" rather than "not wet" -- the leaves, too, are a soggy mess right now.

A compost pile should have alternating layers of High Carbon materials (leaves, straw, peat moss, ripped up newspaper, etc.) and High Nitrogen materials (kitchen scraps, green garden waste). As far as I can deduce, it seems to be a contrast between things that are still juicy and things that are dessicated.

The leaf pile represents an ongoing process of begging leaves from neighbors, because our yard lacks the type of deciduous trees, such as maples, that yield a rich supply of sweet compostable stuff. We have redwood (too acid), live oak (too much tannin) and black locust, two tall trees, which, for most of the year, rain tiny leaves that disappear into the grass and never accumulate enough to be raked into piles.

So far, four people on our street have made contributions to the leaf pile. I have a regular arrangement with one friend. She gives me leaves and I give her various items from the garden that she favors: basil, cilantro, Bionda di Lyon extra-tender chard. Most people seem pleased when you offer to rake up their leaves and take them away. The only downside is when the neighborhood leaf dealers get addicted themselves and want to save leaves for their own compost piles!

The kitchen scraps go into the bin that is currently being filled. I use a trowel to spread them around into a thin layer and then cover them (at a ratio of about 30 to 1) with a thick layer of leaves. To be honest, I'm not too precise about the mixture and don't try to create a hot pile, which requires a good balance of carbon and nitrogen, proper moisture, and periodic turning of the pile. My crude approach is easier on an aging body, even if it takes a lot longer.

It's important to note that this method is pretty much odor free. I don't know why. Maybe the masses of leaves just absorb the smell. When the bin is full -- which takes several months -- the pile of organic materials just sits until it starts to look like something a reasonable person would want to dig into the garden.

UPDATE: January 22, 2011
Now I know why the compost doesn't smell. It's because of the magical black soldier fly larvae that gorge on the kitchen scraps, chewing their way through them so fast that there is no time for the bad-smelling bacteria to build up.

Pictured above is the bottom layer of the second, not-currently-being-filled bin. What magic! Yucky garbage and pesky leaves have become fragrant humus, just by sitting there. Last fall, I dug out the marvelous stuff and put it on the beds not being used for winter crops. This is what's left. These bins from Smith and Hawken come in three sections that are easy to stack and unstack, which makes both the filling process and the digging-out process easier.

This wheelbarrow load of compost didn't make it into the garden before the storms hit last week. But maybe it will work as compost tea. . . .

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Brief History of Salad

Here is a festive basketful of salad fixings:

Black Seeded Simpson lettuce
Bloomsdale spinach
Bronze Arrowhead lettuce
Forellenschluss lettuce
Gigante d'Inverno (giant of winter) spinach
Miner's lettuce
Red Lollo Antago lettuce

We have gotten addicted to the heady combination of different textures, colors, and flavors in this rich assortment of raw greens. Mixed with a little finely chopped tomato, drizzled with good olive oil and a few drops of basalmic vinegar, and sprinkled with coarsely grated Parmesan or a bit of crumbled goat cheese -- it becomes a feast in a bowl. We eat it almost every night. There are lots of other ways to compose a salad, of course, but that particular combination seems perfect. The only limitation is the capacity of the lettuce and spinach plants to put out new leaves fast enough to keep up with our capacity to consume them.

As a child of the fifties, I grew up eating the standard salad of the times: a wedge of iceberg lettuce with some kind of pinkish bottled dressing poured over it. Then, newly emigrated to California just as the various revolutions of the sixties were getting started, I recall being amazed by the simple salads of romaine lettuce and bright red cherry tomatoes my new friends were preparing. I had never seen, or tasted, such things. It took no time at all to join in wholeheartedly in the culinary experimentation going on on all sides.

Now, California cuisine is standard fare everywhere and our nightly homegrown combo is actually pretty ordinary. After all, there's no radicchio, frisee, endive, mache, baby beet greens, mizuna, or mesclun mix. There aren't any edible blossoms.

Note to self: Harvest the lone calendula blossom and use the petals to jazz up the salad.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Winter Pizza!

This fine artisan pizza is a one-handed creation, courtesy of B., who refuses to let a broken wrist interfere with his artistic process. (And thanks to the no-knead method of the very useful tome: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.)

On Christmas Eve B. fell off a stool while changing a light bulb and we found ourselves in the emergency room, where -- at the stroke of midnight -- a cheerful doctor strode into our cubicle, exclaiming "It's Christmas Day! Merry Christmas!" Not at all like the terrifying Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the dreadful apparition who appeared to Scrooge as the clock struck twelve, he seemed more like Scrooge himself on Christmas morning, brimming over with holiday cheer.

Since it was the left wrist that had a hairline fracture, pizza making continues with only a little help here and there from willing bystanders. The garden contribution is a bit of sauteed kale and chard strewn sparingly over the tomatoes and cheese. Evidently the artistic secret is not to overdo the toppings.

As for the 2010 Eat the Yard Challenge (something from the garden every day), we have hit the three week mark -- which is probably about average for New Year's resolutions.

January 18: a bit of fresh cilantro in the chili, garden salad
January 19: same
January 20: winter pizza, with chard and kale topping
January 21: spaghetti with garden tomato sauce from the freezer, leftover sauteed greens

Tonight it's salad again; I picked a basket full of makings this afternoon when the sun came out.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gathering Wild -- and Semi-Wild -- Greens

C. and I took a long walk today when the sun broke briefly through the lowering clouds. The gutters were running lavishly with rain water and some of it was pooling into the streets -- we haven't seen that for a while. It made me think of e. e. cummings: everything was "mud-lovely and puddle-wonderful." C. certainly thought so and sniffed his way though this damp world with doggy enthusiasm.

Rain is no deterrent for backyard excursions either. All things green and growing are a delight for the eye -- encrusted with sparkling droplets. Miner's lettuce (above) really shows up well in the gloomy light.

When I first came to California, lo these 45 years ago (!!!), one of the first bits of local lore I was entrusted with by the natives was familiarity with this charming little plant, favored during gold rush days by the miners who valued it for its Vitamin C, a remedy against scurvy. This is the perfect time to gather as much as can be eaten in fresh salads, while the leaves are still heart-shaped and tender. A basic California weed, it is showing up all over the back yard and, like the miners, we are glad to see it.

Another common weed is fennel -- its bright green feathers grace many a roadside in early, early spring and then mature into tall, fragrant poles topped with little round trays of white blossoms, followed eventually by the wonderful seeds. We have one large plant that has dug in next to the fence and comes back year after year. In fall I gather the seeds, and also the hollow poles to use as light plant supports. In spring the mother plant is surrounded by hundreds of tiny seedlings just right for perking up a salad.

Arugula has naturalized in our yard and comes up everywhere on its own. I planted some several years back and let it go to seed. Good move. Salads don't seem complete now without some of its dark leaves with their distinctive spicy, nutty flavor.

In the fall, after letting the tall seed stalks dry out, I merely pile them in a promising corner and wait for nature to take its course. It's only a few months until the new plants come bursting forth.

Parsley too has branched out on its own into a semi-wild state. It comes up wherever I pile the dry seed heads and also wherever seeds happen to fall by chance. I'm always being surprised by an unexpected volunteer. Just as salad doesn't seem complete without arugula, vegetable soup is not a true soup without some fresh parsley, just picked.

And parsley is the loophole ingredient for the 2010 Eat the Yard challenge. So far we haven't had to resort to the token sprig to meet the challenge of eating something from the yard every day:

January 11: vegetable soup (chard, kale, parsley) with garden salad
January 12: tacos with chopped garden lettuce and a squeeze of Meyer lemon in the guacamole (we forgot to add fresh cilantro!!)
January 13: garden salad
January 14: garden salad
January 15: garden salad
January 16: a squeeze of Meyer lemon on the store broccoli, garden salad
January 17: vegetable soup

Tonight, no salad unless I go pick right now, but there is a small bag of kale, chard, and parsley left over from last night's soup making. Maybe a side dish of greens?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thyme for Soup!

Above: English thyme is on the left, rose bouquet thyme on the right -- each growing out of its private compartment in an old cinder block. This arrangement makes a cost-effective border for the very utilitarian black plastic raised beds that form our garden. So far there are only a few blocks lined up against a couple of beds, planted with thyme, cilantro, and alyssum.

Mostly the thyme is decorative, but on a cold, grey winter's eve the thyme becomes the harvest: just the right grace note for a big pot of French onion soup.

Three hungry people made short work of this classic dish.

The only accompaniment was a fresh garden salad.

So far we are meeting the self-imposed 2010 Eat the Yard challenge of having something from the garden every day -- mostly salad. The challenge has been a nice incentive to get out there and harvest something no matter how uninviting the weather.

January 5: garden salad (lettuce, baby spinach, miner's lettuce, arugula, cilantro)
January 6: French onion soup with garden thyme, garden salad
January 7: garden salad
January 8: garden salad
January 9: sauteed garden greens (kale, chard), with juice of Meyer lemon from the tree
January 10: quinoa with fresh garden greens and summer green beans from the freezer

And for tonight? More salad!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Eat the Yard: 2010 New Year's Challenge

Today's harvest is typical of these cold grey mid-winter days -- salad makings galore. There are four kinds of lettuce, two kinds of spinach, and some extras to add flair: cilantro, miner's lettuce, and arugula. Oh yes, there are also three wizened and pale Better Boy tomatoes from the dried up branches hanging in the garage. These may not be usable -- too dry or rotted inside -- but even if only a tiny morsel is edible, it packs a much greater ascorbic acid "hit" on the palate than the mushy globes from the supermarket.

Five days into the new year, we are on track to meet a private New Year's resolution: eat something from the yard every day, even if it's just a sprig of parsley or a twig of thyme (we wouldn't eat the twig, of course).

For the past two days we've had vegetable soup for dinner enlivened with lots of kale, chard, and parsley from the garden.

The two days before that the yard contribution was fresh garden salad. The photo above actually comes from mid-December when, along with the salad, we had spagetti supremo with a heavenly marinara sauce made from this summer's tomato squeezings from the freezer.

So far in 2010:

January 1: garden salad
January 2: garden salad
January 3: vegetable soup with garden greens
January 4: vegetable soup with garden greens

What's on for tonight??? Hmmmmmm . . . . . let's see what's available . . . .

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Holiday Harvests

Above are the pickings for New Year's Eve, below are the Christmas Eve reds and greens. The splashes of gold come from the Meyer lemons -- five of them from the brave little potted plant that made it through the killing frosts of December. I couldn't resist picking them, although they may not be fully ripe yet.