Saturday, May 16, 2015

Staying Sane with Gardening Friends

Readers who recall last spring's blog about my attempts to grow artichokes will remember my efforts seemed to be the definition of insanity: repeating the same tasks, in exactly the same way, and expecting different results.  Today, I happily report that, with help from the fine folks at Renfrow Hardware, located in Matthews, NC, my sanity may be intact, at least when it comes to growing successful artichoke plants. 

I chose 2 varieties of artichokes
Healthy plants from Renfrow Hardware

NC gardeners who have yet to visit Renfrow Hardware, ( at 188 North Trade Street, in Matthews, should make haste to get there soon.  David Blackley, his daughter, Pressley, and other family members and knowledgeable staff offer the best selection of heirloom seeds I have seen under one NC roof and many of them are locally grown.  Greenhouses are stocked with healthy fruit, vegetable, herb and flower varieties and earlier in the season, several types of seed potatoes filled bins.  Allow time to wander throughout the store and marvel at the inventory.  From canning supplies to nuts and bolts, and, if you visit in the near future, even baby chicks are among the offerings.  It's the kind of homey place where customers linger, chatting with the staff and each other.

When I saw beautiful, healthy artichoke plants at Renfrow, I could not resist trying each of the two available varieties and I planted them at my home, rather than the farm, so I could keep a close eye on them.  If, by chance, they prove to be perennial plants, they are growing in an ideal location.  Before placing them in the ground, I added lots of compost, some creek sand, ground eggshells, blood and bone meal and a pinch of Epsom salts.  Heavy feeders, artichokes will probably enjoy the same "cocktail" I prepare for my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.
Artichoke, North Carolina

Since artichokes grow best when the soil is damp, our recent dry, breezy days mean the plants require daily watering.  A few days ago, I noticed a small bud-like growth in the center of one of the plants and I assumed it was the base of what would grow into a stalk that would, hopefully, produce artichokes.  When I realized the bud was, indeed, just that, and I harvested my first baby artichoke, I carefully sliced it from the plant base and tenderly held it in my hand, admiring its miniature perfection.  
My first artichoke, courtesy of Renfrow Hardware plants

Now, safely stored in the refrigerator, that small, tender bud calls to me.  Will it be sauteed and sliced, dipped into a lemon butter caper sauce?  Will it be quartered and added to a salad of fresh baby lettuce from the farm?  Whatever its preparation, this first artichoke will be memorable, both for its presence and for proof positive that with enough faith and work, and help from friends like those at Renfrow Hardware, an insanity cycle can be broken.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Gardeners, Know Your Enemies

One of my strongest scent memories from childhood is the almost sickly sweet odor of Sevin dust, an insecticide my father applied to his beautiful bean plants to kill attacking Mexican bean beetles, voracious pests that riddled plant leaves and hatched thousands of small, bright yellow larvae that fed on both leaves and bean pods.
If only we had known that ladybugs, bright red beetles with black spots, love to eat Mexican bean beetle eggs and larvae, perhaps bean plants would have thrived in a naturally balanced garden, free of chemicals that kill both pests and beneficial bugs.  

Ladybugs are beneficial to gardeners
Gardeners who grow genetically modified organism seed (GMOs) and use an arsenal of chemical warfare weapons to protect crops from insects may enjoy an easier workload, but I believe growing heirloom seeds and employing hand-to-hand combat methods to eradicate hungry pests is a better way to connect humans to soil, food and spirit.

Helpful pollinators increase crop yield
Before you write me off as a dinosaur who ignores the latest, greatest technologies designed to make our lives easier, consider this story a friend told me several years ago.  I believe it captures the essence of "food disconnect" for many U.S. consumers. . . 

The woman walks into her backyard, selects a chicken from her flock and quickly ends its life.  She carries the bird to her kitchen, where she cleans and roasts it for her family's dinner.
Her daughter drives to the supermarket, selects a refrigerated package of chicken parts, returns home to her kitchen and prepares the meal for her family's dinner.
Her daughter selects chicken nuggets from the fast food drive-in menu, passes them to her children and drives to the soccer field while her children eat their dinner.

I often remember that story as I protect my crops from hungry pests; when I squash a bug with my fingers, (using gloves!) there is a visceral connection to my food source. 
Potato bug eggs under a leaf
Although I end the life of a creature, I know my efforts target only a pest, not a beneficial insect.  Before reaching for a chemical weapon, consider getting to know your enemies and your friends.  Rather than harvesting fruits and vegetables with a chemical odor and taste, your garden will produce beautiful delicious foods, an integral component of a balanced habitat.  
A hardworking honeybee pollinates a squash blossom 

Last year, just before I visited a friend's home, she sprayed her container garden with a broad spectrum insecticide.  We observed piles of dying Japanese beetles as we chatted and I inwardly groaned when she said, "I don't understand why I never see ladybugs on my plants."  Hmmmmm. . . .
Tomato worms are hard to spot
Broad spectrum insecticides kill non-target pests, along with bugs that destroy our crops.  Although I will admit to plant envy when I see eggplants without flea beetle-riddled leaves and huge potatoes growing bug-free, my efforts produce unblemished fruits and vegetables that boast superior flavor and I never miss that sickly sweet Sevin dust odor I remember from childhood gardens. 
Colorado potato beetles multiply quickly, but squashing adults means fewer pests
Make plans this year to identify your garden enemies and deter them without chemicals.  Although plants may suffer some ill effects, you will enjoy watching a butterfly's delicate dance from blossom to blossom, the curious peering of a praying mantis or a honeybee's flight back to a hive, pollen sacks heavy with harvest.  Fresh, homegrown flavor is a delicious bonus!

Chemical-free heirloom tomatoes: No bugs, beautiful and delicious!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Asparagus, A Perennial Favorite

When those first purple-headed shoots emerge from what looks like barren soil, gratitude pours through my veins.  Asparagus, that delicious spring harbinger, announces the end of another winter.

The first asparagus spears of 2015
Temporary insanity is the only defense I can offer when asked why, several years ago, Richard and I planted 650 asparagus crowns at Heart & Sole Gardens.  A perennial vegetable, asparagus plants must grow for three years before harvest and, even though we purchased three-year-old plants, they grew for two years before we had our first bumper crop.  After spending countless hours crawling on hands and knees while removing weeds from the tender crown base, last fall, I conceded defeat.  This year, the weeds win.
This tool helps ease weeds from asparagus crowns

Because asparagus spears emerge before most weeds, there will be plenty for our dinner plates and when weed cover conceals asparagus, there will, hopefully, be another, less labor-intensive spring crop to enjoy.  
For a real treat, lightly grill fresh asparagus over charcoal
Meanwhile, celebrate springtime and savor the unique flavor of fresh asparagus.  Although it is hard to beat the taste of just-harvested spears, munching on tender shoots as you stroll through a garden, if you have access to fresh eggs laid by happy chickens, this frittata makes a terrific breakfast or simple, yet elegant, supper.  
Fresh eggs taste best!

Oh, and if you should decide to grow your own asparagus, I recommend no more than two to three plants per person, unless you just really enjoy pulling weeds!

Asparagus Frittata

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
*1 bulb green garlic with about 2 inches green stem, finely chopped
2 1/2 cups thin asparagus, trimmed and cut on diagonal into 1-inch pieces
8 fresh eggs
1 cup diced Fontina cheese, divided
1/2 teaspoon French grey sea salt (or kosher)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
*If green garlic is not available, spring onions are a good substitute.

Preheat oven broiler.  Over medium heat, melt butter on stovetop in a 10-inch seasoned cast iron skillet, or heavy ovenproof skillet.  Add garlic and briefly saute until translucent.  Add asparagus and lightly sprinkle with salt.  Saute until tender, about 2-3 minutes.  Whisk eggs, 3/4 cup Fontina cheese, salt and pepper, in a large bowl.  Pour egg mixture into skillet, fold gently to combine.  Cook until mixture is almost set, but still jiggly.  Remove from heat, top with remaining cheeses and place under broiler until frittata puffs and is lightly golden.  Remove skillet from oven and ease frittata onto serving plate.  Cut into wedges to serve.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

Ramp Pickles Ramp Up Flavor

A couple of years ago, a friend told me the story of a trip to New York City, where she met friends for dinner at a swanky restaurant.  One of the group was telling the others about a delicious "new" vegetable that was all the rage in the City.  When my friend learned the trendy vegetable was ramps, she chuckled as she thought about the wild ramps that grew in her North Carolina yard.  

Ramps growing in NC mountain forest

In season now and available to lucky farmer's market shoppers and adventurous foragers, ramps are wild edibles that are delicious on their own or combined with other vegetables or proteins.  Native to eastern North American mountain ranges, ramps, or wild leeks, appear in early spring and, although their season is brief, fans of this pungent bulb preserve that unique garlic/onion flavor in a variety of ways.  
Cooking ramp leaves is a show

Both ramp greens and bulbs are edible and tossing the flat leaves (think Lily of the Valley) in a bit of hot olive oil creates a show.  As the greens cook, they swell and deflate, writhing as if alive. With wild ramps increasingly in demand, it is imperative that foragers practice sustainable harvesting methods.  A tutorial about harvesting ramps is available at: 

A couple of weeks ago, my husband surprised me with a basket of ramps he harvested during a trip to far western NC.  Thanks to that gift, we can look forward to enjoying compound ramp butter, ramp pesto, dehydrated ramps and ramp pickles.
Richard's ramp harvest, plus a Morel mushroom

One of my favorite ways to preserve ramp bulbs is to pickle them. Toss pickled ramps into salads or hot vegetable dishes, dice and add to deviled egg mixture or potato salad or just enjoy them alone. Because our family loves a bit of heat in pickles, I add whole hot peppers to the ramps before processing.  Since it is impossible to harvest fresh peppers while ramps are in season, I use peppers I froze in late fall.  For pickled ramps, a good choice is Fish pepper, which packs a nice heat that does not sear the tongue.  
Whole, frozen Fish peppers add heat to ramp pickles
Plan to enjoy ramps this season and if you are fortunate to find yourself with an abundant supply, pickling is a great way to preserve them.  Half-pint jelly jars are perfect for ramps and for pretty pickles, take time to pack ramp bulbs and peppers carefully before adding pickling solution.  
Pickled Ramps with fresh dill and Fish peppers

 Ramp Pickles
Prepare fresh ramp bulbs by removing outer skin and trimming leaves from bulbs
Place cleaned, trimmed bulbs in a large glass bowl and liberally add kosher salt.  Cover with water and place in the refrigerator for about 12 hours.
Prepare pickling solution.
1 3/4 cups water
2 cups white vinegar
4 tablespoons kosher salt
Heat pickling solution ingredients in a large Dutch oven and stir until salt dissolves.
Rinse and drain ramp bulbs
Pack bulbs, fresh dill sprigs and whole peppers into hot half-pint or pint jars.
Add hot pickling solution to cover, leaving 1/4 inch headspace.
Adjust lids and tightly screw bands.
Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Remove jars from water bath and invert on a heavy towel for 6 minutes.
Turn jars upright and cover with the towel.  
Allow jars to sit for 24 hours and check to be sure lids sealed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Heirloom Seeds by Mail

Usually, my mail delivery is not very exciting.  Other than seed catalogs, which stir the same sort of anticipation I used to feel when the Sears Christmas Wishbook arrived at our home, most of what is in my mailbox is pretty mundane.  When I pulled the metal lid away last Monday, however, what I found inside was very much out of the ordinary and when I opened the padded manila envelope, tears blurred my eyes as I read handwritten notes and held precious small plastic bags full of family treasures.  

Heirloom seeds in my mailbox?  Much better than bills!

I reconnected with my cousin, Ruth Bolick, a few years ago when I was researching the source of my family's heirloom seeds.  Ruth, the family historian, shared information that helped me trace my maternal lineage back to Mary "Polly" Schmidt (Smith) Bean, the woman who probably brought seeds with her when she immigrated from Germany in the early 1800s.  Many Heart & Sole crops originate with this resourceful ancestor and when I opened the package from Ruth,  the seed packets inside added another tangible link to Polly, my great-great-great-grandmother.  No wonder my hands were shaking as I inventoried the gifts, which included family pumpkins and peas, as well as other heirloom seeds Ruth collected from friends and relatives years ago.  

As with all heirlooms, each seed comes with a story and Ruth included a handwritten note with each packet.  Especially intrigued by the black peanut seeds, I called Ruth to discuss their source.  

Peanuts are creamy white under the black skins
Over thirty years ago, Ruth noticed a coworker eating what she thought was burnt peanuts.  When she asked why he would choose such a snack, the man replied he was enjoying black peanuts, nuts he grew in his garden from heirloom seeds.  The next day, he brought Ruth some seeds and she grew black peanuts for many years.  Smaller than other heirloom peanut varieties, black peanuts are slightly sweeter, but still pack the flavor punch of heirlooms.  Yes, I tasted the seed; if you have never eaten heirloom peanuts, it is hard to imagine how delicious they are, compared to commercial varieties.  Think about the flavor difference in homegrown summer tomatoes, as opposed to January supermarket fruit, and you begin to grasp the contrast.  
Black peanuts beside heirloom red-skinned peanuts
After speaking with Ruth, I researched black peanuts and looked at numerous images online.  The seeds Ruth shared are probably Carolina Black peanuts, also known as the North Carolina peanut, a common NC crop in the 1800s.  The online catalog for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (PO Box 460, Mineral, VA 23117, includes this information: "According to food historian William Woys Weaver, the black peanut may have been used as a substitute for Black Bambarra (African ground nut) by the black community.  Black Bambarra is important in African folk medicine as an aphrodisiac. . .  Carolina Black produces sweet-tasting, black-skinned peanuts that are slightly larger than Spanish peanuts."  

As I plan where to plant these special seeds, there is a tiny voice inside that reminds me I promised to downsize garden space this year.  I know, I know, but how to resist North Carolina Black Peanuts?  Smaller garden?  Maybe next year . . .

Monday, April 6, 2015

Battle Wild Onions: If You Can't Beat 'em, Eat 'em!

I remember the springtime battles my father waged at our modest Whitnel home.  Before the grass in our yard began to green, his nemeses would shoot up, their prolific long leaves waving in the late winter breeze, taunting him.  No matador's red cape ever enraged a bull as thoroughly as the wild onions' appearance bothered Daddy.  He enlisted my brother and me in his futile quest to remove them from the lawn.  We dug the small bulbs from the earth and tossed them into buckets, unleashing the pungent fragrance that made Dale and me wrinkle our noses.  Finally, we dumped the offending weeds in a pile, far from the lawn, only to see new ones emerge within days.  If only we had eaten them . . .

Tiny wild onion bulbs pack a lot of flavor

It's not as if my family did not enjoy wild edibles.  Blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and Japanese wineberries were seasonal treats and my mother processed the extra fruit into jams and jellies and stored bags of fresh fruit in our freezer.  My grandmother always made poke (polk) salad in the spring and swore by its powers as a health tonic.  In the fall, we enjoyed wild persimmons that puckered our mouths before frost sweetened them and we gathered buckets of black walnuts.  Dale and I would remove the outer hulls, staining our hands with dark juice and by the time Mama made her famous black walnut chocolate cake, we forgot about that unpleasant job.  No, we enjoyed many foraged foods, but for some reason, we never ate wild onions.

Wild garlic, allium vineale, and a close cousin of wild onion, allium canadense, grow edible leaves and bulbs.  Wild garlic is distinguishable from wild onion in that its leaves are round and hollow, while wild onion leaves are flat and solid.  Small bulbs pack a wallop of flavor that intensifies as the season progresses.  For the mildest onion/garlic flavor, harvest as soon as plants appear.  Use the leaves as you would chives and add the bulbs to any dish that incorporates onion or garlic.
Two cultivated heirloom garlic bulbs are to left, the right side one is wild

At Heart & Sole Gardens, our wild garlic plants are huge, compared to those that grow at our home, but far smaller than two heirloom varieties we cultivate.  Despite the diminutive size, the wild bulbs' flavor is much stronger than the cultivated plants and just a little added to a dish makes it fragrant and flavorful.
Wild creasy and dandelion greens are delicious cooked with wild onions
If you do not use chemicals on your lawn and wild onions are part of your landscape, why not bring some into your kitchen and celebrate a delicious victory?

Wild Greens and Onion Salad

Boil two eggs, peel and chop.

*In a large skillet, fry 2 strips bacon until crispy.  Remove bacon and add 1/4 cup wild onions, whole if small and chopped if large, to the hot fat.  Briefly toss to coat veg and cook until translucent, no more than 2 minutes.  Add four cups fresh dandelion and creasy greens, washed, dried and chopped, to the hot skillet.  Toss to combine and cook until greens wilt, but retain bright green color, about 1-3 minutes.  Season to taste with salt, a few grinds of black pepper and a dash of red pepper flakes.  Pour mixture into a large bowl and add boiled eggs.  Crumble bacon over.  
Serve with herbed vinegar, on the side.

*For a vegetarian version, use olive oil, rather than bacon.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Purple Martins Return, Get Those Homes Ready!

They're baaaack!  A couple of days ago, as I gathered tools from the truck bed, I heard a familiar sound.  Looking up, I spotted them.  Waving my arms overhead and whistling, I ran to the tall pole that holds eight birdhouse gourds and, by the time I stood under the newly installed homes, two birds perched over my head, singing and chattering to greet me.

Martins check out the new homes

When Purple Martins, those migratory aerodynamic daredevils return to our farm, we experience an almost-indescribable joy.  Not only do these transient birds eat tons of insects, they provide companionship and entertainment to weary farm workers.  From the time they leave our western NC area, usually by August, until they return in late March, Purple Martins enjoy a warmer South American climate, but we sorely miss them and eagerly anticipate the arrival of the first "scouts," birds that fly ahead of the flock to investigate possible housing sites.  When Martins find suitable nesting, the same birds often return to that area for years.  
Purple Martin homes ready for 2015

Purple Martins' diet consists of flying insects and when we first erected birdhouse gourds on a high pole, we were concerned about our honeybees, but after witnessing those hard-working girls chase Martins on numerous occasions, it appears the honeybees are able to defend themselves.  Martins are very theatrical and there is clearly fear in those faces when they look back, over a shoulder, to see if the bee is still in pursuit.  By the same token, after Martins successfully chase away predatory hawks from their nesting area, they will often celebrate with loud chatter and even midair "wing bumps."  We believe our colony recognizes us and they swoop low to greet us as we drive into the farm, then briefly perch on poles that support their homes, chattering excitedly before flying away to search for food. 
Purple Martins are very social birds
The Martins especially love the tractor because working implements stir a medley of tasty insects.  Their antics as they chase the tractor make us laugh aloud.  

Chef Clark Barlowe hangs Purple Martin gourds at Heart & Sole Gardens

Although you may purchase birdhouse gourds made from synthetic material, our birds seem to prefer natural dried gourds.  Before preparing a gourd for Martins, be sure it is completely cured from a previous season, is sturdy and free of cracks. 
Thicker & heavier than other gourds, the one on the right made a "brick house"
To prevent European Starlings from commandeering the homes, use a pattern to create a Starling resistant entry (SREH).  Although it is not necessary, for easier post-nesting season cleaning, we cut a hole in the opposite side of the SREH and use caulk to seal inserted plumbing parts. 
Caulk plumbing parts in place to make next year's cleaning easier
After the Martins leave, we remove the round insert and use a stiff brush to remove the nesting material.  Rather than white paint, which keeps the gourds cooler in summer, I follow advice from another Martin landlord and use white siliconized elastomeric coating, available at hardware stores.  The texture and color of seven-minute frosting, this substance spreads like cake icing.  

Use flexible plastic, recycled from a container, to make a SREH pattern

If you have an open field, a nearby water source and some flying insects you can spare, perhaps you should consider offering living quarters to Purple Martins.   For more information about these entertaining birds, patterns for the Starling Resistant Entry Holes and detailed directions for preparing birdhouses, or to purchase prepared gourds, visit  To see our birds taking a break, watch the video at