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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Potatoes: Healthy! Delicious! And . . .fashionable?

When my seed potato order arrived a couple of weeks ago, I was sad when I opened the box.  Not because the potatoes were in less than perfect condition, (they are beautiful) but because there were so few of them.  Forty-one pounds.  Exactly what I ordered, after Richard and I decided, last year, to scale back production at Heart & Sole Gardens.  Compared to the two hundred pounds we planted last March, this order is small, but compared to the over seven hundred pounds we planted in 2012, it is miniscule.  Unlike previous orders that required several boxes to pack and ship, the UPS driver delivered this order in a single box.  Although they are few in number, I look forward to planting seed potatoes soon.

Part of our 2014 harvest

If you can make peace with squashing Colorado potato beetles, potatoes are fairly easy to grow without using chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.  Yield is usually about ten pounds per pound of seed potatoes, so we should harvest around four hundred pounds from this year's planting.  According to the Farmer's Almanac, the next couple of weeks will bring some favorable planting days, but of course, weather will dictate when potatoes can go in the ground.  Soil that is too wet will cause the tubers to rot.  

If you would like to grow your own potatoes this year and you don't have an adequate amount of real estate to plant a large crop, plant some seed potatoes in large containers.  Cut certified seed potatoes into sections that have at least one sprout bud, or eye, in each piece.  If the seed potato is smaller than a hen's egg, plant it whole, but be sure to place the seed so the eye is facing up.  Cover the seed with compost or soil that is slightly acidic (4.8-5.5 ph), and high in organic matter.  As the plants grow, add more soil to give room for the tubers to grow.  Thick foliage and dainty blossoms make potatoes excellent plants for flower gardens and the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, and her husband, King Louis XVI, were reported to spur a fashion trend among French aristocracy when they tucked potato blossoms in their clothing.  
Potato blossoms, dainty and beautiful, but would you wear them?

After potatoes bloom and plants wither and begin to turn yellow or brown, potatoes are ready to harvest.  Stored in a dark, slightly humid environment, potatoes will keep for many weeks.  At Heart & Sole, we grow several potato varieties; some are early producers, while others mature much later.  Last year, we plowed potatoes from August until October and, although some of our stored potatoes currently have long sprouts, others are almost as firm and pristine as when we first dug them.  WARNING:  Never eat potato sprouts; they can be toxic.  If sprouts form, remove them before eating potatoes.
In storage, purple varieties grow especially long sprouts

Whether you plan to grow a large potato crop or just a few containers, potatoes are a satisfying plant to grow and with just over a hundred calories, one medium-sized potato packs a nutritional punch, boasting more potassium than a banana, higher Vitamin C than a tomato and significant iron, phosphorus, magnesium, fiber and Vitamin B6 content.  Some health experts claim purple potatoes' lower glycemic index make them a good choice for individuals who have blood sugar issues.  With no fat, sodium or cholesterol, potatoes are a healthy component of almost any diet, but often get a bad rap from all the butter, salt, sour cream and cheese many of us add to them.  
Colorful varieties make a beautiful potato dish

For a dinner table presentation that is both beautiful and delicious, combine several colorful varieties of potatoes and simply roast them.  Thoroughly wash about 1-2 pounds potatoes, cut them into bite-size pieces and place them in a large bowl.  Add 1-2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves and 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper.  Stir to combine and spread potatoes in a baking dish in a single layer.  Add about 2/3 cup vegetable or chicken stock and roast potatoes in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, stirring halfway through cooking time, until fork tender.  

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Pickled Fridge

When I was a child, we had a single refrigerator.  1950s pink, it bore the battle scars inflicted by a former owner and, in my child's imagination, those dents looked like a smiley face, sort of like a certain 1970s icon.  In the freezer section of the machine, my mother stored vegetables and fruits, but, to save space, canned most of her preserved harvest.  Basement shelves held Mason jars of beans, tomatoes, corn, okra, squash, peas, peaches, apples, jams, jellies and pickles.  Oh, the pickles . . .

If you can grow it, you can pickle it!

Sweet or sour, my family loves pickles, but we are most partial to those that are almost mouth-puckeringly tart and pack a bit of heat.  Some of our favorites are bamboo, tiny cucumbers called Mexican Sour Gherkins and cherry tomatoes.  I store jars of pickled things in the refrigerator, since refrigerator pickles usually retain that fresh texture longer than processed ones.  Also, when there is not enough harvest of a particular ingredient to justify a run of pickles, I just pack odds and ends into recycled jars, add pickling solution and stash the jars in the fridge.  

Pickled potatoes and hot peppers

If you love pickles, plan to make your own this year.  Before pickling season, make a batch of solution and store it in the refrigerator so it will be handy when you need it.  The recipe I use is one given to me by my husband's grandmother and her handwritten recipe, along with my maternal grandmother's oyster dressing, my paternal grandmother's pumpkin pie and my sister-in-law's Vidalia onion pie recipes, are taped inside a kitchen cabinet.  When I open that door, I see tangible reminders of people who shared important lessons with me while they were living.  These are my kitchen talismans. . . 
Vestal Anderson's recipe for Dilly Beans

While my mother somehow managed to function with one refrigerator, I have three.  I know, but please, don't tell my mama.  It may be overkill, but the basement refrigerator is just for pickles.  Even though I shared jars with friends and we eat pickles nearly every day, there are still a lot of pickles in that fridge.  Perhaps a pickle party might be in order?  It might be the only way to make way for next season's refrigerator pickles!

Refrigerator Pickles

Fresh produce, washed.  Some items, like green beans and potatoes, should be blanched before pickling, while others, like tomatoes or peppers, are fine to pickle in a fresh state.  Check a reliable source, like the Ball Blue Book, if you are unsure about blanching.   
Pack ingredients in a clean jar with a tight fitting lid.  Add fresh or dried herbs, sweet or hot peppers, peppercorns, and/or whole garlic cloves, depending upon your taste preference.  Add enough pickling solution to cover the contents and secure the lid.
Store in the refrigerator.  Within a few weeks, the contents will be pickled and may be safely stored in the fridge for months.

Pickling Solution
2 cups white vinegar
1 3/4 cups water
3 tablespoons granulated sugar (I omit this for more tart flavor)
4 tablespoons salt (I use kosher)

Simmer all ingredients and stir to dissolve salt and sugar.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.  Store in the refrigerator.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Want to Support Local Food? Begin at the Source

Local food.  Trendy buzzwords for a lot of us.  Don't we buy from farmer's markets, patronize farm-to-table restaurants and read every label at the supermarket?   Heck, some of us even grow our own food, even if it's just a couple of tomato or pepper plants in pots.  Eating local food means supporting our community and helping our economy.  It makes us feel healthier, more environmentally conscious and, frankly, smarter.  As we pat ourselves on the backs for all we do to promote the local food movement, perhaps we need to look at another way we can help support the very foundation of local food.  Before you buy plants, seeds or onion sets this season, consider where you shop.

Have you visited a local feed and seed store lately?  I don't mean a big box store where rows of shopping carts greet you at the entrance, a disembodied voice from above instructs an employee to assist a customer and cashiers grumpily bemoan the fact that it is break time and no one has appeared to offer relief.  No, I mean a real, honest-to-goodness local store where the fragrance of roasted or boiled peanuts mixes with the smells of oiled tools, leather goods, baby chicks and farm soil, loosened from thousands of work boots as they tread over well-worn floors, to create an aroma that is distinctive to these businesses.  The kind of place where you find Rosebud salve and Mason jars of heirloom seeds on the shelves and farmers and gardeners linger on porches to talk with friends, celebrate a good harvest or bemoan crop loss.  It's a place where farmer's almanacs are reverently sold and if you shop close to the end of a year, you are likely to receive a free lunar calendar with the store's name imprinted.  If you have never been to a real local feed and seed store, make plans to do so as soon as possible.

Weigh and purchase heirloom seeds at local feed & seed stores
Department stores offer hundreds of imported goods and the convenience of shopping for everything from shovels to coffee to underwear, but they have decimated many local seed businesses.  Although some truly local stores no longer exist, it is still possible to locate quaint, well-stocked shops where chances are good the owners inherited the business from a previous generation or two, along with a wealth of priceless knowledge.  Don't be surprised when cashiers answer puzzling gardening questions off the top of their heads and cheerfully offer advice with a smile, workers offer to help load your purchases and no one mentions break time.
Local farmers relax on the front porch of Johnson's Milling, in Alexander County
Before you run to a department store to pick up a new gardening tool, replace those worn gloves or buy packets of vegetable seeds, plan to visit a local feed and seed store.  Allow plenty of time to examine the shelves, chat with the store owner or other customers and perhaps even snack on some boiled or roasted peanuts.  

Oh, and don't forget to breathe.  It's smart to enjoy the unique aroma of a place that truly supports local food.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Scream for Snow Cream!

A couple of days ago, my friend, Sue Ellen Brookshire, stated she was going to make snow cream, store it in her freezer and, when next summer turns unbearably hot, she plans to pull out the frozen winter treat and savor it.  Her words stirred a childhood memory and I remembered the stacks of bowls in my grandmother's upright freezer.  Countless times, after we worked in her summer garden, we would rest on her porch and she would serve snow cream.  As the sweet confection melted on my tongue, I would marvel at how Granny preserved snow in such a delicious way. 
Snow cream with sweet black cherries
When I was a child, snow cream was a favorite seasonal treat.  My parents cautioned my brother and me, Space Age kids who drank astronaut-inspired Tang, watched The Jetsons on our black-and-white tv and built a lunar module kit, not to eat the first snow of the season.  I am not sure why, but there seemed to be some vague warning about radioactivity or something that needed to be cleansed from the atmosphere with the first snow.  Impatiently, we waited for a second snow so my mother would make snow cream for us.  A simple dish that requires no sharp objects or cooking, we quickly mastered the technique, learned to gather scoops of pristine white snow and make our own snow cream.
Snow day view from my porch

This morning, about six inches of fluffy snow piled around our home, the perfect fresh ingredient for snow cream.  Aside from the basic recipe, I made buttered pecan, black cherry with sweet cherries we harvested last spring and preserved in the freezer, orange and chocolate versions.  For the chocolate one, I substituted powdered sugar for granulated and the resulting consistency was almost like pudding.  An unusual breakfast, but Richard did not complain as he tasted each dish and declared chocolate and black cherry to be his favorites. Perhaps those should be combined?  Hmmm. . . when it comes to snow cream, the recipe possibilities are endless.

If you happen to have snow at your home today and perhaps some children who would enjoy making a special treat, scoop some snow into a large bowl and stir up a dish of snow cream.  Screams are optional. 
Buttered Pecan Snow Cream

Clockwise, from top left: Mandarin orange, black cherry, buttered pecan, vanilla, chocolate (center)

Basic Snow Cream Recipe
4-6 cups fresh snow
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup milk or whipping cream

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir until smooth.  Adjust sugar and cream to achieve desired sweetness and consistency.  
For Buttered Pecan:  melt 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet, add 1/2 cup small pecan halves and 1 tablespoon brown sugar.  Stir nuts with butter and sugar over medium heat until toasted and sugar is melted.  Allow to cool before adding to basic snow cream recipe. 
Black Cherry: Add 1/2 cup frozen sweet cherries, chopped, to basic recipe.
Mandarin Orange:  To basic recipe, add 1/2 teaspoon orange extract and decrease vanilla extract to 1/2 teaspoon.  Peel one or two fresh Mandarin oranges or Clementines (seedless) and chop fruit.  Stir into other ingredients.
Chocolate:  Substitute 1/4 cup powdered sugar for granulated.  Add 1/4 cup Dutch process cocoa powder and stir to combine.  Chocolate chips (about 1/4 cup) may also be added and for a Rocky Road variation, add 1/4 cup chopped nuts and 1/4 cup mini marshmallows.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Forage Winter Fields For Wild Greens

There is something particularly beautiful about winter fields.  Devoid of summer's lush growth and holding the last of autumn's dried weeds, these fields are sometimes adorned with temporarily abandoned farm implements or hay bales the farmer did not store before inclement weather struck. Covered with ice or snow, it is easy for a passing traveler to see the defined area that will consume a gardener's time during the growing season.  On cold days, frozen weeds and grass crunch underfoot and a stroll through a winter field stirs a longing for spring that only grows stronger with each footfall.  But wait, what is this?  There, a small patch of dark green, leaves that are springtime crisp and full of life.  What is this plant that thrives when others around it lie brown and lifeless?  This is Creasy Greens. 

Creasy greens contain impressive amounts of Vitamins C & A

Today, winter fields at Heart & Sole Gardens are covered with inches of fluffy snow, but when the white stuff melts, patches of creasy greens will be visible.  I do not plant creasy greens, but these valuable plants reseed themselves and unlike other weed pests, I welcome these perennial visitors.  

Technically a type of cress, creasy greens grow wild throughout the Appalachian Mountains and historians credit the hardy green with saving many pioneers from scurvy, a nasty condition caused by Vitamin C deficiency.  When harsh winters prevented early settlers from obtaining or growing fresh foods, creasy greens were a natural source of Vitamin C.  As the weather warms, creasy greens become more peppery in flavor, but with recent cold temperatures, the taste is more like spinach than mustard. 

Before spring arrives, plan to seek out a winter field for a stroll.  With permission from the landowner, gather a "mess" of creasy greens and enjoy a delicious dose of natural Vitamin C.  Add a handful of creasy greens to a pasta or stir fry or just dress them with a nice vinaigrette and eat them as a fresh salad. You might not have to worry about scurvy, but wild foods like creasy greens provide just the spring tonic our bodies need.  

Creasy Green Omelet 
Briefly cook 1/2 cup shredded creasy greens in a small skillet with 1 teaspoon melted butter or oil.  When greens wilt, remove from heat and season with a pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of pepper.

Melt one tablespoon butter in a 8-10 inch skillet over medium heat.
Quickly whisk two eggs in a small bowl, working to incorporate as much air as possible and pour into hot skillet.
Use a spatula to loosen the side of the egg as it cooks and flip when it is solid enough to turn or, if you are brave and skilled, flip the egg while tossing the skillet (Over a sink is best for a first attempt at this!)
Turn heat off and top the center of the egg with grated Fontina cheese, creasy greens and any other toppings you like.  
Fold the omelet in half and allow the cheese to melt.
Slide the omelet onto a serving plate and enjoy.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

When Food Service Goes Awry

We've all been there.  A friend recommends a restaurant.  It's his favorite; he promises the food is great and the service is exceptional.  We arrive and anticipate a delightful experience, but somehow, somewhere, something goes awry.  The service is sloppy, the ambiance is off or the food is not as delicious as we anticipated.  Upset, we complain.  Do we expect an adjustment to our bill?  A free dish or beverage?  A heartfelt apology?  Whatever our expectations, our actions and the reactions of restaurant staff will forever color our perceptions of that restaurant and will determine whether or not we will be repeat customers. 

Recently, Richard and I enjoyed a much needed and long overdue vacation.  Frigid temperatures and snow in our local forecast meant we could not work in the garden, so we looked forward to a warmer climate where we could enjoy those fresh-from-the-farm fruits and vegetables we missed.  Although southern Floridians told us the weather was chilly for them, we strolled along, wearing only light jackets, and anticipated a delicious meal at a restaurant that was about a mile from our hotel.

The fresh shellfish menu includes several varieties of oysters

After the hostess seated us at an outdoor table, we looked over the menu and made our selections.  Lively conversation surrounded us and we enjoyed watching the strategically placed over-the-bar mirror where we could view employees as they shucked fresh oysters and cracked in-season stone crab claws.  After a pleasant greeting from the hostess and a friendly exchange with our server when we ordered, nothing seemed to go as we anticipated or expected.  

Oyster shuckers in (partial) action

Three different servers carried our oysters and crab plates to other tables before one finally delivered them to us with no apology for the health code violation.  Our original server dropped by to inform us the restaurant was out of one of the oyster varieties we ordered, so she substituted another that was not on the menu, without first checking with us.  Although the oysters were served on the half shell, the shuckers neglected to detach them from the shells, making them difficult to eat.  The Nicoise salad did not include traditional ingredients of olives or eggs, the bread was soggy and, worst of all, our original server ignored us as she polished glassware.  By the time a server dropped a beverage at our table that was not what we ordered, we were disappointed and ready to leave.  

Thankfully, the manager stopped by to chat and she assured us she would address our concerns with her employees.  When I told her we did enjoy some components of the meal, including a rich tomato soup and fresh arugula in the salad, she replied, "I hate to hear you say lettuce was the best part of your meal!"  I explained to her, as a grower and restaurant supplier, I appreciate good quality produce and the arugula was particularly tasty.  

After our conversation with the manager, Richard and I left the restaurant in better spirits.  During our walk back to the hotel, we discussed how easy it is for restaurant diners to ignore poor service or food that does not meet expectations, while calmly addressing concerns with someone in charge can completely diffuse an upsetting situation.  On the other hand, when guests receive exceptional service and food that knocks the socks off, we should be eager to praise the restaurant staff for delivering a pleasant dining experience.

Now that we are back in NC and the warm Florida sunshine is a distant memory, I keep thinking about that arugula base in the not-quite-Nicoise salad.  Since my own greens are covered in snow and ice, I look forward to harvesting them when they rebound from winter's hold.  Chances are, when I do get the opportunity to pick arugula, it will be the best part of a meal.