Thursday, May 5, 2016

Do Ladybugs Like Their Eggs Scrambled?

Childhood memories often emerge when I work in the garden.  Although I did not realize it at the time, as I helped my grandmother pull weeds, squash bugs, trellis vines and harvest fruits and vegetables, I learned valuable life lessons.  Last week, while protecting potato plants from Colorado Potato Beetles, defoliating machines, I discovered an army of small insects aiding my efforts and I recalled a nursery rhyme Granny taught me.
Lady Beetles Feast on Aphids & Potato Beetle Eggs

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home,
Your House is on Fire, Your Children Are Gone!
As many nursery rhymes do, this one seems a bit scary for children, but examining its origins reveals the message was intended to protect this helpful insect.  
Colorado Potato Beetles Decimate Plant Leaves

First recorded in 18th century England, the original rhyme's main character was "Ladybird," rather than Ladybug and many sources refer to both religious and political basis, but my favorite historical reference is one that includes farmers.  In order to control pests and weeds, farmers burned fields and, appreciative of helpful lady beetles, as they lit fires, they would chant the nursery rhyme.  Although I found no reliable source to support my theory, perhaps parents taught children this rhyme to prevent them from squashing "good" bugs?
Lady Beetle on Potato Leaf Damaged by Potato Beetle
Unchecked, potato beetles lay eggs on the underside of leaves and hatch countless larvae that riddle entire plants within a few days. 
Colorado Potato Beetle Eggs
Fortunately, the Lady Beetle, with its distinctive red and black coloring, is a big fan of those tiny yellow orbs.  Noticing the abundance of lady beetles in this year's potato rows, I was intrigued by their work and their varied number of spots.  More research gave me a deeper appreciation for these tiny unpaid farm workers.
Asian Lady Beetle
When native lady beetle numbers declined in the 1980s, the US Government imported aggressive species, including the Asian ladybug from Japan.  Like the invasive kudzu plant, this species populated rapidly and, unlike native lady beetles, Asian ladybugs prefer to overwinter in human homes, making them unpopular with many homeowners, who are sometimes allergic to the insects' secretions, which also stain ceilings and walls.  
Native Lady Beetles Overwinter in Trees

In an attempt to enlist protective help for native species from US citizens, Cornell University entomologist, John Losey, created the Lost Ladybug Project
Losey's site encourages people to photograph lady beetles and send the images to the project.  As of May 5, 2016, over thirty-five thousand lady beetle images have been submitted and the site includes an identification guide for various species, some of which are considered endangered and very rare.  
Squashing Potato Beetle Eggs: Do Lady Beetles Eat Them Scrambled?

With beautiful weather forecast for the weekend, head to the nearest organic garden or your own backyard to observe lady beetles.  Capture photographs and compare the species you discover to an identification guide.  Perhaps you will be fortunate and observe a rare nine-spotted ladybug or the two-spotted native.  Regardless of the species you see, pause to be grateful for these farmer-friendly insects and the work they do to control pests.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Spring Into Asparagus

The first warm Spring days always deliver the same concerning thought: What if there is no asparagus this year?  Now that we are into the third week of harvest, that fear is replaced by another thought:  How will we use all the asparagus?  Fortunately, there are plenty of friends, family and chefs who willingly share our bounty. 

For optimum flavor, eat asparagus asap after harvest 
Although supermarkets sell asparagus almost year round, these spears taste nothing like fresh, in season, local asparagus.  Since asparagus continues to age after harvest, spears toughen and become bitter, so it is desirable to eat asparagus as soon as possible after cutting.  
Fresh asparagus taste is vastly superior to supermarket produce  

By early June, asparagus season will end for North Carolina, so enjoy this delicious spring harbinger while it is available. 
Refrigerate fresh asparagus, upright in water
While trying out new preparations, I used asparagus to make slaw and salad.  Since I could not decide which I preferred, I am including both recipes.  Wild sorrel, with delicate yellow flowers and tangy flavor, makes a great edible garnish for both. 
Wild Sorrel
Asparagus Slaw
(Reserve tender asparagus spear tips for another use)
2 cups finely chopped asparagus spears
2 medium radishes, minced
1 small scallion, white and green tips minced
1/2 cup grated carrot 
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Splash of vinegar (Test purposes, ramp infused vinegar)
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients, refrigerate for at least three hours before serving.

Asparagus slaw and salad with wild sorrel garnish
Asparagus Salad
2 cups fresh asparagus spears, finely chopped
2 medium radishes, minced
1 small scallion, white and green tips, minced
2 hard boiled eggs, diced
1/2 cup grated carrot
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Duke's mayo (add more if needed, to taste)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients, refrigerate for at least three hours before serving. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Planting Legacies

Spring, 2016, yields some of the most spectacular early blossoms on record for Western NC.  One beautiful display reminds me of a neighbor who planted azaleas not long before his death.  Looking at the expanse of brilliant red blooms, a delight for passersby, I remember the man who placed young plants, his friendly wave, a wide smile that proclaimed youthful spirit and his twinkling eyes.  These azaleas, now mature plants, announce joyful exuberance and share beauty, a living legacy to the gardener. 

Tim's Azaleas, Spectacular 2016 Show
A stroll around my home also reminds me of friends and family, some who are alive and others who shared tangible reminders of their earthly time.  Here, Ruth's peonies, deliciously fragrant, there, Aunt Meda's irises, large blossoms very different from my grandmother's small delicate purple ones. 
Hellebores Re-Seed to Grow New Plants
Janet's Hellebores thrive in wooded oak leaf beds and a large pot holds nodding bleeding hearts, a gift from Clark.   
Perennial Bleeding Hearts Thrive as Container Plants
Along with plants, I count heirloom seeds as gifts. When I hold these small treasures in my palm, I feel their life force and look forward to watching seedlings emerge from soil, thrive and bloom, produce fruit, vegetables and seed for another season, before the plant dies.
Beans, Peas, Peanuts & Sunflowers: Seeds from my Grandmother
Plant cycles are reminders of our own human mortality. Should we not all hope for productive days that allow us to create beauty where we live?  This spring, plan to share a plant or seeds with a special friend or family member and create your own living legacy.  Someday, when a blossom is especially beautiful or a fruit unusually sweet, someone may fondly recall your life and smile at the memory. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Spring Cleaning

Those pesky, forgetful squirrels.  Every Spring, I am surprised when plants bloom in unexpected places, moved to new locations by squirrels that intend to enjoy them as Winter food, but overlook the hidden treats.  When blossoms appear far from areas I planted, I blame squirrels, but when I discover hidden foods in freezers and pantry shelves, there is no one to blame but myself.

A lone daffodil blooms where a squirrel planted the bulb

Spring cleaning at the farm includes jobs like removing wire cages where they supported last summer's tomatoes and peppers, pulling up metal and wood stakes and setting fires to burn dried weeds and brush from fields.
Burning weeds, brush and broken stakes adds soil nutrients
We also clean and rehang Purple Martin houses and the reward for that last task is seeing excited scouts arrive to inspect the homes.  On March 25th, Good Friday, the first bird appeared at Heart & Sole, chattering excitedly and peering into the gourds.  Hopefully, they met with his approval and he will bring the rest of the family to join him in the near future.  While this first Martin was a bit skittish, by the end of the season, the birds are used to our presence and allow us to stand under the gourds and photograph them.
Last Year's Purple Martin Group

Back at home, spring cleaning tasks are a different sort of work.  With Winter bowing to Spring's arrival, backyard gardens, farms and farmer's markets will soon yield fresh food for the dinner table.  While cutting the season's first asparagus spears, I realized it was time to take inventory of preserved harvests in freezers, refrigerators and pantry shelves and make a concerted effort to use as much as possible to make room for this year's bounty. 
A bounty of roasted tomato sauce, preserved last summer
After discovering a treasure trove of roasted tomato sauce, pickled eggplant, dried tomatoes, roasted peppers and other ingredients, I decided to combine as many of these foods as possible into a "Spring Cleaning" dish.  Perhaps not one a squirrel would enjoy, but it certainly is a delicious way to make room for Summer's bounty.
Roast fresh tomatoes with onion, garlic, peppers & herbs, then freeze

Spring Cleaning Puttanesca Sauce
*Although this Italian sauce's origins are murky, one widely circulated story is that prostitutes would place simmering pots of this fragrant sauce near their establishment's windows, in order to lure male customers.  Another source gives credit to a restaurant owner who was told to make "any kind of garbage" for hungry guests.  Regardless of its beginnings, there are no rules for combining ingredients in this sauce; if it is something you like, add itWith tomato base and a good balance of salty, your results will be delicious. Serve over pasta or rice, along with crusty bread for a hearty meal.

2 cups roasted tomato sauce with onion and garlic
1/4 cup pickled eggplant (for recipe, see Eggplant) 
1/4 cup dried tomatoes, chopped
1/4 - 1/2 cup roasted peppers, chopped
1-2 tablespoons capers
1/4 cup Kalamata olives, roughly chopped 
Oregano, dried or fresh, salt and pepper to taste

Combine and simmer all ingredients in a medium pot over low heat until fragrant and bubbly.  Optional: top with grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Traditional Gardening

Almost everyone has a family tradition.  Many of my favorite childhood memories are tied to annual special events or practices. Wearing my grandmother's handmade Mother's Day corsages, sharing my mother's New Year's Day breakfasts with friends and family, enjoying a last-day-of-summer-vacation trip to Blowing Rock and Good Friday planting were some of our family traditions.   

Planting Beans on Good Friday is a Family Tradition

Throughout the world, many gardeners celebrate Good Friday by placing seeds or plants in the ground.  In our area, potatoes are the likely choice, but since my grandmother always planted beans on that Holy day, I keep her tradition alive and plant the same seeds she inherited from her mother.  My heirloom seed beans are White Mountain Half Runners and trace back five generations to the immigrant woman, Mary Schmidt Bean, called "Polly" by her family, who brought them to the US from Germany in the early 1800s. 
Polly Schmidt Bean, US Immigrant & Seed Saver

Last year's April 3rd Good Friday planting restored my supply of pure seed, but since the 2016 traditional planting day is a week earlier, it is likely our Western NC gardens could still expect a visit from Jack Frost; therefore, I only planted a twenty-five foot row of Granny's beans.  With luck and good weather, these seeds will produce beans to enjoy eating fresh from the vines by early summer.  When the crop is mature, the most beautiful bean pods will dry to serve as seed for next spring.  
Good Friday proved to be a glorious Spring day

Along with last year's seed, I also, just for luck, added a few beans my grandmother saved from her own garden.  Granny died in 1986 and these seeds are over thirty years old, but as I dropped seven "magic" beans into rich soil, I recited the names of all the family seed savers I know.  Polly, Dovie, Mary Elizabeth, Lora, Gladys, Cindy and Kate.  While my daughter, Kate, is not yet a full-fledged seed saver, she is making plans to grow her own garden and I have no doubt she will include Granny's special beans and appreciate these inherited heirloom treasures as much as I do.
Save seeds from the largest, most beautiful, beans

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Lost Recipe

When I was a child, my extended family gathered at my grandmother's home for holiday meals.  Granny spent days preparing for such occasions and her table groaned from the weight of heaping bowls of green beans, creamed corn, buttered carrots and peas, platters of fried chicken, ham and deviled eggs.  Gravy simmered on the stove, an array of cakes and pies lined the side counter and her fluffy biscuits, pulled from the oven as guests arrived, wafted aroma throughout the house.  Family members enjoyed Granny's potatoes, either mashed or stirred in a salad mix, but the hands-down favorite potato dish was something she called "soupy potatoes."

Preparing Field for Potato Planting

If comfort food could be defined by a single dish, it would have to be Granny's soupy potatoes.  Slices of creamy potato, thick, rich broth, seasoned with salt and buttery goodness.  When Granny gave me her recipe collection, shortly before her death, in 1986, I did not think to see if it included favorite dishes.  By the time I wished to try a hand at recreating taste memories, it was too late to ask for the soupy potato or sausage cream gravy recipesGranny often made these and probably never consulted a written recipe, relying on memory, texture and taste for consistent results.  Several times, I attempted to make both, with disappointing results and resolved myself to the fact that the recipes were lost.  And then, a recent visit with a relative yielded a surprising gift . . .
Soupy Potatoes Make Rich Broth

My cousin, Ruth, an heirloom seed saver and unofficial family historian, welcomed me to her home and asked if I would like to see her personal recipe collection.  As someone who should be enrolled in a twelve-step program to combat a cookbook addiction,  I jumped at the opportunity and whipped out my phone to snap photos of delicious looking recipes, recorded in Ruth's handwriting.  Turning pages of cake, casserole and pie recipes, my hands began to shake when I read the words, "Soupy Potatoes."  Quickly, I scanned the four ingredients: Potatoes, Water, Salt, Butter.  No cream?  Could it really be that simple?  Thanking Ruth for sharing a special gift, I looked forward to sharing Soupy Potatoes with my family.

Kate prepares potato "eyes" for planting
Last week, the soil at Heart & Sole Gardens was dry enough to turn and Richard and I, with help from our daughter, Kate, and her friend, Joe Kinchen, planted about 70 pounds of seed potatoes.  Although several years ago, our friend and his Belgium workhorse plowed potato rows for us, we now rely on a 1970s Ford tractor, a workhorse in its own right. 
Joe & Richard Clear Brush From Potato Field
After sunset, with darkness falling, we proudly surveyed four neat, 200 foot rows that, with optimal growing conditions, should produce around seven hundred pounds of tubers.  
Kate and Bob Plow, 2011

Kate with 2016 "workhorse"
Last night, I pulled a few potatoes we harvested in late fall from storage.  Brushing away sprouts, I scrubbed them clean, marveling at their firm texture and smooth skin.  After peeling and slicing, I followed Ruth's recipe for Soupy Potatoes.  
Cut Potatoes in Row

When Richard tasted the first bite, he breathed, "Comfort.As we ate, he recalled elementary school cafeteria meals in Boone, back when workers actually cooked food for children.  I listened to my family's raucous laughter and chatter, a sound memory conjured by familiar taste, as I savored Soupy Potatoes.

Potatoes.  Water.  Salt.  Butter.  It really was that simple. 

*Note: For best results, avoid supermarket russets.  Those GMO spuds are waxy and lack the flavor of "real" potatoes.  If you do not grow your own, shop at local farmer's markets or make a friend who grows potatoes.   

Soupy Potatoes