Monday, June 29, 2015

When It Comes to Berries, Go WILD

Despite our recent hot, dry weather at Heart & Sole Gardens, blackberries are ripening along creek banks and I can not resist that taste when I take breaks from pulling weeds in almost 100 degree temperatures. The tart sweet flavor revives me and, with a good drink of water, farm work is again possible. 

Unlike hybrids, wild blackberries vary in size and flavor
Along the wooded tree line at our farm is a patch of wild raspberries, both red and black.  These fruits are smaller than supermarket hybrids, but like wild blackberries, possess more intense flavor.  Close to the raspberry canes is a mulberry tree and the last of its ripe fruit is another temptation, but most of those berries go to hungry birds that can reach those tall branches much easier than I. 
Japanese beetles also love wild berries
If you have never tried wild berries, plan to enjoy these seasonal treats this summer.  When I was a child, my neighbor paid me fifty cents per gallon for all the blackberries I could pick.  Despite summer's heat, battle scars from the prickly briers and the lurking fear of encountering snakes lying in wait for small rodents and birds that came to feast on the berries, I enjoyed picking blackberries.  Let me know if you find a child willing to sell wild berries for fifty cents per gallon . . .I will buy!  
Easy to identify, Wineberries are delicious wild treats
Another tasty wild berry that grows in North Carolina is the Japanese Wineberry.  Similar in shape and color to the red raspberry, Wineberries have a unique flavor and with an almost non-existent shelf life, it is imperative to consume or process them as soon as possible after harvesting.  To learn more about Japanese Wineberries, visit Seedtales and, if you are lucky enough to find Wineberries or happen to have some growing in your backyard, try the recipe, courtesy of Heirloom Restaurant's Chef Clark Barlowe, included in the blog.  
Visit seedtales.com for the recipe for Wineberry Upside Down Cakes



Monday, June 22, 2015

Heirloom Summer Squash

Finally, squash season arrived at Heart & Sole Gardens and it is a labor of love to harvest tiny squash while still blooming, small ones perfect for steaming, medium ones for frying, grilling or stuffing and those huge ones?  The ones that cleverly hide from view until suddenly appearing, rivaling the size of Little League baseball bats?  Why, those make delicious bread!  My blueberries should be ripe in a few weeks and I can not wait to try a recipe for zucchini blueberry bread posted at 
The Olive and the Sea 


Heirloom squash. The small thing in the center is a female stamen

As a grower, I can not take credit for this season's squash crop.  Because we left the last huge fruit in the field last summer, those cucurbits dried, broke open with the spring tilling and planted themselves.  Heirloom seeds are pretty crafty when it comes to perpetuating a life cycle.  Along with squash, okra, peas, beans, corn and lots of leafy greens popped up in the field.  Although some of those plants did not survive, due to our crop rotation plan, Richard, who can operate that six-foot tiller unlike anyone else I know, wiggled the tractor through several areas and saved the squash.  Our rewards are straightneck, crookneck, zucchini, patty pan and a cross variety that developed when I planted several varieties together a few years ago and then saved seeds.  Talk about "free" food!
 
Volunteer squash plants

If you have never eaten a squash blossom, raw, grilled or fried, vow to do so this summer and you will regret all those years you missed one of the season's special treats.  Harvest baby squash while blossoms are fresh and attached and remove the inner stamen from the bloom.  Carefully fill the blossom about halfway with fresh chevre, either plain or flavored with fresh herbs, and twist the ends of the blossom to close.  At this point, you have a choice.  Either eat the squash raw or cook it.  Brush a light coating of olive oil over the squash and grill over charcoal until the squash is heated, but still crunchy.  Alternatively, place the stuffed squash in a bowl of buttermilk and allow to rest for about 30 minutes.  Remove squash from buttermilk and gently shake with some seasoned flour or seafood breader mix, then fry in hot oil until golden.  
 
Visit seedtales for this stuffed squash recipe, topped with fried blossoms

Enjoy squash season and for more of Heart & Sole's free food crop story, along with some delicious recipes, be sure to read the blog at Seedtales

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Celebrate National Pollinator Week, Save Honeybee Lives!

Aren't flower gardens beautiful this year?  Recent rains boosted plants struggling during dry weeks and colorful blossoms now reward gardeners and passersby.  Greenhouses and garden centers at private and big box stores report lively sales as consumers choose plants to provide beauty for humans and forage for honeybees and other pollinators, but there is a dark side to buying plants.  Before reaching for another Shasta daisy or other enticing plant, pause to consider its source and whether it will be healthy food for foraging pollinators or an addictive, deadly enticement.  Yes, deadly. 

Local retailers offer blooming plants treated with Neonicotinoids
Environmental protection group, Friends of the Earth, revealed in a June, 2014, study that neonicotinoid pesticides were detected in over fifty percent of sampled "bee friendly" plants sold by major retailers in eighteen Canada and US cities.  Neonicotinoid pesticides are chemically similar to nicotine and a research report recently published in Nature indicates pollinators, including honeybees, prefer food laced with this substance, which kills insect pests, but also kills non-target species, like honeybees and bumblebees, attacking their central nervous systems, causing paralysis, then death.  Some companies, including Home Depot and BJ's Wholesale Club, now require wholesale growers to label neonicotinoid-treated plants and Lowes Home Improvement stores, over the next four years, plan to phase out selling products that contain neonicotinoids.   
Neonicotinoids kill pests, but can be deadly to helpful pollinators

Heart & Sole Gardens is honored to host honeybees and not only do these unpaid farm laborers increase crop yield, they share delicious honey and provide entertainment and instruction as we observe their lives.  During a recent visit to the garden center at a local retailer, I happened to meet a grower delivering neonicotinoid treated plants.  When I asked about the label, the grower assured me the chemicals are safe and greatly reduce the number of pesticides growers use to "protect" the plants.  Although this grower's company labels plants, as mandated by their retailer, other growers selling through different venues may not label plants treated with neonicotinoids, making consumers responsible for seeking that information. 
Approved by EPA, currently banned in European Union
As we chatted, I observed four pollinator species foraging among the store's blooming plants, all of which held labels that identified the presence of neonicotinoids.  After years of observing pollinators at work, I noted these bees were almost frantically feeding, quickly flying from bloom to bloom, rather than pausing to forage before seeking another food source, as pollinators do at Heart & Sole.  Were these bees "buzzed" from the insecticide or was it my imagination?  I hope someone will conduct a study about foraging behavior with emphasis on plants treated with neonicotinoids.  
The bumblebee's jerky movements made it difficult to capture a photo
With a strong national emphasis underway to increase awareness of the importance of all pollinators, including honeybees, proponents like President Barack Obama, are alarmed by reports that, since 2006, US honeybee colonies show an annual decrease in number.  As experts look for pollinator death causes and solutions to prevent future losses, what can we, as individuals, do to support honeybee health?  For starters, consider the following:


*Begin by celebrating National Pollinator Week, as designated by the non-profit organization, Pollinator Partnership, and the US Department of Agriculture.  For 2015, National Pollinator Week is June 15-21.  

*If any NC citizen suspects honeybee pesticide poisoning, the first course of action is to contact the NC Department of Agriculture.  An inspector will test and evaluate the hive and report results to the beekeeper.  Contact information for the Apiary Division is: NC Dept of Ag Apiary Division  

*When purchasing plants from a major retailer or private greenhouse, check to see if there is a label indicating the plants were treated with neonicotinoid pesticides.  If there is no label, ask the supervisor or owner.

*Designate part of your garden as bee forage and grow plants from chemical free heirloom seeds.  

*Visit bee expert Gunther Hauk, either virtually at Spikenard Farm or at his Virginia honeybee sanctuary where he and his wife, Vivian,  lead tours and conduct biodynamic beekeeping classes for novices and advanced students. 

 *Avoid using lawn chemicals and allow wild bee forage, like clover and dandelions, to bloom.

*Join a local beekeepers association and support those who host honeybee colonies.  Enroll in a local beekeeping class, such as the one offered through Heirloom Restaurant or volunteer to help a beekeeper friend as you learn about these extraordinary creatures.

*With every bite of fresh fruits and vegetables, pause to be grateful to the tiny pollinators who made it possible to enjoy those treats.

***Visit Seedtales 
For more information about pollinator health, neonicotinoid issues, relationships between farmers and beekeepers and what is being done in North Carolina to protect pollinators.



Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Waste Not From the Garden

Growing one's own food instills a level of appreciation that is not achieved by shopping at the supermarket.  After planting seeds, carefully tending plants and protecting them from pests, then harvesting the fruits of all that labor, it's hard to waste any part of the gift. 

Radishes: Can't you just hear the conversation?

Since most vegetable and fruit plants are edible from sprout to blossom to ripe goodness, I often look for ways to use components I used to just toss in the compost bin.
Five pounds of radishes
With a bountiful harvest of radishes, carrots and a variety of greens, spring is a perfect time to combine some of the "trim" from these crops in a delicious soup.  Whether you enjoy it immediately or make a huge batch to preserve for later, this recipe is one that you will appreciate for its simplicity, its healthy content, its spring-on-the-tongue flavor and its use of vegetable components that frequently end up as compost.  
 
Not all radishes are round and red

Potatoes thicken the soup and cream is not necessary, but adds a certain rich gild to the lily.  Soup is usually better a day after it is made, to allow flavors to meld, but after tasting this one, it will be hard to resist eating as soon as it is done.


Colorful radish slices & blossoms are lovely spring garnishes


Waste Not Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large sweet onion, chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic (fresh, green, if available)
1-2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/4 in rounds
4 cups fresh radish, carrot, beet greens (or any fresh green "trim")
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
Salt/pepper to taste
Fresh radishes, thinly sliced, and radish blossoms (for garnish)

Heat oil over medium heat in a large stock pot.  Add onion and garlic and saute until translucent, about 2-3 minutes.  Add potato slices and fresh greens, stir to coat with oil.  Add stock and bring to a boil.  Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.
Remove from heat and allow to slightly cool.  Use an immersion blender to blend ingredients into a smooth mixture.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add cream (if using) and warm soup over low heat, but do not boil.  
Serve hot with garnishes. 

*This soup is delicious with fresh herbs mixed with the other greens.  Sage leaves, parsley, borage leaves, dill, oregano, basil, mint, chives, *rosemary and *thyme are all possibilities.  Experiment to create your own favorite flavors. 
*Remove leaves from woody stems before adding to soup base.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Who Can Resist an Heirloom Tomato?

A few years ago, I broke up with my first love.  Although he will always hold a special place in my heart, his spotty skin, seedy character and lack of purpose made Csikos Botermo unwelcome in my life, er, garden.  You see, Csikos is a tomato, an heirloom from Hungary, and even though he was first to ripen in my rainbow colorful tomato garden, thus winning my love and admiration, others proved superior to his size, appearance and flavor, so he had to go.

When it comes to heirloom tomatoes, I have a problem.  After decades of eating uniformly shaped, red tomatoes, I discovered the Wonderful World of Heirloom Tomatoes.  Sort of like the old tv show, Wonderful World of Disney, but with much more flavor and without animated singing characters.  

Enjoy several tomato varieties in a pie
It began with seed catalogs.  With countless options and a rainbow of colorful fruit choices, I was powerless to resist the charms of Green Zebra, Cream Sausage and any plant with a name I found hard to pronounce.  Perhaps my fascination with heirloom tomatoes stems from my grandmother's garden.  As I child, I helped Granny harvest hundreds of tomatoes and I was intrigued by the variety of shapes, sizes, colors and flavors.  Together, we loaded baskets and buckets and carried them to her patio, where we filled huge galvanized steel tubs with water and washed the fruit, carefully inspecting each tomato for blemishes, before sorting and carrying clean fruit to her kitchen for processing.  When I opened a seed catalog to find beautifully photographed heirloom tomatoes, I remembered those huge pinks, tiny yellow and red pears, deep purples, red pastes and, my personal favorite, smooth-skinned meaty yellows.  
Great Whites often weigh over two pounds
Heart & Sole's first big (50 plants) hybrid tomato garden became part of what is now known as "The 2009 Late Blight Pandemic of Eastern USA," and Richard and I read everything we could find about how to prevent such a devastating loss for future crops.  Research led us to heirloom tomatoes and when I saw photographs of childhood memories, I was a goner.   

After last year's bumper crop of thousands of pounds of tomatoes, I promised Richard we would scale back this year.  When he asked how many plants we would grow, I replied, with fingers crossed, "Oh, about 25."  So far, there are more than 35 tomato plants growing at Heart & Sole and several more are container plants at our home.  Don't tell Richard, but I have about twenty more young seedlings in the "birthing chamber" that I hope will produce a late crop.  When it comes to heirloom tomatoes, I just can't resist the impulse to grow a colorful rainbow of favorite varieties.  Already, I am bemoaning the fact that there is only a single plant of some popular types; what will I do if something should happen to that plant?  Will I survive a summer without Great White's garlicky flavor?  What if Japanese Plum fails to produce those huge, meaty deep pink paste tomatoes?  And, worst of all, if Cream Sausage dies, it will be at least another year before we can enjoy white tomato soup. . .  These are anguishes that keep me awake when I should be sleeping.

Some of last year's beauties
If you, too, find yourself falling under the spell of heirloom tomatoes, try to sneak as many varieties as possible into your garden.  The season is brief, so celebrate each ripe fruit with a wide smile and dripping chin.

Tangy and juicy, ripe green tomatoes make the ultimate sandwich
Don't forget to save seeds from your favorites and look forward to next year's garden.  For growing notes from my farm, visit www.seedtales.com and click on the "Heirloom Tomato Notes" page.  Meanwhile, enjoy the fruits of the season, whether from your own backyard or from a local farmer's market.  No wonder the French call them "love apples."  

Amish Paste even looks like a Valentine


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, (http://www.renfrowhardware.com/) 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!