Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Gone Missing

I'm here.

I'm having a busy, exciting, delicious summer.

I'll be back soon.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Planting Calendar

On several occasions, people have asked what to plant when. But here's the thing—what to plant when is very dependent upon the climate of an individual garden. I can plant my onions out in January when people in other parts of the world are wondering if they'll ever see the soil under the snow again. That's an extreme example, so here's one closer to home. I pass gardens on my way to work all the time during the schoolyear. My school is about 25 miles away and 850 feet in elevation lower than where I live. One my favorite gardens I see on the way to work has corn sprouting each year in February. February! At my house, in the beginning of February, we still get light frosts. Other people nearby may have more shade than I do, or heavier soil, or be tucked between two hills.

The essential lesson of gardening is experimentation. That demands rule-breaking, curiosity, and a willingness to occasionally bet on the wrong horse. Every seed packet and book in the world will tell you that direct seeding in mounds ("hills") is the best option for cucurbits (melons, squash, etc), but I struggle to keep mounded soil moist enough in the warm months I plant them. This year, I planted in used six packs, and as soon as the little buggers had true leaves, planted them out in even, not mounded soil. My cucurbits had a better start this year than ever. (Of course, now, they're suffering because I haven't been watering enough. Shame on me. Note to self, melons and squash need lots and lots of water.) I'm sharing what usually works for me based on lots of failures. If your climate is identical in every way to mine—which, come on, you know it isn't—this may work for you. If not, please note that this calendar doesn't look like others you'd find in a book. In other words, throw the rules out, think about your soil, your sun, your water, and other factors, and take chances on when to plant. Keep in mind, the difference between year to year can through a wrench in garden planning, too. Be ready to fail; winning will be all the sweeter.

Chitting: Letting potatoes develop sprouts by exposing them to light.
Direct seed: Plant by seed directly into the garden soil.
Heat and light: Plant in either a makeshift or actual greenhouse that is powered by the sun or electricity.
Plant out: Plant seedlings into the garden soil.
Six packs: Small six-cell plastic containers used to sell six seedlings at a time; I wash used six packs and reuse them over and over.
Slips: Shoots that grow off of sweet potatoes that will eventually become the plants you plant out in the garden.

Direct seed:
Salad greens (arugula, mache, lettuces)

With heat and light:

Plant out:
Onion seedlings (I purchase these)

Start sweet potatoes with a toes in glasses of water on windowsills

Direct seed:
Salad greens (arugula, mache, lettuces, endives, and chicories)
Cooking greens (chard and mustard)
Pole beans

With heat and light:

Direct seed:
Pole beans
Cooking greens (amaranth, chard, mustard)

In six packs:
Squash, melons, and cucumbers

Plant out:

Direct seed:

In six packs:
Squash and melons

Plant out:
Sweet potato slips
Tomato seedlings
Eggplant seedlings
Pepper seedlings
Tomatillo seedlings
Squash, melon, and cucumber seedlings

Direct seed:
Asian long beans
Lima beans

Plant out:
Sweet potato slips
Squash and melon seedlings

Direct seed:
Asian long beans
Lima beans

There's a lot to eat this month, but not much to plant. Planting, for me, starts next month again.

In six packs:

Direct seed:
Pole beans
Endives and chicories

In six packs:

Place planting potatoes somewhere bright to begin chitting

Direct seed:
Endives and chicories
Salad greens
Fava beans

Plant out:
Broccoli seedlings
Rutabaga seedlings
Kale seedlings
Cabbage seedlings

Plant out:
Broccoli seedlings
Cabbage seedlings

Sit back and enjoy the harvests. This, for me at least, is the easiest garden month.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Walnuts and Time

This is the third year I've made nocino, and as long as I have access to my friend's tree full of green—immature—walnuts, I imagine I'll make it every year. The first year I made it, I followed to a T the directions a friend gave me. Months later, when I tasted the result, first I fell in love, and second I realized it had more citrus than necessary and it didn't need the cinnamon (blasphemy according to some Italians). So, last year, I tweaked the recipe a bit, cutting back the citrus, removing the cinnamon entirely, deepening with a few coffee beans and a whole vanilla bean. I was happy with the result and am making it the same way this year. But, who knows? Maybe next year I'll replace some of the vodka with brandy and the cloves with allspice. The tannic solidity of a green walnut invites curiosity.

My friend who says to me, "Name your price for nocino," also says, "It tastes like Christmas." Another friend made a double batch last year to use in his version of Black Manhattans—his double batch didn't make it through a year.

Nocino fits in the category of Italian digestifs called Amaro, which means "bitter." And it is bitter, but it's also silky, and rich, sweet, and oaky. It tastes like what Ents would drink at a party. I love it.

To make nocino the way I did this year, you will need:

6 coffee beans
7 whole cloves
1 whole vanilla bean
3 1"x2" strips of orange or Meyer lemon rind, colored part only (use a peeler)
2 1/2 cups organic sugar
1 liter vodka
30 green, smaller than golf-ball walnuts

Additionally, you'll need a very large jar, gloves, a sharp knife, and a cutting board you can stain without feeling bad about it.

In your large jar, swirl together the first six ingredients.

Wear those gloves, and working on the old cutting board, quarter the green skinned walnuts. You'll find the nutmeat inside is completely translucent, like an invisible, watery brain, and what will become the shell is pale and chalk-like. As you cut the walnuts, drop them into the vodka mixture. Once finished, swirl the ingredients together one more time, then seal the jar.

Place the jar in your "experiment closet," which you probably have, because you're making this recipe in the first place. (Mine is a closet in our bedroom that contains many things for its small size, but mostly large jars in various stages of steeping sweet, aromatic, or both sweet and aromatic ingredients in alcohol bases.) Leave the jar there for eight or ten weeks, swirling it when you remember to do so. Over time, the sugar will dissolve and the tannins in the green walnuts will stain the liqueur deep brown-black.

After the eight or ten weeks have passed, carefully strain the liqueur, first through a colander for the big chunks, then through clean fabric or a coffee filter to remove any other grit. Pour the strained mixture into a clean jar or bottle, and let it age in the "experiment closet" for another few months. Try it around Thanksgiving. Keep trying it at different ages.

My goal is to keep a small bottle of each year for as long as I can, so when I sample the year's batch in the late fall, I can taste it in a flight of years, to see how age changes the product. I'm sure from year to year, I'll play with various aromatic ingredients, yet none of those tinkerings will weaken the dark, mysterious soul of this liqueur, a soul that centers on only two ingredients: green walnuts and time.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Summer Begins

Yesterday was the last day I had to be at work for the 2013-2014 school year. Now, summer sits ahead of me, ripe and fragrant and full of possibility.

I celebrated the beginning of my freedom yesterday by heading straight from work to The Huntington.

While walking through my familiar corners of the garden, I found myself under a Rose Apple in blossom with fruit hanging on it too, in various degrees of ripeness. Though I've read about this fruit, I've never tried it. Something named a Rose Apple must be tasted, right? I looked around to check for garden staff; seeing none, I pulled a ripe looking fruit—they appear nearly identical to guavas—off the tree, smelled it, then bit right in.

Ha! A fruit that tastes identical to rose-scented Turkish Delight.

It's going to be a great summer.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Nasty Testes

The nasturtiums under the crepe myrtle are still pumping out sweet orange blossoms, though the heat is maing the plants more and more raggedy. Now, each time I have a few minutes to scramble through the radish-scented vines, I collect a handful of nasturtium seeds.

In years past, I've tried a variety of ways to pickle the seeds because I've read that once pickled, they're a good stand-in for capers, and I've killed more caper plants than I have fingers. (My blog friend Michelle, however, is the Caper Queen.) But each strategy I tried gave me a product I wasn't very happy with.

What I've learned what trying various pickled nasturtium seeds recipes:

  • I don't have cups of seeds to work with at a time; instead, I have handfuls.
  • I like onion and vinegar flavoring the seeds, not any other spices. 
  • The seeds need a few changes of brine to calm the horseradishy bite.

This year, I've figured out how to make pickled nasturtium seeds the way I like them. Here's how I do it.

I take handful of rinsed, still greenish nasturium seeds and put them in a jar. I heat a cup of water, add a tablespoon of sea salt, then pour the brine over the seeds and let the jar sit out on the counter overnight. It stinks. The next day, I drain the seeds, and add another cup of the salt water brine. On the third day, I repeat the process the third and final time.

On the fourth day, I drain the capers and place them in clean jar with a fat slice of onion. I pour good quality white wine vinegar over until they're covered, then lid the jar and keep it in the refrigerator. By that time, I'm ready to collect another handful of seeds, which I put through the brining process, then add to the jar of pickled seeds, topping off with more vinegar as needed. As they're in pure vinegar, they'll keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Already this year, I've used this a few ways. The other day, I minced a few tablespoons of them, minced some sweet onion, and added both to a can of smoked tuna with a dollop each of mayo and yogurt. Man, that was the tastiest tuna salad sandwich I'd had for a while.

But, I believe that a single pickled nasturtium seed has a divine function in life: to sit in a juicy, raw oyster like a green, anatomically-suggestive pearl.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Portraits in a Garden: The Kubos

Loretta Allison, Spade and Seeds, and Christina Wenger, A Thinking Stomach, have set out to find gardeners who can teach us how to live better in our outdoor spaces. Home gardeners who have designed their own spaces—large or small—in ways that feed their homes and their spirits draw us to them. We figure we’re hungry to learn from them, so you might be also. Join us in our occasional series as we explore their spaces.

Text by Christina Wenger
Photography by Paul Delmont
Art direction by Loretta Allison

Raised beds hold garlic, onions, burdock, tree collards, carrots, and strawberries. 
In February, as I step out of Janice Kubo’s back door, I encounter a series of raised beds where once had been a concrete-paved driveway turn-around. A quick scan of the garden tells me this place is beautiful, and it’s full of food. Right now, midwinter, these beds near the sliding door are lush with chard, lettuce, garlic, and bok choy, all in elegant rows.

Janice is showing me around her yard, and for a moment, her mother steps out to join us. We haven’t made it far out the back door, because I have lots of questions, but her mom stops near us and shows me how in the evening she pulls weeds from the beds and lays them in a small pile for pill bugs and slugs to hide in. In the morning, she takes the weeds, pests and all, and tosses them, away from where they can cause any more damage to the garden.

Janice and Tim Kubo and Janice's mother, Yoshie Mitsuhashi, in front
of their kumquat and orange trees.
This garden is a team effort, directed by Janice and her mother, supported by the labor of Tim, Janice’s husband, and driven and inspired by the need for healthy, organic food to help counteract the many food allergies Tim and Janice’s son experiences. Though the focus of the garden is food and herbal medicines, the garden is beautiful and clearly influenced by the family’s Japanese heritage. Janice tells me she’s proud of how her family has rallied together to build this garden, and that each of them “gets it,” how they’re working together for each other and the planet. She tells me “growing food is a joy” and “it’s fun to harvest what you grow, put it on a table, and eat it.” More than she expected, she’s happy to have inspired her friends and neighbors to grow more of their own food.

One bed in this area is taller than the others, and when Janice waves her arm around the garden as a whole, I can see a few others are taller as well. These beds are raised higher than the others because the family is experimenting with hugelkultur, a permaculture strategy in which a bed covers a pile of wood and brush debris. As the wood decomposes under the soil, it works as both fertilizer and a means of water-retention in our dry climate.

 Edible Saxifraga stolonifera serves
as an attractive ground cover under 
perennial tree collards.
A garden pathway passes
under a loquat to where a food-providing
pond will eventually be.

As we move around the satsuma tree to another part of the garden, Janice shows me more beds and fruit trees. One hugelkultur bed is full of fava beans tumbling over its edges. In full bloom, the black and white fava blossoms smell sweet and buzz with bees. Another bed has a multistory crop of tree collards with red-veined, crystalline-haired, strawberry geraniums (Saxifraga stolonifera)—commonly found as a houseplant, but in Japan used as a food plant—embroidering the deep shade of the collards. Along the side edge is a bed inhabited by a lone chayote vine, small now after winter die-back, but waiting impatiently to twist and pull itself up its trellis, covering the whole garden wall during the growing season. Two-gallon pots form the edge of this bed; each pot holds strawberry plants that will fruit in the spring. In this back corner is an old, unknown-variety fig tree that predates the family’s tenure here. With branches weeping like a trained bonsai, the tree naturally dwarfed tree produces loads of large, black fruit at the end of short-noded branches each year. Also along the back wall are a kumquat, a lemon, and a navel orange.

Ficoide glacial, aka Ice Lettuce, started from a 
cutting Janice took at a restaurant.
We’ve reached the graceful center of the garden, where a pond used to be, now filled in with a bed of garlic and lettuce. The spot is still, and though no water reflects the large paper-lantern-like oranges hanging above, it somehow maintains the peaceful sense that water features add to gardens. Janice and her family are currently studying acquaculture, with the plan to rebuild the pond here and stock it with carp or bluegill, edible fish that succeed in our warm summers and cool winters. Around the edges of the smallest puddle of lawn are large, low pots that hold perennial medicinal plants, mint, mugwort, and dokudami, all of which could be invasive if planted in the ground. In pots, the plants are safe from taking over the rest of the yard and provide visual interest. Branches naturally mosaic-ed in brown, bone, and bronze, a white guava tree grows behind us.

Janice grafted a scion from my Golden Russet apple
to a tree in her front yard; the scion has "taken" and
is leafing out healthily.

Janice and her family keep this food garden lush with lots of work—when Janice isn’t at her job, she spends at least six hours a day in the garden—and with composted waste materials from their kitchen and garden. Though the back yard is the most productive and most beautiful part of the garden, the family is working to convert the front yard too, where more fruit trees (an avocado, a persimmon, an apple, and a couple peaches), a few fruiting bushes and vines, and perennial vegetable and herb crops grow in several beds that frame the lawn that is left.

Readily reseeding red orach grows in the
front yard, providing the salad bowl and
the neighbors a pop of color.

The lot is a fifth of an acre, houses a 1,900 square feet house, and grows so much food already, with the potential for much more. Janice tells me she hopes one day the whole lot is food-producing: “food everywhere, with just stepping stones or small paths to move around on.” The Kubo family is already well on the way towards this goal. And if beauty is food for the soul, they’re creating plenty of that, too.

Takeaways From The Kubo’s Garden:
  • Chayote is a trouble-free, vining perennial crop that matures in the autumn and can be used similarly to zucchini, or, as Janice does, in a tasty, tasty chayote kimchi. 
  • If you want to start with an easy-to-grow crop that requires little effort on the part of a beginning gardener, grow green onions.
  • Fava beans—a perfect crop for our mild Southern California winters—once dried, can be soaked, their skins removed, and cooked and sweetened to make a paste similar to red bean paste for use in mochi.
  • Don’t avoid growing quickly spreading perennial plants that may be hard to remove from your yard; instead, grow them in large, pretty pots that will contain them, but also add to the garden’s beauty. 
  • Some fruit trees are architecturally and texturally interesting, and can serve as focal points in a food producing yard: a fig tree and a guava tree do this in the Kubo's yard.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Hot Cherries

It was 94F Thursday, far too hot for this time of year. The forest fires have already begun after our dry winter, and staring down the smoky, oppressive summer and fall hurts my head. In the hottest parts of the day, my dog and I sought out shade and cool water. It was another day in another season of drought.

Those of us who grow fruit in warm climates are familiar with the term "chill hours." Chill hours refer to the number of hours between 32F and 45F in the fall, winter, and spring that stimulate the trees to release their leaves, go dormant, then break dormancy. Stone fruits and apples are particularly picky about chill hours, and some varieties are impossible to grow for fruit in our warm climates.  

This winter was hardly a winter: so little rain, only a few frosts, far too many warm days. The lack of chill hours shows in my orchard this spring. The apples, apricots, and one of my plums are struggling to break dormancy. The apricots started to break dormancy at their regular time, but have slowly woken up a branch at a time—some branches are still bare while others are loaded with fruit and leaves, and others have sparse blooms right now. While it isn't the most attractive look for a tree, it may end up leading to a nice crop, a few fruit ripening each day rather than the whole tree needing to be harvested at once.

Cherry trees have been, for most of their history, resistant to warm winters. Until recently, breeders hadn't found quality cherry trees that would produce reliably in a warm winter climate like my own. In 2002, breeders patented a pair of low-chill cherries, Royal Lee and Minnie Royal, that bloom even after the mildest, wonkiest winters. I planted this pairing four years ago, and each year, I've gotten a few fruit. The first year they bloomed at such different times, only a couple flowers had a chance to cross pollinate (necessary since neither are self-fertile) and set fruit. But each year, the flowering of the two trees overlaps more and more, and this year was the pair's best year yet.

In order to keep the trees' vertical growth habit in check and to encourage development of flowering spurs, I prune the trees hard in the winter and cut back vigorous branches during the early summer growing period. I haven't encountered any disease or pest pressure yet on these trees, other than the birds when the fruit is ripe, and I solve that by covering the trees with bird netting. Deep mulch surrounds the trees and a drip line gives them a soak once a week, but in the late summer, these trees, unlike the rest of my orchard, suffer if they don't get a little additional water.

Minnie Royal begins blooming profusely first; it's also a more vigorous grower and fruiter of the two trees. The fruits hang, dark red, on long, elegant stems, and they are intensely flavored, sweet, and a little wild. Royal Lee starts ripening about a week after Minnie Royal, and the fruits are smaller and shorter stemmed. They're intensely sweet and firm-fleshed, almost crunchy. Most venders describe Royal Lee as the better tasting of the two, but I prefer Minnie Royal and its forest-edged bite. When there is a bowl of either in front of me, I can't stop eating them.

I don't know how many pounds my trees produced this year, but since April 17th, I have picked a bowl full of cherries, just like this one, every day. Thursday, the hottest day of the year so far, gave us this, our last bowl for the season.