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.