Friday, November 26, 2010

A Very Lettuce Thanksgiving

Lettuce growing in low tunnels covered in plastic, with Christmas lights to warm the tunnel on cold, cold nights.
By Sandra M. Siebert
‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving and our little house
Had been cleaned top to bottom by me and my spouse.
We’d washed all the windows and shook out the rugs,
Dusted the corners and vacuumed up bugs.
All in preparation for feasting day guests.
Even the garden had been specially dressed,
Draped with plastic and hung with lights on a wire,
And blanketed with hay (I hope it doesn’t catch fire).
All to keep warm our lovely green lettuce beds,
As visions of winter salads danced in our heads.
Exhausted by the work we went off to our rest,
So cozy and snug in our little nest
As the wind howled and the temperature fell deep.
Then all too soon I was abruptly shaken from sleep…
“The plastic’s all torn and flapping about,”
My spouse announced in almost a shout.
“But it’s only 1 a.m.,” I loudly uttered,
This perky red romaine survived
 in the low tunnel with no lights to warm it,
Then threw back the covers and angrily muttered.
I pulled on some clothes worn the day before;
Grabbed coat and boots and stormed out the door.
The sky was so clear and the stars they shone bright,
A large gibbous moon gave us plenty of light.
The plastic wasn’t torn, just pulled loose from is mooring
By the gale that blew as we were happily snoring.
I took a long peek at the lettuce inside.
It was wilted and frozen, I was sure it had died.
We put back the cover and anchored it firmly with stones,
Then went back to bed with a chill in our bones.
Buttercrunch and green salad bowl.
Feasting day came, as did the guests and their bounty.
It must have been the best feast in the county.
The tables were laden with turkey and dressing,
Sweet potatoes and green beans; then after the blessing,
We all laughed and ate and got stuffed to our eyes.
Then there were brownies and cookies and, of course, pumpkin pies.
Thirty guests had come, as well as a surprise one or two,
And the hours of Thanksgiving Day really flew.
I gave our poor frozen lettuce no more thought
Until the next day, when I felt that I ought
To go out and see how it and other things had fared.
Had it been killed by the cold or had it been spared?
As I lifted the plastic what did my eyes behold?
But lovely lettuce, perky and laughing at the cold.
I shook my head in utter disbelief,
Then laughed, in spite of myself, in great relief.
The old winter sun shone warm and bright
As I went back to the house, my heart full and light.
Lettuce today and tomorrow as well,
With spinach and arugula and a story to tell.
So lettuce give thanks (please pardon the pun)
For blessings large and small, every one,
For family and friends and gardens to grow things,
Children and grandchildren who like playing on swings,
For spouses willing to go into cold winter nights
To save the salad and to plug in the lights,
For all of these things that make life so sweet,
For all of the guests that make the gathering complete.
With this one last wish I will close,
May all of your feast days be full of good cheer,
And may love, laughter and lettuce last all through the year.
Green romaine and red salad bowl.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Daikon growing in the garden.
Daikon fermenting in a quart jar.
Two quart jars full of fermenting daikon now sit in my sewing room. This is my first attempt at lacto-fermentation -- using whey, lactic acid -- to ferment vegetables.
It is not my first attempt at fermented foods. My only two attempts at saurkraut failed miserably. I believe I know why they failed, but I have been reluctant to attempt it since. However, this past summer I received information on how to use whey obtained from plain yogurt for a nearly fool-proof fermentation.
In a few days, when the daikon is supposed to be done fermenting and I can check on my success, I will pick a nice cabbage and try sauerkraut again.
Fermentation of foods -- from sauerkraut, to wine, to vinegar -- has a long, long history. It was perhaps the first method of preserving food available to humans, with the exception of dehydration, perhaps.
No doubt both of those methods were discovered accidentally. I do not want to imagine the stomach aches and such that were suffered as humans tried to capture those techniques.
Proper fermentation of foods depends on the right microorganisms colonizing the food and doing their thing. Lacto-fermentation, which introduces the microorganisms that have already properly fermented milk, is supposed to squeeze out any of the wrong microorganisms that caused my original attempts at sauerkraut to go rotten.
One of the keys to fermenting, I've learned, regardless of the method, is to keep the vegetable materials completely submerged in liquid. Which means that if you can't create enough liquid by pounding the you-know-what out of your veggies, you must add water.
Until now, all of my successful pickling has used vinegar. Which is not fermentation, although one uses a fermented product -- vinegar.

Pickles, pickles, pickles!
Pickling is a great way to preserve excess vegetables and even fruit that you have no room to freeze or do not want to otherwise can. Canning vinegar pickles can be done with a boiling water bath, unlike regular canning of non acid vegetables, which requires a pressure canner.
Pickled cucumbers and long beans.
You can pickle pretty much any vegetable or fruit. Just find yourself an all-purpose booklet on pickling and once you get the hang of it, the sky is the limit. I use the recipes for the proper proportions of water, vinegar and pickling salt, then let my imagination run with the seasonings.
The most common pickle is cucumbers. I used to just pickle my excess cukes, but they were usually soft and mushy -- tasty, but soft and mushy.
This year I planted pickling cucumbers (which can be eaten as fresh cukes if they get too large) and picked them small, about 4 to 5 inches long.
Pickled peppers.
This year's pickles are crispy as well as tasty. When the okra and long beans came in too fast to cook right away and I started running out of freezer space I pickled them, as well. We eat lots of salads and all of these pickles are great with them.
A couple of weeks ago when we got more freezing weather I decided to let the peppers go. So what was I going to do with all of those green bell peppers? I pickled 12 pounds of them. I also pickled some green tomatoes.
So now I am graduating to actual fermentation of vegetables. These fermented foods even have some health benefits, if you don't put them through the high heat of canning and kill off the beneficial microorganisms. They must be kept in cold storage.
Who knows, maybe next year I will even try to ferment cucumber pickles.
At some point, my fermentation efforts will move on to hard cider (when the apple trees are producing).
For now, though, I will wait for my daikon relish.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Compost Happens

My current 4-bin composting system.
Compost is the staff of life. Whether you build piles of debris to make compost, or let stuff compost right there in the garden, everything grows better with compost.
Compost is right for every soil type. If you have tight clay soil, compost will loosen it up and help it drain better. If you have loose, sandy soil, compost adds bulk and helps it retain moisture. If you have just-right soil, well, you can make a good thing better with compost.

Can you find the compost heap in this picture? It is hidden by all the pretty things that came up from seed in the materials heaped for composting.
Composting is easy. All you have to do is pile stuff up and it decomposes, eventually. The right mix of materials, water and turning will make it break down more quickly, by providing more oxygen, nitrogen and other stuff for the microorganisms doing most of the work. These microorganisms create heat as they work and various types work best at different temperatures. The temperature of a compost heap can exceed 160 degrees, which kills many seeds and disease-causing microorganisms. However, beneficial microbial activity decreases and even ceases when it gets that hot.

A frequently turned compost heap made with plenty of nitrogen-containing materials will melt snow and steam in the winter. My compost piles do not do this, however, as I employ the cool ("lazy gardener's") method.
Cooler, slower composting yields a material that is richer in disease-fighting fungi and other beneficial microorganisms. Nitrogen content also is higher in compost made by this slower process. It is your choice whether to work it hot or cool, it all depends on how quickly you want it. A hot pile can be ready in as little as a few weeks, while a cool pile can take 6 months to a year. Personally, I am patient and have other things to do besides turning compost.
Decomposition is conducted by the life cycles of various types of microorganisms, bacteria, actinomycetes (a type of bacteria), fungi, protozoa (one-celled animals) and rotifers (some kind of microscopic organism). But earthworms and other larger critters also play a roll in digesting and excreting organic matter.
A professional nursery worker once told me that compost would be good for my apple trees, but wouldn't provide much nutrition. That is false. Compost contains lots of nutrients, as well as beneficial microorganisms. The nutritional value of the compost depends on what materials are put in it and the process by which you make it, as well as whether you let it sit uncovered and let the nutrients leach out or oxidize.
It would be a waste of space for me to go through the "proper" composting process here, as millions of other Web sites can enlighten you. I have put links to several of them at the end of this post.
My tips for composting are 1. Cut up or chop materials as smaller pieces decompost more quickly. 2. Avoid putting materials containing lots of seeds, or heavily diseased or pest-infested materials. 3. Turn or just poke the pile occasionally to improve air flow. 4. You don't need a fancy bin to keep it in. And 5. Don't be afraid of it. Just do it.
This summer I built the 4-bin composting system in the top photo. Before that, the compost heap was just a big pile with 8-foot tall sunflower stalks and such. Smaller piles are easier to turn and work with.
Our new tractor. Isn't she cute?
Now, however, we have a small tractor with a front loader. I now have the capability to create big piles of debris and turn them with the tractor's front loader. So my composting practice will change, again.
Composting is a dynamic process. There is no reason the pile has to stay in one place. In fact, you can make a compost heap over an area that you want to convert to a garden bed. After you've composted there for a few months, the grass and weeds will (mostly) be smothered and you will have some nice, rice soil for planting.
Following are several links to sites about composting. The first is to a great article from Mother Earth News. Practical, helpful information. The article has several pages, so be sure to click "next" when you are done reading the page until you've read all 10 tips.  Next an article by Paul James, the Gardening Guy, from HGTV's "Gardening by the Yard," followed by a link to an episode with composting info. I love Paul James. Now a few more links, just for good measure.