Sunday, December 11, 2016

Brave Little Zinnia

Brave little Zinnia set out one day, dressed in her brown winter garb. She looked out over the frost-burned landscape and frolicked in the snow that December had dropped around her.

The Barefoot Gardener had been barefoot in the garden clear through the middle of November, when brave little Zinnia still wore her bright summer hair. Even though late November brought chillier weather, it still remained quite pleasant for garden tasks.

But the flip of a calendar page brought December and December brought true winter weather (at last, although I did enjoy springlike November). A bit of snow even fell, briefly covering the garden in a thin layer of white.

Brave little Zinnia watched the Barefoot Gardener moving through the garden tucking her winter vegetables in snug and warm-enough so they would feed her until the winter solstice, and perhaps beyond. As frigid temperatures threatened, she harvested those things she had no desire to tuck in, such as the chard and celery, which had miraculously survived some pretty cold nights, but would not hold up when the temperatures dipped into the teens.

Even after such bitter cold and snow, the chard continues to provide graceful architecture in the winter landscape, its brilliant color barely dimmed by the cold, contrasting against the white icing.

And in case you're wondering what's going on beneath the plastic covering over the "low tunnels" in the garden, brave little Zinnia wanted you to see what the Barefoot Gardener was able to harvest just today, almost the middle of December. This basket contains two large green cabbages, a little chinese cabbage, four bok choy, some brussels sprouts greens, cilantro, and broccoli. Another large basket was filled with kale.

More of all these, plus lettuce, arugula, spinach, daikon, radicchio, beets, and mustard greens still wait in the cozy tunnels. A tangy winter solstice salad may be in the making. Barefoot Gardener loves chopping the tender, white center leaves of the Chinese cabbage to mix into lettuce and radicchio salads. More spinach, and leeks sit out the cold in open beds, protected only by a fluffy blanket of hay.

While veggies grow slowly in their chilly plastic homes, the Barefoot Gardener is inside sorting seeds, making lists of needs, perusing catalogs, filling the stove with logs, making plans on her garden maps, taking inadvertent naps, and cooking up the tasty green things. She'd like to spend more time outside in the garden, cleaning up the dried bean vines and crunchy, frozen summer plants, cutting the dead asparagus stalks, and digging zesty horseradish. But she's busy. Anyway it FEELS busy, although she's not ever sure what has been accomplished.

Brave little Zinnia is glad she's not doing much cleanup work yet, as she knows  that she and all her zinnia friends will become compost when Barefoot Gardener gets busy outside. But that's how it goes in this world. And brave little Zinnia is not worried.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Going Under Cover

As we approach the night of the Hard Freeze some preparations must be made. A final harvest goes underway for tender things, such as peppers, beans, etc. Anything that I intend to take into the winter must go under cover.
Most of these cold-hardy things are leafy greens and roots, with the exception of the broccoli. Today (Thursday) I cleaned up the winter beds, removing weeds and yellowed leaves, then mulched it all with fresh hay. At the end of the day several of the beds were put under plastic to hold in enough heat to keep them going when the weather gets cold. However, I'm not posting to say stuff. I'm posting to show you stuff. I try to be humble, but I cannot help but feel a bit proud of how beautiful these vegetables are, so I want to show you a few pics before everything goes under cover,

To your left you can see beets, lettuce, purple mustard and way in the background some lush radicchio. The white plastic pipes bent over the bed now support 6 mil plastic that will serve as a mini-greenhouse to keep these beauties going well into winter. It heats up pretty good when the sun is out, so when days are on the warm side I will have to open the ends to prevent the plants from becoming overheated.

The chard is so gorgeous right now. Look at the vibrancy of color in this red rhubarb chard. I took several pictures of the chard. I couldn't help myself. So beautiful. But you don't want to see a blog full of chard.

Part of the harvest... red beets, white daikon radish, orange carrots. Also in my harvest baskets you could find kale, lettuce, arugula...

And Cabbage! My bare foot for size comparison. Yes I was barefoot in the garden on Nov. 17, but I won't be tomorrow when the chill hits.

Tomorrow (Friday) the harvest will include a few green beans, red raspberries and
chard. Couldn't let the blog go by without showing you one more beautiful chard. After Saturday most of the chard will be gone, except for what I throw blankets over just to get them through the hard freeze until I can make space in the refrigerator for all that chard.

Cooler than summer temps, but an extended season of warmth has been the perfect recipe for all of the cool-season crops, especially members of the cabbage/mustard family. The chinese cabbage and bok choy did wonderfully. I couldn't resist photographing the interesting architecture of this white bok choy.

In the photo below (the last one in this post) you can see some baby bok choy in the background, behind the ruffly lettuces.


I wish I didn't have to tuck them all away so I could just stand and look at them. After we drop our temperature to 25 (the last forecast) we'll have a week with highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s. Technically they could all come out again under those conditions. I might uncover them for the rain that we're supposed to get next week.

Or not. We'll see how lazy I am when  the time comes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Facing the End

It's not every year that I can barefoot garden during the second week of November. Everything in the garden has loved the extended warm season. The billowy mounds of nasturtiums (above) just kept growing and growing, overflowing the raised beds like rising bread dough gone out of control. We picked and picked and picked the colorful and tasty flowers, gathering armloads (ok, just handfuls) of blossoms for every meal. They made even ho-hum dishes look fabulous.

This photo is what they looked like a couple of weeks ago, before they reached their peak growth. Since then, frosty weather has trimmed them a bit. I covered most of them against the frost, but when the two mornings of below-freezing temps came, even those tucked in beneath sheets and blankets got burned a bit. Those that were not covered have melted into a mess. We're still picking blossoms off of the plants that were covered, though.

This weekend, all that will come to an end. Right now our Sunday morning temperature is forecast at 25 degrees Fahrenheit (several degrees below zero for you Celsius fans). I'm not even going to try. Goodbye nasturtiums...

And goodbye bell peppers, so lovely and sweet. I will grudgingly pick the green ones before Friday night (because it's going to be 27 degrees F. on Saturday morning). The green beans have already gone to a better place, as have a few other things.

And this week I'm winterizing those things that I intend to take into winter -- Cabbages, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, kale, lettuce, beets, carrots, spinach, daikons, radicchio, arugula, purple mustard... who have I forgotten?

Tomorrow I start draping plastic over the beds, after watering and then mulching with hay. How sweet it was, this extended season. But that sweetness will soon end. Then it's on to another season.

Tomorrow I will take photos of all the lovelies before they get covered. I hope I will also post them tomorrow. Tonight you will just have to dream about the beautiful lettuce and vibrant purple mustard, Sweet dreams.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Summer Without Butterflies

If you've ever wondered what the world would be like without the colorful whimsy of butterflies, you sort of found out if you lived in northeast Kansas this summer. (May have been the same in other parts of Kansas and the Midwest, but I only know about northeast Kansas.)

The dearth of butterflies was quite noticeable. Several people mentioned it to me, beginning in the spring. Even the Hackberry Emperor, which rises from driveways and sidewalks in clouds as you walk or drive, was noticeably lacking. The Cabbage White Butterfly, the one whose larvae devour cabbage family plants, made few appearances (yay!?). The lavender usually teems with butterflies of one kind or another when in bloom, but went undisturbed by fluttering wings.

Only a handful of local butterflies flitted their way across my garden.
Cloudless Sulphur going in for a landing.

Then sometime in mid- to late September -- as the hummingbirds abandoned the Lady in Red Salvia in my garden and hummed southward -- a fluttering of yellow appeared at the red blossoms. Butterflies that I tentatively identified as the Cloudless Sulphur (such a poetic name)
arrived, having wandered from Texas or some other southern state in typical haphazard fashion. They don't reproduce here because our winters are too cold for larval survival, but they wander up here anyway. Incidentally, Lady in Red Salvia is native to the southern U.S. and southward. I guess this looked like home to the Cloudless Sulphur.

Strange weather here, which was too warm, too cold, too wet, too hot, too dry... bouncy, bouncy, bouncy... most likely created the remarkable dearth of butterflies this year. However, they and other insect species have been on a decline due to overuse of pesticides and loss of habitat. We are losing populations of native plant species that feed our butterfly larvae. Plant more natives. Reduce your use of pesticides. Protect wild areas. I can tell you without a doubt that a world without butterflies is less colorful, and seems less magical. So do what you can. Do as a friend of mine does and encourage each butterfly you see. And while you're at it, bless the bees, too.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Falling into Autumn, and Stuff...

Lady in Red Salvia
September... and bird migrations are underway or just about to begin. We're in the middle of the hummingbird migration at this point. According to another blogger the adult ruby throated hummingbirds have left town and the "teenagers" are still hanging around.

One such teenager hangs around our place, taking sustenance from the masses of Lady in Red Salvia that spring up in our flower beds. I love these brilliant cousins to the garden sage. I received a packet of seeds from a friend several years ago, and since then I have not had to scatter any more seed. Lady in Red self sows prolifically and creates a spectacular late season show that inspires my heart and gives the hummingbirds food to fight over.

When we take our meals on the porch we frequently see the current hummer resident sitting atop a tomato cage a dozen or so feet from one cluster of Lady in Red. It occasionally swoops in to get a snack, then heads back to its perch to guard the flowers from any other "teens" that might want a sip. If another hummingbird dares to try to steal a sip we hear a mighty buzz (from the millions of wingbeats) and perhaps some chirps as the argument ensues.

Even in the rain the little bird sits on its perch or flies and hovers momentarily around the flowers in search of nectar. The particular tomato cage it sits on is empty. I could have taken it to winter storage with the other tomato cages, except for the hummingbird. I've pretty much given up on the tomatoes, except for the Sun Golds, a couple of paste tomatoes and one Henderson's Pink. And some of those
may come down in  a couple of weeks, long before frost threatens. It hasn't been a great year for tomatoes, although I do have a number of jars of roasted Black Plum tomatoes in the freezer, and three containers of dried paste tomatoes and two containers of dried Sun Golds in the pantry.

Aside from the weather slowing things down and aggravating the usual disease conditions, tomato hornworms ate up a lot of the foliage, leaving naked stems. The first hornworm I found got tossed into the woods, the next two I left in place because they looked like this....(look left)

Those little white things are cocoons (yes they do look like eggs, but they're not) of one species of braconid wasps that has an affinity for tomato and tobacco hornworms. These parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the internal organs of the caterpillar then emerge through the caterpillar's skin and spin their tiny cocoons. Four or so days later, they emerge as adult wasps. Not fun for the caterpillar. I left this guy in place because I knew it wouldn't eat much more before melting away. The tomato hornworm is the larval form of one type of hawk moth --or is it a sphinx moth while the tobacco hornworm turns into the hawk moth -- something like that.

Other species of braconid wasps parasitize various other garden pests -- one Web site mentioned squash bugs... oh if only they'd parasitize the squash bugs "visiting" my garden.

In spite of the squash bugs, however, I still have some relatively healthy summer squash plants producing in the garden. One is Lemon Squash, which produces fruit the shape, size and color of -- you guessed it -- lemons. A neighbor gave me the seed saying that it seems to stand up to the squash bugs well, and indeed it has. One of the other plants is a yellow crookneck squash, which I had noticed in a previous year did not keel over from squash bug attack as quickly as other summer squashes. I've been picking the crooknecks very young, fearful that the plant will die before the fruit gets much size. But so far, so good.

The third type is a green scallop squash, which I planted because I happened to have the seed. I think one reason these squashes have held up is that I water them quite regularly. At least every other day a couple of dishpans full of water get dumped on them, as they are in a convenient location. Next year I'll try that tactic again, adding row cover in the early stages to prevent squash vine borer, and delay the attack of cucumber beetles and squash bugs. This year's squash were planted in late June, past the time when vine borers lay their eggs. Maybe I'll get enough squash to put in the freezer next year. Maybe. Possibly. You never know. I try not to get too attached to my squashes.
Far left, Yellow Crookneck; middle, Lemon Squash; front, Green Scallop Squash. The green striped ones are immature Luffa Gourds, which are edible in this stage. If left to mature, they get tough and when you strip away the skin and seeds you are left with the luffa (aka louffa) "sponge" popular as natural exfoliating bath sponges.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Something New...

Flowers and leaves of Bitter Melon, Momordica charantia.
A few weeks ago someone asked me "What's new in the garden? I know you've always got something new going on."

I heard disappointment in her voice when I lamely responded, "Oh, it's all pretty much the same old thing. I'm planting cauliflower again."


So then a few days later, maybe even the next day while in the garden I looked around and thought, "Why yes, I do have new things in the garden."

She was right. I've always got something new going on... or almost always.

Bitter melon fruit.
The first thing that jumped out at me in the was something I didn't plant so much for its culinary aspects as its health benefits; bitter melon (Momordica charantia), also known as bitter gourd, balsam pear, balsam apple and probably many other names. It is native to Asia, southern China and eastern India, and is a key part of Asian and Indian cuisine.

Bitter melon is, well, bitter, very much so. But when small amounts are added to highly seasoned foods they add a nicely bitter touch. I've said before (and will probably say on many other occasions) that we Americans should learn to cultivate a taste for bitter foods. Bitter flavors improve our digestion and all of us "angry Americans" could certainly benefit from better digestion. Plus, bitter melon possesses the ability to assist in controlling blood sugar. It can be useful in diabetic or pre-diabetic conditions. Please consult a professional with herbal knowledge before using it for these conditions. However, adding some bitter melon to your meals can't hurt.

Bitter melon apparently loved the craziness of our hot and not-so-wet weather. Online sources claim it requires regular fertilizing and moderate watering, but this plant has received nothing but the initial application of manure, and rainwater. And it's doing just dandy. A member of the cucumber/squash/melon/gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) bitter melon supposedly succumbs to all the ailments of members of that family. However, it does not appear to be bothered at all by the critters and diseases taking aim at my other cucurbits. (RIP watermelons)

It's actually a very pretty vine and could quite easily grow on a trellis in the ornamental garden. The other evening I noticed that the flowers, and perhaps foliage, also had a pleasant fragrance. So definitely look at it as having potential ornamental value.

Mouse melon, about grape size.
I had not clue what to expect from bitter melon, but am pleased. We finely chop small amounts and saute them slightly before adding to dishes. It works particularly well with curries, both Indian and Asian. Or slice and roast the melons before adding. I found one Indian recipe that I found interesting, a fried bitter melon ("karela" in Hindi) and coconut dish that is used as a condiment. I love coconut, but don't really "fry" anything, especially not deep frying (that's another topic on healthful cooking), so I adapted the recipe, also eliminating the sugar. Somewhat disappointing. Maybe I'll try again now that I've acquired a taste for it.

The Mexican sour gherkin is next on the "what's new" list. The sour gherkin, or "cucuamelon," AKA "mouse melon" (Melothria scabra) also belongs to the family of cucurbits. Its delicate vines and leaves are quite charming climbing up the empty end of the bean trellis. The tiny (oh so tiny) fruits are adorable, but are taking quite a long time to achieve any size, even though their mature size is that of a large grape. They did originate in Mexico and Central America and can be eaten fresh, pickled or cooked. Versatile, cute, and possessing a cucumbery taste. Not sure I will harvest enough to be worth pickling.

This louffa gourd flower is much bigger than those of the bitter melon and
mouse melon. And the little bee visiting this flower will ensure that another 
grows on the vine. 
The other night I picked one small, immature louffa gourd (Luffa aegyptiaca), yet another cucurbit. I found the seed at a local seed fair this spring and thought, "Why not?" (I get into real trouble with those two words, horticulturally, that is.) It is doing much better than my ordinary cucurbits, loving the heat. I've learned that I probably planted the seeds far too late to get mature gourds from which I can make sturdy scrubbing sponges. That's just fine. It's a pretty enough vine and the immature gourds are edible -- sort of like summer squash. It's always nice to get some kind of veggie that's not a brassica (cabbage/mustard family) or solonaceae (tomatoes, peppers, etc.). The one little louffa fruit I picked, about 8 inches long, was tender and edible. (Sorry, no pictures. I ate it.)

Then there is the Lemon Squash. My neighbor gave me the seed of this summer squash, saying it holds up to squash bugs better than zucchini. So far it's still alive and has two lemon-colored fruits. I'll give them a couple more days to put on some size and pick them, adding them to the little crookneck I picked yesterday. Since these summer squashes, which I planted in late June, are close outside the back door, I've been dumping water on them regularly. At least every other day. That may be the key to keeping them going during squash bug attack. Maybe. We'll see.

I think I'll stop here now. I've got a couple of other sort of new things, but they aren't cucurbits and I don't want to spoil the theme.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Then This Happens...

The garden provides many forms of surprises, often not pleasant ones -- like this year's onslaught of cucumber beetles and squash bugs in my watermelons.

However, the pleasant ones do exist in multitudes. You just need to get past focusing on weeds and worms and whacky weather.
Demure Naked Lady buds readying to open into
their gloriously decadent blossoms.

Sometimes the surprises aren't really surprises, they are simply sudden pleasantness. Such as the above"Naked Ladies" making their stately entrance early this week. They aren't a surprise in the fact that I knew I'd planted them. However, like the spring blooming bulbs and many other perennial plants, I often forget exactly where and how many I've planted. Or perhaps I thought they died out and suddenly, there they are.

Always curious about plants, especially the common, ordinary ones, I decided to do a bit of research on the Naked Lady, so called because the flower stalks appear only after the foliage has withered and been forgotten. Most people will know them as "Surprise Lilies," which are part of a group of flowers containing several species. The fragrant pink ones we see around here are Lycoris squamigera, which might be a hybrid of two other species. I don't know. I don't care. They are lovely. And so are the other species, the red and yellow spider lilies, yellow surprise lily, long tube surprise lily, magic lily, peppermint lily, and tie dye lily (which looks much like these "common" ones, but with a rich blue at the petal tips. During my research I discovered a nursery that sells many species and cultivars of these beautiful surprises. Check out their photo gallery. I may have to start a little collection... hmmm?

Other surprises catch me off guard. This evening I went out after dinner to dump my wheelbarrow load of freshly pulled weeds and put away my tools. As I wheeled everything back to the house I caught sight of masses of bright white, magenta and yellow blooms glowing in the dusky light. The Four-O'clocks (Myrabilis) had blossomed. I knew these plants were there, but had not really seen them at dusk, or paid much attention at all. Standing about five feet from them I caught a whiff of perfume in the air. The four-o'clocks also scented the night. Incredible. No photos of this could do the sight (or smell) justice. So, no photos.

But I will leave you with another colorful photo. For weeks we've watched as the Stanley plums ripened on the tree, becoming a deeper and deeper purple. They are in plain view of our favorite dining spot, so we see them frequently. They are almost ripe. We'll split them open and dry them for sweet treats later on. Not a surprise, precisely, but welcomed. Life is good.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Pay Attention

For the past few weeks the brilliant flowers of Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) have captured my attention whenever I sit on our screened in porch -- which is for practically every meal.

We watched the flower clusters slowly open, first a few bright red blossoms, then a few more, then it seemed as if they all exploded at once. I call them my floral fireworks. The blossoms are now fewer than in this photo (yes, I am slow at posting here), but lovely and eye-catching still. What's more, local hummingbirds also are drawn to the red flowers.

When I am out on the porch, my gaze frequently falls upon the floral fireworks display. Sometimes I outright stare. This is a temporary state of things, so I fill my now with as much of it as possible.

And the dragonflies... on some evenings, when the sunlight softens, squadrons of dragonflies provide an aerial show for supper-time entertainment. They speed in a straight line and suddenly change direction at 90 degrees. Or they appear to almost stop before zooming off, all the while hunting mosquitoes and other tiny flying things.

When dusk has turned the shadows in the woods black, I step out the back door or gaze out the window, watching for fireflies blinking love notes to each other.

This is summer as much as the heat and humidity... this beauty, this don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it magic. I must remember to take a moment to pay attention, to pause, quit sweating and working and notice Life. I have tried to take a few moments each evening to watch the fireflies, to scan the skies for dragonflies, to notice the easy grace of the buzzards soaring on hot winds. If I don't Life passes me by.

When I woke up this morning I dreaded getting out of bed. This was the first day of the "Excessive Heat Warning" that will hang around through Saturday. I lay in bed contemplating my list of tasks and wondered how it would be possible. I altered the plan slightly.

Even though the relative cool of the morning will be short-lived I do not rush through breakfast. I know how to sweat, how to take care of myself in the heat. I worked outside until noon today and even though my clothes were soaked with sweat, I didn't find the heat all that bad. Many of the tasks on my list were completed or at least started, and I brought in baskets of elderberries, cucumbers, long beans, ground cherry and so on. Not bad for a morning's work.

I spent the afternoon indoors cooking -- after I had a little post-lunch rest. No need to rush through that, either. It is late evening and I must decide whether to work on the pile of basil and/or the basket of elderberries, or whether to put them away and save the jobs for tomorrow...

It seems that the fireflies and Full Moon are calling me...

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Last night I watched fireflies flashing in the velvet dusk against the deep shadows of the woods.
I stood outside my backdoor and watched the show for 10 minutes or more, drinking in the beauty and magic of those moments. The air was balmy, warm but not uncomfortably so; the perfect temperature according to my standards. Comfortable to be naked, but not uncomfortable with a few bits of clothing.

Perfect moments lit by fairy lights.

I recalled many summer nights running around the yard with my siblings, catching fireflies -- or lightning bugs, as we prefered to call them. We'd collect them in jars with holes punched in the lids. My goal was to capture enough of the flashing bugs to make a lantern bright enough to read by.
I never achieved that goal, but as I thought back on those nights decades ago I had an urge to grab a jar and start collecting lightning bugs.

But I'd already showered and dispensed with any chiggers and ticks I'd picked up during my day of pouring out sweat as I harvested and watered berries and vegetables. So I remained safely on the back porch, basking in the evening as it slid through dusk and into full nightfall.
At that moment it was difficult to believe that the temperature forecast for the next day (today) was 100 degrees.

These past two weeks have been unusually hot for June. We typically don't register 100 degrees until July. Not only has it been hot, but rainfall has been incredibly sparse, a situation that is difficult to take on the heels of a period of frequent and high rainfall.

So for the past two weeks I've focused on keeping the vegetable garden watered. This year I laid soaker hoses -- as many as I had -- on some of the beds, including the long bed of blueberries, and the strawberries. That made the task easier and less time-consuming. Yet I still have to move the hose from one soaker to another, and still have to fill buckets for some things.

The heat has felt like a burden. I wake in the morning wishing I could stay in bed and sleep. But when I'm outside in the heat, soaking my shirt and jeans with sweat, my head protected by a broad-brimmed hat, it doesn't feel so bad. I feel myself sweating, but do not feel oppressed by the heat.
Until the middle of the afternoon after I've been standing too long in the sun (especially if I forget the hat) and feel the thirst building. Then I feel the heat pounding. Barefoot gardening is abandoned, as even the chipped wood mulch gets too hot for bare skin.

Not today, though. Today I picked a few things and finished the watering by 11:30 a.m. I spent the afternoon putting away produce, cleaning up the kitchen, and I even took a nap. Tomorrow the heat will have diminished some (only 91) and they say we have fair chance of rain (40 percent) tomorrow night and a bit of a chance almost every day for the next seven days with the temperatures easing back into the 80s.

Ah, to feel the rain on my face again. As with all things, this heat will pass. I've just got to hang in there.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Lettuce Have Fun

The peas have set blooms. My mouth drools at the thought of tender, sweet snap peas ready to pick, and better yet crunching in my mouth.

Have you ever taken a close look at pea blossoms, delicate little fairy flowers? Pretty things, aren't they?

As I wait for the pea pods to appear, I'm picking lettuce. Tender lettuce to go into my salads, along with spinach (which is bolting and won't be around much longer), arugula and baby mustard greens. I pull crisp radishes to slice among the green things (they won't be around much longer, either) and wait for the carrots to get big enough to pull.In a few weeks I can shred a bit of cabbage into the salads, as well.

Even these pretty pea blossoms could go into the salad to add a hint of pea flavor. But nipping off the flowers means fewer pods, and we can't have that.

While all kinds of things in the garden can be part of a salad, I want to focus on lettuce here. Not many of you get excited about lettuce, I am certain. It's just a salad green. Not much flavor or anything, just bulk. Although not the powerhouse that kale, broccoli and some other green veggies are lettuce still contains nutritional value, offering up vitamin K, folates, and a few others. Forget the iceberg lettuce if you're looking for nutrients, other types possess much more.

Our cultivated lettuce is closely related to this wild prickly lettuce spreading
rampantly through my garden.
Humans have cultivated lettuce for a long, long time. The ancient Egyptians cultivated lettuce at least 6,000 years ago, according to paintings in ancient Egyptian ruins. They started cultivating a wild lettuce for its seed, from which they extracted oil -- probably for food use, medicine, and/or cosmetic purposes. The oil might also have been used in religious ceremonies, as it was sacred to Min, their god of reproduction. They thought lettuce enhanced male virility, symbolized by the plant's ability to suddenly bolt (produce flower/seed stalks) and due to its milky sap. It was a symbol of sexual prowess and a promoter of love and childbearing -- good for both male and female. So they ate tons of it, especially after developing lettuce with succulent leaves.

That leafy lettuce likely was the precursor to today's Romaine lettuce varieties. Lettuce traveled out from Egypt, landing on the plates of Persian kings, apparently, and infiltrating Greek gardens. Today a second common name for romaine lettuce is Cos, named after a Greek island. Incidentally, the Greeks thought lettuce made men impotent, opposite of the Egyptians' view. And Greeks served lettuce at funerals.

Lovely red-splashed Yugoslavian Lettuce.
From Greece lettuce traveled to the Roman empire (not a far piece) where it obtained the name "romaine" lettuce because is was grown in the papal gardens of Rome, and reclaimed its value as an herb that enhances sexual potency. Then it spread through Europe, where it alternated between a fertility enhancer and a fertility detracter. A 17th century aphrodisiac contained lettuce, purslane and mint steeped in vinegar, while in the 19th century, Britons thought it induced infertility and sterility.

Lettuce probably took a much more roundabout path than described above, because it apparently did not reach Greek cultivation for a few thousand years after the Egyptians started cultivating it, and hit Rome several hundred years later. But this is a simple look at its quite long history.

Lettuce still provides Egypt with the seed oil for which it was originally cultivated. I found a couple of Web sites touting its powers as a food oil, cosmetic and medicine. The milky sap of lettuce also possesses medicinal qualities, which likely are far more pronounced in the bitter wild lettuces that weep much greater quantities of the sap. Cultivated lettuce produces more sap once it bolts. The genus name of cultivated and wild lettuces, Lactuca, is Latin for "milk-forming," indicating the sap was its most prominent and/or useful characteristic. The main medicinal use for the sap, as well as the oil, is to promote sleep. That characteristic earned it the name "sleepwort."

I find it interesting that lettuce, which prefers growing in cooler conditions and requires a fair amount of water to stay sweet and tender, originated in a hot, dry region like Egypt. Of course, they most likely did not mind when heat made the lettuce bitter. Our aversion to bitter flavors is a truly recent development and more pronounced in the U.S. than elsewhere. However, bitter flavors improve our digestion, causing the liver to work more effectively. I don't mind when the lettuce gets a little bitter, as a bit of oil and vinegar subdues the bitterness, without reducing its digestive benefits.
Lettuce grows well in containers. All you need is something 6 to 8 inches deep.

Today you can find more than 1,000 named lettuce cultivars, which exhibit many leaf shapes and coloration. I love the red varieties most. The most common types available to the home garden are iceberg/crisphead, leaf/bunched, butterhead, romaine/cos, and Batavian/summer crisp/French crisp. I discovered the Batavian or summer crisp lettuce last year and fell in love with its beautiful, large heads. During recent reading I discovered that it tends to stand longer in summer heat without bolting, so it will be my main summer lettuce. The Batavian, romaine and butterhead lettuces are best set out as transplants (unless you like thinning out direct-sown seedlings) so that you can give them space, like about 12 inches between plants. This gives you beautiful large heads. A more unusual type is Celtuce, or asparagus lettuce, also called "woju" in Asia where it is a delicacy. This type is grown for its tasty stalks.

The varieties now in my garden are Red Salad Bowl and (green) Salad Bowl, which are leaf varieties; Buttercrunch and Yugoslavian (butterhead types, which produce loose heads); Jericho romaine (one of the heat-tolerant varieties); and Concept Batavian. In the past I've tried a crisphead variety, just for kicks, but it didn't want to grow for me at all. I'm not crying over it because I don't consider those varieties worth the trouble. Then, of course, wild prickly lettuce grows everywhere. While technically edible, I don't include it in my wild foods harvest.

Take a stroll through the seed catalog's lettuce selection. Perhaps you won't make lettuce a main part of your garden, but you'll certainly want to try all the different, beautiful varieties.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Try This Black Cap On

Above: These beautiful bronze irises were a gift from someone a number of years ago. They've survived my move nine years ago, but are now in danger of being swamped by a tall yellow iris and a mass of white prairie sage. I frequently forget that they are there and find myself a bit surprised when they bloom. The first blossoms always elicit an "Oh, yeah."

If I can manage to not get lost in all my other tasks, I hope to move some of these unique irises to a less populated spot (as well as dig out some of the prairie sage).

The old-fashioned purple iris also are in bloom and releasing the most heavenly scent. No other iris has such a delicious fragrance. I always look forward to their blooming, as inhaling their scent seems to me like breathing fresh air for the first time in a long time. Alas, their bloom season is short.

Below: And this is my black raspberry tangle.

You should see fence posts with wire strung between them and all of the second-year fruiting canes tied to the wire. Instead, you see a mad tangle, with the second-year canes flopping on the ground, many of them rooted at the end. So, good news, I'll have more black raspberry plants to put somewhere. Bad news, I can't just walk between the three rows. I should have put the fenceposts and wire in last spring, when I planted these monsters. But I didn't. Lots of excuses; but that doesn't change the scenes.

The more upright canes that you see are mostly this year's growth, which will give me berries next year. This tangle got planted in an area that we prepared for potential fruit trees and definitely some kind of berries. We layered wood chips and compost over the area at the edge of the woods. In some place the mulch/compost was at least three feet thick because of the slope toward the rock ledge where the hill drops off. Then we waited for three years as the mulch decomposed and developed a luscious fungal composition that is favored by woodland types.

Black raspberries, also known as "black caps," like well drained soil and full sun to part shade.One Web site noted that with "proper pruning black raspberries behave quite well in the small-scale, edible landscape." As you can see, without proper pruning and support they do not behave well at all, except for the fact that last year's growth now bears numerous blossoms that will turn into my most favorite berry. The little flowers are not as showy as those of blackberries, as their petals are quite small to almost non-existent. But the bees seem to love them, and I certainly love what follows the flowers.

Another Web site noted that black raspberries are not as hardy as red raspberries. Say what? I have found the opposite to be true. I must baby the reds along while the black raspberries go nuts. Black raspberries are hardy in zones 5-8 (I live in zone 6-ish), while the reds might be hardier to a cooler USDA zone, but dislike the heat of our summers. One species of black raspberry is native to Kansas -- and pretty much the entire U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains -- and grows wild in the woods around my home. Another species is native west of the Rockies. I have no idea which species is sold as cultivated varieties, perhaps both, perhaps a hybrid; another avenue for exploration.

The trouble with having wild black raspberries growing in my woods is that they can transmit various diseases to my cultivated ones, as can blackberries and red raspberries. The diseases don't do much to the blackberries and red raspberries, but will affect the black caps over time. So they must be separated -- by at least 100 feet according to one source, or by 300 feet according to another -- and preferably the black raspberries must be downwind from the others to prevent the wind from carrying insects and disease to them. So those wild canes I found growing nearby after planting all those black raspberries must be kept cut down.

In my last post I raved about strawberries, but if I must choose -- if I really must -- the black raspberry edges out the strawberry very slightly as my favorite berry of them all. And what a great berry to have as my favorite. Unless you read nothing about nutrition, you've all learned that blueberries and other berries are "super foods," possessing tons of antioxidants and other powerful nutrients. Black raspberries edge out all the other berries when it comes to antioxidants. The black caps have 10 percent more antioxidants than blueberries (everybody's darling) and 40 percent more than strawberries. This makes them excellent for prevention of cancer, heart disease and other issues.

The dark color of the berries (which aren't "true" berries, but that's another post) indicates the presence of lots of anthocyanins. Their anti-inflammatory action helps with the prevention of many ailments (such as cancer and heart disease). The berries also supposedly help improve vision, memory retention in the elderly, improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of high blood pressure, and so on. Other constituents boost all of those effects as well as reduce birth defect risk, improve liver issues and improve wound healing.

The roots and leaves also have been used medicinally. The roots provide a strong laxative effect and can be chewed to relieve coughs and toothaches, as well as treating diarrhea and dysentery. The leaves are highly astringent and can be made into a wash to clear up old and "foul" sores, ulcers and boils.

But I'd rather eat the berries as often as possible for their overall benefits. The berries are so perishable that you rarely find them for sale even in farmers markets. I have occasionally seen bags of frozen ones, and have seen a few items (such as ice cream) flavored with black raspberries. So if you want the wondrous flavor and health benefits of these berries, grow your own. It will be worth it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Fragrant Berry

The columbines are shedding their flowers, readying to form mature seeds and scatter them everywhere. And the poppies have begun blooming.

This morning their heads were bent from the weight of rain; but as soon as the rain stopped and a breeze sprang up, their petals became light and they lifted their heads.

I do love poppies and only wish they were suitable as cut flowers. However, they wilt as soon as you cut them, And their season of bloom does not last nearly long enough. This year my garden contains poppies from seed that dropped last summer (the ones now beginning their bloom), as well as much smaller poppy plants from seed I scattered in March. That should spread out the bloom time a bit... I hope.
It's also the season of strawberries. I do so love strawberries. And they are good for me, too. The strawberry is ranked among the top most nutritious and beneficial fruits, containing many vitamins and other nutrients, as are most deeply colored berries. The berries are full of antioxidants, anthocyanins, polyphenols, quercitin and other substances that serve as anti-inflammatory agents that help prevent heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Long considered an herb of the heart it symbolizes love, as in "I Love strawberries. And 9-year-olds across the country agree. Some study done somewhere concluded that more than 53 percent of 9-year-olds said the strawberry was their favorite fruit. Only 53 percent? Strawberry must have been second in line for the rest of them. The berry also benefits the physical heart, improving circulatory system function.

Although a sweet, sweet fruit, it can be used to control blood sugar. An acquaintance of mine once told me that she had done a test with several fruits, eating them, then testing her blood sugar. The strawberry was about the only one that did not cause a blood sugar spike. Use them with cinnamon for a double-whammy blood sugar control. They may be helpful in controlling allergies, but also are a common allergen, so beware.

Strawberries also assist with constipation and contain vasodilators that can reduce blood pressure -- the list goes on, especially when you add in the leaves. Strawberry leaf tea is astringent (useful in diarrhea), a diuretic (helps you eliminate excess water), and an infusion can be used as a gargle for sore throat and a wash for minor scrapes and burns. One source noted that the leaf can be used as a substitute for black tea.

The wild wood strawberry is the one most cited as medicinal, but all strawberry species and varieties possess similar properties, although the cultivated ones might not be as strong.

Various species of strawberries grow all over Europe, and are native to North and South America. Our cultivated variety is a hybrid between the common North American Fragaria virginiana and a species from Chile, Fragaria chiloensis. The species name for our cultivated strawberry, of which there are more than 600 varieties, is Fragaria x ananassa.
The strawberry is the subject of many bits of folklore and legend, including a Native American one that tells of a quarrel between a man and woman. The woman left and the man regretted his actions that caused her departure. So he appealed to a sky spirit who placed various wonderful berries in her path. She stopped only upon arriving at a field of strawberries. Eventually, she returned to the man.

If you don't have your own strawberry patch, buy organic strawberries whenever possible, as hundreds of chemicals -- from pesticides to fungicides are used on them. Changing cultivation practices, however, made it possible to grow commercial acreages of organic berries.

Pests and disease are a given in a strawberry patch, but I have never found them troublesome enough to warrant use of even organic-approved pesticides. The snails, slugs and strawberry seed bugs leave enough for me to feast on and store in the freezer. The June-bearing varieties do require "renovation" and feeding in late summer, once production has ceased (which I hope to cover at the appropriate season), but have otherwise been trouble-free for me -- after I put up barriers to keep deer and rabbits from eating the plants. Don't fertilize strawberries in the spring, as that can make the berries soft and spoil more quickly.

Strawberries come in June-bearing varieties (which produce here typically from mid or late May through June), and these come in early-, mid-, and late-season varieties. If you plant some of all three, you can extend your harvest beyond the usual three weeks. Ever-bearing and "day-neutral" varieties produce pretty much all summer, with a bit of a slow-down at some point. However, they do not produce as much overall as the June bearers. I grow an early variety, Early Glow, and one that produces a bit later, Sure Crop. Of the two, Early Glow is my favorite, as Sure Crop berries can be a little on the soft side.

What more can I say about these luscious fruits? Well they aren't "true" berries, but are "accessory fruits." The fleshy part does not form from the ovary walls (as in true fruits), but forms from a bit just behind the bloom. The little seeds, called achenes, that dot the surface of the fruit are the "true" fruits, little dry fruits that form from ovary walls. The seeds are so numerous because each flower contains many little pistils (female flower parts) in the center. The lowly, ground-hugging strawberry is a member of the Rose family, as is the tall and spreading apple, and many of the cane fruits (like raspberries and blackberries, which I hope to address and harvest soon).

Plant strawberries, for "God could have made a better berry, but he didn't." (An old saying.)

One more thing...
While researching strawberries, I came across a recipe for Strawberry Salad, which included strawberries (of course), cucumbers and black pepper. If I manage to have fresh strawberries and cucumbers at the same time, I may try it. Sounds interesting.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Growing Wild

On Saturday the morning sun glittered off the columbines beaded with rain. This morning, the sun, as it barely peeked over the trees, spotlighted the crowd of red and yellow, drooping flowers. A few weeks ago, when the first of these "wild" columbines bloomed, I felt my heart sing as I looked at it.

The flock of columbines fills the view from my front window these days, brightening what would otherwise be varied shades of green, until the yellow iris, and Asiatic lilies bloom.
It won't be long before I begin ruthlessly cutting down the pretty columbines. Yes, they are beautiful and give me great joy, but they spread their seed with abandon and I think we have enough of them growing in the flowers beds -- Don't you?

I will, however, collect seed again; to share or to scatter in places where I want their beauty to shine.They do seem to do well in places that other flowers will not grow.

These red and yellow flowers definitely earn their tag of "wild," springing up here and there, regardless of how carefully I try not to spread the seed. But they are such joyful flowers that I cannot begrudge them their place.

Columbine flowers even add a bit of color as garnishes on our meals. They are red, so we figure they must possess some of the antioxidants tied to red pigments in many foods. "Eat the rainbow" for better health, they say. So we're eating the rainbow.

We're also taking in other types of "wild" nutrition now sprouting all over the place.

Nettles are the premier "wild" food on our plates at this time. I enclose the word "wild" in quotes because I actually cultivate them. Rather, I don't cultivate so much as just let them grow. I did transplant them to the three different areas they now inhabit. Other than that, they simply spread and grow without care, while I try to keep them from growing in the paths and non-nettle areas.

Nettles possess a great deal of nutrition. And yes, I do mean "stinging" nettles. Once cooked or dried, the nettles lose their sting an only provide great nutrition to your body. They are rich in nourishment, such as bone-building minerals, and frequent are used to return vitality to an ailing body.
They have a really rich flavor, which I find a bit overpowering on its own. So I mix my nettles with other foods.

We pour a bit of broth in the bottom of the skillet and stew the nettles well. We then either mix them with whatever vegetable-dense meal we've prepared, or top them with an herb-infused vinegar and oil dressing (which also serves to help your body better absorb the nutrients). Ground flax or nutritional yeast round out the flavor quite well.

Recipes for nettle soup often have you first cooking the nettles in something such as bacon fat, then blending with cream. That is not so much to my taste.
Nettles also can be brewed (either fresh or dried) into a nutritious tea. Some like the flavor of straight nettle tea. I prefer blending mine with other strongly flavored herbs, such as mint. Now that the solar powered food dehydrator has been put back together and set in place, I plan to start drying nettles for tea, or adding to food during the large portion of the year I cannot harvest nettles. And time is running out. One must get your nettles before they begin to flower, when little kidney-irritating crystals form in them.

When eating fresh, cut just the top four or six inches of the growing tip off the nettles. The stems and leaves below that point are tough and fibrous, which I don't think is a problem when brewing tea, or crumbling dried leaves into foods. Nettles also can be added to a bone broth brew for extra nutrition.

Other wild foods now on the menu are lambs quarters and dandelion greens. Yes the dandelions are blooming, which makes their already bitter leaves more bitter. But we add them in small amounts to our other wild greens, giving our meals a hint of bitterness and some of dandelion's goodness. I plan to look into a few other weedy foods, some of which were introduced to this continent and have gone wild, others which are native.

Hey, is it nettle time yet?

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Green Flower Bud

Above was my world about a week ago. Today, the sun shone and all of the white stuff has been gone for days. I worked outdoors with just a light, long sleeved shirt and jeans.

My first order of business in the garden today was to open all of the low tunnels and see if anything had survived the bitter cold of the previous couple of weeks. Before the first weekend of single-digit temperatures, I had opened all of the low tunnels and tucked everything snugly beneath heavy blankets -- all that seemed like it might be worth saving.

I expected not to find much, especially since we experienced one morning at -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Brr. Not only had we experienced some real cold, but the plants had been hidden from sunlight for about two weeks.

What I found was some unhappy, but still living plants. The small cabbages were more damaged by humidity and a previous bout with aphids than the cold. One young radicchio had begun to rot, but all the rest looked like they would grow out of any damage. Some seemed unfazed. The small lettuces looked good enough, but I doubt they will go anywhere, so they won't be saved. Even the celery looked alive.

Pretty green flower buds.
And the broccoli was mostly still alive, the dozen or so plants I let stand after clearing things a few weeks ago. I pulled some of them that look too wilted and left the rest, even though the forecast calls for temps in the teens -- and more snow -- next week. We'll see whether they produce again. It's an experiment. The purple sprouting broccoli, a one plant test, was still alive, even though it did not have the benefit of the extra blanket. Minus 4 with just a thin plastic cover, brrr! It's larger leaves were burned, but the smaller ones seemed fresh enough. I let it stand. It's weathered some pretty deep chill, it deserves a chance.

Some other broccoli plants look a bit better. They are seedlings I started just a week ago, sitting under lights in my "sun room." Thirty-two 2-inch pots each boasting multiple seedlings. I never put just one seed per pot. At some point I will thin them down to one, perhaps two, seedlings per pot. I'm counting on at least 32 healthy broccoli seedlings to plant out in March. My second job today was to continue clearing the beds where the broccoli and cabbages will get planted in less than two months.

Thirty-two is 50 percent more broccoli plants than I put in last spring. I'm counting on lots of broccoli, because we're eating even more of it now. I've always liked broccoli, and it has always been a staple in my freezer. But it has now shoved kale and collards off our plates, becoming the main green vegetable we eat. Oh, don't worry, we're still eating kale, but broccoli is queen of green.

Broccoli contains tons of nutrition and supports all phases of the body's detoxification process. Kale, cabbage and all those other brassicas also are full of nutrition, as well as making for healthy hearts, offering us antioxidants and serving as anti-inflammatories, as well as supporting our body's detoxing. But only broccoli supports all phases of detoxification. That's why we are eating more of it. Our bodies are besieged every day by numerous toxic substances, some we take on purpose and are considered "beneficial" (like medicinal drugs). They do provide a benefit, but our body breaks them down into toxic substances, then breaks them down again to clear them out. The same thing occurs with things like hormones that our bodies produce.

While its health benefits are the reason we're eating more broccoli, we were eating it in the first place because it tastes so good. Steamed until just tender and dressed with oil or butter and some ground flax -- quite the treat, if you ask me. Please don't blaspheme this tasty treat with cheese sauce!

I protect my broccoli with row cover.
What we eat of the broccoli are large clusters of immature flower buds and the thick stems that support them. If you fail to cut your broccoli before it sends up stalks of yellow flowers, go ahead and eat the flowers. Toss them into the nearest salad.
When any of the brassica family sends up flower stalks, the small clusters of flower buds look much like tiny, loose broccoli heads and are edible, too.
Once the main "head" is cut, the broccoli plant starts producing smaller side shoots. Spring-planted broccoli will continue to produce side shoots well into the summer. However, the heads that form in warm weather are not nearly as tasty and sweet as those that form in much cooler weather. (It also opens yellow flowers more quickly when it's warm.) So I plant broccoli in fall, too, even though I don't get as much production.

So, broccoli, I love it. It grows fairly easily -- the seeds I started last week put up tiny leaves in three days. It does like fairly fertile soil and regular watering, as do all its relations. Many varieties of broccoli exist, most of them hybrids, although you can find a few open pollinated varieties, if that is important to you. I think that the two varieties I planted this spring are open pollinated -- Di Cicco (fer sure) and Nutribud (maybe). I planted those because I purchased large packets of them a while ago and I want to use up the seed. The seed is seven years old and still showed a high germination rate. If you're stocking seed for the zombie apocalypse, stock up on brassicas. Long live their seeds!

Broccoli and its siblings have two main pests, the imported cabbage white butterfly and the cabbage looper (a moth, I believe). Both fluttery winged things lay eggs that hatch into voracious green caterpillars that consume your broccoli plants. I protect mine with floating row cover. If you don't want to put the frothy white stuff in your garden, get some Bt (an organic, naturally occurring toxin that mainly affects moth and butterfly larvae) and spray the broccoli well once a week. For me, the row cover is easier.

Broccoli. Eat it. Grow it. Love it.
Give your love some for Valentine's Day. Rosebuds aren't nearly as nutritious.