Thursday, June 30, 2011

Silent Spring

My online bookclub associate and I have begun reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson as our "classic" for June.  Many credit this book for kicking off the "enviromental movement."  My father, a biologist, read it back in 1962 when it came out and promptly began using it in his university classes and occasionally at our dinner table.

I'm still near the beginning of this book, but I'm astounded how "current" some of it remains.  I read recently that the purple boxes hanging from trees in Virginia are part of an effort to study the movement of emerald ash borers from North to South.  When I heard a couple years ago that my hometown of Bluffton, Ohio has lost most, if not all, of its mature ash trees, I thought, does this mean the ash trees on our farm will soon follow suit?

Here's what Rachel Carson wrote about elm trees.  I imagine we could insert "ash" each time "elm" appears and it would remain fairly accurate:

"The same thing happens in other situations.  A generation or more ago, the towns of large areas of the United States lined their streets with the noble elm tree.  Now the beauty they hopefully created is threatened with complete destruction as disease sweeps through the elms, carried by a beetle that would have only limited chance to build up large populations and to spread from tree to tree if the elms were only occasional trees in a richly diversified planting."

I remember thinking back when elm trees were being destroyed that it was such a shame, that nature would do this to a variety of tree.  I didn't know then it was our fault -- concentrated planting.  Or that the same sort of thing happens when farmers plant thousands of acres of one crop -- and we find ourselves "needing" pesticides to control insects that descend on huge fields.  And then, as Carson wrote so long ago, the insects develop super-species immune to those pesticides, while the pesticide residues remain in soils, streams, water supplies, and eventually, human cells, mother's milk and embryos.

50 years later, the processes described in Silent Spring continue.  Most of us are oblivious.  History remains a class we suffer through and forget.

"Shame on us," says Virginia.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Backyard Grocery

The rooster that simmered for several hours in our oven this afternoon offered very little meat to three young men, Karen and me, which is fine for me, perhaps disappointing for them.  A plateful of vegetables is enough to make me smile.

Soon it may be time to post the "Fresh Vegetables" sign on Elk Cliff Farm. 

"Save money on paint," says Virginia, "'Vegetables' will do the trick.  Of course they're fresh."

  • Some tomatoes have turned red.  
  • I always miss a few cucumbers when I look for "future pickles of America."  
  • The garlic is about ready to be pulled out, dried and braided.  
  • We should eat potatoes every day so they don't sprout in the basement this Fall.
  • It's about time to surrender beets to winemaking.
  • The next planting of green beans is blossoming, so maybe two will overlap and swamp us.
  • Twelve varieties of lettuce are bitter and bolting, save one and the summer crop that's growing under an ash tree.
  • We need to get more olive oil to make pesto from parsley, basil, oregano, garlic and home-made cheese.
  • The broccolis are forming little heads again, while the cabbages have become downright arrogant (big-headed).
  • The straw of winter wheat waits to be pulled and replaced with corn, beans and other things.
  • We might have enough carrots for wine.
  • It may be time to dig a root cellar for onions and others.
"You forgot something," says Virginia.

I covered everything from "a" to -- oh, zucchini, in a few days we'll have some.  I noticed two dark blackberries today, grapes getting fat, and tasty nasturtiums shriveling.

Gotta keep planting the grocery store.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

June's Sweet Pickles

What do you do when you have lots of cucumbers?  Make pickles, of course.

My favorite pickle recipe is for June's Sweet Pickles, which originated from my mother, and is named after her.  As the joke goes, most things these days were named after my mother, 89 as of last weekend.  No, seriously, they were named after her (Wanda June) and the month of June, although I'd be willing to bet she never made them in June.

"So, what's the recipe?" says Virginia.

Slightly altered by me, here it is.

1. Gather 3 quarts of cukes, the smaller the better.  Wash them.
2.  Make a brine of 2 quarts water and a cup of pickling salt, and drop in the cukes. Let them soak overnight.
3.  On the next day, mix 4 cups of sugar, 4 cups of vinegar, 1 cup of water, 2 tablespoons of whole allspice (or pickling spices), 2 tablespoons salt, and 1 tablespoon of celery seed.  Stir these ingredients well in a kettle on the stove.  Add the cucumbers (not the brine) and bring to a rolling boil (one that can't be stirred down).
4.  The original recipe says "not long."  I'd say boil for 3-4 minutes.  Put the pickles in canning jars and add the hot sugar/vinegar solution so as to leave up to 1/2 inch of headroom.  Screw the lids on tight.  A 10-minute stay in a hot water bath canner is recommended to be sure they seal properly, but probably isn't necessary.

Friday, June 24, 2011


The bank reform bill that's received a lot of press the past year -- the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act -- is approaching its one year anniversary, July 21.  On that date, several provisions take effect, including Section 627, which allows banks to pay interest on business checking accounts.

"Sounds like a winner," says Virginia.  "It seems as though banks would be delighted.  A little deregulation for a change."

Uh-hum.  So why did the Independent Community Bankers of America (trade association for smaller, local banks) send a letter to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Bernanke urging the Fed not to implement the deregulation? Because it fears the big banks will get all the business and the little banks won't be able to compete on price (interest rate).  It fears the change will result in "bidding wars for business deposits among banks" and "expose banks to potential liquidity problems." It says money may move from money market funds, which already pay interest, to the megabanks, further increase the concentration of bank assets, and exacerbate the too-big-to-fail problem.  Welcome to a reprise of "Wall Street" meets "Main Street."

"Let me get this straight," says Virginia. "So the little banks are upset because the big banks may get the free cookie?"

Well, there ain't no such thing as a free cookie.  Someone has to pay.  There are two sides to this cookie -- the interest on deposit side, and the interest on loan side.  As the trade association argues, banks will have to pay more for their funds and businesses (as well as consumers) will have to pay more to borrow those funds.

"So is it right?" says Virginia.

Is it right?  That's a good question.  Is what right?  Is it right for retailers who have cash on hand not to earn interest on their deposits?  Is it right for Wal-Mart-sized banks to predatorily price little banks out of business?  And is it right for people pushing for deregulation to change direction depending on the issue?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Fruitful Day

According to local lore, in the very early 1900s a large package of what looked like raspberry canes arrived at the post office.  No one claimed it and rather than letting it go to waste, the postmaster hiked around the county, planting canes hither, thither and yon.  Now, as July 4th approaches, wineberries ripen.  After the first husks pop open, we have a 2- or 3-week window to harvest them.  The wineberry is a non-native invasive, one person's flower and another's weed.  I claim it as a flower.

Today I awoke with a plan.  After rounding my garden to gather cucumbers and green beans, and after milking, I would hike up "our" mountain to see if "my" wineberry patches were close to ready.  Probably too early, I thought, but maybe I could guess how much longer, and besides, I didn't want to miss out.
Aha!  I lucked into the first picking of the season.  Any earlier would have been too early.
With more than a gallon in my backpack (in plastic containers), I headed straight to our basement kitchen, where we "put food by."  I heated 16 cups of berries, put them in a jelly bag, and hung the bag over a pot.  While the juice dripped, I stir-fried green beans and broccoli in olive oil and bagged them up for the freezer.
"May I taste the berry juice?" says Virginia.

Go ahead.
First, I made jelly strictly according to the recipe in a box of Sure-Jell, using 4 1/2 cups of juice.  Mix the pectin (Sure-Jell) with a quarter cup of the 3 cups of sugar and add it to the juice, then bring the juice to a rolling boil (the kind that can't be stirred down).  Add the rest of the sugar and bring to a rolling boil again.  Boil for 1 minute.  Pour into jars.

Then I had 7 3/4 cups left, too much for 1 batch, too little for 2.  Time to do what I usually do -- wing it, without store-bought pectin. 

Here's my standard recipe:  Measure juice into the pot (in this case 7 3/4 C.).  Bring to a rolling boil.  Add the same amount of sugar.  Bring to another rolling boil, then stick a thermometer in the juice and take it on up to 220 degrees F. (8 degrees F. above boiling).  When it hits 220, keep it there for 9 minutes.  Pour into jars and seal.

That's what I did, except for one thing.  Remembering the Sure-Jell instructions -- measure and follow these directions exactly -- I had a thought.  Another old package of the stuff waited in our cabinet.  Might as well experiment.  I tossed it into the juice, before the first boil.  I had picked a combination of very ripe red berries and some not so ripe, because, from what I've read, the not-so-ripe fellows have more natural pectin in them.  So I figured I didn't need to add any pectin.  But since I had some, I dropped in a little box, enough for less than half the recipe I was making.  Otherwise, I followed my standard recipe.

I figured if it failed, we'd at least have runny raspberry syrup, which tastes mighty fine on pancakes and waffles.  It turned out great, maybe not quite as stiff as the Sure-Jell batch, but that's okay, I prefer jelly that gives.
 First Boil
Second Boil
In the Can

See the white 1/2 cup measure?  It holds the froth I skimmed off before pouring the jelly into the jars, a special treat.  The white cup and the jar without a lid hold the extra jelly from each batch.  I can compare them for thickness and taste. 

"And where was your wife during this exercise?" says Macho Man.

"She was hunting around town for a new faucet to replace the one in our canning kitchen, which has a couple holes that spray its user and several leaky connections.  If she hadn't had to order one -- sometimes it's hard to find appropriate fixtures for a mid-18th century house -- she probably would have installed it while I 'put food by.'  Thank you, sir!"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer Soiree

Happy Summer!

Johnny Mac, former big band leader who played with Herbie Hancock, welcomed summer to Lynchburg (make that Madison Heights), Virginia, at a "Summer Soiree" held at Winridge Manor (  I went along for the munchies.
"Pretty hot, huh?" says Virginia.

Yes, even after a giant gray cloud descended and we moved under cover.  We alternated short classical numbers with jazz standards.

Would you believe this fellow crashed the party?
"What brand is he smoking?" asks Virginia, as if she cares.  Click on the photo to enlarge it and, if your eyes are better than mine, you might know the answer.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Flower Power

This year's gardenscape includes a variety of flowers.  Here's an edible one that often appeared on dishes at The Blue Heron, our local favorite vegetarian restaurant, now defunct.

Here's another edible flower, known for its seeds.
Sunflowers (edible) and Larkspur (toxic)

Take a look at this week's version of next week's sunflower.
Of course, veggies have flowers, too.  I couldn't bring myself to eat the artichoke, so here's what happened.
And here's a bloomin' onion.
Carrots anyone?  Actually, at this stage, the root's nasty woody.
If we're lucky, the cilantro will re-seed itself and we'll be able to toss it in our August salads.
This acorn squash has grown like crazy in the past 10 days.
"How's the bread doing?" says Virginia.

Sometimes it's hard to keep her on topic.  No flowers, but the wheat is almost ready to harvest.  Our 2-month old chicks discovered this garden bed today, so we're going to have to get busy soon.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tired by Bedtime

A friend said she'd tell us when someone she knows hosts her next walk on hot coals.  I thought I wasn't interested until I found myself, for the second time in a week, splitting wood on a 90-plus degree day.  What were we thinking on New Year's Day when we decided it was too cold to kayak down Elk Creek to the James River?  After all, less than a month before that I started running up a mountain at midnight on a trail of snow.

"Gripe about heat, get hotter?" says Virginia.  "Gripe about cold, get colder?  Certainly you weren't fueling the woodstove?"

Right, walking on hot coals could be a good thing. Twice this week we stoked the Pompeii brick oven to make wood-fired pizza.  I had to split beautiful purplish walnut because our woodshed isn't ready for winter.  In five minutes I was ready to enter a wet tee shirt contest, maybe the womanless beauty pageant held this weekend at the Glasgow Riverfest.  For the third time today -- number 1, my morning run; number 2, picking the last peas and pulling out the plants

Time for a shower.  Cold or hot?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sweet Potato Dreaming

Thunder seems to be passing us by, again.  Daily rains stopped a couple weeks ago and switched to not even weekly rains.  Most gardeners want at least an inch a week.  After pulling out the sugar snap pea plants, I did something I rarely do any more -- spaded the bed.  I'm generally a "no till" gardener, keeping the garden well mulched so whenever you plant you push aside the mulch, pull a hoe through, and plant the seeds.  Inexperienced with sweet potatoes since I've only planted them once several years ago, I decided to follow the advice of the experienced, including putting them in a soft bed.  It was probably a good idea, as that bed was pretty hard.  Still, a few inches under, it remained nicely moist, which explains why my other plants aren't complaining yet about low rainfall.

So yes, on June 7 sweet potatoes joined the Elk Cliff clan, imported from Elyria, Ohio, from a retailer who sells on EBay.  I didn't have much luck finding them around here.  Several years ago, a fellow who grew up here looked down his nose at me and said, "We don't plant sweet potatoes."  I may find out why.  The farmers' co-op had a flat of six earlier when I wasn't ready.  I figure buying them once should be enough.  If they grow well, I'll use a couple of them to grow my own slips next spring.  I'd ordered two batches of 18.  The retailer, who promised to send a few extra, lived up to his or her word.  I planted 48.

Now I need to water them every day for the first week, every other day for another week or two, then at least weekly -- unless we get nice doses of rain.  Sweet potatoes, being tropical plants, should enjoy the hot weather we've been having -- 96 degrees yesterday, 90 today.  Today, I carried some ice outdoors and it steamed or whatever you call what ice does in the heat, sort of like dry ice.

"I guess the peas are over?" says Virginia.

Not quite.  We still have another picking, small I think, of Wandos (shelling peas).  But in a few days, after I finish the book update I've been postponing in favor of preparing for a couple music gigs, including a wedding Saturday, the peas will come out and in will go sweet corn and maybe some beans.  I'll probably try the "3 sister" thing native Americans are known for -- corn, squash and green beans planted together.  The squash spread around to form a mulch-like cover and the green beans help fix nitrogen for the corn, a "heavy feeder."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Salatin at Pharsalia

Joel Salatin held court at Pharsalia this evening, a 150-year old estate over the mountains northeast of here.  Salatin, the "beyond organic" Polyface farmer, author of many books on farming, including "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal:  War Stories from the Local Food Front," mainly discussed three principles the original owner of Pharsalia followed that still rule industrial farming: (1) focus on importing (guano then, fertilizer now) and exporting (hams and wheat then, more stuff now), rather than local community production; (2) use of labor from outside the community (slaves then, immigrants now); and (3) now what was the third, a senior moment hits (who was there, Liz?, finish this, please)?

Questions led to comments about the US-Duh (USDA) and regulatory restrictions on food as a means of promoting agri-business interests.  He mentioned how the government regulates both sides of drugs -- both the seller (distribution and selling are crimes) and the buyer (possession is a crime) -- while it only regulates the sellers of food (selling without complying with restrictions is a crime, but you can give it away and possession is not a crime).  Not that he thinks possession should be a crime, but the laws suggest it's the selling, not the product, that is the problem being addressed (in other words, little guys competing with the big boys).

He didn't address this, as I recall, but it's curious that agribusinesses push food safety as a reason for regulation, yet the problems with food safety we've been hearing about involve agribusinesses, not the little guys. This is no different from other areas.  Some lawyers don't want nonlawyers handling real estate closings, even though west of the Mississippi most closings are handled by nonlawyers, and the reason given against nonlawyers doing the work is consumer protection.  Same thing with banks in the ongoing debate about debit card interchange fees -- the consumer will end up paying, they say.  When the regulated uses consumer protection as its argument for or against something, a little skepticism is appropriate.

"It's getting late," says Virginia.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fava Me, Will Ya?

For some reason, I think we may be having cabbage and fava beans for dinner.

Here's Karen, the decapitator, and...
the anatomy of the interior, a/k/a the cabbage tree of life.
Here's the decorative supplement...
shelled, but still in its "pajamas."
"Aren't you going to provide a recipe?" says Virginia.

Maybe some other day.  To be honest, we're virgins so far as fava beans go.

Of course our garden doesn't make promises, but it looks promising.

The chickens think the wheat is ready to harvest.  See the brown chick on the left?  He's hard to see even if you click on the photo.
These are Cylindra beets -- long and cylindrical.
I think I'll pick this guy tomorrow.
As you can tell, I took one of these off the shelf.
"Tell me another one," says Virginia.

Okay, okay.  I ate the other two, too.

I hope the squirrels don't get this acorn squash before it's ready this fall.
 Any time we want, we have potatoes, onions...
and fried green tomatoes.
I'm about ready to pull these blooming peas out and replace them with corn and sweet potatoes.
Actually it's a purple larkspur among Wando peas. Now I've got to figure out how to pull up the peas and leave the larkspurs.

Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Freeze Green Beans and Sugar Snap Peas

Are you tired of knocking chunks of frost or ice off frozen green beans or peas?  For this reason, Karen and I used to turn down our noses on frozen green beans.  No more.

Instead of blanching green beans in boiling water, we stir fry them in olive oil.  We do this for 4 or 5 minutes until the beans turn a uniform bright green.  Sometimes we grill some garlic before adding the green beans.  We don't ice them afterwards.  We keep them away from water.  Otherwise, we'll end up with the same problem we're trying to avoid.  We let them cool a few minutes, stick them in bags and pop them in the freezer.  You can even put the beans in gallon bags; they won't stick to each other, at least not much.  When you want to use them, take out what you need, put the bag back in the freezer, quickly stir fry again and enjoy.  They taste almost like fresh vegetables.

Today I extended this treatment to sugar snap peas.
"That's cool," says Virginia. "Show us something else, please."

I thought she'd never ask.  Here's a view of the parsnips I'm letting flower so we'll have seeds to plant this fall.
Don't try this unless you have tomato plants to waste.  I've been depositing fresh goat manure along our fence line.  I planted a bunch of tomato seedlings right into that hot manure.  Will they grow?
Check out these beets, ready to roast...
 our first cucumber of 2011...
and nice stands of peas, carrots and potatoes.
Finally, the big question:  Will this tiny guy develop into a 35-pound Georgia Candy Roaster?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Colorado Potato Beetles

Over a month ago I began my quest for these:

My goal?  To find only a few and eliminate them before they lay eggs.  My first objective?  To keep an eye on my potato patch so I don't find any for a while, then spot the first arrivals.  These guys overwinter in the soil, then crawl out when the potato plants are pretty far along.  I planted the potatoes March 19 and didn't see any of these guys until about 3 weeks ago.  Next year, I'll keep a closer eye open for eggs.  I still haven't spotted any, but wait -- maybe I have.  Look at this picture, very bottom, 1/3 over from the right (click on the photo to enlarge it).  Those yellow-brown sacs look like eggs.  Shoot, think I'll find them tomorrow?
Of course, the eggs have got to be there because I've found plenty of these.
"Why are your fingers orange?" says Virginia.

Sorry folks, but that's the best way to get rid of these pests.  Squish them.  Queasy gardeners might carry a cup of soapy water to drop them in, but that's sort of like going to a gym to exercise when you can step outside for a run.  When you see 'em, you squish 'em.

By the way, these larvae come in all sizes -- from pinpoint to 1/2 inch, growing to full size in an average of 5.8 days.  I overheard these two talking, "Hey, if we double-team it, we can finish off this leaf in no time, but watch out for....pfffft."

Every morning when I tour the garden to see what's happened since yesterday, I devote 15-30 minutes walking along each row of potatoes.  I can't do 2 rows at once; I'll miss too many.  Funny thing, sometimes I knock a fellow onto the ground and can't find it.  I used to think maybe that would kill it because it might not have the energy to find another leaf.  Now I've discovered that if it's old enough, it might just burrow into the earth because that's where it goes anyway to develop wings and a harder shell.

Now that I have the potato beetles under control (fingers crossed), I mosey over to the green beans and guess what?
OH NO!  It's not a ladybug.  It's that darn Mexican bean beetle.  Another squishing campaign begins.