Archive for May, 2011

A Morel to the Story

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

People go crazy over morel mushrooms.  They can sell for $40 a pound.  I found a few yesterday in the woods, but over the years I’ve never had a major haul.  I didn’t even realize they appeared on the property until about six years ago.  One year I found about 25, but I was a couple days late and they were well past their prime and inedible.

Judy sautéed up the four I found and we had them with dinner.  Morels have an interesting chewy texture, almost comparable to calamari.  While they are quite good, both Judy and I prefer the taste, texture, and ease of preparing the cultivated shiitake we have been growing for the past four years.

Yaupon Tea

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

This afternoon I made a cup of yaupon tea from the leaves of one of the shrubs that’s growing in my backyard.  As I write this I think that the caffeine buzz has begun to hit me.  Yaupon holly, a relative of Yerba Mate, is the only native North American plant that contains caffeine.

Yaupon has the unfortunate scientific name of Ilex vomitoria.  According to Charles Hudson, in his introduction to the book Black Drink: A Native American Tea, the scientific name derives from yaupon’s association with purification ceremonies that involved ritual vomiting.  But the tea of yaupon itself, at least when drunk in moderate amounts, does not cause vomiting.

Yaupon Shrub

The yaupon shrub. This is the "Pride of Houston" variety.

I first tried making yaupon tea last fall and while I made a tasty tea, I didn’t experience the caffeine high like I am right now.  I did three things differently this time.  First, I only cut new, lighter green growth, not mature growth.  Second, I mashed the leaves in a mortar and pestle prior to roasting.  And third, I roasted the leaves for 8 minutes at 300 F instead of 8 minutes at 400F.

Yaupon branch tips

I only cut the lighter green new growth.

After roasting the crushed leaves and allowing them to cool for a few minutes I crumbled enough of them to fill one TBS.  Then I steeped these leaves in one cup of boiling water for five minutes.  The resulting beverage had a light green color, much like green tea with a grassy aroma.  The infusion did not have as much body as a green tea but was not weak either.  I found it refreshing and without the bitterness of yerba mate.  It had just a hint of roasted flavor; not too much to overpower the other flavors.  About twenty minutes after drinking it, an almost euphoric caffeine effect began.

Crushed leaves

Crushing the leaves in a mortar and pestle.

Roasted Leaves.

Roasted Leaves.

Yaupon has the additional benefit of being a great landscape plant in Austin and much of the south and southeast.  I’m slowly growing a hedgerow along the back fence that will also provide me with an occasional alternative to coffee.

Yaupon Tea

The final beverage.

Important Note: Eric Toensmeier has some good advice in his book Perennial Vegetables about trying new foods:  “Some caution is in order when trying new food for the first time.  You can never be entirely certain how your body is going to react. … You can never know if you are going to be allergic to a new food.  Even such ordinary foods such as corn, soybeans, and peanuts can cause serious allergies in some people.  When trying a new food plant it is prudent to proceed slowly, particularly if you are prone to food allergies.”

Banking on Berries

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

The 200 plus strawberry plants in the foreground are in a very temporary home.  They are  banked, trenched, or heeled in; a process of laying plants in a trench and covering the roots with soil.  Here they can reside until they can be relocated.  A few of these transplants were retrieved from a four old bed that I dug out last week, but most were dug out from runners in the paths on either side of the center bed in the background.

100 of these plants have already been relocated into the bed on the right in the background.  My third bed, the weedy one on the left in the background, between the two white buckets, will also yield some more plants as I clean out the path up against the lawn.

Strawberries have been an exceptionally easy perennial for me to grow.   I do a three-year rotation, with three beds, moving the beds through the garden.  I’m always amazed at the resiliency and toughness of strawberries.  I uproot them when I’m weeding.  I transplant the same plant several times in the spring.  I neglect them and allow them to get overrun with weeds, but they hang in there and with just a little care they thrive and yield lots of excellent tasty fruit.

I previously talked more about my strawberry rotation and their proclivity to reproduce, here.

I have almost no insect damage, but birds can be a problem.  Birds go after the fully ripe berries so if I harvest when the berries are just over half red, they ripen just fine in the house.  Agricultural fabric works well as a bird deterrent, too, but that’s just another thing I have to mess with, so it doesn’t always get used.

The biggest issue I have with strawberries is the weeding involved.  I’ve tried mulching, but I’ve not been real happy with the results.  Chickweed, dandelion, quack grass, and creeping Charlie are the main weed intruders.  In the spring, or after a good soaking rain, I can dig the grass and dandelion out with a garden fork and a CobraHead weeder and the berries hardly seem to mind the disturbance.  The other weeds can be controlled with persistence.  Some years I persist and some I don’t.

Most of these extra berry plants will be given to an upcoming plant sale for our Cambridge Friends of The Library fundraiser coming up in a couple weeks.   Some of the plants are already blossoming and it will not be long before we are enjoying the fruit.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day May 2011

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Well it’s Bloom Day again, and I’m ashamed to admit that it’s been a rather long time since I last put up a Bloom Day post. Even longer still since I’ve posted about my own garden. It’s not that I have a shortage of flowers during the “warm” months (I put warm in quotes because it’s currently in the 50s and rainy here), I just usually tend to forget to take pictures of them.

But not today! For your viewing enjoyment I trekked through my garden (in the rain!) to snap a few pics of some of the lovely color I have right now.

My daffodils are pretty much all spent, but I still have quite a few tulips.


Around in the back of the house there’s a Bergenia (Pigsqueak).


A little further in the back are some cute primroses and a groundcover that I don’t know the name of.


And way back by the fence I found some grape hyacinths.


Moving on over to the front side of the house are the bleeding hearts.


Just a little beyond that are some Virginia bluebells.


Turn around, and (hooray!) my cherry tree is in bloom.


And over on the corner the pear tree is producing a few blossoms of its own.

So there you have it! Not bad for a cold and rainy day in May.

Asparagus Sauté

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Asparagus Slices

Asparagus, again?  We’re eating asparagus every day now.  I’ve been cutting asparagus tips since the end of April.  At first it was every other day, now it’s mandatory cutting every day.

For brunch last weekend we tried it roasted with baked eggs on top.  I’d never baked eggs sunny side up before –  pretty tasty.

Today, as a little side dish I chopped the asparagus spears into ¼” diagonal slices.  I used my western-style Santoku knife which made short work of it.  Noel bought this knife for me a couple of years ago and it has paid for itself many times over.

Santoku Knife

Anyway, back to the asparagus.  Heat a cast iron pan with a little olive oil, add the bite size pieces and sauté for 3-4 minutes on medium.  Season it with salt, pepper and lemon juice, or a splash of soy sauce & sesame oil or garlic or chives or …….  the list goes on.

It’s easy, quick and no worry about divvying up the spears for each person. 🙂

Another Battle in the Everlasting War on Weeds

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Four Year Old Strawberry Bed

My garden is an experiment to prove to myself that it’s possible to maintain a large organic vegetable growing area using all hand labor and with a minimum of outside inputs.  Weed control is the toughest part, and not having or taking enough time to do a good job of preventative weeding often leaves me with some labor intensive weeding chores.

This partly weeded bed was planted with strawberries in 2007.  I normally clean out the berry beds and move any young berry plants into a new bed after three years, but that didn’t happen.  As old strawberry beds are the hardest of all to weed, and get my least attention, this four year old bed was mainly a mix of dandelion, quack grass, creeping charlie, and chickweed.  I did unearth a few dozen young berry plants that were saved to be to be transplanted into a new bed.

To make weeding the bed as complete and as painless as possible, I first used the broadfork to break the soil.  It’s much faster and easier than trying to use a garden fork.  It penetrates deeper and moves a lot of soil with each bite.  After loosening the roots with the broadfork, it was down to my hands and knees to pull out the loosened weeds with my CobraHead Weeder.  I occasionally had to use the border fork to extract dandelion taproots that hadn’t been freed by the broadfork.

Ready for Planting

I used the kama to clean the grass edge border.  I re-shaped the flattened bed using a steel rake, my trusty old five-tined cultivating hoe, and a scoop shovel.  This ready to plant bed represents about six hours work and is definitely the physically hardest thing I will have to do in the garden, this year.

Planting Boards for Raised Beds

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I planted a bed of potatoes Sunday, using two new planting boards that I made from a 4′ x 4′ sheet of 1/2″ plywood.  I had been using some old scrap plywood for planting boards, but I decided I would be happier and more efficient with two boards exactly the size I wanted.

I cut a 12″ strip off the 4′ x 4′ sheet so I have a 3′ x 4′ board for using when I’m on top of a bed and I have a 1′ x 4′ sheet to use to kneel against when I’m working along side the beds. I don’t kneel directly on the boards, but I use the Garden Padd kneeler to protect my old knees.  It has become my favorite kneeler.

Using planting boards allows one to sit or kneel atop a raised bed for seeding.  The board spreads the weight out fairly evenly across the bed and keeps one from compacting the soil or gouging it up.  In many cases it’s easier to plant from above than to try to reach in from the sides.  When working from the sides,  the smaller planting board prevents one’s knees from depressing and wrecking the bed edges.

The potato planting worked out most perfectly.  My beds, across the top, are almost exactly 20 feet long and 3 feet wide, so I set up a block grid pattern of 60 – one foot squares, and centered one seed potato in each of the 60 holes that I made.

I used BioMarker plant markers as surveying stakes for laying out the planting pattern, using 21 markers one foot apart along one edge of the bed and four markers at the top end, again, one foot apart.  Then, using a couple yardsticks to add a little precision to the process, I eyeballed the imaginary center of the first three holes, and put a stake into the center to mark them.

I used my CobraHead Weeder and Cultivator to make the holes.  It was easy to dig a 7″ to 9″ hole, much easier than with a trowel or a shovel.  I dug a hole, placed a seed at the bottom and pushed the soil back over the hole.

I alternated rows of seeds cut from some very large russets and red potatoes, which I had bought as organic food potatoes at our food coop in Madison.  I’ve had very good luck for the last several years buying just organic food potatoes, not certified seed potatoes.  As I’m not re-selling these, I can take the chance I won’t have any virus or disease problems and save a lot of money.  Going on four years doing this, I have had no problems, so far.

The process required me to dig three holes, plant three seeds, get off the board and slide it back a foot, plant three more and repeat until I was down to the last two rows.  There, I worked in from the sides of the beds to plant the last six spuds.  The whole planting process took about 45 minutes.  The potatoes are centered perfectly and I plan to mound up the stems as they surface to get a little extra tuber production.  We’ll see how everything turns out, but as far as the planting boards go, I’m totally happy with them.