5 Things I Learned at the OGS

After a February tease of spring, the first few days of March have been a soggy, chilly flashback: crummy conditions for tromping around the quad of UNC-Asheville for the Organic Growers School, as we did last weekend.  Fortunately, most of our classes and workshops were indoors, though there was a point where I found myself barefoot in a parking lot, in the snow, stomping in a frigid pool of mud (for a build-your-own wood-fired oven class).  It took all day for my toesies to thaw out, and they are still a little Oompa Loompa-looking – stained orange by the Appalachian clay.

This was the 18th year of the spring conference, which tells you something about the priorities of this region.  I know I’m a nerd, but I absolutely love being on a college campus.  I love the sense of possibility and opportunity.  I love being surrounded by people who love to learn, who practically worship learning, and accumulate ridiculous resources to do so.  Libraries, computers, labs.  I also love sitting in a lecture hall, listening to someone talk about the minutia of an obscure topic within a sub-sub-specialty that is his/her life’s work.  Wacky experts are so cool. And they abounded at the OGS – mushroom experts, bee experts, flower experts, manure experts, chicken experts, blueberry experts.  In other words, the OGS was right up my alley.

T had a slightly different experience – he’s not really a by-lecture learner; hands on is more his gig.  (The OGS did offer a few hands-on (and feet-on) workshops – T did the one on artisan bread baking, and actually got to use a clay oven like the one I helped build.)  I think you also have to be careful what classes you choose.  My impression is that the courses at OGS are designed for the lowest common denominator.  If you’ve already spent a lot of time on the internet or reading books about a topic like, say, gardening in a low water environment, the OGS class on the topic will probably just be a review. T is always on web looking up his interests, not to mention doing a number of farmy internships, so some of his classes were a disappointment.  That being said, he did get to rub elbows with some big names in permaculture, got some inspiration, and brought home a tasty wood-fired baguette.

Fortunately, I don’t know much about much when it comes to organic gardening, so everything was new and delightful.  I started with a class on growing small fruits, and did three classes on insects: attracting beneficials, native pollinator habitats, and beginning chemical-free honeybee keeping.  My wildcard class was mycoforestry – mushroom growing – which was the geekiest of all, and WAY over my head with details.  I walked out thinking, “I’m not sure mushrooms are going to be my thing.”  But, I have to admit, it is the class I’ve been thinking and talking about the most since. And then there were the other-worldly infrared time-lapse videos of fungus growing in a Petri dish – eye candy for a science geek like me. Here and here are something similar.

Anyway, I thought the best way to go about sharing what I learned is to just focus on the big take-home messages, which might seem like no-brainers, but are not often put into practice, even by serious organic farmers.  Sorry I don’t have any photos.  I may get a few from another participant, and will update this post with them if I can.  Here goes:

1. Don’t poo-poo the ornamentals – With the rising popularity of “edible landscaping”, it is easy to think that the traditional flowerbed lining your driveway just isn’t cool anymore.  Case in point, the small fruits instructor actually issued the decree, in an exasperated tone, “Don’t plant something that flowers but doesn’t bear fruit!”  To be fair, I think he has a particular beef with the ubiquitous Bradford pear – which isn’t one of my favorites either (is it just me, or do those trees STINK?).  But, (forgive me small fruits expert –for your class was very interesting and informative), I think this attitude risks seeming snobbish, and is one reason some people are turned off by organic advocates.  We have to incorporate things we love into our gardens, or we won’t want to be out there at all. More importantly, a diverse selection of beautiful, non-edible plants brings all kinds of benefits to your (or your neighbor’s) food garden: including pollinators, fungi, birds and predator insects.  I remember H & M had a wonderful variety of flowers in their vegetable garden that made weeding around the bean poles so much more pleasant.

2. Wait and watch – This applies to almost everything: planting, building, spraying, medicating. We just react too fast, and I’m no exception.  I’m incredibly impatient and just want my gratification now, thank you very much.  But the message this weekend was ‘slow down.’   Have some faith that Mother Nature can take care of a few things, given some time.  In a healthy, balanced garden with a diversity of plant life, beneficial insects may be able to take care of whatever is eating your broccoli.  Don’t bring out the ‘big guns’ until you are really sure you’ll need them… Don’t build your wood fired oven or bee hive till you know which way the wind blows on your property…  A strong beehive will often be able to purge itself of mites without chemicals… Watch how the water drains on your property and plan your veggie beds to make the most use of this.

3. Even bad bugs can be good bugs, except when they are very, very bad – That infestation on your collard greens might just be a smorgasbord with a big neon sign for predator insects.  If you kill off the baddies (even with organic sprays), at the very least you’ve destroyed the buffet that will attract the good guys, and you might have even killed the beneficials with friendly fire.  Give it a few days, and if the predator bugs don’t take care of the problem, then spray.  But – be sure you are spraying the right part of the plant at the right time – you might not need as much as you think. This all applies until you are dealing with the invasive, foreign bugs – stuff like Japanese beetles – in which case the native environment is not adapted to deal with that threat, and you might need to intervene.

4. Fungi are a farmer’s friends – I associate mushrooms with dead and smelly stuff, like rotten logs and cow poop.  But of course, the role of fungi in breaking down the detritus of the forest is very important in the ecological scheme of things.  And it turns out that fungi not only eat dead things, but also live in symbiotic relationship with other plants.  Apparently, in healthy forests, there are huge underground networks of mycelium, the root-ish part of mushrooms, which bring water, nutrients, and even medicines to trees.  Speaking of medicines, mushrooms are being investigated for their virus, bacteria and cancer fighting properties in humans.  They can also be used to remediate polluted ecosystems, to make dyes for fabric and paper, and a host of other practical applications.  Of course, as our forests are being destroyed for large-scale agribusiness and housing development, the mushrooms are disappearing too.  The mushroom guru who taught the class has taken a guerrilla approach to this problem: he mixes mushroom spores in with his bird seed so that they are spread all over the place.  He also puts it in the oil he uses on his chainsaw, so that every time he has to cut down a tree, the stump is inoculated with fungus.  As to being the farmer’s friend, mushrooms can be incorporated into wood chip mulch, logs that line garden beds, chicken coop bedding, and even straw bales.  The fungus can protect plants and animals from disease, and makes more nutrients and water available to plants.  Fascinating stuff.  This is all not to mention the big bucks one can make selling edible mushrooms to restaurants.  Mushroom-man told us he can sell some varieties for $20 a pound!

5. Incorporate natives – Go for diversity, but when you can, go for native diversity. Varieties that evolved in your region are more adapted to your climate, the insect ecology in your area, the companion plants and fungi, the hours of daylight you get, the water table, the soil content, and so on.  When possible, go really local, as in what grows well in your specific holler or neighborhood.  But even just regional plants, or North American plants, are a better bet than imports. I was excited to learn how many native  Appalachian small fruits exist – and discovered something called paw-paw, which is apparently god’s perfect fruit (calorie dense, with a perfect fatty-acid, carb, protein and vitamin/mineral combination).  The local idea can apply to animals and honeybees as well.  Local breeders have often created a hybrid chicken that is well adapted to the region’s climate; and bees split from a hive that has done especially well in a region may do better than mail-order bees.  Chickens and bees aren’t native to North America, but have been here long enough that there are adapted strains.

That’s my review of the OGS in a nutshell, for the stout-hearted reader that has made it this far.  I hope these ideas are useful and inspiring for you!  What gardening classes have you taken that changed the way you did things?  Are there any new methods you are trying this year?

Posted in Animals, Ethos, Garden, Nature and Outdoors, Permaculture | 2 Comments



Carrot cupcakes with citrus cream cheese frosting.

March is my favorite month, my power month, because it brings with it the official start of spring, and my birthday – which I milk for all its worth, pretty much all month long. The month is made even more joyous because I also get to celebrate T’s birthday.  This we did last week, with a bunch of carrot cupcakes (recipe below), dinner out, and a movie (Rango – laugh out loud funny for adults and kids).  Our punk rock farmer neighbors (we’ll call them Sid and Sarah here) joined us for the cupcakes in the afternoon, and brought T some sprigs of forsythia and a jar of homemade chow-chow from last year’s harvest (apparently a Southern delicacy – a type of relish – though I had never heard of it).

We finished our mini celebration, and Sid returned to work outside while Sarah lingered with me on the back porch as I asked for advice about our chickens.  Suddenly, we heard Sid shouting for Sarah. Sarah hollered back “Just a minute!”, and continued to talk about the chickens, but Sid kept yelling, with some obvious urgency and alarm.  As this registered, we both froze for an instant and Sarah’s face turned white. Sarah leapt off the porch yelling “I’m coming”, and I followed quickly after her, thinking Sid must be hurt.  T bounded out of the front of the house as we rounded the corner.

Sarah reached the front yard facing her pasture, and suddenly reared back as she took in the scene. The energy in the air dramatically changed again as she exclaimed “Oh!  Its a lamb!”  I squealed and started to jump up and down while Sarah sushed me and said, smiling, “Let’s try to be calm.”  She slowed her pace and breathed deeply as she approached her pasture, but then she nearly swooned and said in a loud whisper “Oh my god! It’s TWO lambs!” In the 45 minutes that we were stuffing our faces with cupcakes, one of their ewes had delivered twins!

A little boy and a little girl, less than an hour old.

S & S mated their ewes with a “rent-a-ram” in the late fall, and 3 or 4 are pregnant.  Though they knew that the ewes might deliver any time in the next several weeks, Sarah had just told me earlier in the morning that they almost always birth in the middle of the night, often during a storm.  The theory is that they instinctively know that predators are less likely to be around if it is raining or snowing.  Sarah was already planning to set her alarm for the wee hours of the morning to go out to the pasture to check on the ewe’s every night this week.  Last year they lost a lamb (also a twin), who may have been stillborn, but also may have been neglected by the ewe, who may not have realized that she had two.  So Sarah wants to be present this year, if possible, for each “lambing”,  so that she can encourage nursing or bottle feed any babies that are struggling.

Though it was a little bit of a surprise to be greeted by the lambs in the middle of the day, Sarah did tell me that she had recently felt the lambs kicking while they were sheering.  Apparently they shave the belly and nether-regions to make the birth cleaner and help the lambs find the udder more easily.  The kicking was a surprise, and made S & S realize that at least one of the ewes was further along than they expected.  Just that morning they had moved the lambs from an outer pasture to one nearer the barn for the lambing period.  It may have been the move that stimulated her labor – or perhaps she delivered earlier than the other ewes because she was carrying two.

Little sister

We looked on as the little pair stood and stumbled about on tiny, shaking legs, and I marveled that they can stand and walk within minutes of birth – how must their brains be wired differently from human babies, who take months and months of growing and kicking and feeling around before their brains can make sense of how to use their legs?

Sister cautiously tries her legs

S & S investigate to be sure both lambs are nursing.

The delivery was so recent that the ewe was still passing afterbirth, and thin brownish umbilical cords still hung from the bellies of the babies.  Yet mama was already chowing down on grass, clearly trying to refuel, taking small breaks to check in with each lamb and help them both find the udder, to everyone’s relief.  We heard the ewe make a low, rumbling growl of a “baaa”, and Sarah explained that this is her unique call for her lambs.  She will use it from now on to call them to her; they will be able to recognize it out of all the other ewes, and she will always sniff the lambs to be sure they are hers before letting them nurse.  A few of the other ewes approached the lambs in curiosity, and mama wasted no time in head-butting them away, causing Sarah to croon “What a good mama, good girl, good job!”

Brother finds the udder while mom chows down.

Though they had invited me to participate, S & S were so moved and focused on their new arrivals, that after a few minutes I felt I was intruding on a private moment, and I started back to the house.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sarah approach Sid with her arms spread wide, and then lean into his chest with a long, warm and happy embrace.  Proud parents.  When I got back to the house, T joked “Its a good day to be born”, and I couldn’t agree more.

Mom and baby take a rest

So far, the other ewes have not delivered, though Sarah has been waking every morning at 3 am to check.  Brother and sister lamb are much more sure of their feet, and watching them pounce and play makes me chuckle.  Sarah says they’ve already gained a pound.

Oh yeah…the cupcakes.  These are a fantastic low fat carrot cake with the best frosting I’ve ever had – and they will forever be linked in my mind with this special day.  The recipe is below.  You might want to play with the amount of carrot – I thought there wasn’t enough carroty texture.  I think they might also be good with a 1/2 cup or so of shredded coconut mixed into the batter, though I haven’t tried that yet.  I like spice, so next time I might add twice the cinnamon and nutmeg.  But they were a hit as is, both last year and this year, with T and our guests.

Stay tuned…we’ll soon have more fun with baby animals – we’re getting chicks!  Also, T and I attended the Organic Growers School last weekend, and have lots to tell about that.

Carrot Cupcakes Recipe

1 & 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup canola oil
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 & 1/2 cups carrots shredded (consider a little more)
1/4 cup + 2 Tablesp chopped walnuts
1/4 cup golden raisins
4 oz light or low fat cream cheese – the soft spreading kind works best
3/4 cup confectioners (powdered) sugar
1 tsp orange and/or lemon zest
1 drop orange essence

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F
Sift together first 6 ingredients in a medium bowl
In a separate large bowl, whisk oil, brown sugar, and eggs together
Add the applesauce, vanilla, and carrots to the egg mixture and stir well
Gradually stir the dry ingredients into the egg-carrot mixture
Stir in 1/4 cup walnuts and raisins
Pour into baking cups and bake 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, using a mixer, beat the cream cheese, confectioners sugar, zest, and orange essence until creamy.  When cupcakes are cool, dollop a tablespoonful of icing on each cake.  It may spread out on its own, or you can use the back of the spoon to smooth the frosting around.  Sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 Tablesp of crushed walnuts and a bit of orange zest or shredded carrot (use a vegetable peeler to get a pretty thin curl of zest or carrot).

Makes 12 cupcakes.

Posted in Animals, Nature and Outdoors | 5 Comments

Late Winter Dose of Color, Inspiration and Hope

A dark and lovely specimen at the SE Flower and Garden Show

We’ve been blessed with a couple of weeks of unseasonably warm weather, which has everyone I know feeling cautiously jubilant that winter does end, spring does come, and its about to get really pretty and very busy around here.  Seems the forests and gardens are thinking the same things, and all are hoping that a frost doesn’t come along and ruin everything.  It is, after all, still February – another 3 weeks till the official start of spring, and probably 6 weeks till the last official frost.

Nevertheless, our Old Man Willow is now wearing a shear veil of chartreuse buds – which I swear occurred in just ten minutes while I had my back turned.  It was just last week that I told myself I had to take a photo of his silvery gray branches blowing in the chilly wind, because it so epitomized winter.  Look at him now:

Old Man WIllow decides to just go for it.

I’m pretty excited to see my bulbs are starting to come up, and the first crocus of the season just reared her little golden head.

An eagerly anticipated crocus, and her spider visitor.

Our garlic has sprouted, but so have some weeds.

More respite from winter came in a visit to the Southeastern Flower and Garden Show in Atlanta with my mom.  We had a blast, and left feeling inspired and eager to try some new things. I was really excited that many of the artists used edibles in their landscapes in really creative and attractive ways.  Ornamental cabbages are quite common in winter gardens these days, but I was surprised to see things like kale and bok choy among pansies and snapdragons. (You’ll have to forgive my amateurish photos – artificial convention center lighting, crowds, and a waning camera battery conspired to make these photos less artistic than I like).

A relative of Bok Choy with creeping thyme and pansies

Purple kale with snapdragons, pansies, and dusty miller

Mom, my personal garden guru, cautioned me that many of the exhibits, though beautifully artistic, did not use realistic groupings of plants – sun and shade lovers were sometimes placed together, and shrubs that get very large were being shown as low growing ornamentals.  But I loved the way that flowers and edibles were being thrown all together in an explosion of color.

Rainbow chard, peppers and flowers

Tomato plants and geraniums

Some gardeners argue that this crowds plants and depletes nutrients.  I’d worry most about the tomatoes, which in the southeast region are prone to blight if too closely spaced.  But there are some movements that advocate for this type of densely packed, slightly overgrown method of planting (see here and here, for example).  The plants mulch each other, so water is retained and erosion is slowed, and the flowers attract pollinators and beneficial insects that keep the detrimental infestations at bay. It makes intuitive sense to me, and is so pretty – it transforms a farmy looking plot of row crops into a kind-of wonderland. But I’ve never actually tried it and so can’t claim with confidence that it works.

So I’m eager to try my hand at growing my garden in a more creative and aesthetic way this year.  It just amazes me how people can make art with just about any medium, including flowers. Here are a few more inspirations from the show:

A new take on flamingo yard art: this fellow is made of dried flower heads, petals, and leaves.

A little herb garden, with whole nuts in the shell as mulch, and trowel plant labels

I was utterly enchanted by this little fairy house (in the kids pavilion), and vowed to start making my own.

A chandelier with tulip flames

an easy way to do a living roof

Dog topiary

colorful containers

I always love to hear from you in the comments.  What is inspiring you as you plan your garden this year?  What harbingers of spring are keeping you going?

Next time we’ll have more news about the chickens!  Stay tuned…

Posted in Garden, Nature and Outdoors | 2 Comments

Update on bird life

Well, we just got news that our foster chick’s real mom made an offer on a new home. Looks like John-Henry and the girls may not be with us as long as we had hoped. We’ll see what happens with the timing of her closing and moving.

In the meantime, for those of you who are especially interested in what goes in to raising chickens, here are some fascinating nuggets and tips from an urban homesteader in Atlanta. I’m hoping I don’t have to get involved with Question #3 any time soon.

Posted in Animals | 2 Comments

The Great Bird-napping of 2011

I had a little fun with this one….hope you enjoy:

It was a moonless night, and T and I couldn’t help but stop to crane our necks and marvel at the fact that we can clearly see the Milky Way from our front yard, despite being only 30 minutes (as the crow flies) from the lights of downtown Asheville.  Sometimes our night sky is so intensely beautiful I feel like it can’t be real, that it is actually a planetarium ceiling, an enhanced regional stargazing map, or a giant NASA photograph showing electromagnetic spectrums otherwise invisible to the human eye.  I swear sometimes that hazy smear of galaxy looks almost iridescent purple from here, like the northern lights or heat lightening.

But this night was also frigid, well after dark in late January in the mountains; so we didn’t linger long.  His creative energy always ready to burst forth in a squawk, T began singing a little tune as we crept across the road toward the little shed on our neighbor’s property.

“Shh!” I admonished in a whisper, “We don’t want them to know we are coming!”

“I feel like we are burglars, or assassins, sneaking over here to kidnap the chickens,” he quietly joked, humming a bit of the Bourne Identity theme.

An image of critters in bandit masks a la Fabulous Mister Fox suddenly came to mind, and I had to suppress a laugh as we approached the door.

Though we weren’t doing anything illicit, we were feeling wary about our task: to move a rooster and four chickens (already discombobulated from an earlier relocation) from a temporary kennel to our recently completed chicken coop.  Given our past experience with roosters (one which was ready to spar at the slightest provocation, and one who died suddenly and unexplainably), we weren’t sure what to expect, and were apprehensive about hurting the birds, or ourselves.  Though we’d had lots of experience taking care of chickens (thanks to H & M last summer, and watching a neighbor’s chickens, ducks and sheep over the holidays – which I failed to blog about) we never actually had to catch and hold any of them.  Hence the nocturnal visit, since chickens can’t see well in the dark and become very docile.

Midwinter may seem like a strange time to get chickens, and in fact we were leaning away from getting birds at all, for the time being, despite the nifty coop T labored over this fall.

We still aren’t sure how long we will be on this little rental property, and have no idea where we’ll land next and whether there will be a place for chickens. But once again, the universe answers: out of the blue we receive a call from a friend of a friend who had to move unexpectedly, and couldn’t take her chickens to her temporary new abode.  She needed someone to care for them for a few months until she and her kids get settled somewhere big enough to accommodate the birds too.  Needless to say, this worked out perfectly for us: we get the benefit of fresh eggs, manure for the compost (when we listed poop as a perk to my mom, she laughed and said “isn’t it funny how different our lives can be?”), and more experience caring for chickens – without the commitment.

The problem was, she needed a home for them pronto, and our coop still had no door and a leaky roof.  T had pieced the thing together gradually, mostly using excess lumber our neighbor has been slowly milling (from trees that were downed in the recent state road building project).  I think he did a beautiful job, especially considering he has no prior carpentry experience, made up the plans himself, and had to fit together mismatched scraps.  When we got the news that the birds were on their way, our neighbor graciously loaned us an empty shed/coop while we hastily banged together the missing pieces, including some roosts and an entry plank.  Then we waited until dark for the creep and snatch.

Roosts, feeders, and a fake egg

Ready for the girls (and fella)

Despite our “docile at night” theory, there were still a few mis-grabs (perhaps I’m being too delicate and timid, but I find it really difficult to position my hands just-so to restrain the wings), resulting in big flapping, alarmed croaks, and some feathers in the air.  But the transfer was mostly peaceful, and didn’t involve running circles around the pen trying to catch spooked or escaped chickens on the ground; an utterly ridiculous dance that I’ve since performed several times.

To our surprise, the hens recovered quickly from the upset, and are already laying a gorgeous rainbow assortment of eggs, including some with lovely pale green shells.  They didn’t understand at first that the outer boxes with handy flip-top lids were for laying, and made little nests on the floor of the coop instead.

The ladies reject our 'nesting' boxes at first.

I thought we’d need to get some fake eggs or golf balls in there to encourage them.  In fact I tried a roughly egg-shaped piece of white styrofoam that my mom carved out, but to my frustration (and theirs too, I suppose) they just kept kicking it out of the box, and I eventually removed it.  Then one morning they spontaneously started using the boxes – maybe because the main floor started getting pretty poopy pretty quick.


I'm always really excited to find a green egg.

Foster chickens: John-Henry, Clara, LulaBell, Little Bit and Gracious

I’m already totally in love with John-Henry, the rooster, who has the most elegant plumage I’ve ever seen.  He crows all day long, for no reason I can glean, and it makes me chuckle every time.  Here’s a little video for the “Old MacDonald”-singing-kid in you. Don’t you think he is just resplendent?

His feathers actually glisten in the sun, as if they have been waxed. I adore the long grey tailfeathers, which bob when he walks and flutter in the wind.


Posted in Animals | 5 Comments

On the Bright Side – A Long Overdue Update

Well, it’s  been so long, I bet you’ve wondered if we were going to keep this up.  I suppose T and I have just been bogged down with our jobs, winterizing our little land yacht, family visits, and other pursuits.  But the gardening and homesteading goes on, even as the weather gets chilly.  In fact, just the other day we were amazed to find ourselves still harvesting an abundance of food from our little fall garden.

Late fall harvest: lettuce and mustard greens, bok choy, kale, baby carrots, beets, broccoli and brussel sprouts

There is something really remarkable about pulling your evening’s meal out of the ground in early December.  We stopped actively tending to the garden over a month ago, so it almost felt like we were getting away with something we didn’t exactly earn – a freebie.  Its like the feeling I have when I walk out of the public library with an armful of books, DVDs and CDs, and I can’t believe I get to take it all home for free.

Nevertheless, I was feeling a little inadequate about my beets and carrots.  I had been warned by many that it was too late in the season to grow them, but I figured with a row cover we’d get a few more weeks out of the season.  The roots did produce, but they were all pretty small, and the carrots were a little on the pale side.  They turned out, though, to be very sweet and tender.  I later read that beets should ideally be harvested when they are only 1 1/4 to 2 inches in diameter, or they lose sweetness and become fibrous – so ours were perfect.  The only downside was that there weren’t enough of them – just one meal’s worth. Since then we’ve had several freezes and a bunch of snow, so that may have been the last of those veggies – though I’m told the mustard and kale might keep on trucking right through the winter.

Our little porch art cactus casts a frost shadow as the morning sun slowly warms the deck.

For you internet junkies: It wasn't a double-complete, but it was right in my backyard. It disappeared before I could check the pasture for the pot of gold.

The fall colors here were spectacular, but now the world has gotten pretty gray.  I can’t believe how utterly leafless and barren the mountainsides here can become.  I’m not usually a friend of winter – I have to fight some inner darkness when it gets cold and gray outside. But living in a new place, with a new relationship to the land, has made me take notice of winter in a different way.  For one thing, it has been really interesting to watch as the usually impenetrable growth sheds away, and exposes the shape of the land, the rocks and cliffs, the steepness of the grade, and the long views.  The land behind our house, which just looked like a steep overgrown hill before, now reveals itself to have plateaus and ridges – much more shape and useful area than I thought.  Some beautiful rocky cliffs have been uncovered just up the road from us, reminding me of the stoney mountains I was accustomed to in New Mexico.  There are also many more houses tucked back in these hills than I ever realized, as they are veiled in the summer by the dense forest.


Beautiful garlic ready for planting

I was busy in early November planting garlic, which seemed so easy I’m not sure why everyone isn’t doing it.  I got an inexpensive and very handy bulb-hole-digging tool (thanks for the tip, Lisa!) which made the job really quick.  I also planted, as a gift to myself, some tulip, daffodil, and crocus bulbs.  It feels like I’ve buried treasure, and I can hardly wait to see them start peeking their little green heads out of the ground in the early spring.  The anticipation of those first spring blooms of color, and all that tasty garlic in early summer, makes the winter feel that much more tolerable.


My garlic planting temporarily disrupts an otherwise very happy earthworm - always a good sign in a garden!

And, it is hard to believe, but the seed catalogs for next season have already started showing up in the mail.  That gives us lots of spring garden dreams to dwell on during cold days.  We’ll probably start ordering seeds in January, and start some indoor seedlings in February.  Something about that makes the winter seem much shorter to me.

The snow we’ve had in recent days has also brightened up the landscape and my mood.  T got our wood stove installed and has been chopping wood like a machine.  It’s quite cozy in our living room, seeing the yellow and blue flames dancing around – a different type of little black box to watch in the living room.

Our wood stove alight and cranking out the heat

Also since I last wrote, we got a chest freezer for all that food that we put away earlier this fall that was crowding our little fridge-freezer.  I’m pretty excited that winter will give me an excuse to dive into all that delicious food.  I’ve been daydreaming about blueberry pancakes, corn chowder, pasta with pesto or tomatoes, butter beans…  My mouth waters as I type.

Our little 5 cu ft chest freezer holds treasure.

I learn life-guiding philosophy from my pets every day, and this is how Rousseau thinks we should approach winter:

He's not even a little ashamed of himself. On the contrary, he's quite proud.

Though I’ve been sporadic, I do intend to keep up with the blogging.  I am thinking, though, about a transition. We are, after all, no longer a “couple taking a break from professional lives in exchange for life lessons on a small organic farm.”  What we’re doing now is integrating farming and homesteading into our lives, re-defining what “professional life” and work means, and exploring new ways of being.  Along this road, we’re also trying to incorporate more creativity and spirituality into our lives.  We’re attempting to make new friends and build new community based on shared values.

Also, since T has decided to do less blogging, I’m the primary documentarian here.  So I’m brainstorming a new look, new title, and new subject matter.  I’d like to keep writing about gardening, food, animals, and nature.  But I’m also thinking about ways to explore more of my interests in art and science, and the handmade, crafty stuff I’m doing.  I’m sure this will evolve in multiple ways and stages, and maybe it won’t all be in one place. Anyway, I hope you’ll stay tuned, and I welcome your thoughts about what content you’d like to see here, and what I should call this!

Posted in Food, Garden, Nature and Outdoors | 6 Comments

Soul Food (with Recipes!)

Early autumn garden with tents to protect from frost

We’ve been having fun trying to find new and interesting ways to make use of all the incredible green stuff we’ve got in our fall garden.  Of course, we’ve done the soul food classic of collards cooked with salt pork, plus peas and cornbread.  I tried a quiche with duck eggs from S&S, mushrooms, onions, and cooked mustard greens, which was just mediocre.  We’ve been loving salads with raw mustard greens, which never would have occurred to me until my mom told me my grandmother used to eat them that way.  The mustard adds just a bit of spice to the lettuce, and is especially tasty with some fruit to cut the bite.  We also got some dill from S&S, and that opened up a whole new realm of salads for me.  Now I wish we were growing some.

We’ve been trading work for produce with S&S, and recently I helped them dig both yellow and sweet potatoes.  I scored six different varieties, with different colors, textures and flavors.


Digging potatoes

A gem unearthed

I’ve mostly been roasting or baking them, or using them in soups.  But my favorite is this simple dish (family may recognize it from our holiday cook book last year) that is the essence of fall.  It is officially called “Autumn Breakfast Pudding”, but don’t let the name fool you.  Its nothing like a pudding in the typical American sense (maybe somewhat like a bread pudding), and though it would be good for breakfast, I usually make it as a side dish for dinner.  I think it would be a great Thanksgiving dish as well.  Since it involves sweet potatoes, I think it qualifies as soul food.  The recipe is included at the bottom of this post (thanks to Rita Leon – I got this recipe from her ‘Mindful Eating’ workshop at Nob Hill Yoga in Albuquerque, and modified it just slightly – because I’m mindful that I like a little fat in my food).

A delicious mix of fall root vegetables, seeds, nuts and fruits.


Autumn "pudding" served with kale from our garden, cooked in chicken broth from one of S&S's birds, with stuffed chicken breasts (prepared by the grocery)

The plant that has been the most fun to watch grow is the broccoli.  The plants got huge, with foliage so dark it was almost blue, and then finally we spotted some little florets, which ballooned right before our eyes.  It looks like at least one of the plants is going to give us a second harvest as well.


Broccoli florets on the plant
Broccoli ready for harvest

We typically use broccoli in a stir fry, or sauteed in garlic, or simply steamed with a little salt.  But since we have so much, I decided to try a broccoli cheese soup.  To be honest, broccoli cheese soup is not one of my favorite soups.  Usually it is something I’ve had in a cafeteria – too cheesy, or too watery, or just kind of funky.  But every once in a blue moon I’ve had a really exceptionally yummy broccoli cheese soup, and I reasoned that using fresh and quality ingredients would make all the difference.  We really enjoyed this recipe, good with crusty bread or croutons, and little crumbles of bacon (which makes everything better).  This recipe is also below.


Broccoli cheese soup, served with crusty bread and a salad with mustard greens.

Most people I know wouldn’t eat brussel sprouts for money.  I think this is because they’ve never had them prepared properly – at least, that is what I realized about myself. Usually, cooked brussel sprouts are soggy, heavy and sulphuric; not even redeemed by a generous covering of butter and salt. But several years back, T discovered a recipe that completely transformed the brussel sprout for me.  It is time consuming, because it involves peeling the leaves off the sprout, but that makes all the difference.  I wish I had a photo of this delicious dish, because it would cure you of your bias against this nutrition-packed little veggie.  The recipe combines the leaves with lemon juice and walnuts, and became one of our favorite ways to incorporate a green into our meals.

Ever since, we’ve been trying to grow brussel sprouts.  This was a spectacular failure in New Mexico, where the soil was poor and the heat just caused the plants to bolt.  We tried again at H&M’s this spring, but the bugs and moles got them.  But we were hopeful that a fall mountain garden would be just right, and so far our plants are looking very healthy, though they haven’t produced yet.  We’ve just got little tiny spuds on each plant.


Baby brussel sprouts

T read recently that brussel sprouts can be notoriously difficult to grow, and really want rich soil. Since we just planted in a plot of former lawn, we’re not sure we gave them the ideal environment, but I’ve been looking for more good recipes just in case we have a bumper crop and get tired of the old standby.  T’s mom had just the right thing, which will also make use of all that home pressed apple cider I’ve got in the freezer.  We tried it out with store-bought sprouts, and loved it (again, bacon is the secret to success), although I think in the future we’ll peel the sprouts for this dish too.  I don’t have photos of this sprouts dish either, but the recipe is below.

Okay, so I’m not sure if broccoli and brussel sprouts technically qualify as soul food, but they do taste good and are good for you.  If you decide to try any of these out, let me know how they worked for you with a comment on the blog!  Hope you enjoy them as much as we did!


Autumn Breakfast Pudding (a variation on the recipe by Rita Leon)

1 butter nut squash, peeled and chopped into bite sized cubes
2-3 yams or sweet potatoes, chopped into bite sized cubes
2-3 apples, chopped into bite sized cubes
1/2 cup raisins (dried dates or cranberries would also work)
1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds (or pumpkin seeds – I use both)
1/4 cup raw walnut or pecan pieces
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons salted butter, cut into several small pieces

Instructions:  Mix the sweet potatoes and squash together in a casserole and dot with the butter (as a variation, you can also bake the apples, though I prefer the apples added in raw later). Cover and bake at 350 for 40 minutes.  This can be done the day before.  The dish can be served cool or hot (I prefer hot), so if desired, let cool.  Mix in the apples, raisins, nuts and seeds.  Sprinkle cinnamon over dish and stir to distribute it well (as a variation, I’ve also used nutmeg, cardamom, or mace).  Serve.

Broccoli Cheese Soup (a variation on the recipe by Emeril Lagasse)

5 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup yellow onions (can also used red onion or sliced leeks)
3/4 tsp salt (the original calls for 1/2, but I ended up adding a bunch more salt at the end, so I suggest bumping it up)
1/4 tsp ground white pepper (black would probably be fine, if that is what you  have on hand, and will just have a different aroma)
pinch nutmeg
3-4 garlic cloves, minced (the original calls for 1/2 tsp, but that seemed minuscule to me – you can never have too much garlic – or bacon)
1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves (I used dried, because that is what I had on hand. Usually it is suggested that you  reduce the amount because dried is more pungent than fresh, but I like thyme, so I used the full 1/2 tsp and it was not overwhelming)
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken stock (the original calls for 3 cups, but I thought it was a bit too watery)
16 ounces broccoli (1-2 big bunches will be about right)
3/4 cup heavy cream (the original calls for 1/2 cup)
1 1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar (the original calls for medium cheddar – but that tastes boring to me)
3 pieces of bacon, fried crisp and crumbled
croutons or crusty toasted bread

Instructions: Melt 3 Tbsp butter over medium heat in a medium pot.  Sautee the onions until soft with the salt, white pepper and nutmeg.  Add the garlic and thyme, and cook until fragrant, about 20-30 seconds.  Add the flour and stir until well blended, about 2 minutes.  Over high heat, gradually add the chicken stock, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes.  Add the broccoli and cook until tender, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat and puree (in batches in a blender or food processor, or with a hand held immersion blender). Return to low to medium heat, add the cream and bring to just a simmer.  Add the cheese and stir over low heat until melted.  Add the remaining 2 Tbsp butter and stir until well blended.  Correct seasoning.  Ladle into bowls and garnish with bacon crumbles and croutons.

T’s Yummy Brussel Sprouts with Lemon and Walnut (I can’t remember the source of this recipe, we’ve had it for so long, but it might have been Martha Stewart)

1 pound brussel sprouts, peeled and washed (discard the dense white center cores, just use the outer green leaves)
1/4-1/2 lemon, wedged
1/3 cup walnut pieces, toasted lightly
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp salted butter
Salt and black pepper to taste

Gently sautee the brussel sprout leaves in the butter and oil in a large pan or wok, stirring frequently until they are just tender and starting to brown at the edges.  Add the walnuts and squeeze the lemon juice over the leaves, stir and cook for 30 more seconds.  Serve.

Brussel sprouts with cider, bacon, and pecans (A variation on the recipe from Bari)

3 slices of bacon, fried crisp and crumbled
1/3 cup chopped pecans
1 pound brussel sprouts, halved, quartered, or peeled as described in recipe above
1/4 cup apple cider
1/4 tsp salt
black pepper to taste

Instructions: Cook the bacon in a large skillet until crisp and remove from the pan to drain on paper towels.  Add the pecans to the bacon fat and cook for about 1 minute or until toasted.  Remove pecans to drain on paper towels.  Drain all but about 1 Tbsp of the fat from the pan.  Add the brussel sprouts and stir to coat in the drippings.  Add the cider, and bring to a boil on high heat.  Reduce to low, cover and simmer until tender (about 10 minutes if using halved sprouts, maybe less if peeled).  Remove sprouts to a bowl without the liquid, add the bacon, pecans, salt and pepper and stir to mix well. Serve.


Posted in Food | 2 Comments