Category Archives: Gardening

Time to Eat

In the past week or two the sheer volume and scope of food rising out of the earth has exploded. One can literally make a meal standing in the middle of the garden, picking, and eating.

Lots of what is ready in my garden never makes it into the house (the strawberries especially), but I did manage to get enough basil into my basket to makethe first batch of pesto of the season on Monday, tossing some into some cappelini and fresh sugar snap peas and freezing the rest. On Wednesday I harvested kale, cilantro, more sugar snaps, and mushrooms for a stir-fry with ginger and tofu. I have also picked six pints of strawberries this week; two went into the freezer for ice cream I’m planning to make for a special party the week after next, and the rest will go into some jam.

The mulberries are starting to come in, too, and a lot of folks have been picking them off the trees that hang heavy over the streets in my neighborhood and making pies. I picked about three cups today during my long morning walk with Caleb, and when I got home I decided I wanted to try making some scones. I modified a recipe I found for oatmeal scones, adding a touch of orange extract and using the mulberries instead of currants, and here is the result. In a few minutes I will  take a few of these next door to my neighbors.

The sugar snaps are copious and remarkably sweet this year. I love them in the pasta and stir fry, but I also love them fresh and crunchy, right off the vine.  That’s the experience I had in mind when I took a platter of them to a little farewell gathering this week for a friend who is moving away. I mounded some hummus in the middle of them, tossed on some kalamata olives and feta cheese, drizzled it all with olive oil, and sprinkled salt. Here’s what the platter looked like.

Enjoy this lovely day! I’m going to pick more sugar snaps.

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Filed under Feasting, Foraging, Gardening

Things that make me go “Yay!”

All of these photos were taken over a three day period. Everything is waking up!

Baby apple tree with new growth

Parsley by the mound

Fungal goodness

Stir fry with my broccoli and mushrooms

 

Big, fat, hairy chives

Arugula without end

Sweet potato-apple muffins (my sweet potatoes, dad's apples)

Camelias on my table

Good egg production on organic feed

Yoga socks (what a great idea!)

A giant pot of wheat straw pasteurizing on my stove (for more mushrooms)

Salad greens and cilantro

Flats of seedlings in my house, away from marauding rats

The last of last fall's collards

Sugar snap pea sprouts

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Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening, Making things

Piling It On

Years ago I read a wonderful book called Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of our Own Backyards, by Sara Stein (Houghton Mifflin 1995). Stein (who, sadly, died of lung cancer in 2005) tells the story of how she began to completely reinvent the way she gardened in her five acres in Westchester County, New York. Instead of endlessly struggling against the local ecosystems to create some kind of idyllic English garden-style suburban lawn, Stein began to garden with her local habitats, to restore biodiversity right there in her backyard and coax it into a more naturalized landscape.

The layers, from ground-level view, before I dug through them

One of the topics Stein devotes some attention to in her book is soil. Rather than tilling up the soil of her vegetable garden and compacting it down year after year, she began to try to mimick a forest floor with her garden—to help it become dense with layers of biomass that fall to the earth and break down into loam. Stein made like a tree: she deposited deep layers of leaves, along with kitchen scraps and other compostables, onto the soil and left it there for months on end. When she stuck a spade through the layers, she found rich, fluffy soil that was teeming with microbial life.

I own a tiller, but I have rarely used it after reading Noah’s Garden. Instead, every fall I heap leaves, chicken poo-soiled hay, and half-broken-down compost onto my garden beds. Last fall, before I spread the leaves, I also put down several layers of paper—mostly some old chicken feed bags, but those paper lawn waste bags work great, too—right on top of the soil after I had pulled out all the spent summer vegetable vines and stalks.

Here's a peek at the soil after I hoed through the layers to plant peas.

It went like this: a layer of paper, a layer of leaves, a layer of poo/hay and half rotted compost, then another layer of leaves. I kept piling it on, adding more throughout the fall and winter, so that the layers were about a foot deep. I have heard this method called “lasagne gardening.” It’s also called “sheet composting” or “no-till gardening.” Sally Wylde would have called it mulching. The woman did know how to mulch her garden.

A view of the rows hoed out and ready for peas. The layers of mulch will remain between the rows.

Whatever you call it, it is some kind of magic. Last weekend I planted peas, which meant it was time to send a hoe through those layers and see what was beneath. And what it was, was worms. Big, fat, juicy ones. The earth itself practically wiggled, there were so many earthworms in it.

Those earthworms basically do the job that the tiller would do—only they do it much better, without damaging the soil structure, without leaving the soil vulnerable to later compaction when you walk through in your garden clogs. They are also a sign of healthy dirt. And my favorite part? Throwing a bunch of paper, leaves, and poo down to grow the worms is much easier and less stinky than handling a tiller. It’s also, I think, a much easier way to get worm compost than with a worm bin. I am all about the lazy.

The other thing about all those layers is that they will stay there all summer long. They will slowly break down and become pure compost, too. Worried that your garden will offend the neighbors because it’s piled high with your recyclables? Consider this: in late summer, while your neighbors’ gardens are dessicated and pitiful and the weeds have taken over in the relentless heat and drought, the “trash” you piled in yours will be holding in tons of moisture and helping keep weeds to a minimum. Your garden will be thriving and green.

Here’s a little clip of me saying howdy to the worms:

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I joined the blue oyster (mushroom) cult.

One of the challenges of gardening on my little urban homestead is the great old oaks that surround and shade my property. But for mushrooms, that shade is a welcome thing. I’d had mushrooms in the back of my mind since a small paper sack of shiitakes first appeared in my weekly CSA pick up a few years ago. Gaia Gardens’ farmer then, the genius that is Daniel Parson, was the first person I’d ever met who knew how to inoculate oak logs with shiitake spores. The result of his labors were what I think of as little flavor poems. Really, there are no words to describe how a good mushroom tastes. That’s why I like to think of them as poems—a thing so original that it can be expressed in no other way.

When Farmer Daniel moved away to South Carolina a couple of years ago, that was it for my shiitake supply. Then a few months ago, my fellow Southern Urban Homesteader Esther (who is also an accomplished mushroom forager, and I’m hoping to persuade her to contribute another guest blog here on her hunting/gathering adventures in the wilds of suburbia) invited me to participate in a little informal mushroom growing workshop she was helping organize in her neighborhood. It seemed like a good activity for my shady winter garden, so one Sunday afternoon in early November I found myself with Esther and a few other nice folks (fun ghis?) in a Chamblee, Georgia, backyard, around a giant turkey fryer vat over an open flame containing wheat straw steeping in hot water. It all felt very primal, but then mushrooms are rather primal—all moisture and shadows.

Our workshop leader, Rod Stafford of the Georgia Mushroom Club, brought along some blue oyster mushroom spawn that we would start not in a log, but in a bag or basket of this wheat straw, which was soaking in the hot water to pasteurize it. He chose blue oysters because they are very easy to get going, especially in colder weather. A good thing, since we were heading into temps in the teens and twenties within a few weeks.

Rod emphasized the need to keep things as sterile as possible (we also used surgical gloves to handle the spores), because the mycelia that form from the spores are competing with other bacteria. We removed the now-pasteurized wheat straw from the vat of hot water and spread it out to cool completely. Then came the fun part: we began by cutting tubes of clear plastic into three foot lengths and tying off each end with pipe cleaners (a few people used baby-sized laundry baskets instead of plastic tubing, but the technique is the same). Then we donned the gloves and filled the bags first with a layer of wet straw, then a sprinkle of the mushroom spawn, then another layer of straw, then more spawn, and so forth. The spawn is strange stuff–kind of fuzzy and spongy and otherwordly. When I reached into the sack to bring out a scoop, I felt like I was digging my hand into alien soil—literally. Its earthy scent is intense but not unpleasant.

We continued with layers of straw and spawn until the bags were stuffed to a height of about a 18 inches, then we tied off the tops with pipe cleaners. The bags looked like giant link sausages. We then poked holes into the bags, baked potato style.

I took my two stuffed bags home with Rod’s clear instructions to find a shady place (no problem there) that would allow for plenty of air circulation. I worried, of course, about the damn squirrels feasting on my mushrooms, so I enclosed them in an old guinea pig hutch and found the perfect spot for them tucked behind my groovy new rain barrel installation next to the house.

I had about a quart of the mushroom spawn left over, so on Rod’s advice I put it to work in a couple of other ways. This next technique thrills me to my thrifty toes because it uses stuff I just normally have around the house that would otherwise get recycled: I took some shredded waste paper and pasteurized it in a big pot on my stove and layered it with the spawn in a couple of quart-sized Mason jars and an old plastic colander (I used plastic baggies over my hands because I didn’t have any surgical gloves hanging around). I covered the jars with loose tents of aluminum foil and the colander with a plastic grocery sack. I added these odd looking containers to the squirrel-proof mushroom cage.

Then I waited. Every day I went out and turned the bags over and maybe spritzed the jars and colander with a mister to keep everything evenly moist. I peered through the plastic and the jar to see if I might spy any mushroomy goodness emerging. What I did start to see was mycelium forming—a dense white web of goo reaching through the straw and the shredded paper to form a kind of wet mat. It pulled the straw away from the plastic and formed a coat inside the jars and colander. (Really, this stuff has to be from another planet!)

After about three weeks, when there was plenty of mycelium, I dunked the bags in a bucket of water and gave them a good soaking. I was really hoping to see some mushrooms soon after that, but not much seemed to be happening. I began to doubt. I began to give up hope. I began to wonder if I had somehow contaminated my field: did I sneeze on my spores? Did the dog drool on them?

And then, wonder of wonders, three days after Christmas, I saw them. They are called “pins,” and they are basically the tiny little heads of mushrooms that first emerge from the mycelium. I emailed Esther right away (because I was so excited), then gave the bags and colander another dunking for several hours and misted the jars. And wouldn’t you know? They suddenly started growing like crazy.

I harvested a couple of the almost-ready ones today just to taste them, and wow! Delicate flavor/fragrance poems. Here they are with some arugula and eggs I gathered at the same time — Southern winter blessings.

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Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree . . . Yet

When a big ole oak has an enormous gash in its side and is oozing black goo, you might suspect that it’s time for the tree to go. Since the tree in question was in the easement between the sidewalk and street in front of my house, the city sent over a service to remove it. It made me a little sad to see it leave in chunks the big truck, but it was also an opportunity.

A neighbor a few streets over has two apple trees in her front yard, right on the road, that are usually loaded with fruit every late summer/early fall. She sends out a friendly note over the neighborhood listserv inviting folks to help themselves.

I love the idea of sharing this kind of gift with one’s neighbors, so when I saw that the oak had left a nice, sunny spot rich with ground up stump matter, I ordered two dwarf apple trees to go into that little strip of earth. Three weeks before the trees were scheduled to ship, I went to work on the spot, testing the soil pH, mixing in some lime to neutralize the acid, adding in heaps of some marvelous chicken poo compost I’d been saving just for this sort of thing.

The trees arrived the week before Thanksgiving: one Gala and one Fuji — you need two trees of different varieties in order to achieve fruit. Pre-pruned (so that the newly planted tree will focus its energy in the root system), they looked like little more than twigs, about four feet high, with tiny stubs of branches off the main stem.

I followed the planting directions carefully, digging two generous holes to allow the bare roots plenty of space. I planted them about twelve feet apart. I gave  them deep waterings and piled up about eight inches of wood mulch at the base of each, taking care not to mound the mulch around the trunk, which might cause rot.

There’s little else to do now but wait a few years. Planting a fruit tree is a long-range investment. Next year, after the trees have grown a few inches and new growth has emerged, I might train the new branches to grow upward by clothes-pinning them to the main stem. In another year, I’ll do a little pruning. After a few more years of training and pruning and feeding, maybe I’ll start to see flower buds for my first crop of fruit. And maybe by the time I retire there will be enough to invite neighbors to share in.

Because that is a long time to wait, and because the trees are so little now that there is still plenty of sun between them on all that good soil the oak tree left behind, I gathered up some leftover seeds from my fall gardening and cultivated a little patch for radishes, winter salad greens, Swiss chard, and cilantro. The seeds came right up the following week, and maybe in early spring they will have wintered over and started to mature, and I will be able to invite my neighbors to pick a few greens and radishes for a salad.

Waiting for the apple trees, those few months don’t seem nearly so long.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Gardening

Slide Down My Rain Barrel

Tomorrow, October 22, is the Southern Urban Homestead’s first blogiversary. Thank you, gentle readers, for a fun and inspiring year!


After months of relentless rain and even some snow, last spring dried up, and once again we have endured a long bout of drought. These periods seem to be coming more frequently in the past few years, along with increasing public awareness for the need to conserve water (and, rightfully, bans and crackdowns on outdoor watering). Even though it’s mostly still permissible to water a food garden from a faucet, rainwater recapture just makes more sense, environmentally and economically. So a few years ago I started accumulating rain barrels.

My first one — purchased during one of those desperate dry periods maybe six years back — had had a previous life as a shipping container for olives, and it arrived actually smelling like olive oil (yum). I set it up to catch flow from my garden shed downspout and waited. When it finally did rain, the 55-gallon barrel filled up quickly, so I bought another one and set it up to catch the overflow from the first one. And then a friend gave me a third one, which I added to the chain. And then last year, another friend gave me a fourth one (that last one is my favorite — it was actually painted by a local artist and auctioned off as a fundraiser for a community nonprofit, which is how I ended up with it.)

They got it going on in Sri Lanka

A rain barrel is a nifty thing. You fill them up by draining water off of a roof when it rains. A screen covers the barrel top to keep debris and leaves from getting inside and hatched mosquito larvae from getting out. Then you draw the water from a tap toward the base. I recently visited the water exhibit at Fernbank Museum and took this photo of a rainwater jar from Sri Lanka. It holds several thousand liters. A girl can dream, right?


My poorly installed rain barrel system


Obviously this rain barrel needed a little TLC.

I originally installed  all of mine myself, up on stacks of bricks and cinderblocks with downspout extensions feeding into them. But I didn’t do a very good job. I had put all of them back next to my small garden shed because that’s the highest place on my lot, which I’d hoped would help generate enough pressure for my harvested rainwater to flow out of hoses. But sometimes they would topple over, too heavy for their supports. My rickety perches weren’t high enough, either, so that when I tried to run a hose from a barrel to a nearby bed that happened to be slightly up slope, gravity was not working in my favor.

Then I found Ben. As in Barrels By Ben. Ben reclaims used barrels (whiskey barrels from Tennessee, recycled food-grade barrels, and recycled 275-gallon totes) and installs them in commercial and residential rainwater harvesting systems. I called him up, and together we put together a new and improved plan for my four barrels.

I have what is most practically described as a moat around the back of my house. It’s a small drainage ditch that is level with the top of the house’s foundation, so that the house sits slightly nestled into the grade of the surprisingly steep hill of my property. The problem is that the earth next to my house, because it is held up by a wall of stacked bricks and not much else, isn’t firm enough to support the weight of 165 gallons of water in three barrels — another reason I installed my barrels on the shed downspouts. The rainwater off my roof was a wasted precious resource.

Reinstalled: three on a deck over the moat next to the house, one next to the shed in the back.

Ben’s solution was to build a little deck of sweet-smelling, durable cedar off the back of my house next to a valley in my roof that would redistribute the weight of the barrels so that the ground wouldn’t collapse beneath them. And so that’s what we did. See how they are nice and high? I’ll get enough pressure going to run soaker hoses into the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent and water all day long. He also re-installed one on the garden shed downspout on a very high, very stable perch.

Now. If only some rain would slide down my rain barrel . . .

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As Southern as Sweet Tea (Olive)

The Southern Urban Homestead is a feast for the senses — a sweet, ripe strawberry on the tongue, the chickens cooing and cackling from the backyard, the warm crumble of finished compost and red wrigglers spilling through fingers, the visual banquet of abundance. And aroma.

For the past week and a half, the tea olives have been in bloom. I wish there were some way to capture the intoxicating fragrance coming in through my kitchen windows and post it to this blog. The tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is an exclusively Southern (though originally Chinese, I think) evergreen shrub with dark, waxy leaves. The blossoms are tiny and light yellow, and they grow in dense bunches nestled behind the foliage. They bloom in the fall but also sometimes in the winter if the weather is mild for a stretch.

And oh, those blooms. Have you ever tasted real Tupelo honey? Start there. Add a hint of orange blossom (not orange flavor, but the scent of the bloom). Then add a forkful of buttercream icing as the aroma hits the back of your throat from a piece of homemade three-layer vanilla cake made just that morning. Close your eyes and think words like “apricot” and “succulent.” And maybe you’ll begin to imagine the scent of the tea olive.

Over this past weekend my friend Beth, who grew up in Chicago and now lives near Boston, came to visit. Beth had never met the tea olive. She was recovering from a cold and couldn’t smell it in the kitchen like I could. So we went outside, and I pointed to the tea olive and said, “Go over there and inhale.” After that, every few hours she would go and stand next to the tea olive and breathe. Finally I brought a few branches inside and put them in a jar on the table next to her. We were pretty much delirious with tea olive. In fact, so is my whole neighborhood. Folks would stand still in a state of euphoria whenever the breeze stirred the scent into their paths.

Beth took a sprig home with her Monday morning (I’m sure that was interesting to the TSA people). I like to think of her wafting the fragrance of tea olive all around Wellesley for the past two days.

I have read that it is possible to make an actual tea from the tea olive blossoms, but I have never tried this nor have I tasted tea olive tea. Any reports, dear readers? I’d love to have this aroma steaming from a teapot.

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