Tuesday, May 24, 2011

our homestead:I love my fishtail weeder

I'm calling this the "establishment year" of my gardens, wherein I've been doing a lot of physical labor to get my vegetable beds in shape for growing this year and the coming seasons (here's where having a tractor would be nice). Two of my biggest gardening tasks this spring have been weeding and clearing sod, to make ample space for everything. Thus, I thought I'd give a little spotlight to one of my favorite tools which has seen me through all of the hours of heavy weeding. My fishtail weeder! This is a handheld metal gardening tool, most have probably seen it before. It has a long neck and a fork at the end which makes it very affective for ripping tough-to-pull weeds up by the roots. You simply stab your fishtail weeder in the soil below the weed you want to remove, loosen the weed's roots from the soil by pushing up and down on the tool's handle and then pull the weed right out. I've been using my fishtail to displace huge, rooty weeds which have covered a beautiful garden bed of tilled soil where my parents' tomatoes used to grow. They have since moved the greenhouse from that spot and I've been working really hard to clear the weeds so that I might plant this year's garlic there in early October. In fact, I planted my asparagus in the first third of that bed that I weeded using just my little fishtail tool. I've used other tools for weeding and so far, I've found this one to be the most thorough at getting down to the deep roots of some gnarly weeds.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

our homestead: first signs of asparagus and my garlic's looking good

Watching vegetables grow is so rewarding. When I'm not out weeding, mulching, hauling dirt in my wheel barrow, pruning or slug hunting, I just like to sit and admire all of the little starts I planted pushing out of the ground. Today, I spotted tiny turnip, carrot and lettuce sprouts, as well as I found some two inch onion starts and sunflowers. My peas are also vigorously climbing and are about a foot tall now. My lacinato kale starts are about half that height.
Anyway, I discovered a few purple asparagus spears starting to shoot out of the earth where I planted them back in April. Ha, my first thought was, "Yipee! It's working!". I really derive some simple happiness from watching things grow because whenever I plant something, I put a little hope into the success of my seeds. We've been having such a cold spring that any growth seems exceptional to me. Oh, and my garlic's looking great too! Thick, long green leaves which emit a pungent garlic aroma whenever I brush my hands by them while weeding. We'll be sure to have some gourmet roasted garlic for dinner this summer at my house!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

our homestead: oh hey, potatoes!

All of the potatoes I planted back in early spring are growing and appear to be very healthy. I planted French La Ratte Fingerlings, Peruvian Purples and Nordland Roasters. I've been foliar feeding my potato plants about once a week now...usually I give them a little spritz of a mix of water and organic fish fertilizer (nice and stinky). I also like to crumble a little compost around each plant now and then. It also helps that I planted sugar snap peas next to my potatoes- legumes grab hold of nitrogen in the air and bring it into the soil (nitrogen promotes leafy green growth). Right now, my pea starts are about a foot tall each.

Two of the best preventatives of potato blight include crop rotation and good nutrition. I'm growing my potatoes in soil that has been free of potatoes or tomatoes or any other Nightshaders, and I'm keeping up on the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous.

Anyway, I did my first "hilling" yesterday. Hilling- where one draws the soil up around the potato plants on either side to build a raised mound- is essential for edible tuber development as tubers that are exposed to sunlight can turn green (a green potato can give you a stomach ache). The potatoes will branch off along the stem of the plant, so in hilling the soil, I'm ensuring that my tubers will grow in darkness and thus be fit to eat. There's nothing like a new potato- fresh, buttery and sweet with thin, papery skin. Mmm...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

trail setters: mother's day on the tomato farm

For Mother's Day this year, I was lucky enough to spend some quality time on my folk's tomato farm with my mom, step-dad, brother, husband and a motley crew of dogs. My mom and step-dad have quite the professional setup this year: a long, cathedral-like greenhouse with raised, cinder block lined beds. I guess there are over 500 tomato plants growing on their site, not to mention the assortment of pepper plants they also have in the works. They'll be carting their homegrown goods to market in the coming months. Above, you'll see a photo of a little yellow flower. In time, this blossom will become a ripe, juicy tomato.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

our homestead: farmers market season begins (and I transplanted my tomatoes!)

I worked my first farmer's market of the season today. I've peddled organic produce for the same Skagit Valley farmer for the past six summers. It's always special for me when market season starts- I get to return to my community of creative, industrious and earthy people. I started coming along to market with my mom when I was about ten or eleven years old, and used to help her sell her handmade goatmilk soap. If I was lucky I'd get $5.00 to spend as I ran around the grassy marketplace in my barefeet with my little brother. Such wonderful summer memories of spending time with my mom with a cold Cherry Bomb Special in hand (an amazing fizzy drink one of my favorite vendors used to make). My mom still comes to market, but she's had quite a lot more to sell these past few years, ever since starting the tomato farm. Along with her awesome goatmilk soap, she'll usually bring all sorts of tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic, dried lavender blossoms and jars of honey.

I've met so many interesting characters over the years...I figure someday I might have to write a book about it. There was the iron worker who was nearly seven feet tall (I'm sure he was only six feet, but when I was little he was ginormous). He had a thick, black beard and a big old belly and would show up to market with an assortment of iron garden art: big, metal black flowers, birds, vines, gates and the likes. To set up his wares he'd just toss them right out of the van, *crash* *clang* *clang* on top of each other. Then there's my favorite honey vendor who always comes to market with his portly australian shepherd (who loves pasta and cheeseburgers). This particular honeyman has a huge heart and a hearty cackle to top it off. He's always sharing stories of his younger years with me (like the time he lived in Panama) and sharing business advice. Right now he's learning how to produce his own Queen bees, and he also raises canaries and pigeons. And then there's the farmer I work for. Anyone who's met him knows he's quite the character. He's notorious for showing up late to market, but that's just because he always has the freshest produce (and probably the best). I definitely have to credit my sleuth with cooking vegetables, and my knowledge of weird heirlooms, to working for this guy. He's chalk full of the coolest recipes and really tries to bring something different to market such as several types of fingerling potato varieties, squash blossoms, wild mushrooms, pickle weed, huckleberries, golden raspberries, striped tomatoes, kohlrabi, celery root, purple basil, lemon sorrel, pink and white striped chioga beets, kale flowers, asian pears and so much more.

Anyway, my first market of the season rocked. My farmer brought along his family, so it was like a little reunion. His daughter even made us all vetch crowns (I'm wearing mine in the picture above). All of the customers seemed happy to see us, and excited to have good food in their neighborhood once more. This spring has been so cold that it was certainly a hopeful sight to see produce out on the tables: arugula, spinach, kale, radishes, leeks, spring garlic and onions, chives, cilantro, parsley, potatoes and plant starts.

Speaking of plant starts, I am also happy to announce that I was able to move out all of my tomato starts to my greenhouse today after the market (I'm holding one of my starts in the photo above). I was also able to plant celery, basil and pickling cucumber starts next to the tomatoes as well. I'll be sure to post a more detailed blog about my greenhouse setup in the the coming days. Now, I'm going to sit back and relax and enjoy some homemade rice pudding I was gifted by the Italian pasta vendor. What a good day!

Friday, May 6, 2011

DIY almanac: rhubarb pineapple jam

I'm fortunate to have a well-established "granny" rhubarb patch growing in my garden that returns year after year in spring (see the third picture above). When this stalky, sour vegetable (yes, rhubarb is a vegetable and is related to buckwheat and sorrel) appears, I start dreaming of rhubarb pies, sauces, cobblers and my favorite- jam! I made a strawberry rhubarb pie a week ago and I made pineapple rhubarb jam today. I'll share the recipe for the jam below, but first I want to write about rhubarb a little more because it's a pretty intriguing crop.

Rhubarb originally came from western China and was used for medicinal purposes up to 5000 years ago in the East. The plant made its way into Europe and the Romans named it after the barbarian lands wherein they had discovered it: near the River Rha in Scotland. Then, in the early 1800s, Rhubarb was brought to America. This was about the time that it really began having more of a culinary presence than medicinal. In fact, strawberry rhubarb tarts were popular in 1824.

Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in Vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber, and is said to have antioxidant effects due to its high polyphenol levels and it can apparently lower blood pressure. Some sources try to boast its high calcium content as well (more than milk), but the calcium in rhubarb is actually in the form of calcium oxalate, which counter-intuitively blocks calcium absorption. Though the stalks are safe to eat, oxalic acid is concentrated in the large, heart-shaped leaves of rhubarb and thus these are toxic.

Rhubarb is a very hearty perennial which will return each spring for up to 15 years (perhaps longer if it's well tended). Rhubarb prefers a soil pH in the 6.0-6.8 range with lots of organic matter worked in. Much like asparagus, you can plant either rhubarb seeds or crowns, but you cannot harvest stalks until the second year as rhubarb's first growing season helps it build up the energy needed to return. To keep a rhubarb plant producing stalks (or to encourage bumper crops), one should remove any flowers that form within the leaves (see the second picture above) as this means that energy is being diverted into seed production rather than stalks.

Now onto the jam! My local natural foods co-op had a post-Easter sale on pineapple, so I decided to try making a pineapple rhubarb jam, which came out a golden orange hue (almost like apricot jam) with a delicious, caramely and tart flavor. Here's my recipe and directions for making this delightful spring jam:

4 cups chopped rhubarb
4 cups chopped pineapple
5 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
6 ounces liquid pectin

Wash mason jars and lids in hot, soapy water or run through the dishwasher to sanitize. Prepare canning equipment (fill a stockpot with water and bring to a simmer, keep lids in a saucepan over a simmer, etc). Toss the rhubarb, pineapple and sugar into another stock pot and heat over medium, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the sugar has fully melted, raise the heat to high and continue stirring the mixture for 30 minutes. About 15-20 minutes in, mash the mixture with a potato masher to get the best jam consistency. Keep stirring until you reach a rolling boil (a boil that keeps on going, even while you're stirring), then add the pectin. Boil and stir for 1-2 minutes, then remove your jam from the heat. Pour your jam into the jars, leaving about 1/4 an inch of head room, and wipe the rims with a clean cloth. Drop on your lids and screw on their bands, then carefully place in your other stockpot and raise the heat to high. Boil the jars for 10 minutes, remove, and allow them to rest on the counter. Delight in the little *pings* you'll hear as your jars officially seal and enjoy!