Category Archives: Out of the Dirt

Ode to Autumn

2012-12-03 14.04.34xsmall

Autumn came in fits and starts this year–the first cold, grey, rainy days of the year arrived at the end of October and then just as I was ready to start hauling out the firewood, sunny days and temperatures in the 80s returned in November. It was as though summer and fall were going round after round in a sparring match. But after an unseasonably glorious Thanksgiving weekend, with dinner in the garden, olive harvesting, and sunny trips to the beach, the rains finally arrived in earnest.

Letting go of summer always makes me a little wistful–no more walking outside to eat that burstingly ripe tomato right off the vine or sitting down for a sunny breakfast of sun-warmed luscious stone fruit, but at the same time I appreciate the distinct transition between seasons and all the memory and ritual that’s associated with it—the tidying away of summer and the preparations for the cold days ahead.

The last few weeks have meant wrapping up the harvest, planting all the winter crops, and mulching the soil with a thick layer of straw (which always makes me feel as though I am tucking the earth into a cozy bed for the winter.) The pantry is filled with canned goods and the smell of fermenting plum brandy.

One of my farmer/philosopher heroes, Masanobu Fukuoka, wrote about the importance of the dormant months of winter as a time to sit back and be “lazy.” Apparently during the “leisure time” of winter, ancient farmers in Japan left behind Haiku. I love the idea of having a dedicated season for writing poetry!

At the moment, my “poetry” seems to be more at the stove than on the page. The change of season has meant saying goodbye to all the simple, fresh dishes served in the garden and ushering in the complex, slow-cooked, hearty meals—mushroom ragout over creamy polenta, braised greens eaten by the fire. How quickly the smell of fresh basil and tomatoes, with the hum of bees buzzing in the background has given way to caramelized roasting root vegetables with the beating of rain falling outside.

potato towers


IMG_4368xsmall

Every year I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with my potato crop. There’s something about the joyful discovery of unearthing hundreds of tasty morsels from the ground that really brings out a childlike sense of delight in me. But then in the months after the harvest, when I discover I have volunteer potatoes sprouting up in places where I really didn’t want them, I start getting annoyed. There’s always that one (or ten!) miniscule marble-sized spud that goes unnoticed and starts replicating. Don’t get me wrong–in general I love plants that resow (and I’ve written about that before) but there’s something about potatoes popping up underneath and in the midst of other planting areas that I just don’t appreciate.

So this year I finally decided to isolate my potatoes in potato towers, a growing method I’ve always been curious to try. The basic idea is to plant the potatoes in an upright structure (usally some kind of wire tube) so that at harvest time you can just open the tower and all your potatoes spill out above ground. And the extra bonus is that this very tidy and contained approach is also supposed to provide higher yields.

IMG_4389xsmall

I’ve read about various methods for constructing potato towers but I ended up basing my decision on the materials that were most cost-effective and easily-available. I found chicken wire in 4′ width and bamboo fencing in 6′ width that I cut in half in to make 3′. So the final size of my towers is 4′ high (with the bamboo screen at 3′) and 2′ in diameter. I ended up with these dimensions rather arbitrarily but they turned out to be ideal in terms of my ability to load soil and compost from above.

Once the towers were constructed, I reasearched numerous planting techniques–some people plant at the bottom and then fill the towers only with straw while others continue to layer soil and compost as the plant grows. I wasn’t sure which way to go so I blended both approaches–first laying down a bed of soil, then the potatoes, then a layer of compost followed by a layer of straw.

Once the first potato leaves emerged (last week, about a month after planting) I added on another thin layer of compost and more straw. When the leaves poke out again I plan to continue mulching with straw only.

IMG_4678xsmall

As for varieties, I planted a different one in each tower (five total). I repeated three of my usual favorites–German Butterball, Yellow Finn and Banana Fingerling and then added in two I haven’t grown before–Rose Finn and Bintje. As I’ve mentioned before, I usually buy my organic seed potatoes from Ronninger’s, but they’ve now merged with a company called Potato Garden. As far as I could tell they seem to have the same great selection, so I plan to keep supporting them in this new incarnation.

Potatoes are right up there on my list of important vegetables to grow at home. First off, because they are a critical crop to eat organically. According to studies by the USDA, Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group, 79.3% of potatoes sampled were found to contain pesticides. Yikes. Secondly, because you can grow so many more varieties of potatoes than you can find in stores. (At last count, Potato Garden was selling over 75 varieties.) And lastly, because there’s nothing quite like a fresh potato from the garden, cooked up with a little butter (or rosemary and olive oil) on top. Yum!

Counting the days to harvest!

unintentional egg hunt


IMG_4686xsmall

Straw is something I always have to have on hand. Either for lining the chicken coop and nesting boxes or for mulch somewhere in the garden. But since I don’t have a barn (or anything even remotely like that!) it’s hard to find a good spot to store the large bales (which at their smallest are about 2’x2’x4′). The solution I’ve come up with is keeping partial bales in waterproof plastic tubs outside in the garden and then stowing a full bale right under the chicken coop. It’s a good dry location and a whole bale fits underneath with just a couple inches clearance on top.

On Friday I was adding another layer of straw to my potato towers (which I realize I haven’t even written about here—subject for a future post) and had finished up the loose straw in my plastic tubs. So I walked back to my chicken coop and bent down to pull off some straw from the end of the bale underneath. As I separated off a section of straw, I was startled by an egg rolling off with it. What? I crouched lower so that I could see the whole top of the bale and was shocked to discover a large pile of eggs right in the middle! What a funny surprise.

I have no idea how my chickens were managing to squish themselves between the bottom of the coop and the top of the bale, but I guess it must have made a cozy adjunct nest. Unfortunately I don’t know when they started doing this or how old the eggs are so sadly I didn’t feel comfortable eating them. But throwing away a dozen organic eggs was a depressing thought. Then I had an idea–every year my kids love dyeing eggs but no one ever wants to eat dozens of hard boiled eggs afterwards. Why not just dye these before tossing?

At first I thought about blowing out the insides and coloring the shells only, but I realized this would be too delicate an operation for the kids. So I decided to hardboil them, let the kids dye them and then toss them out. Since the process of art (and life) is the continual cycle of creation and destruction, this seemed an appropriate solution. And if you’ve never dyed brown (or blue-green) eggs, the beautiful deep jewel-tone colors they become put the traditional bright pastel colored (white dyed) eggs to shame.

IMG_9858xsmall

 

garden planning mania


Gardenplanscreencapsmall
I’ve written before about how sometimes I am a very meticulous gardener–carefully documenting what, when, where, how I’m planting. But at other times I can be completely impulsive and whimsical–planting this and that, here and there and thinking, “Oh, I don’t need to make a note, I’ll remember what I did.” As a result, every year when my seeds start sprouting I inevitably find myself staring quizzically at a some of the leaf shapes wondering what plant will surprise me.

But this year I’ve been determined to really be much more methodical about my planting. I’ve been keeping very careful records of everything I’ve been sowing and also thinking through the best possible strategies for companion and succession planting. So imagine my delight when I accidentally stumbled on an online garden planner being offered by Territorial Seed. I’ve never used any kind of software for managing my garden before but so far this planner seems like a fantastic idea. I’ve been playing around with the free demo for a few weeks and now I’m becoming obsessed with garden planning!

What impressed me right away was that I could customize the planner to my exact growing region (by zip code) and it found the first and last frost dates for my area from a weather station right in my neighborhood. Based on that it plugged in the recommended planting dates for sowing indoors and planting out. Even though I already know that info for the crops I’m used to planting, the really handy thing is that going forward the planner will send me email reminders when it’s time to start sowing the various plants I’ve selected. Love that! Even after all these years of gardening, I still find that time just seems to get away from me and before I know it I’m starting certain seeds weeks later than I know I should. A sowing nagger is just what I need.

Also, all the plants in the database are coded according to botanical family and the planner keeps track of what I’m growing where. So if I keep my whimsical impulses in check and remember to plant according to plan, not only will I not have any more “mystery plants” but next year the planner will warn me if I plan to plant in a way that violates standard rotation practices. How cool is that?

One of the things I love most about gardening is how many learning opportunities it provides. The more years I grow fruits and vegetables, the more I find to discover and explore–new varieties, new growing technologies, etc. etc. My hope is with this planner I’ll be able to really be able to streamline my garden information and make this (and future) year’s learning even more efficient and productive. And in the meantime, it’s also very fun. Check it out!

p.s. Also curious to hear about any other garden planners people have used!

what’s old is new again


IMG_4360xsmall

Several months ago I was watching Lisa Cholodenko’s film “The Kids are All Right” and had to laugh out loud when Annette’s Bening’s progressively-minded character goes on an angry rant about the latest trends in her hip Los Angeles social circle. She exclaims in a mocking voice,

“I’m sorry guys, but I just can’t, with the f**king hemp milk and the organic farming and heirloom tomatoes. ‘Oh no, don’t throw that in the trash, no man, you gotta throw that into the composting bin so the f**king worms can sh*t all over it and turn it into glorious mulch and we can all feel better about ourselves.’ God! What a bunch of bullsh*t!”

What was funny to me was realizing that something as old and ignoble as composting (which I’ve not only been doing all my life but which pre-dates Moses—really!) has now somehow become so trendy it’s subject to derision. It’s as though the whole idea of compost has been composted itself! (For those interested in knowing more about the history of composting check out this article by the University of Illinois extension.)

Regardless of whether composting happens to be “in style” or not, it’s still makes sense and it’s easy to do. Collect vegetal waste, let it rot, put it back into the soil. It’s that simple. Why throw something out when you can put it to good use?

Over the years I’ve composted with many different methods. When I was a child we had a simple wood-frame compost box in the backyard that my dad built from scrap wood. When I moved out on my own I used a variety of smaller portable premade bins, tumblers and worm boxes (all of which work well and are readily available in local home and garden stores or online at places like compostbins.com). But once I had a family and a larger garden I outgrew the standard containers and just started composting in big uncontained heaps (very slow and not so pretty.)

I must confess that after a lifetime of using these various composting methods I started to develop a “fantasy composter” that I yearned to have. (Some girls want diamonds…well, what can I say?) I had always liked the basic wooden frame that I had grown up with but wanted something even larger that allowed easy access for turning over and removal. I had my heart set on a classic three-bin system.

Well my dream finally came true last March when a friend offered to build one for me. Since then, it’s been producing loads of wonderful “black gold” for my garden. It’s easy use since the front slats are all removable, making it a snap to turn over the compost and move it from bin to bin. It makes me so happy every time I harvest a pail of rich, beautiful compost and see the wonders it does for my garden.

IMG_4394xsmall

For those interested in building a three-bin system like this, there are lots of places to download free plans online such as this one from Seattle Tilth as well as a variety of others offered by a Washington public works agency.

And while I’m on the topic of composting, there’s also the issue of collecting your kitchen waste. I’ve had numerous ugly and stinky containers sitting on my kitchen counters over the years and the best one I’ve found by far (not ugly and not stinky!) is this stainless steel compost keeper. It’s really a very tidy way to contain your old peelings until you can get out to the bin.

Even if you live in an apartment or aren’t a hardcore gardener, it’s still possible and useful to compost. And honestly, you don’t have to start drinking hemp milk or stop shaving your legs in order to do it.

mushroom hunting


Foraging and eating wild mushrooms is something that seems to strike terror in the heart of many Americans. Everyone is all too familiar with the newspaper accounts of whole families dying after consuming a tasty meal of mistaken mushrooms. But in other parts of the world where the history and knowledge of careful mushroom identification is passed along from generation to generation, eating wild mushrooms is a commonplace occurrence.

I grew up with Italian grandparents and other family friends who routinely foraged for mushrooms. So at a very young age I was not only eating finds straight from the woods (with never a worry about being poisoned) but I also knew exactly what porcini looked like in their natural (unsliced, undried) state (and that they were more properly known as Boletus edulis. What a nerdy kid I was!)

In the last few years there’s been a rediscovery of foraging and all types of wild edibles. Groups like ForageSF in San Francisco are forming communities around wild foods and foraging. I’m a big supporter of this trend, but I’m also cautious. Anytime something becomes a fad there’s the potential for lots of people to rush into it with only a limited amount of knowledge. And at the risk of sounding like I’ve joined the ranks of fungi fear-mongerers, it’s true that in this case lack of knowledge can be fatal.

Right now it’s porcini season here in Northern California so fungi foragers are all crazily trying to beat each other to the mushroom motherlode. Luckily porcini don’t really have any deadly lookalikes so theoretically it’s a good one for beginners. The more serious problem is that no novice is going to stand a chance against the veterans when it comes to knowing where and when to find them!

For anyone who’s interested in foraging for mushrooms, I recommend finding a local mycological association to start learning through whatever classes, workshops, and forays they offer. This past weekend I was part of a group foray organized by the Mycological Society of San Francisco.  The wealth of knowledge in this group (and others like it) is always awe-inspiring and extremely humbling. I’ve never been out with these people without having my head nearly throbbing by the end with newly absorbed information.

This past weekend our group found a fair number of the prize porcini, but the area had been pretty well scoured by large groups of Russian families doing the same thing. My bounty included quite a few beautiful specimens of Coccoli (pictured above). Of the many varieties of mushrooms we found, I chose to feature this one in my post–not just because it’s what I found most of–but more so because it’s a perfect example of why I am still a very cautious forager. Coccoli, while edible, happen to bear a striking resemblance to one of the most deadly mushrooms in the world, Amanita phalloides (known affectionately as the “Death Cap.”) This is the kind of thing that’s good to know when you are starting out in the world of foraging!

That said, I encourage people to get outside and find their own food. Just do it wisely and sensibly!

silently growing

“The trees, the flowers, the plants grow in silence. The stars, the sun, the moon move in silence. Silence gives us a new perspective.” —Blessed Mother Teresa


a summer in flowers


For many years my gardening philosophy was basically "If I can't eat it, why would I want to grow it?" Which is not to say I don't also deeply appreciate the aesthetics of plants. It's just that my favorite garden is primarily vegetables and fruits landscaped with edible flowers and herbs–punctuated by native plants and grasses. Because of this (and unlike a lot of gardeners) I've never really developed a strong interest in flowers.

But in the last few years, just to push myself out of my gardening rut I started dedicating a small area to cutting flowers. It's nice to have fresh flowers in the house all summer long plus plenty to give away. And even though I prefer the subtle tonal range of a primarily all-green garden I've realized it's also fun to go wild with color just in the flower patch.

Since I'm not a flower expert I usually stick to really easy things like zinnias, but each year I also add in something new. This year was my first foray into dahlias, which I must say were amazing–so huge and showy. And with a wide variety of color and shape, I can see why these flowers have an almost cult-like following of obsessed growers.

So now as summer is winding down and with it the last of the color in my garden, I wanted to celebrate the cheerful, whimsical, and frankly unlikely members of my garden. They've provided me with many moments of unexpected beauty when I was out weeding or harvesting my vegetables. Flowers, I salute you! 

IMG_1240retouchedsmall


cherry tomato bonanza


There are two varieties of cherry tomatoes I plant in my garden every year–Sun Gold and Sweet 100. They are both so sweet and tasty, fun to snack on right off the vine and wonderful tossed into pasta. The one thing they are not so good for is making sauce (too sweet, too seedy). So at the end of summer when they are growing faster than we can eat them, I’ve found the best way to preserve their delicious flavor is to slow roast them and then store in olive oil.

Last week I tackled the surplus of just the Sun Golds (I’m hoping to get to the Sweet 100s this week). After picking several baskets full I sliced them all in half, spread them out on trays lined with parchment paper (until I ran out and switched to foil), misted them with good olive oil and sprinkled (very lightly) with salt. Some people like to add in herbs or garlic too, but I like mine plain and simple.

Then I put them in the oven at 220F for a couple hours until they were shriveled up but still had a little juice left inside (chewy as opposed to crispy). Then I crammed them into jars and covered in olive oil.

Now when we’re in the dark days of winter we’ll still have memories of the fresh taste of summer.

strawberry fields


A few weeks ago a friend told me her favorite local strawberry grower, “Sally Strawberry” was going out of business and selling off frozen strawberry crowns bulk-ordered from a commercial nursery. Within minutes I was emailing Sally to place an order. Besides being a great bargain, this was also a unique opportunity to get the popular and very tasty ‘Chandler’ variety that’s difficult to find at the retail level, especially at this time of year.

Around here gardeners usually buy strawberry starters at garden centers in late winter/early spring, but for our Northern California climate, Sally believes this is the worst possible planting strategy. She says plants bought at this time are freshly dug and will grow, but only have limited fruit production. Instead, she recommends using a summer planting system and transplanting in early September.

So last Friday I prepped my berry beds with fresh compost and drove out to Sally’s stand to pick up my order. I had never seen frozen strawberry crowns before, but they reminded me of bare root trees–gnarly, dried up root balls that looked like something to be tossed out with the yard waste. Within days of planting them though all the crowns already had their first set of vibrant green leaves opening and expanding. Nature is so amazing.

According to Sally, in our area the Chandler berries will blossom in
March and ripen in late April or early May.  They should produce for
about 5 weeks (until mid June) and then again in August through early September. The question now is how I’m going to wait a seven or eight months to taste the results! I’ve actually had pretty decent crops of strawberries the past few years (using the conventional spring planting method) so I’m very excited to see what I’ll be able to achieve with this new variety and planting system. Looking forward to lots of spring strawberry desserts and more of my delicious sun-dried strawberry preserves.


(Photo taken in July of this summer’s crop.)