How to like squash

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This is one of my fancy French heritage squash I planted last year (Sucrine du Berry), according to the seed package it is supposed to have “a sweet, musky fragrance and a delicious sweet flesh” – it just tastes like squash to me.

So I have a little secret – I don’t actually like squash (the exception is pumpkin pie, which is the best desert on the planet). I thought I would grow to like it, but it was recently pointed out to me that turning all my squash into curried squash soup only really means I like curry.

But, for the last few years, squash has turned out to be my most productive crop – I’m still working through the 67kg I harvested last year and there is only so much curried squash soup one family can stand. Which has left me with no choice but to experiment. So we’ve had coconut squash pasta (which was good, but could just be me liking coconut milk), squash and black bean burgers (also good, but I couldn’t taste the squash) and squash muffins (about as far into baking that I ever venture). All reasonable options for reducing my squashy stash.

The best option by far is lacto-fermented squash. Once fermented it’s ready in the fridge whenever, and is an easy addition to a plowman style lunch. I’ve only had it, so far, styled as kimchi, but there is plenty of opportunity to experiment here – but not with spaghetti squash (I fermented some last year and it was not good and I’ve since come across others who’ve tried and come to the same conclusion).

Anyone have other ideas on how to prepare winter squash for those of us who don’t really like it?

 

February Garden Update

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This time of year the garden turns into a monster mud pit as we aren’t far off the clay base and the water just stays – which is why we have raised beds. Our chicken tractor has seen better days so I hope we’ll get a more permanent home built for the hens over the summer (The coop we build is the type of coop that one builds when company is coming and chickens are living in the guest bathroom). Check out the bones of my new greenhouse.

I think I’m finally escaping my January blahs and a little extra light has brought new growth to the garden (perhaps the two are related). I’ve got big plans for this year, including finishing the greenhouse, a watering system and a new chicken coop – plus extending the front garden to take over much of our front lawn. I’ve also had enough with weed-wacking around the raised planters, so I’m finally going to get wood chips down.

Garlic has emerged

Garlic has emerged

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The collards are putting on new growth (as is the kale)

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So far, the chard has survived the winter

and there is corn salad too

and there is corn salad too

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In the event of an unexpected apocalypse, there is plenty of purple dead nettles to eat (or I could just feed them to the hens).

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Once, over five years ago, I planted borage – now it comes up all over the place (I even spotted some of it already blooming in the front). The flowers are pretty in salads and the birds and bees like it.

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Last year I added two goji plants – now they’re getting ready to take over the world.

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and finally, a pretty shot of some calendula that never stopped blooming.

 

garden in a cube

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an edible chrysanthemum – blooming when I rather it didn’t

As I sit looking out to the garden six lemon yellow flowers provide a cheerful punch in the winter garden dominated by greens and mud. They’re edible chrysanthemums, planted to provide winter greens, but they decided to bloom – in January.  The only other flash of bright colour comes from the Steller’s Jay that has taken up foraging the footprints of past compost bins, presumably ground full of tasty delights. The flash of blue keeps distracting me, but I don’t mind. Looking out always reminds me, the garden is about more than the food it produces.

Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to a company that outfits sea containers with hydroponic gardening systems. Inside, lights cast an optimized spectrum of wavelengths on vertical crops creating a glowing purple world. These gardens (factories? systems?) are reminiscent of a retrofuturistic world without ground to plant and gardens are for one purpose only – human food production.

This kind of food production could feed a lot of people. Since I have a ridiculously long and flat driveway for an urban dweller, I could easily accommodate one of these portable systems – and it’s even tempting. I wonder if there has been thought of sending these systems to the remote communities in the north? Could they produce fresh produce cheaper than flying it in?

I have to admit, I prefer a more polyculture style garden. I would never sit in one of these systems, while I’ll sit in my garden and observe. I prefer the lushness of a polyculture set up along with the wildlife that come in. Plus, I like the illumination of the full visible spectrum, not just the wavelengths that serve growth best.

Hey, there’s the Steller’s Jay…

on the elusiveness of ideas

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I’m not really sure why, but this is one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken.

I’ve been a little short on blog post lately (by lately I mean the last two months). I’ve drifted away from diligently creating the right kind of environment that allows me to think. When I get it right ideas spring up like weeds when I don’t I feel stuck in a desert – I seem to be in one state or the other, never a middle ground.

Step one is getting enough sleep, as a natural insomniac this is a tough one for me. Add in a three year old on her own agenda and I find myself regularly in a sleep deprived mental fog. I could put a notebook beside my bed to jot down ideas that come to me at night. But, as soon as I turn on a light to do that, sleep, which is my ultimate goal, drifts further away.

My solution is to actively avoid thinking up good ideas at night, instead I play with slightly boring scenarios I’ve poached from TV shows, movies or something I’ve read – nothing I can call my own. This gives me something to think about while bypassing my monkey mind (also called the default mode network where the mind chews on itself dredging up negative tidbits and past conflicts that only creates useless worry). The goal is to relax and fall asleep. Even when I do come up with my own ideas at night I’m not convinced they are actually any good – and a full night sleep is more important as it makes it easier for me to think clearly the next day. Being clear headed enough to write begets more writing and often the ideas just flow.

Step two is to create a situation where my mind can wander. So, washing dishes works as does weeding, running, driving and even sitting on air planes. Going to a coffee shop with a blank piece of paper and no agenda but to write works, as does sitting in my comfy chair at home. My mind tends to go on tangents when I read non-fiction, enough so that I tend to read that kind of book with a notebook at hand. I often find myself putting the book aside to explore my own thoughts. The key seems to be being alone, creating space in my head and seeing what happens.

All this to say, I’ll be coming up with new posts soon.

As a tangent, after almost a decade away, I recently began dabbling with fiction writing again. Who knows if anything will come from it.

The 2015 harvest numbers

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A picture to remind everyone of summer

I finally worked up the energy to tally the harvest from 2015, I grew 196 kg of food! My harvest works out to enough to feed a person requiring 2000 calories per day for 62 days – not too shabby. Out of curiosity I went back an calculated calories on my 2014 harvest and was able to feed my hypothetical person for 38 days, so I’m improving. Hopefully, the 2016 harvest will produce even more calories (that’s this year’s goal). As for what my harvest was worth, a rough calculation resulted in $1150 worth of produce, $50 more than the 2014 harvest (I may have calculated my 2014 harvest based on organic produce which I didn’t do this year).

So for those who like the numbers here they are:

Eggs – 489 (over 40 dozen). Also added two new hens to my flock (Licorice and Stout), so I’m expecting an eggy spring.

Roots – 13.54 kg. I didn’t plant as many different type of roots last year, just carrots, beets, and radishes. I also planted celeriac for the first time and haven’t harvested them yet.

Greens – 10.49 kg. I’ve lumped all my green leafy things into one category here. I grew kale, collards, lettuce, chard and an assortment of Asian greens.

Oniony things – 3.75 kg. Mostly garlic and leeks, might try actual onions again this year.

Sprouts – 0.99 kg. This I do in the house and is usually pea shoots, chive sprouts (from my own seeds) and fenugreek sprouts. I’ve experimented with other sprouts and these three are my favourite.

Broccoli – 0.5 kg. This is all purple sprouting broccoli I harvest in the spring. I didn’t get a lot, but the taste was awesome so I’ll aim for more this year plus my husband has convinced me to grow Brussels sprouts.

Peas/beans – 2.59 kg. There were fresh peas and green beans, I’m thinking of adding snow peas to the mix since they’ll be ready sooner in the spring when not much else is available.

Herbs – 1.02 kg. I grow parsley, chives, basil and rosemary. Will expand herb production this year.

Fruit – 16.58 kg. This was the first year I got ripe melons and they were awesome, but I didn’t get any apples. I’ve also included all the berries that made it into the house (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and tayberries).

Mushrooms – 0.48 kg. From a kit I got at last year’s seedy Saturday.

Tomatoes – 34.11 kg. More than last year! I experimented with some new types but for my garden and taste buds black prince and old German varieties work best.

Peppers – 4.76 kg. I grew both hot and sweet peppers outside and got a huge harvest.

Cucumber – 0.3 kg. All I can say is cucumbers just didn’t work for me last year.

Oca – 1.23 kg. I wrote about these here.

Dried beans – 5.75 kg. I wrote about these here. I’ve since eaten several of my varieties and am enjoying how different they are, so far the snowcap beans are my favourite.

Potatoes – 33 kg and Squash – 67 kg. I wrote about these here. We ate the last of these last weekend, since I love potatoes its going to be a long wait until this year’s crop.

I also harvested a bunch of oddball things I’ll cover in another post. Plus, I’ve saved all sorts of seeds to use this year. Finally, last year I planted a bunch of fruit and nut trees, more berries (including a grape vine) and my perennial plants are getting established – once all these are producing I expect my urban harvest will increase massively.

the grand re-configuration plan – an update of sorts

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Some rain-soaked rocks

The rain and wind have conspired to turn my backyard into its winter monster-mud-pit state. Mud gloms onto my boots every time I wander out there creating a slippery mess. It’s not cold in a Canadian winter way, which is why I live where I do, but it makes being out there messy. Garden work is possible – and this is why we built raised beds. Carrots, leeks and celeriac still reside in the ground well above the mucky level, but mostly the beds are empty so I can enact my grand re-configuring plan.

We’re changing the beds from orderly rectangles into more of a keyhole shape – since we’re working with bricks, the end result will be more like two big c’s. This should optimize my growing space while reducing the weed-whacking-requiring paths. A cunning plan that requires me to move a lot of dirt and bricks, so hopefully we’ll get a few days of light-to-no rain in the near future so I can get to work.

I’ll post before and after photos when I’m done.

and now for something completely different…

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My first collared shirt (and I can actually wear it).

I generally try to keep my rambling to science, nature and my garden, but I have a little secret, I dabble with sewing as well. Since I was given a sewing machine last winter, I’ve been interspersing short sewing sessions with my science to keep on track.

I’m excited that an essay I wrote about science and sewing is appearing in this month’s Seamworks magazine. Check it out here.

Scents from exotic lands [Exotic Tastes, Ecological Sensibility]

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My jar of pepper

Its that time of year again when we are bombarded with the message to buy, buy, buy every time we set foot near a store. I was going to write a slightly condescending post about the excesses of Christmas, filled with dodgy statistics like: if we cut back on wrapping three presents would save enough wrapping paper to cover 45,000 hockey rinks, or that if everyone saved half a metre of ribbon, combined we would have enough ribbon to tie a bow around the planet.

I started this post, but ran out of steam, besides I like wrapped presents with ribbons and can choose recyclable/reusable options. In addition to gifts, wrapped or not, the time of year is upon us when decadent treats come out. I assume everyone has traditional foods that with one whiff conjure up memories of celebrations with family and friends. For me spiced sweet baked goods do the trick, like: traditional fruit cake soaked in rum, buttery shortbread, gingerbread so dark one can almost see the molasses and steamed plum pudding (I have English roots). Each has flavours originating far from where the recipe was invented.

This is also the time of year people start planning escapes from our cold northern climate to warm, exotic lands. I regularly dream of traveling to exotic lands, but my student budget keeps me home, saving me from the conundrum of travel and a desire for ecological sustainability. As an alternative to travel to exotic lands, what about bringing bits of these worlds home? Spices – desiccated plant parts that provide a punch of flavour and scent that can dredge up memories of holidays past. They are light and long lasting, making them great candidates for long distance travel, the opposite of stuffing someone like me into a trans-oceanic flight where the experience of the holiday is fleeting. Instead of shipping myself to exotic lands, I bring exotic flavours to my house.

I love spicy food. My pantry is full of tastes my ancestors may have only heard of (I’m from a long line of ordinary folks) cumin, cardamon, star anise, fenugreek and more. In a corner, I have a jar containing enough peppercorns to make myself wealthy back in medieval times. Black pepper went from being a luxury item for kingly feasts and found in ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s tombs to being ubiquitous – found in paper packages along side its salty partner in fast food joints everywhere. I’ve progressed to fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate but I have no idea where my pepper (or the rest of my spices) came from, nor the human cost of its production.

Recently, I watched a documentary about black pepper from Cambodia. The documentary centred around pepper from Kampot, along the country’s southern coast, and this region has grown pepper since the 13th century. Kampot has the right combination of rich soil and climate for this tropical vine to thrive and produce a unique tasting spice. In the documentary, the gangly British chef/host and his pretty sidekick visited a family pepper farm. In the 1970’s, under Khmer Rouge policies, the pepper was ripped up because it was a luxury crop, and replaced by rice paddies with forced labour. After the human horrors ended, this family (and I assume others in the area) went back and replanted their pepper. The work on the pepper farm was manual, the vines needed tending and the green peppercorns needed to be plucked from the vines. The green pepper was spread out on large screened drying racks and stirred every few hours. Once, the green orbs turned black and wrinkly it was packaged and shipped away. The farming process looked equivalent to growing grapes for wine – seasonally physical work. Assuming, they could get a fair price for their pepper, this family operation looked like something I’m willing to support.

more beans and a mystery

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The new beans, from left to right: Granos de la Herencia, Victory, and Cubaces

The other day I sent some of my ‘Tiger Eye’ and ‘Blue Jay’ beans to work with my husband for him to pass on to a couple of his co-workers. Well, they sent some beans back for me to grow next spring. So, I’ll be adding ‘Victory’, ‘Cubaces’ and ‘Granos de la Herencia’ to my beany collection.

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A close-up of the Victory bean’s markings – my geek filter must be on because I see Serenity.

The Victory beans were brought to Victoria from Poland – and with a name like that I’m sure they have a fascinating story behind them. The red markings on white are quite unique, to some it looks like an eagle, but when I squint I see Serenity from the old Firefly TV series. I now have 10 bush beans to attempt to grow into enough for a meal or two.

The other two types of beans were bought back from a recent trip to Costa Rica. The tiny Granos de la Herencia is a common bean and should be a bush type. Cubaces is in the scarlet runner family, so I’m assuming it will need some growing support. Can’t wait to try all of them.

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Mystery seeds and the envelope they came in.

In other seedy news, a family member dropped off an envelope with two seeds in it. Best guess is that these seeds are about 50 years old, so I doubt they’ll grow – but I’ll try any way. All I can make out on the package is that they need lots of sunshine. My best guess these are watermelon seeds, any better ideas on their identity?

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A close-up of the mystery seeds

 

 

Results from the tuber triad experiment

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Oca emerging from the soil last spring

Last winter, I came home from the local ’seedy Saturday’ with a bag of interesting plants to try, including three oca tubers (I’ve since discovered there is a huge variety of oca types, but I didn’t get any information about what type my tubers are). Oca, or Oxalis tuberosa, is a food plant I’ve read about, but never encountered before and I’m generally game to try new plants, even if I have no idea if I’ll like their flavour.

Along with potatoes, a handful of other tubers were, and I assume still are, grown in the Andes – including ulluco, anu (also called mashua) and oca. All four were grown together in the same field (I’m keeping my eyes open for ulluco and anu so I can try them as well), perhaps taking advantage of different subsets of nutrients. I can see an huge advantage to not relying on a single crop as your staple, a variety of tubers makes sense. The growing advice I found said to plant oca in the spring, then wait until after there has been a few frosts to harvest because the plant doesn’t start producing tubers until days get shorter. Potatoes was once like this as well, so if you were growing potatoes in the sixteenth century you would have gotten the same advice.

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Mid-summer oca

I planted mine directly in the ground late spring. My triad of oca tubers were quick to produce beefy three part leaves, and by late summer there was a nice mound of well behaved foliage – which was good because I had planted other plants a short distance away (potatoes on one side and anise on the other). By September, the oca began to flop over, sprawling into the other plant’s space after I’d already harvested them. Late October, I peeked under the ground and could confirm tubers were forming.

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Pulling up the plants

We’ve had a couple of frosts here so I bit the bullet and dug up my oca last weekend. From the three tubers I started with, I got roughly 1.2 kg which seems pretty good for my first attempt at growing this plant. I’ve read to expect 0.5 kg per plant, so there is an opportunity for me to do better next year. Wikipedia claims oca has 255 calories per 100 g (or 0.26 calories per gram), which means my harvest works out to a grand total of 312 calories – not enough to keep a person going for long, but a start. Something nibbled on some of my tubers, I’m not sure what but I was very careful to only select non-nibbled tubers to plant again next year.

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scrubbed tubers ready to eat

And finally, we got to eat some. We tried a few slices raw. I’ve read some varieties contain a lot of oxalic acid which gives a lemony flavour, but not my variety. They had the texture of a water chestnut, which gave a nice crunch, but not much flavour. I don’t think I’ll bother with them raw. I fried some up like potatoes and they tasted kinda like potatoes, that is, somewhat bland in a staple food kind of way. Oca will be perfectly acceptable to me treated like a potato, my tubers for next year are already safely packed away.

As an after thought, I see that Emma over at the Unconventional Gardener hasn’t harvested her oca yet – she’s in a similar biome to mine, so perhaps should have left mine in the ground a little longer.