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.
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.
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.
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.
About a year ago I planted my medlar tree into the food forest. It put off one flower in the spring, which promptly fell off, after that my tree did nothing all summer. I assume (and hope) it was building a fantastic root system, so that next spring it’ll take off. All I can do right now is wait and see.
Since I’ve never tasted or even seen a medlar fruit, when my husband mentioned he has a co-worker with an excess of medlar, and did I want to try some? I said yes. Well, we hit the medlar jackpot – the dining room table is now covered in bletting fruit (A medlar is only edible bletted, which means, slightly rotted).
Like a lot of food, I wonder who first tried them – Was someone hungry enough to randomly eat rotted fruit? It turns out they can blet right on the tree, many of the ones we picked were ready to eat. They squished in our hands, dripping out their insides. They also squished under our feet, creating a slippery mess – no wonder the medlar tree owners were happy for us to cart them away.
I’d read that a ripe medlar tastes like spiced applesauce, but that doesn’t quite describe it. In contrast to the exotic flavours of a quince, a medlar has a more familiarness to it (quince and medlars are both related to apples). There is definitely a hint of apple pie but they are certainly not sweet. The consistency was like applesauce, but the texture was slightly different in a way I can’t describe. I like them, but eating them regularly will take some getting used to.
About a third of what we picked was ready to use right away. I felt much to lazy to make medlar jelly and I already made a ton of quince ‘cheese’ so I didn’t want to make a medlar version. I settled on making medlar sauce using the same method I use to make applesauce. I had to sweeten it in the end as I just didn’t see anyone eating the unsweetened version. My medlar sauce doesn’t have the crisp freshness that unsweetened applesauce does – it needed some sugar. The result thickened up nicely and a dollop tasted good in my morning yogurt.
I stumbled across a blog, You Grow Girl, where the gardener, Gayla Trail, was kept from her garden by illness for a season. She describes the pain of not being in her garden and how some things died but much of the wilderness she created carried on. When she posed the question of what it means to be a gardener who can’t garden as part of her writing guild I decided to join in. So here are my thoughts:
From my home office, I can sit and look out on my garden (well part of it now that I’m expanding my garden space). The backyard is where I started when we moved into this house five years ago. Days after we took possession I was already planting lettuce seeds. It was early May and it didn’t take long until I had filled the existing beds with produce producing plants. Thinking back, I certainly didn’t always have access to land and was often living a nomadic life, but I almost always was growing something – and if I wasn’t growing something I was thinking about it.
The first garden that truly felt mine was a shady patch under a big leaf maple I claimed as a child. Bleeding hearts grew there naturally and I would carefully collect their tiny black seeds and spread them around with the hope more would grow. To add to the garden, my mom bought me already flowering impatiens which has left me with a nostalgic fondness of their cheery blooms even though now I prefer to grow vegetables.
Between that garden and the one I have now I tried many growing schemes, exploring all sorts of options that didn’t work. My balconies and window sills were always filled with potted food growing attempts. I know some people are very successful growing food in containers but I never was. Aphids would descend making lettuce, basil and dill to sticky to contemplate eating, while one forgotten watering session would lead to mass plant extinctions. Once, in a balcony-less apartment I had years ago I tried growing roma tomatoes inside, resulting in floor-to-ceiling leggy plants that never bothered blooming. But I kept trying.
For two years in a row, I signed up for a plot at the community garden near where I lived at the time. It was rural Alberta, a place with space – lots of it. All the plots were the same size, way to big leaving me overwhelmed. I was successful growing plenty of food, but both years the weeds took over. Threats to plow my plot under unless I got the weeds under control were issued forcing me to wrangle up my friends and press them into weeding service (which turned out to be fun).
On a micro-scale, while on an icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea a few years ago, one of my crew mates showed up ready to grow sprouts. I thought that was a fantastically original idea and my mind was set free to the possibilities of portably growing food; a thought exercise I still use when I can’t sleep. Under the right lights, I could try grow anything (especially in my imagination). Oh, and growing sprouts on a ship turned out to be an old idea – Sir Parry an Arctic explorer in the 1800’s grew sprouts for his crew to ward off scurvy (I haven’t found any record that his crew actually ate them).
I often ponder why I’m drawn to gardening, even when I’ve not been set up to do so. The answer is that I don’t know. Maybe its because I like working with my hands. Or maybe its because I get to witness a process that almost feels like magic, where with a little effort on my part, a speck of a seed grows before my eyes into a majestic plant.
Since my people as palimpsests post and some of the comments I got about it, I’ve been thinking a lot about the former version of myself that was an army officer. Plus, Remembrance Day typically gets me thinking about my time in the military and how grateful I am that I didn’t have to serve when we were a nation at war.
This morning I felt inspired to dig up some photos of me taken back then – I don’t have many because it was mostly a time pre digital cameras and generally I was too busy to think about taking pictures. Overall, my army experience was positive and I’m amazed I did what I did, but looking back at the person I was feels weird. All of that is still part of me and I have no regrets about any of it, but that’s not me any more.
Looking at the pictures of a younger me reminds me how disjointed and misunderstood I felt (perhaps a general malady of people in their 20s). At the time, I cared a lot about what others thought of me and the picture others painted of me was often wildly polar. Even though I was among the first Canadian women in combat arms, my experience was less about sexism and more about my introverted nature. My superiors (with some exceptions) regularly told me how my personality needed to change to be successful – I wasn’t ‘gung ho’ enough even though I volunteered for every ‘gung ho’ opportunity I could, but was never selected. At the same time my subordinates would tell me how refreshing it was to work for someone who truly cared about them.
Looking back, the biggest difference between the army version of me and me now is that I care less what people think of me. There’s a handful of people close to me who’s opinion of me matters, but for everyone else they are free to like or dislike me as they choose and I don’t care. I’m also content with my life now in a way that I wasn’t back then. I’m doing the work I always wanted to do and I’m with people I want to be with, plus now I get to putter around in my own plot of land and no one can force me to move across the country at a moments notice.
Growing season is basically over here. My leeks, carrots and celeriac are all sitting dormant in the garden waiting for me to harvest them. I have a wide assortment of greens waiting too – I’m harvesting some, but most I’ll over winter and harvest in the spring when they put on new growth. In a patch I was about to weed along my back fence I discovered a thicket of self-seeded arugula which was a nice surprise and a tasty addition to our sandwiches.
The oca is the next harvest I’m excited about. I started with three tubers last spring which has resulted in a nice looking mound of leaves reminiscent of clover but with more substance. Apparently the leaves are edible, but I’ve been waiting to try the tubers. Oca don’t start setting tubers until after the fall equinox, so I’m going to wait until frost kills the foliage before I go digging for tubers. I did peak and there are lots of tubers forming.
I should be eating radishes – but something with them went wrong. It’s like they exploded. I don’t think a pest did this, instead my hypothesis is they took on too much water with all the rain and just burst. I’m disappointed.
I’ve not been happy with my previous garlic harvests – I want more garlic! Bigger cloves! So I’ve set aside a much larger space for next year, which I covered with rotted manure a couple of months ago. I just planted a new set of cloves. Three are hard neck varieties, that is, I can expect scapes to form next spring – a second harvest (the scapes are really the garlic’s flower and if you let them bloom the plant won’t put energy into big cloves). I’m trying ‘music’, ‘German white’ and ‘Siberia’ varieties and I’ve sorted myself out enough to mark which variety is planted where so I can compare how they do and taste.
For the first time I’ve also planted a soft neck variety – ‘inchelium red’. The garlic in grocery stores are typically soft neck types because they store better than the hard necks. These are the garlics that can be braided into wreaths and other decorations/vampire protection devices. Reputedly, they aren’t as tasty as the hard neck types (I’ll test this), but if they store well I hope to extend the amount of time I have my own garlic to eat.
I’ve been rethinking how to best use the space in my backyard. By turning my beds into a more keyhole shape, I’ll gain a bit of gardening space and cut back a bit on weed-wacking. A plan which has resulted in a lot of digging and moving of bricks. I’ll think it’ll be worth it in the end (I should go and gather up my shovels).
My original plan included having the greenhouse up by now, so I started some delicate heat lovers. Pepino melons were one of them (they aren’t actually a melon, instead they come from the continuum between eggplants and tomatoes). After doing nothing all summer, the plant put on a growth spurt this fall and is now flowering. I have protection over the plant to keep heat in, but I suspect the flowers will amount to nothing. They are pretty though and I’ll be starting next year’s plant super early so hopefully, I’ll get to try some fruit next year.
In the spirit of the season, it’s time for some creepy crawlies…
So far we’ve identified more than 10 species of spiders living in the garden and no doubt there are many more types. I love seeing spiders in the garden because they eat the animals that are eating my food. In one English study, in late summer one hectare of meadow was found to contain roughly 5 million spiders which suggests these predators are consuming way more harmful bugs than birds do (ref).
All spiders are venomous – venomous means that if that animal bites or stings you a toxin will be put in your system while a poisonous animal will make you sick if you eat it. As far as I know you could eat a spider if you wanted to (I base my spider edibility knowledge off of seeing people eating roasted tarantulas in a move once instead of actual fact). Most spiders are incapable of biting through human skin, especially around here. There are some exceptions, black widow spiders for example but I’ve never seen one in real life.
Spiders fall into two general categories – those who spin webs to catch their prey and those who don’t opting for ambush or stalking techniques instead. I have to admit that I absolutely despise walking into spider’s webs – when I roamed the forest as a kid I would always wave a stick in front of my face where ever I went to prevent accidentally getting web on my face. Now I try to avoid wrecking spider’s webs, leaving the spiders to catch their dinner in peace – mostly. Occasionally, when my daughter asks, I’ll ’tickle’ a web so the spider rushes out to investigate.
Beyond being protectors of my food, spiders are amazingly diverse and often quite beautiful. So to any arachnophobes out there, who’ve made it this far into my post – take a look at these links and check out how fantastic spiders can be (go on I dare you):
This one is my favorite.
And here is a roundup of local ones.
And, for any arachnophobes still with me, I thought I should mention some spiders have figured out how to soar in the sky. They can’t fly, but using a strand of their silk like a kite they can drift with the wind. More here.
Warning – this isn’t a garden post
I stumbled across Wil Wheaton’s blog yesterday*. He’s not an actor I think much about; mostly I link him to the Star Trek: The Next Generation character Wesley Crusher who was generally disliked – by me too (I have enjoyed his more recent roles in The Big Bang Theory and Eureka). Now that I think about out it, I should have liked Wesley, because at the time we had so much in common. It was the late 80s and we were the same age. I was an air cadet in high school wanting to get into military college and become an officer – plus I was (and still am) a science fiction fan. Wesley, was also a cadet of sorts, wanting to get into Starfleet Academy and become an officer. Wesley’s fictional life was parallel to my own (minus the aliens and saving everybody). What turned out to be related was a podcast I recently listened to about palimpsests – ancient manuscripts over written by other manuscripts and how that idea can be applied to people in that our current self has over written our previous versions of self. So my teenage 80’s version of myself has been overwritten by other versions of me to the point I can no longer remember why I didn’t relate to Wesley Crusher.
As an aside, my teenage self over wrote my nature loving, garden keeper child self which is probably why I can remember what the garden looked like on the the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D – I can’t imagine it was featured in many episodes.
Back to my current self – Wil recently posted about the things he did to reboot his life for his 40s version of self that I related to (minus the depression and anxiety which I’ve luckily avoided). I’ve been in a tired funk, my PhD work has reached a non-exciting, but necessary stage full of ongoing drudgery. I’m near enough to the end that I spend a lot of time (often in the middle of the night) wondering what I’ll do when I’m done. I wonder if I even want to be a scientist. Graduation will result in a new version of self no matter what I choose to do. Plus, being around a small child with bountiful energy makes me wonder where my own energy has gone. Some days my tiredness extends to a brain fog which sucks out my creativity. I often think about all the projects I want to get done, but I don’t have the energy to get up and do them. So here’s my list, completely inspired by Wil’s list, of how I’m performing my own personal reboot.
1 – Get more sleep
I’ve always been an insomniac – at night my mind races, keeping me awake. If I’m not careful, my monkey mind takes over leading me into negative loops where I think up all the bad things that could happen but probably won’t (I do have tricks to deal with this). I’ve known for a long time that meditation can help racing minds, I just need to do it regularly. I got some relaxation herbal tea and epsom salts for my bath, both of which might help (at the very least, the placebo effect is real). I’m also going to bed earlier because sleeping in no longer happens here.
2 – Exercise regularly
Since I became a mom the amount of exercise I get has dropped off. I used to do (and love) both Cross Fit and martial arts, now I don’t have time to do either. It has become incredibly easy to slip into a cycle of inactivity where I become achy and tired-er. What I can fit in is running and yoga/stretching, so I need to stay on the band wagon with these. Plus when I regularly run I sleep better.
3 – write everyday
For over 20 years I’ve kept a journal. When I consistently write in it I feel more balanced and creative ideas start to flow. I need to take the time to be consistent with my journal writing. I also need a creative outlet to vent into while working on hard stuff (currently my Phd). In the past, I’ve used writing fiction as a this outlet – I’ve written four novels this way (I’ve done nothing with any of them). So, last July I started puttering on a new novel which I’m going to keep poking at.
4 – socialize more with like minded people
I generally work alone, so I don’t get much workplace chatting. I’m also an introvert, so I’m happy working alone which is a bit of a trap as a lot of new ideas can come from others. I do get together with friends once a week to play board games and chat which is awesome. I need to find/create more of this kind of socializing as it can energize me.
5 – do something with my hands everyday
At this stage, my work is in my head with some reading, writing and computing. I need to balance this with working with my hands and creating something tangible. Besides, while working with my hands ideas churn somewhere in the bilges of my brain often resulting in interesting new thoughts. My garden counts towards this kind of work as does cooking and preserving food (hence all the writing about my urban homestead). Now that the rainy season is approaching, I need to keep that momentum going. My answer here has been sewing, which I haven’t blogged about before. I’ve been making clothes for my husband and myself (my daughter insists of wearing items with animals on them and has bags of hand-me downs so I’m not making stuff for her at the moment). Sewing presents an additional double good in my view as I tend to worry about the origins of things and the garment industry is laced with poor worker treatment – if I sew my own clothes I don’t have to worry about sweatshops while ending up with clothes that fit.
Image is from here
* I think I’ll start following his blog as I’m finding his writing more interesting than the characters he plays.
Eventually, I’d like to get a quince tree mostly because they have the most beautiful blooms. So when I was offered a large amount of quince from a friend, I accepted and considered it a test of what I might do when I have my own quince tree in full production.
Quince are related to apples and pears. They ripen a bit later in the fall (I got mine mid-October) making them a nice fruit to extend the season with. The fruit’s fragrance is amazing – one source I found suggests putting quince in a bowl to give a room fragrance. I couldn’t leave any of my quince in the house because they also attract fruit flies by the billion. Their dark side is they’re inedible raw – which is generally how we eat our fruit here. Even though I had read this, I couldn’t help but try a raw chunk of quince to test. I spit the piece out – they are extremely sour (and I’m a fan of sour things) and rock hard.
I did have a recipe for quince paste – so I made a quadruple batch. Basically, it’s a sour gummy that’s all grown up and will go awesome with cheese. Then I made some quince butter using an apple butter recipe and started a batch of quince vinegar (see picture here). I also froze several bags of sliced quince to make crisps out of. At the end, I still had a bucket of quince left over. None of my canning books, and I have a stack, offered any more ideas of what to do to quince and my bucket-o-quince was quickly becoming too ripe.
I resorted to asking an online forum for help – and quince ideas came. I didn’t have enough left to start a batch of wine (but I wanted to), so I settled on making quince and cranberry with ginger preserves (recipe here) which turned out absolutely fantastic and of course I got around to making this a couple days after I hosted a Thanksgiving turkey meal. I’ll bring it out for Christmas, if I don’t just eat it out of the jars before then. I also started a batch of quince vodka (recipe here), which should be ready to try at Christmas.
I now think I can handle a large harvest of quince, so I’m keeping a look out for my own tree.
Converting the monoculture of my front lawn into a more diverse ecosystem was one of my goals when we started building a food forest last year. For wildlife we took a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy that has worked. Bees and ladybugs quickly moved in as soon as there were flowers, and spiders have spun their webs everywhere. Little birds now hunt for food among the trees and plants – juncos, golden crown sparrows, and fox sparrows find meals on the ground while the Anna’s hummingbird that calls our yard home frequents the flowers, especially the currently blooming broccoli.
A couple of days ago I spotted something new – a Cooper’s hawk was perched on the top bar of our not-deer-proof fortification intently watching the old laurel bush by our deck. The laurel bush is covered with berries I suspect are toxic but the neighbourhood robins had taken to feasting on them (based on the droppings on the deck, the berries appear to disagreeing with the robins digestive systems). Hundreds of robins were flocking to the bush and capturing the hawk’s attention. Cooper’s hawks regularly eat robins and this one had figured out a trick.
Every now and then some robins would spook and fly off. The dumb ones flew low into the fortification netting. Bird panic ensued as they discovered their path was blocked, as the robins frantically looked for a way out the hawk would swoop in. I didn’t see him catch his dinner, but I’m sure in time his method would be successful.
I took a couple pictures of the small raptor since he was distracted enough to let me get close. When I showed the pictures to my husband we noticed the bird was banded and we could clearly make out the number on his band. My husband used his contacts to find out a little about the bird and to report that we saw him. It turns out this hawk was born in town sometime in the spring of 2010 and banded shortly thereafter – I was even sent a baby picture. He looks like a healthy urban hawk to me and I’d be happy to see him again in the yard.
Other, more problematic wildlife I wish wouldn’t visit. My food forest has been slow to develop mostly due to wily deer that keep finding ways inside our not-deer-proof fortification. Since I irrigated all summer, inside the fortification was lush and green compared to the parched lawns on the outside. Clearly, I created a tasty destination for our urban deer. We’ll be rebuilding the fence over winter to prevent (hopefully) the problem next summer. The pole beans and broccoli took the brunt of the deer damage, but my apple and cherry tree were also munched on – hopefully they recover next spring! As an aside both the ground cherries and Irish poet tassel flowers were entirely ignored.
My pre-ordered a copy of The Hands-On Home by Erica Strauss finally arrived last week. I regularly stop by Erica’s blog Northwest Edible Life because I enjoy her writing style and humour, so I expected I’d like her book. Well, this was not the books I was expecting! I thought I’d be getting a floppy cookbook, instead I got a tome like the fluid mechanics textbook I used for years to hold up my computer monitor, and it’s pretty enough to go on the shelf with my pretty cookbooks. Likely it’ll join the pile of cookbooks that live on my kitchen counter that I refer to all the time (a pile my neat-freak husband kindly hasn’t tried to put away).
The Hands-On Home is more than a cookbook extending into preserving, cleaning and self care with recipes fitting into each category. The book is broken down by season, so I started by trying out a couple of fall recipes.
Cambazola went on sale last week and there was a red cabbage in the fridge, so I decided to try ‘Red Cabbage with Cambazola’ first. I was perfectly prepared to try a new recipe by choosing a day my husband was late getting home from work and my toddler was grumpy and hungry (she snatched most of the apple for the recipe right out of the bowl before it even made it into the pot). I had no red wine, and if I did I likely would have poured myself a glass instead of cooking with it. The cabbage was quickly ready and served beside some left over pulled pork harmony was restored to my house.
The second recipe I tried was ‘Curried Butternut Squash Soup with Caramelized Apple and Cider Cream.’ Without a real excuse I skipped making the cider cream, laziness I guess, the soup would look pretty with it. This soup was a simpler squash soup than I normally make (tomatoes and coconut milk tend to find their way into my invented squash soups). The recipe had curry in it, and I prefer my squash to be curried. Like the cabbage, the soup was quick and easy to make – and it was tasty enough that it will likely be making a weekly appearance until my 67 kg squash pile runs out.
I’ve also started up a batch of ‘Cores and Scraps Fruit Vinegar.’ I finished my dried apple blitz about a week ago, so I didn’t have any apple peels to use, so I used quince peels instead (I’ve made quince paste and quince jam and have piles more quince I need to think of some way to preserve, any ideas?). I have no idea how quince vinegar will turn out, but I like experimenting. Yogurt and mayonnaise are both on the agenda to make over the next few days.
I already cook most my meals from scratch using a lot of homegrown produce and I’m a big fan of leftovers as they make my life easier. For a while now I’ve been pondering how to extend the leftovers concept into shelf stable, pantry staples ready to slap together for a weeknight dinner. Every time I look into store bought options I fall into a rabbit hole of complexity. Where did it come from? Do I recognize the ingredients? Is the can lining dangerous? Where was it made? How far did it travel to get to the store? and on and on. Since I trust what I grow and make I think I’ll finally have to get a pressure canner (the idea of them scare me). The Hands-On Home has recipes for canned meat and beans which look simple enough for me to start with – but not until I finish water-bath canning this year’s fruit harvest.
Finally, I was impressed with Erica’s discussion of cleaners. I’m now clear on when to use an alkaline based cleaner or a acid based one and I’m likely to remember now. After I use up the cleaners already in the house, I’ll try making my own. Erica has even inspired me to start thinking about cleaning up the bug mausoleum that’s been amassing in the light fixtures – a couple of my lights magnify the silver fish within creating quite a horror show effect.