a mid summer update

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A wonderfully alien looking seed pod from love-in-the-mist. It’s been years since I’ve had to deliberately plant these, and they still come up every year.

It’s hot and smokey here (the smoke’s from the fires in the B.C. interior, fortunately nothing near by is burning). The garden is happily growing and I’ve been keeping busy with a plethora of projects. Since I stopped my monthly garden updates a few months ago, I thought I’d give a general update of what I’ve been working on.

Growing stuff

I’ve cut the water to the beans in the front yard. They all have lovely pods, so if all goes well, they’ll be dry enough to harvest by the end of the month. Potatoes are also ready to harvest, as will soon be my onions. The winter cabbages are putting on nice heads and we’re getting all the cucumbers we can eat.

And check out my hairy melon:

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Isn’t it delightfully hairy?

I planted some bigger fruit producers late winter including an apricot, cherry, assorted currants and gooseberries. All are doing well. As is my deck based lime tree (which will come in for the winter).

So far the only seeds I’ve collected have been from the Alexanders (a perennial relative of celery) – we had enough to eat their shoots this year. Not bad for an early spring crop.

Other random projects

Miso – I started a batch out of soybeans with a friend last night (will have to wait at least 6 months to taste it). Now I’m thinking of making a batch out of my homegrown tiger eye beans – mostly because I could call it tiger miso.

Tempeh – we started a batch last night and I’m struggling to find a spot the right temperature for it to ferment. I have no idea if it’ll work out or not.

There’s a watering system that needs to be put in – I have the stuff and having a working watering system would simplify my life. The hard part right now is most my ground is cement-like, so if I want to dig anything in I’ll have to wait until the rains start.

Writing

Settler Chronicles book 1 – I’ve started my final edit, at this point I’m just wordsmithing. My cover should be ready this fall (October) and I’m on track to release then. I also have the first draft of the second book written.

I put up the first scene on this blog a little while back (see here). Should I put up more of this book here? Perhaps the first couple chapters. Let me know in the comments below.

Deep Trouble – A current day action-adventure I’m co-writing with a friend.  I’ll put up the first chapter soon (it was titled ‘Benthic Adventure’ until a friend pointed out that most people don’t know what benthic means. Perhaps it is best I don’t try to surreptitiously improve readers vocabulary in a fluffy, fun action adventure story)

And I’ve started drafting another story for Wattpad – science fiction with lots of action (I’ll share more on this soon).

Reading

Solitude – a non-fiction book by Michael Harris about how creativity grows out of solitude. So far I’m enjoying it. I’ll likely write my own review, but for now there’s a review here.

The Nakano Thrift Shop – a novel by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from Japanese. I’m trying to broaden what I read, so this one is quite different from what I normally read. It’s about the relationships between the quirky staff of the thrift shop, and I’m quite enjoying it (although I will need a good action book when I’m done). There’s a review here.

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

 

 

Pintos, orcas and tigers – oh my!

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The view at Northbrook Farm

No I’m not adding to my home menagerie, these are all varieties of dried beans I volunteered to help harvest on the weekend (I’ve already harvested most of my own bean crop).  The day was actually a seed saving workshop put on by the local seed library covering growing, harvesting and processing beans for seeds (and food). The beans belonged to Rebecca Jehn, a local seed producer growing a wide variety of dried beans, the farm was Northbrook Farm, a beautiful location.

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Dried beans ready to harvest

Rebecca walked us through the process of how she harvests dried beans – pulling up the entire plant then plucking each pod off by cradling the pod in your palm then closing your fingers around the pod before pulling it free of the plant – so if the pod bursts open, as dried bean pods tend to, the beans would just be in your hand and not scattered in the dirt. Each pod got tossed into a large paper grocery bag and later spread out to dry until brittle.

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Bean pods in the threshing box, with someone (not me) operating the crocs-of-cleanliness

Next came the threshing box – a plywood box with sides slightly smaller than a door (alternately a heavy tarp would work as well). Along the bottom of the box strips of wood were nailed down in a herringbone-like pattern to provide texture. A bag of bean pods were spread out in the box and we took turns donning the crocs-of-cleanliness (designated for only this task, not mucking out the chicken coop) and stomping on the beans. With our weight, most of the pods would break open and spill their beans. We then used compressed air to blow out the pod remnants, the beans and chaff that remained were dumped into a bucket.

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Spilling the beans to remove the chaff

From a high height, the bucket of beans and chaff was poured into another bucket in front of a fan. All the little bean pod bits got blown away, while the beans, because they are heavier, landed in the second bucket.

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Beans on a screen letting sub-par ones and twiggy bits through

Next, the beans were put onto a screen that allowed any last bits of non-bean matter to fall through, this included the too-small-to-bother-with malformed beans. Spread out like that it was also easy to pick out any damaged, split or discoloured beans and discard them.

All that was left was beautiful dried beans – and there were so many different types of ogle over – agate pinto really intrigued me with its pretty white and brown markings. I loved the opportunity to just run my hands through so many different types (and it was nice to learn that I’m not the only one who likes to do that).

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Agate pinto beans – apparently they are as tasty as they are pretty

This is not how I cleaned my beans, partly because I harvested them a bit early and they were only ’leathery’ as opposed to ‘brittle’. I spread them out on our living room floor and we watched TV, drank beer and opened each one by hand. I really didn’t mind my way, however if I do scale up the amount I grow I’m now armed with knowledge to clean them in bulk.

One of the more important things I learned is that my attention to separating by bean varieties is not really necessary for what I’m trying to do. Rebecca grows her beans in long rows – one variety follows another in a single row and different varieties are in adjacent rows. Yes, occasional crossing happens which can add the the genetic diversity and if the resulting bean is significantly different than expected it can be removed. I’ve been obsessively picking over my beans removing any that is sub-par, so removing oddballs would be no big deal especially since it would mean I could grow more different bean varieties.

Old world beans

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Lupines are also in legume family with beans and some lupines have seeds that are edible if they are prepared properly. Mine are just ornamental.

The tale of Jack and the beanstalk has ancient origins, which means beans have been on people’s minds for a long time. Dried beans are one of the oldest domesticated crops and provide a good amount of protein while improving the soil. They’re also easy to grow, to thresh and to store. But even in antiquity, not everyone was a fan – according to Rebecca Rupp in How Carrots Won the Trojan War Pythagorus’s clan of vegetarians wouldn’t eat beans because they believed that maybe, just maybe, people could be reincarnated as them. I’ll assume that is just a story and carry on eating plenty of beans.

Edible beans are diverse – many of which can’t be found at the local super market or even the hippy-est bulk store. They come with great names too like: tiger’s eye, black night fall, lablab, Atawallpa’s fingerprint, yellow-eye, … and I could go on an on. What do they taste like? It seems the only way to try many of these is to grow them. From a seed saving point of view some bean types cross readily with other closely related types (i.e. those in the same family) and some don’t. How many varieties in each family one can grow to save seeds can come down to how big your garden is.

I thought I would do a brief summary of the types of edible beans I’ve stumbled across starting with the ones that originate from the old world (I think), and I likely haven’t come across all the edible types.

  • Broad Bean (Vicia faba) – also known as fava beans. These are the only bean that can be sewn in the fall and harvested the next year (assuming a relatively mild winter). This bean is native to northern Africa and southwest Asia. These were domesticated in neolithic times (i.e. When humans started farming using stone tools) in the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) – People have been eating chickpeas in Turkey from at least around 5000 BC (hummus has been popular a long time!). In ancient times this bean was grown all around the Mediterranean and in Ethiopia and introduced to India around 2000 BC.
  • Hyacinth Bean (Dolichos lablab) – Originally from India, this one was grown in the Biodome 2 experiment, I have their cookbook and was thinking of growing this one, however I’m likely too far north to get a crop. Hyacinth Beans are often grown as an ornamental vine.
  • Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan) – this is a perennial shrub commonly grown in India, probably also originally from there. I can only grow this as a house plant and I have one going, if it thrives I’ll take some pictures.
  • Soy Bean (Glycine max) – an ancient Chinese crop that can be made into all sorts of tasty things like tofu, tempeh and soy milk.
  • Lentil (Lens culinaris) – one of the most ancient crops, there is evidence these have been grown in the eastern Mediterranean since at least 6700 BC. Their name relates back to optical lenses due to the shape of some lentil varieties. The big advantage to lentils is they cook up relatively quickly.
  • Cow pea (Vigna unguiculata), this family includes the blackeye pea and yardlong beans and originates from Ethiopia around 4000-3000 BC. Currently this bean is grown extensively in India and west Africa. And is the traditional bean of the American south. This bean doesn’t need to be soaked before cooking, speeding up its preparation.

I’ve skipped the peanut – another tasty legume that has become almost ubiquitous. And, coffee beans are not beans at all, instead they are the seed of a tropical fruit. Next up is the new world beans…

* my main reference was The Random House Book of Vegetables by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix

Challenges of seed saving in a small garden

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This is wintercress, a great peppery winter green around here. I had plenty available all winter. I only grow one type – from plants a friend gave me last year, and billions of plants are now blooming all over my garden (it self-seeds readily). The mature plant doesn’t take up much room, so I’ll be letting a few put out seed pods and collect their seeds.

I always hate ripping up my kale, but they had gone to flower and I wanted to plant the bed with another crop – part of my intricate management plan for my urban lot ecosystem. We made one last harvest* then pulled up the plants and tossed them in with the chickens. Some sprouting broccoli buds were still poking out of their foliage, but aphids had moved in. The little bugs stay put even when soaked and once I know they are there, I don’t want to eat them – so we harvested the leaves instead. Broccoli leaves have the same brassica flavour as kale, but aren’t as tender.

Both the kale and broccoli represent a good portion of my winter garden produce and, over the last few weeks as I watched them put up their cheery yellow flowers, I couldn’t help but ponder if I could let them go just a little bit longer and harvest their seeds – a further step towards sustainability.

I went to a seed saving workshop at the library last week (our library also hosts a seed library, apparently the first seed library in Canada, how awesome is that!). I’m now set to save some of my seeds this year – most everything I grow is open pollinated which is clearly labelled on the seed packages. Open pollinated seeds mean that the seeds will grow a plant the same as its parent. This group includes what is referred to as heritage varieties. The alternative is hybrid plants, labeled as F1, where two distinct varieties are crossed to produce a version that contains the best attributes of the parents. The downside is, if you collect seeds from a hybrid plant you don’t know what attributes will show up in the next generation (it likely won’t be as good as the original hybrid plant).

At the talk, genetic diversity in seed saving was discussed – this is where my seed saving plans fall down a bit. Brassicas, like my kale and broccoli represent two challenges. First, they are pollinated by insects and readily cross-pollinate with each other (called outbreeding). To save seeds I would, for example only be able to grow one type of kale (currently I grow three or four with the thought that if one type doesn’t thrive, other types will) as the isolation distance for kale is over a kilometre – way bigger than my yard. An alternative, would to only let one type flower.

If I were diligent and only let one type of kale flower, I could leave a few of these plants to go to seed and save those seeds, for an example I’ll pretend I’m only letting one plant go to seed. The problem with that is that over time, I would be removing the genetic diversity in the kale. Over time, my kale plants would loose resiliency to diseases and change, potentially dieing off could. I could let more than one plant go to seed – but here is where I get into a bind, my garden isn’t big enough to let everything I’d like seeds from go to seed and plant food for the next harvest.

This year I’ll stick with the simpler self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and beans. Isolation distances aren’t as much of an issue, although I still might have trouble maintaining genetic diversity over time – the solution to that will be to continue trading seeds with friends.

*ironically my husband ordered me the kale book I reviewed a while ago as a surprise, it arrived the day after we ripped out the kale.

my seedy saving plan

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wintercress

As I sit in my office overlooking my rain-soaked garden, the rainy season on my Pacific island has taken hold, I can’t help but think about what I’m going to do in the garden next year. There is still plenty to harvest, but the last thing for me to plant this year will be the garlic. Next year is open with possibilities and one of the things I’d like to do better with next year is seed saving.

I keep meaning to become a serious seed saver, but once again I’ve found myself with a few saved tomato seeds, a ridiculously large amount of wintercress seeds (they were so easy to collect, so I kept collecting) and chive seeds (again easy to collect and great for sprouting). Since my chives will reappear on their own, my seed saving efforts will net me only two, tasty, but not very filling crops for next year.

Although, I don’t view my gardening as a cost saving measure, not saving seeds feels like I’m choosing to be unsustainable*. Since one of my gardening motivations is to produce food low in food miles, it makes sense to save the seeds that I can leaving me pondering how to be a better seed saver.

Through a rather round-about way I discovered my local library has a seed library. Serendipitously, I discovered the seed library a week before the Dan Jason of Salt Spring Island Seeds scheduled to talk at one of their events. I dragged a friend to the talk set up outside on a day that turned out rather chilly (we had to rush off for hot chocolate afterwards to warm up).

Dan brought a tub of examples of seeds ready to save – starting with tobacco he originally propagated from 1000 year old seeds, to quinoa, amaranth, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, brassicas, radishes, corn, sage and more.

He filled my head (and notebook) full of useful seedy information. For example, I had no idea that seeds on ripe quinoa plant left outside in the rain would sprout right on the plant – Dan said someone described it as looking like quinoa crawling with maggots. He passed around an example of sprouted quinoa and I wouldn’t describe it that way. Or that quinoa in stores has been mechanically processed rendering them unlikely to sprout at all.

Dan pointed out that there are many varieties of most crops and that it makes sense to keep trying different varieties until I find one that reliably grows well for me and tastes fantastic (why grow anything that doesn’t taste fantastic?). He inspired me to give amaranth another try and to continue on with my plan to grow dried beans. Both of these plants are easy to collect seeds from. If I have success with lettuce and pepper next year, I’ll collect those seeds as well. Perhaps, I’ll leave a couple leeks in the ground to flower and collect those seeds too. There are plenty of easy options to try.

And the seed library doesn’t yet have any wintercress, so hopefully at the next meeting in March I can share my surplus (I plan on joining).

*I accept that I can’t be truly sustainable in any way on a small urban lot – but I can always do better.