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Growing soil sprouts indoors

I heard about Peter Burke’s book for the first time last spring. I had already started lettuce outside, so I figured I’d wait until fall to give it a read. I requested it from the library in late October, and honestly: this one’s a game-changer. I don’t say that lightly!

Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening by Peter Burke

Book: Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening: How to Grow Nutrient-Dense, Soil-Sprouted Greens in Less Than 10 Days, by Peter Burke.

What really excited me about Burke’s process is that is has a low start-up cost. He doesn’t use grow lights, and he grows his sprouts in reusable foil half-loaf pans, wonderful for people short on money, time, and space.

I read the whole book and it seemed silly not to give it a try. My initial investment was around $40—and even if it completely failed, I would be able to use everything I bought in my regular garden next summer.

Soil Sprouts - getting started, via The New Home Economics

It was a gorgeous fall day so I worked outside this first time. The seeds I sprouted, from left to right: radish, sunflower, buckwheat, pea, and broccoli. After soaking the seeds overnight and preparing some seed starting mix (you add compost and liquid kelp to it), spread the seeds out on the surface and cover with soaked, folded up newspaper. Place in a dark, warm cupboard–warmth is important to get them to sprout quickly and without rotting.

Newly sprouted soil sprouts, via The New Home Economics

Here’s what mine looked like after several days. My buckwheat (left) did not germinate very well at all this first round; I think it was because the furnace was not running very much that week, so the cupboard was not at an ideal temperature. At this point, they did not look appetizing at all. The kids said “EW!”

Soil Sprouts, ready to eat

After placing them in a bright window for a few days, they started to look much better!

Soil Sprout Salad, via The New Home Economics

Here they are all cut up and ready to eat. I was still very skeptical at this point. Would the kids even be willing to try them? Happily, the kids tried AND liked them very much. We ate our third sprout harvest last night. Next week, I’m going to increase my production from one to two meals per week. Burke grows enough to eat these every day… will I get to that level some day? Perhaps.

I did have to order more seeds already and soon I will have to order more seed-sprouting mix. But my total cost per meal is less than what I’d pay for California lettuce, and tastes fresher. Also, because these are the “seed leaf” of the plant and not the true leaves, the nutrition levels are higher than normal lettuce. They taste so good that Anneke has been sneaking sprouts before we even harvest them.

Soil Sprouts at Seward Co-op, via The New Home Economics

At the Seward Co-op the other day, I saw that I’m not the only one experimenting with these. The prices don’t seem too terrible, but suffice to say it’s still cheaper to DIY this one.

My favorites are the sunflower and pea shoots. The buckwheat shoots taste delicious but continue to be the poorest in germination rates, though I’ve seen improvement since that first round.

This book is now on my DEFINTELY BUY list. I highly recommend giving this a try.


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Progress and change

We’re going through lots of changes here in south Minneapolis. Some are seasonal—it’s going to freeze tomorrow. Others feel more substantial.

Blake the dog

We said goodbye to our old friend Blake on Saturday, September 10. Adam and I adopted him as a puppy in May of 2001; he was 15 years old. Rowan and Anneke have never experienced life without him until now—I caught Rowan sitting quietly with him several times in the week leading up to his final vet appointment. We’ll get another dog someday. But I don’t know that I’ll ever love another animal as much as I loved Blake—my dog baby before I had human babies.

All I do is laundry

Our other major life change is that Adam went back to full-time employment this fall after years of being part-time. As a result, our weekends have become something of a race to do ALL the laundry, housework, gardening, shopping, and everything else. We’re not ready to give up yet, though—with several major household appliances and a car all over the age of 15, we need to build savings.

Garden Shed, 2016

Here’s a more pleasant “life” update, or what feels like a life update, anyway. The garden shed that Adam started building five—yes, FIVE—years ago is finally complete. He nearly finished in 2011, but ran out of cedar shakes around halfway up the sides. It took 5 years of diligent Craigslist searching to find someone willing to sell such a small number of shakes needed to finish the job. I’ve been using the garden shed these 5 years, but it’s nice that it finally also looks done on the outside.

Garden shed, 2011

For comparison purposes, here are Adam and the kids working on it in 2011, when they were four. I think Rowan has more than doubled in height. His hair’s a bit longer too. Ah, tweens.

Pollinators of Native Plants

I’ve been making progress on my reading list this year. I recently finished Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants, by Twin Cities author Heather Holm. As a graphic designer, I found the layout of the book to be a little bit distracting, but in the end the content overcame the layout. This is a fantastic resource; I bought it so that I can have it on hand every time the kids see some new bug in the garden.

I’ve read so much about native plants, but so little about insects, and what a world there is to discover. For example, I never knew how tiny most native bees are—I thought they were all variations on bumblebees, but most are so tiny you most likely never even notice them unless you’re really looking. The other surprising thing was the great variety in shapes and sizes of the various wasps, syrphid flies, and other pollinators native to the midwest.

Thread waist wasp on goldenrod, via The New Home Economics

I was immediately able to identify the wasp on the left as a thread-waist wasp on my goldenrod thanks to this book. On the right, most likely a bumblebee, but it could also be one of several bumblebee mimics. I’m no longer certain!

Learning about our great variety of pollinators drives home the realization that the number of native midwestern insects that we fear because of stinging is such a very small part of the whole population. I have killed nests of yellowjackets in my yard before, but to lump all bees and wasps together with them really does the larger number of them a major disservice. It’s truly becoming one of my life’s missions to help people understand the difference between bees and wasps, and now also between different types of wasps! Because let’s face it: wasps are beneficial, too. How could they not be, when they evolved with our ecosystem right alongside bees, flowers, and everything else?

Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota

I also just finished Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, by Welby R. Smith. This is also a wonderful resource—especially if you own land or live in the country and want to try and identify the plants growing on your property. It contains general information, distribution, and specific identifying characteristics to help you distinguish even between different types of, for example, currants. I had no idea how many different types of wild currants we have in our state. With four distinct biomes, there’s a lot to cover. This book would not be appropriate for bringing along on a hike; it’s way too big and heavy. This is on my official Christmas list for 2016.

Elephants Ears

With the frost coming tomorrow, several important chores needed to happen this past weekend. Chief on Anneke’s mind was potting up her elephant’s ears and bringing them in for the winter. I’m not sure how this happened, but my kid has become obsessed with tropical plants. And the elephants ears keep multiplying—this started as one plant only 3 years ago. I composted a few of them when she wasn’t looking. She now has a large plant shelf in her room supporting new roommates for the winter, most of which she started from seed on her own: 5 elephants ears, 1 avocado tree, 4 grapefruit trees, and a venus fly trap. She “let” me keep my Meyer lemon in the living room. It’s a silly plant zoo around here.

Musquee de Provence pumpkins, via The New Home Economics

Our Musquee de Provence pumpkins also got hauled in from the community garden plot at Sabathani. There should be four more of these; we lost two to rotting and two to thievery. I was surprised at the thievery—this is the first time my garden has ever been hit. I just hope those thieves cook them up and eat them, because they are DELICIOUS. We made one into a pie on Sunday and it was brightest-orange colored pumpkin pie I’ve ever seen.

Milkweed bugs

Winter is coming. Quick, let’s have a milkweed bug swarm! I could spend all day, every day in my garden observing all the crazy things that go on there. As a proud Minnesotan I do appreciate the winter, though. Enjoy autumn, everyone.

 


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Book reviews: Minnesota’s Bounty and The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture

I read two garden-related books this spring, and am finally getting around to reviewing them here.

A Vegetable Gardener's Guide to Permaculture

The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an edible ecosystem
by Christopher Shein, with Julie Thompson

I approached this book as I do all permaculture books: with skepticism. There are three aspects of many (most?) permaculture books that bother me. First, they are written by and for people living in more moderate climates than the upper midwestern United States. Second, they are written by people who have no profession other than doing permaculture stuff. Is this my bias, or is this generally true? Finally, they often encourage the planting of non-native, invasive species such as bamboo without warnings about the potential consequences to local ecosystems.

Having said all that, of course I support any book that makes the principles of permaculture accessible for normal people, and this book fills that niche just fine. It features gorgeous photos of permaculture principles at work in some very productive California gardens.

This book includes lots of practical advice for the novice vegetable gardener; for example defining monoculture vs polyculture and outlining the benefits of growing many different types of things. I have seen this in my own garden this year: instead of growing just one type of leafy green, I’m growing kale, swiss chard, collard greens, French sorrel, and mesclun lettuce mix. When my collards were under attack from cabbage worms several weeks ago, we ate lettuce instead. Now that my collards have recovered and my swiss chard is full of leaf miners, well, you get the idea. When you plant a variety of things, a crop failure of one is not devastating.

Another criticism that I could lodge at some permaculture books is an oversimplified view of how nitrogen-fixing crops work. Until very recently, I too was under the impression that placing any nitrogen-loving plant next to a nitrogen-fixing plant was a solid move all throughout the growing season. But that’s not true. And I could have learned how it worked just by checking Wikipedia!

It’s a subtle difference, but it’s important: nitrogen-fixing plants (such as legumes like beans and peas) have little nodes on their roots. These nodes are where excess nitrogen (pulled from the air) is stored. When the plant dies, this nitrogen is released into the soil as the nodes/root system break down. So yes, they benefit the soil, but only after they die.

This explains why I had to eventually consider my interplanting of snow peas and cucumbers to be a fail. I tried it for two years—it made so much sense to me that my cucumbers could climb up the snow peas and then eventually just replace them on the same trellis.

Interplanting cucumbers and snow peas

The problem was, right up until the moment the snow peas died, they were actually competing with the cucumbers for water and nutrients. My cucumbers’ growth was slow until the snow peas finally died off in early July. When the peas died off, the cucumbers really came to life (which supports the science that nitrogen is released when the plant dies). In a long growing season, this might be OK, but not with my short Minnesota window. My yields of cucumbers were less than in previous years.

I suspect that many “dynamic accumulators” in permaculture are just like this. Take comfrey, for example. The plant doesn’t do much for you when you just leave is sitting in its spot (except spread and become invasive). You must remove much of its foliage several times per growing season and either add it to your compost, make comfrey compost tea with it, or use the leaves as a weed-suppressing mulch. If you’re not willing to commit to that, you should think hard before planting it.

I made comfrey compost tea earlier this summer, and WOW did it smell awful!

Comfrey Compost Tea

I pulled out most of my comfrey plant (don’t worry, it came right back), placed it in two 5-gallon buckets, then let it ferment for 2 weeks. Then I watered it down about 50% and poured it on many vegetables and shrubs. Everything responded well to the treatment except my peppers, which looked a little stressed afterwards. If I use it on them again, I will water it down further (to 25% or less).

But I digress. I checked The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture out of the library, but I won’t be buying it. It gave me a few new ideas, but was mostly review. It’s fine for beginner vegetable growers and people who are curious about permaculture, but not really for me.

Minnesota's Bounty, A Farmers Market Cookbook

Minnesota’s Bounty
The Farmers Market Cookbook
by Beth Dooley

Here’s a book written just for me and my fellow cold-climate gardeners! It’s a list of many different vegetables that one can find at our great Minnesota Farmers Markets, from common vegetables like potatoes and peppers to the more unique varieties: bitter melon, okra, sunchokes and the like. There’s also a short section for meat and fish, such as lamb, poultry, and bison.

For each item, Dooley provides at least one recipe (usually three or more), plus Quick Ideas—simple preparations with ingredients you’ll already have on hand. My favorite “quick idea” was the idea of soaking rhubarb overnight in water, discarding the stalks, then sweetening to taste for a rhubarb-ade.

I tried several of the recipes, and they were all satisfactory and easy to follow. The shining star was a salad of radishes, cucumbers, and tomatoes with a cider vinegar-honey-fresh mint dressing. I cheated a little and bought hydroponic cucumbers and tomatoes so that I could make it before the book was due back at the library. It was delightful, and I’ll be copying down that recipe to make it again.

I also tried a stir-fried bison with spring vegetables recipe that was a little bit ho-hum. The sauce was not very flavorful—I’m spoiled by a husband who doesn’t even use a recipe to make a damn good stir-fry sauce. Shall I pin him down on his methodology and share it with you? I will try.

The primary reason I checked this book out was in search of savory rhubarb recipes—I would like to move beyond cakes, pies, scones, etc. This book did have a delicious rhubarb “pandowdy” recipe (a type of upside-down pie), but no savory ideas. I will try to check out Kim Ode’s Rhubarb Renaissance next. I get more rhubarb than I can use; I’ve become that neighbor who gives away rhubarb to anyone who will take it.

I enjoyed this book, but I don’t think I’ll buy this one either. I have somewhat limited book shelf space, so my standards are pretty high for a cook book. Ingredients-based books like this are great, because they provide a resource for that moment of “what do I do with all these collards?” But then again, it’s even easier to just google “collard green recipe” or “red currant recipe.” That was how we found our beloved red currant pie recipe, which Adam is making right now!

Do you know any savory rhubarb recipes? I’d love to hear about them.


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Book Review: On Garden Style

On Garden Style

Book: On Garden Style
by Bunny Williams

There’s no better time and place than January in Minnesota to read inspirational/aspirational landscaping books.

My overall impression of this book was similar to my overall impression of most gardening books: first, much of the book assumes you have at least an acre to work with, unlimited money, and live in a hardiness zone of at least 5. So, as usual much of the information is useless to a middle class Minnesotan in the inner city. Williams also has little interest in native plants, and relegates edibles to a kitchen garden—but oh, her kitchen garden examples were beautiful.

I was able to glean some nuggets of good advice in this book, despite its shortcomings.

The first concept that got me thinking was identifying separate rooms in your garden. I haven’t really thought about my gardens this way. I tend to identify them more by guilds, in the permaculture tradition—my herb spiral, my cherry tree garden, my Viburnum garden, my Serviceberry garden, etc. But it’s a useful exercise to think about how these gardens relate to each other within their larger contexts.

The idea of having a room helps you to think about the different features of that room, like designing your living room. You’ve got to have walls, a ceiling, a floor, something to sit on, and sources of light.

Williams advocates dividing up your yard into distinct rooms—some of those rooms could be wide open spaces. The rooms could be large and formal or small and intimate—from a small bench under a cherry tree to a museum-like room with columnar trees or shrubs.

Her chapter on designing an effective terrace was funny; she described suburban homes with their elevated decks and no trees or walls as being on a stage, with your neighbors as the audience. I’ve felt this way about our deck since we moved into this house almost nine years ago. It’s not that I dislike my neighbors, but I’d like to be able to sit out on the deck with a glass of wine and have some privacy.

I’m ahead of the game on this one since we added our arbor two years ago, and plants in 2015. As they fill in we should start to get some privacy on our deck—hopefully starting this year.

Arbor with lights

The bones are there. Now the grapevines and hops just need to hurry up and grow to fill in the walls and ceiling. And the scale was right on this one too. The back of our house is this big white wall. The arbor needed to be big in order to soften it and tie it together effectively with the rest of the yard.

Laundry on arbor

Of course, my practical side means the arbor also supports temporary clotheslines during the summer. And that’s the big difference between Bunny Williams and me: her garden designs are pure aesthetics. I am trying to stack functions (in the permaculture sense) on every single element I add to my yard—and I’m going to be writing a lot more about that this year. My landscape needs to be much, much more than pretty.

Another concept of hers that spoke to me was the idea of including surprises in your garden. For example, if you have a meandering path, plant something tall at a curve so that garden visitors will get the anticipation of wondering what’s on the other side. Hide and reveal. She’s also fond of adding little windows in walls, and carefully placing ornaments such as bird baths.

This is another thing I have not really thought much about. If you’re standing in my front yard, you can see the entire front yard garden. Same with the back yard. I’m going to be thinking about this as I look at my gardens this year.

Garden Gnome

I added this rescue gnome last year; she’d been under a bench at the office for a couple years, where everyone thought she looked scary. I swear she instantly looked happier when placed in the garden.

Another thing I’m thinking about this year, thanks to this book, is passages between rooms. I want to think about how people move between the front and back yards. It’s not always pleasant when the raspberries on the north side reach their peak and you have to swat aside huge canes!

Williams advocates adding gates, pergolas, and/or arbors to indicate passage between rooms and to help frame the first view of a new garden room. I may add an arch in my strawberry garden (pictured below, bottom right), as an entrance to the vegetable garden area. It would draw the eye away from the uglier aspects of my neighbor’s siding (just to the left of the picture below) while also providing support for a grapevine that I clearly planted in the wrong place. It currently grows on the low rabbit fence surrounding the garden and is generally unruly.

Garden entrance

The hops (right trellis) have already been removed but an arbor at the corner near the bottom left of this picture might just be what we need, here.

The book also touches on plants, of course. Up until very recently most of my garden designing was done with plant material. This part of the book touched on things I’ve already been thinking about such as layering your landscape—groundcover, perennial, shrub, understory trees, canopy trees. Unifying different areas by repeating colors and textures is a good thing.

Purple coneflowers have become a unifying feature in my garden. They can be found in every garden bed. This is for a simple reason: they re-seed. Every spring I get free new coneflower seedlings to move about to any open spot I can find. It’s a very economical unifying design feature.

I’m not sure what Bunny Williams or other landscape designers would say about my boulevard, but I think it’s pretty:

Boulevard prairie garden

Messy? Maybe a little bit. I don’t have any large-scale turf removal and garden installation planned for this year, so I’m going to try to focus on editing. A couple of the plants in my boulevard, in particular, are too big for that area. So they’ll be moved or removed altogether. See the purple coneflowers? They really tie this room together.

If you’re interested in landscape design, definitely check books like this one out of the library. Don’t waste money buying them, though. The pictures cheered up my January, and got me making plans for this year. And that’s really what this is all about, right? We’re making progress every year.


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Two books

I managed to read two gardening-related books this summer (and a healthy dose of fiction, don’t worry).

How to Move Like a Gardener - Book Review via The New Home EconomicsHow to Move Like a Gardener: Planting and Preparing Medicines from Plants
by Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals

I first heard of this book through SouleMama, a parenting/gardening/homesteading blog I’ve been reading for several years. The author of that blog is a fan of Avena Botanicals products, and one thing that this book is very successful at is making me want to try one of their tinctures, teas, or lotions.

However, I am more interested in making medicines from plants myself, and this book fell a little short for me. The title was a little misleading for me; most of the book is a vivid, interesting description of how the Avena Botanicals farm is run and their philosophy of agriculture, spirituality, and even tools. They follow biodynamic agriculture principles, and this was my first introduction to it.

Biodynamic agriculture goes far beyond organic. For example, one of the “biodynamic preparations” that Soule describes involves packing a cow’s horn with manure, burying it for several months, unearthing it, then stirring the now-composted manure into fresh rainwater for an entire hour, then spraying it on crops. All these things must be done at specific times of day AND specific times of year. There are several other biodynamic preparations described in much greater detail in the book.

Honestly, I don’t think that this or strategies like moon-cycle planting are whack, I’ve just never personally tried them. Maybe I ought to. At the very least, by combining meditation with farming, Soule is able to achieve a level of harmony and inner peace with her land and her work on it that must make it a very special place indeed.

The last third of the book is devoted to descriptions of medicinal plants, with advice about cultivating and collecting for each, as well as indications, preparation and dosage. I wished the “preparation” part would have been a bit more detailed—I wanted recipes for tinctures, lotions and the like. She uses many herbs I had never previously heard of, such as gotu kola, ashwaganda, and schisandra, while also providing detail on more common plants such as lavender, rosemary, dandelion and nettle.

A few North American native plants are represented, including Solomon’s Seal and Echinacea.

Beyond excessive wintertime herbal tea drinking, I don’t know how far down the herbal medicine route I’m going to go, but I find it all fascinating. This book was not exactly what I thought it would be, but it was interesting, and a good reminder to me of the importance of intimately knowing your piece of land and all its microclimates—and how valuable that knowledge can be.

The Secrets of Wildflowers, a book review via The New Home EconomicsThe Secrets of Wildflowers
A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History
by Jack Sanders

I bought this book at the 2013 Wild Ones conference in February after paging through my neighbor’s copy. Unlike Soule, Sanders almost exclusively covers North American native wildflowers, including a handful of non-natives that have spread so excessively through our continent that they are here to stay; for example, Coltsfoot, Dandelion, Bindweed, and Chicory.

Each plant is given what can only be described as a short story, comprised of a great variety of details including botanical descriptions, historical medicinal uses, names and naming controversies, modern medicinal uses, and poems.

I found this book entertaining because so many of the plants I’ve recently added to my landscape are included, such as monardas, St. Johnsworts, asclepias (millkweeds), wild geraniums, celandine poppies, and wild columbine. It also made me very curious about some plants that I’ve never seen but will now seek out in the woods, including may apples, jewelweed and indian pipes. After reading this book, I identified a handful of plants while hiking, including jack-in-the-pulpits and baneberries.

The writing is entertaining and accessible, if you have interest in native plants. I enjoyed it, and will be picking it back up as I choose new landscape plants for next year. Reading a story about each plant is so much more memorable and interesting than simply scanning a table of characteristics.


The other day, we were on a hike and Rowan picked up some seeds off the ground. “What plant did these come from, mom?” I had to admit I didn’t know. Then Anneke piped up. “Those are totally from a basswood tree. See? There it is!”  My kids have a much more highly-developed sense of place than I did at their age. I spent time on the edges of cornfields and cow pastures, but I never learned the names of plants or observed at the level that my kids do. Learning about where I live—the plants, animals, and insects that are native to my corner of the earth—enriches my life in so many ways beyond merely gardening.

One of my favorite blogs lately has been Ben Hewitt’s account of his family’s very successful homesteading adventure. Recently, he said:

Stop thinking of yourself as a steward of the land. That’s the same old, tired story of humans over nature.

Instead, think of the land as the steward of you. And treat it with the respect your caregiver deserves, dammit.

Just think about that. Isn’t it wonderful?


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Book review: The Art of Fermentation

Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix KatzThe Art of Fermentation
An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World
By Sandor Ellix Katz

I met Sandor Katz a few years ago, shortly after I purchased his first book, Wild Fermentation. I feel fortunate that I took a class from him when he was still relatively unknown; the likelihood that he’ll be teaching inexpensive classes at local co-ops again in the near future seems pretty low.

Wild Fermentation is a true recipe book; in it you will find recipes for things like sauerkraut, kimchee, mead, and a whole host of other fermented foods. But one of my main issues with it was that I wanted to know the WHYs of every recipe. Why is it OK to eat brined pickles that are a bit moldy on the surface? Why did my brined pickles fail? Actually, how do I know whether they failed? Why is lacto-fermentation as safe (or safer) than canning? Does lacto- mean it involves lactose?

I had a lot of questions, clearly. Some of them were answered slowly, over time, as fermentation became mainstream. When I made my first batch of yogurt four years ago, google searches turned up almost no answers. Now, there’s even an heirloom vs. modern yogurt debate. I retired my yogurt maker and switched to the oven method a year ago.

Actually, the reason I read Wild Fermentation was in search of answers to MANY questions that I had after reading Nourishing Traditions. If you’ve ever read either one of those books, or had mixed success with some of the recipes, The Art of Fermentation is an invaluable resource. It covers everything the WAPF-ers are passionate about, from proper preparation of grains to culturing dairy products to the value of live-fermented foods, but the difference is Katz includes the science and logic to back up every single claim. Wild Fermentation and Art of Fermentation are truly complements to each other.

Here were some of my favorite bits from Art of Fermentation:

Botulism
If you’re confused about the now generations-old association between canning and botulism, Katz puts this question to rest once and for all. For starters: fermenting is completely different than canning, even though it may use the same jars. The acidic environment present in any and all fermented foods prevents botulism spores from ever gaining a foothold, as they can in warm, sterilized canned food environments. Katz includes an anecdote about Native Alaskan peoples’ techniques for preserving/fermenting fish, which involve burying them in a pit in the ground. Recently, people interested in reviving the tradition have tried fermenting fish in plastic bags and buckets instead of pits, and the results have been questionable enough that the US Centers for Disease Control conducted a test. To me, this was one of the most powerful passages in the book:

Two batches were prepared the proper traditional way, and two were prepared…using plastic bags or buckets. One of each batch we inoculated with botulism; the other was left natural. After the fermentation process was complete, we tested them. To our surprise, those batches of foods prepared the traditional way had no trace of the botulism toxin, not even in the foods that were inoculated with botulism spores. On the other hand, both batch of foods prepared in plastic tested positive for botulism. The advice that came out of that experiment was—”keep on fermenting your food, but never use plastic bags or buckets, and be certain that you do it the traditional native way without any short cuts or changes.”

Do you really need whey, or what?
I found the Nourishing Traditions fermented vegetable recipes confusing. The book made it sound (to me anyway) like if you do not use liquid whey (and I was unclear whether the whey should be from raw or pasteurized dairy), that your fermented foods will not turn out. My own anecdotal evidence plus this book has now settled this issue for me. Whey: not necessary at all. There’s no harm in using liquid whey; adding it is sort of like adding a “starter”–think sourdough. In vegetable ferments, it can help fermentation get started quicker, but it’s not necessary.

Yogurt
I’ve already documented a couple different yogurt-making methods that have worked for me, and Katz says his method has evolved as well. For one thing, he uses only 1 T. of starter per quart of milk and only cultures it for about 4 hours. Also, Katz clarifies the differences between using store-bought yogurt and heirloom cultures. But this is one of the great things about him: he doesn’t fuss about contentious issues like raw vs. pasteurized milk. He wants people to ferment foods which they have access to, whatever those may be.

Butter
I’ve always been confused about what is the difference between sweet cream and cultured butter. The difference is this: sweet cream butter is made from agitating fresh cream until the butter and the buttermilk separate. Cultured butter is made from cream that has first been “soured”–on it’s way to becoming creme fraiche. To make creme fraiche, simply add 1 T. of yogurt or buttermilk to 1 c. cream and leave it out for 24 hours. Refrigerate until set for creme fraiche, or shake it up for cultured butter. Now it all makes sense!

Water
I now understand why several of my brine ferments have failed in the last few years: up until 2012, I always used tap water. Katz recommends against using city water because it has chlorine in it, which upsets the natural balance of bacteria. I had a feeling about this, so I used spring water for my pickles in 2012, and not one jar went bad. I don’t like buying bottled water, but for this one thing, it’s worth it. There are ways to de-chlorinate city water, but most simple filtration systems don’t remove enough of it. Yes, of course, I’d love to get a super expensive filtration system, but… maybe someday.

Other topics
Just to give you an idea, Art of Fermentation also covers all of the following: kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, wine, beer, sake, hominy, coffee, cheese, salami, cod liver oil, brined mushrooms, kimchee, cider, fermented urine as garden fertilizer, sourdough breads, koji, and 100 year eggs. That’s only a sampling.  There are only a few recipes, in the traditional sense of the word; this is a book of methodology and inspiration. If you decide to make one of the more complicated ferments, such as salami, Katz urges you to read more on the subject and gives you ideas of where to start. On the other hand, with simpler vegetable and cultured milk ferments, there are SO many right ways to do them that knowing the basic methodology (and science behind why it works) is really all you need.

Fermentation, wow, who knew I would become so obsessed!? I love it!


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Book review: The Resilient Gardener

The Resilient GardenerThe Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times

by Carol Deppe

The title of this book is a bit heavy-handed; I probably wouldn’t have looked it up if my favorite permaculture blog hadn’t recommended it.

Yet, her broad definition of “hard times” resonated with me. Would your garden survive if you were unable to water it for two weeks? Weed it for three weeks? This concept was brought home to me long before I read this book, when Adam had a random injury in August that left him unable to do any lifting for well over a month. I had to do everything during that time, and it was both eye-opening and exhausting.

So, what if I, the primary gardener in the family, get a random injury? Or what if we have a drought and the city imposes watering limits (a very real possibility, actually)? I actually think these two questions should be asked about ANY landscape, not just a food-producing one.

Before I go any further, I should outline my recommendation regarding this book. Choose whichever of the following best applies to you:

1. If you live in Willamette Valley, Oregon and garden at any scale: BUY this book.

2. If you live anywhere else, and own or have access to acreage and have a desire to increase self-sufficiency by raising some staple crops like corn, beans, squash, or potatoes: BORROW this book from the library. (You may end up buying it.)

3. If you do not meet conditions 1 or 2: well, borrow it only if the topic really interests you.

This book suffers from the same problem affecting nearly all gardening (especially permaculture-oriented) books I read: warm climate-itis. The upper midwest is just a whole different ball game in gardening (though that’s not all bad, either).

Still, there are some useful nuggets in here. Here are a handful:

Plant spacing for resilience. Deppe grows corn, squash, beans, and potatoes enough to be self-sufficient on them as well as sell at market (i.e. she grows a shit ton of all four on acreage). The Willamette valley gets very dry in summer, but she grows most of her crops with little to no irrigation. She achieves this, in part, by increasing plant spacing to even double the amount recommended on the seed packet.

Timing. Because her region has rain at specific times (lots in the winter but very little in the summer) she plants strategically so that crops that need more water are maturing at the time when her region tends to get water. (This does not apply to the upper midwest, but still worth noting.)

Potatoes. She outlines three strategies for planting potatoes: hilling up, trenching, or growing in mulch, with details about how to determine which strategy is best for you. My own potato tower experiment was not successful, but I think that hilling up is probably a classic Minnesota potato strategy for a very good reason.

Ducks vs. Chickens. Deppe’s chapter on ducks offers a great comparison on determining whether you should raise ducks or chickens, and how raising fowl can have a dramatic effect on your resiliency. They can be a great choice if the land you live on happens to not be ideal for growing vegetables or fruit. Unfortunately they are not a choice for me right now, because of problems with obtaining a city permit.

Corn. Deppe has a real fondness for the lowly corn plant, and this book has great in-depth information on types of corn (flour, flint, dent), reasons and how-to’s for growing each, seed-saving and breeding techniques, and even recipes. As a person who is gluten-intolerant, she has a keen interest in providing high-quality non-wheat flour for herself—there are several interesting gluten-free recipes in the book.

Beans. One of the shortest chapters, but Deppe still manages to make a nice case for growing drying beans, and offers advice for those of us who still romanticize the old interplanting corn, beans, and squash myth. Deppe’s answer: it can be done, but mind your spacing and choose varieties that are suited for it.

I would love to think that someday Adam and I might be able to afford to buy a handful of acres somewhere in Minnesota or western Wisconsin. But since we likely wouldn’t be able to live there for many years, what crops (if any) could I realistically grow on this fantasy land, which I would only visit once per week in the best of times? Deppe’s book gave me LOTS of ideas to dream on, for now.