Monday, May 31, 2010

Going Crackers

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on March 22, 2010 at 12:30pm at Check for recent posts.

A small garden adds significantly to the gardener's quality of life. Many small gardens and farms together produce a significant fraction of an area's vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits are mostly water, so the less trucking about of water that we do, the better.
Calorie crops are whole different problem. Calorie crops, the energy dense grains and legumes that provide a big chunk of our diet, are hard to find locally.
It was not always so. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Fourth Corner was exporting lumber, fish and coal. A lumberjack in full contact burns 6,000 calories a day, and it was mostly locally produced. We grew oats to feed the heavy horses, wheat and beans to feed the boys and barley and hops for beer to keep them smiling. Only the hops remain economically significant.
There is a resurgence of interest in growing calorie crops in Whatcom County. We have a trickier climate and shorter growing season than the grain growing areas of the plains, but that just means we need to pay special attention to variety selection. A number of local farmers are growing small patches of grains to trial different varieties. Currently, the closest place to just buy local grain is Nash's Organics (meet in Seattle for pick-up.) Nash is planting now, and if you are interested in bread wheat, soft pastry wheat, rye or oats, call Kia and express enthusiasm. The best way to get farmers to do they do best is to buy their stuff. Fairhaven Mill buys local soft white wheat for pastry flour. Look for it at our fine retailers in town.
Krista Rome conducted the Great Everson Bean Trials in 2008, where she grew many kinds of beans to see what worked. What worked best was the cannellini, a delicious white kidney bean with very good yield. Lois Garlick, widow of Jack Garlick, has graciously shared her husband's beans with the seed saving community. Jack Garlick's small white soup beans are a true local heirloom which he stewarded for decades.

Now to the cracker recipe. Warning: this may increase your popularity. While the second batch of crackers was baking, I noticed people on the sidewalk were slowing way down as they walked past my house. During the third batch, five people I had never met clustered on the sidewalk to hang out and shoot the breeze.

First, make a batch of sourdough starter (see earlier post.) Then take half the recipe and set it aside to make a loaf of bread. To the other half, add:
two eggs
a quarter cup barley malt syrup or sugar
a quarter cup melted coconut oil, a fat pinch of salt
a quarter cup mixed seeds (I used what I had, sesame, fennel, onion and nigella.)
Stir it up and add:
a teaspoon of baking powder
a half cup at a time, any combination of unbleached and whole grain flour.

Keep working in the flour until the dough is stiff enough to roll out on a floured board. Generously flour the board and pull off a lump of dough. Roll it out a quarter of an inch thick and cut into conveniently sized pieces. Sprinkle the top with salt and press the salt in with the rolling pin. Sprinkle a baking pan with coarse corn meal and spread out crackers. Bake about 15 minutes at 375 degrees. Amazing.

The Joy of Horse Poop

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on March 21, 2010 at 11:30am at Check for recent posts.

It's horse poop season. Now is the time to check around for used horse bedding, borrow or rent a truck and go shovel some up. Horse bedding and its embedded poop is far easier to come by than cow manure, for social reasons rather than sheer volume. We have some 83,000 dairy cows in Whatcom County. Their manure is either a resource or a problem, depending on how you look at it. (Gene Lodgon's comment about dealing with the manure from large dairy operations was that it consisted of making a solution into the two problems of waste disposal and soil fertility.) In any case, our commercial operations generate a managed waste stream and good luck to the gardener trying getting their hands on some. Horse poop is another matter. We are also fortunate to have a considerable hobby horse population. Hobby horse owners just love having someone show up and make the manure pile vanish.

Horses digest differently from cows, so the weed seeds are not completely killed passing through the horse. Many gardening books will exhort readers to shun horse manure. Between the home grown dock and dandelions and the weed seeds that came with my topsoil, I'm not convinced that it makes much difference.

The age of the used bedding does make a difference. Animals are bedded in the abundant wood shavings from the mills, not in expensive straw from the grain growing regions in Eastern Washington. The bedding is best if it sits around six months and breaks down. Make a pile of fresh bedding someplace convenient and cover it. In the fall, spread it on your beds and plant a cover crop. I am partial to mixed oats and favas. The oats are a nurse crop for the favas. Usually, the oats winter kill and by now the favas are up and going strong. I have one bed of fall planted oats and favas looking very green and fluffy and another where the oats died and the favas are struggling. It seems to depend on microclimates and the timing of your plantings.

The rising popularity of home gardening has created a market for previously composted horse bedding. You may have to pay something for the aged stuff.

A rough and ready hot bed can be made just by digging through fresh horse bedding (with a shovel, eh?) and extracting lumps of poop. Some of the wood shavings will come along; no problem. You want at least 5-10 gallons of fresh poop, enough to fill a small raised bed, perhaps 4 - 10 feet square, at least a couple of inches deep, better 6'. Drawers, abundantly available from the ReStore, with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage, work splendidly. Cover with 2" - 3" inches of dirt and plant your lettuce and spinach in there, or use it to shelter starts. The classical interpretation involves a used window propped at an incline to provide more heat. The minimal effort version: repurposed drawer, 5 gallons fresh horse poop, 2" soil, works just fine. Repeat in the fall to have lettuce and spinach until it really freezes. Set your drawer someplace warm and sunny with a little windbreak. The reflected warmth of the south side of a building is a good place.

Slow Bread

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on March 19, 2010 at 12:30pm at Check for recent posts.

Wheat breeder Dr. Steve Jones, the director of the WSU Mt. Vernon research station, gave a talk recently on small scale grain growing, harvesting and threshing at Inspiration Farm. It was standing room only, and the packed house included a broad spectrum of farmers, the young and pierced, the middle-aged hippies, the boys from long time family farms in Lynden. Steve's message was that there is a resurgence in small grain growing in communities all over the country. We have lost the infrastructure of local grain growing: the experience, the small threshers and combines and balers, the mills, the markets, the local distributors and the wide commercial availability of locally adapted varieties of seed grain. Communities all over the country are scrambling to rebuild our heritage. Currently, growing calorie crops (grains, edible legumes and potatoes) in U.S. is specialized by region. Washington grows soft white wheat for pastry flour. High protein hard red spring wheat growing, for bread flour, is centered in the Dakotas. Potatoes come from Idaho (and the seed potatoes for Idaho come from Whatcom County.) Steve talked about the small, medium and large western Washington businesses that are having to import Canadian grains for organic oatmeal, flour and feed production.

Modern high protein wheat was developed for industrial bread production. Add modern yeast, developed for its speed of growth, to high protein flour, water and a little sugar, and the stuff takes off and produces a fluffy loaf in a few hours. Turns out those great artisan European breads can be made with a low protein heritage wheat because they use the sourdough method. I have heard from other sources that there is speculation that the sudden surge in cases of wheat intolerance is due to sensitivity to modern wheat strains.

So here are two recipes for bread: fast bread and slow bread. Like all cooking, it's mostly about the ingredients, so I recommend using good stuff.

Fast bread (well, sort of fast.) I start the sponge in the morning before work and finish up the loaves when I get home:
Sponge: two cups water, two teaspoons yeast, two tablespoons sugar or other sweetener, two cups whole wheat flour. Mix it all up in a large bowl, cover with a cloth and go about your business for the day.
Loaves: Add a pinch of salt, two tablespoons oil, optional one or two eggs, optional another quarter cup of sweetener, and stir. Then knead in 5-6 cups unbleached flour, a half cup at a time. At some point the dough will get too hard to handle in the bowl. Turn it out on a floured board and keep kneading. When it has absorbed all the flour, it should be starting to form the elastic texture that holds the carbon dioxide as it rises. Allow to sit for an hour, covered, and then knead briefly (it may need a little more flour) and form into loaves. The second kneading will have a much smoother texture. Allow loaves to rise for a half hour and pop into a preheated 375 degree oven for 35 minutes.

Instant bread yeast, the best commercial yeast for fast bread, is sold at Cash and Carry in 1 lb. packages for a very modest price. Drop the whole package in a ziplock baggie and it will keep in the fridge for a long time (Mine is marked with the purchase date, 11/08, and still fine.) That yeast in the little envelopes, sitting in the supermarket dying, that's hard to use.

Commercial bread makers often use barley malt syrup in place of sugar as the sweetener. In fact some of the flour sold for bread making has a percentage of barley flour already added, for the nice texture that it gives the dough. Organic barley malt syrup is available at Terra Organica and the Co-op, or you can be cheap like me and buy bulk regular malt syrup from Robert at the Fourth Corner Brewing Supply. Bring your own plastic tub.

Slow bread starts with a sourdough starter. This can be obtained from a friend, purchased over the internet or made yourself. To make your own starter, soak organic raisins or unwashed organic grapes in water. The hardest part is getting chlorine-free water. Let a pitcher of city water sit around for a day to boil off the chlorine or bum a jug of well water off a friend in the county. Mix a cup of the soaking water with a cup of whole wheat flour in a ceramic bowl, cover with a cloth and let sit on the counter.

The next day, add a half cup flour and a half cup of water. Repeat three more days. By now, it should be bubbling and smell faintly sour. If it grows anything Technicolor, that didn't work; pitch it and start over. Now, add two cups of flour and a cup of water for the sponge. After the sponge sits for at least 8 hours, remove a cup of sponge and put it in a glass quart jar. Stir in a half cup of flour and a cup of water. Store it in the fridge. This is your starter for next time. Only add flour and water to the starter. After you have saved your starter for next time, add the remaining ingredients as for fast bread, with more water as required. Sourdough bread needs all day or overnight for the first rising and 2-4 hours rising after the loaves are formed. Bake 35 minutes at 375 degrees in a preheated oven.

The next time you are ready to make bread, pull out your starter, dump it into a ceramic bowl, and wake it up. Add two cups flour and two cups water, cover with a cloth and letting sit 8 hours. Save a potion of the starter as above. The starter keeps getting better as it is used.

The sourdough method uses time, handling and the enzymatic action of the yeast to develop the protein in the flour. The sourdough method is traditionally used for rye bread. Sourdough bread will absorb all kinds of low protein ingredients: leftover oatmeal, multigrain cereal, barley and millet flours, heritage flours such as spelt, emmer and kamut, for example. Just add them when you make the sponge into bread dough. Some of these are best formed into thin flat breads, as they make an overly dense loaf. Barley malt syrup is particularly good in sourdough bread.

With an established starter and some practice, it is possible to get sourdough bread making down to a day and half. I am generally not that organized, so I appreciate bread that just gets better when I leave the sponge or dough stage sitting around for 24 hours.

There are a gazillion books on baking in the library system. Most of them do not have any advice on baking with a sourdough starter. Notable exceptions are The Bread Bakers Apprentice and Sandor Katz, who wrote a book on fermentation which is so useful that you may find yourself actually buying it.

Managing your small urban garden

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on March 8, 2010 at 2:00pm at Check for recent posts.

In all gardening, start with your life. What do you like to eat? How much time can you devote to gardening, really? I always suggest that people start small, something between 32 and 150 square feet. In really tight spaces, you may have even less garden. Not to worry, the most challenging gardening is the first 10%.

The philosophy of square foot gardening is to maximize the value of small spaces. Square foot gardening is a very old idea. F.H. King wrote about small space intensive growing in his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries, about his travels through China, Japan and Korea. The farmers of those countries were feeding themselves and producing a surplus for sale on postage stamp sized plots. The market gardeners outside 19th century Paris fed the whole region from tiny, intensively managed farms. Mel Bartholmew, a laid off engineer, popularized the name square foot gardening in his book and PBS show.

The basics are no different from organic farming: feed the soil so that it feeds you, rotate crops, use cover crops, compost, plant in raised beds or wide rows. Small space gardening has some special quirks:

1. Use vertical space. Trellis everything that you can to minimize the footprint, including squashes and cucumbers.

2. Space plants using their "in row" spacing. On the back of an envelope of carrots, it says something like space 3" apart in row with rows 30" apart. You are going to plant a solid block of carrots spaced 3" apart each way, for a total carrot density of 16 carrots per square foot.

3. Plant continuously. Plant something every week until you finish the year with a little garlic patch in October. Growing your own starts will keep the cost down. Stagger plantings to give yourself a continuous harvest.

4. Plant when you harvest. As you go out and pull up a head of lettuce for dinner, plant something in the spot: a cabbage start, a few green onions, some spinach seed. I'm casual about this one, myself, as I am more inclined to harvest dinner and run back in the house to cook. 

5. Your basic unit is the square foot rather than the row. A square foot holds 36 green onions, 16 carrots, 4 loose leaf lettuces or bush beans, one cabbage or broccoli, 36 radishes, etc. A tomato plant requires 4 square feet in a cage or 2 square feet if trellised. A square foot garden looks like a patchwork of different vegetables.

6. Plan for season extensions. Row covers will warm up the soil and let you plant your warm season crops in May, when the weather is generally not settled yet. A hot box will grow lettuce into December.

Some thought on the potential of a 4' by 8' raised bed reveals that you can grow a great deal of food in small spaces.

Searching youtube for "square foot gardening" will turn up 14 gazillion results and you'll be an expert in short order. For a great sophisticated low tech gardening solution, search youtube for the Lesotho keyhole garden.

By the way, F.H. King's book is available by interlibrary loan, or as a free download without the pictures. This last is of dubious utility, since the whole book is essentially a photo essay. If someone is feeling motivated to raise the funds to purchase a copy of the 1911 hardcover edition, it would make a useful addition to the library system here.

Getting to Know Your Farmer

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on February 27, 2010 at 5:30pm at Check for recent posts.

Small gardens make a big difference in the gardener's quality of life. In our mild winter climate, a small garden can provide nutrient rich fresh greens all fall and winter and the following spring. But there are good reasons for getting to know your farmer as well.

Don't have a farmer? Check out last year's farm map and talk to some. It's not too early to make arrangements to buy some of the things that you won't be growing yourself, at least not in sufficient quantity. Many farmers will give you a discount if you order now. Bulk garlic and local storage onions are often hard to find at a decent price in September. If you order them now, your farmer can put you into the planting schedule. Potatoes and carrots are available in bulk in late summer but local ones start vanishing as fall progresses. Winter squash sprawls all over, making it difficult in small gardens. It stores well in a cool spot inside. Wash the squash in water with a little bleach added and it will keep for months. You do have to keep an eye on them. If a squash starts to develop a soft spot, eat it.

The urban gardener may want to buy big solid cabbages for making sauerkraut. Cabbages take up precious space in small gardens that may be better used for lettuce. Sauerkraut can be made in wide-mouth quart canning jars for small families. The recipe is from Terre Vivante: scald jars and lids, wash cabbage and slice thinly, pack hard in jars with 1 teaspoon kosher salt per jar, add any combination of juniper berries, whole allspice, peppercorns and a bay leaf and put lid on loosely. If the cabbages are not juicy, pour in boiled water to a couple of inches from the top. Place in a dark place and check often the first couple of weeks, unscrewing the lid to let out excess gas. Then tighten the lids and store. Keeps at least a year. Turnips and radishes work also. With some inventiveness, the recipe can be morphed into a single jar version of kimche. See Sandor Katz's book on fermentation.

I buy and freeze fresh green beans. If I have extra summer broccoli, or extra snow peas, I freeze it. Sometimes people give me vegetables in summer and if we can't eat them all, I freeze them. In general though, I work on growing a winter garden instead of freezing a bunch of vegetables.

Homemade pesto spooned over pasta or warm sourdough bread on a winter's day is one of life's joys. It's difficult to grow enough basil for pesto in the small garden, so that's one worth talking to your farmer about. Most of the expense is the pine nuts (I usually substitute walnuts) and parmesan cheese (takes up space, can be left out and cheese added later). Pesto is fresh basil leaves, salt, nuts, fresh garlic and olive oil, smashed up together. I use a mini-chopper, but use a food processor if you have access to one. Spoon the pesto into scalded 8 ounce canning jars or plastic freezer bags and freeze. Leave a good half inch of headroom in jars, as it expands.

If you make your own tomato sauce or pickles, you may want to check that your farmer can provide the tomatoes or pickling cucumbers. Pickling cucumbers have a low return compared to other uses of row space, so be sure and ask well ahead of time. Only a few farmers around here grow them. I found that one 4' by 8' bed with a trellis produces enough picklers to take a pint jar to potlucks twice a month and still have some for my son to break into. Depends on whether a pickles are a food group in your family.

It takes 4 pounds of tomatoes to make a quart of tomato sauce. Four pounds of tomatoes makes a pint of ketchup. Tomatoes vary greatly in yield. My all time record was 50 pounds of tomatoes from a single plant, a small red Italian market garden variety called a Chico G. By contrast, the amazingly good Green Zebra tomato yielded a dismal three pounds per plant. The standard sauce tomato is the Roma, but don't be limited by that. I have always made whatever excess tomatoes I have in the garden into sauce, and it's always good. One year, I had so many golden cherry tomatoes growing from a 24" pot that I made golden marinara sauce. The Romas come by special order from Eastern Washington. You may want to experiment with varieties of sauce tomatoes that grow well here, San Marzano and Striped Roman among them. I just grow several heirlooms for their wonderful taste and can up whatever isn't eaten fresh.

In a small garden, if you want canning tomatoes, you may want to talk to farmers about gleaning or buying seconds, or pre-ordering your canners.

When I was gardening in a patio, back during the 2001-2003 recession, I found that the best use of my limited space, money and time was to grow an herb bed, a winter garden and tomatoes in summer. As I was buying summer vegetables at the farmer's market, I talked to farmers about what I could buy in bulk and store, can or freeze.

Walter Haugen at F.A. farm gives a 10% discount for vegetables ordered now. Nick Guilford of Sunseed Farm has been known to sell bulk carrots and shallots. Ask around and see what you can find.

Roots and Greens in the Winter Garden

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on February 27, 2010 at 4:00pm at Check for recent posts.

It's the end of February, and the chicory is volunteering. Chicory is a hardy cold season green with a pleasantly burly taste. Raddiccio, best known as yuppie chow, is green in fall when it first comes up. Cut the fall head and eat it in a salad, and the regrowth in cool weather is red, as are spring heads coming up now.

It is the season for inadvertent vegetables. Broccoli is the flowering head of a member of the cabbage family. In the warm false spring that often comes upon us, we get "broccoli" in the garden as the cabbages and kales head up to flower and the true broccoli that you never got around to clearing out of the fall garden sends out new side shouts. A foraging expedition yields a whole basket full, increased by some distinctly shaggy looking brussels sprouts that have tender clusters of young leaves instead of hard round sprouts. The cabbages that you harvested over the winter have sent out new and delicious leaf clusters around the old cut.

You wonder how you are going to eat it all, as you discover some parsnip sprouts that were too small to bother harvesting in December and January have grown into full sized parsnips. Your overwintered beets are looking surprisingly good, and the chard is back and leafing out with enthusiasm.

In a dry spell, you try to get a jump on springs weeds by forking over a wide row, and there you discover the unexpected gift of new potatoes. Potatoes are planted in spring to early summer and harvested in fall and into winter. In the small urban garden, a potato patch is wonderful for the incomparable taste of a freshly dug potato, for the pleasure of growing specialty varieties that you may be too cheap to buy (cranberries, fingerlings, blue) and for the very useful practice in growing potatoes. This year they kept through January in the ground. The hard snow of December 2008 kept the potatoes good until February 2009. Last year's spuds have gone funky in the ground, but there are new potatoes in the row now. Even the row that you thought was harvested clean has few new potatoes, due to the difficulty of getting all the tiny "drops" out. It is generally good practice to rotate your potato patch. Potatoes are members of the Solanum group and hosts for late blight, the scourge of tomato growers and the virus which caused the Irish Potato Famine. As you clean out last year's row, the small potatoes are just the size to drop in the soup or steam whole and eat with a bit of butter.

The traditional roots, turnip, rutabaga, parsnip, beets and Hamburg parsley, are planted in late July and early August. The difference is remarkable between a freshly dug, sweet and juicy turnip and a sad, bitter root that has spent weeks in storage and transit. Garden fresh roots are a whole different creature. They do take some fussing, though. July is often dry and people are often on vacation. Be sure to plan for a relief gardener. The young sprouts need steady watering until the rains pick up, or they will be bitter even if they survive.

I like to grow root vegetables in winter, because it helps maintain seasonal eating. Growing your own encourages reorienting a person's diet to the seasons. Roots were a staple winter food for Europeans for centuries. In hard winter areas, they are dug up and stored in wet sand or in a root cellar.

In our maritime climate, storage in the garden works nearly as well as a root cellar. Since I am the sort of minimalist gardener always looking for the most utility for the least effort, I am happy to leave the roots undisturbed in the ground until eaten, unless I have an unusual bounty of something or we are headed for a warm spell. Then I dig them up, wash them off and store them in the vegetable bin in the fridge.

Territorial sells a carrot variety called Merida, which is sown in September and harvested the following May. They are quite decent, although I had trouble keeping my Meridas alive all through winter freezes. Most carrots are spring sown and overwinter in a root cellar, or, eh, the veggie bin in the fridge. They keep for months if stored in one of those green vegetable bags (available at Terra Organica and other fine retailers in town.)

The leeks and onion greens are up now. Here's my recipe for kale and leek frittata. The Minimalist Gourmet published something similar a few months ago. I like it for breakfast, but it also makes a nice light supper with steamed new potatoes or some leftover pasta warmed up in butter and olive oil.

Wander out in the garden and pick a double handful of young kale tops and leaves. Slice the tops off 3-4 young leek or onion sprouts. Wash everything well and cut in 1/4" slices. Cut up half a small onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, saute in a little oil and add sliced leaves. Put a lid on it and turn the heat down to steam the leaves. Meanwhile, beat two eggs with some milk. Pour the eggs over the softened vegetables and season as you like. A little thyme, savory, rosemary, basil and a small dried red pepper minced fine or pimenton is particularly good. When it barely sets, add some cheese, turn off the heat and cover to finish cooking.

The bitter chicories, sturdy beet leaves and new mustard sprouts benefit from an oil and vinegar dressing. The oil helps the body digest the cellulose. The vinegar liberates the iron from the green leaves so it can be absorbed.

Smash up a couple of cloves of garlic and some peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Add to olive oil. Flavor as you like. I am partial to a teaspoon of Italian seasoning. Add vinegar and salt to taste. Spoon over a salad of fresh winter greens or a lightly steamed haul of "broccoli".

Alliums and Roots for Winter Gardening

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on February 11, 2010 at 11:00am at Check for recent posts.

The large and varied onion family is a mainstay of winter eating. Leeks are wonderful, a mainstay of the winter garden. There are spring leeks, planted now and eaten in summer, and there are fall leeks. Fall leeks should get a good start in the warmth of late summer. They can be eaten in fall, or they can just sit there dormant all winter and be there for you in early spring when the stored onions have been eaten or gone mushy. Harvest by cutting off the green leaves and the leeks will keep growing. If your leek bolts in summer's heat, you can cut off the flower stalk and leave the plant in the ground. In early spring, it will send up new leaves. Leeks are easy to grow from seed. There is a mystique of hilling the leeks to make a long white stalk. I don't bother. The slender green leaves are welcome in soup or an omelet. Leek and potato soup is delicious.

In a small garden, green onions provide fresh flavor in compact spaces. There are two kinds of green onions, Allium cepa, which is a normal onion eaten young, and A. fistulosum, the non-bulbing scallion. A.cepa is sensitive to day length. Market gardeners around here plant long day or day neutral onions. In tight spaces any A. cepa will do for green onions, because we plan to eat that onion in its infancy. Onions can be started from seed indoors now or outdoors in March. The easiest way to grow them is to buy sets, little tiny bulbs, and crowd them on 2" centers. If you leave A. cepa alone, it will send up a flower stalk with a giant puff ball. The onion is way past eating at that point, but if you just leave the puff ball alone, the stalk will collapse over the winter, the seeds root, and in the spring you will have a cluster of thread onions. Thread onions are a Korean delicacy seldom found for sale. If you are fond of Asian cooking, all it takes is some ignored onions to grow your own.

The potato onion, a multiplier onion, is a fall planted variety of A. cepa. I tried potato onions one year and it was pretty cool. The onions went in in September, following tomatoes in a raised bed, and I had small hard bulb onions in March and April. The bunch of bulbs can be divided and saved to replant. They like high fertility. I planted the tomatoes into eight inches of composted used horse bedding, and then the potato onions. By spring it was down to the hard clay soil.

The other fall planted A. cepa is the Walla-Walla onion. Food is culture, and Walla-Wallas are a cult around here. An ephemeral summer treat, an onion that doesn't store well and must be eaten when it is fresh and juicy, eating Walla-Walla onions connects us to this place and its seasons. It is worth growing some of your own. Eating your homegrown Walla-Wallas is a surprisingly powerful ritual act.

A. fistulosum is also know as Welsh (that would be "strange" in Old English) or Japanese bunching onion. For historical interest, the city of Ashkelon, in modern Israel, used to supply Rome with boatloads of "scallions", hence the name. Different varieties are larger, redder (Red Beard), more perennial (Evergreen), better bunchers, more bulbing (Pacific Pearl, which makes darling miniature onions), or more winter hardy. A. fistulosum will produce through the fall, die back in the cold, and then pop up early spring onions for your culinary delight. Just keep cutting it and it comes back. The better bunchers among the A. fistulosums, such as the Nebuka, or Japanese bunching onion, will form clusters of stems, which can be divided. They like rich soil, so keep feeding your scallions to make them act more perennial.

Shallots are started from seed now or from bulbs in March. Shallots are summer onions. They store well in winter, are central ingredients in French cooking, and cost a fortune. Even a small bed of shallots will produce enough to make you snicker when you see them for sale. Shallots are a standby of traditional French cooking precisely because they are reliable, abundant producers in the home garden and each bulb produces a cluster of new bulbs. A special shallot, the yellow Dutch, is large enough to be considered a multiplier onion and stores well if spring planted. My experience is that yellow Dutch shallots can be fall planted in these parts, although neither the yield nor the storage qualities were as good as the spring planted ones.

Our native perennial Nodding Onion, Allium cernuum, was an important food to the First Nations people. Nodding onions are prairie dwellers and like soils that dry out in summer. Seeds are available, listed as ornamental native plants. You might want to try some growing some Nodding Onions in your permaculture patch, where they can be left alone. I had trouble getting them established in the garden, I think because I had them in a raised bed with the vegetables and they got too much summer moisture. Nodding onions are sown in fall or winter and come up the next spring.

The strange looking Egyptian onion, or walking onion, is fun in the herb bed. The little bulbs send up a stalk with another cluster of bulblets, which start making tiny green onions even before the stalk bends over and the bulblets take root. The bulblets can be harvested and planted for green onions. Egyptian onions don't produce much until the second year, and then they produce a small but steady green onion harvest over a long season.

Chives and Chinese chives are perennials and can live for years here. They die back in winter but pop up again when the weather warms up. Chives need to be cut back in summer, or they develop hard stems.

October is garlic planting time in Whatcom County. There are whole books on growing garlic. Garlic is planted on 8" centers into fertile soil, making it infeasible to supply even a small family with enough garlic for year round consumption in a small urban garden. However, it is educational to grow some of your own. Garlic is like wine, it has terroir, connection to place. If you grow your own, you can grow some of the heirloom varieties. Territorial sells a variety called China Pink, which is an early garlic. Planted in October, China Pink is ready to harvest in May. It has a good strong flavor and keeps well.

In a small urban garden, the casual gardener can just go outside with that purchased onion or garlic that has gone sprouty and stick it in the ground or a pot. The allium will root and grow delicious young leaves. This is a serendipitous joy, an expensive treat for just about free.

That's enough for now. The roots can wait until next post.

Winter Gardening

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on February 5, 2010 at 10:00am at Check for recent posts.

We are blessed with a mild winter climate. Most years, we can have something fresh from the garden all year. It's that year round gardening that really saves money. For four glorious months, Bellingham is full of fresh local food. The rest of the time, growing even some of your own is a big boost.

The winter garden is planned now, started from June through September, and eaten all fall and winter and into next spring. Winter gardening relies on vegetable varieties that grow in the summer and early fall and then just sit there as the weather cools, waiting to be dinner. While you are planning your winter garden, give some thought to which neighbor you can recruit to water while you are gone on your summer vacation.

Territorial Seeds has a special Winter Gardening Catalog with varieties chosen for winter hardiness in our bioregion. It comes with a great summary calendar of when to start what and when to transplant it. The Winter Gardening catalog comes out in May. Call and ask them to put you on the list. They will also kill a bunch of trees by sending you several other catalogs a year. Good luck getting out of that one.

The classic reference on year round gardening is Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest by Binda Colebrook, now retired to where else, Whatcom County. Seattle Tilth publishes an invaluable pamphlet called Maritime Northwest Garden Guide, which has month by month lists of what to start inside and what to direct seed, with specific variety recommendations. Both are well worth actually buying, because you will find yourself referring to them over and over.

I met Binda at the 1st Annual Seed Swap and of course I had to tell her the book was great. She gave me the sharp look of someone who has heard that way too many times and asked, "Yes, but did you just read the book, or did you DO it." Well, actually, I lived off it for several winters.

As you read the back of seed envelopes in the grocery store (a dangerous pastime) or the glossy garden pornography that the seed companies send you (an even more dangerous pastime) look for varieties that say "suitable for fall planting" and "winter hardy".

The core of the winter garden are large, dense brassicas: kale, broccoli and cabbages. Cabbages are named by when you eat them, for example a "fall cabbage" or January King. There are cabbages for every season. Look for broccoli varieties that are bred for the fall season and say "good sideshoot production". You don't have a lot of room in the small urban garden. You want broccoli that will keep producing smaller florets after you cut the central head. This is not what commercial broccoli varieties are bred for, look for the heirlooms: DeCicco, Waltham, Umpqua.

Kale is a stalwart of the cool season. There is a colorful variety of heirloom kales. Kale is easy to maintain in the garden, easy to save seed from, and if you keep cutting it back and feeding it with a little compost, you get "perma-kale". It just keeps coming back for you. Kale bolts in warm weather. In summer, there are so many delicious greens available that a person hardly needs kale. As the weather cools, I find myself looking forward to a kale and leek frittata for breakfast.

It was a tradition, back on the block, to grow a brussels sprout plant for holiday celebrations. If you've ever seen brussels sprouts growing, the plant can get three feet tall and the brussels sprouts stick out in knobs. Cauliflower is fussy and doesn't make side shoots. Both are fun to experiment with, but you don't get much food for the space occupied.

Mustard and fast growing Asian greens like bok choi are sown from late July through September, in stages to give a long harvest. Look for fall spinach, lettuce, chicory, endive, radicchio and other traditional European greens. Chard grows wonderfully in the fall, dies back in the cold, and puts out new tender leaves as soon as it warms up a bit. Keep cutting it and you will get perma-chard.

I like beets for winter salads. Beet greens are hardier than lettuce and the root will overwinter and put out new leaves in spring. Just separate your cutting beets from your root production beets, because you won't get tender leaves and good bulbing from the same plant. Lutz Winterkeeper is a designated overwintering beet. I have also had good results from Yellow (for leaves), Bull's Blood and Detroit Dark Red.

Next: Alliums and roots for winter gardening

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Growing Food in Containers

You can grow a surprising amount in containers. Most people who are container gardeners also have limited space, so focus on the high value plants - herbs, leafy greens for salads and stir-fries, green onions, patio tomatoes in summer and kale and chard in winter. Dwarf snap and snow peas grow happily in containers. I have heard that they are great in salads but none of mine ever made it inside. Containers can also be used to lift the garden up to where the gardener can reach it for gardeners who are not up for bending and digging.

Some plants belong in containers even if you have room for raised beds. Peppermint, apple mint, and catnip are notoriously aggressive spreaders. Comfrey is useful in the garden and medicinally but becomes a nightmare if allowed to spread. Some annuals, such as bronze fennel and figwort (both wonderful pollinator plants), are joyful self-seeders and best placed where they will not launch myriad seeds into your raised beds.

Some good container gardening books are The Bountiful Container by the daughter from the Nichols Garden Nursery family and Edible Container Gardening by Michael Guerra. This last is less comprehensive, but it contains the story of the author's garden, how it went for them and what they got. It also contains some bloopers. Those of you who have taken the fruit tree classes at Cloud Mountain or already know about growing fruit trees will scratch your heads at Guerra's description of planting annual vegetables among the roots of a dwarf plum. There are many other container gardening books out there to get you started.

Nearly any sturdy container is suitable for gardening. Back on the block in my old neighborhood in Chicago, old toilets recycled as garden art spilled nasturtiums and zucchini. I always thought it was some kind of existential joke.

They planted tomatoes and potatoes in old tires, too, back on the block. The tires warmed and protected the plants, which are after all from Central and South America. Don't do it yourself, because tires are way too toxic for a food garden.

For food gardening, you'll want some good sized pots, at least two gallons, preferably five. The big ones get pricey, so this is an opportunity to practice your scrounging skills. I once met a container gardener confined to a wheelchair. He had a whole food garden planted in everything from gifted clay pots to a repurposed plastic milk carton.

The books go into suitable containers, watering arrangements and soil in detail, but the short version is that pots need drainage, steady moisture availability and good potting soil. In addition to holes in the bottom, large containers need a couple of inches of gravel or broken clay pots in the bottom to provide drainage. For small containers, you might want to buy premixed potting soil. That gets pricey for large pots. Here's my potting soil mix: One part any available garden soil, one part compost, and one third part vermiculite or perlite, a generous scoop of organic plant food and inoculate with compost tea. All containers from clay to repurposed laundry baskets eventually succumb to freeze/thaw cycles, weed whacker damage, sunshine breaking down the plastic or ten year olds on a bicycle.

The soil in containers get exhausted, particularly if you are growing nutrient hungry annual vegetables. At the end of the season, the best thing to do with small containers is dump them out on your raised beds. This both expensive and challenging for bigger containers, so I grow cover crops in mine. Yes indeedy, your farmer friends will smirk when they see summer buckwheat, fall fava beans, winter vetch, and spring oats in your collection of artistic Mexican hand thrown pots. It works, though. Grow a cover crop, turn it under in the green leaf stage, let it break down for a couple of weeks, and you are set to keep that potting soil going for years.

This my basil growing technique. Basil is another plant well suited for containers, just because it needs to be fussed over and slugs love it. First, start annual clover in the container in early spring. Now, for example. A month before you are ready to plant out your basil starts, cut the clover to the ground with your nail scissors (container gardeners don't need large tools) and grasp the whole mass and lift it out of the pot. Drop the cuttings in the bottom of the pot and turn over the whole root mass. Cover the pot to exclude light while the roots decompose. Meanwhile start your basil. Plant basil seedlings into the root mass with a handful of Sluggo (non-toxic iron phosphate and corn meal) to keep the slugs down.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on February 4, 2010. Check out for recent articles.

Building Your Small Urban Garden

OK, you are ready. You read the gardening books, you picked out a spot for your compost barrel, you have designs on a nice sunny spot for your raised beds. First, outline your raised beds with string and stakes. It is a good idea to lay out all of the beds now, even if you plan to build them in stages. Laying it all out gives you an idea what your garden plan will look like and lets you make adjustments while it is easy.

Make the beds between 2' and 4' wide, depending on your height and whether you have access from both sides, and any convenient length. You will want to consider where your trellises are going. They are best on the north side of the raised bed or oriented north-south in the middle of a bed. For a truly artistic raised bed layout, visit the Friendship Garden in Ferndale. If you are gardening on your former lawn, be advised that the city requires a 24" setback between sidewalks and your raised beds. The setback is a great place to put your mixed flower border. The flowers provide decorative cheer, habitat for beneficial insects, and a sense of separation between your garden and the public space.

Now, you have to get rid of the sod. There's the slow way, the hard way, and the sod cutter. The slow way is to shock the grass by cutting it, put cardboard on top with some cinderblocks or potted plants to weigh it down, and come back in three months and turn it over. Use plain brown cardboard. Multicolored inks contain toxic heavy metals. A foot of straw works also.

But you want to get started sooner than May. The hard way is to dig out the sod in chunks, using a flat shovel to slide under the chunks. Stack the sod in a neat, tight rectangle with the grass sides together, like a grass sandwich, or cover the pile. The roots will break down.

The sod cutter is the answer for large areas. Hertz rents them for a modest sum. They don't turn well, so cutting is best done in long strips, heading downhill. Like rototillers, I found the engine to be temperamental. If small engines are not your thing, consider recruiting help. The long strips of sod are quite heavy and need to be broken up before stacking.

Build your raised beds out of lumber, cinderblocks, or anything convenient. Recycled lumber is usually the right price, just be aware of toxics. Pressure treated lumber more than a couple of years old contains arsenic. Railroad ties are not suitable for food gardens. If you use cinderblocks, put a layer of clean drain rock down first and anchor the blocks with short pieces of rebar driven into the ground. Cinderblocks are great in small gardens. Fill the openings with potting soil and plant them with herbs, or use them for starting seeds.

Whew, you have your beds constructed. Now to fill them. The Whatcom Farmers Coop and several nurseries sell bulk mix for raised beds. Scott Titus in Ferndale has an organic Coco-Coir mix that is quite wonderful. I usually make my own. The starting place is to find someone who keeps horses and doesn't give them a lot of drugs. In this region, wood shavings are most often used for animal bedding, rather than straw. Shovel a thick layer of used bedding into the raised bed, at least six inches deep. Old bedding that has had a chance to break down somewhat is best, but even if it is fresh from the stalls you can use it. The soil layer will cover the smell. Over the bedding, spread a thick layer of topsoil. If you can import some of Lynden's fine sandy loam topsoil, all the better. Most of my beds came from an old horse pasture in Ferndale that was excavated to build a house. It's heavy clay soil and it came with pasture weeds, now familiar reminders of the soil's former incarnation.

Fresh animal bedding will take a couple of months to break down under the soil. While the soil micro-organisms are doing their thing, nitrogen will be locked up. Meanwhile, the dandelions will do their job as pioneers and take over your bed. A cover crop of mixed oats and fava beans will help get the soil going, if you can wait that long. I could never resist planting into new beds. I just put up with slow growth at first. You can give your new beds a boost with compost tea (recipes all over the web or buy some at the Garden Spot) or mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi are available as mushroom compost or in bags by themselves.

What, this gardening was supposed to save you money and now you just dropped a bunch of bucks getting started! This is the time to get creative and see what you can scrounge. Even if you have to buy some things, not to worry, you will get it all back.

Posted by Celt M. Schira at on February 3, 2010. Check out for recent articles.

Planning Your Small Urban Garden

What can you expect to grow in a small garden? How much garden should you plan for?

Start small if you have never gardened before. Even if you have room for more garden, resist the urge. You could start with just one or two raised beds. 150 square feet is plenty for a first season.

Grow what you eat, eat what you grow. In all gardening, grow foods that you like to eat in quantities that you can reasonably expect to consume. One or two summer squash plants is plenty for most gardeners. A whole row of summer squash just provokes Zucchini Rebellion.

When planning, consider that 30 square feet of garden space per eater will provide all the green stuff a person can put in their face. You can raise plenty of lettuce, greens for salads and stir fries, green onions, fresh radishes for salad, and broccoli in a small garden. You can grow snow peas on a trellis in the spring or pole green beans in summer.

If you can, set aside an additional 10-20 square feet per eater for a winter garden. If you are organized and get the winter garden bed built at the same time as the summer garden, plant a spring cover crop (fava beans and spring oats are a great combination for small spaces) and turn it under in June. The winter garden is where you will really save money over the cost of buying fresh food. The winter garden is planted from June to September and harvested through the fall, winter and following spring.

If you are out of space, you can rotate the winter vegetables into your summer garden. I used to reverse the ratios when I was gardening in a patio, and devote most of the space to winter gardening. In summer, I grew heirloom tomatoes, cover crops and herbs. Bellingham is bursting with fresh vegetables in summer.

Plan on an herb bed or cluster of pots. Herbs and greens for salads and stir fries are the most cost-effective use of a small space. Herbs can be used fresh and also dried to bring sparkle to winter meals. A year's supply of rosemary or thyme can be grown in a fat pot. 20-30 square feet of herb garden will provide plenty of herbs for cooking and tea.

Tomatoes need 4 square feet of space each in a raised bed, or just two square feet if you are willing to train them on a trellis. Tomato plants do well in containers and small spaces if some thought is given to matching the variety with the location. For fresh eating, plan on a minimum of two tomato plants for yourself and add one for each additional eater. The patio and small cherry tomatoes are great for containers. Determinate tomato plants are smaller and more compact than the sprawling indeterminate tomatoes. The larger tomatoes can be trained on a sturdy trellis.

Plan on a mixed flower border or a couple of large pots. Flowers delight the gardener's heart. More than that, flowers bring pollinators and predators to your garden. The pollinators love small blossoms and a succession of different flowers.

If you still have room left, there are compact bush versions of summer squash and cucumbers, fingerling potatoes, small winter squashes and other delights.

Next up: managing a small garden.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on February 2, 2010. Check out for recent articles. 

Gardening in Small Urban Spaces

This is the year to start your food garden, even if you live in the city, even if your space is tiny, even if your gardening spot is your front lawn, or next to the street, or a bunch of containers, or at someone else's house.

If you have gardened before but not around here, I recommend Steve Solomon's book, Gardening West of the Cascades. He gets a bit excited, but the information about the special quirks of our biosphere is invaluable.

If you have never gardened before, hit the library and do some reading. Some great books to start with on intensive urban gardening are Square Foot Gardening and The Bountiful Container. There you will get all the right advice about sun, building soils, using trellises to grow vertically, etc.

I want to talk to you today about why to garden in the city.

1) Flavor. The food you grow yourself is really good stuff. No broccoli, even organic, that has spent three days in truck from California will come close to the flavor that you get from walking out in your garden and picking dinner. And that bursting vegetable flavor is signaling that the nutrition content is higher as well.

2) Money. Small gardens will really pay, in a most literal sense, in the shoulder seasons. In the summer, the Farmer's Market is in full swing and Bellingham is bursting with great local food. In the other eight months, the most value is from raising your own. We are blessed with a great climate for winter gardening. We can have fresh greens and scallions in spring months before the Farmer's Market opens. Kale, cabbages, beets, broccoli, chard, parsley and many roots last all winter in the ground most years.

3) Favorite foods. Many prized, and often pricey, ethnic vegetables and herbs grow just fine in Cascadia. I love stir-fried Asian dishes. Bok Choi and a whole collection of other Asian are no harder to grow than kale and lettuce.

4) Skill building. The most challenging gardening is the first 10%. And besides, now is a great time to get ahead of the curve.

No room to garden? If you have a sunny spot, consider a container garden. You can grow a surprising amount in containers. There are compact tomatoes, dwarf bush peas, summer squashes, and more. Salad greens and herbs do well in containers and give you a high value for the space.

You can garden on the space between the sidewalk and the street, if there is enough room to leave some space so that people can get out of their cars. It's official - the Bellingham Parks Department will let us dig up those forlorn grassy planting strips and plant food. It is always a good idea to bring in new soil to build raised beds in planting strips. If you are concerned that there might be accumulated lead in the soil, start with a crop of mustard. Mustard is a lead accumulator. Harvest the mustard leaves and dispose of them, don't compost them. Now you are ready to go.

Next - Planning your small urban garden

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on February 1, 2010. Check out for recent articles.