Monday, June 21, 2010

Celt's Garden - Getting Real About Winter Gardening

Just as a filthy cold spring is delaying planting the summer garden, it's time to get ready to plant your winter garden. The winter garden feeds you, your family, and possibly your laid off friends through next fall, winter and spring with fresh delicious veg. That eight months of food you grow yourself provides fresh food when it is most expensive and most likely to be imported from California, Mexico, China and Chile. Personally, I wish Chile all the best in a changing world, but tying a great chunk of their national prosperity to our continued ability and desire to buy air freighted perishables in midwinter deserves a rethink.

As Kenyan green bean and flower growers discovered when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew in Iceland and disrupted air freight for a week, it's a vulnerable business model. As Kenyans fed roses to cows by the truckload and scrambled to find closer markets for green beans (Kenyans don't eat green beans), Britons got a view of their supply chain that most people never notice. In Kenya, distributors struggled to stay afloat, growers were hit hard, field hands were laid off and had no pay packets to take home to momma. In Britain, eaters got an abrupt insight into just in time supply.

Despite all the publicity around local eating, we're not organizing our supply chain much differently from the British. I ran smack into that in November 2005, when I was gardenless. I was suddenly back to buying fresh food. Good ruddy luck buying winter vegetables from Washington, much less the Fourth Corner region, in a state that raises a good part of the world's supply of seed for winter vegetables. Yup, you heard me correctly. Washington State grows 50% of the world's cabbage, carrot, spinach, cauliflower, brussels spout and table beet seed, 40% of world radish seed and 20% of world onion seed. (Source: WSDA, dig around and you can find it.)

So I wander into the Co-op on a Tuesday in November and ask the nice lady in the produce section about local winter vegetables, seeing as all the chard, kale, onions, beets, spinach, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and suchlike are from California. First response: the local farmers want a vacation in winter after the summer growing season. Thinking of farmers I know who have winter jobs to keep it together, that sounded doubtful. Second response: not enough farmers. She was putting out two and a half cases of kale a day and local farms couldn't supply the volume. Winter vegetables don't grow around here because the farmers don't plant them. That makes sense: no market, no planting. Since we were standing in a market, I kept on it and got the third response: kale and suchlike doesn't grow around here in the winter time. Now, I had to tell her that I been eating kale out of a patio garden in Bellingham for five winters. By which time, wanting to get back to arranging the organic tomatoes from Chile and clearly fed up with idiots like me, she told me that if I wanted local winter vegetables I should grow them myself.

So back by the canned beans aisle I found Derek Long, who at that time was in charge of the Local Food and Farming initiative with Sustainable Connections and also on the Co-op board. I asked Derek about the shortage of local winter veg. Derek rolled his eyes, gave an exasperated snort, and said "Get real, Celt! What do you expect from us?"

Derek is normally a fairly easy going guy, so I took this as indicative of tripping over a larger issue.

In fact, I had tripped over the kale strand in a whole plate of organic vegetable production spaghetti. Just one piece of it is that the Co-op (and Terra Organica, which really tries hard to buy from local growers) has to make margin to stay in business, and making margin means adopting supermarket standards. Customers expect fresh tomatoes in midwinter and they don't expect to find a sign that says, "Sorry, all out of kale. Fred's Farm in Snohomish County will be sending a shipment Thursday."

Another piece is that the big growers in far away places can offer lower wholesale prices. Even with the paperwork for USDA organic standards jacking up the price and hysteria over illegal immigration (there is no other kind for Mexican farm workers, the legal immigration quota is zero) choking the supply of skilled agricultural workers, the big growers in California can offer a reliable volume at a lower price than local growers.

Even with the economies of scale for big growers, multiple subsidies to the energy industry to get the produce transported here, multiple subsidies to the water industry to grow irrigated vegetables in the desert, and considerable taxpayer subsidies for the overhead of organic certification programs and rest of the USDA, the stuff isn't all that cheap by the time it hits our shelves.

Growing your own is one answer. If you have some space that you can devote to a winter garden, it will save you beaucoup bucks. If you have 10-20 square foot per eater, you can have something fresh all winter. The storm in 2008 froze out my normally reliable winter garden, but even then it got growing again after a couple of months.

If you are growing your own starts, June is the time to get the heavy veg (leeks, cauliflower, winter cabbage, and brussels sprouts) started in little containers for transplant July-August. Kale tends to bolt in summer's heat and can wait another month. Beets, chard, bok choi, napa cabbage, Walla Walla onions and carrots are direct seeded in July. Winter spinach, mustard family greens, radishes and lettuce are direct seeded a bit every week July through September. Arranging some protection for tender greens will extend the season and give you fresh salads until it gets really cold.

The other option is to get to know your farmer. Attempts by producers to generate a market for the off season have failed miserably so far. Growing Washington kept the farm stand on Railroad Avenue open last fall until it was clear that it wasn't going to work. Various farmers have tried to offer extended season CSA's. That hasn't worked either. If we want local farmers to plant for us instead getting jobs bookkeeping and fixing cars, they need to feel comfortable that they have customers through the winter. We eaters will have to step up and make a commitment to buy consistently.

The longer season at the Farmer's Market is a step in the right direction. Talk to the farmers there and see what you can arrange. There are many more farmers in the area who aren't selling at the Farmer's Market. Look for them on the Farm Map, and by asking around. If you are out in the county, look for on-farm sales signs. The Smith Road is one long farm stand. There's a cluster around Ferndale, another around Everson, and a few down Highway 9 towards the county line.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on May 28, 2010. For recent posts, see

Celt's Garden - Eating to Scale

A few years ago, just as the local food movement was popping on to the radar, Joel Salatin, farmer and writer, wrote a passionate book titled, "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal". Salatin's point is that a half century of consolidation, increasingly large food processors and "eliminating the middleman" has eliminated the middleman. Nearly the entire local food processing and distribution system has gone out of business or been buried in regulations. In some cases, the regulations are aimed at controlling industrial food processing facilities. In other cases, they seem intended to eliminate the small processors.

Salatin has more than once had to pay legal fees, enlist his his legislative representatives, invest in expensive infrastructure, drive hundreds of miles to have his meat processed in an abattoir with the right certification and spend hundreds of hours of grief and time better invested in his farm.

The federal regulations are the same, although they may be differently interpreted by inspectors in different states. The state regulations vary. Salatin's head-on collisions with the State of Virginia differ in the details from what we are up against here. There has been increasing support for local value added products from the Washington Ag Extension service and WSDA during the last few years.

Larry Stap, owner of Twin Brook Creamery in Lynden, gave a tour a couple of years ago and told the tale. This is a story with a happy ending: the family farm is still in operation, still in the family, and Twin Brook Creamery products have a solid local following. Larry's story of getting there was just gruesome. Twin Brooks uses returnable glass bottles. People love the milk. Turning an old farm building into a licensed bottling facility was very expensive and took a couple of years of paper work on top of the renovation. Larry's tale of the regulatory hoops they had to jump through to get up and running was sobering. Seems the glass bottles are made in only one factory in Canada, more infrastructure that we have lost. Larry abides by 98% of organic dairy regulations because he feels that it's the right way to farm, to take care of his customers and his animals. He refuses to apply for organic certification because he feels the paperwork is not a good use of his time and the other 2% of the regulations are just a scam.

Salatin is surrounded by small producers of baskets, jam, cider, etc. He can't sell any of it in a farm stand because it isn't his product. The other producers are not interested in dealing with the public for one transaction at a time. Selling one chicken to a neighbor, by the book, requires a $100,000 investment in upgrading the road, installing handicapped accessible bathrooms, and on and on.

And then there's the certified kitchen problem. No value added product can be sold to the public unless it is made in a certified kitchen. In Washington, a certified kitchen has to be separate from the family kitchen and have a separate entrance and a stainless steel double sink. That's an impossible barrier for someone with four bushels of backyard fruit to jam up. It's too much fruit for the family to eat and there's no legal way to make it into jam to sell. The only option is to give it away. Meat, eggs, dairy and baked goods each have their own intricate regulations, separate from the jam and salad dressing rules.

Tiny entrepreneurial enterprises need to start in the home kitchen. No sensible person starts a small business by investing $30,000 - $50,000 in a commercial kitchen before finding out whether they like getting up at 3:00 AM to bake scones every day. No sensible entrepreneur spends three months making jam without spending a couple of years in low overhead mode, testing recipes on customers first. The barriers to entry are too high for most people to attempt.

There are some local nano-capitalists out there. The burrito lady retired but there is a tamale lady on the east side of town. Tamales like you have never tasted (unless you have a Mexican granny), if you know the tamale lady. I did some chicken deals in parking lots years ago. My middle-aged hippie friends cracked up at the story, because it reminded them of drug deals from the 70's. "Leave the money in the glove compartment, the chickens will be in a cooler in the back."

We are seeing some progress away from a condition of complete paralysis of the local food system. The Washington State Extension service has been positively small farm friendly by comparison with Salatin's experiences in Virginia. The Northwest Agricultural Business Center ( rents an approved poultry processing kit to farmers. Demand has been high. They tried to offer ten-month class on value-added products for farmers last year but it didn't happen. Seattle, always the home of the micro food enterprise, has a few restaurants buying local animals and doing their own charcuterie. San Juan County was out front. After a multi-year process to get a USDA inspected mobile abattoir for small farmers, they got a co-op up and running, hired a butcher, jumped through the hoops and started operation in 2002. Demand is so high that they are adding a second trailer.

Investing in a certified kitchen has been a disaster for two local small businesses and the kiss of death for one. One guy has been able to make it work because he started with a tiny residential kitchen in an old house that was previously absorbed into commercial zoning. As work space, it is terrible - it's a one-butt family kitchen and there is no room to process 100 lbs of fruit or pickles. But it came with the required bathroom and two doors. With a fire extinguisher, a stainless steel restaurant sink and two refrigerators in the former back mud room, he was up and running in an affordable space.

Even as there are a few hopeful signs for local food processing, we are still losing infrastructure. Reid Boiler Works, possibly the last U.S. manufacturer of small scale commercial canning equipment (called autoclaves and retorts on that scale) auctioned everything to the walls this month. Hey, the waterfront property in South Bellingham is a great location for more upscale condos to add to the unsold inventory already lining South State Street.

If you are interested in food nano-capitalism, the Green Book is a summary of Washington State food processing regulations. It's available as a free download. Dig around on the WSU ag extension website. It is always advisable to get a food handler's license and take some classes from the Master Preservers before jumping off the deep end. And of course, test your recipes on friends and family.

Salatin's book is in the library. The queue is a couple of months long.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on May 22, 2010. For recent posts, see

Celt's Garden - Change the World, One Tomato at a Time

As you buzz about happily planning your garden, give thought where your seeds and starts come from. If you are going to the effort of growing your own, grow the good stuff. No point in working that hard for the same tasteless cardboard tomatoes you can buy in the supermarket. When you buy seeds and starts, look for heirloom varieties. Heirloom seeds are open pollenated seeds that have been passed on for years, sometimes decades or centuries. Heirloom and open pollenated seeds can be saved and passed on by backyard plant breeders, and often have been. The heirloom varieties that are for sale taste much better than conventional ones. Seed saving is work, often quite a bit of work, and there is no point in saving seed from a variety unless it's good, really good. Besides, there are sorts of wild and wonderful vegetables out there: Purple Dragon carrots, Black Krim tomatoes, Romanescu broccoli with a fractal spiral head, a riot of many colored and shaped lettuces, favorite ethnic vegetables that you may be too cheap to buy even if you can find them.
Heirloom tomatoes are unsuited to industrial agriculture, because they don't travel or store well enough. Imagine biting into a sun-ripened tomato, tender skin busting with juice, real tomato flavor capturing your full attention. Contrast that with the cardboard tomato bred to withstand being machine picked as a uniformly sized green orb, tightly packed in boxes, shipped 1500 miles, gassed with ethylene gas for a reddish color and piled up on display for days.

A home garden version of the tasteless industrial tomato is Early Girl and other "Girls", widely sold varieties.

Open pollenated varieties are just that. The plant grows in the open and is pollinated by insects (tomatoes, beans, squash and other fruits) or wind (corn.) Left to its own devices, the seed will mature and ripen. For the summer fruits like zucchini, that is long past the time that you want to eat it. The seed can be saved and planted. In an open pollinated variety, next generation will come true from seed.

Hybrid seeds are created by tightly inbreeding two different lines, crossing them, and selling the resultant F1 generation. There are some big differences between heirloom and hybrid seeds, starting with taste and price. By and large, heirlooms taste better and cost less.

If saved and planted, hybrid seeds will naturally revert to a parent generation, which may not be something you want. The Sungold tomato is a case in point. Sungold is a favorite gold-orange hybrid cherry tomato. I keep hearing the same story from keen gardeners who tried to save seeds from Sungold. The next generation plant sets tasteless, sour, hard little pale yellow fruit. The Sungold lover will be buying seeds or plants forever.

Open pollinated vegetable varieties have more ability to adapt and respond to their climate and environment. Hybrids do very well if given optimal growing conditions and the professional attention of market growers, but may be less adaptable to backyard gardening. Last summer I did a grow out of Sungold, Gallina's Yellow Cherry and Czech Yellow Cherry. They were all delicious little golden bites. The two heirlooms, Gallina's and Czech, sailed through the summer of intermittent rain, sketchy weather and home gardening conditions. The Sungold cracked when it rained and drooped first when I wasn't Jane on the spot with the hose during dry spells.

Gallina's Yellow Cherry and Czech Yellow Cherry come out of the former Iron Curtain countries. Industrial agriculture collapsed well before the Soviet Union did, leaving home gardeners on their own for plant breeding. The gardeners did a wonderful job as custodians of their heritage. A few tomato varieties were smuggled to the west before the Berlin Wall collapsed, dozens more after the break up of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet economy imploded, home gardening was even more important. I like the "Post-Soviet" tomatoes because they are selected for great taste, do well in our climate and are exactly suited to backyard organic gardening. There is a wonderful riot of colors: Black Krim, Pirkstine Orange, Zarayanka Sunrise, Aurora (red).

Heirloom varieties come with stories: Moskovich, Brandywine, Cherokee, Extra Eros Zlataslava, Ispolin, Giant Syrian, Lakota, Red Fig. The stories are intertwined with culture, with food, with family histories, with sense of place and heritage. Nothing grown in a giant field in California and picked by machine can compare.

So how to get heirloom tomato starts? Check around, there are starts for sale everywhere. Some heirlooms are even marked, or labeled OP for open pollinated. Reputable companies will mark hybrids with an F1.

Watch out for newest scam, though. Monsanto, through its 30 odd fully owned companies (kept with different logos and publishing separate catalogues to make it look like they are still independent small companies) has been pushing a line of "heirloom hybrids". "Heirloom hybrids" is an oxymoron. The press release says that market growers wanted a more uniform, better storing, more easily transportable "heirloom" tomato, and Monsanto responded to their customers. Maybe. The university agricultural research stations have been really good about breeding stabilized open pollinated varieties, so I am skeptical that only hybrids met the needs of growers. More likely, Monsanto bought up the breeding stock of many small seed companies for less benign reasons.

Oh, and it's still a bit cold to put tomatoes out. They need to stay above 50 degrees. If you want to put your tomatoes out early, use a cold frame, row covers, hot caps or other protection.

Really cheap hot cap: cut the bottom off a gallon plastic milk jug. Remove the top. Cut a hole in the top of the handle, and stake down the jug through the handle, covering your tomato start. Be sure to take it off before the plant starts growing through the top.

Coming soon: How to save your own tomato seeds.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on May 7, 2010. For recent posts, see

Celt's Garden - Jam Session

Jam season is coming sooner than we think. We seem to be having an early spring - when it isn't winter again. In the usual scheme of things, strawberries arrive in June, followed by the early raspberries, cherries, blueberries, plums, apricots, peaches, figs, blackberries, fall raspberries and the rare treasures, local Lynden Blue and Madeline Angevine grapes. Apples ripen from June to October, depending on the variety. Where to start?
The first step is to plan. How many people are you jamming for? Will your family want gifts of jam for the holidays or do their tastes run to high end electronics? Do they adore strawberry and scorn figs? How much jam would you go through if you weren't paying $8 a jar for the good stuff? Then, gather your equipment. Fruits, pickles and tomatoes are canned in a steam canner or water bath canner. Having used both, I suggest a steam canner. A steam canner inverts the water bath canner construction, with a shallow water tray and a large cover to hold the steam. Pressure canners take so long to come up to temperature that there is no advantage in owning one unless you want to can green beans, meat or fish.
Steam canners are available on line (Territorial, etc.). I saw a few at Yaeger's last year. Yaeger's also has water bath canners and half gallon jars, which are about useless for canning but ideal for storing dry beans. They have the second best price on canning jars. The best is the Fred Meyer on Lakeway. The supermarkets jars are ruddy expensive, only useful in an emergency. I suggest laying in your canner and jars well ahead of time, as in now. Check craigslist for used jars, but they go awfully quickly. Jars will last indefinitely unless abused. Check used jars for a smooth surface on top, no nicks or scrapes. The most useful sizes for jamming are 12 oz, pint and 8 oz.

The wonderful thing about jamming is that you can control the amount of sugar in your jam. The sticky sweet flavor of commercial jams, required to be 55% sugar, never appealed to me. However, even with the low sugar recipes, you will go through quite a bit of sugar. Plan on buying the giant 25 lb. sack of sugar. You will need it unless you make completely sugar free fruit spreads. It's cheaper to get a large sack of sugar and split it with a neighbor than to keep buying 5 lb. bags. Terra Organica and the Coop will order bulk organic sugar for you at a slight discount to the bulk bin price. Last year, I got a 33 lb. sack of raw sugar (dried cane juice), Fair Trade, from Paraguay, distributed by Sunspire, very nice stuff, at a price I could live with. After the jam season, the rest of the bag went into coffee all winter.
Low or no sugar jam is made with low-methoxyl citrus pectin that is activated by calcium, commercially available as Pomona Pectin. The stuff is not cheap if purchased in little boxes. I suggest getting a half pound ( and splitting it with a friend. It comes with recipes. It's easy to use, but the procedure is a bit different from regular pectin.

Low-methoxyl pectin needs sufficient acid to set, so it is advisable to purchase a jar of organic lemon juice concentrate before you are headed home from the U-pick with 35 pounds of leaking raspberries in your car and discover that the lemon juice concentrate is all sold out.

Regular pectin made with less than recommended sugar produces an uncertain thin syrup, so plan on following the recipe if you use Sure-Jell.

Apricots come from the other side of the mountains. You can generally order a case. Apricots dehydrate wonderfully, so those not eaten can be dried.

If you are reusing jars, check the discount grocers for lids. The best time to do this is December, but a person can't think of everything ahead of time. Rings can be reused unless bent or rusty, but you will need new lids every time.

Additional equipment needed is a widemouthed jar funnel, jar tongs and a regular set of tongs for handling lids. There is a magnetic wand sold for this purpose, but I like to keep single use tools to a minimum.

The Master Preservers will run classes on canning in the summer. They are required to use only official recipes and techniques, which must be very frustrating for the instructors. The official USDA recipes appear to be designed to terrify people into buying everything ready made, in supermarkets. The instructions that came with your canner and the pectin box are actually sufficient for making beaucoup great stuff. Last year's classes were standing room only, so if you are interested, you will want to sign up early. I recommend taking the pressure canner class if you are thinking about canning meat, fish or low acid vegetables such as green beans and carrots.

For jam, applesauce, tomatoes and pickles, a steam or water bath canner is not difficult to use. You won't poison anybody if you exercise due caution about food safety. Check each jar edge by running your finger around it to inspect for cracks and nicks, carefully that is. Put boiling jam into scalded jars, seal carefully with hot lids and process according to directions. There are just a few tricks of art: wash new lids, pour boiling water over them, and let them sit for 15 minutes to soften the glue. Fill jars to within a half inch of the top to allow room for expansion, and wipe off the tops of the jars with a paper towel dipped in very hot water before putting on the lids and rings. You don't need to reef on the rings, just get it snug. Handle the jars carefully and keep them upright as you put them into the canner and remove them after processing to cool on a folded towel. The glue is hot and the seals are fragile. Allow to cool overnight. After the jars cool, the rings will be loose. Just unscrew and remove the rings. Cranking down will break the seal. Check each seal by trying to move the lid sideways with your fingers. If the lid moves, the seal is broken. Put that one in the fridge and eat it. Wipe off, label and store your jars in a cool, dark cupboard. Every so often, check your seals. Apply common sense here, if it looks or smells funky, don't eat it and don't try to save the jar. If your home canned jam grows something Technicolor in storage, the seal is broken and pitch the whole thing, jar and all. I have had two seals fail during storage in 30 years. However, someone I know (not saying who, as my mother will get after me) lost more than one batch from tightening down on the rings after processing, hence breaking the seals. 

Check out the books Summer in a Jar, Putting Food By, and Preserving the Harvest for small batch recipes. If you have grandma's jam recipe, use the instructions on your canner for filling and processing the jars. Some old recipes call for the long-discredited overflow method of jar filling. Use common sense about whether grandma's recipe has enough acid for safe preservation, by comparing it to modern recipes.

There are small farmers in the county who aren't on the Farm Finder map because they didn't pay up. As you go about looking for sources, note who else is in the neighborhood.

The most affordable fine jam starts with free fruit, quite doable with blackberries, apples and to some degree plums (ask around), less so with other fruits. The next level is the U-pick operations. The farmer is struggling to make a profit, so perhaps we can forgive them for the usual practice of having the professionals in to pick and pack commercial orders before opening to U-pickers. U-picking may take longer than expected, if you end up gleaning rather than picking.

Dedicated dumpster divers often end up with cases of well ripened fruit. The challenge there is dropping everything else to jam up. There is no time to lose, as the next step is compost.

If you are planning on getting your jam fruit at the farmer's market, you may have to call ahead to reserve a case. In any case, show up early. The farmers get nervous with fruit sitting in the sun, and may sell your special order to someone else.

Once you make your own, you will never go back. For one thing, your family will refuse to eat the cheap stuff. Then again, I am way too cheap to buy the expensive stuff. You can make jams, jellies, chutneys, and fruit spreads of the very best quality for a fraction of the cost of buying it. And you know exactly what's in it.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on April 28, 2010. For recent posts, see

Friday, June 18, 2010

Celt's Garden - Cheese and the Tax Man

It's all about the cheese. French cheese is a story of cookery and resource depletion. Cheese preserves milk, an otherwise fragile commodity. Cows, goats and sheep can make milk from pasture land that may be too steep, rocky or poor for grains or row crops. Cheese can be compactly transported. A gallon of milk makes 8-16 ounces of cheese, so the volume goes down and the shelf life goes up. Cheese has terroir, the flavors of origin. What the animals eat, the breed, the time of year and the cheese making methods, all contribute to unique cheese types. Every valley, every hamlet, almost every farmhouse, can have its specialty. What's not to like?

Best of all, cheese can be sold in towns and cities for cash. In cash poor rural France, turning poor soil on rocky slopes into cash by way of cheese is a centuries old survival strategy. For centuries, very little cash circulated outside the cities. Even rents were often partially or fully paid in wheat, sheep and wine. Taxes have ever been paid in cash.
In the 18th century, France was the western hemisphere's great maritime power. Three long lived kings in the 17th and 18th centuries (Louie, Louie, Louie, otherwise known as Louis 14th, 15th and 16th) paid for their wars by devaluing the currency. The way it worked was to issue currency with a higher and higher proportion of base metal but the same face value.

French maritime power was based on great wooden warships. Each warship took 1000 acres of old growth oak forest. Once the oak forest was logged off, the soil underneath was often too steep, poor and rocky for farming. With France well into resource depletion by the beginning of the 18th century, a new source of old growth timber was needed. It came in the form of the Mississippi Territory, a wide strip from what is now the Canadian border to New Orleans.
In the early 18th century, France had a liquidity crisis. This a common problem in advanced economies, where there are goods and services to trade a plenty but no one wants to part with cash to pay for them, in this case very likely due to the high probability of being repaid in debased metal. Louie's financial advisor, John Law, solved the problem by issuing paper notes against the money in the king's treasury. That did the trick: the increase in the money supply got the economy moving and pretty soon commerce was back on track. Louie like the idea so much that he just kept printing money, until the treasury was leveraged many times over.
Since the value of the total goods and services produced by the economy of the world's greatest maritime power hadn't changed much, all that cash in circulation had to go somewhere.

The problem with developing the Mississippi Territory for its genuine wealth in timber and other resources was that it was a decades long project and hugely expensive. The territory was largely unmapped. It was inhabited by people justifiably unhappy with recent events. It was only accessible by water, because the population collapse of the First Nations following the epidemics of European diseases in the 16th century had left the forest depleted of its keystone species. Grassland turned to shrub land, shrub lands turned to impenetrable young forest. Without people to set fires, old growth forests were overrun by under story shrubs and the trails vanished. So, the Mississippi project was conceived as a joint stock company. Buying shares was marketed as a patriotic duty. It might have worked, in the same way that people buy college bonds for infants, except that it came right as Louie was running the printing presses overtime.

The resulting bubble collapsed in 1820 and bankrupted the middle class. John Law took the fall and Louie carried on as before. By the middle of the century, France and England were deep into Peak Trees and still borrowing to finance their wars, mostly with each other. The money had to come from somewhere. England took it out of the colonies. France took it out of the citizens. The elites in both countries voted themselves tax exemption after tax exemption, until the greatest landowners paid almost nothing. England's colonies got restive from being sucked dry by the mother country and turned to Louie to finance a revolution. Which Louie, eye ever on the trees of the new world, did, reducing the next generation of middle class to penury and the peasants to starvation. We know how well that turned out.

If any of this sounds familiar, we will just move on to the cheese. Cows have to give birth in order to give milk. Only half the offspring are potential future dairy cows. Some of the males were castrated and used as oxen and perhaps 1% of them for breeding. That still leaves a lot of veal calves. The roots of haute cuisine reach back to Louie's cooks. Not coincidentally, just about everything in haute cuisine starts with veal stock.

The Mississippi territory changed hands several times and was finally sold to the U.S. as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The peasants grazed sheep on the plateaus once occupied by the old growth oak forests of central France. Some of the forests came back as secondary growth, mostly from being ignored in the commotion. Modern farmers hunt for truffles (also a declining resource) in the oak forests and fatten feral pigs on the mast, the calorie rich acorn litter. The rural economy is still cash poor and partially informal. Cheese is still the cash cow for many farmers, although European Union rules are making it difficult for farmstead cheeses to be sold legally.

Yogurt Cheese:
The easiest soft cheese is just made with yogurt, plain or any flavor and a jelly bag or quadruple layer of cheese cloth. Set the cheese cloth in a colander in the sink. Put the yogurt in the cheese cloth, tie up the top and suspend it until the whey drains out. The resulting cream cheese is quite nice. Yogurt can also be baked in a 300 oven to make a crumbly, dry cheese.

Cheese resources:
Cheese Supply ( Our local Bellingham source, less product range than the larger companies.
New England Cheesemaking Supply Company ( Books, kits, ingredients.
Leeners ( Pure cultures and supplies for all kinds of fermented foods.

More on the events mentioned above:
Charles Mackay, Extrordinary Popular delusions and the Madness of Crowds
David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on April 23, 2010. For recent posts, see

Celt's Garden - Value from Small Spaces

It's time to plant onion sets and potatoes. If you haven't started some peas, lettuce and spinach already, now is the time. Leave some space for the summer garden, even if your summer garden is two patio tomatoes and a butterstick summer squash in pots. Bush beans, compact summer squashes, determinate tomatoes in cages, trellises to train pole beans, squash, cucumbers will help you grow a lot in small spaces.

Back when I had just built the first raised bed on my former front lawn, a 13' wide sorry looking strip of dandelions and grass, an old gentleman stopped on his walk to patiently explain to me that I wasn't going to be able to live off that. Thinking to myself, "That's right, Bozohead, I am not going to get 2000 daily calories times 2.3 FTEE (Full Time Equivalent Eaters) out of a 48 square foot raised bed", I smiled broadly and told him, "Gardening is such an INTERESTING hobby, don't you think? And it's a great way to meet people."

What I got was nine varieties of lettuce, spinach, green onions, radishes, flat and curly parsley, boy choi, tatsoi, edible chrysanthemum, chives, Pacific Pearl onions, Asian red mustard, snow peas, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, pattypan spinach, green beans, beet greens, green garlic tops, and a handful of fancy Italian red torpedo onions. I didn't keep a detailed account, but it was at least $30 a week worth of fresh organic veggies. It was November before I had to break down and buy lettuce. With some herbs in pots, the little garden produced the makings for excellent meals for most of the year. I bought the the heavy veg (more broccoli, cauliflower, brown onions, carrots, garlic bulbs, winter squash, sweet corn, a couple of Brent's Harrison's massive solid head cabbages to make 7 quarts of sauerkraut, pickling cucumbers and green beans for freezing) from the farmer's market.

The city required 24" setback between the sidewalk and the raised bed made a great flower bed. I stuck a few nasturtium seeds in to grow up and tumble over the sides. The chives flowered and by midsummer, it was positively charming.

In August, I put in chard and Lutz Winterkeeper beets to replace bolted lettuce and spinach and planted fall lettuce, six cabbage starts, kale, chicory, and winter radishes. In October, I pulled up the spent tomatoes and squash and put in their place fava beans and some onions that had gone sprouty in the kitchen. The two broccoli plants produced side shoots until the following February, when they got really bushy and I pulled them up.

Kale, leeks and chicory are gifts that keep giving until they bolt. Just cut kale back and as long as the weather is cool but not frozen hard, a frequent condition in these parts, the kale grows back. In the spring it bolts dramatically and makes exuberant bee forage for your wild pollinators.

In one year, that small garden produced over $1000 worth of vegetables. It was delicious, fresh picked stuff. Dried herbs from the herb plants in containers went into meals all winter.

A small garden makes a huge difference to the gardener's quality of life. That's money you don't have to earn, or something extra every week to put towards upgrading your meat and dairy to local and naturally raised. You don't need to grow every calorie you eat. Just by growing some fresh food and laying off the processed food, you can vastly improve your eating.

Gardening is part of my business plan. The nature of engineering is that it is seasonal and project oriented. The self-employed develop techniques for coping with an intermittent cash flow (most of which amount to don't run out and spend the entire check when you get one, eh?) However, I'm not so keen on intermittent eating. And I really don't like big fluctuations in lifestyle, eating dinners in restaurants after getting paid and warming up canned mac and cheese from the discount store when the cash runs out.

Besides, gardening is such an interesting hobby.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on April 19, 2010. For recent posts, see

Celt's Garden - Ag Mech for Grownups

Dr. Steve Jones, when he was here talking to us about small scale grain growing, suggested looking around for old threshers, balers, tractors and other medium tech equipment. He also suggested that if we find something, try to buy more than one, because the parts are hard to find. The equipment is itself hard to find. The high price of scrap steel has led to collecting up the old machines from the early 20th Century and shipping them to China to be melted down. Once you beat the scrap dealer to some agricultural equipment, it has to be maintained. Everything about farm equipment takes a beating. It is operated in mud, dust, rain, high starting torque, often long hours of operation followed by sitting in the loafing shed for months. Belts slip, chain drives break, motors break down, bits fly off and metal fatigues. And, as Steve reminded us, the stuff is dangerous.

This is not idealistic back to nature stuff, this is personal protective equipment, lockout tagout, maintenance schedule, job site hazard analysis, do the research, know what you're doing and have multiple backup plans, park the little kids at Grandma's, and be aware of where all your parts and pieces are in relationship to the machine.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John (DVD, check the library) has some cringe inducing opening scenes of little kids frolicking in the path of the disk harrow and riding behind the driver on a high wheeled tricycle tractor. The movie is a thought provoking piece about Farmer John's journey from failing at industrial agriculture to successful organic farming. Just as the sigh of relief hits that there are no more scenes of home movies from the sixties with little kids playing around big iron, there's Farmer John as a grown man, welding without gloves. At the end, John takes his investors on a conga dance on the ridge line of the newly raised barn, leading me to leap up from the couch and say "John, you idiot! That's your sponsors! You leave the money on the ground and feed them barbecue until they roll into their cars and go home!"

Sadly, this is not just theoretical. Older farmers in Whatcom County remember the family who lost a little girl because one of the neighbors thought it was cute to let her ride on the back of the tractor. One day she fell off, into the fail mower.

Job site analysis is a basic tool. It is no more than thinking through the process and identifying what could go wrong at each step. Drive out to the county to pick up horse poop, and the drive out is no big deal. Then the pickup has to be backed up to the pile, so check the path first for holes and obstacles and stay in the driver's view during the backing. Returning with the truck heavily loaded, stay off the interstate and allow plenty of stopping distance. Stop traffic to back the truck into the garden space. Then ground guide the driver while he backs the truck downhill. Put a block under the wheel while offloading poop.

Labor and Industries tells us that most work site accidents are the "struck by, caught between, impaled by, crushed under" types of mishaps, and that they are 99% preventable.

Most of us chair butt cubicle monkeys got a great grounding in French verbs and writing comparative literature essays in school, but maybe not so much practical training. Some folks out there maintain their own vehicles, took Agricultural Mechanics in high school, or took Art Welding at BTC, and they have a big head start on the rest of us cubicle monkeys.
Where then to get the safety training, the mechanical training, the small engine repair and tap into the network of local know-how and suppliers? How to get off that cubicle butt and learn which wrench is used for what application?

We have a great local resource at Bellingham Technical College, in the Electrical Mechanical Technology (EMTEC) program. EMTEC was started as a way to provide training for employees of Alcoa and the refineries on Cherry Point. A typical class meets one night a week for a quarter. There is a large range of classes (electricity, hydraulics and pneumatics, belts and drives, maintenance management, welding, etc., etc.), enough to get a two year degree with different areas of concentration, if so desired. Recently laid off persons may even be eligible for some retraining funds. Better apply quickly, before the State of Washington runs out of money.

The EMTEC program is going through an identity crises lately, since the heavy industries quit paying tuition for their employees. The program is reorganizing and putting more emphasis on day classes. You can get an idea of what they have offered in the past, in the 2008-2010 catalog at Scott Stidham (360) 752-8568 ) runs the EMTEC program. If there is a class that would help you gets hands-on with equipment, and you are willing to pay three hundred bucks and spend ten weeks going to night school for, call Scott and talk to him about it. There has been limited overlap so far between the type of people who groove to the bands at the Great Unleashing and the type of people who take Introduction to Hydraulic Circuits. This is unfortunate, because that wealth of medium technology built up over the past three centuries is your inheritance, as much as heirloom tomato varieties and quilt making.

Some folks would just rather stick to hand tools. Youtube has a wealth of how to videos. Brian Kerkvliet will teach you how to use a scythe or sickle without cutting your fingers off, for a modest fee. An internet search on "scythe" will produce a wealth of resources. The challenge is the social organization rather than technology. Harvesting a field by hand takes 30 person hours for every comparable one machine hour. So to get in even a modest grain harvest by hand, you have to mobilize your friends.

This was once normal. Lawrence Durrell described how the contractors remodeling his house on Cyprus in the 1950's downed tools and went into the orchards for the lemon harvest. Anybody who is interested in helping to harvest grain by hand or dig potatoes this summer can call Walter Haugen.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on April 12, 2010. For recent posts, see

Celt's Garden - Preserved Ginger and Pad Thai

Look for fresh ginger, tumeric and galangal roots in the markets now. They are in season someplace in world, and we get to share. The fresh juicy roots are the ones you want. Ginger is a familiar element of Asian cooking. Galangal is a hard root that ripens to rock-hard. It is the secret ingredient in Pad Thai. It was widely grown and used in Europe until it was lost during the calamitous 14th century. Tumeric, used in Indian and Asian cooking, is usually found as a dry powder. The fresh root is a revelation, so good that it's hard to resist snacking on it as you work. Here's how to preserve a year's supply in a compact form. Scald some small glass jars with metal lids. (That just means wash them in hot water, set the hot jars in the bottom of a soup pot, in the sink, with the lids off. Also put the lids in the soup pot. Pour boiling water slowly over the jars. Pour some in the pot as you go, to equalize the temperature between inside and outside. If you are reusing commercial jars, pickle jars for example, look for heavy ones. Pour no more than a half inch of boiling water in at a time. Stand well back as you pour. Thin glass can explode from thermal shock.) The flavorful roots are not cheap, but you only need a couple of slices to flavor a whole meal. Unless you really eat a lot of Pad Thai, a year's supply of all three will fit in both hands.

Ginger is preserved in alcohol. Scrub the roots with a brush and peel thinly with a potato peeler. Save the peels. Cut the root into chunks that will fit comfortably in your jar. Use tongs to fish out a scalded jar from the soup pot. Pack the ginger in the jar, leaving enough room to cover the chunks with at least a half inch of alcohol. Pour cooking sherry, Asian rice spirits or in a pinch white wine fortified with a tablespoon of vodka over the ginger and seal with your scalded lid. To use the ginger, fish out a chunk, slice off some quarter-sized pieces, and toss in your stir-fry. The ginger-infused alcohol is also used to flavor your cooking. Just pour off some to use and add more alcohol to keep the ginger covered.

Galangal and tumeric are preserved in sherry vinegar or apple cider vinegar. If you are going to pay a fortune for one galangal root, there's not much point in pickling it in the harsh white vinegar you use for cleaning the floor. Put up your galangal and tumeric when you get home from the market. They dry out if left sitting around. Scrub, thinly peel, and slice the galangal in slices the thickness of a quarter, using a heavy chef's knife. Be careful with this, the root is hard and the knife can turn in your hand. Pack the slices into your hot jar and cover with sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt. Tumeric roots are little things the size of those shaved "baby" carrots. They just need to be peeled, cut into chunks and packed into a jar with vinegar and a little salt.

Wipe and label your three jars and store in a dark cupboard. You just put up a year's worth of seasonings. You have the makings for Pad Thai, teriyaki, curries, soups, and stir fries. No more buying shriveled, out of season ginger for your special salad dressing, tiny bottles of prepared sauces or dubious packets of "Stir fry Seasoning". Now you have a pile of ginger peels and another pile of galangal and tumeric peels. Simmer the ginger peels in a saucepan full of water. Just put it on low and let it pop up an occasional bubble for a hour or more. Strain, and you will have a powerful ginger flavored herb tea. I find it rather strong to drink straight, but diluted with some hot water, lemon and honey for tea, that's good. Other uses are to add some sparkling water for your own ginger ale or jazz up your orange juice.

Put the tumeric and galangal peels in a small piece of doubled cheesecloth and tie up with cotton string. Drop it in pot of soup and add your favorite vegetables. Pull it out before mealtime, eh?

To use galangal, drop a slice in the broth and cook. The galangal is supposed to be removed before serving. To use the tumeric, finely mince a chunk of root about a half inch long and drop into whatever you are making. Tumeric gives a nice golden color to the dish. I'm sure you can come up with creative uses for the sherry vinegar, perhaps a little in your sauce.

Cash and Carry sells an excellent sherry vinegar to fancy restaurants in gallon plastic jugs (Four Brothers brand.) They also carry Michui rice spirits in a large bottle. They supply a lot of the smaller restaurants in town. Check out the Asian shelf. Rice noodles, bean thread, all kinds of goodies. Cash and Carry also has a good selection of woks, cleavers and Asian cooking implements.

There are wonderful things to be found in the two Asian grocery stores on Meridian Avenue in the Fountain District. Watch out for embalmed food; read the ingredients. There's a mom and pop grocery store on Samish way that sells Korean condiments. I want to support them by shopping there, but everything I looked at was full of MSG and worse. The Koreans have a great racket going: buy commodity American GMO soybeans by the shipload, ferment the beans into miso, flavor it up with hot chilies and embalming fluid and sell it back to us in little tubs at a markup.

Look for: Thai Kitchen brand coconut milk (just coconut milk, nothing weird), dried spices, miso in the cooler, fresh lo main noodles, palm sugar (comes in a lump, just scrape some off to add a hint of sweetness to curries), dried beans, rice in large bags, fresh lemongrass, and more.

Many Asian dishes start with mincing up a couple of slices of your preserved ginger with garlic and scallions. Saute this briefly and add broth for soup or any combination of vegetables and or meat for stir fry. Towards the end, add a little soy sauce and some of your ginger-flavored alcohol.

Terriyaki Sauce

In a small bowl, combine minced garlic and ginger, soy sauce, some alcohol from the ginger and a tablespoon of brown sugar. Taste it and adjust the proportions to your liking. Hot red paper flakes optional. To thicken, slowly stir in a teaspoon of potato starch into the cold sauce. It will thicken as it cooks.

Basic Pad Thai

Saute your garlic, ginger, and scallion with a little oil in the bottom of your soup pot. Add a quart of chicken broth, a slice of galangal, a little minced tumeric, sliced sweet onion and sliced carrots. Simmer until the carrots are soft. Add a tablespoon of lime juice, two tablespoons soy sauce, a tablespoon of brown or palm sugar and some hot pepper flakes. Taste it and add more seasoning if you want. Bring it to a boil and drop in some rice noodles. It's done when the rice noodles are cooked. An optional dash of Thai Kitchen (or other brand with nothing weird) fish sauce in finished soup provides a hint of unami flavor. Once you get a basic flavor balance that you like, there are endless variations.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on April 3, 2010. For recent posts, see

Monday, June 7, 2010

Celt's Garden - Seasonal Herbs

Herbs from the garden are seasonal. The season for leaves is just beginning. The thyme and sage are already leafing out. The savory will be strong enough to start taking clippings next week. The chives are already starting to form flower buds. Just cut those off and chop them up and drop them into an omelet.
This is the time to delight in the return of fresh herbs to the kitchen. Soon, we can start harvesting handfuls and drying them. The thyme, savory, oregano family are harvested and dried from April to August. Cutting them back after mid-August may cause them to winter kill. Cut back at most a quarter of the plant at any one time. Rosemary is tender, let it warm up more before you start harvesting. The mints are slow to get going this year. All the laminacae (square stemmed mint family herbs) are harvested by cutting just above the joint, where side shoots are forming. Then the side shoots will grow up to form new leaves. You want to get them in the leaf stage or bud stage, just before the flowers open. That is when they are the most flavorful. If you start with a four inch rosemary plant in the spring, you may not want to stress it by harvesting the first year. Just take off a few pinches from ends of the branches.

The basil is just going in the first week of June, when the harvest of perennial herbs is peaking. The fennel seed will be ready in September, when the fennel has grown into a huge shaggy bush and the seed comes off easily into a bowl. The seed also flies all over the place and it ripens unevenly, so you have to keep harvesting.

Wait a second, you're saying, how are you going to make your world famous Amy's plain cheese frozen pizza customized with canned olives, fresh tomatoes and fresh basil, now, in March, if the tomatoes from your garden ripen in August and the basil isn't even started indoors until May? What about that?
Good point. BC Hothouses grows some regional out of season tomatoes that are decent if you are desperate for a fresh tomato. Those cardboard winter tomatoes from California are a waste of money even if you get them free. If you must have fresh herbs out of season, look for locally grown ones (Haggen's, The Market, the Co-op, Terra Organica.) Brent, Nick, and the rest of our Whatcom County farmers need the money. Pizza crust recipe below.

If you are cheap like me, you will find that the rhythm of the seasons feels pretty good. Two people told me today that they are putting in their herb gardens, and they are all excited about it, too. Soon the smell of drying herbs will fill the kitchen.

If you are going to harvest your lavender for the fragrance and medicinal qualities of the flowers, cut off the heads just before they open. The flowers start losing intensity as soon as they open. You may get a second harvest as the frustrated plant tries to reproduce. For herbes de Provence, wait until after the blooming season and prune your lavender. Cut the new growth back almost to the woody stems. This was done to keep the plants compact and producing high quality buds instead of sprawling all over. Pruning generates a large quantity of lavender leaves, which are dried and used as seasoning.

The tarragon you babied is cut and packed into scalded jars of vinegar. That whole tarragon vinegar business is to preserve the tarragon. The flavored vinegar is a by-product. Use decent vinegar. White wine vinegar is traditional or use 100% apple cider vinegar if you are sensitive to sulfites. Cash and Carry sells Four Brothers brand of good quality vinegars and cooking wines in gallon jugs for a reasonable price, just the thing for putting up the harvest. Or, you could buy cute little 12 ounce bottles of wine vinegar, one at a time.
About that basil: eat it fresh, dry some, make Italian pesto or French pistou, freeze it in little blocks in ice cube trays, and pickle it in sherry. This last has an appealing effort level: chop basil into little pieces, and pack into scalded small jars with a pinch of salt. Pour cooking sherry to cover by a half inch and seal with a scalded lid. Keep it in the dark. If you are paranoid about food safety, refrigerate after opening. Otherwise just make sure you have plenty of sherry covering the basil.

Which brings us back to home French cooking. Your traditional French farmhouse is sans indoor toilets, running water, electricity, a range, a refrigerator, a telephone, and central heating. The next time that you see a glossy magazine spread on "Charming Country French Whatever", just try keeping a straight face.
Even though most farmhouses now have indoor plumbing, and many have been bought by city dwellers as vacation homes and tarted up with electricity, propane ranges, and other fripperies, French cooking comes out of intensely local and seasonal eating.
The wonderful jams, preserves, chutneys, cheeses, pickled this and that, sausages, cured meats, sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented vegetables and oh my gosh, fresh cherries preserved in brandy and sugar syrup, are all techniques for traditional food storage.

More on that later. If you haven't seen Keeping Food Fresh by Centre Terre Vivante, a compilation of traditional recipes and preservation methods, you might want to check it out. There are a multitude of gardening and preserving books in the library, on everything from how to put in your herb garden to how to make your own liqueurs.
And if you haven't put in your herb garden, now is the time to build it. It's still a little cold to put the perennial starts in. Herb starts are already available all over town.

Herbes de Provence:
Dried savory, fennel seeds, basil, thyme, and lavender leaves.
Start with equal proportions and adjust to your liking.
Myriad variations abound. Throw in a few lavender flowers for fragrance and drama, but too many will make it smell like an old lady's sock drawer.
Used to flavor poultry, meat, grilled vegetables, sausages and fish since Roman times. Amazing in potato soup. And you were thinking of paying $12 for a little crock of the stuff, eh?

Pizza Crust:
Refer to previous post on Slow Bread. At the stage where you would form loaves of fast or slow bread, pull off a chunk the size of a man's fist (one pound on the kitchen scale) and roll it out on a floured board. If it feels stiff and hard to work with, walk away for a few minutes and do something else while the dough relaxes. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Sprinkle coarse cornmeal on a baking sheet and transfer the pizza crust. Drape it around the rolling pin to make the transfer. Pinch up the edges to hold the sauce.
Bake for 5-10 minutes, depending on whether you made thin or thick crust pizza, remove from oven and top. Return to oven and cook until the desired state of bubbly, cheesy goodness is reached.
To make your own frozen crust, allow to cool after the initial baking and slide the whole thing, baking sheet and all, into the freezer. When the crust is frozen solid, remove the baking sheet and wrap the crust in freezer paper. You may want a piece of cardboard as a support.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on March 30, 2010. For recent posts, check out

Celt's Garden - That French Feeling

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on March 29, 2010 at 1:30pm. For recent posts, check out

In the back of "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest", Mollie Katzen helpfully included fake sheets for major world cuisines. Let's deconstruct one of them, home style French cooking, and see what we can grow in the garden. Classical French cooking has had a resurgence of interest with the popularity of the movie "Julie and Julia". Thankfully, home cooking in France has always been simpler than the elaborate dishes that Julia Child learned at the Cordon Bleu in Paris after World War II. When your average French housewife wants a boned duck in a pastry shell for a special occasion, she buys it from the shop on the corner.

France has numerous and varied regional cuisines, but following Katzen's lead, let's look at the basic herbs: tarragon, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, thyme, savory, fennel, sage, basil, bay. All can be grown in the Fourth Corner with some fussing. The first consideration is that lavender (gets large) and thyme (spreads but stays small) are perennial and long-lived, sage is a short lived perennial that gets woody and is usually replaced every few years, and fennel is an annual that shoots up five feet when it flowers. Fennel will give you lacy leaves in spring to wrap around some nice firm white fish and give a twist to salads, flowers to feed your pollinators, and seeds for fennel biscotti and herbes de Provence. Put the fennel at the back of the herb bed, or grow it with your vegetables. Florence fennel, grown for its bulbous stem, is a vegetable. Slice the tender stems and bake with a little butter and black pepper. Fennel produces prodigious amounts of seed and numerous volunteers will pop up the following year, so put it someplace where you can enjoy the fact that once grown for seed, it's actually hard to get rid of.

Rosemary (also can get large, likes a big pot) and marjoram (stays small and compact) are tender perennials. They need a warm, sheltered spot. They may need to be grown in pots and brought in to an unheated porch for winter. There are two types of savory, perennial winter savory and annual summer savory. Tarragon is a perennial which is so tender that it is difficult to keep alive outside. French tarragon does not set seed and must be grown from a plant division. I had some success planting tarragon where it was sheltered by the rosemary. It died back in the fall and returned in the spring, until we had a particularly cold winter and it didn't come back. It didn't survive overwintering as a house plant, either. You might try planting it in the herb garden in the spring and digging it up in fall to overwinter in a pot on an unheated enclosed porch.

Basil is a tender annual that benefits from fussing. It is easily grown from seed started in May and put out in June, when the soil has warmed up. Slugs love basil seedlings. I suggest growing basil in a large container with a down turned lip (many plastic planting tubs have this) and sprinkling some Sluggo among the seedlings for the first couple of weeks, until they get established. Sluggo is a non-toxic slug reducer made from cornmeal and iron phosphate. The iron phosphate breaks down into fertilizer. Or, look up the saucers of beer routine for slug reduction. You can also go out with a flashlight and pick slugs after dark (a cheap date, eh?)

Bay is a tree which can be kept dwarfed in a container. It is tender and has to come inside as a houseplant for the winter. It has become popular to have a bonsai bay tree as a pet. Or, a year's supply of bay leaves is not expensive and will fit in a envelope the size of your electric bill.
Herbs are traditionally grown in a raised bed with a rock border. The rocks (natural stone, cottage stone, brick) warm up in the daytime and release heat at night. If you can pull this one off, be sure and make your beds small enough to reach into the middle easily. You will have to weed around the perennials. Put the lavender and rosemary toward the north and remember that the four inch starts are going to grow into goodly shrubs. Your sage, winter savory and tarragon go in next, on the south side of the rosemary and lavender, and then the marjoram and thyme. The fennel goes someplace else. Lavender and rosemary grow slowly, so you can grow annual herbs around them the first couple of years: chamomile, garlic, violets, etc. Save some space in your herb bed for summer savory and other annuals.
It is worth obtaining some of Lynden's famed sandy loam soil for your herb bed. Our usual clay muck doesn't drain well enough. Your perennial herb starts can have a little organic fertilizer when they go in. Use potting soil and organic fertilizer for your basil. It's essentially a leaf crop.
Rosemary: Look for Herb Cottage or Tuscan Blue. The prostrate ones are chiefly decorative. ARP is cold hardy as promised, and most uninspiring for culinary use.
Lavender: Hidcote is small and cold hardy. Munstead is larger and more drought tolerant. They are both good in the kitchen garden. There are lavenders primarily grown for essential oil production (Provence, Vera) and multitudes of decorative lavenders (Spanish, French, etc.)
Thyme: The best ones for cooking are English thyme and lemon thyme, which both have round leaves. French thyme has the spikey leaves and is actually better for medicinal purposes, due to its strong flavor. There are also a multitude of fancy and decorative thymes. Most of them are tender in our climate, particularly in pots, and may winter kill.
Basil: Sweet, Genovese, and Toscano (giant) are your best choices for cooking, and if you want to have fun, there are lemon, Greek mini, cinnamon and ornamental basils.
Savory: just the basic choices between the annual and the perennial type (best for drying and saving.)
Tarragon: tarragon is a clone, so whatever you can find is what you get. Don't buy Russian tarragon, it tastes like grass. It is useful if you make your own soap, as a dye and scent.
Sage: Culinary sage is the basic one in the seed rack, easy to grow from seed. The fancy sage varieties sold as starts are medicinal, decorative or dye plants.
Marjoram is a natural hybrid between two varieties of oregano, best bought as a start.

Fish with Fennel Leaves:
Use butter or olive oil to lubricate the bottom of a baking dish.
Collect ferny green fennel shoots from your garden. You want the young, tender ones.
While you are there, collect a few green garlic shoots, green onions and fresh thyme sprigs.
Rinse the green stuff and put the garlic and onion shoots (cut in pieces) and some fennel leaves in the baking dish.
Put some filets of any firm white fish on top the green stuff.
On top the fish, put some pats of butter or a little olive oil.
Pour about a quarter cup of white wine over the fish.
Sprinkle with black pepper and put the thyme and a layer of fennel leaves on top the fish.
Bake at 375 degrees until done, generally 10-20 minutes, longer if you started with frozen fish. Check often and add more wine if it seems like it is drying out.

The top fennel leaves will be quite brown and unappetizing. Discard them and set the fish on fresh fennel leaves for your presentation. Pour the juice over it.

No garlic or onion shoots or fresh thyme? Use sliced onions and garlic from the store and dried thyme.

Celt's Garden - Backyard Wheat

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on March March 27, 2010 at 12:30pm. For recent posts, check out

In 1986, I had a field of golden wheat in my backyard. The field was 20' and 20' and my backyard was in suburban Clarksville, Tennessee. The former mistress of the modest ranch house had a big garden in the back yard. The first summer, I rented a rototiller and tilled up the lot. Then, contemplating the expanse of bare black earth, it dawned on me that she was a stay at home mother with two school aged kids. I had demanding work, a long commute and a baby. So, instead of recreating the big row garden, I put twelve 4' by 4' raised beds on half the garden. Even that proved to be too much food for my small family and I planted strawberries in two of the raised beds. The other half sat empty, invaded by grass, the rich soil pounded by that ferocious stuff the locals call rain. A year later, I resolved to put in a cover crop of rye. I hadn't planted rye yet, so I didn't know what a disaster it is in small gardens.
So on the way home from work, I drove into downtown and stopped at the grain elevator. Clarksville was like that, back in the day. The guy at the grain elevator explained to me that they don't grow rye or oats in Tennessee, because it doesn't get cold in the fall early enough to interrupt the life cycle of the leafhopper. What they grow in Tennessee is soft red winter wheat. All of a sudden, Southern cooking made sense. All those biscuits and pies made from low protein soft wheat. No oatmeal, no rye bread. Yeast breads made from imported hard spring wheat an expensive treat, and hence a plate of puffy Parkerhouse rolls on the table something to act a bit snooty about and the plate of biscuits a sign of cultural authenticity.

The guy at the grain elevator loaded four pounds of red wheat into a grain sack and stitched it up with his industrial sewing machine. I split it with my gardening buddy and got ready to plant in September.

Wheat goes in easily by hand. I just dug up the grass incursion, broadcast the seed and raked it in. From what Dr. Steve Jones from the Mt. Vernon research station told us, I could have gotten a better yield by making furrows an inch deep and six inches apart, planting the seeds a half inch apart, pulling the soil over the seeds, and then walking on them to press them in.
My wheat field grew well through the fall, was buried by snow several times, and took off in spring. By then, I had abandoned the idea of digging it under as a cover crop and just wanted to harvest the wheat. We already had enough vegetables from the raised beds; I didn't need more garden.

I bought an old sickle at a farm antique store and had it sharpened. Sharpening transformed it from a piece of nostalgic kitsch into a lethal, gleaming crescent. I read up on small scale grain raising and found out that for hand harvesting, you want to get the grain when there are still streaks of green in the stems. For machine harvesting, you want the stems fully golden.
One fine summer day, I went out with the sickle and started harvesting wheat. I had no clue what I was doing, and it was hard going. I have since learned that a serrated Japanese hand scythe is easier to use than the European sickle. Walter Haugen let me use his to harvest some barley at FA Farm last fall, and it was much easier.

I didn't know how to find the rhythm of swinging the sickle, either. If you try this at home, I suggest getting a lesson first. The old wood of the handle broke (your crafty gardener puts new handles on old tools), and I put it back together with duct tape. My elbow tired from the unfamiliar work and I switched to pruning clippers. I still use clippers to harvest small patches of oats in the garden, but for any larger amount of grain, the small muscles in the hand tire quickly. (I tried my pruning clippers at Walter's first, because I was afraid of the hand scythe. Noop, I don't advise that.) Brian Kerkvliet ran a couple of classes last year on using the full size scythe for harvesting. You might try that if you have a lot of grain, say a tenth of an acre.

However, I got all 400 square feet of wheat harvested, and it made an impressive amount. I bundled it into rough sheaves and put them on the floor of the garage to finish drying. Your average suburban ranch house doesn't come with a sheaf house to shelter the grain while it hangs to dry, a definite lack.

The following weekend, I put a tarp on the concrete patio and started threshing with a broken broom handle.

It was ruddy hard going, that's what it was. I tried walking on the heads with bare feet to loosen the grains. I beat the stalks with the broom handle. Then I tried cutting off the heads with the pruning clippers, putting them into a pillow case and smacking it around. That worked the best. (Walter showed me a similar method of threshing barley in a grain sack by hip hop dancing on it.) After a while, I had a few pounds of grain and a large pile of unthreshed wheat stalks left. Remember, I bought commodity seed wheat, bred to resist shattering in the field and be threshed out by machine. Heritage wheats are not so tightly bound to the head.
I winnowed the wheat by throwing it up in the air on the patio, with the tarp spread out to catch whatever I missed with the bowl. Finding a breeze in midsummer in Clarksville is a challenge.

I still remember standing at the picnic table, running my hands through about three pounds of cleaned wheat in a paper bag, just delighted and also sobered by the amount of unthreshed wheat still sitting in the garage.

The modern solution to threshing a small amount of grain is to run it through a chipper shredder. Or you could try home made numchuks instead of beating it with a broom handle.

A lot of my grains were shriveled. According to Laura Ingalls Wilder, shriveled grains result from harvesting too early, before the wheat has completely filled the head. In my case, it was probably from a long dry spell at just the wrong moment as the wheat was developing. If I had had a clue, I could have put a sprinkler on the wheat. As it was, I had dryland wheat, grown with only Tennessee's abundant but sporadic rainfall. I also should have fed the soil before planting, for a better yield. I just planted into the old garden, with no soil amendments at all.
Gene Lodgson's book on small scale grain raising raising has good information for the micro farmer. The Backyard Homestead has a once over summary. 

Commercial wheat yields 1 to over 3 tons per acre. Heritage wheats yield on the low end of that. An official bushel of wheat is 60 pounds. Heritage wheats are expected to yield 20 bushels an acre and modern wheat 60 -100 bushels an acre. One acre is 43,560 square feet. A little arithmetic reveals that a 1000 square foot wheat field, that's 33 feet on a side, can be expected to yield at least 46 pounds of clean grain. Put another way, that's 40 loaves of bread. A lot of people are mowing lawns that are far larger than that. My 400 square feet of unirrigated wheat should have yielded 18 - 50 pounds of grain, threshed. I can't say how much I actually got, because I traded that big pile of unthreshed wheat to my friend with the dairy goats, for a pickup load of goat poop for my vegetables.

I still had the paper sack of cleaned wheat and there I ran into another problem: how to grind the stuff into flour? Peasants the world over soak the grain and cook it into porridge instead of grinding it up. I soaked it (an opportunity to skin off more bits of chaff), cooked it and incorporated it into bread made with store bought flour. The resulting sturdy loaves were delicious, a homemade wheatberry. Later, I bought a KitchenAid stand mixer with a power take off and all sorts of nifty attachments. One of them grinds grain, although not that much and not that fast. My friend Darene Maxwell did a bunch of research and concluded that the L'Equip brand of electric home grain mill is the one to get, and it's only $139.

After the wheat was harvested, I planted a patchwork of different kinds of dry beans, soy beans and peanuts in the wheat field. It was already too late and they didn't do much. The idea was right, planting legumes to follow grain, but the timing was wrong. I should have planted fall field peas or a cover crop of vetch.

We left Clarksville the next summer. I still remember my daughter as a preschooler, heading out determinedly to pick her own strawberries, against the background of my wheat field.

Celt's Garden - Oats in the Garden

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on March 25, 2010 at 9:00am. For recent posts, check out

It's time to plant spring oats in beds you won't be using until late summer. Oats have multiple uses. Spring planted oats get going strongly by mid-summer and are turned over in the green and fluffy stage to break down and nourish the winter garden that you will be planting in July and August. You are planning a winter garden, right? You want that good stuff to feed your family all fall, winter and next spring. When you see organic kale at $3 a bunch in December and lettuce at $2 a head, you want to be smiling, thinking of the kale bush at home that feeds you every week and the lettuce going strong in the hot frame.
Oats can be left to form seed heads. The green oat seeds, hulls and all, make a nutritious and calming herb tea. My kids still love oat tea with a little milk and honey. Harvest the oats when they are in the milk stage, when the hulls are still green and squeezed seed produces milky juice. Just cut off the oat tops and spread thinly to dry. The yield is quite decent. I used to get a couple of quarts of dried oats in the milk stage, a year's supply, from the cover crop I grew in containers. This is an example of the value growing your own. A few times, I bought organic "oat straw" for tea when we ran out of the home grown supply, and it was just that: a disappointing shredded straw without the nutritious seeds and clearly harvested much too late, as the stems were turning golden.
The oat stems are valuable mulch for your garden. Use them to keep down weeds in the paths or chop into short lengths to mulch around your vegetables. Turn over the stubble for a fine planting bed. If left over winter, the stubble will hold the soil. Push some fava beans into the stubble, turn the lot over next spring, and you will be ready to plant the spring garden next March.
Oats left to mature will turn into a nodding golden grain, very esthetic looking. Harvest some for your next year's cover crop, gather the valuable straw, and feed any excess oats to your favorite chickens. Chickens love to play with oat heads. Spring planted oats mature just at the right time to turn over the stubble and plant your overwintered garlic.
Growing a grain in the garden as part part of your rotation helps to build organic matter in the soil and control insects. The usual recommendation in garden books is rye grass. I find the stuff turns into a weed in small garden beds and the roots are hard to turn over and work in. The oats are softer and break down better.
Oats for cover crops are available by the handful from the WFC on Meridian and Hohl's Feed and Seed downtown on Railroad Ave. The Seed Savers' Exchange, Fedco, Seeds of Change and Territorial will sell you one or five pound bags of organic oat seed. Share with your friends. They all sell out early. Tiny two ounce packets of organic oats are available from the Sustainable Seed Company in California and other internet sources. I grew out a fat handful of conventional oat seed from Hohl's for a cover crop in my container garden years ago and just saved and grew the seed for three years afterward.
The oats sold as cover and feed crops are Avena sativa. A.sativa has a tight hull which is difficult to separate from the seed. Chickens don't care. They pick the seeds right out of the head. Goats will happily eat the whole thing, head, stalk and all. A. sativa is hard to turn into people food because it doesn't thresh well. The buff oat, sometimes called the naked oat, Avena nuda, was often grown back in the day for people food, along side a larger field of A. sativa.
A. nuda opens as it matures, making it much easier to thresh out. Theoretically. Krista Rome tells the story of her naked oats being not particularly easy to thresh. Dan Borman, who apparently has the fix in at the seed bank, grew out 19 varieties of A. nuda last year. Only two threshed easily. The birds love A. nuda. Gene Lodgson had a plan to make it big in the naked oat seed business and gave up after being wiped out by birds. He later regretted giving up.
There has been a resurgence of interest in growing A. nuda recently. The seed is not easy to find. Fedco sold out early. I'm hoping our local growers can keep at it, birds and all, until we build up enough of a supply of locally adapted A. nuda to grow it more widely.
Oh, yes... how to plant oats. Turn over seed bed, pull out weeds, grass clumps and last season's vegetable remains. Rake smooth. Scatter oats, about one - two ounces for 20 square feet. Rake in. Water or just wait for rain. Done.