Saturday, June 30, 2012

Thinking About Fall

Best wishes for a great Independence Day, 2012!
One way you can get some relief from the record high temperatures we are experiencing these days is to think about the cooler weather coming in a few months. It will soon be time to start seeds for fall planting. This includes not only cool weather vegetables like broccoli, but also biennial and perennial flowers, such as foxglove, hollyhocks and primroses. July is the traditional time to start seeds for fall crops, but with the unusually warm weather and our lengthening growing season, it may be wise to be prepared to start a second round of seeds later in the season. Some vegetables, if started too early in summer, will perish simply from the heat of August. This can be a problem with lettuce, for example.
If you only plan on starting a few plants, you can protect them from the worst heat by moving them into the shade for part of the day. Don’t starve them for light, though, or they will not bear a good crop. This advice applies particularly to broccoli and cauliflower, but also to sun-loving flowers like foxglove.
I prefer to start seeds in small pots rather than cell trays. I visit our local greenhouse supply company to purchase square three-inch pots and carrier flats that hold 20 pots each. I use green plastic pots that are intended for nursery production of houseplants and blooming stock. These slightly heavier plastic pots cost a little more, but will last many seasons. Thinner, black plastic pots and carriers typically can be used about three times before sun and handling take their toll. Fortunately, they are recyclable.
Pots hold more soil than seedling cells and therefore remain moist longer and provide more room for growth if the weather, for example, forces me to hold off on transplanting for a week. Brassicas do not take well to adverse conditions during their early development. Stunted plants typically do not yield well. Given the other hazards associated with trying to grow these cool season crops during a sweltering Southern summer, it is wise to take every precaution.
I mix pelletized, time-release fertilizer into the planting mix before I fill pots. Since I know how many pots I will be seeding, I add the appropriate amount of fertilizer based on the instructions on the bag. I prefer a 14-14-14, 30-day formula for all vegetable and flower starts. An equivalent organic fertilizer mix can be substituted, if you prefer.
This season we will be growing the following varieties for fall and winter production:
·         Broccoli ‘Thompson’
·         Cabbage ‘Savoy Perfection’
·         Chard ‘Bright Lights’
·         Chervil ‘Brussels Winter’
·         Corn Salad ‘Vit’
·         Kale ‘Lacinato’
·         Leek ‘King Sieg’
·         Lettuce ‘Ashley’
·         Lettuce ‘Lollo Rossa’
·         Lettuce ‘Rouge d’Hiver’
Depending upon maturity times, we will begin starting seeds around July 15-20, or 90 days prior to the first frost date. We use October 20 as the likely first frost date, based on NWS data and our experience. Brassicas and Swiss chard remain in the pots about 30 days prior to transplanting, while chervil, corn salad and lettuce need only two to three weeks. Leeks, on the other hand, need about 6-8 weeks to get big enough to transplant.
We also handle leeks differently from the other transplanted crops. We plant them thickly in one large pot, as they seem to benefit from a little crowding. This method also takes up very little room on the greenhouse bench. A 10-inch pot will hold enough seedlings for about 30 feet of transplants.
Keep all seedlings well-watered. On hot days, this may mean twice daily or more often. Move plants to a shady spot, as mentioned previously, if they show signs of wilting despite irrigation.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Elderberries Bloom

Elderberries are blooming in the Tennessee Valley region, and will continue, depending upon elevation, until the end of July or thereabouts. Growing often in waste places, fence rows and disturbed areas, frequently on poor soil, the eastern North American species of elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, has been consumed by humans since prehistoric times. Both the flowers and the fruits are edible, but the leaves and other plant parts should not be consumed. In Europe, flowers from the related species Sambucus niger, is used to make elderflower syrup, a flavoring for beverages. When I came upon a healthy stand of elderberries while driving in the mountains last week, I decided to try my hand at making elderflower syrup from the local flowers.
In case you decide to follow in my footsteps, I offer two cautionary notes. 1) Be absolutely certain of your identification. The image above should give you an idea of what the plant looks like. It is a shrub about four feet tall or more when in bloom. 2) Do not collect flowers from plants growing along well-traveled roads. The plant in the image is within 100 yards of Interstate 75, and will be heavily contaminated with dust and pollutants from the highway. Find your plants on a country back road, or better yet, while hiking in the National Forest. It is permissible to collect elderberry flowers and fruits in the national forest. Don't try it in a state or national park, however. You can see from the image that the flower umbel is born on a long stalk. I cut off the flower stalk just about the pair of leaves with my pocketknife. In less than five minutes, I had a paper shopping bag full of blooms.

Upon arriving home, I washed the blooms by holding the stem and swishing the flowers in a sink full of cold water. This must be done carefully, as insects are fond of elderberry nectar. After rinsing, pat the flowers dry with a kitchen towel. To prepare the syrup, proceed as follows:

1. Grasp the flowers with your fingers and pull them free. If a bit of stem remains attached to each flower, no worries. You should, however, discard all the larger green stems.

2. Weigh the prepared flowers on a kitchen scale. This recipe is for 4 to 5 ounces of flowers. (If you don't have a scale, use about three cups, loosely packed, of the prepared flowers.)

3. In a large pot combine 6 cups of sugar with 4 cups of cold water. Place the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Allow to come to a full boil, the remove from the heat, cover and let stand 10 minutes to cool a bit.

4. Add the elderberry flowers and stir to submerge them. Cover, and leave at room temperature overnight.

5. The next day, remove the zest from 5 large lemons, using a bar zester or vegetable peeler. Avoid getting any of the white pith. Juice the lemons, strain the juice, and add it and the zest to the pot with the elderberry flowers. Replace the cover, place in the refrigerator, and let stand for three more days.

6. On the fourth day, strain the syrup into sterilized bottles and store in a cool, dark place.

(To sterilize bottles, wash in warm, soapy water, rinse until no trace of soap remains. Drain thoroughly. Add a tablespoon of pure grain alcohol to each bottle and shake well before adding the syrup. The alcohol also helps to preserve the syrup. If you don't want to use alcohol, place the washed bottles in a preheated 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Remove and allow to cool before filling. CAUTION: if the bottles are too hot when filled with cold syrup, they will shatter!)

To use the syrup, place about two tablespoons (or to taste) in a glass and add club soda and ice. Stir. Enjoy.

Cultivated varieties of elderberries are widely available and make fine garden subjects. I think it is more fun to forage for wild elderberries, however. Later in the season, I will go looking for the ripened berries. If I get them before the birds do, I plan to make some elderberry wine. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is Your Home An Investment?

It is certainly heartwarming to see so many apartment dwellers and other renters growing more of their own food and otherwise practicing the principles of permaculture. Most New American Homesteaders, however, either own a home with some outdoor space, or plan to do so in the near future. Interest rates for home mortgages are at historic lows, but unfortunately credit restrictions create obstacles for potential buyers. As discussion regarding the housing market, the burst bubble of recent years, and other economic questions ebbs and flows, we hear two schools of opinion about home ownership. One school, championed by the real estate industry and mortgage lenders, contends that a home is a great investment. The other, championed by financial planners and investment advisors, holds that the opposite is true, that a house is an expense, no more an investment than a used car. Who's correct?

On the "good investment" side lie, for example, tax benefits. Mortgage interest is fully deductible, so long as the total amount of outstanding debt does not exceed the value of the home. Deducting mortgage interest can provide significant tax savings. When the house is eventually sold (presumably the goal of anything regarded as an "investment) the first $250,000 of capital gains (the difference between what you paid for the house and what you sell it for, adjusted for factors such as the cost of improvements) is exempt from the 15% capital gains tax. Traditionally, a house held for a decade or more increases in value. A house purchased in 1990 for $85,000 might sell for $140,000 today. Although the market is, at present, depressed in many areas and prices are well below previous levels, this is likely to be a shorter term phenomenon. Nominal home prices today in most areas are still above what they were 20 years ago.

On the "bad investment" side are some cold, hard facts. In terms of real dollars, home values barely outpace inflation over time, and they can actually decline. If you do sell your house for a lot more than you paid for it, your gains are offset by several costs that accrue to any house: mortgage interest, insurance and fire protection costs, together with the fees and expenses associated with the purchase and sale transactions themselves. Also to be deducted are the costs of improvements and/or repairs made during the owner's tenure. When you subtract all of these, home ownership does prove to be an expense, overall. Not even a middling good investment.

Why then do so many people aspire to home ownership, and why are so many convinced that they are, in fact, making a good investment? The answer lies not in the financial calculations, but in our attitude toward home ownership. It is, simply put, a part of the "American dream," not to mention the numerous advantages of being able to exert a measure of control over your living space. We have long associated the idea of "family" with the notion of "home and hearth." Apartments are for singles.

Because the nominal price (the price in current dollars, not the same dollars used to purchase the house) of a house does tend to go up over time, people may take a measure of security from knowing that they won't "lose money" when they sell. And selling a family house in order to purchase a smaller, cheaper property for retirement is a common practice. But you should never have the house as the centerpiece of your retirement plans, as you might do with a stock portfolio (generally considered to be an excellent long term investment).

Homesteaders have numerous options to capitalize on their status as property owners to help defray some of those costs of home ownership:
  • vegetable gardening can reduce the grocery bill
  • adding perennial food plants, like fruit trees, makes sense when you own
  • you have the option to invest (really) in improvements that will bring long term savings in energy costs
  • you can own domestic animals, in some locations
  • you can operate a business from your home, sometimes with local restrictions
We could not practice permaculture to the degree we are able here, if we lived in a rental. We also derive a huge amount of satisfaction from gardening and "doing things around the house." We don't consider maintaining a house and gardens "work," even though it can involve strenuous exercise. Home ownership, therefore, may be right for us and not for you. Regardless, in terms of financial security, one should always consider the real costs of owning a home, and not be lulled into unrealistic expectations.



Friday, June 8, 2012

Basil, Summer's Herb

Summer's best herb is, arguably, basil. Gnocchi with pesto has to be one of the brightest stars in Italy’s culinary universe, or indeed among great dishes generally. Basil also figures prominently in the cooking of other Mediterranean countries, and Thailand has its own special love affair with this herb. No surprise there, as basil originated in Asia. Other countries in Asia’s warmer regions feature basil in their cooking, also.
The most common form, sweet basil, is Ocimum basilicum, a member of the mint family. This is the familiar green basil found in every garden center in spring. Several other species and varieties are cultivated, and there are some hybrids, also. Thai basil has overtones of anise or licorice, and grows larger than Italian varieties. Botanically, it is O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora. Lemon basil, another popular garden subject, is a hybrid, O. x citriodora.
We started seeds of four basil varieties this season (left to right in the image): Boxwood, Red Rubin, Siam Queen and Mammoth. Siam Queen is (not surprisingly) a Thai basil cultivar; the others are all sweet basils. Mammoth produces huge leaves that are suitable for wrapping food for steaming or for making pesto. Red Rubin has a citrusy character and deep purple foliage. It is also less inclined to revert to green than some of its red cousins. Boxwood forms a tight mound about the size of a soccer ball, thickly overgrown with petite leaves. It makes a great border plant and has plenty of basil flavor.
Although basil turns up in garden centers in April, we like to wait until after Memorial Day to plant it, when the soil has thoroughly warmed. Basil resents cold. If set out too early and they get a chill, the plants will often be stunted for the rest of the season. The plants grow so rapidly in summer heat and humidity that if planted now they will be ready in a few weeks, in time for the first tomatoes. We started our seeds April 30, and they are ready to transplant now.
Basil famously partners with tomatoes in many dishes. It also goes well with cucumbers, and in soups generally. You will nevertheless run out of things to do with fresh basil this summer, because the harvest is likely to be so abundant. Don’t bother drying the surplus; dried basil tastes like hay. Instead, preserve the flavor with fat, then freeze it. There are two ways to do this. Either combine about a tablespoon of basil with a stick of softened butter, form into a log, wrap in foil and freeze, or, make pesto, leave out the cheese, and freeze in small portions. Add cheese after thawing, and use like fresh pesto.
Another way to preserve basil flavor is to make vinegar. For this purpose, I prefer to use a red basil, because it imparts a nice color to the finished product.  Any type of basil will work, however. Harvest as many basil leaves as you like and pack them tightly into a measuring cup, but not so tightly as to crush them. For each cup of leaves, measure half a cup of white wine or rice vinegar. Place the leaves in a suitable jar, cover with the vinegar, and use a wooden spoon to tamp down the leaves so they stay submerged. (You may have to do this again a time or two over the next several days.) Place the jar in the refrigerator, and note the date. After two weeks, strain off the vinegar, discard the basil, and replace it with a freshly harvested batch. Return the vinegar to the refrigerator for two weeks more. Strain off the vinegar, discard the basil, and store the vinegar in a sterilized bottle in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.
Basil-flavored olive oil is dreadfully expensive in the market, but you can make your own at home. Use about a cup of loosely packed leaves for a cup of extra-virgin olive oil. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the leaves, blanch for 5 seconds, drain into a colander and run cold water over the leaves to set their color. Pat dry with paper towels and place the leaves in a double boiler with the oil. Bring the water in the double boiler to a simmer, and steep the basil in the oil for 10 minutes. Transfer to a blender jar and let cool. Blend well, then place in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, bring the oil to room temperature. Strain it first through a fine sieve to remove most of the solids, then strain through a coffee filter previously moistened with a few drops of canola oil. (This prevents the filter from soaking up much of your product.) The second straining can take all afternoon, so be patient. Store the finished oil in a sterilized bottle in the refrigerator, and use within six months. Drizzle it over grilled chicken, or practically anything else!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Green Bean Season

The season for green beans has arrived. We are picking more than we can eat, and have been sharing them with friends. Our first planting this season is ‘Contender,’ and it would certainly vie for the blue ribbon at any county fair. Pods remain stringless even when they are a bit overmature. Nevertheless, for best quality, these should be picked when they are about 3/8 inch in diameter and 6 inches long for perfect snap beans.
We also tried picking smaller specimens, about the diameter of a pencil and 4-5 inches in length. These were excellent when steamed briefly, but become mushy if even slightly overcooked.
Contender is a brown-seeded green bean, which is a good indicator of its value as an early crop. Brown seeds tend not to react so negatively to cool soil as do white bean seeds. But this year, we had warmth so early it hardly made any difference. Our second planting ‘Fantastic Filet’ is coming right along on the heels of Contender. This bean is intended for “haricots verts” or baby beans, and should be picked when about 3/16 inch in diameter. Trim the stem ends and steam them whole for about a minute. Do not overcook.
Savory, The Bean Herb
If you have never grown summer savory and you like green beans, you have missed out on a treat. We grew savory for the first time this year. It was easy to produce from seed. We started the plants indoors under lights in early April, maintaining them in four-inch pots until they were about 6 inches tall. At transplant time, we pinched out the main growth point to encourage bushiness.  Shortly after transplanting to the herb bed a couple of weeks ago, they enjoyed a burst of growth, and we now have all the fresh leaves we need. Savory has a flavor reminiscent of thyme, but different. A tablespoon of chopped fresh leaves can be added to two tablespoons of melted butter for the perfect sauce for steamed green beans. Also try adding it to the pot when you cook green beans “Southern style” with added pork fat and a cooking time of half an hour or more. The flavor of savory somehow just makes green beans taste better.
Savory can be added to any herb blend where thyme would be at home, and is often included in Herbes de Provence. Use it interchangeably with sage when making dressing or sausage.