Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Radio Silence

Our radio show, "Garden Talk," was abruptly cancelled last week when the station underwent a change in format from news/talk to alternative rock. Such is life these days in the radio business, or at least that is my understanding.

My co-hosts, Dr. Sue Hamilton and Andy Pulte, who have been doing the show much longer than I have, are determined to bring it back to the airwaves before next spring. We are researching possible venues and mustering our arguments.

I will update listeners as new information becomes available. In the meantime, folks can continue to send questions to or to post questions and photos on our Facebook page.

Readers of this blog are invited to send questions via the email link on the home page.

We welcome comments, suggestions for improvements, and anything else you would like to share regarding the "Garden Talk" program. Our plan is to create an even better, more informative, and more entertaining show as we seek a new, larger audience.

Although the 2015 garden has yielded up just about all of its delights, the current warm spell is prolonging the harvest for some crops. We are on track to have a great harvest of fall peas, especially given the good soaking rains we have received the past few days. We continue to harvest parsley and scallions, kale will be ready any day now, turnip greens are coming along, and the cilantro is lush and delicious. All indications point to some harvest well into November.

We have started some indoor crops that are thriving under artificial lights. If you like the flavor of fresh basil, but are appalled at its cost in the grocery store, your best bet is to grow a pot of 'Bush Spicy Globe' in a south-facing window or under lights. This variety has excellent flavor and will reach the size of a volleyball in a six-inch flowerpot. Grow it in any commercial potting mix, adding a half-teaspoon of timed-release fertilizer at planting time. You could also mix in an organic plant food, following the instructions on the package. Basil needs little attention, other than regular watering. Don't let the soil get dry enough for the plants to wilt. Clip sprigs for the kitchen judiciously until the plant is at least as large as a softball. Thereafter, you can snip with greater abandon. Keep plants producing by removing flower buds as they appear.

Want to start a vegetable garden next year, but not sure where to begin? Email for information about our Home Food First program. It's designed to help first time gardeners succeed, like having your own personal gardening coach.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Future of Gardening

I had the pleasure of visiting with Dr. Joanne Logan's class over at the University of Tennessee yesterday. A diverse group of freshmen from all over Tennessee and elsewhere has been spending the past semester learning where food comes from and how to grow it. I received the impression that this generation of citizens will take their food much more seriously than my generation did, and good for them!

I talked about overcoming the obstacles to home food production, problems such as limited space, little or no sunshine, and the ever-present demands upon our time. You can find an outline of my remarks posted under the "Go Vols" tab on this page.

The students seemed to be most interested in the various ways that technology is being applied to revolutionize the way food is grown. We discussed research on LED lighting systems that is currently taking place at UT. Check out this video.

We also discussed the new household appliances on the market, devices intended to automate and simplify food production right in the kitchen. One example is AeroGarden. Other innovations include systems that can be controlled from a smartphone or other mobile device, and professional automated systems that fit in the space typically required by a dishwasher.

As food gardening becomes ever more popular, watch for more innovations designed to make growing at least a portion of your own food a reasonable and cost effective approach for almost anyone. As with other segments of the Internet of Things, look for more digital gardening technology in the near future. Current gardening apps are often simply digital versions of older forms of garden planning and journaling aids. Newer innovations are likely to include a greater degree of customization for individual needs, such as tailoring advice to a particular region of the country.

Plant breeders are responding to the surge in home gardening, also, with each year bringing more offerings of compact-growing vegetables suited to container cultivation or small space gardens.

Food gardening is getting to be more fun every year. It's never too soon to start making plans to grow some food at home in 2016.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A New Flavor Treat

Do you recognize the plant in the photo? It is American beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. This plant is one of several growing in our garden. Having admired the beautyberry for years on account of its bright fall color display, we were delighted to discover that the berries are edible. They are easy to prepare, and, as I discovered just yesterday, easy to pick if you know how. If you want to experience a true American native flavor, you only need about a cup of berries.

Holding a suitable container in your non-dominant hand, be ready to catch berries as they fall from the branches. With your dominant hand, gently rub the berry clusters as you move along the branch, working toward the tip. Ripe berries should be easily dislodged and will fall into your container. This technique can be mastered with a few moments of practice.

Once you have a cup or so of berries, transfer them to a strainer and rinse thoroughly. Pick out any insects or bits of leaf or stem that have found their way into the harvest. Transfer the drained berries to a small saucepan and barely cover them with cold water. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the berries uncovered for 20-30 minutes. The exact timing is not critical.

Remove the berries from the heat and allow them to cool briefly. Using a potato masher, crush the berries in the saucepan until you have a loose slurry of liquid and plant matter. DO NOT use a blender or food processor for this step, or you will break open the tiny seeds and ruin the product. When the berries are well-crushed, strain out the juice using a fine strainer lined with a coffee filter. Dampen the filter with water before you add the crushed berries, to prevent it from absorbing a lot of the berry juice. Allow the berries to drain for one hour at room temperature.

My one cup of berries produced 1/3 cup of juice after this treatment.

Combine the juice with an equal amount of sugar and heat over low heat. When the sugar dissolves, you have beautyberry syrup that can be poured over ice cream or cake. You can also cook the mixture down to produce a glaze or candy. Adding lemon zest to the juice and sugar mixture brightens the flavor. The syrup is a pleasing red-purple color, not as bluish as the fresh berries.

If you have enough berries, you can produce a larger quantity of juice and turn it into jelly, using pectin. To do this, you will need a quart or two of berries, more than I can obtain from the plants in my garden.

The flavor of beautyberry syrup is difficult to describe. It is grape-like, for sure, but with a toasted undertone reminiscent of freshly harvested grain. It is definitely a flavor worth a few kitchen experiments. As a starting point, you could treat it like pomegranate syrup.

Beautyberry thrives in ordinary garden soil with average moisture, although it is naturally found along stream banks and in other damp locations. Established plants need no special care, and will grow well with half a day of sun or more. They need not be fertilized and can either be left unpruned or pruned back in spring to a foot or so in height. Pruning results in a plant about half the normal size. Mature plants form mounds six to ten feet across when left unpruned.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Preserving the Bounty

Something about the harvest season and the changing leaves compels us to put food up for the coming cold weather. I always find it helpful to have some "universal" recipes available that can be applied to whatever I happen to find in the market or have on hand.

This season, we have pickled just about everything pickle-able and have not been disappointed in any of the pickles we have sampled so far. Refrigerator pickles keep for at least a month or two, and can be made out of any vegetable or fruit that is firm-fleshed enough to withstand the treatment. Pickling solutions are usually half water and half vinegar. Use a commercial vinegar that has been adjusted to 5% acidity. Artisanal vinegars can be used for refrigerator pickles, but bear in mind that a lower acid content may give different results and may reduce the keeping time.

To the basic mixture you can add varying amounts of salt (a basic ratio is one teaspoon of salt per quart of liquid) and sugar. Sugar can equal the amount of vinegar if you desire a syrupy sweet pickle. All manner of spices may be added. I recommend using only whole spices as ground ones will make the liquid cloudy. Ginger, hot peppers, bay leaves, and garlic cloves may also be used to flavor the pickling liquid. As a general rule, make a volume of pickling liquid equal to the volume of the jar. That is, for a pint of pickles, make two cups of liquid, to insure that you have enough to cover the vegetables. You will have some liquid leftover that can be used to make salad dressing, for a smaller batch of pickles, etc.

The basic procedure for refrigerator pickles is simple. Wash a jar in hot, soapy water, and keep it hot in a warm oven while you prepare the vegetables. Select only perfect vegetables for pickling. Cut them into uniform pieces. Bring the pickling juice ingredients to a boil over medium heat, add the vegetables, remove from the heat, and allow to cool a few minutes. Remove the vegetables from the liquid and pack them into the prepared jar. Pour the hot pickling liquid over the vegetables. Apply a lid and set the jar aside to cool to room temperature before storing in the refrigerator.

A great technique for a small amount of fruit is to make a mostardo. This is a mustard sauce that can be varied infinitely to suit your taste. Let's say you picked a handful of wild berries or plums or persimmons while on a walk in the woods. Wash and chop the fruit, removing any large seeds or other inedible debris, but leaving skins on. Combine the chopped fruit with an equal amount of sugar in a small saucepan. Stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a boil and cook until it is slightly thickened. The time required for this will vary with the type of fruit. When the fruit and sugar mixture has a nice consistency, remove it from the heat. Add mustard to taste. For example, you might use a dry mustard, such as Colman's, mixed with a little water or a coarse-grained mustard such as Grey Poupon or your favorite mustard or a combination. You could dress it up with whole yellow or black mustard seeds. Store the mostardo in the refrigerator and use it to season pork or poultry, or as a sandwich spread.

Fall is the best time of year to look for foraged mushrooms at the farmer's markets. Unless you have appropriate training and experience, do not forage your own mushrooms. Purchase from the experts, instead. Look for yellow chanterelles, a special delicacy, along with oyster mushrooms, hen-of-the-woods, chicken-of-the-woods, and several others. Wild mushrooms make a great addition to stir fries and casseroles. Do not be tempted to eat them raw, as some can cause indigestion unless cooked.

The best way to preserve most wild mushrooms is to dehydrate them. However, some cannot be preserved by any practical method and should always be cooked fresh. Your best bet is to talk to the forager regarding the best uses and preparation methods for the mushrooms he or she is selling.

Nuts are in season in fall, also, and most people will have to rely on the market for their supply, as nut trees are typically enormous and require several years to bear a crop. If you are into indigenous foods, you can purchase black walnuts, hickory nuts, and wild pecans online. The links given are examples. Other sources are out there, also. Nuts can be frozen for about six months without losing quality. Store them at room temperature for about a month.