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Harvest In Charge

Gold Rush Beans

There is food to pick here as early as April, but true harvest season kicks in as August approaches. Our goal is to not only grow for eating in the summer, but to provide for ourselves year-round. That’s a lot of food for us to bring in and preserve in a short window of time. Thus, in August and September our harvest is my biggest focus – in fact, it really takes over my life! I have learned to plan for it, to free up much of my schedule otherwise and to let people in my life know that emails, calls and letters are not likely to be answered this time of year. I can chart out approximately when I’ll need to do what, but every season has variations so I have to be flexible and willing to change directions. It’s a good but uncomfortable exercise for a person who really likes to follow her list.

Peaches Waiting to be Canned

Peaches are particularly demanding – when they are ready, I preserve them or lose them. With the great success of that crop for us this year, days

I canned 89 quarts of peaches this August, all from our own trees!

that I had planned to work on other projects turned into peach canning days. The peaches were simply in charge!

 

Some of our other big production crops aren’t quite so picky, they will give me days or even weeks of leeway. But being responsive has rewards. Pulling the garlic when the third leaf of the plant dies back, gives the bulbs the best storage life. I’ll still get great garlic after the fourth or fifth leaf withers, but it likely will not last as long. The root crops can sit in the ground until I’m ready to eat them or put them in the root cellar, but the voles will get a bigger and bigger

The garlic is pulled and put out to dry at the end of July.

share as time moves on. The winter squash in the field next to their dying vines are exposed for other critters to gnaw on, too. Our corn is a storage not fresh eating variety so is fine with a long season out there, but we have competition for them as well.

 

It’s true for our animals, too. Our heritage breed chickens take four months to reach their full size. By then, not only are they taking up space and food without gaining weight, but the roosters have been crowing loudly for about a month and it isn’t long until they will start fighting each other. They have many ways of telling us this is no longer a sustainable, safe situation.

Dehydrated kale, mushrooms, tomatoes and raisins can last for years.

All of our charges – plants, animals, bees – have their own schedule and their own plans. For best results, we learn their rhythms and work to fit ourselves into their calendar, although of course our management decisions are important, too. This is all good practice for remembering our interconnected, cooperative place in the world and re-learning how humans are not in charge but are part of a complex, ongoing dance. Which brings me to a last, philosophical thought for this blog entry…

Just recently I learned, to my great surprise, that when Charles Darwin talked about “survival of the fittest” he meant that those best adjusted to and able to fit in to their environment were the ones that succeeded. His ideas and work were misinterpreted and co-opted to justify competitive, dominant and bullying behavior. In fact, the evidence that cooperation, compassion and flexibility are much more prevalent and useful tactics has become overwhelming.

Diversity Supports Health

By the way, he did not say that “fitting in” meant becoming like everything else – in fact, it is through diversification and specialization that competition is often avoided and much energy is saved.

All of this really blew my mind as it is so far from what I was taught earlier in my life. Exploring these ideas over the past few years has reshaped my view of the world, freeing and inspiring me. Permaculture has been a part of this journey with our principles of valuing diversity (#10), embracing relationship and cooperation (#7 & 8) and being willing to learn and change (#1, 4 & 12). I value these opportunities to see and practice such skills – even if they’re currently tiring me out!

Don’t forget to preserve for medicine as well as food! Calendula can be dried for later salves and balms.

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Perennial Edible Vegetables

Rhubarb in April

For those of us in temperate areas, eating local means learning how to extend harvests into the less productive seasons. Last year I wrote about the many food preservation methods that we can use. Another strategy is to find ways to get your plants to produce earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Perennial edible vegetables are one way to get an earlier harvest. They have a lot of other benefits, too.

Asparagus Emerging in April

Most of the vegetables that we eat are annual plants or biennials that we harvest in their first year (most root crops are biennials, like carrots and beets). These need to be replanted every year, can be delicate and are not great at building soil. Perennials on the other hand, regrow all by themselves after getting established, can take much tougher conditions and offer year-round living space and food to many in the soil food web. We also noticed in this year’s spring drought, they did not need nearly as much watering as our tiny starts did. As our weather patterns continue to shift, more resilient plants are critical to invest in.

Because perennials can develop large root systems that feed them year after year, they have the chance to grow much earlier in spring. While I’m still babying many of my seedlings indoors and have only just started planting seeds, some perennial veggies are ready to be eaten!

There are resources and people who have extensive knowledge of many plants in this category. I especially recommend Stephen Barstow and Aaron Parker’s work if you want to delve deeply. I’ll just tell you about the handful of veggies that we have been working with here at Living Land.

Rhubarb grows well for us!

Some perennial edible veggies are already well-known and well-grown, in particular asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) and rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum). Asparagus needs a few years to really get established, then should produce for a minimum of 20 years (most sources say 10-20 years, but at farms where I worked we often were harvesting from beds at least double that). We’ve had great luck with rhubarb, with the plants usually being vigorous enough by their second year for us to begin harvesting from them. You probably already have recipes or ideas of how to use both of these, which helps greatly when all your work pays off and you have the food in your kitchen ready to use! We also tried something new this year – interplanting asparagus with strawberries. We read that they could be good companions, since they use different above ground space and root zones.

Dandelions – Gorgeous!

Next let me mention two very early producers which most people think of as an herb, a medicine or, sadly, a problematic weed: stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale). They are super easy to grow and bring other benefits, too. Both are exceptional soil builders and dandelions are important pollinator plants. The early leaves of both of these plants are extremely nutritious. Dandelion leaves can be used in salads, braised, or added to soups. Nettles do need to be cooked for at least a few minutes to deactivate their sting, so are great as greens in veggie dishes. I also dry them for making herbal infusions.

Egyptian Onions in April

Egyptian walking onions (Allium proliferum) also appear early in the season, generally after the stored winter onions and overwintered leeks are running out. Perfect timing! There are actually various types of perennial onions to choose from.

Lovage in April

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) can also be considered an herb. This is essentially celery that comes back year after year. I don’t like celery or lovage, but Steve does and I have found many recipes out there to try if you are a fan.

True Solomon’s Seal has flowers all along the stem

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and hosta (Hosta spp.) you may know as ornamentals, but you can also eat their early shoots just like asparagus. Since they have been selected for how they look, their taste will vary from plant to plant. None will make you sick, but some will be more palatable than others. I like these in braised veggie dishes, soups and quiches. You will want to pick them when they are short, before they leaf out.

Sea Kale Florets in May

We have been working on getting Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) established here and seem to finally be succeeding. All parts of the plant are edible, especially the leaves and flower buds (like broccoli). This is another to cook up with various veggies for fresh spring dishes.

Turkish Rocket Florets in May

Our Turkish Rocket (Bunias orientalis) plant made it through one winter and produced some nice florets for Steve’s omelets. Turkish Rocket is especially known to be drought-tolerant so we are excited to have a nice bed set aside for it to fill in.

Ground Nuts Climbing

This year we started a bed of Ground Nuts (Apios americana) complete with a serious trellis for climbing, and Hablizia (Hablizia tamnoides) with space to climb as well. The ground nut tubers will be ready to start harvesting in two years. Hablizia’s spinach like leaves we can start eating as soon as the plant seems established enough. We look forward to trying them both.

There are many annual plants I don’t expect to ever give up, however for the sake of our soil and to have a resilient food supply, expanding our perennial food plantings makes a lot of sense. We plan to add more every year. How about you?

Asparagus interplanted with strawberries and basil

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Food Preservation: Lacto-fermenting

My last entry on the important art of food preservation focuses on lacto-fermentation, which is especially timely in this current moment of extreme cleanliness.

First, let’s define it. Lacto-fermentation harnesses Lactobacillus bacteria’s ability to turn sugars into lactic acid, a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. Along with extending shelf life, this process adds interesting flavors, makes plants safer to eat and easier to digest, and helps to boost the population of our microbiome when we ingest these foods.

Foods preserved this way still need to be stored in a cold, dark location and won’t last as long as canned, dried or frozen items.  It is the added taste and health benefits that most recommend this method. They are also traditionally often used as condiments, eaten regularly but in small amounts.

History, Including 2020

Cabbage for Sauerkraut

Lacto-fermentation has thousands of years of history all over the globe. Some foods you might recognize using this process are: sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt.

In the recent past of 2020, disinfecting and cleanliness became even more of a way of life for people – for good reason (although some are taking it too far – drinking bleach being a good example of that). During a pandemic, extra attention to appropriate anti-germ measures is a smart preventative measure. However, we don’t want to forget all that we’ve learned about the microbiome and the positive role it plays in our health (the happy news about mask wearing is that it prevents disease spread without harming your microbiome).

The truth is, keeping ourselves well populated with microbes helps us stay healthy. This is true for plants as well. In disease suppressive soilsit’s the presence of soil microbes that allow for plants to stay healthy or fight disease.

The vast majority of microbes do not cause disease and many actively help their hosts thrive. Which makes sense, right? Why would any creature want to harm what it depends on to live? It’s a lesson every species learns or eventually dies trying to.

Cucumbers for Pickles

So, especially while we are in the midst of an epidemic of cleaning and have a dangerous new disease in our midst, nourishing our microbiome is especially important.

 

Personally…

I started incorporating fermented foods into my diet when I was in my 20s and having trouble with my digestive health. I had many tests, went on limiting, exclusionary diets, and even tried pharmaceuticals. All of which made me feel worse. Then, I went to a workshop with Susun Weed who sang the praises of fermented foods to keep our guts healthy. The next day, I threw out the pills and went shopping for yogurt and sauerkraut plus miso and tamari (which are fermented but not lacto-fermented to be precise). I made sure to eat one of those every single day and within a month I felt better than ever

Continuing to ingest these “friends” on a

Homemade Yogurt

regular basis has been my practice for the nearly 30 years since then and seems to have served me well.  I do also eat a diet that otherwise feeds my microbiome and I avoid factors that harm it as much as possible (there include anti-microbials like: chlorine, food preservatives, cleaning supplies, antibiotics and essential oils).

The Process

Some people get super excited about lacto-fermenting, trying it with all kinds of veggies, and creating new recipes. While very committed to having these foods in my diet, I have been less adventurous simply because I don’t always love the taste. In my repertoire are: yogurt, cultured soft cheese, sauerkraut, cucumber dill pickles and a few experimental jars. Each has a slightly different process to allow the bacteria to get established and do it’s work before microbes that would cause food spoilage get a foothold.

The milk products need a starter culture to be most successful. I buy cultures for the soft cheese but find a spoonful from my current batch of yogurt gets the next one going. I invested in a good thermometer for cheese-making and am careful to heat and cool as the recipe calls

Nigerian Dwarf Goat Milk

for and allow it to remain warm for the appropriate amount of time. Soft cheese is strained, but I don’t need to do that with the yogurt which is thick and creamy because my Nigerian Dwarf goats make such rich milk.

 

The veggies all come with enough lactobacillus that none need to be added, the environment just needs to be set up to favor them. Usually this is accomplished by adding salt to the water covering the veggies. 

Lacto-fermented Veggies: Cukes, Radishes, Beans

I usually also add dill and garlic for taste and a grape leaf which has tannins that help the veggies stay crisp. Keeping the veggies under the water rather than having them float up is tricky. You can buy glass rounds to weigh them down from the top.

 

All these dishes can easily be made at home with minimal investment in equipment. I make them in or transfer them to canning jars for storage – in the fridge chevre cheese lasts a week, yogurt 4-6 weeks, a veggie recipe up to a year, although some will get weird sooner.

A big plus of this method is that food safety is not hard to achieve. The environment in one of these preparations will be acidic, filled with bacteria and often salty, all conditions not conducive to Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism. If some other rogue bacteria or yeast does take over your ferment, it will be clear – smell, taste, or texture will not be appealing. Your own senses will warn you, just listen to them.

If you are interested in more deeply exploring and trying lacto-fermentation I refer you to Sandor Ellis Katz’s books, online writings and classes.

Wrapping Up My Food Preservation Series

I’ve spent more than a year discussing how to preserve food with you all as a way to continue to eat locally in the north year-round. These are critical skills that have been developed over human history and that we can now dust off and use again. It’s a great way to build community resilience, so let’s keep the practices alive!

Lacto-fermented Pickles

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