Sunday, January 31, 2010

Planning Makes Perfect

Yesterday, while listening to Amy Ockerlander – a Garden Hotline Educator from Seattle Tilth – talk about mulch and the other delights of organic gardening, I quietly tore a sheet of paper out of my Master Gardener spiral notebook. It started out innocently enough – a list of things to do that occurred to me while listening to the lecture. But before I knew it, I had a vision of a wild flower garden in my head and a list of tasks I'd need to do to bring it to fruition.

You don't have to tell me twice how lucky I am to have a canvas of a yard to whip into a masterpiece with all my new knowledge. If there were more hours of daylight right now, I think I'd barely see the inside of my house. Sure I've done a lot to it already and a blank canvas it is not. But the beauty of gardening is that it is an ever-evolving process. "Empty" spaces can be filled and tired places can be reinvented. And that is exactly what the side of my house is – tired and in need of some botanical TLC.

The plan that got scribbled out over the course of an afternoon lecture is to turn that worn-out, uneven strip of grass into a beautiful corridor of perennial wild flowers that leads to my garden and beacons beneficial pollinators. I've been pining over seed packets of lovely echinacae and chamomile flowers, knowing that I'd need to find a more permanent place to plant them. But instead of rushing out to buy those seeds as my impulses are so urging me to do, I am going to use this season to lay the foundation by having Jake put in a new paver path and by building the soil in my future wild flower beds.

This brings me to sheet mulching, the Master Gardener gem of the week and catalyst for the plan that keeps on growing. I am going to use the sheet mulching technique to smother the grass, carve out bed space, and build the soil – no shovel required. Apparently, all I need to do is put wet cardboard down on the surface I am going to prepare and then cover that with whatever organic material I have (fallen leaves, straw, sawdust). Then, it breaks down over time, helping add nutrients to the soil, while also smothering out grass and weeds in the process. I guess if I start the process in the fall, I'll have beds by spring with almost no labor. All I need to do is be patient, but I can hardly wait!

And if that wasn't enough, all my seeds came in the mail last week. It's just about seed starting time and I've got lots of yummy vegetables in the works. I'm going to try and start a salsa garden hoop house (a plastic cloche over the bed throughout the summer) with tomatillos, red bell peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, and cilantro. I bought lots of new heirloom seeds from Seed Savers, with the hope of being able to save seeds from twice as many vegetables as last year. I am most excited about the Trail of Tears black beans that I'm going to grow this year. I discovered them at the farmers' market last year. Can you imagine eating a pot of beans with salsa, all grown in your own backyard? My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Roasted Butternut Squash and Black Bean Soup

It's been the year of the soup around here. Jake will probably tell you I'm obsessed. I've made just about as many soup recipes this year as I have bread because what goes better with a fresh and rustic, crusty loaf of bread then a delicious bowl of soup? Not much, I've found. So today, I came up with my own concoction – a spin on one of my favorite things: butternut squash.

I've had lots of inspiration. Heidi Swanson's Adzuki Butternut Squash Soup is probably my all-time favorite soup. I decided to start my soup in the same fashion since I thought the spices would go really well with black beans, something different than the all-too-popular cumin. Willi, of Diggin' Food, introduced me to the butternut squash and black bean combo with her recipe for Butternut Squash Tacos. Then, if that wasn't enough, I stumbled upon a recipe for Black Bean and Pumpkin Soup on Smitten Kitchen and it was over. My local, in-season (no tomatoes), vegetarian creamy squash soup was born.

I made the beans for this soup the day before. I have recently rediscovered my crock pot and don't know why I've been neglecting the poor thing all this time. It seems like more work than just cracking open a can, but honestly, the whole process probably took me the same amount of hands-on time. Let the beans soak while you're sleeping and then throw the beans in the pot in the morning and cover generously with water. Don't add salt – it will harden the beans. Add salt at the very end. Put the crock pot on low and come home to a fresh pot of beans. It's fantastic!

Roasted Butternut Squash and Black Bean Soup
The only thing that could have made this soup better would be toasted pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top. Just put a handful of raw pumpkin seeds (the little green ones you see in the bulk section of natural foods markets) in a dry skillet over medium heat and stir. The seeds will start darkening and will begin to pop with they are toasted. Watch them carefully! They can go from olive green to charcoal in just a few minutes. I sprinkle them on just about any creamy vegetable soup, but especially orange ones like squash and carrot.

Makes about 7 cups

1 medium butternut squash (about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
2 cups of black beans, cooked and drained
1 medium onion, large dice
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 salt
3 cups vegetable stock
~2 tablespoons of olive oil, plus some for brushing

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Meanwhile, cut the butternut squash in half, lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds.* Brush the skinless sides of the squash with olive oil, place them face down on a cookie sheet, and put them in the hot oven for about 30 minutes, or until a fork inserted into the thickest part meets no resistance. Once the squash is tender, remove the skins and puree the "meat" until smooth.

2. In a stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the coriander and cinnamon to the oil and stir for a minute or two, then add the onion. Stir the onions around to coat them with the spices and let cook for about ten minutes.

3. Next, add the garlic, squash puree, stock, beans, and salt and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer to meld all the flavors.

4. Puree half of the soup until smooth and return the puree to the pot. Serve sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds and enjoy.

*I have to end this post with one final plug for home-made stock. Simply combine 2 onions (cut into large chunks), 3 smashed cloves of garlic, a couple sprigs of thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, the seeds and pulp from the inside of the squash you just cut, and 2 quarts of water. Let simmer for 30 minutes while the squash is roasting. When it's done, just strain it and you'll have an amazingly delicious stock for your soup. You'll even have two pints left over! Just fill a mason jar (leave some head room so your jar doesn't crack) and freeze. You'll be so happy you did.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


You've heard me say it before, but I just have to say it again: we are SO lucky to be able to go to our amazing farmers' market year round, right in the heart of Seattle. I keep thinking about the part of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, when author Barbara Kingsolver talked about going to her farmers' market in early spring, braving the elements with a few other hard-core patrons for some baby lettuce and green onions.

Even though I'm at the market every Sunday, I am still delighted every time I see the incredible abundance. There is stall after stall brimming with vibrantly colorful winter vegetables like kale, rutabagas, beets, and carrots. Don't get me started on the beautiful leeks and winter apples.

I think even as I begin to grow more and more of my own food (I've got a new 30 square foot bed in my plans for my front yard vegetable garden), I'll still go to our farmers' market. If not for vegetables, for the camaraderie – a place where foodies and garden lovers commune.

And while I don't particularly love pushing myself through crowds of people, I am grateful that so many Seattlites see the value of this gem – a plethora of fresh, local vegetables in the dead of winter. It is an opportunity that I know that many of my friends and family members in other chilly parts of the country would love to take advantage of.

Now on a different note, I wanted to share a link to a website I discovered during my Master Gardener class yesterday. It's called Hortsense and is a resource with easy-to-access information, with color pictures, of our area's most common plant diseases and pests. The menu bar on the left side of the site will take you to all the different options.

The really nice thing about this site is that it gives you a variety of non-chemical solutions to try before using a pesticide. I learned some pretty disturbing information yesterday about how people misuse pesticides and the scary thing is, most of the time, the original problem with the plant wasn't even caused by a pest! It is so important to really understand what is going on in your backyard ecosystem and recognize that there are many creative and non-chemical solutions to very common and pesky garden problems. My new goal is to learn about one plant disease and one pest per month. After all, a girl can never have too many New Year's resolutions.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

And all this time I thought they were petals!

I just got home from my second day in the Master Gardener program and am still grinning from ear to ear with all the fun I had today. I have made a mental note not to talk to any of my close friends right after I leave a session until I have had the opportunity to come down from my high and reflect through my blog. My lovely friend Radhi got fifteen minutes of Botany 101 and amazing facts about flowers when I called her upon leaving my class today. It's just that what I learned today rocked my world and shook up what previous understanding I had about plants and flowers.

In about six hours today, we dug into the world of botany – from the plants' cells and chromosomes, to their internal vascular system, to the inner workings of the plants' structures (roots, stems, leaves, and flowers). Besides all that, we discussed plant physiology and things you'd probably remember from high school biology, like photosynthesis and plant reproduction. Then, to top it all off, we learned how to begin identifying plants with a key by looking at the different features of their leaves and flowers.

So, in an effort to not completely lose you with my garden nerd discoveries, I will just share a few incredible factoids:
  1. All those layers you see when you cut open an onion are actually leaves – scale-like leaves stored with "food". The small part at the base of an onion where the little root hairs stick out is the stem!
  2. Each kernel of corn is actually a fruit that contains a seed inside. Also, if you're going to plant corn, it's best to plant it in a block rather than in a row so that you have better luck with pollination. This is my understanding in a nut shell: the part that sticks up at the top of a stalk of corn is the male part of the plant, which releases pollen to the wind. That pollen then needs to get blown down to the female plant part, the little corn silks sticking out. If the pollen gets down from the male part of the plant to the female silks below, you'll get a baby corn! So, if your corn plot is in a block, there's a better chance that the wind will get that pollen on to your plant. Isn't that amazing?
  3. A potato is not actually a root – it's a fleshy underground stem (a tuber)!
  4. There's always a bud at the base of a leaf. So, something that may look like a stem with little leaves on it, may actually be a bunch of leaflets that together make one leaf! Find the bud and you'll have a leaf!
  5. A fruit (and tons of vegetables for that matter since many of the plants we call vegetables are actually fruits) is a mature ovary that has been fertilized with pollen and has developed into a fruit with seeds.
Finally, the most incredible news of all: I learned today that the members of the Daisy Family (ASTERACEAE) – Chrysanthemums, Cosmos, Dahlias, Black-Eyed Susans, Marigolds, Sunflowers, and Zinnia, just to name a few, are actually small flowers in a head which looks like a large flower. In other words, each of those beautiful "petals" is actually a flower. Those "petals" on the outside of the flower, the ones that are colorful, are called ray flowers and contain the female flower part. The short squat structures in the center that sometime look like one solid mass, are actually little flowers too called disk flowers. They are the male flower parts that produce pollen. Even as I write this, I am still blown away at how amazing it is to be receiving this new information. It's just more proof that so often, there is way more than meets the eye.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Surprises in my Winter Garden

This afternoon, when the alluring northwest sun graced us with an amazing sun break, was the most calm few hours I've had since the whirlwind of the holidays and international travel came to an end. I've been away from my garden for the past few weeks, but today we got reacquainted and despite what I thought, my garden was far from asleep. Of course, that was the original plan. I started planting my fall and winter garden in July with the intention of harvesting vegetables year-round. But that was when I was still in the carefree time known as elementary school teacher summer vacation. Once September came around, I got swept up into the hectic life of work again and rarely made it out to the yard, except to harvest some kale and lettuce a few times a week. Our amazing year-round farmers' market has been my best friend – providing me with delicious, local greens, while saving me on energy when I need it the most. Not only that, when it's cold, rainy, and not to mention dark by the time I get home, I have no desire to be outside. And then, after our out-of-character-for-the-northwest cold snap pretty much wiped out all of my delicate little fall greens, I lost my momentum even more.

So today, when I went back out to the yard to take stock of what was still hanging around, I was delighted with what I found. Huge rutabagas, bulging out of the ground. I've never grown rutabagas before so I'm not sure if that's what they're supposed to look like, but regardless, I was thrilled. I learned during my Seattle Tilth Winter Gardening class that rutabagas are one of the most reliable winter vegetables because they keep so well in the cold ground. I haven't pulled any yet to taste them, but I'm pretty happy with what I can see.

I discovered that my collard greens had survived the cold. They were still as green and as ruffled as could be.

I found my dinosaur kale even healthier than it was in the summer and think I'm on to something. I noticed that during the summer, the bugs were getting to eat more of the kale than I was. But now, during the cold weather season it likes the most, my kale leaves look beautiful and intact. And I think the bugs that were thriving in the summer might have packed their bags and left for the winter. It's amazing, my little ecosystem out back.

I learned that the Territorial Seed Company writes pretty accurate descriptions. Surprisingly, their Wintewunder and Arctic King lettuce varieties survived the huge winter frost. I thought I had lost them all, but was delighted to find these hardy winter lettuces happily tucked inside the cloche.

And when I brushed away some of the soil around the greens growing out of my carrot plot, I was happy to discover bright orange peeking out at me. I pulled a beautiful Autumn King winter carrot out to add to our dinner tonight. While I was no where to be found, my garden was taking care of itself.

Today was also the first day of my Master Gardener program. I was lucky to be accepted, along with 75 other enthusiastic gardeners, to be trained in sustainable and effective garden practices so that I can volunteer in the community. I will be attending Master Gardener classes every Saturday for the next three months. Imagine my delight when I got my January syllabus with course titles such as Botany, Orchard Mason Bees, Roses and Ornamentals, and Organic Gardening for the Home Gardener.

So, I've decided that every week, after I've read my chapters and done my quizzes, after I've attended my classes, diligently scribbling notes into my new binder, I will post the big lessons I came away with that week. Consider this a work in progress – my journey to a deeper understanding of the garden I love so much.

Garden Gem (what I learned from week one of Master Gardener school):
Soil is the basis for everything we do in the garden. It provides our plants with some pretty critical elements: nutrients, water, air, and physical support. I also learned that nitrogen is the nutrient most needed by plants and it's the nutrient that promotes leafy growth. It's also the first number you'll see on a fertilizer label. Finally, I learned that the nutrients in the soil that plants need are not in a form that are readily available for plants (i.e. in their soluble form) until nutrients that come from the minerals in the soil are weathered or until organic matter in the soil is broken down and nutrients are released by helpful organisms like bacteria, fungi, and insects. I learned a long time ago that it was a sign of healthy soil to see earthworms squirming around in it, but now I understand that that's because they are helping my plants access the nutrients they need.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Adventures in Argentina

Well, if my vitamin D levels were low before my winter break trip to Argentina, they are replenished now. It was sunny and beautiful in the Southern hemisphere and was a much-needed break from our cold and drizzly winter.

Being able to eat ripe and in-season summer foods like tomatoes and blueberries was one of the things that excited me the most about the trip. After all, right now the Argentine blueberries in my local organic market are six months out of season. I felt lucky to be able to eat them from the source, during the season in which they are harvested. I made sure to take advantage of lots of summer season delights.

Buenos Aires is a city with a very European culture, especially Spanish and Italian. The Spanish accent there sounds beautifully Italian. The city also abounds with delicious Italian food. I had the most delicious grilled pizza and amazing pasta dishes with fresh tomato and basil.

Red meat is also abundant in Buenos Aires. Argentinians take their grilling very seriously and high-quality, grass-fed beef is the norm. I am typically not a big carnivore, but I did eat my fair share of grass-fed beef while on our trip and found it surprisingly delicious. I think my iron levels are doing just fine right now as well.

By renting an apartment in the city with a kitchen, I was able to delve into Argentine life by grocery shopping, one of my favorite ways to experience a country's culture. In most neighborhoods around the city, there are store fronts that sell fruits and vegetables. Unlike at the farmers' markets or the produce department of a supermarket in the US, the customers don't touch the fruit. Instead, the shopper engages in an interaction with the shopkeeper, reminiscent of what markets must have been like in another time in history. You tell the shopkeeper what you'd like and about how much and he picks out and bags the product up for you. Then, you go to another store for eggs and meat, and yet another (an amazing, delicious bakery) for bread.

When I reflect on the trip from my ever-developing green perspective, the biggest thing I took away from the experience was a greater appreciation for my home-town environment. Living in Seattle, just four hours from the progressive, green city of Portland, it is easy to critique and enumerate ways our emerald city can improve. But we have come a long way in terms of going green. For one, I am grateful for our city's recycling system – a system that even allows us to compost our food scraps without having to put much thought into it at all. In Buenos Aires, you see city government-sponsored billboards just encouraging people not to litter, to throw their garbage in the trash.

I think a change in eco-consciousness is on its way though. In the big United Nations park in the classy neighborhood of Recoleta, there was an amazing temporary art installation made entirely of brightly painted Tetra-pack containers. The Tetra-pack Christmas trees and half-walls gave the impression that reused and recycled materials can be beautiful.

Being in BA made me grateful that so many Seattlites have started using reusable bags. It's becoming an expected part of our culture – one small step that everyone can take to reduce the impact of our consumption. Now, you can buy reusable grocery bags in any grocery store chain (branded with the store's name, of course). That is why I was overjoyed when I went into a funky little shop in BA, which describes itself as a shop of "objects with attitude", and found the bird bag. The olive green bag, decorated with the company's cute bird logo, rolls up into a tote-able size. The rolled bag is held in place with the best part of all – a brightly colored pieced of fabric with the company's message on it. In bold letters, it declares "No bag, thanks!" Not only that, it reminds people of the classic four Rs (Reuse, Reduce, Recycle, and Remember) and that plastic bags take 1,000 years to disintegrate.

The bags are super cute and for now, are sold in hip stores to a demographic of open-minded people. It is my hope that this trend catches on. It may be just a matter of time before the major Latin American grocery store chain, Carrefour, jumps on the bandwagon and has its own reusable bags for sale too.