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Heart & Sole Food

The Year of Missing Martins

Canadian poet, novelist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood said, “Gardening is not a rational act.”    Few tasks are as humbling as gardening.  After that leap-of-faith act, when a Human drops seed in soil, then cultivates growing plants and anticipates a successful harvest, many factors may disrupt expected outcomes.  Fortunately, when gardeners plan to celebrate plant diversity, even in the face of disaster, rarely is effort totally unrewarded.

Farm Harvest Aug 14

Abundant, diverse harvest, 2014

Our first major crop loss was in 2009, when cool, rainy days encouraged early blight that wiped out tomato gardens along the entire east coast.  Fifty plants, held upright in wire cages, towered overhead and strained with the effort of supporting heavy green fruit.  One day, they were beautiful and the following evening, it looked as if scalding water were poured on them.  Leaves withered and browned, sporting dark spots.  Lesions appeared on stems and fruit and hopes to fill pantry shelves with homegrown canned tomatoes were dashed.

Tomato Blight

Tomato Blight

Although 2009 proved to be a dismal tomato year, beans thrived at Heart & Sole Gardens.  My grandmother’s heirloom Mountain White Half-Runners produced bushels of tender snap beans and it was that vegetable we enjoyed eating fresh from the garden, pickling with garlic and dill and canning for winter consumption.  The tomato crop of 2010 was a good one, but beets, with low germination from the start, were a no-show.  Also, in 2010, a passerby pulled off the nearby highway, pulling a large trailer behind his pickup truck, and drove over the entire row of eggplant seedlings, smashing plants underneath the tires.

Tomatoes Corn Flood

      2013 flooded tomatoes, but corn thrived    

Hopi blue corn, heirloom seed I received at the Ashe County Seed Swap, was a bumper crop in 2013, thriving in warm summer rains, while groundhogs ate every seedling germinated from beautiful blue beans.  Groundhogs, also known as my arch-nemeses, destroyed last year’s pumpkin crop and deer frequently eat more sugar snap peas than we do, but after tasting those heirloom treats, Richard says he can’t blame the deer!

Enduring floods, droughts and insect and four-legged pest attacks, Heart & Sole Gardens continues to provide us with delicious fruits and vegetables, although few crops we plant are successful every year.  Already, warm temperatures caused asparagus spears to bolt and harvest is over, at least four weeks earlier than any previous year.  While each year brings disappointment and joy, 2017 may be our saddest gardening year, even if every crop delivers abundant harvest. 

For the past several years, Purple Martins, migratory birds with incredible aerodynamic skills, chose to nest in birdhouse gourds we provide for them and they swoop close to arriving vehicles to welcome visitors.  Social creatures, Martins entertain with chatter and song and we delight in watching them catch flying insects, chase predator hawks and teach fledglings to fly.  After a winter sojourn in South America, Purple Martins usually arrive at our farm in March and, by mid-July, they leave to begin the return trip.  After spotting scouts, birds that arrive before most of the flock to select housing, our gourds remained empty until April 14th, Good Friday.

A traditional planting day for many gardeners, Good Friday is when I plant my grandmother’s beans and a few other seeds.  Often, late frost will necessitate replanting Good Friday crops, but this year, beans, lettuce and other greens and even some okra is doing well.  A special Good Friday treat was watching Purple Martins peak from gourds, swoop over my head and join forces with a crow to chase a hawk.  Three males and two females perched on the pole support for their homes and serenaded me with song and lively chatter.  I rejoiced at the Martins’ return, but after being away for a few days, when I returned to Heart & Sole, the Martins were gone.

Martin Gourds Empty

Usually filled with birds, Martin homes are empty on May 4, 2017

By May 4th, I accepted the absence of Martins for this year, but sorely missed their company while I cut the last spears of asparagus.  Suddenly, I heard a loud screech and turned to see a crow in another field.  Within a couple of feet from the bird was a black shape.  When the crow saw me head his way, he lifted his wings and screeched in my direction, then pecked at the object on the ground. 

crow and snake

A crow alerts me to danger?

At first, I thought it could be an injured fledgling, but as I drew nearer, it was apparent this was a snake.  The crow, as if satisfied I could handle the situation, hopped into a nearby tree and the snake, coiled into a figure eight, eyed my approach.  Since black snakes are beneficial to gardens, eating pests that consume fruits and vegetables, and do not contain poisonous venom, I decided to leave it where it lay.  When I walked away to gather garlic scapes, the snake slithered into deep grass

.Black Snake

2017 will be the Year of Missing Martins for Heart & Sole, but we fervently hope those birds return next year.  While Purple Martins skipped us, it appears crow voices may replace their chatter and, unnerving as he is, is it possible the snake is this year’s welcoming committee?  Already, he has twice moved to a grassy hiding place when we arrived at the farm.  While his pest control efforts may be appreciated, the snake is certainly no Purple Martin and I hope he keeps his distance from my workspace.

Potato Portal

Eyes opened the portal.  Potato eyes, tuberous knots protruding from brown skin.  I gripped the sharp knife blade, slicing it into potato flesh, carving around eyes and I could hear his voice, a sound long buried in deep memory recesses.  “Be careful not to cut through the eyes,” my paternal grandfather said, as he instructed me to correctly cut a seed potato, leaving enough flesh to sustain a growing plant.  I watched his blade as he deftly cut the seed, leaving three pieces which would each form a potato plant that would produce numerous underground tubers.

 

Purple Majesty Seed Potatoes, prepped

I was about eight years old when my family allowed me to wield my own sharp knife and join them in my grandparents’ kitchen where baskets of seed potatoes waited to be processed into hundreds of individual seed pieces, each sporting at least one or two eyes.  My grandfather, Lawrence Hamby, was usually a man of few words, but as he watched me work, he tipped back his ladder back chair, painted green, and told me a story. 

I was not much older than you, he began, pointing his knife in my direction, when my daddy sent me to take something to the barn.  It was just about suppertime and I closed that gate and started back to the house.  Must have heard something in the grass behind me and when I looked over my shoulder, I saw the biggest snake I had ever seen in my life.  Well, I started to run and looked back to see if he was still there.  Oh, boy, he was and he was chasing me!  Scared to death, I ran faster.  It was a black racer, fast and not poisonous, but looked like he wanted to eat me up!  I looked back and that snake was still coming after me and getting closer!  I ran ‘til I couldn’t run no more.  With the last breath I had in my body, I turned around, threw my arms up over my head and screamed at that snake for all I was worth.  Well, don’t you know?  That ole snake stopped dead and looked at me and then turned around and took off in the other direction!

Lawrence Hamby, 1926, carves with the knife he used to prep seed potatoes

Paw Hamby died when I was twelve years old and although he is featured prominently in many family home movies, there is no soundtrack of his voice, no audio reminder of his laugh.  Potato eyes opened a time portal and when I remembered the story, I could hear that distinctive inflection, see the twinkle in his eyes and the belly laugh that punctuated the end of his tale as he rocked forward and landed the chair legs flat.  In my mind’s eye, I could see dappled afternoon light filtering through my grandmother’s kitchen window curtains, smell the earthy fragrance of potatoes and recall that feeling of acceptance as I helped with a grown-up task.  As an adult, I appreciate his story for the life lesson it is. 

 Kate cuts potatoes for planting in 2016.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2009, when my daughter helped with Heart & Sole Gardens’ potato harvest.  With no plow, we shoveled tubers from soil rendered rock hard from near drought conditions.  Attempting to fulfill a restaurant order for purple fingerlings, we worked to extract tiny tubers from dirt that was close to the same color as the potatoes, both of us crawling on our knees to search for the camouflaged crop.  Afternoon temperatures soared into the nineties, zapping our strength and dehydrating our bodies before we ceased work, driving miles toward home while vehicle air conditioning cooled boot soles.  After days of potato digging, our hands blistered and our harvest was short of the requested number of pounds, but we called it quits with what we had.

When I delivered the potatoes to Sam Ratchford, chef and owner of Vidalia Restaurant in Boone, NC, I knew he would appreciate the ingredient and create delicious dishes, but his face registered surprise when I handed over boxes and said, “As God is my witness, I will never grow Purple Peruvian Fingerlings again!” 

Seed potato "eyes"

Despite the back-breaking work, heat and disappointing harvest, my daughter, Kate, and I bonded over potatoes.  Although she now works in a bustling big city office, she returns to help plant and harvest potatoes.  Paw Hamby’s instructions passed through me to her and she understands the importance of eyes, as I accept my role as information conduit, a tangible connector for two potato planters who never met. 

Tractor implements made last week’s planting of 200 seed pounds easier, but potatoes still require physical work and, I like to think, contain portals that encourage memory making.  Perhaps, at some future time, Kate will pass along potato lessons to another generation.

Since 2009, Heart & Sole potato crops have included over thirty varieties, but as for Purple Peruvians?  Nevermore . . .

Fields on Fire

Looking over our Across-the-Creek field at Heart & Sole Gardens, it was obvious there was much work to be done before seed potatoes could thrive there.  Johnson grass, my arch nemesis weed, took advantage of the space, fallow for two years, and grew with abandon, leaving tall dried stalks and a jungle of underground tuberous roots.  Other weeds joined the party when our backs were turned, making it difficult to find the defining edges where we planted a few years ago.  After the Ford 3000 tractor protested, straining to churn the mass of weeds, Richard turned to me and said, “There is only one thing to do.” 

field burn start

Beginning a prescribed burn

I saw the sparkle in his eyes when he drove away, returning a short time later with an official document.  He retrieved two rakes and a handheld lighter from the truck.  Handing one rake to me, he gave me instructions. 

“We need to work slowly,” he began. “The breeze is light, but wind can change quickly.  We need to establish a perimeter and a first burn, then work to send the fire toward areas that are burned.  Fire needs fuel and when it reaches the burned areas, it will die.  Your job is to keep it contained on one side, while I do the same on the other.”  Field Burn edge

Burning edges

With a degree in Forest Management, Richard’s first employment was with the US Forest Service and part of his job duties included fighting wildfires, both in North Carolina and Western states.  For our farm task, I was thankful for his training.

field burn dragging fire

Richard drags a line of fire

When Richard touched the lighter’s flame to dry grass, bright orange flames consumed clumps, racing along the ground.  To move the fire across the field, a distance of about sixty feet, Richard dipped his rake into the flames, spearing burning grass and dragging it along the ground, creating a line of fire that appeared almost liquid as it spread.  With a fire line established, we worked both sides, stamping out flames that threatened to engulf green grass beyond the planting area.  Working with the light breeze, we guided the fire toward blackened ground and when the wind changed abruptly, my face felt intense heat and I worked faster to prevent the fire from jumping our boundaries and racing, unchecked, toward fruit trees and pasture that bordered a state highway.  Apparently, we provided entertainment for passersby, who honked horns, shouted to us and waved arms from open windows.  Intent on work, we ignored them.  field burn fires to meet

Two fires rush to meet

When most of the field was burned, Richard moved to the far edge, approximately two hundred and twenty-five feet from the initial line, and set a second fire.  With both sides contained, we watched as the fires converged, sparks flying as flames met, but quickly dying, just as Richard predicted.  Gentle rain began to fall, settling ashes that will provide soil nutrients for our potato crop. field burn after

After burning, the field is easier to manage for planting

Prescribed, or controlled burning is a practice used by Native American and other agrarian societies for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.  In addition to enriching soil, a prescribed burn reduces weed seeds, insect pests and efficiently clears weeds, allowing sunlight to reach and warm soil for earlier planting.  Faster and less expensive than other field-clearing methods, prescribed burning requires planning and should only be used by people who are experienced.  Before beginning a prescribed burn, be sure to check with local authorities to obtain a permit.

Sprouting Winter Energy Food

 

Winter can be a difficult time for gardeners.  After harvesting fresh food for most of the year, freezing temperatures and inclement weather keep even the bravest farmers indoors, dreaming of tomato juice dripping from the chin, sweet corn kernels popping like caviar against teeth and crunching luscious, colorful leaves that delight the eye as much as the palate.  Farmer’s markets, with fresh wares produced in greenhouses or high tunnels, offer solace, but there is nothing that compares to eating one’s own fresh food.

 

 Winter makes gardeners long for summer's bounty.

Thankfully, there is a simple solution for those who enjoy watching seeds germinate and become edible sustenance and the process is fast, easy and only requires a few ordinary household items, a handful of seeds and a sunny window.  To alleviate those mid-winter gardening blues, try growing sprouts.  In a matter of days, with minimal effort, you can have fresh green produce for salads, sandwiches or toppings for almost any dish.  Well, maybe not chocolate cake.  But then again, that could be an interesting combination . . .

 sprouts seeds

Wide mouth jars work best for sprouts.

Before “planting” seeds to sprout, gather the following items:  1 quart glass jar, a lid to fit the jar, cheesecloth, mesh screen OR a paper coffee filter that will fit inside the lid, something that will hold the jar at an angle to drain, such as a dish rack, fresh water and some seeds to sprout.  That’s it.  Easy, peasy. 

 sprouts seeds in jar

Soak seeds overnight in a dark room.

Sprouts are an ideal food, especially during winter months when human bodies may move less.  Bursting from dormant seeds, sprouts are loaded with energy and eager to become mature plants.  The sprouting process increases vitamin, mineral and antioxidant levels and makes seeds, especially legumes and grains, easier to digest.  Before sprouting any seeds for consumption, be sure to obtain them from a reputable source, such as a health food store or reliable online source, to avoid any possible contamination, or use seed saved from your own plants.

 sprouts beginning

Drain water from seeds using a rack.

To begin, place 1-2 tablespoons seed in the quart jar.  Cover seeds with enough water, about 1-3 inches, to completely cover the seeds.  Attach the lid, with mesh, cheesecloth or a coffee filter and place the jar in a dark place, such as a cabinet or closet, overnight or about 12-14 hours.  *For beans, allow more time for soaking, as much as 18 hours.

 sprouts 2

Sprouts fill a quart jar in just a few days.

Drain the water through the screen and place jar, on angle, on a rack or other device to hold it in place.  Cover jar with a dark cloth.  Continue to add water, shake the seeds and drain, covered, several times each day for about 4-7 days or until sprouts look ready.  On the final day, remove the dark cloth and allow sprouts to absorb sunlight in order to turn bright green.

 sprouts 3

Exposing sprouts to sunlight allows them to turn bright green.

Remove sprouts from jar, shaking to remove excess water and seeds that did not germinate.  Store in refrigerator and use within a week. 

 sprouts and veg

 Add sprouts to other chopped veggies and herbs for extra plant energy.

Save

Winter Garden Foraging

For gardeners lucky enough to live in seasonal growing climates, Winter fields offer respite from intense cultivating and singular beauty that echoes growers’ time of reflection and renewal.  In my neck of the Western North Carolina woods, January is not typically a productive gardening month; however, 2017 ushered in unseasonably warm temperatures after a lush snowfall, encouraging growth and offering abundant “free food” for foragers who know where to look.

CreasyGreens

 Creasy Greens grow abundantly in Winter fields throughout the Southeastern US

A few days ago, as Richard and I walked through Heart & Sole Gardens’ winter fields, we made plans to plow, till and plant.  We discussed where to move tall cages and noted muddy imprints that indicated a rise in deer population, probably foreshadows for a Summer crop battle.  Tucked amid dried grass and the last standing popcorn stalks, we discovered a patch of lush greenery.  Grabbing a basket and snippers, our hands worked to gather these crispy leaves, a type of wild cress that packs flavorful punch, along with a healthy dose of nutritional goodness.

creasy green pesto

Ingredients for fresh Creasy Greens pesto

Dependent upon preserved harvests to survive harsh mountain winters, early Appalachian settlers included cold hardy creasy greens in diets, a practice that prevented scurvy, a condition caused by lack of Vitamin C.  Growing in open fields throughout the Southeastern US, creasy greens boast significant levels of Vitamins A, B, E and K, along with calcium and iron.  Tender young leaves are similar in flavor to mustard, a mild heat that intensifies as the plant matures.  In early spring, creasy green blossoms, tiny yellow flowers that cluster on stalks, make beautiful, edible garnishes or salad ingredients.

creasy green pesto 2

 Creasy Greens pesto, prepared

Warm days also encouraged green garlic to produce, so I dug a few bulbs while Richard inspected some large logs we need to remove.  Remnants of a creek restoration project, the walnut, cherry, poplar and locust logs will find useful purposes, but for now, they play host to another wild food.  Spotting beautifully clustered caps along the logs’ undersides, Richard fetched another basket and we harvested about ten pounds of oyster mushrooms, a delicious wild delicacy. 

 oyster mushroom cluster

Oyster Mushroom Cluster

Back at home, I cleaned mushrooms, washed creasy greens and removed root ends from garlic.  With such fresh, tasty ingredients at hand, it is impossible to resist the urge to combine them for a meal.  A few of the mushrooms were exceptionally large, perfect “crusts” for individual pizzas.  Creasy greens and green garlic served as the base for pesto and I pulled some tomato sauce from the freezer, a rich concoction made when heirloom tomatoes were in season.  After baking the pizzas, topped with a bit of fresh mozzarella cheese, Richard and I agreed our wild food meal was one of the best we ever had. 

oyster mushroom pizza

Pizza, pre-baking.

Creasy Greens Pesto

Increasingly popular, creasy greens seeds are now offered for sale in several seed catalogs and online sources.

• 1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted (substitute pecans or other nuts, if you like)
• 1 small green garlic, tops and bulb, chopped (2 whole garlic cloves, if green garlic is not available)
• 1/3 cup excellent olive oil
• 2 cups fresh creasy greens, washed and roughly chopped
• 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Place nuts, garlic and greens in the bowl of a food processor or blender.  Pulse a few times to combine and add cheese.  Pulse a few more times.  Turn on machine and allow mixture to blend while adding olive oil in a thin stream.  Continue to blend until mixture is thoroughly combined.  Season with ¼ tsp. salt and about 6 grinds of black pepper.

oyster mushroom pizza baked

 Serve baked pizza atop fresh Rocket, aka Arugula, for fresh crunch

Wishful Thinking

As 2016 draws to a close, Heart & Sole Gardens is a peaceful place.  Honeybees tuck into hives, fields lie fallow, except for patches of Fall greens and garlic, and wire cages stand as sentinels, ready to contain next Summer’s tomatoes and peppers.  Dry weeds crunch underfoot and both streams gurgle loudly without green brush to muffle sound.  Small birds flit among tall weeds, searching for food and shelter and ground hogs hibernate in underground dens, sustained by garden produce they consumed. Winter fields, bare of lush green leaves and vines, hold endless possibilities for future plantings and, although I promised to scale back this year, not cultivate quite as much real estate, the gardens whisper, asking for the chance to produce abundant bounty. 

 

Winter fields whisper possibilities.

It doesn’t help that my mailbox teems with seed catalogs, sporting glossy colorful photographs of beautiful fruits and vegetables, enticing me to order far more varieties than is reasonable.  “Bright pink and red vanilla-scented flowers” describes Red Milkweed and I am powerless to resist ordering the seed packet.  Besides, Monarch butterflies depend upon milkweed and should I not do my part to feed those beautiful winged pollinators?  Photographs of lettuce leaves encourage a list of possibilities and recalling last Spring’s salads, crunchy and colorful, I add a few new specimens to the order.  Kohlrabi is a plant I always wanted to try and my husband’s 98-year-old uncle grows it successfully and proclaims it delicious, so why not add it to the list?  Since it is available in both white and purple, maybe I should get both?  I try not to linger over heirloom tomato pages.  Even with saved seeds from hundreds of varieties, surely there is room for one more?

Gardeners' wish books.

As children, my brother and I eagerly anticipated the arrival of The Wish Book, a mail-order catalog that arrived in plenty of time for youngsters to explore a wealth of possibilities for Christmas wishes.  Patiently taking turns with the thick volume, we dreamed of Easy Bake ovens, race car tracks and many other tempting toys.  Now, as a gardening adult, seed catalogs are my Wish Books and, even though online access is easy, there is something about holding that tangible collection of offerings, turning pages, marking items for future looks, that recalls the same childhood anticipation.

 

Potatoes often yield humor.

After the busyness of the holiday season, I look forward to snuggling next to the fireplace, warming my back as I turn pages of dreams.  Already, the seed potato order is processed and delivery will be late February.  If the crop is a typical yield, one hundred, fifty-five pounds of seed will produce one thousand, five hundred and fifty pounds. Scale back?  Maybe next year...

Rocket's Fall Launch

In an attempt to extend Summer’s flavor, I filled a cookie sheet with green tomatoes and placed it on a pantry shelf.  Last night, we enjoyed sandwiches with the season’s last large slicing tomato.  Although it is a variety called Pineapple, I label this special tomato plant with the name of the man who shared seeds with me.  Ralph Triplett, Harley-Davidson rider, blueberry farmer and volunteer barber, also grows delicious tomatoes and to properly honor fruit that will be absent from my table until July, I chose a special green to pair with the Ralph tomato.

           arugula leaves

After first planting seeds in 2008, arugula, nutty, peppery and addictive, quickly proved to be a family favorite Fall and Spring crop. Unaware of “arugula-gate” at the time, I included arugula seeds with my catalog order because I found the description intriguing.  Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, for readers unaware of details surrounding “arugula-gate,” lamented the price of arugula at Whole Foods, in an attempt to highlight farmers’ plight to profitably sell produce.  The comment backfired and critics labeled Obama an elitist for eating an inexpensive, exotic green.  Perhaps those critics were unaware of arugula's history and worldwide popularity.  Thankfully, this delicious herb is increasingly stocked in US kitchens and anyone who has a few seeds and a bit of soil can grow and enjoy this tasty treat.

Originally hailing from the Mediterranean, arugula, eruca sativa, is a worldly plant, called roquette, rucoli, rucola and garden rocket or simply “rocket” to British gardeners.  Nutritionally, arugula is packed with Vitamins C, A and K and at only about eight calories for a two-cup serving, is an excellent choice for weight management.  According to the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, arugula is one of the most nutrient-dense foods, packed with substances that promote good blood pressure, eye health and cardiovascular function, along with other health benefits.  Although I could find no clinical research to support a persistent belief about arugula, for thousands of years, this leafy green, purported to contain aphrodisaical powers, was ingested for sexual health.  Roman poet Virgil wrote that arugula “excites the sexual desire of drowsy people.” 

Far less expensive than Viagra, easy to grow, nutritionally packed with health benefits and delicious, to boot, perhaps it is time for Americans to stop calling this plant by a name that makes it sound exotic, medicinal and expensive.  I vote with the Brits: Rocket, a name that befits a plant that grows extremely quickly.  Somehow, I think Virgil would approve that moniker.

If you would like to grow your own rocket, the plant thrives in most soil types and grows equally well in the garden or a large container.  Sow seeds successively to maintain a crop of baby leaves, but allow mature plants to bloom and enjoy the edible blossoms with salads or as garnishes.  Be sure to leave some seed pods to dry and harvest the seeds to use in the kitchen or plant the next growing season.  Saving seeds results in almost no cost to continually grow fresh rocket.  With that practice, we can all work together to remove the elitist tag from a plant that never deserved to be designated as such.

Arugula rocket breakfast

Rocket Breakfast

For peppery punch, add rocket to scrambled eggs, omelets, and breakfast sandwiches.  Try this easy, yet delicious, twist on a breakfast classic. 

For each serving:

• 1 ounce angel hair pasta, cooked al dente
• 1/4 cup diced red onion
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 ounce cream cheese, softened
• 1 teaspoon capers, drained
• 1 egg
• 1/2 ounce fresh rocket (a big handful)
• 3 ounces grilled or smoked salmon

Heat oil in large skillet, cook onion until translucent. Add capers and cream cheese, stir until cheese melts. Add pasta and egg, stir while egg cooks to coat pasta with sauce. Add rocket and combine with pasta mixture until greens wilt.  To serve, top with salmon. 

* Since cheese, capers and fish are salty and rocket is peppery, taste before seasoning.