It’s unseasonably warm for February, which is bad news for the global climate but good news for the garden!
Our first workday will be this Sunday from 3-5 PM, so Katie and I stopped by the garden to assess what the winter months had done to our little patch of UVA.
What we found? A lot of leaves. Like, so many dead leaves. Piles and piles of dead leaves. But under all that–life!
It was a particularly mild winter, so it’s no surprise some things made it through. But I was pretty impressed by just how much is still there! We’ve got some beautiful curly and Red Russian kale still growing, some lettuces, radishes, and one especially beautiful collard greens plant. Not as exciting, but our cover crop also did exceedingly well.
Red Russian Kale! Still thrivin’!
Curly Kale! So beautiful!
We’ve got some exciting things coming up, too. We’re planning to plant beets, flowers, spinach, and a salad mix. We’re also going to try two different types of cabbage, which will hopefully end up in sauerkraut form via a fermentation workshop later in the semester. We had an awesome planning meeting a few weeks ago and came up with a few things we want to see in the fall.
I can’t begin to say how wonderful it is to return to the Garden after all this time away. Here’s to a wonderful semester, teeming with all things green!
It’s my last week of the summer here at the community garden, so naturally I’m feeling both reflective and generous.
As the garden takes its first steps towards the fall, a few things have made an impression on me.
First: Kale is immortal. If you manage it properly.
This stuff was planted before I even started this job, and it’s still producing, in addition to the collards. It’s not quite as tender as it was in May, sure, but it does just fine.
Second: You can definitely over plant cucumbers and other squash, but not tomatoes.
You may end up with more tomatoes than you wanted, but they can turn into way more things. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look at another cucumber since we’ve been pulling in over 30 EVERY WORK DAY (that’s twice a week) for about a month and a half.
Third: Always plant sunflowers that grow to 8 feet tall. Inevitably they will create a secret wonderland between them.
Fourth: Organic farmers are the hardest working people alive.
When you don’t use industrial shortcuts like herbicide, pesticide, or fungicide, you end up doing a lot of things by hand, like pulling weeds and picking off cucumber beetles. There’s also no machine that can harvest 50 different kinds of vegetables, so you’re doing that by hand too, and then hauling giant, heavy tubs of those vegetable around. For 10 hours a day. In the blazing hot sun. 6 days a week. I could barely do it twice a week, so my hat’s off to them. You show me an organic farmer who isn’t a complete and total badass, and I’ll eat that hat.
Fifth: I’ve emerged on this side of August with a different attitude towards food. Now, I expected I’d say that, but honestly I didn’t really expect to mean it. I’ve known for years that American food culture is fraudulent; I’ve known what I ought to be doing, how I ought to be eating. But never has it been so easy for me to actually test good practices.
Let me tell you, I have eaten the best food OF MY LIFE this summer. Seriously. Wow. I know it sounds like some ploy to give up the convenience of your grocery store, but well grown, organic, wholesome food ACTUALLY tastes so much better. I’ve been eating orange cherry tomatoes off the vine like candy.
So in that spirit, I’m going to release some of the recipes I’ve learned over this summer (which is a big deal for a southern cook, believe me). Promise me you’ll make them with the best ingredients for best results!
DISCLAIMER: Being a southern cook, a lot of these measurements won’t be exact. If that bothers you, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, the longer you cook, the more comfortable you’ll be judging the size of things like “a heap” or “a smattering” or “enough.”
I made these with the figs that have recently come in at the garden to great success.
Start by peeling a halving a smattering of figs. Fig skin in kind of akin to a citrus rind, so you don’t want that.
You can make jam with as little as two cups of the halved fruit, but it doesn’t do well in large batches, so probably don’t do more than 6 or so cups at a time. For every two cups, you’ll get about 16 oz of preserves.
Throw the fruit into a pot along with half as much sugar as you’ve got figs (i.e. for two cups of figs, add one cup of sugar). Also throw in a dash of salt, and a few lemon slices and a bit of lemon juice to cut the sweetness. Adding more lemon juice will give the preserves a deeper flavor, but don’t over do it. The slices are just pretty. Then pour in about as much water as you’ve got sugar. It should look like this.
Let that simmer of low heat, just bubbling a little bit, for a while. Two cups for me took just under 2 hours on the heat. Basically, cook it until it starts to thicken up, but don’t leave unattended, because it will burn FAST. Make sure to stir every now and then. It should eventually look like this.
Once you’ve arrived here, ladle it into jars, making sure to leave a little head space (an inch or so) between the preserves and the lid. Now, that’ll keep in the fridge for about a month. If you want it to last longer, you’ll need to process the jars in a water bath for about 10 minutes. You can find those instructions online. Enjoy!
HOPPIN’ COLLARD GREENS
I made these all the time at the beginning of the summer with collards from the garden. Fun Fact: collards are my spirit vegetable.
First, go out and get yourself some quality bacon. Bacon quality is key here. Find a tiny local butcher, ask for their house bacon, thick cut. In Charlottesville, I recommend JM Stock.
Throw that bacon on a hot cast iron skillet (or whatever you’ve got, but cast iron always works better in my opinion) and cook it until it’s about half way done. While the bacon is cooking, take 5 or 6 big leaves of collards, lay them on top of each other like pancakes, and roll them up like a cigar, keeping the stems vertical. Or remove the stems ahead of time if you’re finicky, which I am. Rough cut down the cigar at about inch intervals so you end up with a heap of thick strips of collards.
Move the half-cooked bacon to the side of the pan, making sure all the grease is still covering the rest of the pan. Throw in your collard slices straight on the grease. BE CAREFUL. They’re called hoppin’ collard greens for a reason: they will attack you. Stir the greens around as much as you can without overtaking the bacon, but getting the grease on as much of the greens as you can. To the side, mince a clove or two of garlic, depending on how much you like garlic.
Once the bacon is finished cooking, take it out and spread the collards over the whole pan, constantly stirring it around. You don’t want the the greens to turn brown, but it’s okay if a couple do. Throw in your garlic. Garlic burns fast, so only keep cooking everything until the garlic starts to get a nice golden brown. Once it does, your finished, take the greens out.
What you should have is bacon/garlic flavored, slightly crispy collard greens to go with your breakfast of bacon and eggs.
DUTCH OVEN ROASTED CHICKEN WITH ROOT VEGGIES
One of my favorite things to come out of this summer. So. Good.
You will need a dutch oven. No exceptions.
Get yourself a whole chicken. That’s right, the whole thing, bones and all. Preferably about four pounds, give or take a little. Source it locally if you can. Make sure all the giblets are out of the body cavity, and rinse the thing out, pat dry.
INSIDE THE CHICKEN: stuff with as much as you can fit of the following: Rough chopped white or yellow onions (just big old honkin’ slices, but not so big they won’t fit well), lemon slices, pats of butter, springs of rosemary and thyme, and crushed garlic cloves (to release the flavor).
OUTSIDE THE CHICKEN: Rub down everywhere with olive oil, then salt and pepper.
VEGGIES: Chop enough of the following to cook with the chicken: carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, or parsnips. Whatever you like. In volume, the veggies chunks should be a hair smaller than a golf ball. Size is important so they’ll cook correctly. Toss the veggies in more olive oil, salt, and pepper.
NOW, put your chicken breast side up in the middle of the dutch oven and put your veggies all around in, where ever you can fit them. Here’s what mine looked like:
Put the lid on your dutch oven and put the whole thing into an oven at 425 degrees F. After 20 minutes, turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees F, and cook for another 50 minutes. The 50 minutes is for a four pound bird, so if yours is larger or smaller, adjust the time accordingly. For example, a 3.5 pound bird might need only 40 minutes. After the main cooking time has elapsed, remove the dutch oven lid, and let cook for another 15 minutes or until the top browns. Don’t cook for more than 15 minutes this way, or the chicken will dry out.
Once your bird is a nice crispy brown, remove from the the oven and let sit for a moment. Then have fun trying to figure out how to deconstruct your chicken (HA!) and serve! The veggies will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted, promise.
BONUS TIP: Any chicken you don’t eat right away makes great leftover chicken salad. Also, you can use the carcass with all the stuffing still inside to make great chicken stock for soups.
BY REQUEST: DUTCH OVEN BREAD
I’ve made this a few times, and have been asked for the recipe. I did not invent this recipe, I found it online. Even though it’s not made with garden ingredients, here’s the link. It takes about two days to make.
Hello garden lovers! Some significant time has passed since the last blog post, which means it has practically been eons in garden years. I might be exaggerating a little, but it’s true that things have been living, dying, producing, rotting, wilting, pushing up through the ground, and flourishing all over the place. A quick recap of the major garden events since our last blog encounter:
The cucumber harvest has continued to be prolific…perhaps too prolific for Grace and I and our volunteer pickle-makers. The mason jars have run out and Grace at one point resorted to packing whole pickles for lunch at Bellair and eating them corn on the cob style (dedication!) One of the workdays came and went with too many pickles and not enough volunteers to eat them, so I delivered a large cardboard box full of them to the Haven. It was rewarding to know some of these just-harvested veggies are going to people who don’t have the everyday pleasure of eating fresh food.
Taylor and I sowed a new bed of carrots in freshly turned soil complemented by the garden’s own compost from the 8-bin rotation system! There were a few old pumpkin seeds in the compost still intact, and currently there’s a robust little pumpkin sprout in the middle of the bed flying solo until the carrots catch up.
Robert cleared out the bed housing the unspecified plant that’s been producing mini decorative pumpkins for our coffee tables and window sills. The plant was on it’s way out and the cleared bed will be used for broccoli. The broccoli was seeded in trays and will germinate and grow strong in a nice air conditioned environment for 5-6 weeks before being transplanted.
In the arena of flourishing and producing, we’ve got some beautiful peppers coming in and abundant cherry tomatoes.
I am thrilled to report that our larger tomatoes have finally turned ripe. They’ve been the perfect size and shape for weeks now, but have obstinately remained green–until now! I picked up some mozzarella from the store and fixed some tomato slices with cheese, balsamic vinaigrette, and olive oil. I am not exaggerating when I say it’s like candy. If fresh tomatoes were sold with cheese on a stand right by the cash register like candy bars are, I would definitely buy. The photo on the below right features sunflowers from the garden!
Unfortunately, we do have some blossom rot on one of our tomato varieties. Fortunately, only the first few tomatoes to ripen should be affected (according to Bellair Farm manager and farmer extraordinaire, Jamie.)
Food author Michael Pollan talks about processed food in his chapter on making complex foods. Because crops like corn and soy are overproduced and flood the market, big companies have to find creative new ways to squeeze a profit. This is why corn is crushed, ground, pressed, filtered, dried, and refined in endless ways into cornstarch, corn syrup, and corn oil for cooking and food purposes, and adhesives, coatings, sizings, and plastics for industry. The kernel of corn that made the maltodextrin, xanthum gum, and glycerides–just a few of the many hidden names for corn tucked away into ingredient lists–could just have easily been made into the sticky tape that’s keeping the Bob Marley posters on the walls of freshman dorm rooms across the nation, if only it had been destined for another pipe in the labyrinth of a processing center (also known as a wet mill).
How companies like General Mills and Little Debbie keep their products exciting, profitable, and tasty depends on their crafting a unique concoction of these processed derivatives to create the Cocoa Puffs and Zebra Cakes that keep customers buying. It’s all about the process..(ed) foods.
This process, industry Process, with a capital ‘P’, is disheartening… but I find process, humble process with a little ‘p’, to be at the heart of what I’ve enjoyed most gardening this summer. The process of picking a variety, purchasing the seeds, preparing the bed, planting the seed, watering, weeding, and harvesting adds value to the final product of a ripened veggie in a way that processing a whole food into parts makes the quality cheaper in the world of food labs and snack food corporations.
Food for thought.
Come to the garden for some tomatoes if you want some literal food to power that brain of yours.
This past Tuesday I got into some excited conversation with two volunteers over the successful creations made in the kitchen with ingredients from the garden. Grace has consistently been impressive in the kitchen this summer and dutifully gives reports of, among others, her fried chicken she deboned herself (a smash success), her swiss chard soup (a liquid-chard failure), and her pies (if they taste as good as they look when she packs them for lunch at Bellair, I’d guess they’re pretty scrumptious). I myself have only recently been branching out in my cooking. I’ve always consistently baked or tossed veggies in a skillet with dressings and seasoning for dinner, but my recipes are imaginary and made up of whatever spices my roommate has in her shoebox of herbs. I was finally able to add to the conversation between Grace and Taylor on Tuesday about what we made over the weekend, however; my contribution was breaded eggplant chips using produce from the farm. Most exciting of all, in my opinion, were the pickles that some volunteers made from our very own Boston cucumbers in the Community Garden. Soon the potluck idea was borne, and we all agreed to bring a dish to share on Sunday (today). The turnout today was great and the food even more impressive.
I think our grandparents’ generation would be proud to see us youngsters exchanging recipes and eating real food made from scratch.
The menu consisted of:
Pita chips and homemade tzatziki sauce
sautéed collards with oil and garlic
chickpea salad with feta
beet salad with goat cheese and pistachios
freshly picked tomatoes
lemon cucumber from the garden with pesto and parmesan cheese
black eyed peas and rice
The consensus was that Sunday potlucks should be a thing. Grace and I agree!
Besides eating and enjoying the sun, we also had time to stake the tomatoes and peppers-they’ve long outgrown their wire towers and needed some taller stakes to climb.
We also picked the seeds from the cilantro for replanting.
Our squash is starting to fruit, and Grace and I have been patiently waiting for an ever-enlarging squash to turn the promised red of it’s seed package. We might lose this waiting game, as this guy is now the length of my forearm.
Being a novice gardener, I’ve encountered a few plants that have serious personality and gumption. For example, there is the tomato plant whose stem broke almost clean through, the root half and the branching second half attached by only by a few hardy green tendrils. Yet this plant is green and flourishing, all the water and nutrients dutifully carried over the narrow tendril bridge to the fat tomatoes.
Another garden “miracle” is the squash plant that has climbed one of our sunflowers. I imagine this particular squash plant to be the one that insists to be on top of the pyramid when you decide to do gymnastics at a slumber party and steps on everyones hands and faces as they’re scrambling to the top. I’m curious to see whether we’ll see a fat squash someday soon hanging in midair.
I’ve been reading Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and the first section of his book is on corn. He talks about corn’s fossil fuel footprint in a different context than the one I experienced in Kingsolver’s book. Kingsolver focuses on the gas footprint of food transport, while Pollan focuses more on how the fertilizer used on corn crop is a chemical artificially made in a process that uses electricity as a catalyst to combine nitrogen and hydrogen (which is supplied by coal, oil, or natural gas) under immense heat and pressure. Where before fertility was determined by the natural production– and limitation– of nitrogen fixation by bacteria feeding on plant sugars made via sunlight, fertility now operates outside of the bounds of a natural and inherently self-checking process. And considering that corn is more an economic commodity nowadays than the maize once treasured by ancient Aztec people, we really see fertility controlled by capitalism, which opts for miles of monoculture with an extra large side of chemical fertilizer.
Now that I understand industrial agriculture’s two-fold fossil fuel footprint (third-fold, fourth-fold?? Who knows, I’m only halfway done with this reading list), I am even more thankful for little organic garden plots like the community garden. The garden looks even healthier to me now as I realize it’s not weighed down by the invisible baggage of a huge and negative carbon impact.
Eat local and organic, folks. If you aren’t, you should know that when you drink your next veggie or fruit smoothie, you’re really sipping on fossil fuels.
The garden fruit is coming in now, which I have to say is my favorite time of the year. A few figs have begun purpling (is that a real verb?) and promise to be delicious. Surprisingly, what we were told were june berries turned out to be something called wineberries, which are native to this part of the country and completely scrumptious. There are however, a different kind of berry growing in the same bed, that look a bit more like blackberries, but could turn out to be the june berry. I’m learning things all the time in the garden as more new things grow.
Speaking of learning new things: WE HAVE AN UPDATE ON THE MYSTERY SQUASH. Drumroll pleeeeassse! *rapid snare drum comes out of nowhere*
They’re PUMPKINS! Baby pumpkins! Seeing as they’re only about the size of a fist, they probably aren’t good for pie making (DRAT) but will make excellent coffee table decoration. Where they came from, though, is still a mystery.
Another one of my favorite, and completely unexpected, things to have happened in the garden this year is, what I’m calling, the bonsai sunflower. Our sunflowers are over six feet tall at this point, with beautiful burt orange blossoms just larger than tea cup saucers. However, one flower made it’s way into another bed, a bed with a much more shallow soil depth. As a result, this sunflower, which I can only assume to have been on the same seed as the giants ones, is only about 18 inches tall, but still with a full blossom! Nature’s quirks never cease to amaze.
We had plenty of volunteers at our new Sunday workday, which was a relief because Elise and I have been trying to eat all of these cucumbers by ourselves. We’ve got Boston pickling cucumbers coming out of our ears. The lemon cucumbers are also beginning to come in, and I still don’t know where they taste like lemon, or just kind of look like lemons. I’ll find out I guess. We’ve harvested just about the rest of the kale, and a lot of swiss chard – a wonderful ruby red – and practically had enough produce to distribute our own little CSA boxes for the volunteers on Sunday.
I just finished Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal which was completely engaging, funny, horrifying, and uplifting all at once. I highly recommend it for anyone who cares about food or human culture in general. I could be biased though, because really the book appeals to my inner grumpy old man, who, unfortunately, is becoming stronger every day. Joel takes a look at standard practices in food culture, derived from a systemically produced American idea that we don’t ever screw up, and points out that not only are they not healthy, nor sustainable, nor responsible, but they just AREN’T NORMAL. It only took me a few chapters to understand that the tone of the book’s title is not one of a scolding father, but one of an exasperated neighbor who does not understand what is going on.
It would seem that in our quest to do and make and have things faster, cheaper, more efficient, larger, we never back track. We’ve shot a hole in the roof of our house, and instead of figuring out ways to fix the roof (or improve our aim) we’re trying to figure out which would be the best bucket to put underneath the hole when it rains. And when that bucket leaks, we find another, and another. You know Albert Eisten said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expected a different result.
But what I think the most valuable thing I got out of this book was what he said when it comes to farmers. When you move somewhere new, you have to find a new dentist, a new GP, a new job, a new school, a new park to take your dog to. You should also have to find a new farmer. Find the person who’s going to be providing you with food. Know who they are, what they do, and how they do it. Have a relationship with your farmer and with your food. Would you really want your teeth cleaned by a dentist you never got to meet, and whose credentials were, at best, dubious?
The garden showed off to me today with some beautiful sunflowers. I may be hooked on growing plants, and these in particular, from seed. It’s a small marvel to watch them go from green bud hugging the earth, to delicate stem, to strong, leafy stalks with little suns at their center.
We’ve had a few work days since the last blog post, including our first ever Sunday work day. Grace and I decided to move our Friday 11am to 1pm workdays to Sunday afternoons 3-5pm to try and capture the 9-5 weekday workers that haven’t had a chance to get their hands in the dirt. Our first weekend work day went smashingly, with a surprisingly all male volunteer turnout (our volunteer demographic has skewed female this summer, so I feel safe saying boy power!! on this one). Robert even brought some juicy watermelon to enjoy, which was perfect on a hot day with the weeds staring us down.
This is a time of year in the garden where everything seems to be spilling over the edges of their beds, especially the squash and cucumber plants. I like to reflect on how exotic so many vegetable plants would seem to us if they weren’t run-of-the-mill plant varieties the average joe is familiar with (although I should be careful what I say, Barbara Kingsolver mentions in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that her friend was surprised to hear potatoes had a “plant part.”) I imagine tourists snapping pictures of Venus fly traps and redwoods, and it doesn’t seem so far off from drooling over massive winter squash leaves, cabbages nestled in their leaf nests, and asparagus with their delicate tinsel and green balls. And to see fruit developing from these flowers! It seems like a miracle.
I’ve always thought that the main disconnection in our eating culture is between us, people, and the things we put in our mouths, food. However, there exists a disconnect between farming land and the actual plant varieties that draw life from it’s soil nutrients. I’d heard of “heirloom vegetables” before, but never knew what that meant. Heirloom veggies are the fruit of seeds that have been saved for many generations, passed from one gardener to another. They are open-pollinated, as opposed to hybrids, which are the one-time product of a forced cross-pollination between dissimilar plant varieties. Often heirloom varieties are adapted to their local climates and are bred for sweetness, tanginess, fragrance–that is, taste. In contrast, our grocery store fruits’ selected traits are for uniform appearance, mechanized harvest, and efficient packaging. Just the names of heirlooms make your mouth water. Kingsolver mentions Bronze Arrowhead lettuces, Speckled Trout romaine, Cajun Jewel Okra, Sweet Chocolate Pepper, and more.
Eating from a garden isn’t just better for the environment–no fuel footprint from transport when the garden is local, no chemical pesticides and fertilizers,etc– but it tastes better too!
Yesterday our work day was kept cool by some dark rain clouds in the distance and a few sprinklings here and there. The day ended a little early when the skies opened up, but we did have enough time to collect a bountiful harvest. Grace and I have been waiting for the fava beans to dry out a bit before collecting them from their stalks, and we plucked the plump pods at last.
Our herb plots have been thriving and our lavender bush in particular is absolutely swarming with bumble bees. The purple, black, and yellow color scheme is beautiful.
We had two determined MVP volunteers who made it out to the garden despite the ominous skies. Our long term project right now is to weed the grass from all the walkways. While Grace and I have been on top of the beds, keeping them relatively weed-free, the pathways have a nice green carpet in some spots that could use a weed wacker. Without that handy tool we’ve resorted to hand pulling and spade use, which is more time consuming but also more thorough and not as noisy, allowing for some great conversation between the garden workers.
Grace lended me her copy of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I’ve already found some parallels right off the bat with Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, the book I read previously. The beginning of Kingsolver’s novel documents her family’s move to a farm in Virginia’s southern Appalachia from the drought-ridden city of Tucson. Kingsolver discusses the absence of a real food culture in the dried Arizona town because any and all produce is trucked in to the city in refrigerated boxes from elsewhere. The hot, Southwestern state isn’t conducive to agriculture except for the orange trees and alfalfa that are artificially made successful via complex irrigation systems. Kingsolver is drawn to the farm life by a desire to become reconnected to food.
Early on in the book she shares a story of two different experiences with young women that she encounters during her trek across country. In Tucson, she encounters a gas station attendant who complains about potential rain because she wants to spend her day off the next morning washing her car. In Virginia, she is served by a waitress at a diner who looks hopefully at some gathering rain clouds and wishes out loud that it rains long enough to soak the crops but not long enough to wash them out. Kingsolver reflects on these experiences and concludes that having basic agricultural sense is key to understanding what makes land healthy and key to fostering behaviors that lend itself to ecological sustainability. The Tucson attendant only experiences food at the grocery store and therefore doesn’t grasp the connection between weather events and crop health, while the diner waitress lives on a farm where her father’s livelihood depends on frequent rainstorms. Who is more likely to care? Like Wendell says, it’s important that we break down the walls between where we live and where we work — it’s crucial that we understand the character of the work that literally feeds our living.