Saturday, September 26, 2009

Planting wildflowers by the bayou

Son of a gun, we'll have big fun on the bayou. No, no jambalaya or crawfish pie. Just wildflower seeds and some volunteers in Mason Park in Houston, alongside the bayou.

Houston parks recruited Vilma Burwick, a bunch of high school students, and me to plant wildflower seeds along the bayou. The seeds came in huge bags from Wildseed Farms in the hill country, and the parks people mixed them in buckets and we dipped our cups in the buckets to get a mixture of seeds, which we then scattered on the mowed grass.

Normally when you plant wildflowers in the fall, you kill the grass with Roundup and then till the ground lightly with a rototiller before planting the seeds. It's good to till them in lightly as well, and then cover the ground with straw. But there was so much ground to cover at the park that we didn't do all that, and our seeds will probably come up anyway, if it rains some in the next two weeks. (A lot of the grass was dead anyway because of a long drought this past summer.) The flowers won't bloom, though, until next spring.

The bayou looks particularly nice at this park, because it isn't channelized into concrete drains as it is in other parts of Houston. Houston is gradually getting rid of the concrete channelized bayous, in order to improve flood management. Ironically, channelizing was originally done to help water run off more quickly in certain parts of town, but because the channelized bayous carry so much water away so fast, they can cause flooding problems downstream. Returning the bayous to their more natural state, with parks on either side of the bayou, is supposed to create holding areas and slow down the flow of water after a massive rainfall. The parks are designed to flood during a heavy rain, as happened during Tropical Storm Allison, or during any hurricane, but when they fill up with water, they also act as holding basins, temporary wetlands, absorbing water and allowing it to drain downstream more slowly.

And anyway, more natural bayous just look better.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

North Montrose garden of field peas and okra

The other day we were on our way to the grocery store, when we drove by a fantastic community garden. I saw it out the window and yelled, "Stop!" We stopped the car, and I got out to talk to a man who was working in the garden. He told me that it's a community garden sponsored by Urban Harvest, a pro-gardening organization in Houston. All the food goes to Loaves and Fishes, which feeds hungry homeless people. As my partner noted, though, maybe it should be called Field Peas and Okra, because that's mainly what this garden contributes. He imagined homeless people yelling, "Where are our loaves and fishes? All you give us is field peas and okra!"

This garden is small but it produces a lot of both vegetables. The thing that really piqued my interest was the way they had built trellises for the field peas. I usually don't do that; I just plant them in rows like bush beans. But this summer, I planted a kind called Big Red Ripper, and it obviously wanted to climb. It sprawled out into the paths, became a tangled jungle of vines and leaves, and eventually found a teepee made out of bamboo, which it climbed straight up. Field peas don't twine around bamboo like regular beans do; they sort of lean on the trellis somehow. To be honest, I'm not sure how they climb, but they do. They don't have tendrils like squash either. But from now on I'm going to trellis mine in TN, because they seem happier and not so crowded, and it's easier to pick them.

At the North Montrose garden, they use the same trellising material that I make my tomato cages out of: reinforcing mesh. It comes in a roll about five feet tall, and you cut it into lengths of about seven feet and then bend it into a circle to make a cage, for tomatoes or peas or cucumbers or anything that needs a sturdy trellis. The squares of the mesh are big enough to put your hand through.

At the North Montrose garden, they were also growing Big Red Ripper. I ate one.

The okra was a sight to behold. It was just ordinary Clemson Spineless--nothing exotic--but it had grown to heroic proportions. The plants were like small trees, about six feet tall, well-branched and loaded with okra. They made my okra plants in TN look puny in comparison. Maybe these mammoth plants had over-wintered from last summer, as peppers also do sometimes in Houston. Or maybe the fact that you can plant okra in March here makes it possible for them to get really humongous.

For dessert, the North Montrose garden apparently gives the homeless people citrus fruit. There were about four or five citrus trees to one side, looking very healthy and green, and loaded with fruit. I think this one is a Meyer Lemon.

Also there was a cool trellis for bitter melon (I think that's what this is). It arched over the middle of the bed, so the melons could hang down. I thought I might do this for my Suyo Long cucumbers next summer. The only difficulty would be that you might have to step into the bed to harvest the cucumbers.

Lots of good ideas were gleaned from the North Montrose community garden in Houston.

Next month is VeganMoFo or Vegan Month of Food. Since I'm not on Brangus Lane right now, I will be devoting space in this blog to the veganizing of various recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetit, as well as talking about vegetable and fruit gardening in Houston.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fried Puffballs

We found more puffballs in our yard in Houston, and we tried frying them. The result was something like fried tofu: mild in flavor, chewy in texture. I liked them. We put them in an omelet.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

puffball mushrooms for supper

When I'm on Brangus Lane, there's so much free food that I don't really have to shop if I don't want to. I grow a lot of food, people give me food, and there's food to forage. But in Houston, I buy almost all our food, and it's expensive. I eat about three pounds of fruits and vegetables a day, and it's hard to find much for under $2/lb. So that means it costs about $6/day for fruits and vegetables, and sometimes more.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find a huge crop of mushrooms in my neighborhood this week. They came up everywhere, in lawns and garden beds and along the bayou, encouraged by the rain we had last week.

This morning there were several nice puffballs in the front yard. Puffballs are among the best of the edible wild mushrooms: they are easily identified; there aren't any poisonous ones; and they taste good. But you do have to slice them in two to make sure it's not an amanita mushroom in the button stage, which you see below.

I sliced mine open and discovered that they were puffballs through and through:

The puffballs I found are probably pear-shaped puffballs, or Lycoperdon pyriforme. I am going to cook them tonight. One website said that they were even good baked into sourdough bread!

I remember the first time I found a puffball. It was summer in the mid-1960s, and my father was taking me and my brother and sister on a hiking trip in Pisgah National Forest. We hiked up to Looking Glass Rock. On the way up there, we found about a dozen different mushroom species in the woods. Maybe it had rained a lot to bring all these mushrooms out. We put them in a plastic bag and took them back to Saluda with us. My grandparents had a huge collection of National Geographic magazines, and I found one with an article about mushrooms. I set about trying to identify all the mushrooms we had found. The most fascinating was the puffball, the way it poofed out its spores through a little hole when you squeezed it.

I left one in the yard untouched, hoping it would mature and spread its spores around the yard so I will be able to eat more puffballs in the future.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sweet Potatoes in Houston

I flew back to Houston yesterday. One of the first things I did when I got home was to check the condition of the sweet potatoes I had planted in May. They were doing fine!

I started these plants from a sweet potato that I bought in a grocery store. I kept it on the counter for a few days, and little sprouts began to appear at one end of it. So I put it in this raised bed, and pretty soon there were baby sweet potato plants, or slips as they are called, poking up in the bed. I pulled them loose from the potato and planted them about a foot apart in the bed.

The bed was not watered all summer, and Houston is experiencing a drought; we are down ten inches for the year. The bed received no care at all. In fact, at one point it was seriously disrupted: my partner and his son dumped all the dirt out, moved the frame over about two feet and simply replaced the plants in the bed. They went on growing as if nothing had happened! Sweet potatoes are tough plants.

I poked around in the soil and found a small sweet potato, which I put in the soupe du jour for tonight, with some ramen noodles and white potatoes. I used to think that sweet potatoes and white potatoes couldn't go in the same recipe, but guess what: they can.

In Houston there's an organization called Urban Harvest that teaches people how to grow food in Houston. It's not easy to grow food here: the soil is very hard and clayey, and torrential rains alternate with long droughts and very hot weather. On the positive side, beginning in early November we have several months of cool nights, moderately warm days and gentle rains, perfect for growing greens. But summers are tough on food plants. Urban Harvest sponsors a lot of school gardens, and it advocates sweet potatoes as a sort of ground cover for the garden beds during the summer. I can see why: the sweet potatoes seem to compete well with weeds, and are happy without much water.

I used to work in the demonstration garden at Urban Harvest, and Dr. Bob Randall, the director at the time, gave me some slips of a variety that he grows in the summer as a ground cover. I planted them in my old garden in another part of Houston. They grew prolifically and even bloomed! The bloom looked a bit like a morning glory. I dug them up and was astonished to find that the underground tubers were long and slender, almost a foot and a half long by two inches in diameter. And there were a lot of them. But they were not very tasty by modern standards: they had a dry, white flesh that was not very sweet. So I didn't plant them again, but they kept cropping up in my garden for years afterwards.

Sweet potatoes are an important source of calories in much of the tropical world. Along with the Irish potato and rice, they are one of the best crops for producing a lot of calories in a small space. In the post-petroleum future, we may be eating a lot more of them, and growing more of them in our yards. In Tennessee, I plant Irish potatoes in March to harvest in July. When I have eaten all the Irish potatoes, it is time to dig the sweet potatoes. So between those two crops, I could grow all the calories I need. John Jeavons's plan for food self-sufficiency relies heavily on these two carbohydrate-rich tubers.

This particular variety in the picture here is Garnet, a variety commonly available in grocery stores but for some reason not listed by the sweet potato plant growers that I buy plants from for my larger sweet potato plantings in Tennessee. There, I grow Beauregard and Centennial, reliable varieties for Tennessee. But maybe in the spring I will try starting some Garnet plants in Houston, to take with me to Tennessee next May.