Monday, August 31, 2009

Beware White Snakeroot!

I have been looking for wild plants for my flower garden over the last few days, collecting the seeds from wild roadside flowers and planting them in the garden. Most wildflowers need stratification before they can germinate: that is, they need to spend some time in cold soil before they can germinate. So I plant them outside in fall, hoping some might come up in the spring.

One of the roadside flowers I found is this:

Pretty, isn't it? It's called White Snakeroot, or Ageratina altissima. The specimen that I found is about three feet tall. And it's poisonous to cattle and people. In the nineteenth century in Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of people died from drinking milk from cows that had eaten this plant.

The sickness that killed people in summer in Appalachia was called milk sickness. People vomited and got severe intestinal cramps. Nobody knew what was causing the dreaded milk sickness. In Henderson County, Kentucky, in the summer of 1830, almost half the people in one settlement died of the disease.

It wasn't until 1928 that the American Medical Association recognized snakeroot, and the poison tremetol that it contains, as the cause of milk sickness. But it is said that a woman doctor and her Shawnee friend figured out the problem in the nineteenth century, in southern Illinois. Dr. Anna Bixby had not been to medical school--women could not yet attend medical school--but she had learned midwifery, nursing, and dentistry, the medical fields that were open to women. She practiced in a rural area of Illinois, where milk sickness was a problem every summer. Abraham Lincoln's mother died of the disease. Some people thought it was caused by witchcraft, but Dr. Anna thought there was probably another explanation.

Cattle don't normally eat snakeroot unless they can't find any better forage. So milk sickness usually was worse in drought years, when pasture grasses got scarce and cattle foraged along creeks and wood edges. In fact that's where I found the snakeroot plants in my neighborhood.

Dr. Anna Bixby thought that milk sickness might be caused by something that cattle were eating, so she followed cows around, trying to figure it out. During one of these excursions she meet an elderly Shawnee woman, who had been left behind after the Trail of Tears. Dr. Bixby took this woman in, and the Shawnee woman found out about her interest in milk sickness. The Shawnee woman knew that snakeroot was a poisonous plant, and so the mystery was solved. In communities where it was rooted out, or where cattle did not forage on the edges of woods, the disease did not occur.

After photographing the plant, I broke it off so it would not seed itself around. Nobody here has dairy cattle, but there are a lot of beef cattle, and you can get sick from eating the meat of cattle who eat snakeroot. Also, maybe at some time we will have dairy cattle again around here; it was common until the mid-sixties. I met a woman who grew up on Brangus Lane in the forties, and at that time her family had sixteen milk cows. So, every time I see a snake root plant I will pull it up or at least break off the flowering stalk.

Needless to say, I didn't plant it in my wild garden. I already have something of a reputation as a witch.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wild Garden

Poke plant

Gardening, like housework, expands to meet the time available for it. What to do if your gardening dreams are bigger than your time budget allows?

Back when I first moved to Brangus Lane, I had big plans: I'd have a big market garden with vegetables, dozens if not hundreds of fruit trees, an orderly woodlot, and a nice planting of ornamental plants around the house. I didn't really understand that people who have such ambitious gardening goals usually have to hire help or use a lot of machines, or both. I've watched my neighbors go through this same awakening to the impossibility of their gardening fantasies.

This summer I decided to make food a priority. Plus, I decided I would work in the garden for about an hour and a half a day, in the morning, and in the afternoon I would work on other projects. I found out that even with 90 minutes of food gardening a day, the food garden is pretty weedy and barely under control. I also found out that if I totally neglect the yard around the house, the grass can grow about 2 feet tall, so thick that the meter reader is afraid to walk to the meter for fear of stepping on a snake. The giant ragweed got, well, giant. Big clumps of grass grew between the daylilies and irises in the flower beds. People who visited me said things like, "Things sure are growed up around here, ain't they. Well, we've had a lot of rain." They were trying to be nice.

In early August I planted my fall garden and started watering the kale, turnips, and lettuce plantings every day to get them to germinate. There really wasn't that much else to do in the food garden, so I tackled the jungle that had grown up around the house. I mowed with a sickle, and weed-ate. I pulled a lot of weeds and either composted them or used them as mulch on the asparagus bed. (For the record: I didn't see, much less get bitten by, a single snake.)

I also found out about a book called Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, by a Dutch horticulturist named Piet Oudolf. Oudolf is the inventor of the "New Wave" planting style in Europe. (It sounds like a school of film criticism, but it's more about grass.) He uses a lot of ornamental grasses and easy-care, durable perennials, and a few shrubs, in his plantings. You can see his own garden here. Lovely, isn't it?

I got the book on inter-library loan at our public library and spent two weeks loving it and making notes from it. It turns out that many of the plants that Oudolf uses are plants that do very well in my garden: peonies, phlox, rudbeckias, daylilies, aquilegias, monardas, violas, siberian iris, and hostas for example. But I learned about a lot of other plants that would probably do well here, and I found many of them in the catalog of Sunlight Gardens near Knoxville, Tennessee: amsonia, anemones, asters, various species of grasses, many species of clematis, hydrangeas, penstemon, and perovskia for example. Some of my neighbors are growing these plants successfully.

I also started thinking about the "weeds" that volunteer in my garden. Some of them are quite ornamental, and if they were expensive specimens in a nursery catalog, people would probably buy them. I love poke weed for example. It's edible in spring, and has beautiful white flowers in mid-summer and bright purple berries in fall. Sometimes it has white flowers, purple fruit and red stems all at one time. Its habit is gracefully arching.

This brings me to a point of Piet Oudolf's philosophy: look at the whole plant, not just its sex organs. Does it look good structurally in the garden? If we are honest about this, some plants do not have very good structure, although they may have beautiful flowers: the David Austin roses come to mind. The bushes of those roses are spindly and ugly, and weeds grow rampantly in that space.

Other great wildflower volunteers in my garden are ageratum and ironweed, and a beautiful pea family plant that I have not yet identified but plan to keep.

Wild ageratum

Unidentified pea family wildflower

I also started re-thinking the "invasive" plant question. Oudolf puts these plants in a special chapter in his book. In my garden, I eliminated Iris pseudacorus because I thought it was too invasive. But I put it back today. I found some growing in a compost pile and I decided to let it go back in the garden. If I don't water it too much and prune it back a little every summer, it might be fine. The same goes for the wild daylily, hemerocallis fulva. I have been trying to dig it out, but maybe I'll just be grateful for its toughness.

Some annuals and biennials reseed themselves "playfully," as Oudolf says, in my garden. One of them is Dame's Rocket, or Hesperis matronalis. Oudolf doesn't mention this plant; maybe it doesn't grow well in the Netherlands. Another self-seeder is Money Plant, or Lunaria biennis. I remember thinking this plant was really cool when I was a child because of the "silver dollars" it makes; now I like it because it seeds itself in shade.

He points out too that the biennial brassicas that we grow in our food gardens can naturalize in the flower garden. I have done this before with kale and turnip greens: they do look beautiful when they bloom all yellow in the spring, especially next to the purple hesperis. And, you can eat them during the winter.

In addition to alerting me to the great tough plants already in my garden, and more that could be in my garden, Oudolf's book pointed out the problems with some of the plants I've been subconsciously frustrated with for years. I love roses and bearded irises, but I struggle with them: the roses because they become weedy and are hard to weed because of the thorns; and the bearded irises because they don't bloom reliably and compete poorly with weeds. Oudolf suggests realism about these plants if you insist on growing them. I will probably keep the roses that do reasonably well, but I won't buy any more probably. Ditto with bearded irises. Instead, I plant to expand the Siberian irises. They do very well, compete with weeds, don't need coddling, and are easy to divide and propagate. I only have one color though. More, more!

Oudolf's choice of plants is not just based on how tough they are; it's also based on how "natural" the plant looks. In the natural garden, it looks odd to have something very formal looking, such as tulips standing in a row like soldiers. Good, because tulips are expensive and don't usually come back. He thinks that most astilbes for sale in nurseries are also too formal looking and come in garish colors. Fine. But when he started maligning double-flowering peonies, I got a little mad: mine do so well! And they remind me of my grandmother, who grew the same ones! They can live for a hundred years! But I have to admit: the single-flowered ones would probably not end up face down in the dirt after a rain. So if I buy more peonies, it will be single-flowered ones. Maybe even...tree peonies?

What about plants that look wild and natural, but aren't? An example is the zinnia, especially the single-flowered type. They grow tall and lanky like wild sunflowers, but they don't seem to re-seed themselves easily in my garden. I'm wondering if it's worth the trouble to plant them myself every spring. Probably.

Oudolf does not talk much about the care of the natural garden in this book. I imagine that even if you use tough plants, there is still some stuff to do: weeding out the things you really don't want, for example, and mowing the paths. But looking at the garden this way makes you realize that some things you thought you didn't want might be okay after all, like the poke weed and the regular orange daylily. Doesn't ragweed have an interesting form? Well, maybe not. It's just...big.

I even started looking differently at the grass that grows in my beds: is it not "ornamental"? It may not have a spectacular seed head, but the rest of its body is okay. It's soft and pleasant to touch and to lie down on. Maybe I will just mow paths through it, so I can get around, and decide to love it. It's a gift; I didn't plant it; it just came to live with me.

Maybe I could persuade those wild sunflowers, hydrangeas, and trilliums that I see on my walks to come live with me too.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Shannon and Julia

I know, I know, everybody wants to be in Julia Child's virtual company by way of cooking from Mastering the Art of & etc. But I really do make a few recipes from it from time to time. The one time I tried to cook a lot of recipes from it, I got a lot fat, so I quit.

There is one truly great and really useful recipe in the book that I use all the time: Potage Parmentier. As Julie Powell said, quoting Julia, "It is simplicity itself." That's because all you do is boil some leeks and potatoes together in water and add a little salt. Cream is optional, but very good.

Potage Parmentier, or Leek and Potato Soup, unlike a lot of the recipes in Mastering, is French farmhouse cooking, not the cooking of French restaurants. Sometimes recipes of this sort are called things like "Poulet a la Fermiere," meaning chicken cooked like a farm housewife would do it. I'm not a wife and I spend as much time outside on the farm as I do in the house, so I translate "fermiere" to mean "woman farmer." So, Potage Parmentier, being from the cuisine of the fermiere, is my kind of cooking. Je suis fermiere.

The only thing that's not simplicity itself is growing the leeks and potatoes, particularly the leeks. After years of working on it, I'm pretty good at growing potatoes. You have to start early--in March in Tennessee--and give them a surprising amount of fertilizer, in the form of compost, alfalfa pellets or the straight shots of pure nitrogen that my neighbors give them. (This summer I used urea, which is an organic form of soluble nitrogen. Diluted urine works too.) But leeks are still hard for me to grow. I think it's for several reasons: again, you have to start early, starting the little seedlings in pots in January; you have to transplant them in March; and then you have to keep them weeded all summer, before you harvest them in the fall and winter. Also, they don't like hot, dry weather. Sometimes they just rot.

Therefore I've begun taking liberties with Potage Parmentier. I use onions instead of leeks. Onions are very easy to grow, and they are ready to eat in mid-summer, way before any leeks come around, and about the same time the potatoes are ready to dig. (Around here we grow an over-wintering onion that is "simplicity itself" to grow: one plant divides into several plants over the winter, like a shallot or garlic plant, and then you separate them in spring to make more plants.) The soup is fine with cut up onions instead of leeks. And you don't have to brown them first; you can just boil them with the potatoes. That way, your soup doesn't have any fat in it at first, and you can add your favorite fat at the end. Mine is butter, but I would not turn down creme fraiche if somebody offered me some.

I also noticed that Julia says that "soupe du jour" is really just Potage Parmentier with any other vegetable that you happen to have on hand thrown in. This has worked very well for me, night after night, recently. It's the simplest supper imaginable: "simplicity itself"! You chop things up and put them in a pot with some water, boil for 15 minutes, and voila. Soup du jour. You can add a bit of pasta if you wish. Last night I made a simple pesto sauce with basil, olive oil, and salt, and garnished the soupe with that. Aha. Soupe au Pistou! Another Mastering recipe. Even my dog Molly liked it. I didn't think she liked things like pesto sauce on her food, but she gobbled it all up.

Tonight Soupe du Jour is going to be a bit Cajun, with okra and tomatoes and peppers thrown in. Maybe I will call it Soupe A La Fermiere Louisiane.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Kieffer pears

The most productive tree in my neglected, semi-wild orchard is the Kieffer pear tree. Last year it was loaded with pears, like the apple trees; this year, the apple trees have no apples, but the pear tree has pears.

Kieffers are old-timey pears that country people in the South have grown for decades. I remember one at my grandmother's farm. In September, they are hard and the flesh is grainy, not too sweet, but if you pick them and bring them inside to ripen, in a few weeks the flesh becomes sweet and soft.

They are reputed to be the best pears for canning and preserving, because they are firm and don't turn to mush. I canned a lot of them last fall (because school in Houston was delayed by Hurricane Ike, and I had most of September off). I haven't canned any this fall because you are supposed to let them ripen a bit before canning them, and I probably won't have time before I go back to Houston. I will store them in a drawer in the refrigerator and hope for the best. Maybe there will be some to eat and can when I return in December. I read that Edna Lewis, the famous cookbook writer and expert on Southern food, loved Kieffer pears and wrote about them in her books.

Yesterday I made a salad with firm, semi-ripe Kieffer pears, cucumbers, blueberries, almonds, a little dill relish, and mayonnaise. It was unorthodox, but delicious.

Another good thing about Kieffer pears is that the tree is fire-blight resistant. Fire-blight is a disease that afflicts a lot of pear trees: it causes some of the branches to look as if they've been burned, because they turn black. But Kieffers don't get this disease. Perhaps this, plus the long-term storage capability of the fruit, explains why Kieffer pears have been so popular in the South for so long.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Roasting ears

I don't grow sweet corn; I grow field corn, the kind of corn that you grind to make cornmeal. It gets very tall and you leave it on the stalk until frost, when the stalk and the ears have turned brown. Then I harvest the ears, shuck them, shell out the corn, dry it in the oven on low, and grind it in an electric grinder, for cornmeal. It is very, very good.

Sometimes in August, though, I harvest a few of the "green" ears for roasting ears. This is an old-timey way to cook corn. It works for sweet corn varieties as well as for green field corn.

Carefully shuck the ears without pulling the shucks all the way off: you just pull them back enough to remove the silk from the ears. Then you fold the shucks back up over the ear and soak the ears in water for ten minutes.

Meanwhile you heat the oven to 375, or heat your grill, gas or otherwise. When the ears are finished soaking, you place them directly on the oven rack or grill, and roast them for 20-30 minutes. If you're using a grill, you should turn them from time to time.

When you remove them from the oven or grill, let them cool for a few minutes and then pull back the shucks. Again, don't pull them off: the shucks make a great handle for holding the corn while you put butter and salt on it and eat it!

The variety shown here is Tennessee Red Cob, from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The cob isn't red yet, but it will be at the real harvest time, in October.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato

I've been growing this tomato for several summers now, saving the seed from year to year. I have always loved the balance of sweet and tart in its flavor, but this summer I found out something else good about it: it appears to be resistant to late blight, the tomato disease that devastated tomato crops across the country. Another variety of small tomato that I call Little Bradley succumbed to late blight.

Most people think of cherry tomatoes as salad tomatoes to be eaten raw, but I cook them all the time. Of course, you can't really peel and seed them unless you want to spend hours doing it. I sometimes "seed" them simply by squeezing them: the seeds shoot out and you can catch them in a cup or bowl. (More about what to do with the seeds below.)
But if you put the cherry tomatoes whole into a sauce pan on low, and mash them a bit with a potato masher, they cook down into a slurry of peels, seeds and juice. Then you can strain them in a wire mesh strainer. I use the back of a wooden spoon to press the pulp through the strainer. Even better is a food mill (but I don't have one right now), the kind with holes and a crank that forces food through the holes.

After I've strained the juice from the seeds and peels, I cook it down into a thicker sauce, with other vegetables. Okra and peppers are good. Last night I added some risotto rice to the "soup," which thickened it nicely. I know this is an unorthodox way to cook risotto rice--usually you are directed to add a little liquid at a time to it while constantly stirring--but it works fine.

About saving tomato seeds: it is very easy. Pick tomatoes from at least five different plants if possible. Squeeze the seeds into a small cup or bowl and set the mixture of juice and seeds on a counter for a few days. After a few days you will see a white mold growing on the top of the mixture. This is good: this fermentation allegedly kills some seed-borne diseases. After about three days and the formation of the white mold, pour the whole yucky mixture into your wire mesh strainer and run cold water over it to rinse off the mold. Then dump the seeds onto a paper plate. The cheapest paper plates work the best. Don't use a paper towel: the seeds will stick and you won't be able to get them off. Newspaper works, though, in a pinch.

After a few days the seeds will have dried on the paper plate. Some will have stuck, but you can easily scrape them loose. Try to separate the seeds from each other by rubbing the clumps between your fingers. Then put them in a small jar or a ziploc bag and store in the refrigerator until next spring, when you start your tomatoes. You will have a LOT of seeds, plenty to share.

Matt's Wild Cherry is so wild that it will reseed itself frequently in and around the garden. It is in fact a different species from other tomatoes, I learned recently. It is really Lycopersicon esculentum, rather than Lycopersicon lycopersicum. I learned this from reading the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog. They sell Matt's Wild Cherry, and so does Johnny's Select Seeds.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fall planting; Peach pickles

It's that time again: the time when you know you are supposed to start thinking about your fall garden, but you're kind of burned out on gardening. It's sometimes hard to get motivated to get a spot ready for kale and turnips and fall carrots. Sometimes you can find a good spot for those sorts of things without having to make a whole new bed: under the corn, between the okra plants or pepper plants, under the bean poles.

But yesterday I dug a whole new bed for turnips and carrots. I do this a week or so before planting, to give the weeds time to sprout before I plant the seeds. That way, I can cultivate a few times before planting, and there will be fewer weeds in the bed during the fall. I go back to Houston in early September, and I'm not around to keep the fall garden weeded, so it's important to make sure as few weeds sprout as possible while I'm gone. I also put a straw mulch down before planting, and then push the mulch aside to make little rows about 15" apart across the bed, to plant fall root vegetables. I do the same in another bed, for kale and arugula and mustard. I'll harvest the fall garden in early December when I come back.

Canning proceeds apace. The last time I went to the farmer's market, I got more peaches, and I made pickled peaches. When I was a child, my grandmother always served pickled peaches at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I loved them. I used the recipe from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. It was pretty easy: you macerate the peaches in sugar overnight in the refrigerator, then drain the peaches, saving the sweetened juice that flowed from the peaches. To that juice you add vinegar and sugar and pickling spices. You boil that pickling brine with the peaches for a few minutes, then ladle them into the jars.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mixed Pickles, and other experiments

Mixed baby vegetable pickles

One problem with making pickles, for me, is that sometimes I don't have enough of one vegetable to do a whole canner load of, say, pickled okra. I like to harvest okra when it's really small and tender for pickles, so I don't get a whole lot of it in one day. If I tried to accumulate several days' worth for one batch of pickles, the okra from the first day's harvest would be turning brown, even if kept in the refrigerator. With okra, freshness is all.

Also, I like to put tiny baby squash in pickle jars, and again, I don't get a lot of them on any one day.

The solution presented itself the other day: a recipe in the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving for Pick-A-Vegetable Dill Pickles. With this recipe, you can use cucumbers, beans, squash, carrots, or asparagus. You brine the vegetables in salt water for a couple of hours, and then you simmer then briefly in a seasoned vinegar brine before packing them in the jars.

I reasoned that you could use a mixture of vegetables, too. And I decided that okra must be ok in the mix. The result was a pretty jar of baby vegetables: beans, squash, okra, and cherry tomatoes. (One thing I've found about okra pickles, in particular, is that at first the product floats in the brine, and it doesn't look right. But eventually the okra settles down into the bottom of the jar.)

For my next experiment, I used some wide-mouth pint jars that I found at Walmart. These are great jars: easy to pack in the case of pickles. I harvested different shades of sweet banana peppers and cured them in a brine overnight, then packed them in these nice jars and poured a vinegar brine over them. There's some garlic and peppercorns packed in there too.

Finally, I had a lot of 'Suyo Long' cucumbers, a very easy to grow variety that gets over 12" long. These cucumbers can't be canned whole, obviously. So I made a dill relish with them. The problem is, I don't eat hot dogs very often. I guess I can find some people that do, though. Or maybe I will eat hot dogs more often. Is dill relish good on other things? Probably.