Cooking wild asparagus

Asparagus grows wild and abundant around here in the springtime, but we only have a few small patches growing near our driveway. We harvested a few stalks one morning for brunch, and it made a delicious side dish with our omelettes. But my sweetie had been telling me he could take me to a place where we could harvest bags full of asparagus. The opportunity came up and we walked up to one of his dad’s pastures. Well, the pasture did not disappoint.

There was asparagus everywhere, and we didn’t even get to the motherlode. On our little foray we harvested over 3 pounds worth, a nice big bag full!

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When you buy asparagus at the grocery store, you don’t tend to scratch your head and think, gee, what am I going to do with all of this? No, you parse it out and fight over the last spear with your tablemates. Not so when you’re picking it wild. I love asparagus but the idea of eating it the same way over and over made my stomach curdle. So I started digging deep into the food catalog part of my brain for ideas to keep the asparagus interesting. Here’s what I ended up making.

Meal 1: Sauted asparagus with fried eggs:IMGP2376

Meal 2: Asparagus potage (cooked and pureed asparagus with a little half and half):IMGP2421

Meal 3: Asparagus quiche with charcuterie served with garden salad and homemade  gf sourdough brown rice bread:IMGP2441

Meal 4: Asian style asparagus served with sticky rice and pink sauerkraut:IMGP2475

Meal 5: Sweet potatoes, onions, ground beef and asparagus:IMGP2547

All of these meals were pretty simple and delicious but I think my favorite was eating it with sticky rice and sauerkraut. The brightness of the sauerkraut makes a nice contrast with the earthy asparagus and the sticky rice provides a nice framework.

If you’re rolling your eyes at me because you don’t have a pasture full of wild asparagus at your disposal, go plant some! You don’t even need a garden, just plant it in a healthy spot in your yard and let it do it’s thing. Consider it an edible landscaping plant.

One of the coolest parts of our asparagus foraging adventure was an encounter with a skunk. It was totally oblivious of us for at least a minute, so we got to observe it doing its thing. And when it did notice us, it took off running so quickly we both had to laugh. My sweetie pie captured the lovely pasture under a moody sky and got a souvenir of our unexpected foraging buddy here:

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Composting in the desert

Anyone who gardens or simply cooks a lot of vegetables quickly finds out – you must have a compost pile! Vegetable waste translates into useful fertilizer and soil very quickly if you compost, so it is a huge waste NOT to create some composting system – not to mention the cost of buying bags of compost. Seems silly to buy compost when you have all the ingredients for it already, doesn’t it?

The composting system I learned back in the Southeast USA (and which worked wonderfully for me there) looked something like this:

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However, I have figured out that this system doesn’t work well out here in the hot, moisture-less air of the desert. You can’t keep the pile wet enough for decomposition to take place at a reasonable pace.

The above photo? It shows the compost bin about a year after creation. Instead of looking like a corral of hay, it should look like soil. As if further proof was needed, it’s stil got decomposing tomato skins in it:

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This is obviously not the system for the desert. Ripe compost is supposed to look like heavy, beautiful dirt, not like it’s still decomposing!

So I have moved on to the pit compost method. First I asked my sweetie pie to dig a hole for me and he kindly obliged. Then I filled the hole with a mix of vegetable waste and moldy hay. I covered it with a last layer of moldy hay and then topped it with some wood boards, mostly to keep the hay from blowing away in the wind, but also as a minimal critter control.

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I decided to do a two week experiment to see if the pit worked better. To start with I added this bin of vegetable waste on May 11th:

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I spread it in with my mulch pitchfork:

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…Covered it up with my insulating layer of moldy hay…

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…Then watered it:

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I watered it once a week then checked it two weeks later. The bin of vegetable waste has decomposed to this:

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Pretty cool, huh? In case it hasn’t fully sunk in for you, here’s the amount of decomposition I obtained in two weeks with pit composting:

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I’m ecstatic that this is working so successfully! I also noticed that the moldy hay I used as a top layer is decomposing much faster this way too, so much so that I needed to add another layer of moldy hay. Compare with my first photo of my above ground compost system with totally un-brokendown straw and you’ll understand why I’m excited.

The next part of this adventure in composting will be to add bokashi into the mix and see how it goes. I have heard Bokashi praised as a great way to compost in the desert since it requires little moisture. My stinky bucket of bokashi compost is just waiting to jump into this pit and join the party!

Sheepy poos

When my husband introduced me to his two icelandic sheep, I asked what their names were. He looked slightly embarrassed and told me he hadn’t named them. Strangely, two names instantly came to me, and I asked if I could use them. He kindly acquiesced.

So let me introduce you to two of the biggest contributors to our gardening enterprises, the makers of our sheep poop, Duncan and Isadora.

This is Duncan.

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He is the more outgoing of the two, and will come over for noggin rubs. In fact he kept coming so close to me that I couldn’t get a good shot of him.

Isadora, on the other hand, is the shy one. Usually she runs across the pen when I come out to say hi to her. She is not camera-shy it seems, as she came over to check me out when I held the camera out towards her.

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Don’t you love her teeth? More stunning though is the beautiful wool on these guys.

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I actually knew nothing about Isadora Duncan when the names popped into my head. I looked her up of course and had a very strange feeling – my type of person! Wild and unconventional. I added her autobiography to my reading list. Also, I’m pretty she’s the one my grandmother warned me about when I took to wearing long flowing scarves as a teenager.

Wild dancers aside, these guys are a great source of organic matter for us. We let their manure compost over the winter and then add it to our gardens in the summer. When you don’t have trees providing you with leaf mulch for compost you have to find some other way to add organic matter to your garden – sheep poop from the sheepy poos works!

It is about time to shear them and there are sunny afternoons full of wool washing in my near future. So far we haven’t used their fleeces but that is about to change very soon. I think it would probably be fitting if I knit a scarf from their wool to leave at Isadora Duncan’s grave. So I guess I better learn to knit!

Desert garden design

Over the past ten years or so my husband has been planting a fairly traditional garden. Each year he tills the ground with a tractor then digs out rows to plant his seeds and transplants. With my visions of permaculture I of course wasn’t satisfied with this approach.

Tilling with a tractor compresses the soil and also damages the beneficial microbes and earthworms in the soil. Untilled soil makes healthier soil. If you think about how a forest works, mother nature deposits organic matter in the form of leaves and other dead vegetation. The floor of the forest gets built up with nutrients continually. Which is kind of the opposite of how conventional gardening and agriculture goes.

Another one of the downsides of this garden is that watering is a huge pain. The garden is on a slope, so watering involves standing at the top of the garden at the head of each row and letting the water trickle down the row. This gets really time consuming, especially once you’ve mulched the rows, slowing down the water flow.

Chad agreed to let me try to come up with a new design that would be no-till and make watering easier. This was my first design for the garden plot:

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It’s pretty, isn’t it? I was going to incorporate both drip irrigation and perennials into this design. However, in the meantime we created a bunch of cool garden beds in our front yard, aka, “the Low Garden.” This meant that we didn’t need quite as much space in “the High Garden” (what we now call the garden plot in question). We also weren’t sure how extensively we wanted to add perennials, shrubs and trees to this plot yet.

Meanwhile the weeds in the High Garden had settled in. With our last frost date rapidly approaching, I was anxious to decide what kind of design to go with and get the plot prepared for planting. We spent a couple of hours looking at the plot, talking and kicking around ideas. We both agreed that we should only plant about half of the space, but none of our design ideas seemed quite right. Then I suggested using the existing rows, NOT tilling, just digging them wider and deeper, and connecting them so that you could set up the hose to flow at the high point of the garden and water the whole thing at once. Both of us got excited and knew this was the right solution for us this year. And later I had to point out that this was one of the permaculture principles in action: “Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”

Chad started whacking weeds with an old-fashioned manual weed whacker and I wet down the rows and started digging them out. Before getting them wet, they were like hot city cement; after they were like cool melty ice cream. Guess that is an advantage of having a lot of sand in your soil! It was hard work but we had fun doing it.

Eventually I let Chad take over with the shovel and I filled in the garden plan, rotating plants from where they were last year and figuring out companion planting groupings. This is our plan for the High Garden:

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And here’s what our beautiful garden canvas looks like, almost ready for planting:

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It just needs to be amended with sheep manure and then we are ready to roll! Since we are in a dryland climate, we will plant our annual vegetables in the low rows which are about 2 feet wide, 6 or so inches deep and 27 feet long. And we will mulch heavily!

Even though I really loved the first design I had come up with, the interesting shapes of it and the curves, I think this new design is better for our current needs and might even be better period from a watering stand point.

Now I am just wondering if we should plant some perennials between the rows…  Swales are usually on contour, but I can’t help wondering if swales on slope would work!

Gardening in the desert

Contrary to what you might think, people can and do garden in the desert. However there are certain obstacles to overcome that those of you in more clement areas won’t have to worry much about.

For one thing, we only get about 7 inches of rain a year here. Yes, a YEAR. Back in NC we would sometimes get 7 inches in one storm. So water is important and the way you treat your plants has to take this into consideration.

Rather than making sure plants aren’t planted too deep (so their “feet” don’t get soggy), here we have to plant them lower than the surrounding ground intentionally. We want what little water does fall to be directed toward the plant roots and to stay there.

Mulch is very important in drylands. It will help slow evaporation and keep the soil moist longer. There aren’t many trees growing in this area though, so free mulch in the form of wood chips or fallen leaves isn’t something that will play a big role. Reading my permaculture bible I found good recommendations for mulch for drylands: rocks, bones, manure, even paper. We’ll probably be going more with rocks and sheep manure.

Also the soil is quite alkaline, which is common to dry areas. The dryness of the soil actually causes it to become more alkaline. One remedy, I’ve learned, is to add manure to the soil. Pretty groovy since we’ll be doing that anyway.

My first reaction to gardening in this climate was, I admit, one of frustration. Now that I have learned about some of the best tactics for growing food here, my frustration has faded and I’ve embraced the challenges with something akin to glee. If you are going to grow food in a climate like this it is even more important to use creative techniques and to look to other similar climates around the world to see how traditional cultures solve these problems.

 

Milkweed

Milkweed is one of the loved, cherished weeds we have growing on our property. The plant is very important for monarch butterflies and may be edible (this subject gives rise to much debate!). And they are beautiful! We were wondering, though, if this was the RIGHT milkweed for monarchs in our area of the country. So I finally decided to check.

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Seed head from Showy Milkweed in fall

And yes indeed, our property is home to Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) which is the best milkweed for monarchs in the Intermountain West region, followed, according to Monarch Watch, by Broadleaf Milkweed (Asclepias latifolia).

Why is having the RIGHT milkweed important? Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, and then the caterpillars only eat milkweed. If you plant the wrong type of milkweed for your region, it can severely mess up the monarch’s reproduction cycle (they might lay their eggs at the wrong time). More on that here: Plan to save monarch butterflies backfires

So, if you also have milkweed or are thinking about planting some and want to make sure it’s the right one for your region, check out this guide at Monarch Watch and you can quickly find the right varieties.

And as far as eating milkweed goes? I figure the butterflies need them more than we do anyway. Problem solved.

Cold frame conundrum

I have four cold frames that I made using plastic storage bins and two more that use glass with the thermal mass of bricks and stone. These are experimental and so far I’m seeing some clear differences in the results.

The seeds started in the thermal mass cold frames are thriving and growing much more quickly than the others. While not the exact same varieties, there are tomatoes and peppers started in both the plastic frames and the glass-brick frames.

There is one cold frame in particular (Cold Frame 4) where the seeds are ESPECIALLY slow coming up. I have only spotted one seedling in here so far:

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Cold Frame 4

Compare with Cold Frame 3, started on the same day:

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Cold Frame 3

And the big difference is with Cold Frames 5 & 6 which have the advantage of thermal mass keeping them warm at night. These were started a couple of weeks AFTER Cold Frame 4 but are growing much faster:

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Cold Frame 5

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Cold Frame 6

I have a couple of ideas about why the seeds in Cold Frame 4 aren’t coming up, or aren’t coming up as fast as all of the others.

The thermal mass surrounding Cold Frame 5 and 6 are certainly helping keep the seeds and seedlings in there warmer at night. In the desert environment here it gets a lot colder at night than it is during the day. (Why? Humidity in the air keeps the temperature more stable. You’re welcome.)

But the other  plastic cold frames are also doing better than poor Cold Frame 4, which is the lower container below:

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I’m guessing that perhaps the height on the other bins is somehow allowing for more warm air to accumulate, keeping those seedlings warmer at night too.

Or, perhaps when the plastic cold frames were next to the house #4 took on too much water one night and washed all the seeds out of the pots. It’s possible!

In any case, it’s a good learning experience. Next time I will go with thermal mass all the way. And perhaps for the time being I’ll go out and pile up some bricks next to Cold Frame 4 and see if that helps.

This episode of geeking out in the garden has come to a close! More garden geekery next time!

New life in macro

If you’re a gardener but have never planted from seed before, you really must try it. Every year when I plant seeds there’s always some doubt: they might not come up. And yes, sometimes for various reasons some seeds don’t come up. But most of them do. Suddenly, on their own schedule, they come up, sprouting out of the ground, pushing the soil out of the way, in their new green splendor. It feels like a miracle, always. Here are a few little miracles that are taking place in our garden beds right now.

Permaculture A Designer’s Manual

bookAll you permies out there have surely at least heard of Bill Mollison’s monumental tome, Permaculture A Designer’s Manual. I have been eyeing it for years but always ended up buying other permaculture books instead. Two thinks put me off about buying this book, its price (upwards of $100) and its monumentalness. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. But now, since I have decided to go for it and start a permaculture design course, I figured it was time.

Well, I am amazed at this book. It is incredibly well written and covers so much more than I could have ever imagined. I think this is going to be essential to helping me figure out some essential issues (figuring out everything that has to do with slope, for instance). There are so many examples in this book, I don’t know how it wouldn’t be useful, even if you only use it for the pictures and don’t read it. But read it you will want to, my friend. I thought it might serve more as a reference for me but I find myself reading it and can hardly put it down.

I got mine for a decent price at Powell’s. Happy reading!