What’s the earliest thing you eat from the garden?

My garden has seen the light of day for about 3 weeks now, even less than that if you count me removing the mulch I put down last winter, which I did last weekend.  In the fall I let a lot of things go to seed, specifically carrots and spinach, and they are usually the earliest things to pop up in the garden.  In fact, when I pulled back the mulch, I had tiny leaves of spinach that were actually edible!  I also had a couple of whopper carrots that were edible after surviving the winter.  Very cool.

But what was the first thing I have eaten out of my garden?  My Egyptian walking onions!  They made it through the winter with green tops and you can eat them just like green onions.  I sauteed them with some red cabbage last night for dinner and I put them in my chicken salad today for lunch.  Mmmmmmm!!

But it won’t be long until there’s a lot more early-season goodies to harvest.  Okay, pop quiz!! Can you guess what some of these things are growing in my garden?  If you don’t know just click on the picture and the caption will pop up!  How many of these do you know?

There’s some exciting things happening in my garden.  Get this: my globe artichoke survived its SECOND winter and is putting up new leaves!  I didn’t get around to starting new plants with the seeds I saved from last year (sorry) but I will try to do that this spring and I’ll plant them this fall so they can overwinter next year.  They won’t produce artichokes this year, but that’s okay!

In other exciting news around my little urban farmstead, we have completed the fence around the front yard and the chickens can now roam freely over about 70% of our property now (it’s all they’ll ever get–the last 30% is to be the ‘chicken poop-free zone’).  I’ve got some netting up on the boxes I don’t want them getting in right now (spinach, strawberries) and we’re going to put up another fence across the front to keep them out of the garden area so that once we get the really yummy things going, like tomatoes, peas, and peppers they won’t destroy the garden.  But for now, I don’t mind them poking around in the garden boxes and finding bugs to eat.  I’ve got a bad case of leaf miners, and I’d like the girls to make a dent in the population.  And they can help turn the compost, too.

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Happy girls!

I spent the weekend cleaning up the yard and digging out more plants from mulch and leaves.  This place is starting to green up nicely!  Time to get some more early season goodies planted.  I’d like to start some kale, green onions, celery, and basil.  Lots and lots of basal of all kinds–Genovese basil, purple basil, lemon basil, lime basil…it’s all great stuff!  The gardening bug has finally hit me after a long winter!

How to save globe artichoke seeds

The time is here to save your globe artichoke seeds!  I’ve shot a video showing how I go about the process, but I’ll go into some detail with photos down below.

If you grow globe artichokes and have wondered about saving your own seeds it is super-duper easy to do.  You only need a few tools that you probably have lying around your house anyway.  So let’s do this!

I first save globe artichoke seeds in 2015.  We had a very hot June that my artichoke plants loved–and they began flowering shortly after the hot spell.  I decided to take a gamble and see if I could produce my own seeds.  Gardening in the Rocky Mountains is always a gamble–cold, hot, snow, drought, hail…we have it all.  But to grow globe artichokes, which are only hardy to Zone 7 (we’re a Zone 4), well, those are a challenge.  It can be done, but it takes more effort than in a warmer climate.  But to save seeds?  That just sounds ridiculous.  But I have now done it twice, and I know the first set were viable because some of the plants I grew last year were started from seeds I saved in 2015.  And I’m fairly confident the seeds I harvested this year are viable as well.  I’ll know soon enough come January.

In order to save the seeds all you have to do is let your artichokes flower.  The bees will help to ensure you produce seeds:

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There are at least 4 bees on this one flower–I have other photos that show 6 or more bees on the same flower–these flowers are quite literally the bees’ knees!

Once they flower, then you just wait.  And wait.  And wait some more.  You have to wait until the flowers dry up on the stalks and then, and only then, may you cut them.  I wait until the last. possible. moment. to make my cut.  Ideally, you want to harvest the dried flowers after a long dry, warm spell.  We had a good one this fall, and right before the weather turned cold and snowy I cut them off.  They look like this:

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The bracts turn tan, the flower petals are still slightly purple.  When dry, the bracts become very sharp–you can see the sharp tips in the above photo.  When removing these bracts to get to the seeds, you’ll want some hand protection.  I prefer leather gloves.

Now comes the fun part–tearing apart the flower head.  It’s like Christmas for seed savers!  Using needle nose pliers, you just rip those bracts right off the flower, working your way inward to the soft, fluffy pappus that is attached to the top of the seed. I think they are very cool:

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I use at least one leather glove on the hand that I use to hold the artichoke, then I use the pliers in the hand without the glove.

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You can see several of the seeds in the middle of this head.  To me, they look like little grey, fat dog ticks.  I know that is really gross, but I’m sure you now have a really good image of what these seeds look like!  There are dozens and dozens of seeds on one artichoke head.

Not all of the seeds will be fully developed.  Some will be small and not viable like the ones shown at the top of this photo:

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When you finish pulling away all the fluff and seeds, you are left with a ‘naked receptacle.’ (I love that term.  It is, by the way, a true botanical description.  I am not making this up.)

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Now you have to separate your pile of seeds from the chaff and fluff and then store them in the fridge until you are ready to plant them.  I put my seeds in old pill bottles with one of those little silica gel packs to absorb moisture.  I’ll dig them out in January when I start seeds in my basement.

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And that, my friends, is how you save globe artichoke seeds.  It’s not complicated.  It is a little time consuming.  I have 3 heads saved from this summer and this photo is of just one of those heads!  It took me about an hour to rip through the head, so I’m saving the others for another day.  As you can see, I will have no shortage of seeds for next year!

Finally, the remaining two heads waiting to be de-seeded and the After Fluff, heading for the compost:

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It’s that time of year again—the preservation season is upon us

This is one of the busiest times of the gardening season.  Right now, it is raining/snowing outside and my garden season is essentially over.  What the deer (or my little rascal, MaeBelle) didn’t eat of my tomatoes and other veggies, I have harvested and either eaten or frozen or dried or canned in some form.  In a way, it’s a relief to be finished with my own garden right now so I can focus on other things for a while.  Garlic-planting is still to come—but not until late October.  The summer CSA is still going strong for another 4 weeks, then our fall share will begin immediately afterwards and take us through Thanksgiving—so I’ve still got over 2 full months of fresh produce coming my way.  So between the CSA, what I’ve harvested out of my own garden, and what my neighbors have given me, I’ve been busily preserving all sorts of foods for the past few weeks so I can enjoy them this winter and early next spring.

Since my tomatoes were nearly a complete bust this year I bought a 10 lb box of cherry tomatoes to eat and preserve.

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This is maybe half of the 10 lbs left to eat & preserve–what beautiful little jewels!

I ended up drying 2/3 or more of the tomatoes because I absolutely love dried tomatoes and I use them all winter long for my tomato fix.  And drying tomatoes is so easy AND economical!  I cannot purchase sun-dried tomatoes at the supermarket.  First of all, I don’t really like the oil-packed ones, and secondly, they are insanely expensive.  If you have a food dehydrator (and if you don’t have a food dehydrator, you should seriously consider getting one if you want to preserve food) you can make your own dried tomatoes for pennies compared to those expensive jars in the grocery store.

I simply cut my cherry tomatoes into halves or thirds, depending on how large the tomato was, placed them onto the dehydrator trays, stacked them up (I have 4 trays), placed the lid on top, plugged in the dehydrator, and walked away.

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All cut up and ready to dry, cap’n!
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I’ve had this dehydrator for YEARS, and I love it!  They still make it and it’s very inexpensive.

Some of them dried overnight, others I had to dry a little longer because they were still a little too juicy.  I dry mine until they are leathery, with just a little bit of give to them when you bend them.  Because there is still moisture in the tomato, they are not shelf stable—meaning you can’t store them at room temperature or you risk spoilage via mold and/or bacteria.  So I toss mine into a plastic zippered baggie and store them in the freezer.  When I want to add that little sweet spark of dried tomato to a dish, I just reach into the bag and pull out however many I want.  Easy peasy!  Sometimes I re-hydrate the tomatoes by putting them in a small glass bowl with a little bit of boiling water, sometimes I just chop them up and add them to whatever dish I’m preparing.  It varies depending on the dish and, more often, my mood.  If you preserve no other food in your house, and you like dried tomatoes, you should seriously consider making your own.

For the remaining 1/3 of the tomatoes, some I used to make a balsamic vinegar caramelized onion & cherry tomato conserve a few weeks ago that was beyond words yummy on a slice of bread with some cream cheese.  And I simply ate a ton of them—just popped them in my mouth most of the time, though I did get on a kick of making this awesome cherry tomato, cucumber, mozzarella cheese, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette salad for a week or two.  Sweet, tart, tangy, cheesy, herby—oh, it was so good!  That’s the stuff summer is made of.  I will miss that salad in January, but I know I’ll be able to enjoy it again next summer with fresh, locally grown veggies & herbs…and that the wait will be well worth it (because I know damn well if I make it in January with a cucumber and tomatoes from the supermarket I will hate myself because it will have absolutely no flavor—so no giving in!).

Last weekend I made some plum & blueberry preserves.  This weekend I’ve got several things on my plate.  I need to make some pear preserves with the 10 pounds of pears my neighbor gave me, I need to smoke the backlog of cheese I have in the fridge (this week’s video!), and I need to make garlic scape pesto from those garlic scapes I harvested waaaaaay back in early summer and have been sitting in my fridge, patiently waiting for me to make time for pesto.  It will happen this weekend.  It has to happen this weekend because I’ve got the next 4 or 5 weekends booked up with work, festivals, travel plans, in-laws visiting, (rifle) hunting season beginning, and finishing the fence, among other things.  I also need to render some more lard (more on that in another post) to clean out the freezer in preparation for hunting season—right now, we have no space to put any meat!  But that will have to wait until late October as well.

No rest for the weary this time of year.  But you know what?  When I slather a spoonful of pear preserves onto a biscuit this winter or sprinkle some chopped dried tomatoes on my pizza I’m going to be so glad that I put the time in to preserve this bounty of food that I am incredibly fortunate to have.

Spring fever is sneaking in

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Spring fever is beginning to hit me.

It’s been so warm here lately.  The snow is melting in town and on the lower trails, which means the mucky-yucky season is just around the corner.  Right now the lower trails near town are ribbons of packed-snow-turned-ice laid out on bare ground that sees a lot of exposure to the sun.  As soon as these ribbons of ice melt, the trails turn into a muddy, mucky madness.  It’s best to just stay off the trails until they dry out because the trails are über slippery and ultimately you end up carrying half the trail home with you on the bottom of your shoes.  Not my favorite season.  Sometimes you get lucky and the higher trails are still in good enough shape for hiking and biking and trail running that you can stay high while the lower trails dry out, but there’s usually a period where you just have to either get muddy or hike elsewhere.  Or do something completely different.

Like read seed catalogs and dream of your garden this summer!!

Today I saw bare patches of earth that have not seen daylight since early December.  The snow has stuck around for a long period this winter due to a colder than normal (or recent memory normal) December/January.  I really have no complaints.  It made for good skiing, the roads in town were snow packed and my studded snow tires got put to good use, and shoveling the sidewalk is good exercise (TRUE farmgal fitness right there! No gym needed.).  Not to mention spending evenings sitting by the wood stove knitting and chatting with the Hubby while MaeBelle lays at my feet, happy that her pack is all in the living room with her.  But seeing these bare patches of earth made me think of spring: new growth marking the re-birth that occurs every year after a long winter.  The wildflowers that dot the hillsides make for incredibly scenic hikes in May and early June–probably my favorite time of year in Helena.  But it also made me think of my garden.  A few of my garden boxes are now exposed after having been hidden under the snow for months.  If this weather keeps up, it won’t be too long before my garlic and rhubarb and oregano start poking their sleepy little heads above ground to soak up some sunlight.

For me, spring is going to come very soon because this farmgal is traveling southward at the end of the month, heading back to the motherland to visit family and do a little bit of consulting work.  I hate flying, and my last experience was so bad with cancelled flights and what-not that I decided this time I’m going to drive.  Yes, it’s 1800 miles ONE-WAY to get to my destination, but I have decided to make a long road trip out of it and visit some friends, colleagues, and nature preserves along the way.  And, this is perhaps what I am most excited about, on my way home I’m going to stop in at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri!  I love their catalogs, their exotic seeds, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to love their farm set up they have in south-central Missouri.  I’m hoping to spend some time walking around their gardens and gorging myself on photography.  I may have to purposely leave my wallet locked in my car so I don’t go completely nuts buying vegetable and flower seeds (“I’ll take one of everything, please.”).  Then, I’ll pay a visit to the Laura Ingall’s Wilder home in Mansfield.  I was a HUGE “Little House on the Prairie” fan when I was growing up, so this will be a treat.

By the time I get back home, spring should be just around the corner and I can start some seeds in my basement for eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and a whole slew of other goodies I want to grow this year.  I’m really hopeful we can get our fence put up this year to keep the deer out of the yard, and I’d love to put up a greenhouse this year (that might be wishful thinking).  I really miss my greenhouse I had when I lived in Arkansas.  That was my happy place.  I could go out, smell the earth, get my hands dirty, and feel complete and total stillness in my life.  I believe playing in the dirt is good for your health, and there’s even scientific evidence to back it up (though any gardener will tell you that gardening is good for your health and well-being).  So will I be able to play in the dirt by the time I get home from my trip?  Outside?  Maybe.  It all depends on how much more snow we get and if the warm weather sticks around.  If nothing else, I can play in the dirt in my basement and tend to some seedlings until I am able to get my hands dirty in my garden.  I’ll take whatever I can get.

 

Caring for Urban Chickens in the Winter

It’s been really cold in Helena lately.  This week we had our second arctic blast of the season–this morning when I checked the thermometer on the back deck, it read -14.9 degrees F.  Brrrr!  When it hits 0 degrees F, we turn on a heat lamp for them.  Most domesticated chicken breeds are pretty cold hardy, and providing too much heat in the winter can supposedly induce molting.  But when it gets below 0 degrees we like to provide a little additional heat to prevent things like frostbite on the comb.  Our Rhode Island Red (Miss Rhodie) is our old gal–she must be 5 or 6 years old now and she no longer lays eggs–and she has lost a few claws from each foot over the years.  During the winters?  I’m not sure.  But it’s plausible.

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When I walk home from work, I can see the red glow of the lamp in the coop.  You can see the silhouettes of a couple of The Girls settling in on the perch for the evening.

I always feel a little bad for The Girls in the winter.  They don’t like the snow (I don’t know that any chickens do) and their run doesn’t get much sunlight in the depths of winter because it is located on the north side of the house.  They spend most of their time in the coop.  Although they don’t like it, they do come out to eat and drink.  We use a large  heated dog bowl in the winter so we don’t have to break ice off their water.  With the recent cold snap we’ve had, even the heated bowl has frost around the rim, but it doesn’t freeze so The Girls have access to water all the time.  Their food and water are located underneath the coop where they can stay out of the snow, but they have to jump from their ramp onto the snow in order to get under the coop.  It’s funny to watch them crouch, hover, and make that leap of faith trying to get under the coop without touching the snow.  Sometimes they jump on top of one another in their comical attempt to avoid the snow.  A couple of The Girls don’t mind the snow too bad, and they will come out to eat scratch and other goodies I bring out for them.  This morning, for example, I gave them some cooked lasagna noodles for a treat.  They love pasta of every kind.  They are spoiled, but they are worth it.

They are especially worth it this winter because they continued to lay eggs all through the month of December…at least some of them.  We got some new breeds this past spring, and they must be more day-neutral (to compare them to onions) than the other breeds we’ve had in the past because we’ve never had chickens lay continuously through the winter–a couple of The Girls took about 3 weeks off during the shortest, darkest days last year.  But this year?  We are swimming in eggs!  It’s been great!  This morning I collected 3 eggs before heading off to work.  When I got home from work there were 2 more eggs in the nest box, but it was so cold that they both froze and split open.  Bummer…

I’m not sure exactly which gals are the laying troopers, but I’m pretty sure the Buff Orpington, the Brahma, and the Silver-laced Wyandotte were involved.  My Ancona and Araucana began laying last week, which is earlier than normal for them.  We specifically don’t put a light in the coop in the winter to promote egg laying–I like to give them a bit of a break if they want to take it.  But some breeds lay year-round, and so I like to reward them with special treats like lasagna noodles.  Why not?

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The Girls have pretty cozy digs to get them through even the coldest Montana winters.

The Launch of ‘Urban Farmgal’

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally happening: I’m launching my Urban Farmgal business.  I’ve been thinking and hoping and dreaming about this day for years, and the time is right.  I’ve been busy this fall and winter knitting bags to sell, I’m preparing my garden for next summer’s bounty, and I’m exploring my options for my cottage food license so I can prepare value-added items to sell at the CSA.  These are exciting times and with the dawn of a new year just around the corner, I thought there is no better time than right now to make it official.  Let the adventure begin!