60 is the new 40

In kilometers per hour that is. That’s right…I’m in Canada! Sorrento, BC to be exact. About 5 hours north of the border of eastern Washington. 5 hours of driving by fruit stands, farm markets, cabins tucked away in the hillsides above the river, $1.06 per liter gas, the “houseboat capitol of Canada” which is Sicamouse, a couple metropolises and one good sized rainstorm before pulling into the drive of Notch Hill Organics Farm.

Immediately greeted by Sue (owner/farmer) I was taken inside to meet the other full season interns – 4 in all – and given the option of a small camper just outside in the yard or a small walk-in-closet sized room in the house, I opted for the closet. I’ve been in standalone structures the past 2 places I’ve lived and I’m ready to feel I’m not the only one under my roof for a while. And a wise choice it was indeed! The view out my back window is a span of the acres (14) in cultivated fields, the scenic mountain range and……..the train that comes by every half hour – all 48 of them. Thankfully Lawrence, KS, got me used to the rushing and piping of a constant train, so I slept well and full the first night to rise early to a breakfast of farm eggs and homemade granola before venturing out on our first task of the day: covering the female flowers of the zucchini bed in the seed-saving field.

Keeping the F flower from being cross-pollinated

Zucchini (in the Cucurbiteae family) is insect-pollinated and contains both male and female flowers on the same plant. It is relatively easy to recognize the female flowers of the zucchini plant as they are the ones

Male flower

with a little fruit of a zucchini itself forming (the ovary) while the male flowers merely extend off of a short stem coming off the main stem. The trick is to eyeball the F flower just before it ‘pops’ and promptly place a paper bag over it to keep the M flowers’ pollen (of other varieties in the same family) from cross-pollinating into it. Cucurbits, if insect-pollinated are never true to seed because of the mixing of pollen sources. So, in saving seeds true to name the only way to make sure of the variety is to cover the female flowers; too early in formation and the flower might not develop properly, too late and you risk cross-pollination. To maintain seed purity, we pollinate these plants by hand; if space weren’t an issue, isolation planting away from other varieties of the same species could be done as well.

Female flower; see the little zuke?

Hand-pollinating is an easy, breezy, quick and dirty one-flower stand. You take the M flower (it’s easiest to rip off the petals down to the base so the anther is better exposed) and simply rub the pollen-laden anther against the stigma of the F flower which has bloomed in the meanwhile in the bag and readily accepts the donation. Cover it back up with a bag, dispose of the M flower, and in about 2-3 days the fertilization should have taken place and zucchini can go about their normal life.

Hand pollinating

These fruits will be harvested for their seeds and along with an assortment of other seed-saver veggies and plants (beets, onions, borage and basil to name a few) will be sold to the local, organic seed-savers company down the road.

In the Kitchen:

A loaf of sourdough turned crusty and hard made it here with me in the car trip up. What was I to do with one huge crouton? Make Panzanella of course!

A wonderful way to use up stale bread is to cut it up into bite-sized chunks, slice up some tomatoes, herbs like basil, cilantro or dill and any other veggie you might have on hand (cucumbers, peppers, cauliflower, etc) add a dash of olive oil along with salt and pepper. Let this soak in the fridge overnight and the next day for lunch, voila! You have a wonderful, moist and flavorful bread salad. You could even add lettuce at the last minute and maybe some balsamic for an added flavor boost. But it’s just as refreshing and satisfying as is. (Strata and bread pudding are some other great options for stale bread too.)

And the scapes are in! Loads of garlic scapes have sprouted and are curling their tails in signal that they are ready to be harvested!  3 handfuls came back into the house with me yesterday afternoon, and along with some bolting cilantro became delicous scape-cilantro pesto. Need I say more?

Missoula Mornin

And so my Montana expedition ends with the Missoula Farmers Markets.  That’s right, Markets.  Missoula boasts 3 Farmers Markets on Saturday mornings; all downtown, all within walking distance; each a little different.

The northern-most is a display of all produce vendors, with a few jams and jellies and a coffee kiosk thrown into the mix.  Radishes, baby carrots, rhubarb, cucumbers, lettuce, bok choy, napa cabbage, flowers, morels, tomato starts and a new and fascinating lettuce cultivar (to me, that is) known as Chinese Long Sword.  It is like a mix between celery and lettuce (alternatively known as “Celtuse“) and is traditionally eaten both raw and cooked.  It’s long stem would appear to be a bolted surrender, but the plant is naturally allowed to shoot up, the slender leaves (which resemble sword leaves) are harvested and then the stem itself is cut off near the base (much like harvesting asparagus) and, while super bitter to the raw taste, was very satisfying when sauteed a bit in olive oil and salt last night with my supper; I might try it in a pilaf next time to get a water chestnut-type crunch. 

If nothing else, it’s a great demonstration of utilizing the whole plant and stepping outside our comfort zone with a “new” food.  Some other things I recommend trying are the small green tops of thinned beets as a salad, any member of the Brassica family’s flowering tops, or the side leaves on the stem of a flower of broccoli.  And why not eat the side and top greens of the Brussel’s sprout plant?   Though one should find out about any possible toxicity of certain plants’ parts; carrot tops can be toxic as are the leaves of rhubarb or the leaves and stems of tomato plants.

A stone’s throw from the produce market, is the hustling and bustling market of the crafts people.  Handmade hats, baby booties, jewelry, wallets, recycled T-shirt skirts, wallets and fiber arts are all on display for 2 full city blocks and then some.  Along with a coffee kiosk and breakfast burrito/lemonade stand customers can re-fuel and continue strolling through and perhaps decide to visit the river market.

It is here that the music is lively, the crowd is jubilant and the vendors are calling out to you with samples galore.  Being more of a value-added market with things like curried-walnut-pesto, baked goods, flower pot arrangements, homemade sausages and mustard and organic soap and beauty products this is definitely the most busy crowd of the 3.  Once a month the Missoula Public Library even rents a booth and brings down an assortment of garden, cooking, health, activist, food politics and children’s books along with their computer system on laptops so that people can check out books from the library at the market! I LOVE this idea!  And their check-out timeline runs every 4 weeks, so that you can return your books either at the library or at the booth the next month when they’re back at the market.

In case it’s any question which market is my favorite, I also include a parting picture of the crowd of families, individuals, youngsters and oldie goldies eating together, hula-hooping, reading and relaxing in the green area between the market and the Clark Fork River.  A great way to spend your Saturday mornings supporting small farmers and businesses, eating locally and socializing with your fellow Missoulians.

Of Local Burgers and Strawberry Dreams

So for the first time I think, a local meal was prepared in the restaurant’s kitchen yesterday.  By yours truly.  A yummy, juicy and flavorful buffalo burger (from the Missoula market,) homemade gluten-free bread, carrot thinnings from the garden and a Swiss chard saute with cranberries and walnuts (the last 2 ingredients admittedly were not local :)  It was simple, satisfying, local and nourishing.

In addition to making that lunch for Paul (the hired gardener) and myself, I’ve finally had some kitchen time; when the chef’s aren’t busy roasting garlic, preparing marinara sauce, marinading all sorts of meats and fixins, baking tarts, pies, cakes and bars galore and generally using every inch of counter and oven space I could try to squeeze a cutting board or cookie sheet onto. 

Baking therapy! I had started a sourdough culture a week before so that was ready to get mixed and rise, and a loaf of banana-cherry bread with walnuts and chocolate chips sprang into my mind and wouldn’t leave til it had manifested itself on my plate.  It was an especially nice breakfast treat.

To pair with the sourdough bread (one loaf of which found itself at a potluck last night) we had some extra cilantro and spinach from the garden and voila! Pesto it was! Funny enough, I think this was the first pesto I’ve actually used pine nuts (the traditional pesto nut) for; granted, cilantro-spinach isn’t exactly ‘traditional pesto,’ but I’m all about innovation and substitution and general creativity anyway.  Coriander and a pinch of cumin rounded out the flavor and made for a great addition to today’s lunch of balck beans, salsa, tortilla chips and garden greens.

Cilantro-Spinach Pesto:
2c cilantro
4c spinach
3-4 garlic cloves
some salt
1/4 c pine nuts
1/4 c olive oil
a quarter of a lime (peeled, but the wedge itself thrown in)
about a teaspoon and a half of coriander
a pinch of cumin

Blend everything in a food processor, maybe adding some water depending on the consistency you like.  Enjoy!

It seems like we’ve been waiting ages for crops to reach maturity in the garden and greenhouse, the peppers seem stunted, the eggplants are having a slow-go at it and keeping lots of rows under Remay cover outside kept us waiting on kale, chard, broccoli and cabbage.  Though the cabbage is still in the process of forming solid heads, we harvested today from the garden:

Zucchini and squash
Basil tops
Broccoli! (This is one crop, along with carrots,that just tastes so incredibly different when grown yourself as opposed to buying at the store)
Cilantro
Green Onions
Kale
Swiss chard

So I’m left wondering if even one strawberry will be ripe by the time I leave in a couple days (it’s their second season in the ground – typically means a smaller harvest.)  But I’ve seen some starting to turn rosy now that the sun has decided to show itself more! (I even dreamed of picking strawberries on Flying Cloud Farm, where I interned last year.)  Hopefully this will NOT be the Year Without Strawberries! Back home, they’ve had them for a good month now!

Pea trellises; we even got to munch on some early snow peas!

Cukes, tomatoes, peppers, basil, green onions, eggplant, squash, chard and kale!

Pineapple Weed

Strolling along the east side of the garden here in the Sleeping Child holler, particularly from the greenhouse to my cabin, the distinct scent of pineapple wafts up from the carpet of weeds covering the hardened, sandy ground. The tiny yellow flowering tops and feathery, carrot-like foliage are actually Matricaria discoidea; wild chamomile (also known as pineapple weed.)

It’s not quite the German (true) or Roman Chamomiles of the “Sleepytime” tea variety but is edible and even medicinal nonetheless. In the Asteraceae family, it is related to sunflowers, daisies and asters, most of the family prefers arid and semi-arid places to call home. In reading “Weeds and What They Tell Us,” by Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer, a biodynamic pioneer, I learned that they denote ground that is hard-packed on the surface (can commonly grow near highways and over dirt roads where cars pack down the soil – not the best places for harvesting!) and that if growing in smaller quantities suggest that wheat may grow really well in the soil there.

Though by the time the plant flowers it may be too bitter to readily eat, they can be pretty additions to salads or soup garnishes. Medicinally it’s very similar to German Chamomile in that it can be used for gastrointestinal upset, infected sores, fevers, for anemic conditions in new mothers and for stress relief.

Also, if you pick some and crush it then rub it on your skin, it can be a great temporary insect repellant!

It’s a nice scent to walk through everyday, and due the fact that they mow the grounds here every week, it’s all short yet extremely branch-y. That means lots and lots of flowering heads. Farther to bend over, but more to harvest!

Check this video out for a better view of the herb: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn6pv1K3JZc

El Spinach loves El Nino

Unseasonably wet weather has been my constant companion since moving on to Montana. (Locally attributed to the final phase of an El Nino ’09-’10 winter.) What’s normally a very hot, dry and arid beginning of summer, has instead lolled around as a decidedly wet, cool and lingering spring. Forest fire danger is usually very high this time of year, but Smokey the Bear has been silenced this season.

So has much of our crop growth. Even settled in the center of this cove known as Sleeping Child where our fields get the minimum and more of 6 hours of sunlight per day (it’s actually light here by 6am and just getting dark by 10pm,) with as overcast as drizzly as it has almost constantly been, the plants are apparently choosing to be unresponsive to their innate instinct to just grow! Now, some growth IS happening; the pea shoots are slowly but steadily climbing their way up the trellising, the chard and kale in the high tunnel are broadening and enlarging their leaves, and the eggplants have shot up a considerable 6 inches at least since my arrival. But the peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce mix, herbs and even most of the weeds stand resistant.

But one of the great things about growing a diversity of crops, is that each one has its own preferences and ideal growing conditions; this damp season really highlights the spinach.

Spinach loves cool soil and daytime temperatures that don’t get far above 65F. It also likes a steady soil moisture content and shorter days. Everything from too warm temperatures, longer days and fluctuating soil moisture can cause spinach to give up and bolt. But the spinach this year in Montana is steady, productive and even thriving. On its 4th harvest now, only the relative lack of soil nutrients is causing it to be anything less than a shining star (due to a paler green complexion of the outer leaves) on the salad plates of diners at the Farm Table Restaurant.

When planting your own spinach, it’s best to start sowing when soil temperatures reach an average of 45F in the spring, thin to 4-6 inches apart once the seedlings show 2 true leaves (it hates to be crowded and will reward you with larger, fuller greens,) keep the soil evenly moist throughout the growing period and try to make successive plantings every couple of weeks for optimal harvesting. Once the days get to be longer than 16 hours, spinach will generally go ahead and bolt, but varieties like “Bloomsdale,” “Tyee,” or “Space” are known for being more bolt-resistant.

Sustainability…….

……..is not mowing every 4 days because dandelions are popping up therefore, making the place look unkempt.  This in an attempt to maintain the appearance of the front of the property where all the customers and diners come in; everything from parties of 20 red-hatters, to couples enjoying a Sunday brunch, to private parties of 70 Montana scientists socializing together over drinks and a garden view.

Ahh, so the “Eco-Sustainable B&B” and “Farm-Table Restaurant” don’t quite fit the description.  While they are serving spinach and salad greens and pea shoots from the garden behind the restaurant, everything else is coming on the SYSCO truck. 

View of the restaurant from my cabin

Granted, this is the first operation of its kind in Hamilton, MT, but still – this would never fly in Asheville.  If you’re going to call yourself a “Farm to Table” restaurant, I’m used to seeing 4 or 5 local meat entrees, a local cheese source, some varied radish, turnip or beet sides (Spring does limit somewhat what you can put on the local table, but please, not green beans for a spring menu item!)  Even the flour is outsourced while there is a huge Montana Wheat operation just an hour or so away.  So despite the disappointment with the facade of the operation, the garden still holds wonders and new things to learn and consider.

I’m working with “Farmer Paul,” not really a farmer since this is only a garden without the added cyclical elements of bird or beast (heck, there’s not even really a proper compost pile here.)  He’s been gardening organically for about 20 years now and has dealt with Montana soils for the majority of that time.  For starters, despite the dark gray-brown color, working in the soil is reminiscent of building sand castles on the shore; it’s so sandy here! 

My Montana Cabana

Weeds are incredibly shallow-rooted and pull super easily, it drains faster than the time it takes to hang the hose up and you can hear the grit on the floor of my cabin whenever you walk on it. (I have been vacuuming every few days.)  A few amendments had been made before I got here, mostly with ‘Moo Poo’ compost and a top-dressing of a small amount of homemade compost. (Most of the waste from the restaurant goes to the 20 or so chickens – from which we’re getting about 10 eggs a day.  Time for those 4 & 5 year olds to graduate to the stew pot and make room for a new wave of chicks, if you ask me.)

Nonetheless, 2 beds of Spring mix are on their second cutting now (salad greens are what’s known as “cut-and-come-again” plantings, because you can lop off the tops of the growth down to the stem and a couple of weeks later they will have regenerated into new green tips – same shape and all; just watch for the bitterness factor with each subsequent cutting.)  The spinach germination was so-so, but we’re still able to get about 30 lbs. a week.  The pea vines are about 10″ tall now and we spent some time constructing trellises for them out of T-posts with twine strung up at 8″ up-steps to provide support and ease of picking as the vines really take off.  The potatoes (a few varieties from red to pink to blue to purple to a Yukon,) are looking vibrant and healthy and popping up with great regularity throughout all the beds. 

View to the North

Some of our main struggles are upkeeping the beds; last year, before Paul was hired, WWOOFers comprised the entire garden crew, so a few of the projects – though good-intentioned, I’m sure – ended up a little off-kilter.  The raised beds were dug up so that the top soil became subsoil and the rocky/sandy texture of the subsoil became exposed to the air and gave us what we’re predominantly cultivating on right now.  Also, the diameter of the beds is a bit too long, so with each subsequent planting we’re trying to level out the bed a little bit more to make more path space to bed space – this helps greatly with leaning over to harvest or pick and squash potato beetles in the early morning when the back and knees aren’t quite warmed up yet.  We also have many ‘volunteers’ popping up; by that I mean random heads of lettuce popping up in the basil beds, many unknown flowers germinating in the Spring mix bed and a wholke blanket of arugula right in front of the garden gate where we can’t help but walk right across it.  These surprises are due to a falling through of garden maintenance last year and letting numerous crops go to seed, then die back or get tilled under.  So hearty though they are, they’re both uninvited and unwanted in the middle of beds inhabited by such things as bunching onions which need room to grow and bulb out. (Makes you rethink your definition of a ‘weed’ doesn’t it?)

The hoop-house though, is a thing of inspiration.  A layout featuring alternating rows of tomato-basil companion plantings with other rows of cukes, zuchinnis, eggplant and peppers, along with a few pots of rosemary (here in Zone 4-5, rosemary will not get taken out of containers which can easily be used to carry them into the house to overwinter; they wouldn’t even survive in the unheated high-tunnel,) and some starting flats of lettuces, broccoli, kohlrabi, more cukes, fennel and thyme.

Snow caps can last all year; and it's snowed in every month of the year here

Not only is the hoop-house inspiring, it’s also quite necessary here in a part of the country that only has a 3-month growing season.  That’s 90 days people.  Brussel’s sprouts and corn alone can take up to 120 days to mature!  Being resourceful and implementing any season extenders available is crucial to livelihood farming here. (Btw, elevation is at about 3500ft.)

Though the officially recognized frost date is June 1st, Paul says in his experience it’s definitely best to wait until the 10th to plant any frost-wimpy plants – so this week will be a planting extravaganza.  That is, if the rain will hold off for a day!  Here in Western Montana the climate is dry and dry, with a large range of hot and cold.  But ever since I arrived last week, we’ve had at least drizzles every day.  This is both a blessing and a curse for this climate; for one,

My back deck overlooking Sleeping Child Creek

it means that it’s preventing forest fire danger from rising this season, but two, it also means that more low-growth with be dying back in the fall creating more dry brush with a tendency to ignite when the regular dryness sets back in.  This is a relatively micro-example of how cause-and-effect can be far removed from each other.  Also, how you maintain (or not) your garden one season can keep affecting it for many seasons to come. (Just ask the amaranth, aka: pigweed.  It’s seeds can lie dormant in the soil for up to 30 years before deciding to germinate! Just try to rid yourself of that one.)