Rooted and Grounded

I remember working in the blueberry field at Spring Rain Farm two years ago, weeding out overgrown thistles and sorrel colonies.  The berry plants themselves were still fairly young and we had to be extra careful as we were working around them so as not to disturb their roots.  If we grabbed the wrong root shoot, a slight tug would unearth the whole plant and we’d have to re-plant it back into the soil immediately – any time spent out of nutritious soil is shocking to the root system and delays the growth of the plant.

For whatever reason, a fair number of blueberry plants in that field were easily uprooted, having a hard time establishing and grounding themselves in the soil amongst all the aggressive weed pressure.

something I’ve learned about transplanting potted plants in the landscaping business, is that however you prepare the home soil for the new plant (be it shrub, tree, bulb or herbacious flowers), once you do any amending and mixing in of minerals or organic matter, you want to water pretty heavily both before and after planting so that there’s a good supply of moisture for the new guy – water is essential for transporting nutrients through the soil to the roots.  And finally, once you’ve planted, you want to stomp the ground around the plant to squeeze out any air pockets remaining in the soil – there are no nutrients in air and though it is critical for life, too much of it keeps the roots from getting fed, which in turn stresses the plant.

In the same way that the soil conditions and quality matter so much to plants, so our own life conditions and quality matter to our spirit.

In Ephesians 3 where Paul write in verse 17, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”  This rooting and grounding is essential for our growth in Christ.  It is through establishing our foundation in Him that we are nourished and capable of expanding, stretching our limbs, and growing.

As most gardeners and farmers know, the size of the plant above ground level is in direct proportion to the size of its below-ground members – with the underground portion growing to many times the size and spread of the parts we can see.  The fraction of a person that lives in the visible, physical body is merely a fraction of the whole being.  If we are firmly rooted and nourished in our invisible parts with the Lord, the rest of our being will prosper and grow.  But if access to nutrients, water or air is hindered in our foundation, our whole being will suffer, being stunted.

The things which nourish our roots are time with God in prayer and thanksgiving (Colossians 2:7), sound teaching and doctrine, and putting our gifts and talents to use (1 Timothy 4:13-15), and being intentional about surrounding ourselves with other Christians and fellowshipping with believers (Hebrews 10:24-25).

All plants want to grow, are yearning to produce fruit and scatter their seeds for the next generation, they will spend their life and full force of energy to do this, reaching out to sometimes impossible depths to get the food and nutrients needed to create and sustain that healthy, vibrant life.

Roots will generally grow in any direction where the correct environment of air, mineral nutrients, and water exists to meet the plant’s needs. Roots will not grow in dry soil. Over time, given the right conditions, roots can crack foundations, snap water lines, and lift sidewalks.

Can we say the same thing about our spiritual growth and life with God?  Are we intentionally seeking the source of our nourishment and being?  Are we breaking through the concrete of hardened hearts, lifting the oppressive systems that trod on the poor and ‘least of these’?  Or are we poorly rooted, allowing the adventitious weeds and empty air to gradually separate us from Life?


A Homemade Soil pH Test

The makings of a homemade soil pH test

I’ve never taken soil samples of my garden or on any farm where I’ve worked.  I have read about and taken classes on testing your soil for pH level and certain nutrients.  For anywhere from $10 – $25 you can send in less than a cup of your soil (usually to a state university extension office) and receive results in the next few weeks on present levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (the NPK of virtually all plant fertilizers – good nutrients to have, but far from all your soil needs to optimally produce healthy plants.)

Alternately, you can look for signs in the garden itself for what the nature of your soil is like.  Certain weeds grow prolifically in soils with higher nutrients, while some prefer to move in after the nutrients have been depleted.  Generally healthy, fertile soils will be home to weeds such as foxtail, chicory, dandelion, lamb’s quarters and purslane.  If your soil is not so healthy and has been stripped of many growing nutrients, it may have daisies, Queen Ann’s lace, plantain, ragweed, thistles or crabgrass.

It’s amazing that nature itself can tell us so many things about the very ground we walk on and eat from, if we will

Color before mixing with vinegar

only take a little time and effort to get to know it.  God’s creation is living, breathing and organic in its very nature.

And red cabbage is no exception.

Red cabbage has a component called flavin, which changes colors

And after

depending on the acidity present.  Bright red indicates high acidity (lower than 7, getting closer to 0 on the pH scale); greenish yellow means a high alkaline content (above 7 and nearing 14 on the scale); while a purplish blend of blue or red indicates a fairly neutral soil pH.

To illustrate this, I mixed equal parts cabbage water with white wine vinegar.  You can see the before-and-after difference.

If you can boil water, you can do this experiment.

First you chop up about 2 cups of red cabbage, place it in a pot and cover with water.  Boil.  Remove from heat to cool to room temperature.

Let the chopping begin

A very unprofessional test for a such a professional mix

While your water is cooling, go outside and gather some soil.  About 1 tablespoon of soil from

A garden sampler

however many areas you’d like to test.  I gathered samples from my newly-planted strawberry bed, a bed I made last year and have grown vegetables in, some buckets of soil I brought home from a community garden dirt pile, and from a bag of potting mix.

Mix each of the samples with a splash of water (distilled is best, for its neutral pH – I used some tap water I let sit out over night so the chlorine could evaporate off.)

Only the potting soil showed an immediate color change (and in hindsight, I believe this was because the components of the potting soil were mixed so as to slowly take up and release water, which slowed the absorption of the cabbage water – good for new seedlings so they don’t become water-logged, bad for proper test results.)

Each had taken on a blue hue overnight

The next morning however, each soil sample showed a deep turquoise tint to the brown water they were initially. Meaning I’m fairly confident that my garden soil falls within the very acceptable-to-plants neutral range on the pH scale.

Happy planting and soil testing!


It’s That Time Again

Seed Dreams


Stay tuned for more terroir tracing in the days and weeks to come.  But for now, you should know a few things:

-Strawberries get SO HAPPY when you thin them every year
-It’s good to know people in a position of power when it comes to soil.  Free soil.  Like all the free soil I could bucket up and load in the back of my car.
-The first red buds are popping and the first rhubarb leaves are beginning to unfurl.
-The first home-grown salad of the year is eaten! (arugula+upland cress+baby carrots+homemade mayonnaise).

Thanks to everyone for sticking around during my absence.  Y’all should also know that Ethiopia hasn’t been as easy to attain as originally thought.  It’s still part of the plan.  It’s just going to take a bit more creativity, patience and agricultural equipping.  All of which I am totally OK with. Excited about, even.

So happy almost-Spring!

Put Some Cloche On

Most areas of the world do not boast climates conducive to growing everything we’d like to eat year-round.  Most backyards do not boast enough space to justify or accommodate a full-sized greenhouse.  Thus, one staple of an Urban Homesteader’s garden space is some type of cloche.

Cloche means ‘little bell’ in French (originally, cloches were little bell-shaped domes that fit over individual plants) and its main objective in the garden is to make the area inside warmer than the area outside, thus warming the soil.  It also must offer access to light for the plants inside.  It can be just about any size; from a 2 liter soda bottle with the bottom cut off, to a plastic frame over a seed flat, to a 3′ deep and wide box, to a 50X15′ section of Re-may stretched over bent PVC pipes.  As long as it is some sort of structure, has light-porous material (windows, clear plastic, Re-may cloth) and can be opened and closed (or lifted off) with relative ease, you’ve got yourself a cloche.

A cold frame is an adaptation of the cloche, and offers a bit more protection as its box-like structure keeps out drafts and its placement is a bit more permanent.  Here’s the box-style cold frame I built for my backyard entirely out of reclaimed materials.  It’s made of plywood that angles down on the sides so that the back is about a foot high and the front about 8 inches.  I attached an old window with 2 hinges to the back side of the box (the angling is to aid water run-off on top and allow for a little more captured sun in the back of the box.)  Super simple, quick-build.  I’ve even mounded the sides with sod clumps from the garden area I’ve dug up.  This will help insulate the box and hold in more warm air.

The only problem with a cold frame like this (especially under the perpetual cloud cover of the Pacific Northwest) is the sun exposure is drastically limited due to the solid sides.  That’s where a box cold frame like this comes in handy:

Another cloche option looks like this one in this food bank-supplying community garden.  Just a wooden frame with 4-mil plastic stretched and stapled over top.  It’s about 3 feet high and easily moved around.  If you try this, just be sure to get at least the 4-mil plastic, 6-mil is even better, but anything less than that will tear too easily.

And just about the cheapest of all larger cloches: the bed-long bent PVC and row cover design.  Coils of black PVC pipe were cut into about 2 1/2 foot long sections, bent over and stuck in the ground on each end and heavy-duty plastic (or Re-may cloth) was stretched over and weighted on both sides by bricks (you could also use stakes or make some large wire staples) or some other heavy objects.  The plastic is good for really heating up the soil and letting the sun through, but the Re-may is a better option for letting in rain water.  I made this cloche for about $5 in all; pipe, plastic and bricks.

Cloches are something you can really get creative with: upturned flower pots make great overnight cloches if a frost is threatening, simply remove them from the plant once the temperature warms up the next day so the plant can get some light; cutting off the bottom of a milk or soda bottle (keep or remove the cap depending on the temperature) makes for a great individual plant cloche too; or even an upside down dish drainer with a small length of plastic stretched over top can make for a windowsill or small lettuce or herb bed cloche.

It’s also a good idea to have an efficient watering system in place with cloches; either drip line running underneath a long covered bed, or regular hand watering, because the warmer temperatures inside the cloche cause a bit more transpiration (water evaporating off of the plants and soil) and can heat up and dry out your plants faster than when uncovered.

Springing Forward

The weather on the Olympic Peninsula is slowly starting to warm up, the days are lengthening, the sun is poking its head out a little bit more and garden fever (or is it just March flu?) is taking over.  My new community garden had our first work party yesterday; pruning and trellising the berry patches, weeding and mulching the perennial herb bed and turning over the cover crops for the annual row beds.  At home (my new home, that is! no more living out of my suitcase), I’ve started seedlings in flats (repurposed bead boxes and egg cartons); broccoli, kale, turnips, beets and lettuce.

An old dresser that came with the house is in transition to become useful garden containers (cold frame, individual garden beds and a compost bin.)

Recycled window pane and altered drawers await cold frame-age

And I’m trying to cover all my bases in terms of deer-proofing my 2011 garden (Uptown, PT is notorious for snacking and roaming deer, at all hours of the day and night.  You should see some the inventive deer fences and barriers people have come up with!).  Currently scheming up a dome tunnel cloche, made out of bendable PVC pipe, rebar stakes and re-may fabric. Any suggestions?

Where it all ends up...and begins again. The compost heap.

Daylight savings time is less than a week away; it’s a shame that the weather doesn’t always get the memo that the people are ready to “Spring Forward.”

SOLE Food Meets Soul Food: Hashbrowns

Growing up, hashbrowns equated to tater tots for me.  Specifically that bag out of the freezer from which we’d spill a good layer onto a cookie sheet and warm in the oven til they acquired a decent tan at which point they would accompany such meals as sloppy-joes, breakfast-for-supper or fish.  I don’t think I even had a hashbrown proper until some time in my teens – that is, if McDonald’s serves a ‘proper’ anything.  In fact, it may be that hash browns are a by-product of the popular French-fry; when the potatoes go through the fry-slicer, the little shredded bits and odds and ends need somewhere to go to.  We always just had our potatoes mashed (well ok, and as flakes out of a box for the most part), in fact, I don’t particularly love potatoes. 

I think potatoes are a great and reliable crop to plant and cultivate, it’s fascinating that there are over 4,000 different varities from all around the world, and one of the best dishes I’ve had as a dinner guest was a pan of olive oil and rosemary new potatoes.  Other than that, I could pretty much take them or leave them (sweet potatoes are an entirely different story – both for flavor reasons and the fact that they aren’t even remotely related.)

So where did this craving for hashbrowns come from?  Actually, from the fact that I had both a rutabaga (from Red Dog Farm – 4 miles away) and some Jerusalem artichokes (Nash’s Organic Produce – 30 miles away) waiting for me in the fridge.  Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes) are usually compared to potatoes when being explained to people unfamiliar with this indigenous food, but that really doesn’t do justice to the ‘choke; they’re much more like a water chestnut when raw, crunchy and thin-skinned, and when cooked gain a sweetness and intensity of flavor that comes forward in a meal, rather than play a creamy but supporting role like potatoes do.  Not overpowering, but not demure either. Plus, because they’re a native food to our country, they are adapted to the climates nationwide and are one of the best foods to rely on during the winter – they can last all winter underground and are usually one of the only remaining fresh foods in the early spring when crops are being sown and last year’s food stock is becoming depleted.

Rutabagas, being in the brassica family, have a taste similar to cabbage and a texture similar to sauerkraut when shredded. They’re in season right now and are a good root vegetable to last you the winter, either in the ground covered with mulch, or root-cellared. Why not shred both together and create a neo-hashbrown? 

This was so quick to make – the longest part being grating by hand the two veggies.  They browned nicely and still maintained a pleasant crispy-ness while the flavor of the rutabaga really melded well with the eggs.  After offering a taste to my housemates, our minds immediately went to omelettes (of course made with the local eggs we get every week from Spring Rain Farm – 4 miles away); beside, or even in which they’d be wonderful.

Sounds a bit odd ball, but try it – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Neo Hash Browns
1 medium rutabaga
2 small or 1 medium Jerusalem artichoke
2 eggs
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter

Grate/shred the veggies, beat 2 eggs and mix in along with salt and pepper for flavor.  Melt half the butter in a cast iron skillet.  When hot enough to sizzle a dash of water, scoop in half the mix and press into a pancake form to cover the bottom of the skillet.  Let cook for a good 5 minutes on one side before flipping in pieces to brown the other side, which will need about 2-3 minutes of cooking.  Fold onto a plate and melt the remaining butter and cook the rest of the hash browns.

Though the butter wasn’t local, it was organic and from a co-oped organization of farmers; with the eggs being from chickens I’ve helped raise, water, feed and house and the veggies coming from the farmer’s market, soul food can (and by definition should!) be SOLE food.

Winter SOLE Food, take 1

As part of an international challenge this year among the blogosphere (meaning mostly Americans and one Australian, that I know of) I will be posting about once a week focusing on a meal constructed nearly 100% of local food; meaning within a 100 mile radius of where I live.  Nearly 100% local meaning that things like salt, spices, chocolate, sugar and some beverages like coffee and tea are exempt, but are still expected to be housed under the SOLE acronym of Sustainably produced, Organically raised/grown, Local within 100 miles (some grant locality to 150-mile radius, especially in the winter) and Ethically raised and handled.

The purpose of this challenge is to raise awareness through personal experience and second-hand online reading of how to eat seasonally even through the doldrums of winter when the days are representative of doldrums, darkness and dormancy.  Though this time is seen as a seeming antithesis to the harvest and bounty days of the splashing, sticky and sunny days of summer, there is, in fact, quite a lot to be eaten and enjoyed as the days are growing ever shorter (and then hey! they start to get longer again!)  Some crops even benefit from the freeze-thaw cycles, growing sweeter, crisper or more tender.  Kale, Brussel’s sprouts and arugula are just 3  crops that are known for their hardiness, texture and outstanding taste – and each of these characteristics becomes more pronounced after a freeze or snow.

So without further ado here is meal number one, which is fittingly, a scrumptious breakfast:

Backyard-herb Frittata and Pumpkin Pie Smoothie

Despite the heavy, 6-inch snow and sub-20 degree nights we had last week on the Olympic Peninsula, the herb garden in the back yard is unfazed, bearing dark green and lush oregano, purplish-hazed sage plants, some minty-cool rosemary and vibrant green thyme.  These I picked and diced before adding to 2 local eggs from the farm down the street where I’ve been volunteering (the eggs came from one of the farm’s breeds of brown-egg layers: Black Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, Red Stars, Barred Rocks and Black Stars.)

Heat up a non-stick fry pan over med-high heat and add 2 well-beaten eggs with a smattering of crushed, chopped fresh herbs.  Let settle into shape and cook up until it holds well (about 4 minutes) then flip quickly to the other side for about 20 seconds before cutting off the heat.  Fold or lay flat onto a plate and enjoy with another topping of herbs (alternately, you could sprinkle some shredded local cheese or a pat of butter on top.)

The idea for the pumpkin smoothie came from a friend who’s always browsing recipes both online and in her collection of cooking magazines and books.  And being a pumpkin from the same aforementioned farm, it was local, organically grown, and as fresh as the shelf life inherent in winter squash (they can keep from 2 months to 8 months and beyond).  I had baked the pumpkin whole in the oven the day before and scraped out the pith and seeds while saving the flesh in a container in the fridge, so it was ready to go for anything from soup to pie to smoothie.

Take about 1 1/2 cups baked pumpkin and place with a couple of ice cubes in a blender.  Pour in about 1/2 cup of milk (*admittedly, I used boxed almond milk, because I’m dairy-sensitive, but local milk would be the prime choice for most – and I intend to find some local grain or seeds to make milk with at some point in this challenge).  Add a dollop of nut butter (I know that hazelnuts and chestnuts are grown in my region, I haven’t seen any nut butter products made using them, but again, this is something I can hopefully tackle before the challenge ends in April.)  And season with spices to your taste: cinnamon and ginger are nice, and instead of cloves or nutmeg, I opted for allspice since it is indigenous to the Western World, a native of Central America and Mexico, and therefore comes much closer to being local than something grown in the East.  Add a dash of local honey, in this case, also from up-the-road-farm, and blend to your heart’s desire. 

This smoothie is so simple and straightforward, yet so creamy and tasty it could easily sub for a milk-shake fix (no, really!)

Start your day off right with SOLE food!