Sunday, March 20, 2011

Duck, Duck, Gooseberry

This being the first weekend of Spring, it was certainly nice that it didn't pour with rain. Both Saturday and Sunday were mixed sun and cloud with quite a nice 10 degree C temperature. I had a huge to-do list waiting for this weekend: prepare the area along the south side of the house for apple and peach tree planting; get the front beds dug under and begin to plan what will be planted in there; and finally, plant the two gooseberry bushes I purchased one day when I was at the nursery for mushroom manure.

Saturday dawned sunny (at least as sunny as it has been in quite a long while) and dry. I quickly ate my traditional breakfast of toast with liverwurst and a couple cups of tea. Pulling my hair back into a pony tail and donning my most expendable clothes, I ventured out to greet Spring. I have to say, it was glorious. Birds were trilling in the trees and watching greedily as I upended the earth revealing all manner of woodbug, earthworm, and even the occasional snail. I started with the peach tree. I have purchased a varient new to me "Frost" which claims to be leaf curl resistant and a heavy producer....GREAT. Exactly what I was looking for. With my tools and bone meal/lime mix at the ready I dug into the ground.

To my surprise, the soil along side of the house is significantly deeper than the 1/4 inch I find in other parts of the yard. The ever present black plastic still needs to be wrangled however, and I quickly find myself cursing whatever landscaper thought it was a good idea to lay it down, seemingly over the entire yard.

The weather cooperates with periods of sun and periods of cloud, so I don't get too overheated doing the really heavy work and in short time, I have a peach tree ensconced in a new home. As I have done my job very well the soil is begging for more, so I add three of my six Blushing Maiden tea bushes around the outside of the area of the peach. I am hopeful they will make good companions.

Two similar efforts and two hours later, I have planted both the Cox Orange Pippin and the Courtland apples down slope from the peach. My heavy lifting gardener is bringing me a load of stone and soil when he gets back from holiday so that I can build small terraces around each of the trees thus saving the water and soil from running away down hill, and potentially giving me space to do more plantings.

I have to say, sitting on the chair observing my work definitely gave me much pleasure but I knew that my back and my butt would be singing a different song by morning!! The last thing we had to do before nightfall was put up some deer detering fencing, otherwise the trees would be stripped bare of bark by morning.
All in all, I was very very pleased with my day.

Sunday dawned, first day of Spring, and I wasn't nearly as stiff as I thought I might be....but I was definitely more tired starting out. I didn't have much left on the list so I focused on the Gooseberries. Well on one Gooseberry.

I walked around the yard looking for a spot with a good amount of sunshine and at least a six foot space for the berry to fill in. We had taken an old deck down in the very back a few years ago and had just left the site bare except for some grass and the intrepid St. John's Wort to fill in. It would be perfect. So I dug a hole 3x the diameter of the pot of the Gooseberry, added half a bag of well rotted mushroom manure, a small scoop of the lime/bone meal mix and popped the little bush right in. Watering it in well, I was done! 

Now I don't know how many of you know anything about Gooseberries. I have never eaten one, nor even see a bush in full production. But I do know they are prolific, they are extremely winter hardy (my Finish variant pictured here claims it is hardy to minus 45 degrees Celsius!) and are soooo thorny event the deer won't touch them. Gooseberries are a good source of Vitamin A, Calcium, Phosphorus, Iron and Ascorbic acid, so they will be a good addition to our diet both fresh and prepared.

That bush (and the one still sitting in a pot awaiting its final home) will provide a lot of fruit in a good year. So, a quick internet search revealed several appealing recipes for gooseberry chutney that I want to try. Gerry has also said that he ate some amazing gooseberry pie at the home of childhood friend Richard, so we will definitely put that on the menu. And of course there is always gooseberry wine!

Overall, I think it was a good welcome to Spring....and the yard definitely looks good compared to its previous winter dowdiness. There are Thrushes and Robins picking through the upturned soil. I saw two large ladybugs crawling soo very slowly along the branches of an azalea, and soon we will add bees to the mix. Winter was long and dreary but this weekend made up for it all in one go. It is good to be alive, to be fit enough to enjoy the work, and to live in a place where we don't have to worry so much about war, famine, violence, or disaster. Mingled with they pleasure with my work, I also grieve for the people of Japan, of Christchurch, of Libya and of Yemen. There welcome to Spring is not nearly as joyful as mine. This most of all is what I wish for them.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

The humble Blushing Maiden

In our quest to try to provide more foodstuff ourselves from our medium sized suburban lot, we have had to learn a lot about exactly where the things we love come from. Tea and coffee are often the furthest travelers to our table and so I took it upon myself to find out more about growing tea.

Now, there is a new tea farm here in our Cowichan Valley ( but his bushes are too small yet to produce marketable tea so I figured if he could grow tea, so could I. The first hurdle was finding a supplier. Called the local nurseries first and had no luck at all. Even left a standing order at one in case they found any and never even got a call back. Then, when I got an email from Bob and Verna Duncan about my bare root apple trees, I thought, heck why not ask. Surprise, surprise, not only did their supplier have some but they had an inventory that was just being prepared for sale. Yesterday Gerry and I drove to their 1 acre citrus-growing mecca and picked up six little Blushing Maiden (camellia sinensis) tea bushes.

Being a variant of this area's ever-present camellia bush, these little beauties are hardy to Zone 7 (we are a Zone 7/8 border I think) so planting outside against the house should provide a great growing area. They also like acidic soil which we have and sun or partial shade. Sounds perfect so far! But the greatest bonus I have found to my Blushing Maidens is that they flower in the fall, when all the other blooms have gone. Apparently bees love their small pink blooms. So here we are satisfying my need for a closer to home tea supply and the need for lengthening the nectar season for my soon-to-arrive bee colonies -- all with something that doesn't require too much effort to make successful.

These bushes grow to about 4 ft. and for green tea all you do is pick the young three end leaves off each branch (early spring and late summer) and steep some in boiling water. Of course, if you have other herbs in your yard, they also can be steeped to give a combination green/herbed tea.The variations for this type of tea are potentially endless as I am converting a formerly ornamenetal flower bed into a herb bed.

In order to get a black tea (the kind I prefer most of all), the leaves have to be allowed to oxidize and dehydrate (thanks to Wikipedia for such a complete and procedural description of the variations in tea leaf processing). There are a variety of teas that result from different curing or "fermenting" options including white, yellow, red, black, and oolong. Amazing really when I thought these were all different types of tea plant and not just the way in which they are processed after picking. Sounds like there will be a lot of experimenting to find the method that we like best.

On a day when the news is devastatingly awful and we lament for the lives lost in Japan and Christchurch and Libya, six little Blushing Maidens give me hope that life is full of good surprises and optimism.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In the beginning.....

...there were seeds. This year, I am growing more heirloom and saved seeds instead purchasing started plants at a nursery. Nursery stock is just too expensive and I can't get the wide variety available in seed form. Gerry and I have already been to one Seedy Saturday and have two more to go before the end of the month. These great events provide a wide variety of seeds, plants, and learning as well as connecting you with the amazing people growing things in your community. Here in the Cowichan Valley we are especially blessed by the numbers of people who are passionate about small scale food production and their efforts pay us all big dividends.

So far I have planted Amish Paste, Purple Calabash, Red Pear and Yellow Pear tomatoes and a green Tomatillo. The Purple Calabash apparently can thrive in shade so I will give a couple to my daughter downstairs to put out on her deck. I love tomatoes for their variety and their versatility, even though I am not terribly fond of eating them raw. Put them in a sauce or salsa however, and I'm in!

The seeds have gone into little window sill starter greenhouses that I found a Buckerfields and I am going to experiment. Two of them are placed in close proximity to the Aerogardens that provide our winter fresh tomatoes and herbs (and the great picture of a tomato blossom in March that leads this blog posting) while one will be put in an actual windowsill. I want to see if there light from the Aerogardens really gives plants a boost.

My heavy lifter (gardener) was here today scoping out the cedars that I want removed and this weekend I will gather a couple bare root apple trees for planting. Bob and Verna Duncan at Fruit Trees n' More are the growers from whom we purchased our Meyer Lemon, Desert King Fig and Bearss Lime trees last year. This year, they are providing a Cox Orange Pippin, a Courtland apple and six Tea bushes. I have been looking for these Tea bushes for a while so that we can replace store bought tea with home grown. I am just ecstatic about finally finding a supplier -- Yea Bob and Verna! Tea bushes are actually the camellia sinensis bush and I know of another grower in our area who has planted them. I am going to put them along the house so that they have some protection from weather.  I will have to bring in soil to boost the pathetic skimming of it that is on our property otherwise the trees will stress out and likely die. Sometimes living on rock just isn't easy.

If you are ever in the Deep Cove area of Sidney BC, check out their place. They have a citrus orchard that will amaze you and even sell marmalade made from oranges, lemons and limes grown on their propety! All this from a moderate zone climate that has lots of winter! Amazing.

After the difficult spring and summer we all had last year, I am looking forward to a season of life, growing, warmth, and joy.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Fermentation -- Alive and Bubbling

A friend of mine recently turned up her nose at my endeavor to make kimchi -- that bastion of Korean cuisine that ferments numerous vegetables, spices and salt into a savory staple. She thought a) it was way too much work and b) that fermenting anything just meant that it was rotten.

On the contrary to my contrary friend, fermentation is an ancient practice of preserving and improving foodstuffs. In fact, our bodies crave the healthy bacteria that form when food is fermented.

While many more people have likely tried making homemade wine (fermented grapes) or beer (fermented barley) recently, there is a bit of a renaissance around my community in fermenting other foods. Recently the Eco-Village  ( put on a course for making Sauerkraut and Kombucha. Kefir and yogurt is made by many, so it isn't really much of a stretch to try out kimchi.

When my daughter and I went to northern Japan in 2001, it was kimchi not sushi that was most predominant on the menu. Not only is kimchi inexpensive to make in a market where food is very costly, but it is incredibly flavourful, easy, and great for your body.

Fermented foods, according to Sandor Katz my fermentation guru, "are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition" (Wild Fermentation pg. 5). And he is quite right. The flavour from fermented foods is unparalleled. A good sauerkraut can enliven even the dullest mashed potato. It is a tonic for the body carrying massive vitamin C and microbes that help supply vital cultures to your digestive system. Come on now, many of you already eat live culture yogurt from the store so don't be afraid. Add to that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization confirms that fermentation improves the bioavailability of minerals in food They are, quite basically, more available to be absorbed by your body (Wild Fermentation pg 6).

Fermented food is not rotten. It is transformed. Yes it takes some time and preparation. But it is not wasted labour. A spoonful of sauerkraut daily energizes me.  The fact that I can produce it on my counter with limited effort, watch it transmutate from shredded cabbage to something quite other is remarkable.

A jar of kimchi now sits proudly beside my sauerkraut, bubbling away while all else in the world seems dormant. The smells from it are wonderful. Heady with garlic, ginger and chilis, it is a creative concoction of chinese cabbage, bok choy, leeks, daikon, red radish, and carrot -- all things that can be grown in my garden and preserved for the long winters without fresh. It is a fragrantly welcome addition to our sufficiency lifestytle.

Here is the recipe for Kimchi as given by Sandor Katz. His book Wild Fermentation is a gem of information on fermenting all types of food and a really good read.

Baechu (Cabbage) Kimchi: Timeframe 1 week or longer

For 1 quart of Kimchi:

Sea Salt
1 lb/500 grams Chinese Cabbage
1 daikon radish (and/or red radishes)
1 to 2 carrots
1 to 2 onions and/or leeks and/or a few scallions and/or shallots (or more)
3-4 cloves garlic
3 to 4 hot red chilis or 3-4 tsps of chili flakes depending on your taste
3 tbp fresh grated ginger

1. Mix a brine of about 4 cups water (non-chlorinated) and 4 tbsp of salt. Stir well to dissolve.
2. Coarsely chop the cabbage, slice the radish and carrots and let the vegetables soak in the brine overnight.
3. Prepare spices. Grate the ginger; chop the garlic and onion; remove seed from fresh chilis. Kimchi can absord a lot of spice so play with it.
4. Drain brine off vegetables, reserving the brine. Taste the vegetables. If too salty, rinse with cool water. If you can't taste the salt, sprinkle with a couple teaspoons of salt and mix.
5. Mix the vegetables with the ginger-chili-garlic-onion paste. Mix everything together thoroughly and stuff it into a clean quart-size jar. Pack it tightly into the jar, pressing down until the brine rises. If necessary, add a little of the brine to submerge the vegetables. Weight the vegetables down with a smaller jar or a zip-lock baggie filled with brine. Or if you think you can remember to check the kimchi every day, you can just use your (clean!) fingers to push the vegetables back under the brine.
6. Ferment in your kitchen or other warm place. Taste the kimchi every day. After about a week of fermentation, when it tastes ripe, move it to the refrigerator. An alternative and more traditional method is to ferment kimchi more slowly and with more salt in a cool spot, such as a hole in the ground, or a cellar or other cool place.

Give it a try. I am sure you will be pleased with the results!