July in the garden

Greetings from the hot, hot heat of summer! Our garden is flourishing and Chad has gotten it nicely weeded so it’s about time we showed some photos. This spring we got our cool-season seeds planted nice and early, so we now have nice big patches of beets, are a little tired of eating peas, and most of our carrots have bolted. The silver lining to bolted carrots? Beautiful flowers and food for the pollinators!

We decided to go heavy on cover crops this year, planting buckwheat, austrian winter peas, clover, and daikon in between our spring plantings, and then pulling them up or cutting back as needed to plant our tomatoes, squash, eggplant and other heat-loving veggies. The cover crops act like a living mulch, provide more pollinator food, and add biomass for composting. Yay for cover crops!

We have lots of flowers interplanted with our food crops to attract pollinators and beneficial insects and just for the sheer beauty of the flowers. We are having another grasshopper apocalypse this year but the garden is resisting nicely. Some of our marigolds have been stripped bare, and some of our beans devoured, but everything else seems to be resisting this destructive overpopulation of insects. We think it’s because we planted early this year, giving the plants a head start on the grasshoppers. And also, we plant in polycultures, interplanting different types of vegetables with companion plants. Yes, what we need is something that will EAT the grasshoppers, but that will be for later.

While the garden grows, Chad and I are busy working away at some exciting plans and changes. We’ll let you know more about that soon – stay tuned! And until then, stay cool!

 

Why wild food?

My first gardening experience came when I was a teenager. Back then “gardening” for me was an after school job at a small, family-owned garden center, lugging around a heavy, interminable garden hose to water, each in their turn: the herbs, the perennials, the shrubs, and the flats of annuals. Out alone among the plants, I felt a sense of peace. It was one of my first realizations that I felt much happier being outside, even in the stifling humidity of summer. My moments in the herb section were my favorites – I would rub the leaves of the different varieties while I watered, discovering the incredible secret fragrance each contained.

Twenty-something years later, I have graduated from plant-waterer to full-fledged gardener. Once you’ve discovered the pleasure of watching your own zucchini grow from seed, stickered and packaged grocery store produce loses much of its charm. And yet, this isn’t quite enough. Perhaps falling in love with plants opens one’s curiosity about them to more than just those found in a plant nursery. Becoming a gardener may be a slippery slope for some of us; many of us eventually start to ask, why not wild food? Why not eat weeds and edible native plants too?

Considering the incredible amount of food waste we generate in the developed world, and the resources that go into growing, packaging, transporting and retailing most food, it feels like an act of rebellion to source even part of one’s food needs from what nature is willingly offering instead of what we must beat out of it. Many weeds and other wild foods grow without watering or other maintenance, so harvesting these edibles also appeals to those of us who prefer a lazier approach to bringing food to our tables.

 

Beyond the environmental and economical benefits, I also like to incorporate wild food into my diet for the nutritional advantage. Fruits and vegetables start to lose their nutrients shortly after being harvested – just how much depends on the fruit or vegetable. The best way to get the maximum amount of nutrition from your produce is to eat it quickly after harvest. When we overlook the wild edibles growing in our yards, we’re missing out on free vitamins and minerals just there for the plucking.

Chad and I have harvested fruit from a neglected apricot tree in town, nibbled on sweet, candy-like huckleberries in the Uintah mountains, tasted milkweed pods, spiced things up with sumac, savored little mallow seed heads while weeding our garden, and cooked up pots full of delicious lambsquarters, pigweed and amaranth.

I am not a wild foods expert, but I’m slowly working on it. If you are interested in beginning to eat wild foods, find people in your area who are knowledgable and experienced to help you get started. You will certainly be able to find a few easy to identify weeds, preferable in areas that haven’t been sprayed and don’t have run off from roads. Dandelion is one that most of us can recognize, and beyond the fun of blowing off the puffy seed head while you make a wish, you can eat the greens as a salad and harvest the root for tea. Why buy dandelion tea at Whole Foods when you have dandelions growing by your front step?

 

Polyculture garden in late summer

On this last day of August the days are still hot and I find myself longing for fall. The garden is producing beautifully, and everything seems as if it will keep on going this way forever. But I try to remember not to take things for granted – the last warm days, the bounty of food, this gentle life – knowing that winter will cover everything over in an icy layer soon enough.

A while back I posted a plan for our summer garden. Then summer and all its joys swept me outside away from the computer. On this rainy afternoon I thought I’d sit down to share some photos of how that garden plan turned out.

This is our upper garden. Our lower garden closer to the house got decimated by grasshoppers, but more on that later. Probably about half of what we planted in the upper garden also became part of the buffet, but luckily we planted things in polyculture fashion, interplanting different types of crops and planting many different crops and different varieties, so that some of our crops were able to survive. Looking at the lush green garden, you would hardly know that anything was missing – the surviving plants spread out and took the place of the ones that got eaten.

We are taking notes on what seemed to thrive, resisting both the grasshopper plague and our harsh high desert conditions. We’ve also been weighing all the food we harvest and can’t wait to see what our total is going to be. I’m guessing around 300 lbs of food!

 

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Polyculture garden planted in deep trenches to reduce evaporation. Each trench is well mulched for the same reason.

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Tatume squash, a great producer.

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Potimarron – a favorite French winter squash I’m thrilled to finally grow at home. “Potimarron” is a combination of “potiron” (pumpkin) and “marron” (chestnut), which gives you a clue to its taste.

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Atlantic Giant Pumpkin and Maddy. These can grow up to 200 lbs. (The pumpkin, not the cat!) Maddy is our vole hunter, helping out in the garden as much as she can.

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Lakota squash, another beautiful winter variety.

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Lumina pumpkin, a favorite of the squash bugs.

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Wild sunflower volunteer. Sunflowers can be allelopathic, but this one just popped up, so we let it stay.

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One of many beautiful little watermelons we have growing.

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One of the melon patches. Melons grow well in our sandy desert soil.

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Sorghum and scarecrow. Somehow the suit of armor doesn’t seem to be deterring the deer, skunks or ground squirrels!

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Snake gourd buds.

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Blauhilde pole beans, one of the few beans that resisted the greedy grasshoppers.

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This purple cauliflower is so pretty that we’ve been putting off eating it.

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Amaranth, a volunteer, adds some nice color and height to the garden. Yummy leaves, too!

This is just a smattering of what’s growing well in our polyculture garden. The tomatoes and peppers are just starting to come into their full glory and I’ll be back soon with a recipe for fresh fermented salsa, a great way to deal with having too many tomatoes at once.

This is the time of year when many of us gardening fanatics start to feel a little burned out. But before we know it, from the middle of winter, we will be aching to plunge our fingers into some rich soil once again. With that in mind I will try to fully enjoy the last days of summer and hope you will too!

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!