What’s the Lady Farmer cure for the January doldrums? Planning the next season’s garden, of course! There’s a jumble of seed catalogs and plant guides that I keep fireside and peruse while visions of veggies dance in my head. This year I’m especially excited to be expanding my selection of perennial vegetables.
Why cultivate perennial vegetables in place of the annuals that comprise the typical summer garden? The tomatoes, squash, peas, peppers, lettuce, cucumbers and the like that we consider standard home-grown produce are easy enough to grow, and even the inexperienced gardener can expect a good yield. Perennial herbs and vegetables, on the other hand, are harder to find and usually take longer to establish, so it might be a year or even longer before you get food from a plant.
Image Source: Mother Earth Living
Despite these drawbacks, the benefits of growing perennial vegetables are many. For starters, they are a lot less work! You plant them once and then you can neglect them. Once these edible perennials have taken hold they will be repeat performers year after year and establish mature root systems that not only enrich the soil and crowd out the weeds, but increase the plant’s resistance to drought and pests as well. Perennials help hold water and nutrients in the soil and create habitat for a wide variety of microorganisms that make a garden fertile and healthy. Also, because the soil around the plant doesn’t have to be disturbed every year, it’s able to capture carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it, an important process in the reversal of global warming. And if that isn’t enough, perennial vegetables are often harvested earlier or later in the year, thereby extending the season. They’re also useful in creating a permanent edible landscape. Just imagine having an established food supply from your garden that comes back every year on its own!
So which vegetables are perennial? The ones we’re most familiar with are rhubarb and asparagus, but there are many others. Here are few perennial veggies that are good to start with, some of which I have already and others that I plan to introduce this year.
Perennial Vegetables List
1. Sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichoke)
Plant these tubers in the ground and enjoy beautiful sunflower-type blooms on top of a dense cluster of 6-8 ft stalks in late summer. At the end of the season, you can dig up the tubers and eat them like potatoes — cooked in soups, mashed, baked or fried.
2. Ramps (Wild Leeks)
Shade-loving,clumping and spreading leafy vegetable used as a green in salads or as a flavoring such as a leek or scallion. The bulbs can be used like garlic and onions. (Also in the old fairy tale, it was Rapunzel’s mother who was craving ramps and sent her husband to steal them from the witch’s garden.)
3. Turkish Rocket
Also called warty cabbage, this leafy green resembles arugula but produces a small broccoli-like flower. It grows in clumps and has a slightly bitter, peppery flavor. It’s a great addition to mixed cooked greens or eaten raw.
4. Sea Kale
This leafy shrub grows to about 3 ft tall and wide. The leaves can be used like collards or mustard greens while the new spring shoots are harvested and prepared in much the same way as asparagus. The flower is similar to broccoli.
Can be used like spinach, cooked or raw, though when eaten fresh, the strong lemony flavor serves well in a mix with other milder leafy greens. It grows easily from seed and catches on quickly in the garden, improving the soil around it season after season.
You probably won’t find a wide selection of perennial vegetable plants or seeds from the usual sources, but all of the above are available at www.foodforestfarm.com.
Want to learn more? Eric Toensmeier’s book Perennial Vegetables (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007) was a great resource for this article.
Kefir! It’s the superfood you need to know about, a rich, creamy probiotic beverage with the consistency of drinkable yogurt but with many times more nutrients. If you haven’t discovered it yet, then read on. You’re in for a treat!
Kefir is an easy, affordable and delicious way of boosting your immune system. Besides being packed with nutrients, it’s a powerhouse of probiotics. These are the good organisms that are essential to our health, the ones that help us fight off dangerous infections. They proliferate everywhere inside our bodies and in the world around us. But with the widespread use of antibiotics, hand sanitizers and a multitude of other practices meant to keep us healthy by reducing harmful bacteria, we’ve actually been removing many of the body’s own best defenses and have created a widespread health problem. Because antibiotics and disinfectants work against both the good and the bad bacteria, the natural balance of our microscopic universe is disrupted and we become vulnerable to resistant strains, commonly known as “superbugs.”
We can help our systems restore this balance by including any probiotic rich foods in our diet, but kefir is an A+ source, containing multiple strains of live cultures and substantial amounts of protein, calcium and magnesium as well. Although it’s been around for a long time, thought to have originated in the Caucasus Mountains many centuries ago, kefir has recently attracted scientific interest for its potential as a beneficial probiotic food. A article from Frontiers in Microbiology published earlier this year states…
Kefir is a complex fermented dairy product created through the symbiotic fermentation of milk by lactic acid bacteria and yeasts …As with other fermented dairy products, kefir has been associated with a range of health benefits such as cholesterol metabolism and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibition, antimicrobial activity, tumor suppression, increased speed of wound healing, and modulation of the immune system including the alleviation of allergy and asthma…One of the features that distinguish kefir from many other fermented dairy products is the requirement for the presence of a kefir grain in fermentation and the presence and importance of a large population of yeasts.
It is in the traditional method of making kefir, the use of the “grains” as a culture, that the diversity and abundance of probiotics can proliferate, which the article goes on to explain is not the same as the widely distributed commercial product.
Commercial, industrial-scale production rarely utilizes kefir grains for fermentation, but rather uses starter cultures of microbes that have been isolated from kefir or kefir grains in order to provide more consistent products (Assadi et al., 2000). While this industrially produced kefir may have health benefits of its own, research examining such benefits has either not been performed or is not published.
In other words, the scientific community is looking at the traditionally prepared version of kefir as opposed to what you’d buy in the store. Even the store-bought brands have more live cultures than yogurt, but the probiotics really increase when you make your kefir at home. It’s simple and quick. Anyone can do it! Here’s the process;
1) Obtain your kefir grains. The best way is to get them fresh from someone who is making it, but there are also multiple online sources.
Grains should be stored (while not being used) in cow’s milk – in between uses or when you have extra. When you go to make a new batch, you’ll scoop the grains out of the milk as shown. You’ll also want to refresh this milk (about weekly) to keep the grains fed and happy* Grains!
2) Place a generous tablespoon of live kefir culture grains in ½ gallon of cow or goat milk.
3) Cover and place in a warm spot out of direct sunlight for at least 24 hours, or until it is the consistency of liquid yogurt.
We used a cloth here to cover our grains, which is usually ideal, but a regular lid will work well too. Fermentation times will differ based on a multitude of variables, such as temperature. Our kitchen can get pretty chilly in the winter, so we’ll use a warming plate to speed up the process. If you want to slow down the process, place in the refrigerator.
4) Strain the grains from the kefir using a plastic strainer. Place the grains in a jar of fresh milk and store in the refrigerator for future use.*
5) At this point you can flavor the kefir any number of ways. For starters, try ½ cup of fruit, a tablespoon of vanilla or almond extract, sweeten with sugar, honey, maple syrup or stevia. Your imagination is the limit here. Experiment and have fun with it.
6) Use a hand blender to smooth it out, leave at room temperature for another 4-6 hours for its “second ferment” (this step is optional) then chill. I think the flavors are optimal when it’s cold.
7) Now drink and enjoy and know you are doing yourself and your health a huge favor!
This is Pumpkin Spice – Cinnamon, a seasonal favorite – just add a can of pumpkin, 2 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), and sweeten to taste using sugar, stevia, or maple syrup
*The kefir grains must be “fed” by being immersed in cow’s milk at all times between uses. Change the milk out when it gets thick. Take care of your grains, they are living things that provide you with a great gift. Thank you!
PS – We’ll continue posting about Kefir and other important probiotics you need to know about! Recipes, articles, and more…how to get through the winter healthy and happy! Subscribe here to make sure you don’t miss anything, and to become a part of this incredible community.
For my breakfast this morning, I had plain, whole milk yogurt sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, walnuts, cinnamon and honey. It took a while to separate the luscious seeds from their tight little clumps inside the fruit, and as I was doing so I thought about how the cows had grazed the hillsides to produce the grass-fed milk and how millions of tiny bacteria had spent their lives culturing it into yogurt. Then there was a tree that grew for years and years before growing these delicious walnuts, and there were the bees that traveled so many miles and visited so many thousands of flowers to create this perfect little bit of sweetness for me, this morning, and I thought about food and the time it takes and how we often try so hard to get around that.
I grew up in a time when Carnation Instant Breakfast was the latest and greatest thing, along with TANG and Pop Tarts, products inspired by the space age. We were awestruck by images of the Gemini astronauts floating around in zero gravity sucking their nutrients in the form of powders and pastes delivered through tubes going straight to their mouths. They had so much to do up there in those capsules, exploring the universe and so on, and there was no such thing as “sitting” down for a meal in a weightless environment. It made perfect sense that this was how they would eat. Of course we wanted to be like the astronauts because we were busy too, and taking the time to actually sit down for breakfast before dashing out the door to school seemed so “way back when.”
The food industry complied with our fascination for instant, minimal preparation sustenance by creating countless “open and eat” products convenient for a busy lifestyle. Most people (many moms included) thought this was okay as long as we were getting the nutrients we needed, which we thought we were. After all, it said so on the box.
Years later I brought this assumption into my own family life as standard operating procedure, though thinking I was being discerning, I always read labels and looked for things that were high protein, low fat, and vitamin fortified. I trusted in modern science that nutrients created in a lab would do the job, and that as long as we followed the FDA Food Pyramid guidelines we were eating well. But creating a meal with the four food groups and having the family gather around the table to eat it every night was a pipe dream. Occasionally? Sure. Normal? Nope. After all there was dance, drama, tennis, music, scouts, softball, concerts, recitals…you name it.
Convenience was the name of the game when it came to meals. It was the same for most families of the time I think, and perhaps still is, but nevertheless I don’t like admitting it.
I think about these things and write about them as a way of bringing about change, for myself as well as for others who might be interested. The slow food movement is evidence of a growing awareness of how our food systems have failed us. Remembering the Instant Breakfast days, I consciously allow myself the moments needed to prepare my slow breakfast, and then savor the milk, fruit and honey flavors that can only be created–and enjoyed–with time.
Here at Three Graces Farm, our goal is to eat real food, limiting the distance from source to plate as much as possible. Given that challenge for the human contingent of our little homestead, applying the same goals to the care and feeding of our various critters is another consideration. Yet it’s interesting how we acquired four ponies with a unique story, one that just happened to reflect our own “slow food” efforts.
Last winter, we heard about some Shetland ponies that needed a new home. They were retired therapy ponies, having worked for an organization that places these special pets in homes with members who can benefit from the healing connection that exists between humans and equines. Shetlands are particularly suited for this job, being small in size and particularly calm in temperament. When we met the mother and daughter pair, Sunshine and Lace, it didn’t take us a minute to decide they could come live with us. Merry Meadow and April soon followed, and as a result we have our very own therapy herd!
Right away we learned that our ponies are unique in another way, in that they were raised on a natural diet, without reliance on the standard commercial grain feeds that are conventional in equine care. They came to us with the regimen of free grass grazing (a highly debated approach) supplemented several times a week by “salads” consisting of fresh, seasonal leafy greens, vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, and herbs.
Though not in line with common practice, we’ve continued this method of care not only because it’s what they are accustomed to, but because in many ways it parallels our own “slow food” efforts at Three Graces Farm. Every day, we intentionally reach outside the norms of an industrialized food chain to limit our consumption of commercially processed foods, looking first to our own land and then to other local sources whenever possible. Likewise, our ponies eat mostly from the pasture and the garden, not from the factory. Foregoing the scoop of commercial grain product and instead filling up their feed buckets with all this good stuff is a daily reminder of what we’re going for here. And why wouldn’t we extend the effort to our beloved animal companions?
These four girls are beyond irresistible! They’re like big friendly dogs who come up to for a rub and a hug. Whatever psychologists have to say about the therapeutic aspects of having them around, I’d say that being able to throw your arms around a cute little pony’s neck and give it a squeeze is good enough for me. A look into those sweet eyes and a nose nuzzle isn’t so bad either.
We do our best to give these ponies a happy, healthy life. They have a nice barn for shelter, plenty of room to roam and graze and a diet that comes directly from the earth. Given their overall health and well being, our equine vet has affirmed this regimen with a hearty thumbs up. We consider their gentle, loving nature, their temperament and their lifestyle to be an example for all of us humans. It is surely no accident that these lovely creatures have come our way.
Real food is not only slow food–it’s local food. Ideally, it’s what’s grown in our backyards or nearby farms or cities, because logically the closer it is to its source the higher the quality. Yet given the norms of our current industrialized food system, we often don’t know how far our food has traveled or how it’s been processed, modified or enhanced to survive its journey to our plates.
An extreme example of this is that the USDA allows both US sourced chicken and seafood to be shipped to China for processing, and then sent back again for the enjoyment of American consumers. Yes, your lovely Coq Au Vin might well have been around the world and back before passing your lips, but it’s been so prepped and preserved you’d never know.
Almost as bad is the fact that California produces a vast majority of all the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in America. If you live on the east coast, that means that those big fat strawberries that look so scrumptious have had a cross country trip between you and the soil. And that’s not the only problem. Apparently, in the most productive farming areas of California, the soil is so abused with chemical fertilizers that high levels of nitrogen have tainted the drinking water, putting the local farm worker communities at risk for birth defects, cancer and other health problems. It’s enough to make you think twice about that salad bar.
It’s a fair bet that most of us don’t care for our food to be jetting around the world or taking long road trips on the way to our table. Yet given what’s made available in the supermarkets, in many cases it’s our only alternative. Unless we are mindful and supportive of our more local food sources, we are reliant on the industrial practices that have come into place over the last half century.
The growing demand for real food has vastly improved our farm-to-table options. With neighborhood farmer’s markets, memberships in community supported agriculture (CSA’s), and supermarkets that feature produce grown within a certain radius, the choice becomes our own. Asking how far the food has traveled before you buy is a powerful step, not only in your own quest for real food, but in the transformation of a broken system. So even if it’s not as close as your own backyard or a neighbor’s field, you can be sure you don’t have to eat a chicken that’s been to China and back.
Our slow food journey includes our garden here at Three Graces Farm, now in its third year. As with everything else, it’s a work in progress, guided mostly by the same impulse that brought us here to the farm four years ago–to live, eat and play close to the earth. There hasn’t been much of a plan, but more an evolution of one idea after another.
We’ve doubled the space each growing season by covering sections of the pasture behind the house with a deep mulch comprised of wood chips, delivered free of charge from a local tree service. With enough depth, the weeds and watering are kept to a minimum and the soil beneath is slowly enriched as the wood chips break down and release nutrients over the course of years.
I consider the space as an experiment in permaculture, a system that (ideally) minimizes human intervention and maximizes the hands-free role of Mother Nature going about her business. The intended result is a low-maintenance and largely perennial (comes back year after year) source of food, flowers, herbs and medicinals that increases in yield over time.
So how do I know what I’m doing? The truth is that I don’t really know much of anything–but I’m learning! It’s a combination of ideas inspired by various garden gurus, books, workshops, YouTube videos, etc. (many of which I will be referencing), a concept that offers both freedom and challenge. But now with a couple of years under my belt I feel I can legitimately offer a few observations and comments–and perhaps a few helpful guidelines for anyone exploring a similar path.
First of all, there is no way of getting around the fact that it takes a while. Deciding what to plant, where and when is a process that takes place over a succession of seasons. Fruit trees and berry bushes take a few years to get going, and in between are the crazy weather events that can throw you off for an entire cycle. This spring we had a hard late frost that took out all the pears from an already established tree on our property (one that typically yields more than we can even begin to use) and knocked out all of the Gooseberries, Gojiberries, Raspberries, and Red Currants that I’d expected to see this summer. Once I finally realized that no, they weren’t just late– this year they weren’t happening at all–I was able to take the long view. There’s always next year. The good news was that we got some lovely thornless blackberries from our two- year old bushes and the plants are thriving and robust.
So there is lots of trial and error–sometimes feeling more like error than anything else. For instance, when you realize that in some spots the mulch is SO deep that it’s really a LOT of work getting down to the soil so you can plant things–next time you can apply less! Sometimes the squash bugs will ruin your collards and the raccoons will get the corn. The beans just won’t come up, the vine flowers but never fruits, and the apricot seedling that was coming along last spring just up and croaks come summer. You try to find out why and how to fix these things, but mostly you just chalk it up. Yes, we enjoy growing our own food but I’m learning to enjoy what’s working and fill in the gaps at the farmer’s market and grocery.
Fortunately, given a few basic guidelines success in the garden is within most anyone’s grasp. That’s the good news. There are times when we’re able to get our entire meal from our yard (omelets and salad, anyone?) and that’s very satisfying. The challenge is when you find yourself with heaps of tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans or whatever it is that decided to take off that year, enough to feed the throngs. If your goal is to grow food for yourself and your family that’s going to last any time beyond the growing season, this is your moment of truth. You’ve got to do something with it. You can, of course, share the wealth and give it away for others to eat fresh. Beyond that, your choices are to either let it go to waste–or preserve it to eat later by canning, dehydrating, freezing or fermenting. And that’s why we’re here, with inspiration and resources to guide you. All you need is the desire to learn and the willingness to spend a little more time nourishing your body and soul.
Real food is slow food, a gentle journey on our road back to who we are. We hope you’ll join us.