Three New Crops: Part Three

Several years ago a horticulturist friend of mine gifted me with a paw-paw fruit to taste. It had been grown by another friend of his and he thought I’d appreciate giving it a try. I liked the taste and was impressed with the large, beanlike seeds. Since I’m always trying to grow random things, I potted up the seeds in some number one nursery containers I had sitting around and waited to see what happened. If I remember correctly–this was eight or ten years ago–they actually took over a year to send shoots up. When they were a couple feet tall or so I planted them along the west fence in the back garden which was the brightest spot at the time but still shady. Those are the conditions paw-paws like.

Fast forward to the spring? of 2017 when I was looking at the garden and noticed something weird on the largest of the trees. When I got closer I could see it was the pendulous maroon cup of a flower. Closer inspection revealed that there were several more on the tree. It was finally blooming!

As luck would have it, our next-door neighbor also has paw-paw trees and when I told them we had blooms, he suggested we cross-pollinate them since they are supposed to not be strongly self-fertile. We traded pollen back and forth between our trees several times as more flowers became receptive and I tagged mine with the dates. The flowers were also being visited by what may have been small flies. The flowers are not sweetly scented but are rather more carrion-ish.

Not all took and some that started forming small fruits failed and fell off.

In the end there were two that looked promising hanging just above head height.

Paw-paws fall off the tree when they’re ripe and ready to eat so I rigged mesh bags below them to keep them from just becoming squirrel and chipmunk chow.

I think that would have worked, but somehow one of the little buggers managed to chew a fruit through the mesh and ruin one end of it. Not wanting to lose them completely, I picked them a little early and cut them open after trimming off the damaged bit.

The flesh was soft and sweet-smelling, though maybe not as much as if I had been able to leave them on the tree longer. If you haven’t tasted paw-paw you should if you ever get the chance. It’s the most northern growing of the members of the custard apple family and definitely has a tropical flavor sort of akin to banana or mango but unique.

Now that I had some, what to do with them? Two of our best besties were in town that weekend and we were going to dinner at their place so I offered to take care of the cocktail course. I found a recipe online for something called a Paw-Paw Rum Runner that called for both fruit-infused rum and puréed flesh.

They were good, but I think the rum overpowered the flavor of the fruit. Additionally, I felt like I was wasting some of it in making the infused rum. That bit of fruit became inedible and didn’t really impart much flavor to the booze.

Just as before, those many years ago, I saved the seeds from both fruits and potted them up in my homemade compost. There are now seventeen pots sitting in my propagation area waiting to possibly, slowly, eventually bring this tropical-flavored native fruit to the gardens of my friends and neighbors.

Advertisements

Three New Crops: Part Two

We eat our fair share of hummus in our household. Since it’s so easy to make, we buy cases of chickpeas and whip up our own whenever we get a craving. So, it only seemed right to try growing our own chickpeas, a.k.a. garbanzos, a.k.a. lots of other names. I started shopping around online for varieties that would grow in our zone and settled on Golden Garbanzo from one of the larger heirloom seed companies. The seeds didn’t look like the chickpeas I’m used to but I went ahead and planted them anyway.

20171226_184853734_iOS

They grew great! The plants were small with beautiful, finely divided leaves. Their flowers were rather pretty, too. They reminded me of the flowers of the lentils I once tried to grow, only larger and less blue. Those flowers were tiny! They also seemed to be free of pests, unless you count what must have been a rabbit who bedded down in them one night knocking a few of the plants askew.

20170531_163522777_iOS

IMG_4082

Unlike last episode’s rice they all ripened at pretty much the same time. I only picked a few early dry ones and then, when they were just about ready, we were going out of town and rain was threatening. We went to the garden, cut off every plant and stuffed them in a bag to bring home. I spread them out in the basement to finish drying. When we returned they were nice and dry and I was able to thresh them the same way I do my other beans.

IMG_4990

The first thing I noticed about them was that they were hard, like rock hard, and very rough. As a test I cooked a few. After over an hour of simmering they were still pretty chewy. I started looking around for more information on garbanzos and found out there are different kinds. These turned out to not be the big, round chickpeas you make hummus, falafel, etc. with. What I think they are is a kind of flour chickpea that’s meant to be ground and features in many Indian dishes where it’s known as gram flour or besan. Great. Well, at least I love Indian food.

Again, I spent time messing around with different ways of pounding up these little pebbles. My cast iron mortar and pestle worked OK.

IMG_4993

Like the rice, I could only process small quantities at a time. They had a tendency to pop out of the mortar, but once the skin was cracked they broke up pretty easily. Then I just sifted them through a fine mesh strainer to get any stray remains of the skin out. It was pretty tedious so I dinked around at it off and on (mostly off) for months.

IMG_4994

Then I had a brainstorm. In the cupboard is a coffee grinder we reserve for spice grinding. I figured it was worth a shot and tried a small batch. Success! In less than fifteen minutes I was done and had a small jar of soft, protein-rich, home-grown garbanzo flour.

Photo Feb 28, 9 24 48 AM

Now I just need to decide what to make with it. It’s got to be something kind of special considering the work I put into making it. There are scores of good recipes online for Indian food and I’m open to suggestions.

Three New Crops: Part One

I’ve mentioned in the past that I try to grow something that is new, at least to me, in the garden each year. 2017 was something of a banner year in that respect because I actually planted two new foods in the garden as well as reaped a harvest that was a loooooong time coming.

It’s been a while so I don’t even remember how I got the urge to try growing rice. As a food I’m rather indifferent to it and regard it more as a starchy way to soak up gravy from curries. In any case, I came across Duborskian while paging through a catalog and became intrigued. It is a cultivar that originated in Russia. As an upland variety, it doesn’t require flooded paddies to grow.

Having never grown a grain before I looked up what information I could online about planting and spacing. I chose to start the seeds indoors under lights in small cells since we have so much bird and rodent predation of seeds in the garden. I figured giving the plants a head start would avoid that pitfall. Germination was high and I ended up with around 130 plants, if I remember correctly. Spacing suggestions varied so I opted for a fairly close spacing, plopped the seedlings in their holes, and kept them watered as I watched them grow through the summer. They, of course, looked like grass.

Photo Jul 14, 12 13 10 PM

Most of the plants survived and eventually formed graceful seed heads as the grains plumped up in late August.

Photo Aug 23, 7 15 35 AM

Soon individual stalks started turning brown indicating they were ready to harvest. Growth wasn’t completely even so this happened over a period of time. I suppose in a large field conditions might be managed for more even growth so it could all be harvested at once. Because I just had a small bed I just snipped off stalks as they looked ready and hung them upside down to finish drying.

Photo Aug 18, 3 13 48 PM

Once the whole crop was in and dried it was time to separate the grains from the stems. I beat them inside a plastic storage tub to release most of them and rubbed off any stragglers by hand. There wasn’t much breeze on the day I decided to do this so I resorted to using a box fan to blow the chaff away from the heavier grains as I dumped them back and forth between two tubs.

Photo Oct 02, 10 15 18 AM

I ended up with a modest total of 260 grams of unhulled rice when this stage was finished.

Photo Oct 02, 10 15 26 AM

The next stage was when the project started to suck. The brown hulls adhered tightly to the grains so I needed a way to get them off without crushing them. There are some contraptions online that people have built that look like they work well, but I couldn’t see making something like that for my small crop. I resorted to hulling small quantities at a time by rubbing them between different combinations of surfaces. I started this process in October and, because it was so much not fun, I just finished it this April.

Photo Oct 13, 10 33 24 AM

For the first round I wrapped a rubber jar opener around a block of wood and rubbed small quantities—actually a pinch at a time—on the surface of a clay brick. Most of the hulls would come off and I would take them outside and winnow by dumping from bowl to bowl if there was a breeze or by blowing on them if there wasn’t. I was in and out of the house a lot.

Next, I dumped the rice on a tray a bit at a time and sorted through it by hand, removing the grains still wrapped snugly in their hulls for reprocessing. Then I resumed the rubbing.

I lost count of how many times I did this.

As you can see in this image, some of the grains are still a little greenish and there are some dark ones, too.

Photo Oct 13, 10 33 54 AM

Last week, I finally said “screw it” and ran the last grains over a grippy plastic cutting board with the bare surface of the brick. It didn’t break all that many grains and worked a little faster. At the end I was left with a large pinch of recalcitrant grains I tossed out for the birds and chipmunks to enjoy. I now have 145 grams of cleaned rice to enjoy after I cooked a small test batch. It tastes like rice. Nothing remarkable. I won’t be growing it again.

20180408_155734005_iOS

Leaving Leaves

Yesterday I finally got around to the yard leaf cleanup. I’d been putting it off until the majority of leaves had fallen. Having oak trees around means that’s comparatively late and with a vernal witchhazel that holds its leaves all winter it also means I’m not going to get everything. But no worries! The leaves aren’t really  going anywhere anyway.

Photo Nov 18, 10 17 03 AM

Years ago it occurred to me that I was wasting a LOT of time raking leaves and either putting them on the curb for the city to pick up or shredding them into the compost bins. For the free organic matter I wasn’t sending away I was putting time and effort into speeding up a process that would happen eventually on its own. So I stopped. I only clear them off the paved surfaces and the very small lawn in the back yard. There is no lawn in front. Over winter some of this free, natural, organic mulch tends to shift around and leave bare spots so I like to pack one of the compost bins with dry oak leaves to replenish those areas in spring.

Photo Nov 18, 10 16 56 AM

Because my gardens are all in varying degrees of shade I’ve relied quite a bit on hostas to fill up space. Until I stopped raking I had problems with slugs chewing on the leaves. Conventional wisdom is that getting rid of that organic matter discourages slugs. When I started leaving the leaves the slug damage stopped. I can’t be certain why, but I suspect it’s either that they had more to eat at safe, moist, ground level and left the hostas alone or that this healthier habitat for invertebrates encouraged slug predators that are keeping them in check. In any case, my hostas look great all season.

Habitat Signs

Not only are my plants healthier now, this lazy approach to gardening has helped make it possible to certify the yard as a wildlife habitat and to provide resources for pollinators as well.

Recently I’ve been coming across articles encouraging leaving fallen leaves for wildlife like these from The Xerces Society, The National Wildlife Federation and Habitat Network. How do you handle your autumn leaves? I encourage you to do some reading and, if you’re able, consider leaving them in place. Wildlife and your back will thank you.

Naked Gardening

October is here and we’re turning our attention to scary orange things! Actually, this story goes all the way back to last year. At Halloween I like to save some seeds from the pumpkins I carve for the occasion. Like so many other people, I wash and roast them and then sit around peeling and eating them. As I did so one chilly autumn evening, I contemplated the pepitas one buys for Mexican cooking. They don’t have that hard, flavorless shell my pumpkin seeds have that need to be cracked and peeled before consuming. I occurred to me there must be some trick to doing them in volume economically. A machine maybe? I did a little searching on the Internet and discovered something even better: naked pumpkin seeds! Well, more properly, hulless pumpkin seeds. These are varieties that have bred away the hard seed coat to where it’s just a thin, soft membrane. I don’t know that these are what are grown make the pepitas at the store, but they sounded like such a good idea. Unfortunately, pumpkins are space-consuming crop to grow so I filed away this tidbit for when we have a bigger garden.

Then, as luck would have it, one of the bloggers I follow did a post about a hulless pumpkin aptly named ‘Lady Godiva.’ The author of My Food and Flowers is a Taiwanese gardener living in Canada who, apparently, grows absolutely everything in the world. When wrote about ‘Lady Godiva’ and I mentioned I wanted to grow this kind of pumpkin some day she kindly sent me some seeds.

IMG_7570

I started them indoors in April and then set one out when the ground was nice and warm in the beds I had designated for squash and cucumbers. The vine grew pretty long, but I was able to weave it in and around other plants to accommodate it. By early September I had one nice pumpkin that was ready to pick.

Photo Sep 09, 9 43 39 AM

Photo Sep 09, 9 44 45 AM

The dark seeds were easy to see through their thin, transparent shells.

Photo Sep 09, 9 44 50 AM

Photo Sep 09, 9 57 55 AM

It was practically no work at all to rake the seeds out of the stringy flesh with my fingers. They came out nice and clean and only needed a rinse before roasting. There was about half a cup of seeds in this one pumpkin. I didn’t want to spend this precious bounty in a sauce where the flavor might not be as well appreciated so I opted for roasting them as a snack. I spread them out on a cookie sheet, sprinkled on some salt and left them in the oven until they started making popping noises. They’re delicious! Given how easy they are to grow and harvest, I would definitely plant these again in sufficient numbers for real cooking once we have the space.

Onions

Today is so nice out I decided the onions and garlic had cured long enough so I hauled them all outside to clean up and trim before putting them in winter storage.

Photo Sep 02, 10 47 15 AM

I planted fewer than I did last year and, fortunately, wasn’t plagued with another round of that fungus that attacked them. What I don’t get is why there is such a disparity of size among them.

Photo Sep 02, 10 47 50 AM

Granted, they start out as different sized plants from the garden center, but not this different! They all went in the same bed and at the same time so I can’t blame soil or water differences. The sizes were all mixed up in the bed. Maybe next year I’ll try fertilizing them, or fertilizing some and not others and see if that makes a difference. In the meantime, it’s kind of nice to be able to select just as much onion as I need for a recipe and not have to put leftover bits in the refrigerator.